Greasing the wheels

Have you ever had days where the stars aligned, you felt amazing, and you were executing on important projects left and right?  Have you ever had days where you’re left with a tension headache at the end of the day wondering wondering where all the time went?  Today let’s talk about the difference between these two types of days, and how you can maximize your probability of experiencing the former.

Generally speaking, what happens to you NOW is a function of what your past self did (plus some random/external effects outside of your control).  Since we can’t control those external or random factors, let’s just focus on what is in your control.  In particular, let’s talk about the major factors that influence how much energy you have to do things in the day.

#1. Sleep

This should be a no-brainer, but so many “high-functioning” type A individuals pride themselves on working 16+hr days on only 5 hrs of sleep.  Now, there is a certain small % of the population that actually can do this and be OK.  But the odds are, you are not one of those special snowflakes.  Most people need 8-9 hrs of sleep, maybe less as you get older.  To achieve optimal sleep, make sure that your room is completely dark (unplug electronics and get blackout curtains if you need to),  lower the room temperature so that it’s a bit chilly (or get a cooling pad underneath your sheets), invest in a comfortable mattress and pillow, and minimize loud noises (e.g. by playing a white noise soundtrack).

If you really want to see the impact of sleep on your energy levels and mood, run the following experiment: for 1 week, make sure you get 8-9 hrs minimum of uninterrupted sleep.  Don’t do anything else different.  Record your daily energy levels and accomplishments.  Then for the next week, set your alarm clock and limit yourself to 5 hrs of sleep each night.  (Don’t do anything else different.)  Record your daily energy levels and accomplishments.  Odds are, you’ll see drastic reductions in your productivity and turn into a stressed out shell of your former self.

#2. Food

Output is a function of input.  If you put junk food in your body, it’s hard to expect top notch work product from your brain.  Relatedly, most people will find it hard to concentrate if they’re starving, dehydrated, or fighting off a food coma.

Experiment with subtracting different food groups from your diet and record the impact on your energy levels.  Different people might be genetically predisposed to digest and react well or poorly to different food groups.  For example, my focus is strongest and my mind clearest when I follow Tim Ferris’s Slow Carb Diet* and when I don’t stuff myself to excess.  As my grandma would say, eat until you’re 80% full.

#3. Exercise

I never believed what a big influence regular exercise has on your energy levels and mood until I started doing Crossfit.  Before that, I had dismissed exercise as a thing jocks or body-image-insecure people did to show off.  I thought that I didn’t need it and was functioning just fine.  I wish I could tell my younger self to stop being such a judgmental pansy and go lift some weights.

If you don’t believe the magical energy-raising, stress-slaying, natural happiness drug that is exercise, then run the following experiment for a week: for 30 minutes each day, do a high intensity interval workout or yoga or weight lifting session at the gym (or running, if that’s more your style)*.  Change nothing else about your schedule.  Record your energy levels and accomplishments for the week.  Once you get hooked on that natural high, you’ll never look back.

#4. Mood/Stress

Sleep, diet, and exercise all influence your mood and stress levels, which in turn influence your energy levels.  You might get more frantic frenzied energy from the stress of a deadline or seething range at some perceived injustice, but in the long run your energy levels are better served if you are generally happy (but not distractingly so) and eustressed**.

This means that if you know that you’ll be heading into a busy time, or have to deal with unsavory characters or situations, be nice to Future You and plan for some pick-me-ups in the day.  For example, blocking out time in your calendar to take a walk outside to smell the flowers.  Stake out an empty conference room and watch some cute cat videos.

#5. Priorities

Sleeping well, eating well, exercising regularly, and hacking your environment to improve your mood are all well and good, but at the beginning of the day you don’t know what your priorities are and what you need to work on, you’re still dead in the water.

So be nice to Future You and prep a list of the top 3-5 daily priorities to work on the night before.  I’ve also found weekly priority/goal lists useful.  If I know what I need to do by the end of the week, I can plan for some flexibility/wiggle room for what gets done on a daily basis.  It’s much easier to wake up and just follow the instructions that your past self wrote down.  Some days (some of my best days) I’ll write down to the half hour what should be done in each 30 minute increment.  Then all my future self needs to do is just read and execute.

#6. Distractions

The last thing you should watch out for while setting your future self up for success is predictable distractions.  If you know that your coworkers like to IM you throughout the day, or if your cube-neighbors talk loudly right after lunch, you should plan to circumvent these distractions from messing with your focused work time.  For example, perhaps turn off IM for certain times of the day (your most productive times), create “no meeting” blocks of time in your schedule, and relocate to a quieter working space or put on headphones.

If you know you’ll find distractions for yourself (e.g. by surfing the web), consider downloading apps and extensions to block certain websites (or even the Internet entirely).  It might also be effective to delete or avoid certain apps or sites entirely.  (For example, Facebook is the only social media site I joined, and I consciously chose not to install it on my phone.)  Also schedule break times for yourself so that you know you’ll be able to indulge in some constrained web surfing to zone out.  You might find that as you minimize distractions and train yourself to focus on doing one thing at a time, you’ll be able to concentrate for longer periods of time and get more done.

To summarize, success tomorrow is dependent on greasing the wheels today.  Be kind to Future You and set him or her up for success.  Your future self will thank you.

What other “grease the wheel” activities do you do?


* Tim Ferris’s 4 Hour Body [public library] goes into different diets and exercises for exercise noobs and nerds.  I’ve also been following the Minimum Viable Fitness protocol.

** Read Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress [public library] for a discussion of where stress can be useful in your life.

Hack Your Environment to Avoid Addictive Behavior

Sometimes there are days when you fall into addictive behavior of the unproductive variety.  This means different things for different people, but it’s the form of escapism you indulge in most often.  Watching TV, playing video games, lurking on Internet forums, etc.

One of my vices is reading (or re-reading) books.  Not the non-fiction ones where you can learn something useful, not the “high” literature ones where you can learn something about the human condition, not the science fiction ones where you can think about the world a different way.  No, I get lost down the rabbit hole of fantasy and children’s fiction, where there is a pretty clear line between good and evil, and at the end of the day you end up with a Happy Ending.

Some of these books are plain unrealistic.  But one could argue that the characters set an example for ethical and even heroic behavior, even if the plot is oftentimes simplistic or derivative.

I’m not saying that there’s something wrong with liking what you like, even if it doesn’t seem to have any practical use in life.  I’m not saying that it’s bad to completely disconnect from your current state in life and immerse yourself in a different world.  I’m not saying it’s bad to take a break and escape.

What is unproductive is when you use this escape as a crutch to numb yourself into forgetting about why you need to change your current situation.  What is unproductive is when you overindulge to the point where the entire day has been frittered away, and you would have been better off making something or improving your life in some way.

So, how to avoid getting sucked into addictive behaviors and generally avoiding your vices?  This depends on your personality and temperament, and sometimes on the type of vice, but there are generally two ways to go about it:

  1. Go cold turkey completely.  Never do the activity again, and completely remove all access and reminders of the activity from your life.  Remove or replace all triggers for the activity, and prepare a substitute activity or reward that you will do instead of your addiction.  This strategy is more useful when you aren’t able to control yourself, or when the addictive behavior is particularly bad for you (e.g. recovering serious alcoholics or drug addicts shouldn’t engage in even recreational drinking/drugs).
  2. Limit your time to indulge in this addictive behavior to a scheduled window and have very strong rules/triggers/habits/rituals in place to enforce that the behavior will ONLY be done during this window and no over time.  One thing that works for me is having a cheat day for meals when I can eat all the sweets and junk food I want (unless I’m training for a race or some such).  Similar to strategy 1 above, when the cheat day window has ended, you must remove access and triggers for the activity until the beginning of the next cheat day.  This strategy works better if you are the kind of person who has the discipline not to relapse on non-cheat days/times, and if the addictive behavior can be sometimes useful (e.g. it’s easier to eat with other people if you don’t have any strange dietary restrictions).

Generally speaking, hacking your environment to make it easier for you to stay disciplined is the best way to build habits to become your best self.  Structuring your environment in a way that helps you build healthy habits and avoid bad habits decreases the amount of willpower you need to spend following your good habits.  And it makes it that much easier to avoid falling into addictive behaviors.

People call me disciplined, but really I’m not.  I know my vices and I know that I am not capable of saying no to them at all times.  So I just remove the temptation.  I set rules for myself and tweak my environment to make it easy to follow good habits.

And then sometimes despite the best of intentions, despite the best habits and knowledge and environment, you relapse.  The important thing is to acknowledge your failure, identify the trigger for bad behavior, and iterate on your surroundings and habits to fix it.  Turn it into an experiment and don’t beat yourself up about it.  The only thing worse about wasting time on an addictive spiral is feeling bad about it afterwards…and then going even farther down into it.

Found Things

This week on the Internet I…

…was amused by this snarky cartoonist’s take on flowers for Valentine’s day

…put this pumpkin pie variant on the list for testing and cheat day indulgence when I next have free rein in a kitchen

…remembered, re-read, and re-fell in love with this Konigsburg children’s classic [public library]

…learned that my favorite flower means “chivalry”

…and found a hobbit hole type home that lets in a surprising amount of sunlight (filing this away as a potential future “experiment”), and was reminded that even conventionally successful people get lost, flounder, and then find their way out by following their curiosity and making things.


On Prestige

I am revisiting Paul Graham’s old posts, in particular one about doing what you love.  His general argument is that people should do what they love*, and that while it is difficult to find what that thing is, it is a worthwhile endeavor in the long term.

There are 2 tidbits that resonate with me most deeply.  One is a quote that I have on the wall above my desk at eye level.  It is a reminder not to drink the kool aid, because I know that I’m still particularly susceptible to this kind of influence.  The quote reads: “[Prestige] causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.”

You should re-read that line again.

Even if you generally don’t care about the opinion of strangers (or think you don’t), if you are ambitious, want to make a difference in the world, want to make good money, want status, to be admired, etc. etc. etc.  You will fall into this trap.

Sometimes external influences are so insidious and so messy that it’s hard to separate out what you really like from what you think you like.  And when you do, maybe what you really like is so socially risky and “not like you” that you suppress that knowledge and live in denial.

For example, in college, a good friend of mine spent a long time thinking about what she wanted to do, vs. what her parents had taught her to want for her entire life.  When I first met her, she was gung-ho set on becoming an accountant or auditor, definitely some kind of white-collar office job involving math.  But then she struggled in her accounting and higher level math classes.  She rediscovered art (she had done art as a side hobby in high school) and then videography and comedy.  She grappled with an identity crisis–which of her wants and desires and likes were truly hers, and which were fed to her by the external world?  By the media?  By her well-meaning parents?  By her peer group?  By society?  By “them”?

My friend is brave and clear-sighted.  She got through her crisis and realized that the accounting office job was not what she really liked, not what she was good at, even if it had more “prestige” than a creative job.  She fell in love with comedy.  She took improv classes, did open mic nights, and worked a day job waitressing while she honed her craft.  And now she is doing comedy shows in NYC.  The future is not clearly defined, but I know for a fact that she is so much happier and more fulfilled on this route.

What if you don’t know what you really like?  What if you are more risk averse and unwilling to dive into the unknown?  I am in this boat.  I don’t know for sure what I really like (although I have a few suspicions), and I am much more inclined to work in a lucrative day job that gives me a cash cushion for experimentation than to bounce around entry-level low-paying jobs.

My approach is to (1) hold true to a general value of excellence in everything I do (even if it’s not what I like), (2) work whenever possible with amazing high caliber people who I can learn from (osmosis), and (3) to keep running side projects and studying/testing/exposing myself to different areas and types of work until I do find something I really like.

This third principle is the other quote I really liked from Graham’s essay: “‘Always produce’ is also a heuristic for finding the work you love. If you subject yourself to that constraint, it will automatically push you away from things you think you’re supposed to work on, toward things you actually like.”

If you listen to yourself and how you truly feel about something before you repress it (see cognitive dissonance below), you will figure out through trial and error what you like and dislike.  Making things, testing out different roles and career options, observing your energy levels, getting feedback from others, observing what you naturally choose to do/learn in your spare time, observing what kinds of people you admire, all of these things will tell you what you like and dislike.  And if you’re getting mixed signals, then you just need to collect more data points.  Over time (as the number of observations approaches infinity), distinct patterns will emerge (the average will approximate the expected value).

The most important thing as you go through this process of discovery and experimentation is to tell yourself the truth about the results, even if you don’t like them.  What you are fighting against is one of the most powerful forces in psychology–cognitive dissonance.

For example, let’s say you have been working a few years in accounting.  You are bored out of your mind and miserable when you go to work, but it’s a steady decent-paying job and you have job security.  You don’t think you’re an irrational person.  If you don’t like your job, it only makes sense to quit and find something new.  Except…if you know that, and you’ve known that for more than a year, and you haven’t done anything yet, maybe you actually do like your job.  Because you’re not an irrational person.  You wouldn’t stick with something you dislike.  Maybe you’re actually a good fit for accounting–your boss loves you, your clients love you, you’re going up for promotion…maybe this is what you were meant to do.

Doing something you know you don’t like causes you cognitive dissonance, and people hate cognitive dissonance.  They will contort their thinking until it goes away.  So, you’ll have to be on guard against your own mind when you’re trying to figure out what you like and dislike.  This, on top of being on guard against the siren-calls of prestige and everyone else telling you what you should like and dislike.

It’s not an easy path, but the alternative is to lie to yourself until one day you wake up, miserable and a shell of what you could have been, wondering what you did with your life.  When/if this happens, be grateful.  Use your crisis and make a change.  If you know what you really like, go do that instead.  If you don’t, start making a list of what you think you might like and run experiments down the list until you find the thing that makes your heart sing, even when you’re bad at it, even when you can’t see the money in it, even when no one’s watching.

Here’s to fighting the good fight.  Onwards and upwards!


*This is a variant of the follow your passion advice, which several people (most notably Cal Newport [public library]) argue is misleading and plain false.  I’m not going to dive into it here, but I will say that liking something sometimes isn’t enough to warrant working on it (full time at least).  It might be a necessary condition (and some might even argue against that), but it’s not a sufficient one.


On Time Wealth

If you (1) describe yourself as having a type A workaholic obsessive personality, (2) worship at the altar of productivity and GTD (systems FTW!), and/or (3) are often stressed out or burned out because THERE IS JUST NO TIME TO DO IT ALL, this post is for you.  (Slackers who like to laze about and watch TV, you can sit this one out.)


Introducing Time Wealth

First of all, time wealth* is a mindset and a way of thinking that is triggered by doing a set of actions or activities.  It’s similar to mindfulness and anchoring yourself in the present, but I use it as a weapon against stress and overwhelm.  It is an enjoyable, forceful reminder that disrupts your busy day to make you think: huh, life is long, let me slow down and notice all the beautiful things around me and revel in the fact that I have time for this because I control my life and my time and I choose to make time for this.  

Time wealth is a pattern interrupt, a phase shift, a mini rebellion, a signal of being in control, an amygdala hijack, a little bit of treat yo’self mixed with mindfulness meditation mixed with fuck ’em mixed with mental magic.

Time wealth is a luxury you gift yourself.  It is a balancing force and it grounds you.  It makes you happier, more relaxed, more present, and less self-centered.  It can lead you out of full blown panics and distract you before you spiral down into (unproductive) anxiety and decision paralysis.  When you are stuck, time wealth helps you get out of your head, your problems that are taking over your life, and allows you to change your frame of reference and maybe see a different way through.  It is also helpful to heading off long term burnout.


Ironically, you need to create pockets of time wealth in your day when you are the most busy.  This works because it’s a signal to your brain–hey, if I have the luxury of triggering time wealth, then clearly the sky is NOT falling down right now.  The act of making time for time wealth moments also forces you to re-prioritize and re-evaluate resource/troop allocation.  Perhaps you don’t have to do it all yourself.  Perhaps it doesn’t need to be done today (or yesterday).  Perhaps it doesn’t need to be done at all, because you are missing some critical insight that would make a lot of work irrelevant.

OK, let’s see how time wealth works in action.

Example 1:  You am on deadline to prep for a presentation with a director you’ve never met but need to make a good impression on.  You’ve been in the office ’til 11pm for the past few days and your nerves are shot (coffee is not helping).

You’ve had enough.  If things keep going as they are, you will self-sabotage this presentation.  So, you take a little 5 minute break.  You walk outside.  Find a clean bench under a tree.  Sit down and just breathe.  For the first few seconds, just focus on inhaling and exhaling–close your eyes.  What do you smell?  Grass, sunshine, exhaust from the cars in the parking lot?  Roll your head around and relax the tension in your neck and shoulders.  Feel your heart rate return to normal.  Then look up.  What does the sky look like today?  What shade of blue is it?  What do the clouds remind you of?  Let it remind you of your own insignificance.  Just focus on your sensations and the natural beauty around you.  When your 5 minutes are up, get back to prepping for your presentation and kill it.

Example 2: You are working on a long term project that requires fast turnarounds, late nights at the office, and weekend work.  This is a high caliber team with high standards so you need have your A-game on at all times.  You are starting to feel pretty burned out.

Instead of binge watching Game of Thrones or drowning your stress in a 6 pack (or bottle(s) of wine if that’s more your style) to recover over the weekend, you decide to experiment with a new routine.  Even though your weekends are busy, you purposefully carve out time to go on a walk to your favorite coffee shop/bakery every Sunday morning.  On the way there, instead of worrying about everything else you need to do on Monday (or Sunday night), you choose to enjoy the scenery, focus on how your body feels as you walk along the street, feel the sun on your face and the wind through your hair (or the smell and sound of the rain on your umbrella).  As you settle down at the coffee shop with a hot cup and take your first bite of that delicious danish they’re known for, you think to yourself, huh, life is pretty great.  I actually have it pretty good.  And the best part is, I have time to enjoy this and I can recreate this experience in my life whenever I want.


Try it out yourself: for the next 30 days, give yourself the gift of time wealth once a day.  Implementation examples:

  • Go outside for a walk in the middle of the day
  • Make a cup of tea, find a quiet nook, and savor your tea sip by sip
  • Lift heavy weights at the gym and don’t skimp on rest time
  • Stay an extra 5 min singing in the shower
  • Take a hot shower.  Or a cold one.  Whichever you normally don’t do.
  • Lay down on the grass and look up at the sky–let that view fill your entire line of sight
  • Play with a dog
  • Read a book to a little kid
  • Cancel a meeting in the middle of the day and take a cat nap instead (just make sure no one catches you)
  • Get a massage

Have you ever come across the idea of time wealth?  How do you implement it in your life?  How has it changed your life?



*Not to be confused with Rolf Potts’ idea that wealth is having the time to do the things you really want to do, like eat your way through all the night markets in Asia, but related to that.

Empathy is Bad

My friend sent me a book for Christmas called Against Empathy [public library].  It’s written by a psychology professor at Yale named Paul Bloom, although his writing style reminds me of that of a philosopher (or perhaps debater).

The main premise of the book is that empathy as defined as “feeling what you think others are feeling” is net-net a bad thing and causes more harm than it helps society.

Bloom writes that:

“Empathy is like a spotlight focusing on certain people in the here and now.  this makes us care more about them, but it leaves us insensitive to the long-term consequences of our acts and blind as well to the suffering of those we do not or cannot empathize with.  Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism.  It is shortsighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future.  It is innumerate, favoring the one over the many.  It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others.  It is corrosive in personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.”

Apparently people in today’s touchy-feely overly-sensitive-to-any-and-all-perceived-slights world are extremely against the idea that empathy could be a bad thing.  Reading about Bloom’s detractors, the non-academics assume that empathy is the silver bullet for today’s social ills, and if only we could be more empathetic towards the downtrodden, discriminated against, etc. etc. we would all be better off.

Bloom is very good about laying out his opponents’ counterarguments and addressing each one, but I think the core of why his position works (for me at least) is that it’s not against “empathy” the word that has all this positive baggage about compassion and kindness, but against emotion-driven decision-making.  And boy can I get behind that.

If you make a decision largely driven by empathic concerns (i.e. by what you feel others feel), you are more likely to be focused on single individuals (it is hard to truly feel what you think others feel at scale at the same time).  You are more likely to be swayed by what is in front of you NOW (feelings have a sense of urgency, and it’s hard to feel for things in the murky uncertain future–just think about all those times when you binge watched Game of Thrones when your future self might have more appreciated you spending that time working out or working towards a raise at work).  Also, you are by nature limited by what you can feel empathy for (empathy for people outside of their “tribe” is extremely difficult and unnatural for most–why do we pay less attention to and care less about disabled people or factory farm animals?).

When making decisions that have wide-reaching or long term ramifications (e.g. policy), that have complex interdependencies and 2nd and 3rd order effects, it is always better to try to analyze and predict the possible outcomes or range of outcomes, and consider which outcomes you might want to achieve or avoid at all costs.

For example, if you are deciding how to allocate the US foreign aid budget, you do NOT want to be swayed by pictures of starving children.  The pictures anchor you to that particular group of starving children, but maybe you should be thinking of the millions of other people in need that you don’t see or know about, or even the millions of other people in the future who will be in need if you don’t allocate money to invest in a better future for them.  Maybe you should be thinking about which country or NGO has the best ROI instead of the best marketing pitch and narrative.

Bloom has other interesting examples of when empathy steers us wrong.  Among the more interesting ones:

  • Focusing on empathy for a particular child makes organ donor list managers more willing to let her jump the queue (at the detriment of all those other children who were in more need and prioritized ahead of her)
  • Empathy for the Sandy Hook victims caused well-meaning but not well-thinking people around the country to send in warehouses-worth of stuffed animals and toys and donations, which this affluent neighborhood did not need, while the significantly higher rate of child homicides in Chicago got no attention at all
  • Because we have to choose who we empathize with (and who we choose first reflects/is influenced by our own biases and prejudices), liberal protestors against police violence towards black people called for more empathy for minorities, and conservative groups argued for more empathy for the police.  This just exacerbates tension and conflict.

Basically, I would agree with Bloom that when it comes to decision-making, you should strive to be objective where possible and use rationality to curb your tendency to jump to conclusions.  Emotion is the force multiplier that will make people act on these reasoned decisions.  When the decision has been made, then use appeals to emotion to bring about action.

Alas, the reality is that people are far more likely to make a decision based on emotions, and then use their rationality to justify it.  That is the difference between philosophers and psychologists (philosophers believe we should act on rationality and it’s possible to do so if we think about it, psychologists test things and conclude that it’s difficult to impossible).

Perhaps the most effective route forward is to set rules in place to counteract these emotional biases in decision-making (e.g., looking at a picture of your future self before making decisions that will affect your future self), and then take shameless full advantage of these persuasion buttons in other people (and in yourself) when it’s time to take action.  To the extent that we are Moist Robots, we should aim to hack our own/others’ OS(s) to bring about better outcomes.

Avoid perfectionism

A quick reminder: avoid perfectionism.

Sometimes life is busier than anticipated.  Sometimes you don’t have time to do the perfect job you think something deserves.  When that happens, you have a choice:

  • You can ship the 0.1 version and keep on iterating later
  • You can wring your hands and curse the gods/whoever brought on the unexpected and do nothing (decision paralysis)
  • You can save as a draft and pivot, shipping something completely different (but faster and easier)
  • You can reprioritize all of your other priorities and make time to do it right (to your standards, and no one else’s)

There are more options, but I’m out of time to think of them.  Basically, this is a lesson that life has tried to teach you before, so listen and learn!

Don’t be a perfectionist.  It’s not possible and will cause you a lot of grief.  Instead, do your best.  And if it’s absolutely unacceptable to ship something that isn’t up to par, then ship something different.  Reset expectations, change the frame of reference, make the legible illegible immeasurable incomparable.

Don’t Get Offended by Proselytizers

Hypothetical situation A:

A dear friend of yours shares a new thing X that has exponentially improved her life, pulled her out of a dark place, given her loving friends and community, and given her hope and guidance for the future.  Since it’s had such a big impact on her, she just wants to share it with anyone.  And who else to start with but her dearest friends?

Now substitute X for the Cute Animals Subreddit.  Are you offended?

Crossfit.  Are you offended?

Black lives matter.  Are you offended?

Christianity*.  Are you offended?

To “proselytize” is to “to recruit or convert especially to a new faith, institution, or cause”.  Viewed one way, it is an attack on our beliefs and way of life–someone trying to turn us into sheeple who blindly follow the “one true way” (however defined by the cause).  Viewed another way, it is sharing good ideas and tools out of a desire to benefit your tribe.

This is a deep topic and I don’t have enough time to explore it fully in one post, so today I’ll explain why I’ve learned to stop getting offended when people try to proselytize me to their religion.

  1. Where is it coming from?
    Religious people who take the time to answer my questions, talk about the philosophical points of their belief system, share their conversion stories (which usually entails describing some very emotionally vulnerable time in their life), etc., are generally quite kind.They genuinely believe they are doing a good thing–they’ve found a good thing and they want to share it with the people they care about.  Some of them can be a bit awkward about how they go about winning you over to their side, but their actions come from a place of care and compassion.Take it in stride as you would anyone giving a testimonial about some product or idea that has changed their life.  “Thank you, but I’m not interested” is always a useful response.
  2. Instead of anger, should you feel pity?
    OK, Xiaotong, maybe the people who’ve tried to convert you have been all fuzzy bunnies and sunshine, but I’ve gotten ambushed/lectured/yelled at/spit on.If you were confronted by a raving madman, I hope you got away unharmed.  If the person trying to convert you seems completely irrational and angry themselves, perhaps you should pity them.  What happened to them such that they became so angrily zealous?  Someone who is capable of that kind of negative emotional outburst might be in a lot of pain.  But even if you don’t care about that…
  3. What outcome are you looking for in these encounters and is getting offended going to be the most effective way to achieve that?
    Let’s say you get offended.  Let’s say you get angry and get in a verbal shouting match with the proselytizer (because how dare they shove this garbage in your face!).  What happens then?  You may have lost a friend, lost the good opinion of those around you, lost your peace of mind.  And possibly confirmed the suspicion in the proselytizer’s mind that you are a lost sheep in dire need of enlightenment.If you just want your friend (or the stranger) to stop talking about this, a better strategy would be to flat out tell them that you are not interested.  Then change the subject to something else.  If you don’t want it to happen again in the future, just let them know.  Set your boundaries and leave them the choice of crossing the line or not.  If they do, they will have revealed themselves to be the kinds of people who don’t respect boundaries.  And then you will have to decide whether you want to be around people like that.If you want your normal pre-religious friend back, you will need to change their mind about this entire organized religion business.  What is more persuasive?  A friend who cares about you, empathizes with you, and subtly nudges you to reach your own conclusions about why maybe this new thing isn’t quite right?  Or a friend who turns on you, gets upset and yells at you, insults your intelligence or rationality or free will?  Has telling someone that they are wrong about an extremely personal/emotionally charged choice in their life ever resulted in them saying, why yes you’re completely right and I was a total idiot to ever believe this?
  4. What can you learn instead?
    I am perhaps a bit of a weirdo about this, but it is truly fascinating to me how people craft their sales pitches and conversion stories.  Like any good salesman, the good proselytizers try to figure out beforehand what your most pressing problems are, what your greatest vulnerabilities are.  And then they tell you exactly how their product (religion) can help you solve it.For example, are you looking for friends in a new city?  Our youth group has a lot of people your age!  We do lots of fun things together!  It’s like finding a new family!  “I found a place to belong.”I imagine that salesmen and religious groups have a lot of cross-learning opportunities.  Marketers and religious groups, too.On a more personal level, what someone tells you about their conversion story, or what arguments they use to convince you to convert, can reveal a lot about themselves and about you.  Conversion stories are typically very personal, so it’s a great opportunity to learn more about a person’s emotional life and history.  You may be able to pick up what they value most, where they are insecure, and perhaps where you should nudge if you want to change their mind.  You can also get a sense for why they picked you to pitch this conversion story to.  What do they think of you, that they would think that this particular argument would resonate most with you?  This is a valuable opportunity for some self-awareness and introspection.You may also learn something valuable about how their religion helped them.  Perhaps there is a kernel of truth or some useful idea that can be repurposed.  For example, perhaps you are not ready to believe in a god, but the idea of believing in something bigger than yourself meshes with your internal belief system.   Religions are some of the most viral ideas in the history of humanity, so there are a treasure trove of hypotheses and lessons you can take away to test on your own life.When confronted with some new strange thing, don’t get offended, get curious!
  5. Stoic considerations generally
    If you don’t care about any of the other arguments above, consider this: do you want to be the kind of person who lets external events control their peace of mind?  If so, I guarantee that you’re going to spend a lot of time upset and unhappy.  Better to take control of your own happiness and emotions, and train yourself to focus on your response (within your control) to external stimuli (outside of your control).

Maybe these are more broadly applicable than just reasons why you shouldn’t get offended when people try to proselytize you.  Getting offended and throwing a hissy fit when life doesn’t go your way or when someone does something you don’t like is a waste of energy.  Instead, do something about it.  Tell your dear friend that you’re grateful they care about you enough to share this amazing thing that improved their life so much.  If you are not interested or feel uncomfortable, let them know.  Ask them questions, learn something new.  And if you have a better belief system for living your life, perhaps you should be the one trying to proselytize them!


*I called out Christianity since I’ve had the most people (strangers and non-strangers) convert me to this religion.  But you can substitute Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other form of organized religion here.  To be clear, there are certain things I like about religious beliefs, their application to living a good life, and their virality.  I just also like being a skeptic, and being able to be inconsistent and take the best parts of all religions (and atheistic philosophies) when I’m figuring out what works for me in my life.

You are not so great

When I was in 7th grade, I got kicked out of the elimination rounds of the county spelling bee (the word was “fulsomely”).  On the car ride home, stewing in my embarrassment and disappointment, my dad taught me what would become one of my favorite Chinese idioms: 山外有山, 人外有人 (shan wai you shan, ren wai you ren).

山外有山, 人外有人 can be literally translated into “beyond these mountains there are mountains, and beyond these people there are people”.  Figuratively, it’s a lesson in humility–you think you’re the tallest mountain in these peaks, but beyond this range there are mountains like Kilimanjaro or Everest, or Olympic Mons.  Similarly, you might be the best in this small school, town, group, etc., but outside in the real world there are amazing monsters who could eat you for breakfast.  The English equivalent of this might be “big fish in a little pond”.

This saying can also be applied to knowledge.  You know this much about your field of study, but you’ve only breached the tip of the iceberg.  True experts know about the known unknown, and guess at the unknown unknown beyond the great frontier.

In my experience, people who are served a slice of humble pie react in two ways.  One is a mix of discouragement and resentment and bitterness.  These folks go nurse a drink at the bar and complain about those who have bested them, or they give up and find something else to do.  The former is actively harmful (and I would advise you to avoid these people like the plague), and the latter could be useful if it’s not part of a larger pattern of giving up when the going gets hard.

The second reaction is about acceptance, curiosity, and excitement.  Yes, these people are better than me; yes, I still have so much left to learn.  How exciting!  How are they so good at what they do?  What are their habits, tricks, behaviors, thought patterns, etc.?  How can I accelerate my learning to surpass them?  What can I learn/repurpose from them?  (And for you competitive types out there that want results fast: What rules do they play by, and how can I disrupt them to change the game to one that I can win?)

Remember: 山外有山, 人外有人 (mountains and people, you are not so great). Stay humble, take everything as a learning experience, and just keep trying to do at least 1% better the next time through.  If you have patience, persist, and follow a good learning system (i.e. deliberate practice), you can out-work 95% of the population.  As for that last 5%, well…sometimes you’ll meet folks who are smarter, more hard-working, and luckier than you.  Then I hope you kindred spirits will become friends and join forces to make the world a better place.

(Thanks dad for teaching me this early on, and for hammering the lesson home throughout my unruly childhood years as an arrogant little brat. 🙂 )



In Which I Start A Blog

As some of you know, every year I set experiments for myself.  These help me focus my learning, and force me to keep expanding my comfort zone.  For example, back in 2015, one of my more whimsical experiments was signing up for a 3 mile obstacle race.  (This was a bit of a stretch for someone who picked the only high school that didn’t have a mandatory gym class and then assiduously avoided exercise throughout college into my first job.)  But signing up for the race led me down the fitness rabbit hole into Crossfit, weightlifting, yoga, and now an 8 mile obstacle race with my very fit little brother.

Well, after hearing and reading about the benefits of blogging, one of my 2017 experiments is to start a blog and write* a blog post every single day for a month.

Ground rules:

  • I will publish 1 blog post per day from February 4th to March 4th.  Posts must be published before midnight to count.
  • Posts can be of any length, but if I use a quote, I must at least explain what it means to me or how one can apply it in a real life situation.
  • Book notes or recommendations are OK.  Lists are also OK as long as items on the list are explained.
  • I will set aside the first 30 mins of the day (after filling out my 3 min journal) to write these blog posts.
  • Writing extra posts on weekends or days in advance is OK, but I need to mark this down and adjust my schedule accordingly.
  • Each post should be at least useful to myself as a reminder of something learned.

Contingency plans:

  • If I fail to write the blog post in the first 30 mins of the day, I will write a post during my lunch break.
  • If I have lunch plans, I will write the blog post at night before my evening journaling.

Rewards/Habit Building:

  • Link this to my existing habit of morning and evening journals.
  • After I publish a blog post, pat myself on the back and say ‘Great job, Xiaotong!’
  • After a month of successful blogging, treat myself to a cheat day meal of tomato basil flatbread from the Midwife & the Baker outside on a warm sunny day.

Hypotheses and Metrics:

  • Daily blogging will improve the speed at which I write (measure average word count per time taken to write a post).
  • Daily blogging will improve the quality of my thinking (subjective evaluation of posts).
  • Daily blogging will improve my memory of life lessons learned (subjective evaluation of posts).
  • Daily blogging will improve the quality of my writing (subjective evaluation of posts).


  • Objectively, did I publish a blog post every day in the specified time period following the ground rules?  If not, what % was completed?  What caused me to fail, and why did my contingency plans not work?
  • What did I learn from this endeavor, and did the subjective hypotheses turn out to be true?

Eventually, I’d like to create a public archive of my past work product, testimonials, book notes and recommendations, and various experiments and outcomes.  I don’t know if this website will be the final form of that, and perhaps not–for now, rather than thinking of version ∞, I’m just going to get version 0.1 out.  Assuming that the pottery class story of quantity > quality for better learning outcomes holds true, I’ll just commit to creating as many posts as possible, course correcting as I go along, and accept that some things will come out oddly shaped.


*Astute readers will point out that writing a blog post daily is different from publishing a blog post daily.  This is true.  It is also true, however, that experiments work better when they have a bit of wiggle room.  When attempting to create new habits, or test out a change in routine, one should strive to make the change as easy as possible to start with.  This may mean that I should make the ground rules easier for myself to allow days with just quotes and no commentary.