Wake up and stop being a lemming

Today I had lunch with a friend who reminded me that the majority of people never figure out and do what they want to do.  Instead they are caught jumping through a series of hoops and ticking off a series of socially-approved boxes.  Get into a good college (Ivy League).  Get a prestigious high paying job (tech, wall street, consulting, law, medicine).  Get graduate degrees at prestigious universities (MBA, JD, MD, PhD).  Get another higher paying prestigious job (in the same industries).  Buy a house, nice cars, fancy expensive clothes, the newest tech gadgets, a yacht or whatever other status symbol is most relevant in your social circle.  Get married and have 2.5 kids.

Perhaps at some point, wake up with a mid-life crisis because you realized, however briefly, that you have been living someone else’s life, living by someone else’s rules and desires.  And then you buy your fancy new car/vacation home/trophy wife and go back to burying these uncomfortable thoughts and just living as though in a dream.

Part of growing up is coming up with your own set of boxes to tick.  Part of growing up is recognizing that what society says you should want, what your parents say you should want, what your friends say you should want, what the media says you should want, these are all separate from what you ACTUALLY want, and what would actually make you happy and fulfilled.

Don’t sleepwalk through life.  Wake up.  Confront uncomfortable truths.  Take risks and experiment with what you might enjoy and what you might find fulfilling.  There is no safe path.  The “safe” path proscribed by society is the one guaranteed to land you into a midlife crisis.  Do not be the lemming that follows the herd off the cliff.  You can see the cliff coming up.  STOP.  Go a different direction.

Personal Finance Primer

A friend of mine asked me for some very basic advice on personal finance.  Generally, here are my thoughts:

  1. Spend less than you earn.  If you follow just this one rule, you’ll at least stay out of trouble.
  2. Practice conscious spending.  For the things that bring you low levels or happiness, or that don’t make you happy at all, stop paying for them (or at least stop paying so much for them).  For the things that make you REALLY happy, go all out.  Money can’t buy you self respect or emotional security, but it can enable you to grow into a better person (if properly spent).  Don’t lie to yourself when it comes to money and spending.
  3. Know your why.  What does money mean to you?  What will it enable you to do?  What are your dreams involving money?  If you love your job, your lifestyle, your spending habits, etc., then just keep doing what you’re doing.  If not, maybe consider learning how to earn more and spend less.  Maybe consider diving into that hardcore group of financial independence, retire early (FIRE) tribe (just don’t be a frugal jerk).
  4. Have some cushion when things go wrong (because they will go wrong).  This could be your emergency fund.  I have a stupid mistakes fund (because everyone makes stupid mistakes, including, one year, a $10K+ tax bill…ouch).  You need to be able to access this money FAST, so keep it in a checking account.
  5. Invest in index funds at Vanguard.  Fees are  bitch, mutual funds can’t beat the market, KISS (keep it simple, stupid), compound interest will make you rich, inflation erodes cash, etc. etc., so just invest in Vanguard’s total stock market index fund and call it a day.

If you do all of these things consistently for a few decades, you’ll be in a good spot and your future self will thank you.

If you want to optimize even more (because what is more fun than figuring out ways to make your money work for you???), here are some useful resources to start with:

  • Ramit Sethi’s I Will Teach You To Be Rich
    An introduction to Personal Finance, targeted at people in their 20s, great overview of everything important to know, with specific action steps and scripts.  I use his automation system to funnel money to my various accounts, pay credit card bills, invest, etc.
  • Generally Useful Personal Finance Topics by Age Group a la Reddit
    Guides for 18-25yos, 25-35yos, 35-45yos.  Good overview of important topics relating to life events like school, debt, mortgage, house, health insurance, etc.  Worthwhile to skim all 3 guides even if you think some of them won’t apply.
  • Jim Collins’ Stock Series (blog posts)
    Series of posts explaining why passive investing beats active investing, what your investing options are and optimal order in which to invest/save, asset allocation basics, with some financial independence stuff thrown in as well.  Extremely comprehensive and possibly too in depth, so skip around as needed.  Collins lands on the more extreme end of the FIRE (financial independence retire early) movement so you can disregard whatever extreme frugalism/savings bits he advocates if that’s not your cup of tea.
  • Bogleheads Wiki on Investing
    Overlaps with Jim Collins series above, possibly more detailed than his stuff.  I like the asset allocation discussion and the tax efficient fund placement page, but this might be too in depth.  Start with the getting started guide.  This is a very deep rabbit hole to go down…
  • Mr Money Mustache Blog
    One of the most popular personalities in the personal finance blogosphere, and possibly the most popular embodiment of the FIRE movement.  His blog is a mix of philosophical articles in support of minimalism, highly conscious consumption and cutting out lots of extraneous expenses, being environmentally friendly, DIY/MacGyvering (he built a radiant heating system in his house and started his own construction company for fun after he retired), and articles about how he and his wife retired early, how other readers can restructure their income/expenses to do the same, etc.  I’d read a few of his most popular posts and see if you like him.  He tends to be a bit polarizing, but I find him quite funny and engaging.

Thoughts on Trust, Politics, and Leadership

The basis of a well-functioning team is trust.  Trust that the team is working on the right objectives, in the right ways, for the right reasons.

Trust breaks down when politics come into the picture.  Trust breaks down when previous actions (on the basis of politics) makes people question the motives behind a leader’s decisions.  Trust breaks down when the method of implementation seems ineffective or merely symbolic.  Trust breaks down when the team does not see the leader having sufficient domain expertise to make the right decisions.

As a leader, think about what your words and actions communicate to your team.  Do you demonstrate that you care more about politics and empire-building than the mission of the team and the effectiveness of your execution?  Do you demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about and are able to make the right decisions (or defer to experts who can help you make these decisions)?  When you ask your team to go above and beyond the call of duty, will they think that it is for the right reasons, to achieve the right goals, and in the most effective ways?

If not, what is the cost of corroding your relationship capital?  Is it worth the symbolic gesture, the political statement, you make?  Or will the other party call bullshit as well?

Lifting as a Mechanism to Salvage the Day

Sometimes forces outside of your control conspire to derail your day.  Those well thought out plans and allocations for deploying your time and attention?  All for naught–someone started a fire and you’re on deck to put it out (and clear off everything else from your plate).

Sometimes the fire is fun to deal with.  It requires you to flex creative problem-solving muscles, work with fun people, play with innovative ideas, think long term, make significant impact, cut through red tape like a hot knife through butter…and sometimes putting out the fire means doing repetitive scut work.

If your ambitions are frustrated, if you feel as though your attention and brainpower have been wasted, if you are having a shitty day, DO SOMETHING to reset your mood.

Go outside for a walk.  Look up at the sky.  Smell some flowers.  Pet a dog.  Make tea or espresso.  Lift heavy weights.  Sprint until you have trouble breathing.

Guaranteed, if you do a heavy lifting session and do some intense interval training, you’ll feel like a champion afterwards, and you’ll have salvaged the day.  No matter what happened before, you have pushed your body to its limits and you’ve gotten stronger.  You’ve worshiped in the iron temple and if that’s the only productive good thing you’ve done all day, it’s enough.

(And now that you’ve recovered your mood, time to brainstorm a more efficient way to finish that scut work, or find a higher impact/value task that is also more fun to do in its stead.)

On the value of asking questions

I believe that being willing to ask questions (and risk looking stupid) is a predictor of future success.  Being able to ask good questions shows curiosity, builds relationships (people love being asked for advice), and accelerates learning.  Being able to ask good questions in a tough audience shows audacity or confidence, which is a sign of leadership potential as well.

On the flip side, gauge your audience well and don’t ask stupid questions that will frustrate the other party, waste their time, or cause them to question your intelligence.

An example from a meeting I sat in on today: one of the leaders of our organization came to do a Q&A and described a scenario he had been dealing with recently.  Out of a room of 20+ people, 4 people asked questions (and keep in mind the Q&A was slated to last 30 minutes).  What about the others?  Did they lack curiosity?  Did they lack interest in taking advantage of this opportunity to engage with and impress a leader in their organization?  Were they afraid to look foolish?

From the leader’s perspective, I’m sure he was grateful for everyone who took the time to ask questions and give him an opportunity to speak, give his advice, fill up any awkward silences.

Another example: in this same meeting, there were several new hires (one of which asked a question–impressive!).  I’m sure that they were confused about the nuances of the situation the leader was describing, but none of them asked for any clarification during this Q&A.  One of them, however, did find another person to ask follow up questions to after the Q&A.  Now this girl knows more about the company, the business, and the way things work.

Think about these interactions, accruing over the course of a lifetime of work.  Small incremental nuggets of learning build into a massive snowball of domain expertise and positive reputation and good habits.  These 2 new hires who asked questions, those 4 brave/curious souls who asked questions, if I had to bet money on future success at work, I’d weight the odds higher on them.

Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me Book Notes

A quick diversion to finish a new book that’s been popular–Bill Hayes’  Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and Me [public library].  It’s about living and falling in love with Oliver Sachs, life in NYC, being a person in the world, and grief and loss.  The author is very good at telling little stories and vignettes about Oliver and life in and the people of NYC.  Bill’s Oliver was a charming super nerdy and romantic old man, a Renaissance man of diverse interests and extreme curiosity, childishly innocent in some ways, and basically super endearing.  This was a short and easy read (~3 hrs), highly recommend.



On NY:

“I have come to believe that kindness is repaid in unexpected ways and that if you are lonely or bone-tired or blue, you need only come down from your perch and step outside.  New York–which is to say, New Yorkers–will take care of you.”


“It requires a certain kind of unconditional love to love living here.  But New York repays you in time in memorable encounters, at the very least.  Just remember: Ask first, don’t grab, be fair, say please and thank you, always say thank you–even if you don’t get something back right away.  You will.”


“I once met a woman who was an astronaut…She told me that the coolest thing about life in space was not the weightlessness or the incredible speed with which you travel, but the view of Earth from hundreds of miles away.  You cannot imagine how beautiful it is.  And when you’re in orbit, the sun rises sixteen times a day.

That pretty much sums up how I feel about New York.”


“I remember how Wendy once told me she loved New York so much she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her.  It seemed like both the saddest and the most romantic thing one could possibly say–sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of things aid more often about a romantic love–husband, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover.  You can’t imagine them going on without you.  But they do.  We do.  Every day, we wake up and say, What’s the point?  Why go on?  And, there is really only one answer: To be alive.”


On Loss:

From a minister: “Suffering a devastating loss is like suffering a brain injury…you walk around like a zombie.  You can’t think straight.  You feel drugged…”


Pretty language:

“The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow.  It was the opposite of a shadow.  Which is as clear a definition I can come up with for the soul.”


When someone close to you dies (e.g. spouse), it takes about 3 years for the pain to go away.  Est. 1000 days.


“He [O] urges me to go out with friends and have some laughs.  ‘When my mother died,’ he tells me, ‘my oldest friend called up straightaway and told me three scandalously obscene jokes in a row.  I laughed uproariously, and then the tears came.’

I followed his advice.”


Pretty language:

“How I take a shower with the sun, a bird and a squirrel watching me.” (Sun bathing?)


On Oliver Sach’s living under a rock:

“O often said he had no knowledge of popular culture after 1955, and this was not an exaggeration.  He did not know popular music, rarely watched anything on TV but the news, did not enjoy contemporary fiction, and had zero interest in celebrities or fame (including his own).  He didn’t possess a computer, had never used e-mail or texted; he wrote with a fountain pen.  …there was no denying that his tastes, his habits, his ways–all were irreversibly, fixedly, not of our time.”


Before O met Bill, he hadn’t had sex in over 30 yrs–lived as a monk just focusing on work, reading, writing, and thinking.


“O: ‘I sometimes think things are not enough until they are too much.  There is no in between for me.’”


One of O’s favorite books is Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, which he re-reads often.


Romantic/charming/cute (nerd flirting!):

“We talk about a scene in Roman Elegies in which Goethe taps out hexameters on his sleeping lover’s back:

Fingertips counting in time with the sweet rhythmic breath of her slumber,’ O recites from memory.”


O: “I’ve suddenly realized what you mean to me: You create the need which you fill, the hunger you sate.  Like Jesus.  And Kierkegaard.  And smoked trout…”


“O: ‘I thought being old would be either awful or trivial, and it’s neither.’

I: ‘What makes it not awful and not trivial?’

O: ‘Aside from you, thinking and writing.’”


“There is a quiet moment and then, seemingly apropos of nothing, O says: ‘I am glad to be on planet Earth with you.  It would be much lonelier otherwise.’

I reach for his hand and hold it.

‘I, too,’ I say.”

“O: ‘I like having a confusion of agency, your hand on top of mine, unsure where my body ends and yours begins…’”


“I curl up next to him [O], an arm over his chest, a leg over his legs.  His eyes are closed, and for a moment I think he has fallen asleep, but no: ‘When you can’t tell where your body ends and the other begins, is that primal, or signs of an advanced evolution?’”


“3 A.M., walking into his room to check on him:

O: ‘How did you know…?  How did you know I’d be awake?’

‘I could hear you smile,’ I say.”


On the nerdy charm of Oliver Sacks [O-isms]:

“There are rare instances in nature of accelerated evolution.”  EX: white winged butterfly that got dirty from soot in early Industrial Age England and evolved from white to soot colored; city bird that started singing louder to be heard over city traffic sounds


“O: ‘Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?’”


“‘I hope I get a good night’s sleep and then have a rush of thoughts, as I did this morning,’ says O. ‘It is very delightful when that happens–all of them rushing to the surface, as if they have been waiting for me to become conscious of them…’”


“Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a planet where the sound of rain falling is like Bach?”–O


“O talked easily and nonstop, making his signature ‘pronouncements’, as I think of them.


For instance: suddenly saying, ‘I find I am very interest in automatism.’


I elbowed him: ‘Only Oliver Sacks would say that!’  He started laughing.  ‘Well, why not?  It’s very interesting.  It’s the signal characteristic of homeostasis!’”

[Automatism is the performance of actions without conscious thought or intention.]


“Oliver often said that but was his favorite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.”


“Nicky looked out the window, where he saw a large, bearded man lying on the grass in the garden. ‘What were you doing?’ Nicky asked once he came indoors.

‘I was wondering what it is like to be a rose,’ replied Oliver.”


O loves the periodic table of elements.  For each birthday, he gets Billy something made with the relevant element (e.g. xenon light bulbs, iodine in a bottle).  “I do fifty push-ups twice a day while O sits at his desk and counts them out by naming the corresponding elements: ‘titanium, vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron, cobalt…’”


“‘Do you know why I love to read Nature and Science every week?’

I turned.  ‘No,’ I shook my head.  I was almost confused; this seemed such a non sequitur.

‘Surprise–I always read something that surprises me,’ he said.”


“‘I say I love writing, but really it is thinking I love–that rush of thoughts–new connections in the brain being made.  And it comes out of the blue.’ O smiled. ‘In such moments: I feel such love of the world, love of thinking…’”


Read old books.  In O’s library: Shakespeare, Borges, Burgess, Sir Thomas Browne, Darwin, etc.

From Sir Thomas Browne’s Christian Morals: “Reckon not upon long life: think every day the last, and live always beyond thy account.  He that so often surviveth his Expectation lives many Lives, and will scarce complain of the shortness of his days.  Time past is gone like a Shadow; make time to come present…”  


“But to be dead–one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees.  One can be alive but half-asleep or half-noticing as the years fly…Fortunately, this is a reversible condition.  One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause–to memorize moments of the everyday.”


“Looking back, every life-altering decision I’ve ever made has seemed, at first blush, misguided, misjudged, or plain foolish–and ultimately turned out to be the opposite: every seemingly wrong person I’ve fallen for, every big trip I’ve splurged on, every great apartment taken that I could not realistically afford.  And, really, what is pursuing writing but a case study in an impractical career…?”


“It can be yours.  No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own.  Ownership does not come free.  One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening; and bring to it one’s full attention.  The investment will be repaid as one discovers something new with each viewing–say, a detail in the background, a person nearly cropped from the picture frame, or a tiny patch of canvas left unpainted, deliberately so, one may assume, as if to remind you not to take all the painted parts for granted.”


On Death:

“I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.” –Oliver Sacks


Upon finding out about his cancer diagnosis and how it had metastasized to his liver:

“He [O] said he was not interested in ‘prolonging life just for the sake of prolonging life.’  Two of his brothers had died of cancer (different forms of cancer), and both had regretted undergoing horrid chemotherapy treatments that had done nothing but ruin their last months.


‘I want to be able to write, think, read, swim, be with Billy, see friends, and maybe travel a bit, if possible.’  Oliver added that he hoped not to be in ‘ghastly pain’ or for his condition to become ‘humiliating,’ and then he fell silent.”


“But for him [O], ‘time’ meant far more: time to ‘complete’ his life on his own terms, finally coming out publicly as a gay man through his memoir, time to see the book published, time to write pieces he had wanted to write, time to get things in order, time that a sudden and unexpected death, or the slow demise of an illness such as Alzheimer’s, would not allow.”


Nunc dimittis: “the final song in a religious service.”


O spends his final months writing a lot, visiting friends, spending time with loved ones, and writing more.


After O’s passing, Billy cleans the apartment and goes back to his place: “I felt tired, grateful, peaceful, battered, sad, wise, old.  I felt like Odysseus reaching shore.”


Found Things

Things that I enjoyed on the Interwebs this week:

…love these perspective shifting landscapes

…laughed at this print and this print from Maja Säfström’s shop

…finally read this long summary of long term relationship advice from 1.5K married and divorced people.  tl;dr: it’s hard but worthwhile work, and you have to both be willing to get a bit messy/hurt/vulnerable

…thought about these different types of loneliness and how they manifest in various people’s lives.  The weird thing about loneliness is, sometimes one can be perfectly content alone (but not lonely), then meet someone who fills a previously unrecognized void, and thereafter never be able to enjoy being alone in that way again.  Something about better having loved and lost than never loved at all?

Rules for Radicals Weekend

Rules for Radicals [public library], Saul Alinsky’s classic arrived in the mail for me today.  I am so excited to start reading and digesting this book.  Here is a sneak peak tidbit to whet the appetite (love how snarky he is):

“Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins–or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom–Lucifer.

Nothing like enjoying an anticipated shiny new book for the weekend.  Happy Friday!

4 Horses and Deep Learning, a Zen Parable

From Mastery, by George Leonards, discussing an excerpt from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

“…Zen master Shunryu Suzuki approaches the question of fast and slow learners in terms of horses.  ‘In our scriptures, it is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent ones, good ones, poor ones, and bad ones.  The best horse will run slow and fast, right and left, at the driver’s will, before it sees the shadow of the whip; the second best will run as well as the first one, just before the whip reaches its skin; the third one will run when it feels pain on its body; the fourth will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones.  You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn to run.

When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse.  If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best.’  But this is a mistake, Master suzuki says.  When you learn too easily, you’re tempted not to work hard, not to penetrate to the marrow of a practice.

‘If you study calligraphy, you will find that those who are not so clever usually become the best calligraphers.  Those who are very clever with their hands often encounter great difficulty after they have reached a certain stage.  This is also true in art, and in life.’  The best horse, according to Suzuki, may be the worst horse.  And the worst horse can be the best, for if it perseveres, it will have learned whatever it is practicing all the way to the marrow of its bones.

Be the worst horse who perseveres and learns to the marrow of its bones.

Don’t Make Things Worse

As Forrest Gump inspired, “Shit happens”.  Sometimes you are able to fix or improve the situations.  Other times it is completely outside of your control.  Whatever happens, try not to make things worse.

One way you could make the situation worse is by getting upset, and then spreading that negativity around.  This is the default mode of most people (myself included).  Instead, catch yourself when you start complaining, or getting frustrated, or just REACTING.  Stop.  Observe the feeling.  Observe the physical response.  And then let it go.  Do not act on it.  Don’t spread it to other people, and don’t make it worse.  Don’t make a fuss, just get what needs to be done, done.  And as for the rest, well, life happens.