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Letting Go of External Validation

Can you define the happiest moment of your life?

Up until recently, I thought I could pinpoint it down to an exact point in time.

During my senior year of college, I was convinced that my sole purpose in life was to become a management consultant. I perfected my resume. I talked to all the right people. I read all the right books. I went to all the right networking events.

I was sitting in an art class, just finishing up some drawing in the late evening during the middle of October almost two years ago, and checked my email as I started walking out the door. 

And in my inbox sat an email from McKinsey inviting me to a first round interview. 

I was absolutely ecstatic. 

I started hyperventilating and had to pace back and forth across the hallway in an attempt to burn off the adrenaline that had been so instantaneously flooded into my body.

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Slowing Down

For the majority of the later part of July, I traveled back roads. Some dirt, many paved. I made my way across Maine, through the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the Green Mountains of Vermont, passed Sugarbush and Killington, stayed in Lake George, Burlington, and visited Lake Placid. These roads wind around mountains and lakes, through gullies filled with swamps, past farms and cornfields. They led me to Thousand Islands, where I crossed the border into Canada and was forced to ride down highway 401 which skirts the Northern border of Lake Ontario en route to Toronto.

The transition from country road to interstate is one I’ve made countless times throughout my journey. It triggers a shot of adrenaline, as you quickly shift up into fifth gear, taking the machine to its limits in order to match the speed and power of the trucks and cars zipping by the entry ramp. My motorcycle is really not all that fast. It’s five speeds are realized at only 50 miles per hour, making the transition from 50 to 70 or 80 one that requires serious metal and determination.

Once on the interstate, you settle in at 60 or 70 miles per hour and watch the scenery blow by without much of an opportunity to really see anything. There isn’t typically much to see anyway, apart from concrete embankments and the occasional overhead crossing.

On this particular occasion, merging on to highway 401 headed towards Toronto, I happened to have a strange conscious realization that cars kept passing me. Granted, this happens frequently, but on this rode, in this moment, something seemed different. On this particular stretch of road, I seemed to have a realization that I was simply moving slower than everyone else. Cars blew past me like I wasn’t even moving, each coming up behind me before impatiently exchanging lanes and moving off into the distance.

And in that moment, I realized that I’ve slowed down. Being on the road has forced me to do so, as each occasion where I’ve rushed to be somewhere or meet someone has led to problems.

The motorcycle overheated when I rushed to make it from Tennessee to DC in a day. I got stuck in traffic and was thoroughly soaked when riding as fast as I could to Boston. On the day I was determined to do 400 miles for the first time, I felt a slight resistance as I opened the throttle near mile 350, panicked upon noticing that the rear tire looking harrowingly thin, only to learn that in actuality, my chain needed tightening upon arrival at the shop the next morning. These problems, some bigger than others, but all stress inducing nonetheless, seem to have an uncanny ability to arise in each occasion when I start to rush myself.

When arriving in Toronto, this theory of my slowing down was confirmed by the speed at which everything moves. People walk as fast as humanly possible. Busses and taxis rush around town, depositing their passengers with nothing more than a brief wave of the hand. Service at restaurants becomes a game of brevity in words in order to shepherd in the next set of guests. And yet I moved as if in slow motion, always behind everyone, stopping and staring at buildings and shops, taking in sites that everyone around me took for granted.

I used to be exactly like this, if not even more so. I reveled in efficiency, planning my morning down to the minute, using every walking moment as a time to catch up on an audiobook or the latest podcast, rushing from meeting to meeting without so much as 30 seconds between each one. There is great power in efficiency, and I am sure that I will go back to many of these old habits because of the benefits of routine and order. 

And in fact, I must confess that I have rushed myself even after having this realization. Making my way from Erie to Chicago, I rushed to do my first 500 mile day, which led my bike to shutter and the tachometer to shoot to redline just as I entered Chicago, leaving me stranded on the shoulder of an eight lane highway for two hours before the tow truck arrived and only further confirming the importance of slowing down.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve constructed my imagination of time and space with the visualization of large walls, each of which constitutes an Event. The size of the wall depends on the size of the Event, obviously leading some Events to dominate and cloud the visibility of future Events or overshadow more recent Events whose wall can’t compare.

This method is one that worked extremely well in an academic environment. Exams and project deadlines become large walls that demand serious attention to overcome. The end of a term looms in the distance as a constant exciting reminder of the freedom that comes beyond it.

But this method, by its design, creates what I’ve come to call “The In Between Moment.” All the time between Events simply becomes time leading up to that Event. This time is now simply the time in between the things that are important, and I would rush to move through it in order to reach those all important Events. Further, when an Event grows large enough, it overpowers everything and demands constant attention in thought, regardless of whether or not that thought provides any benefit.

The constant attention required by the road while riding a motorcycle has forced me to change the way I perceive these Events. In each of the instances where I’ve been in a hurry, I have used this old model, viewing the destination as an overpowering Event and the ride required to get me there as an In Between Moment. And this leads me to not really enjoy that ride. It becomes a chore, something that must be done in order to get to some greater prize: the destination. And in my hurry to reach that destination, I have faced problems and made mistakes that have made my hurry simply futile. 

So I’ve slowed down. I’m beginning to live in each of these “In Between Moments,” rendering them obsolete by their very definition.  

I still move fast on occasion, but I move fast because I like going fast, not because I’m rushing to get somewhere. I move fast because I love the sound of the wind rushing past my face and the roar of the engine as the world moves all around me. But I take it all in, I try to be in tune with my environment and enjoy the miles. I slow down the way I think and simply live in each of those moments. Not In Between Moments, but Moments of their own.

Fighting Frustration

Two events have led me to extreme frustration over the past week:

First, en route from Scranton, PA to Boston, MA, I got lost. Not once. Not twice. Six times. A trip that I had pegged at taking about 6 hours ended with me stumbling in to my friends apartment at 9pm – 10 hours after leaving Scranton. It also didn’t stop raining the entire day. My feet looked like prunes from literally sitting in water all day.

Then two days later, as I left Boston and headed towards Maine. I got on a toll road, only to realize that I had absolutely no cash. I had somehow spent all my money the night before. So now I have to mail in a check for $1.25 to the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. And of course, I don’t have a checkbook with me.

Needless to say, both of these incidents made me very frustrated. Frustrated with myself for making completely boneheaded decisions. Frustrated that I was wasting time. Frustrated that I didn’t know what I was doing. And these feelings of frustration would just compound, leading me to make other bad decisions and only make things worse.

After not having any money to pay the toll, the frustration was overwhelming. The feelings from days earlier when I kept getting lost all came back and were completely clouding my mind.

So I stopped.

I just stopped. There was a Dunkin Donuts (of course, I’m on the East Coast) across the street. I went in, sat down, and wrote down all the things that were frustrating me. And that led me to realize that none of the things I was frustrated about were really that important and I had no way to change what had happened.

Earlier in the week, I read the book Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son. Graham’s explanation of why he doesn’t waste time worrying is one of his many nuggets of gold:

Worrying is the one game in which, if you guess right, you don’t get any satisfaction out of your smartness.

Just like spending time worrying about the outcome of a situation, getting frustrated at things that you have no control over, no ability to change, is equally futile. You can only move forward and learn from your mistakes.

So now I obviously don’t let myself run out of cash. And I’m taking a bit more time figuring out where I’m headed each morning so I don’t get lost as much. More importantly, I’m not letting the frustration that comes from making stupid decisions build up to the point where I can’t handle it. I’m acknowledging those feelings, letting myself feel them, and then I’m letting them go. Because there is nothing I can do to change the situation. I have no ability to change the past. I only control my present thoughts and actions.

I’ve had plenty of mishaps on this trip. And I’m sure I’ll have plenty more. But these mistakes are part of the journey. They’re probably what I’ll remember most.

But getting frustrated with them isn’t doing me any good. So I’m learning to let that frustration go.

Know Thyself: An Ancient Maxim at Risk

One of the skills you pick up quite quickly riding a motorcycle is how to be alone with your own thoughts. There really isn’t anything else to do. Sure, you can listen to music or an audiobook, but when you’re riding 6 to 10 hours a day, there are going to be some long stretches in there where you’re doing nothing but burning down miles and entertaining yourself with your thoughts and imagination. 

However, I read a recent article that indicated the majority of men actually prefer physical pain over simply sitting and thinking. The sample size was small, but I imagine similar findings would hold as those samples increased given how quickly most of us reach for our phones or other distractions during any moment of silence. I’ve quickly picked this habit back up after spending only three or four days in Washington, DC, and I see it with my friends, peers and nearly everyone on the street.

We do this because the age we live in doesn’t seem to value the once openly professed maxim “know thyself,” perhaps most famously inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi by the Ancient Greeks.

Sun Tzu describes the importance of knowing thyself in battle:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Peter Drucker explains why knowing thyself is critical in the modern workplace:

[Y]ou’ll need to cultivate a deep understanding of yourself—not only what your strengths and weaknesses are but also how you learn, how you work with others, what your values are, and where you can make the greatest contribution. Because only when you operate from strengths can you achieve true excellence.

Knowing yourself and being alone with your thoughts are inextricably linked. Command over your thoughts leads to command over your body. Many of our actions are driven by habits ingrained in our subconscious brain, but learning to control these thoughts requires a deep understanding of yourself, how you operate, and how you think.

If modern society leads us to feel less and less comfortable in our own heads, this has dire consequences for our ability to innovate and solve difficult problems. 

When Albert Einstein first began his work as a physicist, he learned that his preferred method was not at all experimental. He didn’t enjoy academic life, but was drawn to theory and preferred using thought experiments and metaphors to think through difficult problems. 

When he made his first breakthrough and developed the special theory of relativity, and later the general theory of relativity, these conclusions were the culmination of countless hours spent alone at his desk deep in thought. 

Einstein is an extreme example, but his process shows that mastery of any skill or field requires intense concentration. Malcolm Gladwell’s somewhat criticized 10,000 hours is the classic benchmark for time required to become an expert, but regardless of validity, focus and attention over significantly long periods of time is necessary for learning. 

In fact, our brains have evolved in such a way that this deep focus and concentration will in fact lead to mastery in any who choose to pursue it. Robert Greene writes in Mastery:

All of us have access to a higher form of intelligence, one that can allow us to see more of the world, to anticipate trends, to respond with speed and accuracy to any circumstance. This intelligence is cultivated by deply immersing ourselves in a field of study and staying true to our inclinations, no matter how unconventional our approach might seem to other. Through such intense immersion over many years we come to internalize and gain an intuitive feel with the rational processes, we expand our minds to the outer limits of our potential and are able to see into the secret core of life itself.

If our society does not regain an understanding of the importance of knowing oneself, there will be fewer and fewer people who can truly become masters of their fields. These masters are critical for the progression of human existence, because they push the boundaries of our knowledge past its limits and into the unknown.

So go outside. Take a long walk. Meditate. Spend time alone with your thoughts. We seem to be forgetting that being comfortable in our own heads is critical for human learning and innovation.

10 Lessons I’ve Learned Since Graduating College

  1. Define Your Own Success. If you don’t, you will fail. No matter what you do. You no longer have anyone telling you where to go and what to do. You no longer have anything dictating what comes next. You have to sit down and think through the things that matter to you and that you want to do in order to achieve success in all parts of your life.
  2. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously. Have fun. Do stupid things. Just because you graduated from college, doesn’t mean you have to be a different person.
  3. Enjoy the Small Things. One of the best days I’ve had over the past year was spent sitting outside, drinking a beer, and reading a book. It was great. And I learned that you can be happy with simplicity. Things don’t need to be extravagant, or expensive, or shiny to be enjoyable.
  4. Read Every Day. Read everything you can get your hands on. It will benefit you greatly. I’ve read 57 books in the last year – more than one a week. I’ve read novels, textbooks, philosophical texts, memoirs, and science fiction. Being out of school means you can be unconstrained in your learning. Take advantage of that.
  5. Habits Matter. The things we do every day define who we are. You have power over only two things in the world – your own thoughts, and your own actions. Everything else is out of your control. You can influence other people and other situations, but you can never actually take complete control of those things. So make sure that the habits you create through the actions that you take are the right habits. Those habits will have a profound impact on your life.
  6. Be Yourself. You can spend a lot of time trying to be someone you’re not. But ultimately, you can only be who you are, so don’t try to fight that.
  7. Expand your Knowledge with the goal of developing Wisdom. There are certain people that ‘know’ a lot of information. This can be hugely beneficial, particularly at the beginning of a career. Many of the things I accomplished over the last year came as a result of simply knowing more about certain things than other people. But knowledge will only get you so far. At a certain point, you have to start building wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to act on in formation, the experience to understand how to behave in certain situations, and the insight to make decisions. This wisdom allows you to take the information you have in front of you and move forward given some level of uncertainty. You can know a lot, but you will ultimately not make it that far if you can’t develop the wisdom necessary to take you to the next level.
  8. Build Authority. When you exercise your power over others, you can influence them to do certain things for you. The output though, will be completely dependent on how much authority you wield over those individuals. If they respect you and have given you the authority to lead, you will be able to push people past where they ever thought possible. If you drive others with power that has not been earned, your results will be less impressive.
  9. Make Mistakes. When I first started working, I made a lot of mistakes. I presented information incorrectly. I didn’t analyze situations the right way. Even earlier this week I sent an email to our company that set expectations about a deadline when those expectations should not have been set. But all those mistakes were good mistakes. Because I learned from them, and now I know how not to make those same mistakes. You have to be ok failing. You have to be comfortable doing something wrong.
  10. Life Goes On. Life after college is scary. You have new situations to deal with, lots of uncertainty, and minimal structure. But ultimately, each day comes and you can’t do anything to stop it. One year from now will come by regardless of what you spend doing during that time. So make the most of each one of those days.

How Understanding Opportunity Cost Can Improve Your Life

One of the first concepts taught in Economics is something called ‘Opportunity Cost.’ It refers to the value the second best option forgone when making a choice.

For example, if I choose to buy an apple with the only dollar in my pocket, and bananas are my second favorite snack item, then the Opportunity Cost of purchasing that apple is one banana (assuming that the banana and the apple both cost a dollar). The value of the Opportunity Cost is typically not given in dollars, as the Opportunity Cost of spending a dollar on the apple is not the dollar itself but the fact that I am giving up the opportunity to buy a banana. Every decision you make has an Opportunity Cost because there is always something you have to give up in order to get what you choose.

Few disciplines outside Economics teach this concept, but it is completely central to decision making, which everyone has to do all the time. As a result, it frequently gets overlooked when people make what I would consider to be the most important decision we make each morning: what to do with our time.

Many people just let each day play out as it comes, straying down detours and reacting to each obstacle that falls in their path.

What’s tricky here is that there are really an infinite number of ways you could spend each hour of the day. How do you decide what to do? How could anyone ever make the right decision?

Start by being intentional about planning your day. Maybe this starts right when you wake up, or maybe it happens some time later in the day. When it happens isn’t necessarily important.

The real key here is that you think about all the things that you could do during the day, and then make a conscious decision about what you’re NOT going to do. Problems will pop up and last minute deadlines will get set, making it difficult to plan out a day to the minute. But if you clearly understand the important things you want to accomplish, and understand the things that consume your time but don’t provide any value, you’ll be in control when issues arise and you’ll avoid doing the things that don’t provide you with sufficient value.

The act of simply thinking about the various ways you could spend your time will help you begin to understand the Opportunity Cost of each action and ultimately lead you to avoid the actions that have the highest Cost, helping you be more effective in your work, more happy in your relationships, and more content with yourself.

Next, think about how much value you’re giving up by the way you act each day. Remove the things that don’t provide you value.

Maybe you spend a significant amount of time checking your email each morning. Is that the best way you could be spending your time? Maybe it is. In which case you shouldn’t change that. But what if you can think of even one other thing that you could be doing during that time that would be more beneficial? Do that instead. Don’t waste your time. You have to control your day.

Finally, start building good habits around your old, costly habits to help you avoid inefficiency and stay healthy. This will help you stay disciplined throughout the day so that you can avoid making decisions with a high Opportunity Cost.

Every minute you spend doing one thing prevents you from doing another. You will never be even close to perfect in minimizing your Opportunity Cost throughout the day. But what if you could be even marginally better than yesterday? What if the decisions you made today provided even a tiny bit more value than the other options? And what if you could do that every day?

 

Control Your Day

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned recently is the distinction between controlling your day and letting your day control you.

At the beginning of each day, you have the opportunity to do something great. The opportunity to take steps towards achieving your goals. To work towards the things that matter to you.

You also have the opportunity to let your day control you. To let other people dictate what you spend your time doing. To let the day play out without foresight as to how and why certain things will happen.

As written in Meditations: “You have to assemble your life yourself – action by action.” And assembling that life starts with controlling your day.

You have to be willing to wake up when you’re tired, say no to the things that don’t matter, and take ownership over what you do before you go to bed again.

If you let the day control you, you will always be working towards someone else’s goals. You will become powerless to the forces of others and float through life without truly embracing all of the opportunities in front of you.

This doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous, or relax, or do things purely for enjoyment. It means that you should be intentional about those things and take ownership over them. The lesson is not necessarily that everything you do has to be planned. The lesson is that the way you act and the decisions you make should be yours.

You are the only person who can determine where your life goes, and if you don’t control each day, then you will have no control over your life.

Controlling your day isn’t hard, but it isn’t easy either. It requires you to live with your head up, not down. It means you embrace situations proactively, not reactively and are intentional about how you spend your time.

You have been given a life filled with endless possibilities, and only by taking control of each day will you make those possibilities a reality.

Leading from the Bottom

At work, I am one of the most junior employees in the company. I have less experience than almost everyone. I’m one of the youngest people in the office.

And yet that doesn’t stop me from helping lead our company, because being a leader isn’t about your title or age.

Being a leader is about inspiring those around you to be better than they thought was possible.

It comes from encouraging everyone when things go wrong and not perpetuating the negativity that comes from failure.

It means you’re sincere and understand that when someone does something well, acknowledging that success will help drive future success.

It means having an opinion, not being afraid to voice that opinion, and then taking full responsibility when that opinion is wrong.

It means working your ass off so that the team can succeed, because the team is most important, not the individual.

Being a leader is an act of confidence, of integrity, and of optimism. It’s a mindset you have to work for, not something that can be given by someone else.

Leadership can come with age, experience, and knowledge. And those leaders lead from the top.

But by learning from those at the top, studying the way they think and act, you can lead from the bottom.

The Power of a Morning Routine

Over the past few months I’ve been working to build a solid morning routine in order to improve my productivity, health, and wellbeing.

Currently, my routine is as follows:

  • 5:48am – Alarm, get out of bed, drink glass of water
  • 5:50 to 6:00 – Eat breakfast, consisting of 30 grams of protein, which I have shopped and prepared for on Sunday
  • 6:00 to 6:10 – Shower
  • 6:10 to 6:15 – Dry off, shave if needed
  • 6:15 to 6:20 – Get dressed
  • 6:20 to 6:30 – Meditate and stretch
  • 6:30 to 6:35 – Brush teeth
  • 6:35 to 6:55 – Write down all the things I plan to do that day
  • 6:55 to 7:00 – Pack bag, water plants, leave for the bus
  • 7:00 to 7:30 – Bus/Walk to work while listening to an audiobook
  • 7:30 Arrive at work
  • 7:30 to 8:30 – Read
  • 8:30 to 8:45 – Prioritize all daily tasks, estimate time required for each one, and write out daily to-do list
  • 8:45 – Start working!

I’ve gone through a number of iterations in landing on this current routine, but doing so has allowed me to significantly improve the way I approach each day.

Our bodies operate on cycles, and by helping your body become accustomed to a specific rhythm, you’ll feel more energized both in the morning and throughout the day. Setting that morning routine also makes it a lot easier to get out of bed.

A mentor of mine taught me that you have to control your day – you can’t let your day control you. This starts from the minute you wake up, and by being intentional about how you spend you’re morning, you’re taking control of your own day, and ultimately your own life. Furthermore, in order to build better habits, incorporating these tasks into your morning routine can greatly increase the likelihood of success. I’m in the process of building a meditation habit, so I do that in the morning and haven’t missed a day since I started.

Make sure you take the time to write out, in detail, everything you want to accomplish in the morning. This will force you to estimate the time required to perform each task, as well as keep you focused on the things you have to do each morning. Doing so allows you to eliminate time wasting activities that aren’t serving you well.

Some people like to wake up early, others don’t. Regardless of what time your alarm goes off, setting a morning routine can help you control your day, be more productive, and live a healthier life.

Build Good Habits

Why is it important to build good habits?

Because they are the foundation for how you live your life.

From the moment you wake up, your mind controls your body based on the conscious and subconscious habits you have formed over time. These can be beneficial, like brushing your teeth every morning, or they can be detrimental, such as chewing your nails when you get anxious.

Building good habits has two critically important effects:

1. It makes it easier to do the things that are hard.

When a behavior becomes a habit, not doing an action causes a bit of pain. By building habits around actions that require significant effort, you can reduce the associated perceived effort.

Things that many consider to be good habits, like exercising regularly and eating well, can be difficult to accomplish because of the amount of effort required to do them. However, when you build a habit of running every morning and eating 30 grams of protein within 30 minute of waking up, your body will actually experience a feeling of distress when you don’t do this.

Charles Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit habits have a distinct structure: they start with a cue, that leads to a routine, and gets capped by a reward . By understanding how this loop works, you can teach your brain to crave behaviors that require immense amounts of effort.

2. It frees your conscious brain from having to make decisions.

When something becomes a habit, by definition, that action becomes almost involuntary.

We also know that willpower is a finite resource, which helps explain why it’s harder to maintain discipline at the end of the day than at the beginning.

As you build habits, particularly around things that are hard and require significant willpower, your conscious brain no longer has to use the precious willpower muscle to accomplish those tasks. They become automatic. This frees your mind to focus on the important decisions you face during the day, making you more effective in everything you do.

Habits explain why Barack Obama only wears a navy or gray suit and Warren Buffet spends 80 percent of his day reading. They can’t not act in these ways.

And they’re better off for it, because by mastering your habits, you master yourself.