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.

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Checking Off Boxes

This morning, I woke up early to ride the Tail of the Dragon. This road travels US 129 between Tennessee and North Carolina, and consists of 318 curves in only 11 miles.

The Dragon is considered by many motorcycle enthusiasts to be one of the most spectacular rides in the country. I rode early on a Tuesday morning, so there wasn’t much traffic, but during the weekends in the summer the ride becomes crazy busy.

The entire ride is beautiful, with the roads leading up to and leaving from the Tail of the Dragon arguably more scenic than the Dragon itself. You skirt a large river and dam on the way up: IMG_0683

that you then look down on from the top of the ridge:

 

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and ultimately come down to view another lake on the other side of the mountains:

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My anticipation as I left for the ride was unmatched by anything thus far in my trip. I’ve ridden some awesome roads so far, including route 177 through the Flint Hills in Kansas, highway 70N across Tennessee, and highway 441 through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, but nothing as iconic as the Tail of the Dragon.

But when I got there, it wasn’t particularly spectacular.

Sure, it’s a fun road. There really are 318 curves, and it feels like you’re riding a roller coaster as the road pitches up and down. The turns come faster and tighter than any other rode I’ve been on, which adds to the thrill. I even bumped my foot on the pavement going around a particularly tight turn, which made my heart pump a bit faster than I’d like to admit.

And then it’s over. And you’re just on another highway, moving through some mountains and plains until you get to another town, with a few gas stations and a Dunkin Donuts. There’s no fanfare or fireworks at the finish line.

I realized as I sat and ate a few donuts that I’ve had more fun over the last week. I’ve ridden through more breathtaking scenery. I’ve had moments that made me feel more alive. But checking off the box of riding the Dragon didn’t really do any of those things for me.

Maybe some day I’ll impress someone at a party by telling them that I’ve ridden the Tail of the Dragon. But life isn’t about checking off boxes. It’s not about doing things to say you did them. It’s more fun to look back at the things that were unexpected, the things that went wrong, the times you laughed or cried or were absolutely awestruck.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time working hard to check off boxes in my life. On this trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to live a good life, and while I am far from figuring that out, doing things for the sake of having done them doesn’t seem like the answer.

Setting Goals in an Uncertain World

There are countless examples of how people who set personal and professional goals achieve much more than those who don’t.

Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Wizards (among many other accomplishments) had a brush with mortality early in his life and wrote a list of 101 things to accomplish in his life. He has accomplished nearly all of them.

Jim Collins identified through his research and writing of Built to Last and Good to Great that all of the greatest companies in his study operated with respect to a BHAG - a Big, Hair, Audacious Goal. These goals (think of Kennedy’s declaration that we will land a man on the moon) provide direction through the sheer fearlessness of what has been set before the team to accomplish.

However, humans are terrible predictors of the future. We fall prey to a multitude of behavioral biases that make us completely incompetent when it comes to forecasting anything, whether that be future oil prices, the weather, technological progress, or scientific discoveries. We herd, anchor, exhibit confirmation bias, and have pretty much no ability to accurately calculate the probability that future events will occur, even with the assistance of complex mathematical tools. Black Swans complicate this situation even more, since the events that have the largest impact on how the world and our lives get shaped over time are by their very definition, unpredictable outliers.

Consider the example of predicting the outcome of a single game of pool. It’s been proven that doing so requires some knowledge of the dynamics and position of every atom in the entire universe. Predicting what you’ll do in your life involves the interaction of a lot more moving pieces than a game of pool.

So what does it mean to set goals in a world filled with so much uncertainty?

In setting goals, you need to not be predicting the future, but shaping it. It’s a matter of how you perceive your future.

As Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle is the Way:

“Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness.”

Change your perception of what it means to set goals and your goals will be more effective. Don’t attempt to predict how specific things will turn out in the future and tie your goals to those events. Instead, set goals that involve actions you can control.

As Henry Cloud stresses in 9 Things You Simply Must Do to Succeed in Love and Life, you have to ‘Play the Movie,’ an exercise where you envision the end result and then ‘play’ through the script in your head that will get you there. This practice will help you understand the steps you need to take in accomplishing a goal because it will force you to think through the actions you have control over and can actually take in achieving that end result.

You don’t predict the future and plan your goals around them, you define your goals and build a life towards those goals. You create the future, you don’t try to predict it. Because you can’t predict it. You can decide what you want it to be though, and then work hard to make that a reality.

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.