Success

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ivories

Miles Davis once said that if he’d spent half of his practice time on the piano, he wouldn’t just have been a better piano player, he would have been a better trumpet player, too.  Based on which, about a year ago, I started including some piano playing in my trumpet practice sessions.

The piano is a visual instrument – you can see the notes laid out in front of you – and I found that even playing painfully slowly through the chords of a jazz song was a great way to understand better the harmonic structure.  It inevitably gave me ideas and insights for improvising on the trumpet.

That said, most people don’t want to hear a jazz piece actually performed at a two notes per thirty seconds pace – the speed at which I was able to clumsily bang out chords with my fingers.  So piano remained strictly an academic tool, not something I could actually play as a musical instrument.

Two months back, I decided I needed to change that.  I got two basic piano methods (Alfred’s and Thompson’s), to work through site-reading, correct hand placement, etc.  And I whipped out the encyclopedic Patterns for Jazz, which lays out 500 or so stereotypical jazz phrases that work as building blocks in improvisational solos, which you can then transpose in your head (and out through your fingers) in all twelve keys.  And, for about twenty minutes each morning since, I set to work.

At this point, I’m still not booking Carnegie Hall or the Village Vanguard any time soon.  But, this morning, for the first time, as I worked on a Maj9 chord bebop pattern, I caught myself thinking, “that actually sounds pretty good!”  Which was gratifying enough to ensure I’ll be sticking with piano practice for the foreseeable future.  Sure, it’s slow and painful going.  But after even this short stretch, it’s amazing how fast progress adds up when you chip away at something day in and day out.

TWO

Back in the summer of 2015, after eight years of marriage, I found myself suddenly and unexpectedly single.  Friends and family argued it was for the best, but it still felt like a gut punch.  So I wallowed for a few months.  And then, I got up, shook myself off, and decided to head out on some dates.

The last time I had been single, online dating was still very much in its infancy.  But by 2015, there were more dating sites than I could count.  Over the years, however, I had always loved OK Trends, the great data science / dating psychology blog penned by the founders of OK Cupid.  So, that seeming as good a choice as any, I signed up.

Like other dating sites, OK Cupid allowed users to post pictures, profiles, and personal specifics (age, location, etc.).  But, uniquely, it also presented a huge battery of multiple choice questions.  The queries (like “how often do you make your bed?” or “in a certain light, wouldn’t nuclear war be exciting?”) ran the gamut of relationship-relevant topics, from values and lifestyle, to spirituality and sex.  To sign up for the site, you needed to answer a first 25 or so questions.  Then, as you browsed the site, you could see the full list of questions that any other user had answered. But – and here was the brilliant stroke – if you wanted to see how someone had *answered* any of those questions, you needed to answer (or have already answered) the same question yourself.  Pretty quickly, just by browsing through others’ profiles, most users amassed hundreds of answers.

For each question, OKC also asked which responses you’d accept from a partner, and how important the question was to you in choosing a partner.  From which information the site could use a Bayesian algorithm, and kick out a ‘match score’ between any two users.  In my experience, the algorithm was impressively spot-on.  Anyone with whom I matched at 80% or up would make for a totally pleasant date; above 90%, and it seemed like there might be relationship potential.

So I was particularly intrigued to discover a very cute redhead with whom I was a ‘perfect’ 99% match (the site’s highest possible score).

I spent far too much time crafting an effortlessly casual first message to her.  And, miraculously (even more so once I eventually saw the daily deluge of messages she received, and to how few of those she responded), she quickly wrote back.  After a couple of email exchanges, we set a date for the next week: drinks at a wine bar in the West Village.

I have to admit, I had a crush on her before we even met live – enough so that I spent much of the week nervous that she would cancel.  But, she showed up.  Even prettier in person, she also turned out to be funny, articulate, smart, and well-read.  She had recently moved to NYC after finishing a masters degree in classical vocal performance, so we overlapped on a love of music, and of art of all kinds.  But she was also sporty and outdoorsy, read existentialist philosophy for fun, was a foodie and a dog-lover, dreamed of both adventurous international travel and weekend afternoons on NYC beaches just a subway ride away.  She kept up with my drinking, and my mile-a-minute talking style, matching both in spades.  I was pretty much smitten right away.

On our third or fourth date, we headed to a rock concert at Bowery Ballroom, stopping for dinner before at Freeman’s, a great semi-secret restaurant nearby.  According to her OKC profile, she was “mostly vegetarian,” so I started suggesting veggie-based dishes that we might share. What looked good to her? “The filet mignon.”  But didn’t her profile say she was a vegetarian?  “Well,” she smiled, “it does say mostly.”

After a month or two, we were spending more and more time together.  One evening, sitting together on the couch, I tried to ask, basically, if she would be my girlfriend.  Except I liked her so much that my brain sort of melted down in the process, and I became a completely inarticulate, babbling moron.  I’m pretty sure she had absolutely no idea what I was asking, but she stuck around nonetheless.  We started seeing each other even more frequently.  We headed off to Atlantic City for a long weekend; though the city was terrible (as my brother accurately describes it, “Vegas in a trash can”), we had a truly excellent time together, and I was sad to drop her off at her own apartment at the end, even after dozens and dozens of hours straight in each other’s company.  For Valentine’s day, based on her long-standing love of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we headed to Montauk.  She found a Clementine-colored hoodie, and, true to the film, even managed to get a mug custom-printed with her photo as a Valentine’s gift.

We started knocking off hikes and climbs of the tallest peaks within driving / training distance of NYC.  We ate our way around NYC, dining in holes-in-the-wall (hole-in-the-walls?) and fine establishments (like a birthday dinner at Contra; along with the truly excellent wine flight, perhaps the finest meal of my life).  We ran the Hudson River trail, cooked brunch, went to jazz shows and art museums, got lost in the stacks of the Strand (like any bookstore, a dangerous place to bring her, as she invariably refuses to leave).

Somewhere along the way, she apparently agreed to my inarticulate ‘let’s go steady’ request, as we moved in together.  My brother (who loves her, as does my whole family), still calls her Jess 99 at times, in honor of that original 99% OK Cupid score.  And, indeed, she’s as perfect a match for me as I could ever hope to find.  Smart, funny, literate, thoughtful, beautiful, articulate, kind.

As of today (or maybe yesterday? it’s a matter of some record-keeping dispute), Jess and I are now two years in, and going strong.  I am, in short, exceedingly in love, and unbelievably lucky to have found her.  Further special thanks go to the fine folks at OKC for the assist; without a doubt, she remains the best online shopping I’ve ever done.

Winning

“Nirvana is not the distant other shore – it’s right here.  Of course, we are usually sort of somewhere else.  But, as in some prize drawings, you must be present to win.”

– Lama Surya Das

It’s a Lie

This morning, I arrived at the gym feeling like crap.  Tired, sluggish, weak; mostly, I just wanted to go home and get back into bed.  Even carrying the empty bar felt hard.  As a friend used to joke, it seemed like a ‘heavy gravity day.’

Despite my own whiny objections, I buckled down, and starting lifting according to plan.  Lo and behold, I still felt like crap.  But I also managed to hit every one of my lifts.

In the bodybuilding world, a lot of gurus push the idea of “instinctive training” – crafting each day’s workout on the fly, based on what your body tells you it needs.  And, indeed, for some small set of experienced professional bodybuilders, that approach (plus a bucket-full of steroids) seems to work wonders.  For pretty much everyone else, it quickly devolves into blindly wandering the gym, randomly doing whatever exercise someone else happened to have just done nearby.

To be sure, there’s real value in listening to your body.  Don’t be stupid, and if something hurts, stop.  (Or, to quote the orthopedic advice of my old friend and famed physical therapist Kelly Starrett: “If it feels sketchy, it is sketchy.”)  But, for the most part, when people skip workouts, reduce the weight on a lift, or cut the speed or distance on a swim, bike, or run, it’s mostly because they just don’t feel like doing it.

That’s one of the best reasons to hire a good coach: with the distance of an outside perspective, it’s easier to craft workouts based on what’s beneficial, rather than on just what you’d like to do.  Even without a coach, you can simulate some of that yourself (as I do the roughly 50% of the time I write my own programming), by separating the planning and doing by at least several days in time; a week in advance, I’ll wisely assign myself something valuable but unpleasant that I’d otherwise never have chosen the day of.

But, however you get there, ideally, when a workout comes around, you should be able to turn off your brain, and power through.  Even if, like me this morning, you’re not sure you can pull it off.  In fact, you might be right.  But, more often, you’ll be surprised by how well things go once you get started.  As the great weightlifting coach John Broz once told me: “just pick up the weight, bro; how you feel is a lie.”

DUMB

Over the weekend, I attended a workshop that, at one point, covered the SMART Goals framework: good goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Resourced, and Time-Limited.  I’ve seen the SMART rubric about a thousand times before, and there’s good research that backs it up. But, increasingly, new research – and my own experience, as long-standing readers here are doubtless sick of hearing – indicates that, for many of the things we want in life, habits are actually more powerful and effective than goals.

Goals work best when they’re essentially big projects, with discrete endpoints.  Let’s say you want to rebuild your grandfather’s WWII motorcycle.  Great!  That’s a perfect goal, as it breaks neatly into sub-goals, then into doable tasks in turn.

But imagine, instead, that you want to write a novel, lose 30 pounds, learn Spanish, or run a marathon.  For any of those pursuits, it’s less clear what sub-goals look like, aside from just smaller versions of the same thing (write half a novel, lose ten pounds, etc.).  As a result, those kinds of projects often yield better to just regularly chipping away.  To take the first example, a more effective approach might be to write three pages today, then three pages tomorrow, and then three pages the day after that.  In other words, a novel-writing habit.

So, goals have their place, as do habits.  But while goals have a snappy acronym (SMART!), habits don’t seem to have gotten similar love.  To give them a fighting chance, I took the liberty of coining them a framework of their own: The DUMB Habit.

To illustrate, let’s look at a habit you hopefully already practice – brushing your teeth – as well as a few other examples.  Off we go:

First, a good habit is DURABLE.  In other words, it’s something you could still be doing, productively, six months (or six years) down the line.  That’s the primary factor that differentiates a habit from a goal.  For your grandfather’s motorcycle, you might need to polish the rust off the fender today, but in a few weeks, that task would neither be needed or relevant.  Whereas you can brush your teeth tonight, and you can brush them in ten years; you can do it for however long you have (and want to keep) your teeth.  So, for example, to keep my Italian sharp, for years I used Google news to find and read one or two of the day’s top articles in Italian each morning.  It took just a few minutes, but it forced me to use the Italian part of my brain intensively, in a real-world sort of way, and kept the language fluent.  As long as there was still news in the world, and Italian papers were still publishing, the habit remained DURABLE and evergreen.

Second, a good habit is USEFUL.  Or, put another way, a good habit has a payoff high enough to warrant the time spent on it.  Why do you brush your teeth every morning and night?  Because you’d strongly prefer not to lose those teeth, or have them turn black, riddled with cavities.  To that end, four minutes daily seems a reasonable price.  Weighing the value of habits is important, because while each is often small in isolation, as you take on more of them, they start to pile up.  It’s surprisingly easy to reach the point where you’re spending two hours out of each day on the full stack.  If all of your habits are worth their weight, great.  But it’s also worth occasionally auditing them, just in case some are no longer as relevant. Though I read those Italian articles for years, per the prior example, at some point, without any trips to Italy coming up, without any Italian speakers in my daily orbit, and with a lot other work on my plate, I decided it simply wasn’t worth the time, and I let that habit drop.  But, whether it’s an old habit or a new one, the calculus is the same: a good habit has to have a future payoff big enough to warrant the daily commitment of time; a good habit has to be USEFUL enough to sustain.

Third, a good habit is MEMORABLE, in at least one of two ways.  A lot of habits benefit from having a ‘cue’ – a place, time, or triggering event that reminds you to enact the habit.  Most people brush their teeth as soon as they get up, and right before they go to bed.  Wake up => brush teeth.  An easy, memorable cue.  Other habits, however, are inherently more amorphous.  Let’s say, for example, that you want to cut back on your drinking.  I’ve had a number off friends successfully achieve that by instituting a ‘glass ceiling’: they set a hard rule that they stop after two drinks in a given day.  (Some even count from midnight to midnight, so if they’re out partying into the wee hours on a special occasion, they can hit four drinks – two before midnight, and two after – by ‘using up’ the following day’s drinks.)  Obviously, there’s no specific magic to the ‘glass ceiling’ rule, but the name itself is stupidly catchy and memorable. “Sorry, I can’t have another, I already hit my glass ceiling” is somehow easier for your brain to latch on to – both as an explanation to others, and as an explanation to yourself – than just ‘I should cut back.’   So, whether your habit is tied to a cue, or has a name/catchphrase that lets you rehearse the idea in your mind, a good habit is MEMORABLE enough that you actually remember to do it at the right time.

Finally, a good habit is BEHAVIORAL – it’s a simple, concrete action.  You shouldn’t have to puzzle through what to do when the time comes; instead, you should be able to jump in and get to work.  Tooth brushing?  Put some paste on the brush, add some water, then scrub for two minutes.  Voila.  Whereas something like “eat healthier” isn’t really a clear habit.  Tomorrow, when you sit down for breakfast, you still may not know what to eat.  What is the specific action there?  That’s part of why, in my experience, intermittent fasting (or “IF”) turns out to be an extremely effective and sustainable diet approach for many people.  IF is based around a single, simple behavior: when you would normally sit down for breakfast tomorrow, don’t.  In short, after your last meal of the day, wait a minimum of 14 hours for women or 16 hours for men (I’ll spare you the long, hormone-based rationale behind the different numbers) until you eat again the following day.  Let’s say I finish dinner at 9pm.  Great; then I don’t eat until lunch the next day at 1pm.  That’s the whole thing.  But, miraculously, that has a slew of health and body composition benefits.  In other word, it’s a simple, BEHAVIORAL solution to the thorny problem of a healthy diet.

So, DUMB: Durable, Useful, Memorable, Behavioral.  If you’d like to make a change in your life, see if you can get there with a new habit that fits those four criteria.  Ironically enough, it’s a pretty smart approach.

Harvest Moon

We’re midway through the Jewish holiday of Sukkot – a harvest festival celebrated by building a hut (a ‘sukkah’) outdoors, and then dining, relaxing, and celebrating in it as much as possible over the course of a week.  It’s a beautiful holiday, especially right on the heels of Rosh Hoshanah (the Jewish new year).  The world has been created, and now we have to create something out of the world.

 

But Jews aren’t unique in celebrating a harvest festival at this time of the year – many cultures do the world over, including America, with Thanksgiving next month.  And also, it turns out, China, which celebrates a Harvest Moon Festival on the same lunar calendar date (aligned with the same full moon) as Sukkot.

 

I’ve been (very slowly and painfully) learning some Chinese, and my tutor Michael Fu shared with me this week a pair of 5th Century Tang Dynasty poems linked to the festival.  Traditionally, the Harvest Moon evokes reunion, as with the harvest, workers return home after months away in the fields.

 

Each poem is a 5×4 grid of characters, and Michael took the time to walk me through them literally, one by one.  In that form, the lines are something like: “window light in-front-of through seeing,” so it took a bit of puzzling for me to extract English translations that Michael thumbed up as capturing the meaning and spirit.

 

The first was written anonymously, the second by Ching Dao Lee, a famous poet of the era, who wrote the below to her fiancé, a young captain in one of the era’s many wars:

 

1.

Outside my window,
I see a bright light,
and wonder if it is frost on the ground.
Looking up, I see it is the full moon;
I bow my head, and think of home.

 

2.

Dearest:
You are at the head of this great river,
and I am down where it reaches the sea.
I think of you day and night,
and though we cannot yet be together,
we may still drink from the river: the same water.

 

 

 

Own It

Back when I was in college, starting my first company, I read every business book I could get my hands on.  For a several-year spree, I made my way through all of the business classics.  And then for several years after that, I still kept up with new bestsellers.

But, over time, I found myself reading fewer and fewer business books.  In part, because most didn’t really have anything new to say.  And, in part, because most were terribly, terribly written – a chapter’s worth of ideas stretched to hundreds of pages through needless repetition and bland anecdote filler.

Sure, I discovered a handful of great volumes in the past decade – like Scaling Up and The Lean Startup– that I re-read, refer back to, and recommend. But, mostly, I was out of the business book game.

That’s why, though it was recommended by several different mutual friends, I was initially reluctant to read Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership.  The book extends the lessons Jocko and his co-author Leif Babson learned as Navy SEALs (both as commanders in Iraq, and then leading the SEAL’s officer training program back stateside) to the business and not-for-profit world, where they’d been consulting for several years.  As much as I steer clear of most business books, I tend to skip pretty much all military history books.  So, despite thinking very highly of Jocko, his book seemed like a total miss for me.

But since it was published and climbed the bestseller lists, I kept hearing about it – whether from articles and podcasts, or colleagues and friends.  So earlier this month, I decided to finally give it a read.

And, in short, I’ve very glad I did.  It’s the first business book in a couple of years that I would actually recommend.

Further, though it’s pitched to a corporate audience, Extreme Ownership is actually about leadership in the broadest sense.  Anyone who works with other people, on pretty much anything, would probably benefit from the book’s insights.

Each chapter follows a simple, standard structure: a story from the authors’ time as SEALs (whether coaching young officers through a training boat race in San Diego, or rescuing hostages in Ramadi), a broader principle drawn from the story, and then an example of how that principle applied in their civilian consulting work.

The chapters are concise, engaging, and fluff-free.  And all of them gave me food for thought.  Fundamentally, they each boil down to the titular idea of extreme ownership – taking responsibility for everything that happens around you, even if it seems like it’s out of your direct control.  If your subordinates are dropping the ball, perhaps it’s because you’re not sufficiently helping them get things done; if your boss is constantly demanding updates and micro-managing, perhaps you’re not providing proactive enough upstream communication; and if you’re caught flat-footed by an unforeseen move by a competitor or in the market, maybe you didn’t deeply enough consider and prepare contingency plans.

Blaming everyone around you is a common default – in the business world, and the world as a whole.  Jocko and Leif make a strong case for taking the opposite approach – pointing the finger at yourself first, then building positive strategies and responses based firmly in the belief that the buck, at all times, stops with you.

As compared to Scaling Up or Lean Startup, the book falls short in providing a specific, actionable business road map.  But it’s also much broader in focus than either of those two.  While they’re only useful if you’re starting and quickly growing a company, <i>Extreme Ownership</i> is applicable to basically everyone.

In summary: Extreme Ownership – two thumbs up, and definitely worth the read.

Quotidien

This Thursday and Friday, Jews around the world gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.  And though there are a slew of customs and commandments associated with the holiday, there’s one that stands above all the rest: the commandment to hear the blowing of the shofar, the simple bugle made from a hollowed-out ram’s horn.  The shofar’s blast is a bracing sound, a sort of primal cry, and it’s meant to ‘wake up’ the soul, in preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of judgment, ten days later.

If you can play the trumpet, you can play the shofar.  So, as in a handful of prior years past, I was asked to be the Ba’al Tekiah, the shofar blower, at this year’s Rosh Hashanah services.

But I was also asked to come in every morning for the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew month of Elul, to play the shofar then, too.  While hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah itself is a commandment, doing so for the month leading up is simply a custom – albeit one that’s stood for thousands of years.  Essentially, it’s meant to be a sort of warm-up lap for the main new year’s day event, a way to pre-awaken the soul.

I agreed to help out.  So, for the past month, early every morning, I found myself standing in the synagogue sanctuary, shofar in hand.  It was, without a doubt, the longest stretch of morning prayer attendance I had ever clocked (or considered) in my life.

By the end of the month, I thought I’d be happy to drop that responsibility from my already full morning routine.  But I found myself yesterday evening, as I played the final shofar blasts that brought the Rosh Hashanah service to a close, thinking it now seemed slightly strange that I didn’t need to attend this coming week.

After the service, helping to clean up, I ended up thumbing through a book of Jewish writings, and came across a story I knew well about Rabbi Akiva:

Despite eventually becoming one of the super-stars of the Talmud, by age 40, Akiva was still illiterate.  Then, one day, as he stood near the mouth of a well, he noticed a hollowed out stone that was used to hold drawn water.  How had it been hollowed out, he wondered aloud.  From water falling on the stone, day after day, he was told.  Which led Akiva to famously reason, “if water can wear away a hard stone, then surely the words of the Torah can carve a way into my heart.”  That set him on his late-life learning path, on the way to eventual greatness.

But what I hadn’t seen before was a response to that story, from Rabbi Israel Salanter in the 18th century: “The waters carved the stone only because it fell drop after drop, year after year, without pause. Had the accumulated water all poured down at once in a powerful stream, it would have slipped off the rock without leaving a trace.”

As I’ve written about before, I’m increasingly convinced that anything worth doing is worth doing every day.  So, with my shofar experience fresh in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I might intregrate some kind of daily Jewish practice into my morning routine (even if it’s one that doesn’t involve schlepping to the synagogue every day).

More broadly, between now and Yom Kippur, I’ve resolved to think about my daily practices and habits in general.  About the kind of person I want to be, about what I want to have accomplished, by next Rosh Hashanah.  And, working backwards from those questions, about the small things I need to do, every single day throughout the whole year, to make it happen.

So: shana tova u’metukah – a good and sweet year to you all.  May you grow through it, day by day.

Process, Results

A few days ago, I ran into a friend at the gym. He’s an executive in his mid-50’s, a guy in good shape who takes fitness seriously. When I saw him, he had 315 pounds racked for a back squat. But, he told me, his knees had recently been acting up on heavy squat days. Could I watch the next set, he asked.

I did. And sure enough, my friend’s form was atrocious. Valgus knees and ankles, forward weight shift over his toes, depth about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way to parallel.

“That was a disaster,” I told him.

“Oh, I know,” he replied. “But if I squat with good form, I can’t lift nearly as much weight.”

He was willing to humor me for the sake of his knees, however, so we went back to the basics. Beginning with a 45 pound dumbbell goblet squat, drilling until it looked perfect. Then we went back to an empty barbell, until that looked perfect, too. And then we added weight, ten pounds at a time.

At 135 pounds, his squat looked great.
At 145, it was back to disaster.

“If you want to fix your knee issue,” I told him, “then squat with 135 pounds next time, and only add weight in subsequent sessions, no more than ten pounds from one session to the next, if your squat form still looks this pretty.”

At which point he balked.
“I can’t do that!” he exclaimed. “The guys here will think I can only squat 135 pounds.”
“And they’d be correct,” I told him. “That’s how much you can squat right.”

Still, I understood my friend’s concern. Six months ago, I tweaked my shoulder while bench pressing. For two weeks after, it hurt every time I lifted my arm above my head. And just when I thought it was getting better, concluded I could just power through, I benched again and tweaked it a second time.

So, taking my own medicine, I went back to ground zero. I worked face-pulls, bottom-up kettlebell presses, scapular drills, perfect bench press reps with just the empty bar. And then I slowly built back up, in ten-pound jumps, one workout to the next.

At the end of those six months, I’m now back to using more weight than I was before, and my shoulder feels great. But for the first few months, I dreaded seeing anyone I knew at the gym when I was building back up. Members and trainers I was friendly with would walk past, and I had a nearly irrepressible urge to explain, disclaim.

“Rehab,” I would tell them, gesturing sheepishly at my nearly empty bar.

It’s a hard impulse to fight, and one I see people struggle with all the time. Most people training in any gym are, first and foremost, trying to look cool while they’re training. But there’s a difference between developing a skill, and demonstrating it. Almost by definition, when you’re learning something new, or building strength or endurance, you make progress only when you’re right at your limit, out of your depth, looking terrible and incompetent, but challenging yourself enough to grow.

Which leads to a fundamental choice: you can either impress your buddies in< the gym with your performance, or you can impress the rest of the world later with your results. Put differently, you can look good while you’re working out, or you can look good from your working out.

So choose. Because, in my experience, you can’t really have both.