Do You Want to Know A Secret? Listen…


What would you reply if someone asked you, “What’s the secret to a happy life? What’s the single most important life skill that I should develop?” Would you say it was discipline, persistence, conscientiousness? How about compassion, gratitude, or humility? Would you suggest they develop their empathy or instead focus on being as efficient as possible? I’m increasingly of the opinion that listening is the most critical core life skill. Listening acts as an enabler and foundational component for most of the other useful life skills.

Listening showed up at the top of the list of “best advice” when I analyzed CNN Money’s articles on the topic in Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom. Listening is also typically mentioned or lauded by anyone teaching leadership or communication skills. For example, in How To Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie encourages the reader to be a good listener, let the other person do a great deal of the talking, and try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Likewise, one of Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is to “Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” Of course, how can you possibly understand someone else if you haven’t listened to them?

Few would argue the importance of listening, but what makes it critical and foundational? What is the power of listening? Aside from the many obvious benefits, like exposing you to a broad range of ideas, building trust and rapport, and establishing a common narrative, listening also sets you up to build and develop the other life skills that in turn make you happier, healthier, and more productive. Here’s how…

Awareness and Agility

On the surface, listening is just “paying attention to sound,” but of course there is much more to it than that. Auditory listening is just one manifestation of a more general type of listening, namely being aware, being conscious, and paying attention. As I mentioned in Living the SWEET Life, Daily, awareness lets you short-circuit your habitual thought processes. This in turn leads to agility: the ability to rapidly adjust based on the current state of affairs, with little effort. Thus, listening, and paying attention in general, lets you be dynamic, limber, and agile. Awareness fundamentally allows you to be in the moment, consider all options, and actively self-correct.

To understand its power, it’s helpful to think about what listening is not. If you are not listening, then what are you doing? Usually, you are absorbed in your own thoughts. You are distracted, your attention is elsewhere, and not on the person who is trying to communicate with you. If you are not aware of what’s going on and being said, and you only check in haphazardly or reactively, the input to your decision making apparatus (i.e., your brain) is limited and biased, making it more difficult to react in a timely and appropriate manner. Why would you starve your brain of potentially useful information at the outset, without even considering it? Are your own thoughts really that important and productive?

Other Ways of Listening

If listening leads to agility in communication, imagine what it could do for you when you apply it to more than just conversations. What does that mean? Communicating with others is just one possible modality of gathering information about your world, and other people are just one source of information. You can get so much more from using all of your senses, and focusing not just on others, but yourself and your environment. For example, what if you decided to “listen” to what your nose and tongue were telling you, as you ate or even just as you walked down the street or met with another person? What if you could really absorb and be aware of everything in your visual field of view, including the facial expressions and body language of people you were talking to, as well as knowing exactly what’s around you physically, how it’s moving, and what it’s likely to do next? What if you decided to listen to your somatic sensations, really listen to your body? Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could sense the smallest twinge of pain or really be able to notice when some part of your body was inflamed, or be aware when your body has dumped cortisol and adrenaline into your bloodstream? Most importantly, what if you listened, really listened, to your own thoughts and emotions? You might be surprised, or even enlightened, by what you hear. This kind of awareness is not the stuff of superheroes and science fiction. It is achievable and, remarkably, not that difficult to learn, although it takes lots and lots of practice.

Becoming an Active Listener

We spend most of our lives learning to habitualize and ritualize our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. But this approach of laying down default behaviors and then strengthening them with repetition over time is exactly the opposite of what makes us most effective at dealing with the dynamic, changing world we live in. Listening, paying attention, and being aware of our inner and outer world, in every way possible, is what fundamentally enables us to be good communicators, effective leaders, and agile, facile contributors to ourselves and others. It places the conscious mind back into the loop. Listening is one of the few habits we would all do well to ingrain deep in our psyche.

Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to lose the habit of being a great listener. How do you learn to listen? It turns out to be disarmingly simple – learn to listen by practicing listening! For example, here’s a simple exercise you can do to practice auditory listening: whenever you are conversing 1-to-1 with someone, and you are about to inject your opinion, experience, amusing anecdote or advice, simply stop and hold it back. Let the other person continue until they’ve completely spoken their piece. Then (and only then) return the favor, but before expounding on your own personal thoughts, try to let the other person know you’ve heard them by simply summarizing what they’ve just said (this is sometimes called active listening), and let them respond. You may end up never getting to make your point, and that, in itself, is the point.

Inward Listening

It’s been said that the greatest gift you can give someone is your undivided attention. Imagine, then, the enormity of the gift of learning to listen to yourself. If you could hear and understand all of the activity going on in both your body and mind, you could be agile about adjusting to it, developing it, and improving it. This is what I meant earlier when I alluded to listening helping to make you happier, healthier, and more productive. True listening also involves developing the ability to attend to all sources of information (one’s self, others, one’s environment) from all modalities (senses, emotions, thoughts). Again, to learn to do this, you must practice. Luckily, this is already something that’s been well understood for thousands of years, and the techniques for practice are meditation and yoga. Or, if those sound too intimidating, just simply practicing mindfulness (it really is quite easy).

Discipline, persistence, conscientiousness, compassion, gratitude, humility, empathy and efficiency – all of these are laudable traits. And all of them are amplified by the agility imparted by listening and awareness. When will you start your listening practice? It’s easy, and only takes a few seconds or minutes each day. Here’s a recent article to help you get started. And here’s a Beatles song to inspire you…


So Now You’re a Wise Guy, eh?


The Wisdom 2.0 conference just wrapped up. If you haven’t heard of it, the goal of the conference is to address the question: “How can we live with wisdom, awareness, and compassion in the digital age?” This is probably the premier event for the mindfulness community in America. The speakers (and, for that matter, the attendees) are an eclectic mix of monks, neuroscientists, media moguls, psychologists, yogis, teachers, corporate leaders, and even an NFL trainer and a U.S. Congressman. The full schedule can be found here.

The premise of the conference is pretty simple: there are certain practices like meditation, yoga, and mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR), that we have borrowed or adapted from ancient traditions (that’s the “wisdom”) and are now able to scientifically prove their effectiveness on physical, mental, and emotional health. That’s a really good thing, because our health is getting worse and worse as we adopt more and more technology (smartphones, monoculture food, etc.), and the pharmaceutical path to health is fraught with innumerable pitfalls and traps. The hard part is getting the word out about these new, old techniques. The gathering was focused on strengthening the mindfulness community and encouraging people to take the actions to spread the good news.

As a data scientist, attending the conference was a bit of a departure for me, but I heeded my own oft-used advice: when in doubt, take the action that you would regret not taking later. My self-proclaimed goals for attending the conference were to: Listen, Learn, Connect, and Act. I did pretty well on the first two, and not so well on the second two. I’d love to be able to report that the conference was amazing and life-changing, and maybe eventually as some of it sinks in more deeply and I take actions based on what I follow up on, it will have been. But in the near term, I can only say that it was interesting, and worth my time.

There were a few talks that really shined for me, and made the conference especially worthwhile. Luckily, they were all videoed and made public on the conference website. Here are my quick-picks:

Here are the handful of quotes I chose to tweet, that also summarize the conference:

  • “You check your watch, and my God, it’s ‘now’ again!” Jon Kabat-Zin
  • “A team’s inability to focus often stems from ego.” Irene Au
  • “What are we giving our eulogizers to work with?” Arianna Huffington
  • “It’s much more fun to be curious than judgmental.” Jonathan Rosenfeld
  • “With all … that we are doing, wrap the ‘doing’ in ‘being’…and it will bring us back to being fully human.” Jon Kabat-Zin
  • “Onward, upward, and inward!” Arianna Huffington

Finally, my tweetable summary of the message I took away from the conference:

  • “We spend too much time living in rewind and fast-forward. Just hit play. And listen.” Chris LuVogt

I hope to expand on the importance of listening in a follow-up post soon. In the meantime, may you find peace and happiness. And yes, I do feel a little more wise after having attended, but “don’t call me Curly!” 😉



Thrice Filtered Leadership Wisdom


As I prepare to attend the Wisdom 2.0 conference next month, I’ve been thinking a little bit about how to go about extracting the sum total of all humankind’s wisdom from this vast collection of information we’ve created called the World Wide Web. It seems like it should be do-able, although likely not easy. After all, wisdom is just a final endpoint along the classic data, information, knowledge, wisdom progression, and we’re already well along the way to encoding all of human knowledge via artifacts like Wikipedia and Google’s Knowledge Graph. One logical starting place would be to crowdsource the collection of wisdom. In my experience, however, typical crowdsourcing solutions (think: Yelp or Netflix) suffer from a lack of appropriate weighting of votes. I’m much more satisfied with systems that rely on aggregating the knowledge of subject matter experts (e.g., Michelin or Rotten Tomatoes), rather than systems that try to discern a quality signal by collecting the wisdom of the crowds. You can think of these opinions as “twice filtered” – first by the SME’s, and then by the algorithm.

When CNN Money published The Best Advice I Ever Got and The Best of Our Best Advice, in which they polled seasoned and successful business leaders to offer up their most useful nuggets of wisdom, I took note – here was some already twice-filtered wisdom (first by the adviser and then the advisee). And while the anecdotes and backstories provided in those articles are interesting and make the wisdom more tangible, I wanted to see if there were any common themes across the 41 interviewees. I talked briefly about one technique I used to summarize all of this wisdom in A Simple Semi-Automatic Text Summarizer, but that analysis only scratched the surface and missed a few key themes. So I’ve dug into the articles more deeply, categorized and prioritized the largest themes, and present them below in order of importance – a third layer of filtering. It’s gratifying to see that many of the most important themes like listening, mastery, passion, strengths and limitations, and persistence are all topics I’ve touched on in other leadership articles in this blog. I hope to follow up and expand on many of these themes as well, but in the meantime, I just present the filtered and grouped key observations. (Note: I paraphrase many of the quotes, and I attribute the advice to the original adviser when I can, and not the advisee.)

1. Listening

  • Listen to your employees, be completely engaged when you do so. – Herb Kelleher, CEO Southwest Airlines
  • Almost everyone knows something or has some insight – listen before you speak. – father of David Boies, “Superlawyer”
  • Be open to listening to people. – mother of Herb Kelleher
  • It’s good to solicit your people’s opinions before you give them yours. – boss of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs
  • No one is interested in talking all night long about your business. Quit being a business bore and listen. – sister of Julian Robertson, Founder, Tiger Management
  • The best advice is often the most painful advice, and you have to trust the person who’s giving it to you. – Beth Comstock, SVP General Electric
  • Have a coach. They watch you and get you to be your best. A business coach is somebody who looks at something with another set of eyes, describes it to you in [his] words, and discusses how to approach the problem. – John Doerr, Venture Capitalist

2. Mastery

  • If you’re going to be significant at something, you’ve got to learn it from the ground up. – father of Ron Johnson, CEO JC Penney
  • Invest yourself in what you’re building in order for it to grow.  Talk about what was wrong, what was right, what was working, and what wasn’t. – father of Ellen Kullman, CEO DuPont
  • If you don’t perform, you’d better look for another job. – boss of Peter Drucker
  • Do your best today, think about tomorrow, and maybe dream a bit about the future. But doing your best in the present has to be the rule. – Colin Powell, Secretary of State
  • Don’t just accept or reject the null hypothesis, use the data to enhance your description of the world. – Prof. Harry Roberts, Univ. of Chicago
  • Your people will be very influenced by how you carry yourself under stress. – boss of Lloyd Blankfein, CEO Goldman Sachs

3. Respect

  • Show your co-workers and employer respect – at the very least, show up on time. – “Bigfoot”, friend of Anthony Bourdain, Chef
  • Practice the golden rule. – Vice Admiral Robert Kihune
  • People should be respected and trusted as people, not because of their position or title. Frequently, position or title do not reflect the true merits of a person. – mother of Herb Kelleher
  • Everything in business is about relationships (especially with customers), and you should never take them lightly. – David Jackson, Co-Founder Altos Computer

4. Passion

  • You should do what you’re good at, and do what you love. – Danny Meenan, Reporter
  • Don’t give up, and continue to follow your passion. – friend of Mika Brzezinski, co-host Morning Joe
  • Connect your passions to your career. – Scott Griffith, CEO Zipcar
  • Follow your own instincts, rather than the views of naysayers or others who see the world in a different way. – Ace Greenberg, Bear Stearns

5. Challenge yourself and your assumptions

  • Failing simply just leads you to the next great thing. – father of Sara Blakely, Founder Spanx
  • Successful people do not let lack of experience get in the way of taking on a new opportunity. – Sheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook
  • Break new barriers all the time. – Simen Agdestein, Chess Coach
  • When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’. – Prof. Alois Xavier Schmidt, City College of New York

6. Leveraging Strengths

  • Don’t let your ego or desire to succeed blind you to what you’re really good at. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • Take your employee’s strengths and find a place you could emphasize them, so it won’t seem as if your team is competing directly with one another. – Keith Reemtsma, Columbia University
  • Don’t try to change ordinary people into extraordinary ones – hire extraordinary people in the first place. – Phil Knight, Nike co-founder

7. Understanding Limitations

  • Develop your ability to leave your own ego at the door and to recognize the skills and traits you don’t possess and that you need to build a world-class organization. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • It is better to be alive [and a] little weak than [to] be dead in good health. (98% perfect and on time, rather than 100% too late). – Gérard Pélisson, CEO Accor Hotels
  • Fix the things you can change and don’t worry about the things you can’t. – Alain Chuard, Co-Founder Wildfire
  • None of us are smarter than the markets. – Jack Bogle, Vanguard Founder

8. Persistence

  • You can’t always control what happens to you in a game or in life, but you can control how you respond — you should never quit. – mother of John Hickenlooper, Gov. of Colorado
  • Don’t give up, and continue to follow your passion. When you fail or things turn for the worse, there will be a day when you realize this was the best thing that could happen to you. – friend of Mika Brzezinski, co-host Morning Joe

9. Position for Growth

  • Invest ahead of the growth curve. Think beyond the status quo in terms of the skill base, the experience, and the quality of the people around you. – Warren Bennis, Scholar
  • Invest your time in growth businesses, not non-growth. – Arthur Levitt, Chairman American Stock Exchange

10. And more…

  • First, get the cow out of the ditch. Second, find out how the cow got into the ditch. Third, make sure you do whatever it takes so the cow doesn’t go into the ditch again. – Albert C. Black Jr., CEO On-Target Supplies & Logistics
  • Money, pedigree, and valuable relationships create leverage, but so do ideas. So you need to write – put what’s in your mind on paper.  – Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman, MCA
  • Incorporate volunteerism in your company, for the benefit of your employees. – Alan Hassenfeld, CEO Hasbro



10 Techniques for a Successful Career


Last year, I had the great honor and privilege of leading a small team of newly hired engineers at Google. Towards the end of the year, as the team began to break up and shift onto other projects, I wanted to summarize my “best advice” for them as they headed off on their own, so I wrote a 10 step guide for career success at Google. As I read over the advice, however, it became apparent that most of it was generally applicable to all sorts of jobs, so I’ve decided to adapt it slightly and publish it here.

  1. Track your accomplishments daily, weekly, and quarterly. A simple daily log, weekly summary, and quarterly progress report are all you need. Keep them as short as possible without missing any important work you have done. Whenever possible, include direct references or hyperlinks to any supporting detailed documentation you produced. You will be amazed at how much you’ve accomplished when you look back. You will also be amazed how easy it will be to make the case for promotion or update your resume and prepare for a change in jobs. You may be tempted to use a tool to automate this tracking – don’t, that defeats the whole purpose. Keep it manual.

  2. Become the go-to person for something, and then obsolete yourself. Repeat. And when it’s time to move on, as the stock market saying goes: buy (into new projects or companies) low, and sell (yourself to the next one) high. In other words, move on when you’ve accomplished the bulk of what you can contribute on a project and have automated yourself out of a job, and a new project has a lot of low hanging fruit for you to pick. Build a niche, but don’t let yourself get pigeonholed, and don’t hold on to something because you are familiar with it. Remember: eventually, all work is thrown away. Learn to let go.

  3. Focus on the customer, and all else (including your career) will follow. To loosely paraphrase the Buddha, grasping (e.g., for promotion or other recognition) invariably leads to suffering and the opposite of the intended effect. Learn to let go of your ego and focus on the greater good. You will naturally excel and achieve without even thinking about it.

  4. Identify your strengths and leverage them extensively. The book Now, Discover Your Strengths can help you do this. Likewise, identify your weaknesses, and either a) shore them up, or b) learn workarounds. Get to know yourself well enough to know which of these two approaches you should take for any given weakness. Above all, be honest with yourself.

  5. Read, read, read, and never stop learning. Read whatever interests you, but choose your reading material wisely, with a focus on quality. Don’t read crap, and don’t read too narrowly. If someone you respect recommends a book or article, try to read it with an open mind. If you like something you’ve read, re-read it. To help get you started:

    1. Read and internalize the book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

    2. Read and internalize the book: How to Win Friends and Influence People.

  6. Listen. Listen to your customers, your manager, your executives, your teammates, and anyone else you work with. Try to understand where they are coming from, ask questions, and always assume the best intentions. Let them finish talking before you chime in. You will be amazed at what you learn, and how it will help shape and expand your view.

  7. Consciously choose your manager. If your manager is not great, let them know (also let them know if they are great!). If they don’t change for the better, let their manager know, and start looking for something new. Your career is too short to spend years under someone who can’t help you grow.

  8. Continually assess your situation. Ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing a) leveraging my strengths, b) something I enjoy, and c) something I am passionate about?” If the answer is no, start taking steps towards correcting the deficiencies. Be open to reinventing yourself in the process.

  9. Realistically measure your stress level, and learn how to manage it. You’re probably subject to a lot more stress than you think. Just living in the modern world is probably more stress than the human body was designed to handle. Add to that life in the modern workplace, and you’ll understand why there are so many people suffering directly and indirectly from the effects of stress. Try out many techniques and see what works for you (exercise, yoga, massage, meditation, etc.).

  10. Don’t forget your family and friends. It’s easy to let work become your life, but your health and happiness depend critically on your close personal relationships. Have a life outside of work. Actively manage your relationships, and constantly renew the ones you value most. If you have a reasonably active social life, you’ll be much happier and productive at work.

(Oh, this list goes up to 11….)

11. Take a course on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. For example, there is one offered by the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Attend all sessions and do your homework, mindfully and diligently. Don’t let it end there – internalize what the class teaches, and practice practice practice. The awareness, mindfulness and emotional intelligence you develop will be the keys to dramatically improving your productivity and happiness.

Happy New Year, and best of luck in your career of choice!




Living the SWEET Life, Daily


As the year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting and renewing my resolve to improve myself. In this post, I’d like to share a simple yet unbelievably powerful technique I use that helps me stay on track, focused on the right things, and always improving. The key is simple: manually track your daily activities to help build them into healthy habits.

Habits and Awareness

What you think and believe defines who you are to the rest of society, as your thoughts manifest themselves in actions through the process of motivation. But as Gandhi’s quote above alludes, that’s only half of the story. Your beliefs, thoughts, words, and actions also define who you are to yourself through the solidifying process of habituation. In Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions, I was inspired by Gandhi and talked about how by taking conscious effort, you can use the natural progression of motivation to encourage the kinds of positive action you might otherwise find difficult. In this article, I’ll talk about the rest of the story: how by taking a conscious effort during the process of habituation, you can ultimately affect your values and your destiny.

When people talk about habits, they typically speak mostly of small actions like “leaving the cap off the toothpaste” or “shuffling my feet when I walk.” While these can be habits, this view downplays the importance and strength of habits in our daily lives. A habit is any action, speech, thought, or belief which represents a default, one which you will naturally exhibit given the right situation or stimulus. As such, habits cover a wide range of human activity. Showering every evening before going to bed can be a habit. Always using the phrase, “Let’s get the show on the road!” when trying to motivate your children to head out the door could be another habit. But habits can be more subtle, like automatically thinking “that [insert gender/ethnicity/religion/age] person is probably up to no good,” or feeling a sense of resentment when your boss gives you something extra to do, or believing that someone is selfish when they cut you off in line at the grocery store.

Some habits are naturally healthy, others are mostly harmless, and some are naturally unhealthy, but all habits are learned. This is great news because it means that you can actively learn good habits and likewise actively unlearn bad ones. But how does one go about systematically making or breaking a habit? And which habits should we learn?

Because habitual behavior happens by default, the first step in taking control of your habits is awareness. How can you possibly decide to take an action or not take an action, unless you are aware of what you are doing? Awareness lets you short-circuit the default path. Once you do that, you can make your decisions consciously and in line with your specific goals. In other words, you can exercise willpower.

One way to learn awareness is through meditation. When you meditate, you train yourself to focus on your object of meditation (usually, your breath), and return to it if you should stray. This is made possible by an awareness of the self, and a development of meta-attention – the ability to pay attention to what you are paying attention to. Learning to meditate will absolutely help you build or break habits, but meditation takes time to learn, and ideally should itself be a habit.

Daily Tracking

Another way to build awareness is through daily tracking. The idea is quite simple: pick the actions you want to reinforce, and every evening, write down whether you were successful in taking the right path for each action for that day. That’s it. If this sounds familiar from my recent post on sleep, you’re right – it’s exactly the same idea, only now we apply it to many different activities. Here’s some advice I offered a friend who recently asked me about how to start tracking:

  • Start small – just a few things (like 3) to track. (See below for some ideas of what to track, like eating well, sleeping well, exercising.)

  • Start easy – with things you are currently failing at but are just this close to doing. Tracking things you already do well has little immediate benefit, and tracking things you really suck at can be demoralizing at first. You can add these things later, after you’ve made tracking itself a habit.

  • Start uncomplicated – give yourself a pass/fail. As Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Mentally define what a pass is for each activity, and stick to that definition. After a few months, you can change the definition if you need to (ideally making it more strict).

  • Important: do not rely on software/hardware to do the tracking for you, or if you do (e.g., pedometer or Fitbit), make sure you transcribe the numbers into your tracking sheet manually. If you just let the computer track for you, you are no longer mindful of that activity. The whole point of tracking is to give yourself daily reminders and build awareness.

  • Just as in meditation, rest assured that you will fail, and when you do, gently bring your focus back towards achieving your daily goal, without judgment. This is the hardest thing for many people to do, but it is the most important part. (By the way, meditation helps you develop this skill.)

When I first started tracking, my tracking sheet was just a sticky note – and that’s all you really need. Here’s one from a few years back, where I was tracking eating, exercising and connecting (socially).

Of course, it may be easier for you to use an electronic medium, and for that I recommend starting with a simple spreadsheet: one row for each day, and one column for each thing you want to track. Every day/night, simply enter a 1 or 0. As time goes on, you can make it more complicated. For example, I added graphs, I track 7-day moving averages, and I define complicated functions that automatically translate things like “number of steps” into a score between 0 and 1. But those are just bells and whistles. The above is the core.

Daily tracking is such a simple idea, and is really easy to do. Its power comes from the fact that it encourages you to review your day, and hold yourself accountable for your actions. After a short time tracking, you’ll soon find yourself thinking ahead to your “sticky note time” when making decisions throughout the day (like whether to drink that soda, or whether to step out for a 30 minute walk). Likewise, as time progresses, you’ll use your “sticky note time” to encourage yourself to take actions (like, setting up that lunch date with an old friend). So you can see why I stress the manual part of tracking – if your phone or Fitbit is automatically keeping track of your steps taken and calories burned, there’s no reason for you to do it, and you’ll lose the awareness you need to be able to break out of your defaults.

When you first start, you may find that it helps to reward yourself for your successes (say, by linking your monthly point total to something you enjoy). If you take this route, make sure your reward is not something that would otherwise cause you to “lose a point.” It’s also not uncommon, at least initially, to criticize yourself when you fail. Don’t make that mistake. You are measuring yourself, not judging yourself. Cultivate a dispassionate attitude towards your failures – you will probably fail more often than you succeed, at least at first.

What to Track – The 5 Pillars of the SWEET Life

Although you can use tracking to be conscious about any kind of habit, I believe it becomes most powerful when you apply it to your health. After all, as the saying goes, without your health you have nothing, or to put it more positively, “The first wealth is health” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). By health, I don’t just mean physical health, although that is a large and critical component of your overall health. To quote my high school health teacher, Jim Spoerl, “Health is optimal physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional fitness for full, fruitful, creative, and spiritual living.” Having a healthy mind, body, and soul provides the foundation for happiness and a meaningful life, so making health a habit can have profound implications for all areas of your life.

My wife and I have been fine-tuning a tracking system over the last several years that works for us. We call it “The SWEET Life.” SWEET is an acronym for the five key elements of health: Sleep, Work, Exercise, Eating well, and connecTing with your Tribe. Sleep, Exercise, and Eating well are the three pillars of physical health. Work and connecTing are the pillars for mental and emotional health. I’ve also recently added meditation as a form of mental exercise.

Tracking the three physical pillars provides an easy and obvious starting point if you’re just beginning to track. Confucius once said, “To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” To which I would humbly add, “To put our hearts (and minds) right, we must first put our body in good order.” The mind-body connection is so important, yet all too often self-improvement advice skips over the physical and jumps right into the mental. If your body is not healthy, keeping your mind healthy can become too challenging. Also, the techniques and skills you develop when getting your body healthy will naturally carry over to your mental and emotional efforts.

Before you begin, you have to define for each pillar what it means to succeed on a daily basis. This definition of success is necessarily very personal and relative, but it’s critical that you spend a few minutes to get this straight in your head or on paper in the most objective way you can. Here are some guidelines:

  • Sleep: Establish your sleep baseline and make this your goal. See: Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep.

  • Eat: Get clear in your head what healthy food is and what unhealthy food is. If you eat any unhealthy food on a given day, you don’t get to count that day as a success. Stay tuned here, I’ll be writing a blog post about how to eat healthy.

  • Exercise: Spend 20-30 minutes doing something that makes you sweat a little. (Hint: to make this easier, choose things that you enjoy doing. I like walks, so I park my car 20 minutes walking distance from my office, and I don’t even have to think about whether I’ll get my daily exercise.) Need inspiration? Check out this fun video: 23.5 Hours

If you’re a geek like me, you may want to jump straight into using a spreadsheet to do your tracking, and that’s okay because you’re still manually tracking. Here’s a good starting point spreadsheet – feel free to copy it: Tracking Template – Beginner.

I strongly encourage beginning with the 3 physical pillars, and then adding the other two later once you’ve gotten the hang of tracking and have made some progress on improving your physical health. When it is time to add work and connecting (and meditation, which you can think of as mental exercise), here are my guidelines:

  • Work: Personally, good “work” is any activity which gets me into a state of flow (see: A Simple Recipe for Flow), so I set a goal for number of minutes in flow.

  • Connecting: Spending time with people, in person, is important. I set a minimum goal around this in terms of minutes. I don’t count spending time with people that I always see on a daily basis.

  • Meditation: Right now, I’m still establishing this as a habit, so my goal is purely one of whether I meditated for at least 15 minutes or not.

For the truly geeky, here’s my full SWEET Life template for 2014: Tracking Template – Advanced. Yes, it is complicated and ridiculously customizable (and I make liberal use of logistic functions), but don’t let that scare you – I’ve evolved this over many years. Be satisfied with just a sticky note for now, but know that you can always “up your game” if you like, and if you find things like this graph useful as tools:

Habits, Values, and Your Destiny

So, tracking provides a way for you to consciously build healthy habits. The key facility that tracking provides is awareness – you develop the ability to intervene and change your actions in the moment, if they are not aligned with your daily goals. When this awareness itself becomes a habit, you begin to internalize the goals, to automatically think in terms of them, and to unconsciously consider them whenever you face decisions. In other words, as Gandhi noted, you incorporate these goals as key personal values. This won’t happen overnight, or even over the course of a year. And tracking alone won’t necessarily bring it about, but tracking can start you down this path of awareness of yourself and of your world, and lead you to consciously lead “the examined life.”

If all of this all sounds sterile, stoic, controlled and scientific, and well, just too much work, I invite you to step back and think about it for a moment. It may help to think of tracking as simply a quantifiable and much simpler form of that time-honored daily logging technique – the diary. In just one minute a day, you’ll be able to make a huge difference in your health and happiness. The potential return on investment is ridiculously positive and there is absolutely no downside risk.

As you become more facile in your ability to be aware, through tracking or other techniques like meditation, you’ll start to develop the ability to apply the habit-making and breaking skills to more and more situations. As an example, one of the habits we learn as children is to equate grasping with pleasure, and pleasure with happiness. That association serves us well when we are very young, but it does us a great disservice as we mature, especially since we tend to generalize literal grasping to metaphorical grasping. (Generalizing thought-based habits like this, without much thought, can be one of the most dangerous things people do with habits.) Unfortunately, most people never unlearn this grasping habit, because they don’t realize they have it, or if they do, they don’t have the skills to do anything about it. Imagine the power you will have to greatly reduce your own suffering, then, when you are able recognize your own grasping nature and gently guide yourself away from it. At that point, your awareness will have reached the level of enlightenment, and you will truly be living the SWEET Life. I sincerely hope you can reach that point, and that the techniques discussed here can help you do so.



Building a Solid Foundation for Sleep


More and more people these days seem to be complaining about trouble sleeping. Because one of the pillars of physical health is ensuring you get enough high quality sleep, there has been a lot written on the subject. I’ve had my fair share of difficulty sleeping, but recently have generally been able to keep my sleep debt to a minimum. In this blog post, I wanted to share a few unique techniques and insights I’ve had about sleeping well.

Aside from all the usual advice (avoid caffeine completely, especially if you are a slow caffeine metabolizer; avoid alcohol; get exercise every day; learn how to deal with or eliminate stressors, etc.), there are three targeted techniques I use.

Establish a Sleep Baseline

How much sleep do you need? The answer is easy – you need as much sleep as your body tells you it needs. In other words, you need to learn to listen to your body and prioritize sleep above other activities. Think about it: what are the things your body needs in order to live? In order of “time to death”, they are: air and water, and then food, sleep and exercise. You wouldn’t think of foregoing breathing so you could watch a TV show, or skipping meals so you can check your social feeds, or allowing yourself to get parched so you can play a videogame, so why would you skip sleep to do these less important things?

To establish a baseline, pick a time when you have no incumbrances to getting all the sleep you could want. The holidays are here, and this is a good time to try this, as are vacations. Take a week and give yourself permission to sleep as much as you want for the whole week (while avoiding caffeine!). There are two important things to keep in mind:

  • You should track exactly how many hours of sleep you get in this baseline period.

  • You should keep in mind that for the first day or days, you may be catching up from accumulated sleep deprivation. Disregard the data from these days.

Once you have established a somewhat regular pattern and have zeroed in on a regular number of hours, this becomes your baseline. It is your target. For many people, this target will be somewhere around 8 hours, as that is typical.  If it is a lot less than 8 hours, there is a very very slight chance that you are one of the few who truly need less sleep, but chances are better that you didn’t really let yourself sleep, and you should consider trying it again.

As you age, your baseline may change, so it’s a good idea to repeat the baseline measurement every few years.


Track Your Sleep, But Don’t Lose Sleep Over It

This is really easy.  Every morning, simply write down if you hit your target for that night. It literally only takes a couple of seconds to write this number down, so no excuses to not do it. This is the easiest form of tracking, you simply get a pass or fail. Even if you are just 15 minutes shy of your target, this is a fail.

Be honest with yourself and grade yourself accurately. At the same time, be gentle with yourself! It will be hard to hit your target at first, and there will be all sorts of times when it will be basically impossible. But you need to keep striving, and the best way to do that is to have a little logbook to look at and think, “Oh, gee, I’m missed my target 3 days running. I really need to make sure I head to bed a little earlier tonight or take a nap this afternoon.” Don’t beat yourself up if you fail, but do take the steps necessary to get back on track.

Personally, I track my sleep in more detail. I write down the exact number of hours as well as the quality of the sleep, and use these to compute a “sleep grade” for each day. I also look at my 7-day running average. I find these useful, and can share the exact formulas I use if you’re interested. But you don’t need to get this fancy. The simple pass/fail technique should give you the bulk of the benefits you need by simply making you aware of your actual sleep patterns.

Another bonus you may want to add on: also track your mood. You may find that when you lack sleep, you are more irritable and don’t handle stress as well. You shouldn’t be surprised by this – how many times have you seen a grouchy child miraculously cured by a nap? The same principle holds for adults, we just learn to cover up and ignore the effects of lack of sleep.


Iterative Visualization – Building Colorful Cubes in your Mind

Invariably, even if you exercise and eat right and do all of the right things, there will be days when you find it hard to fall asleep or stay asleep. Again, all of the usual advice applies here: establish a bedtime ritual, ensure you have a distraction free sleep environment, get fresh air, etc.  But here’s a particular technique I’ve developed and honed over the years that always works for me.

The technique is based roughly on the classic “counting sheep” and also on some forms of meditation, but differs from them significantly, in a number of important ways. The problems I’ve found with counting methods are:

  • Simple counting is too easy and fast – I can count and let my brain race around worrying about things at the same time.

  • Simple counting is boring and not challenging.

  • Simple counting ignores your physiology.

This technique attempts to address these shortcomings by replacing the counts with other memorized sequences (colors), engaging the visual centers of the brain, providing a task to be accomplished with waypoints, and linking it all to your breath. Sounds complicated, but it’s really quite simple.  Here are the steps:

  1. Establish your breath. After the lights are off and you have found a comfortable sleeping position, establish your breathing rate by simply counting in your head to 100. It also helps to visualize the numbers themselves as you say them in your head, so you begin to engage both the auditory and visual portions of your brain. You can do this step as fast as you like. The whole point of this step is to distract yourself from your breath long enough that it falls into its natural rhythm.

  2. Build the cube. The task you are to complete, in your mind, is building a 6 by 6 by 6 cube, made of smaller cubes. Imagine something shaped like a Rubik’s cube, only bigger (see the image at the beginning of this post). Each of the 6 horizontal layers of the cube are built from smaller cubical blocks, all of the same color. These follow the colors of the rainbow. So the first layer consists of 36 red blocks, the second layer of 36 orange blocks, then yellow, green, blue, and purple. All in all, you will only “place” 216 blocks in total, but you will do it in such a way that you are almost guaranteed to fall asleep before you finish. Here’s how:

    1. Place one block per breath. Do not change the pace of your breath, keep it slow and rhythmical, as established in step 1. As you exhale, imagine the next block being placed into its position. Imagine it as the appropriate color and mentally say to yourself the name of the color as the block is placed.

    2. Build “concentric cubes.” In other words, first build the 1x1x1 cube (this is trivial, you just place the first red block, and say “red”). Then build the 2x2x2 cube on top of the 1x1x1 cube, then the 3x3x3 cube on top of the 2x2x2, and so on.

    3. Always build the top layer first, then the right side, and then the front side. See the diagrams below.

    4. If you ever lose your place, don’t get frustrated, rejoice! This means you’re starting to fall asleep. Then simply step back to the last step you can remember and continue building from that point.

    5. If you manage to build the whole cube, don’t fret! Just build another one – maybe vary the color scheme a little.

At an average of 10 breaths per minute, this technique will likely get you to sleep in less than 20 minutes. Personally, I rarely make it to the purple layer, which accounts for almost half of the blocks, so I’m usually out in 10 minutes.

How does it work? First, it engages the visual, spatial, auditory and language portions of the brain at the same time. It also engages the somatosensory regions by having you focus on your breath. By doing this, it makes it difficult for you to be distracted by stray thoughts. Second, it provides waypoints, milestones of progress to keep you focused, and each successive waypoint takes slightly longer to reach, making the task progressively more difficult, thus keeping you engaged. Third, it replaces the “boring” elements of counting with something a bit more playful and fun, making the task a bit less arduous.

I sometimes add a little variety to the task. For example, I sometimes build an “all blue” cube (e.g., midnight, navy, royal, cornflower, sky, powder), an “all green” cube (forest, jungle, kelly, lime, olive, mint), etc.  Sometimes even just trying to remember the names of 6 shades of a given color is enough to put me to sleep!


So there you have it: establish a baseline, track your sleep nightly, and when you have trouble sleeping, build the cube. I’d be interested in knowing how these techniques work for you.




The Waiting is the Mindful Part


What do you do when you arrive at a meeting place early, or suddenly discover you have 15 minutes to “kill” while waiting for a train or riding the subway? Chances are like many people today, you’ll do one of two things: you’ll either fret about the waste of your valuable time, or you’ll whip out your phone or tablet and “fill” the time checking messages or otherwise “catching up”.

I’m increasingly doing neither, and instead taking a third option. I view the extra time as a gift, a special opportunity to meditate – literally! In other words, I do … nothing.

Like many people, I’ve always thought that meditation was a good idea, but felt like I never really had the time, and really, how could it possibly be that beneficial? A couple of months ago, though, I started taking a class on mindfulness and emotional intelligence. This is the “Search Inside Yourself” course that has been getting some attention in the press lately, and which, amongst other skills, teaches meditation as a way to practice mindfulness. Chade-Meng Tan, the founder of the class, offered three simple practices to the class on our first day:

  • Commit to one mindful breath per day.

  • Strive to do all things with mindfulness and self-awareness.

  • Randomly wish happiness upon at least two people per day.

Of course, he knew very well that one breath would lead to another, and that 2 wishes would lead to 10. I’m now consistently meditating at least 15 minutes every day, and reaping the benefits of increased focus, reduced stress, and greater feelings of physical, mental, and emotional awareness.

You’re probably thinking like I used to, that you don’t have the time to meditate. I would argue, you don’t have the time to not meditate. Gandhi once quipped that his life had become so busy that he needed to meditate for two hours instead of one. Like sleeping, eating well, and exercising, meditation is something which bestows the most benefits if you do it every day, and which you need even more when things get busy. And it can help you even if you only take “one mindful breath.”

You will always have little bites of time to work with – maybe when you’re walking between meetings, or to and from your parked car, or waiting in line or for a friend to show up. How can you make use of these little slices? Try this: Write yourself a note that simply says, “One mindful breath” and stick it to your phone (or better yet, change your phone’s wallpaper). That’s it. If, when you take out your phone, you can’t take one mindful breath, that’s okay, don’t beat yourself up about it. But maybe you can, and maybe it will lead to a number of mindful breaths, and maybe you’ll sit down and find yourself focusing on those breaths – and you guessed it, suddenly you are meditating. After a while, you’ll find that you naturally use these times to do mini recharges, and you won’t need to check your email, and you won’t need to get frustrated. Those extra breaths will fill the space just as well, and  simultaneously fill you with calm, clarity, and peace of mind.


Dear Me – Words of Wisdom to My Younger Self


Sept, 2013

Dear Me,

I’m sending you this letter from 30 years in the future.  Even at your age, I’m sure you’ll recognize that although you think you know everything, every year you seem to learn a lot more, so by extrapolation (remember that word from algebra?), by the time you’re me, you’ll know a boatload.  Below, I try to distill all of that into a few key pieces of advice.  Some of this will sound familiar from my blog (that’s what people call publicly published personal journals these days), but there is a lot more here that I haven’t found time to write a blog post about – maybe I will someday. I know you will only half listen, and that’s okay.  If just a few of these get through to you, we’ll both be happier and healthier…

  • First and foremost, in everything you do, strive to do the “right” thing.  This is called conscientiousness, and is the single most important thing you can learn.  To help you do this, find an exemplary person, and when making any decision, ask yourself “What would s/he do?” This could be Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. or any other of a host of exceptional leaders.  Or, more likely and more practically, this may be your parents, aunt or uncle, grandparents, minister or priest or rabbi, or teacher.  Using your parents or other close caregivers has the great advantage that you know how they behave very well, whereas you usually only know about famous people from second-hand sources.  This goes for the smallest decision (“Should I wash my hands?”, “Should I use my turn signal?”) to the largest (“Should I marry this person?”, “Should I attend college?”).  Better yet, find several such people, and if what you’re planning to do goes against what they all would do, please take the time to carefully consider that.
  • Notwithstanding the above, be aware that your parents and all such mentors are human, and not perfect.  Always question why they do what they do, and don’t be afraid to do something different.  Most of the time, you’ll discover they were right, but occasionally you will discover they were wrong.  This is especially true for things which are clearly a matter of opinion, like: “Who is the best sports team?”,  “Who should I vote for?”, or even “What religion should I follow?”
  • Here’s a nifty litmus test I use when making hard decisions that involve changing my current course:  I ask myself, “Later on, would I regret not taking this new path?”  If the answer is that I would regret it, I know I have to take that path, no matter how hard it may be.
  • Habits define you.  Identify your bad ones and do what it takes to eliminate them.  At the same time, replace them with good ones.  Do this continuously.  Do this for both behavioral and mental habits.
  • Realize that thoughts lead to words, and both thoughts and words lead to action.  If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts, stop yourself (literally say “Stop” in your head) before they grow into something worse.  Catastrophizing often becomes a self-fulling prophecy.  Likewise, if there is something you want to do or accomplish, start by writing it down, and telling others.  (See Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions for more details).
  • Every human deserves your respect.  You should try hard to assess everyone you interact with, but not to judge them.  Strive to always give everyone, even people you feel you know, the benefit of the doubt.  Do not assume the worst.
  • Read the book How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.  Read it multiple times over the years and try hard to internalize its lessons.  It’s title makes it sound like some sleazy how-to book for salespeople, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  It is genuine, and immensely useful.  Yes it was written in another time, but because it gets at the roots of what it means to be human, it is timeless.  Close behind it is Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  Read them both!
  • When you are a young adult, and even more so when you are older, don’t feel bound by your decisions, large or small.  It’s easy to have thought patterns like, “Oh, I just spent a gazillion dollars and 4 years to learn to be a nanoimmunobiologist, so I’d better find a job and be one for the rest of my life, even though I think it’s boring and immoral.”  Don’t fall into that trap, it will ruin your life.  Constantly examine yourself and your life, and if you don’t like what you see, reinvent yourself.
  • “Acting the part” can take you farther than you might think (just watch the film Catch Me If You Can – when it comes out in about 20 years).  Of course, don’t try to deceive others like the main character in that film does, but mentally telling yourself things like, “Ah, I’m now a platoon leader – I should act like a platoon leader,” can go a long way towards turning you into what you aspire to be.
  • Appearances do matter.  Not just to others but to yourself.  Like it or not, we are hard-wired to make an initial assessment of whether we like someone within 7 seconds of meeting them.  This doesn’t mean you have to wear a business suit all the time (unless you want to or have to), but it does mean that you should be thoughtful of how you look when in the presence of others, and even when you’re alone.  Don’t make your physical appearance an obsession.  If you’re spending over an hour putting yourself together in the morning, you may want to think about whether you’re overdoing it.  Also, make sure you “dress the part” – this signals both others and perhaps more importantly you, yourself, about how you intend to act.  Going to work in the garden? Dress like a gardener.  Going out on the town?  Dress like a reveler (but not a revealer).  Going for an interview, dress like an interviewee.  Going to work as a <blank>, dress like a <blanker>.
  • Find a uniform.  This basically means, find a practical, sharp, acceptable way of dressing that is compatible with your lifestyle and personal style, and buy those clothes in bulk.  This guarantees you look good and relieves you of any decision making when it comes to getting dressed in the morning.  (Of course, have some variety!)
  • You will hear the saying: “It’s not what you know but who you know.”  There is some truth to that, but I’d revise it: It is both who you know, and what you know.  By “it”, I mean the ability to follow the path you have laid out for yourself, and achieve the goals you set for yourself.  Getting a job as a supervising manager at an architectural firm through your college buddy won’t do you any good if you know nothing about architecture and managing.  On the other hand, you may be the best architectural manager in the world, but without connections in that world, your options for employment will be extremely limited.  Make real connections, though, not just exchanging contact information with everyone you run into, especially after you start using the internet.
  • Money can buy happiness, but you quickly reach the point of diminishing returns.  Be prudent with your money, and learn to track your finances, but don’t be a spendthrift.  You can always make more money.
  • Learn the essential difference between an asset (something which makes you money) and a liability (something which costs you money).  Maximize the money you put into assets and minimize the money you put into liabilities.  The book Rich Dad, Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki can help you understand this key truth.
  • Don’t assume that what works for the “average” person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point.  Chances are you will have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right when you realize it doesn’t work.  If you only do what the average person does, you will only have an average life (at best).  Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average.  (See You Are Not an Average, Joe for more details.)
  • Take the time to learn how to give talks and presentations well, and how to convince others – it is an invaluable skill regardless of your career path.  Continue to sharpen this skill throughout life.
  • Try hard to eat well every day, sleep well every night, and move your body to the point of sweating doing something you enjoy regularly (most days).  Always monitor what you eat and how it makes you feel.  Figure out how much sleep you need and make it a very high priority.  Don’t exercise for exercise’s sake, but do something you love doing, even if it isn’t considered “working out”.  Track these three things – you may be surprised how much they affect not only your mood but your overall happiness. (See: Living the SWEET Life, Daily)
  • Explore what you can do with your body.  Don’t be satisfied with just one physical activity – try as many as you can.  Dancing, skydiving, yoga, rock climbing, tai chi, hiking, fencing, parkour – there are so many amazing things you can do with your body!  Your body is your vehicle through life – learn everything you can about it, through direct experience.  And learn how to maintain it properly – you’ll be happy you did.
  • To quote a good friend of mine, “TV is for people who have forgotten they are going to die.”  Same goes for video games.  Like sugar in your diet, these have their place in limited quantities, but by no means should they be your default activity.  Even worse is “adult” content or other bizarre, extreme, or disturbing videos/books/games. It’s not just harmful to you but to others as well, and should have no place at all in your life.
  • Choose your friends carefully, and your spouse even more carefully.  Don’t date and don’t hang out with people because they are an easy choice and you are lonely.  Hold out for the special people.  Love is a choice, not something that happens to you.
  • Ultimately, you must find your own path through life.  It may take you your entire life to discover who you are – always strive to find out.  Once you think you “know” who you are, you know it’s time to take action to learn more and try something new.
  • Love means doing something for someone, even (or especially) when you don’t want to.  This is the meaning of sacrifice and giving.
  • Last but not least, here’s the secret to happiness: “The trick is to find some way in which you work with other people that you respect in pursuit of a noble end in a way that uses your strengths.” – Jonathan Haidt.  In other words, after ensuring your physical health, you can pursue happiness by ensuring that how you spend your days is something that you a) are passionate about, b) can do better than most people, and c) supports you monetarily.

Thanks for listening.  If you have any questions, feel free to send them my way.

And don’t forget to save this letter and refer back to it often.  : )  (That’s a sideways smiley face – you’ll understand that a lot more in about 10 years).

All the best,



P.S.  Remember that book See You At The Top you recently read by Zig Ziglar, that you took some notes on?  After writing this letter, I went back and found those notes (yes, you’ve kept them all these years), and it all sounded so familiar, except I’ve relearned these things the “hard” way.  Here’s what Zig said (I think I may have modified a few of these or even inserted some from Stephen Covey, but the core is still there):

  • Common sense demands that you like yourself – you’re the only you you’ve got.
  • To improve your self-image, improve the image of yourself – dress up.
  • Read inspirational biographies.
  • Listen to speakers who build mankind.
  • Take “baby-steps” towards positive self-image.
  • Smile, greet, and compliment others.
  • Do something for someone who can’t repay the favor.
  • Be careful of your associates.
  • Make a list of your positive points, keep it with you.
  • Make a list of past accomplishments, review and revise it often.
  • Avoid pornography, violence, soap operas, and astrology.
  • Realize that behind every success is a series of failures.
  • Learn to speak in public.
  • Look yourself and others in the eye.
  • Maintain your health and physical appearance.

P.P.S. A woman named Mary Schmich will also write some great advice in 1997 – you should read that, too.


A Simple Recipe for Flow


A few days ago, my wife wrote down a simple stir-fry recipe for me to cook.  I’m on nurse duty, and this particular recipe is the kind of comfort food she needs to help her recuperate.  I’m a decent cook (and, the recipe is simple), so after one go, I managed to memorize it.  I just finished cooking my third (and this time, double!) batch of it, and am feeling mighty good.  How can it be that this simple act of getting my mis-en-place, chopping, and then sequencing the frying could be so satisfying?  The answer is twofold: flow and acts of kindness.

You may have heard of flow (a.k.a. “the zone”) elsewhere.  If not, it’s simply the concept of “a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity.”  It also happens to be one of the fundamental ways to help improve happiness, and according to “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, for me personally it is one the the most effective ways to build happiness.   No wonder I feel so good!  But, I am not a chef, nor do I aspire to be one.  How can it be that cooking this meal got me into a flow state?

One common mistake for those seeking flow is to look in the wrong places.  I’m a data scientist by profession, so naturally I’d expect to achieve flow when I’m writing code or analyzing data, and indeed I do (lucky for me, or I’d have to seriously consider another profession!)  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t find flow in doing such “mundane” things as preparing a meal or going for a bicycle ride.  According to Lyubomirsky, “we can experience flow in almost anything we do, however monotonous or tedious it might appear.”  It helps that this this particular activity was also a way for me to “invest in social connections” via an “act of kindness” (in this case, the most important social connection I have – the one with my spouse!) – both activities that Lyubomirsky also proposes to help increase happiness. So naturally I’m feeling quite good right now.

If you’re interested in ways to improve flow (and happiness!) in your daily life, I highly recommend reading Lyubomirsky’s book (esp. Chapter 7), or the book by the originator of the concept – Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  You may find ways to turn the mundane into the sublime.



The Power…It’s Electrifying


A couple months ago, we decided that the timing and circumstances were finally right for us to take the plunge and start using an electric vehicle.  A number of friends and family have asked about it, so I thought I’d put my thoughts down here for all to read.  Long story short: We decided to lease a Nissan Leaf.  We love the car and have even considered getting a second one.  But to be clear, EVs are not currently for everyone – yet!  We had been watching the Leaf since before it had even been released for sale in the U.S. in 2010, but a lot went into the decision to get an all-electric car, and specifically get the Leaf in particular.

Fundamentally, and incontrovertibly, gasoline is a limited resource that pollutes the air.  At some point, it will need to be replaced.  There are lots of opinions about how and when that will happen, but regardless, we need to find an alternative, so why not get ahead of the curve and do it now?  I won’t go into all of the advantages (or disadvantages) of using electricity as an energy storage and delivery mechanism, but some of the obvious ones include an existing delivery infrastructure and the ability to be cleanly generated at scale.

We could have gone with a hybrid car, or even a plug-in hybrid, but deep down we felt the right thing to do was to commit to the cleanest vehicle we could manage.  We wanted to show our support for what we felt was an important emerging technology.

Driving an all-electric is a surprisingly awesome experience.  First, it is noticeably incredibly quiet.  We had relatives visiting, and my 6 year-old nephew commented on this (without prompting) as soon as we started moving.  It’s so quiet that they have to add sounds (via external speakers) so pedestrians don’t get startled.  When we test-drove a Prius plug-in hybrid, this was a big difference – what a noisy car.  Second, it accelerates better than most gasmobiles.  Yes, it really kicks it out of the gate.  Third, it has no gears, so there are no funny shifting hesitations and all  the power is instantly available.  Fourth, it is much cheaper to refuel than gas cars, roughly a third the cost, and this drops even more if you have access to charging stations that are free to use.  Finally, it gives you an incredible sense of satisfaction to know that you, personally, are not spewing harmful gases into the air (especially if your electric company offers clean energy).

Clearly, an all-electric vehicle is not currently for everyone because the state of the art technology has some reduced functionality compared to gasmobiles: less range, longer refuel times, and a still-nascent refueling infrastructure.  Even with government incentives, the current EVs on the market do not quite make a compelling case when you look at total cost of ownership, although they are close.  All of these factors will change with time.  My guess is that either for your next vehicle purchase or the one after that, an all-electric vehicle will be a contender.  Right now, EVs are best as commuter cars (if your commute is less than about 35 miles each way, or, if you have access to a charging station near work, then about 70 miles), and for running errands around town.  Taking a long trip in an EV would be a real hassle.  But given that most households have over two cars, chances are good that at least one can be replaced by an EV, and the gasmobile can be used for any long trips (this is the route we’ve currently taken).  EVs are also mostly for homeowners, because of proximity to electrical outlets when the vehicle is parked at home.  We, of course, met all of these criteria, as do a lot of households.  I am also very fortunate to get free, fast charging from my employer, which makes it even easier to stay “topped-off” at all times.  Once we decided that it was time to replace one of our aging gasmobiles, an EV became the obvious choice.

As a car, the Leaf in particular is an excellent vehicle, even if you ignore the fact that it is all-electric.  It has all of the safety, reliability, and convenience features you’d expect from a new vehicle.  It also has a greatly designed  interior space (we like it much better than the Prius or the Focus), and some other cool features (like being able to control some functions like climate-control via an app).  It is solid, reliable, and drives just like a regular car.  Plus, it looks nice, is eminently practical, and priced right. Nissan has been a leader in the development of EVs, and has taken a big risk and put in a huge investment to be a pioneer. It’s clear they believe in the technology, and we wanted to show them our support.  Taken together, all of these factors made the Leaf the best choice for us.  We decided to lease the vehicle in anticipation of improvements in range and charging speed in the next few years.

The great thing is, a lot of manufacturers are following Nissan’s (and to be fair, Tesla’s) lead.  The Honda Fit EV, the Ford Focus EV, and the Mitsubishi MiEV are all currently available in some U.S. markets, with offerings from Chevy (Spark), Smart, and others just around the corner and new EVs getting announced all the time.  Not only will this mean more choices for the consumer, but it will also put downward pressure on the pricetags, upward pressure on proliferation of charging stations, and drive innovation around range and charging times (e.g., battery-swapping facilities).

In short, EVs are a technology whose time has come.  To be sure, it will be a very long time before they are more prevalent than gasmobiles, and will likely never entirely replace them, but I see their widespread adoption as inevitable.  We’re still on the low-end of the technology adoption curve, with less than 100,000 on the road in the U.S. today, but I liken them to cell-phones circa 1997.  They are a proven, superior technology with support from the government and business.  In a decade or two, all of the technical downsides to EVs will have been addressed, and public opinion will have turned against gasmobiles to the point where people who still hang on to them will be considered quaint, anachronistic, or just plain irresponsible.  If you’re currently in the market for a car, I’d encourage you to consider if an EV is right for you.  Take a few test drives – I think you’ll be impressed.