The $100 Startup

The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make A Living, Do What You Love, And Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau

The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make A Living, Do What You Love, And Create a New Future by Chris Guillebeau

We were surprised today with a free copy of Chris Guillebeau’s latest book, The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make A Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future. We’ll be writing a review of the book within a few days, or as soon as we’ve finished reading it.

Book description from inside cover:

In The $100 Startup, Chris Guillebeau shows you how to lead of life of adventure, meaning and purpose – and earn a good living.

Still in his early thirties, Chris is on the verge of completing a tour of every country on earth – he’s already visited more than 175 nations – and yet he’s never held a “real job” or earned a regular paycheck. Rather, he has a special genius for turning ideas into income, and he uses what he earns both to support his life of adventure and to give back.

There are many others like Chris – those who’ve found ways to opt out of traditional employment and create the time and income to pursue what they find meaningful. Sometimes, achieving that perfect blend of passion and income doesn’t depend on shelving what you currently do. You can start small with your venture, committing little time or money, and wait to take the real plunge when you’re sure it’s successful.

In preparing to write this book, Chris identified 1,500 individuals who have built businesses earning $50,000 or more from a modest investment (in many cases, $100 or less), and from that group he’s chosen to focus on the 50 most intriguing case studies. In nearly all cases, people with no special skills discovered aspects of their personal passions that could be monetized, and were able to restructure their lives in ways that gave them greater freedom and fulfillment.

Here, finally, distilled into one easy-to-use guide, are the most valuable lessons from those who’ve learned how to turn what they do into a gateway to self-fulfillment. It’s all about finding the intersection between your “expertise” – even if you don’t consider it such — and what other people will pay for. You don’t need an MBA, a business plan or even employees. All you need is a product or service that springs from what you love to do anyway, people willing to pay, and a way to get paid.

Not content to talk in generalities, Chris tells you exactly how many dollars his group of unexpected entrepreneurs required to get their projects up and running; what these individuals did in the first weeks and months to generate significant cash; some of the key mistakes they made along the way, and the crucial insights that made the business stick. Among Chris’s key principles: if you’re good at one thing, you’re probably good at something else; never teach a man to fish – sell him the fish instead; and in the battle between planning and action, action wins.

In ancient times, people who were dissatisfied with their lives dreamed of finding magic lamps, buried treasure, or streets paved with gold. Today, we know that it’s up to us to change our lives. And the best part is, if we change our own life, we can help others change theirs. This remarkable book will start you on your way.

You can find the book on Amazon.com (not an affiliate link) and check out Chris’ blog, The Art of Non-Conformity.

When to Start Exercising

111021-F-XH170-120 by The U.S. Air Force

Man, woman, child, grandparent - doesn't matter. Start lifting now.

People are very, very good at coming up with excuses for avoiding things that they think are unpleasant. It’s human nature. The problem is, frequently these unpleasant things they work so hard to avoid are things that are actually really good for you. Of all of these, exercise seems to be one of the most common.

The excuse that bothers me the most is the age excuse. The more common one is ‘I’m too old to start exercising‘ although I do occasionally also hear ‘I or my child is too young to start exercising‘. Usually these two complaints are even more pronounced when we’re talking about weight lifting.

The most baffling part of that to me is those are the two groups I think need to start lifting most. Ok, I’ll be honest, I think everyone should be lifting weights. Regardless, elders who have never lifted need to start right away because the clock is ticking. There are tons of benefits for older people who lift, increased bone density, improved mobility and most importantly greatly improved stability. For kids it’s important to start lifting as soon as possible so they can get the maximum possible benefit from a young age. Most studies agree strength training does not stunt growth in children, so don’t try to use that as an excuse.

In case you need a little extra push, here’s two examples for a little inspiration.

Naomi Kutin: Age 10

Naomi started lifting around the age of 8 under the guidance of her father, and has been setting world records for her weight class ever since.

Winifred Pristell: Age 70

Winifred, a great-grandmother of three started lifting at 48 and now competes in powerlifting competitions.

No matter how young or old you are, the best thing you can do is to start exercising right now. You’re never too old and you’re never too young. Even if you’ve never done a push up before you could always start with a basic bodyweight circuit or dive right into things with some high intensity interval training. The point is to stop complaining and get out there and do it.

Know of any other inspirational fitness examples? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

Memorize Any List In Order Forever In Under 30 Seconds

Tallin, Estonia by Claudio Ar

Your Memory Palace doesn't have to have such moody lighting - unless you're a supervillain.

I used to have an atrocious memory.

If I didn’t take a list when going shopping, I would forget to buy things I needed. If you told me your name, you could expect to tell me again the next several times we met. If it weren’t for automated reminders no one I know would ever get a birthday card. Even phone numbers weren’t safe in my cerebral sieve.

Thankfully I was able to fix all that with a technique that’s easy to learn, incredibly effective, and can be used in the blink of an eye to not only memorize any sequence of facts but to memorize them in proper order – the Memory Palace.

The Memory Palace, also called the Method of Loci isn’t a new technique. It has a track record going back to at least the 6th century B.C. and has been used by eight-time world memory champion Dominic O’Brien to memorize 54 decks of cards in order (2,808 cards if you’re trying to do the math) after seeing each card only once. Now I don’t expect you’ll be needing to pull off any feats like that anytime soon, unless you’re trying to show off or win a few drinks from friends, but it comes in handy for a million other things too – shopping lists, language learning, studying for exams and anything else where you need to memorize a sequence of facts quickly and permanently.

So What Is a Memory Palace?

The Memory Palace technique works by drawing on the power of associative memories and the fact that people are very good at remembering places they know very well. A Memory Palace is any place that you know extremely well, your home for instance, that you can vividly imagine and attach items to in your imagination in order to be remembered.

Essentially, you visualize you walking through your Memory Palace and ‘see’ all the things you need to remember in sequence added to the memory. The strong emotional ties to your Memory Palace help hold the data in your head.

How Do I Use the Memory Palace Technique?

1. Pick Your Palace

Technically your palace can be anywhere that you can visualize. That being said, there are a few tips that will make it a little easier to use. First off, the more vividly you can visualize the location, the stronger the association will be. It’s fine to use an imaginary place, but only if you can really visualize it.

Secondly, the bigger the location, the more you can memorize. That doesn’t mean you have to pick some enormous place to start out with, in fact it’s probably better you start out small, but as you get better at it you can start graduating to larger and larger locations. You’ll be mapping out a path through your Memory Palace soon and the more stops you can have in it the more hooks you’ll have to hang data on.

Using myself as an example, I’ve chosen our house. It’s small enough to remember easily, but large enough to accommodate lots of stops. Best of all, I see it everyday so I can visualize it perfectly with almost no effort.

2. Pick a Path

Step two is to choose a familiar path through your already familiar location. If you’re using a real location, and you should be if it’s your first time doing this, pick a path you regularly take in real life.

If you chose your school, then use the path you take from class to class everyday. If you use your work, use the path you take from the front door to your desk, or wherever you have to go each day. Much like the location itself, the more familiar the path the more effective the technique. To start with this path doesn’t have to have a lot of stops, but as you work up to memorizing longer lists you’ll need to extend the path as necessary.

Having chosen our home as my location, I’m going to make my path through it similar to the one I take coming home. I come in through the garage, walk through the living room and then the kitchen on my way to the stairs. Before I go upstairs I take my shoes off and toss them in the closet, then go up to our home office. I could have chosen something more complicated, but that’s one that I’ve probably actually walked hundreds of times by now and it’s easy to remember.

3. Take a Practice Walk

This step isn’t as important the more you use the technique, but starting out it’s crucial. You need to visualize yourself walking through your Memory Palace along the route you just defined. This visualization needs to be as vivid and sensory as possible.

Don’t just think through it as quick as you can, stop in each area of the path and try to think about every little thing you see, what you smell, what you hear, you can even reach out in your mind and touch things. As you’re going through you need to also pick out as many little identifying items or landmarks on your path. You’ll need those as anchors for installing memory hooks in the next step.

I have my location and my path, so now I run through a practice visualization. Our old garage door grumbles and shudders as it goes up. Caroline’s Camaro is in there, shiny after just being washed. I run my hand over it and feel how smooth and cool it is. I smell the unmistakable scent of fresh cut grass as I walk by the mower, stained green from recent use. I open the door and step up into our house. It’s cool and dark in the hallway from the garage. I move the barrier that keeps the dog from getting back there and head into the living room. I can smell food cooking in the kitchen. As I walk by the pool table I feel the felt and the tiny little tear on the end by the door.

I’ll stop there, but you get the idea. I would go on like that until I got to the office. Remember to make it vivid.

4. Install Your Memory Hooks

The next step in preparing your palace is to place your memory hooks. I’ve written about memory hooks before if you aren’t familiar with them. The idea is to take your list of items you have to remember and hook each item into a place along your path through the Memory Palace.

Each hook should not only be as vivid as everything else you’ve imagined, but it should also be weird or ridiculous. Things that are strange are a lot easier to remember than things that aren’t. Don’t just picture whatever you have to remember lying there, make it interesting.

So let’s say for our example I had a shopping list to memorize. We’ll say that list is bacon, avocados, chicken, eggs, spinach, bell peppers, carrots, and onions.

I open our garage like normal but it doesn’t complain like normal. All the moving parts have been oiled up with bacon grease, and there’s bacon wound around the springs. Even the chain has been replaced by a knotted rope of bacon. I touch the car like before and pass the mower. This time, I don’t smell grass, I smell guacamole. I swipe a finger over all the green coating the mower and taste it. Avocados! When I open the door to the house the cool, dark hallways has become the back of the dairy section at the supermarket and a giant chicken is stocking cartons of eggs…

Ok, you get the point. I would go through that whole list making some kind of weird incident for each item making it as sensory of a visualization as possible.

5. Use It

Once you’ve made all your associations and memory hooks, you’re ready to use your Memory Palace to recall that info whenever you need it. Once you get to the store, walk back through your path in your head and experience all those crazy things again, (the bacon door, avocados on the mower, etc.) and you’ve got your list.

The best part is because of how quick our brains work you can construct and imagine a pretty long sequence of events in a fraction of the time it would take for a person to physically do all of that. That means that you can access your list quickly.

Additional Tips & Tricks

That’s the basic way of using the Memory Palace, but there are lots of little ways to play around with the technique. If you need to remember multiple long lists simultaneously, you can set up several different locations or even multiple paths through the same location.

You can also embed other memory techniques within your Memory Palace. So if you needed to remember the colors of the rainbow in a list with other things you could see the grave of ROY G. BIV (Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet) in your path with a rainbow etched into it.

Similar techniques can be used to encode lots of information into one hook. If I needed to remember to get three packs of bacon and two pounds of avocados in my previous example, I could add a giant ‘three’ written in bacon on the garage door and had two avocado smeared lawnmowers stacked on top of a giant scale. You can fit a surprising amount of information into each hook as long as your imagination and visualization skills are strong enough.

Have you got any other creative tips or tricks for using Memory Palaces? Have you tried this technique out and had success or problems with it? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Claudio Mufarrege

My Weekend Of Starvation

In Her Absence by Brian Hathcock

48 hours of self-imposed deprivation.

This past weekend I decided to try an impromptu experiment. I know intermittent fasting has a wide range of health benefits, but how would a reasonably extended fast affect me? Unfortunately, I didn’t have the ability to go get blood work or anything done beforehand or afterward, so this was more of an unofficial personal experiment. Regardless, it was an interesting experience.

The Method

I originally set out to go for an entire weekend consuming nothing but water and, in the morning, coffee. My plan was to have one last large meal on Friday night at 7 p.m. and then not eat again until Monday at 7 p.m. for a total of 72 hours without food. In reality, for reasons I’ll explain a little further down, I only continued the fast until Sunday at 7 p.m. for a total of 48 hours. In the interest of doing what I could to combat any potential muscle loss, I did extra workouts on both days including strength training and high intensity interval training.

So, for 48 hours (Friday 7 p.m. to Sunday 7 p.m.) I consumed absolutely nothing but water and coffee and performed moderately taxing bodyweight and barbell strength training workouts and high intensity interval sprints.

The Results

Overall, it was a really interesting experience. I noticed some very basic changes in body composition, but the best parts for me were the miscellaneous effects I noticed and the benefit of the experience. Let’s look at some of those effects.

Weight

If I had a reliable way to do it I would have measured bodyfat percentage as well but unfortunately I couldn’t, so I was left tracking weight. The first day showed the most dramatic change – a loss of 1.5 kg or 3.3 pounds. The second day of fasting resulted in another smaller loss of 0.6 kg or 1.3 pounds.

After the fasting was over, I continued to track my bodyweight to determine if the changes would last or if the next few days of eating would put me right back where I was. The first day of eating showed an increase of 1 kg or 2.2 pounds. The next two days of eating, however showed subsequent reductions of 0.4 kg (0.88 pounds) and 0.2 kg (0.44 pounds). That brought the overall total to a net loss of 1.7 kg or 3.74 pounds of bodyweight.

Measurements

Being an informal experiment I didn’t take extensive measurements, only waist circumference. The first day of fasting showed a reduction of 1.5 inches. The second day of fasting resulted in a reduction of 0.5 inches, corresponding to the smaller drop in bodyweight. After the third day of eating, my waist circumference had increased by 0.75 inches. That makes the net total of 1.25 inches (-3.17 cm) lost around my waist.

Miscellaneous Observations

There were a handful of things I found interesting about the experiment that didn’t really fall into any specific categories.

  • Reduction in Body Temperature – Part way into the end of the first day of fasting and all through the second day I found it extremely difficult to maintain body temperature. My wife, in the same room wearing clothing with comparable amounts of insulation, would be perfectly comfortable while I would be teeth-chatteringly freezing. I wound up putting on a jacket and sitting in front of the heater in our office in an attempt to get warm. Conversely, as soon as I broke my fast I became overheated and even started sweating and felt extremely warm after every meal for the next few days until I started feeling normal again.
  • Discomfort Plateau – This is the primary reason I decided to end my fast early, the reaching of a discomfort plateau. One of the reasons for attempting this experiment was as a personal test to see how much deprivation and discomfort I could take. I found out though that the hunger of a fast doesn’t increase linearly. Instead, I became extremely hungry by the middle of the first fasting day and then stayed that hungry until I ended my fast. This indicates to me that I could arguably handle any length of food deprivation since the discomfort doesn’t increase past a certain point.
  • No Reduction in Performance – During my fast I showed no reduction in performance in any of my exercises and had no trouble adding to the amount I was lifting on both days. Additionally, there was no degradation of my mental faculties. Honestly, I felt like my thinking was even more sharp and focused than normal, although I’m not sure if it actually was or if that was imagined.
  • Taste Enhancement – This may be another one that’s just all in my head, but everything I eat now is exponentially more flavorful. I can detect more spices and ingredients in foods and taste more differences in water from various sources. I’ve noticed it seems like it’s slowly going back to normal, so I might be re-acclimating to things. I suppose that’s why they say hunger’s the best spice.
  • Comfort with Hunger – Not only have I found I’m much more comfortable being hungry, but I’ve also found that it takes less food on average to satisfy my hunger. I’ve heard people suggest this is the result of my stomach reducing in size in the absence of being stretched out by food, however as far as I can tell that’s just conjecture and I’ve not seen any reliable scientific backing for that claim.

Conclusion

In total it was an interesting experience, though not one I would likely be soon to repeat. The loss of 3.74 pounds and 1.25 inches was a positive benefit, and I didn’t find any downsides to it except for the feeling of hunger itself and the issues with keeping my body temperature up. That being said, I didn’t test any other general health markers or design it to proper experimental rigor and therefore there may have been plenty of ill effects I simply missed.

Would I recommend any to do this? Regularly, probably not. If you absolutely positively need to lose a few pounds or a few inches immediately, this could be an option though it may not be the healthiest long term. I do think the experience itself is worth trying at least once for everyone simply to get exposed to the discomfort of true hunger. Few people who live in wealthy, industrialized nations ever really get to feel what it is to be hungry. I also think it’s a good exercise in willpower and teaching yourself to ignore temptation.

What does everyone else think? Has anyone else tried any extended water fasting? Did you have a similar experience? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: Brian Hathcock

Life Lessons Learned from Pokemon

Attack of the Giant Pikachu by St3f4n

How to fight giant Pikachus isn't one of the lessons.

Today is the 16th anniversary of the release of Pokemon and to celebrate I’ve been playing it all morning. I realized, playing back through it, that there are a lot of good lessons about life that you can pull from Pokemon. I’m not talking things like friendship and togetherness – none of the sappy garbage that started when they made it into a show. Useful life lessons from the original Red & Blue (or Green if you’re in Japan). Let’s see what Pokemon has to teach us.

Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover

I remember the first time I bought a Magikarp off the guy in the Pokecenter on Route 3. For only $500, it seemed like a really great deal. Then I tried to use it in a battle. The thing was useless. Worse than useless really since it took up a slot that could be occupied by a pokemon that can actually fight. The only move it had was ‘Splash’ which did absolutely nothing.

Thoroughly convinced that I had just wasted $500 on the most pathetic excuse for a pokemon ever, I stashed it away on Bill’s PC to rot. After a while it occurred to me though that game designers tend to do things for a reason, so there had to be something I needed that stupid fish for.

As it turns out my hunch was right, if you put the effort into leveling it up, Magikarp evolves into Gyarados – a giant flying blue dragon with some of the best stats in the whole game.

The lesson here? Don’t count something out just because it seems pathetic and worthless at first glance. It may be that underneath there is something of real value, you just have to work to get it out.

You Can’t Do It Alone

If you want to catch all 150 pokemon, you literally cannot do it by yourself. See, the game designers were brilliant enough to make it so that neither version had all 150. On top of that, some of the pokemon would only evolve if you traded them. That means that if you wanted all 150, you had to find somebody to trade with. Ok, I guess you could have been an anti-social brat and bought both cartridges but don’t ruin my point here.

The same was true of that Magikarp we were just talking about. Since it’s only attack did a whopping zero damage, if you wanted to level it up into Gyarados you had to let other pokemon do its fighting for it.

The same is true in the real world. If you really want to succeed, surrounding yourself with people who are supportive and helpful will go a long way toward getting you to your goals.

Money Solves Problems, But…

Like real life, Pokemon doesn’t just leave you with one option for solving your problems. Don’t feel like putting in all the hard work to level that Magikarp up into a Gyarados? No problem! You can pay the guy at the Pokemon Daycare to do it for you. In fact, you never have to level your own pokemon up if you don’t want to, you can pay to have it done for you. How wonderfully pragmatic of a lesson to include in a game – got a problem? Throw money at it!

There is a catch though. When you leave pokemon with the guy at the daycare he gets to choose what moves they keep. Sure your pokemon may be high level now, but if the day care jerk drops Dragon Rage in favor of Growl they’re going to be useless.

Money doesn’t solve all problems, and there may be catches to the solutions it does provide, but in the end having more money will always mean having more options.

Never Stop Improving

This is something that isn’t unique to Pokemon, but is a factor I like in all RPGs. In any other genre of game, the hero / main character already has the skills necessary to win. Take Halo for example. When you start the game you are Master Chief. You’re serious business. You’re the boss. You’re Chuck Norris in a robot suit. Sure you find bigger guns, but if you wanted to you could probably beat the whole game only pistol whipping things.

The point here is that in Halo you start out as the best you can be. There’s nobody better than the Master Chief and there never will be. In Pokemon the exact opposite is true. You’re just some kid. You’re not special at all, you’re nobody.

The same is true of your pokemon. There is absolutely no way you could take your little baby Bulbasaur and beat all the gym leaders without leveling it up. If you don’t level it up at least a little even Brock will stomp you, and all his pokemon are weak to grass attacks.

So what do you do? You level up. You walk back and forth in a square of tall grass like a mental patient until you have stomped so many Pidgey that you’re getting death threats from the Pallet Town Audubon Society. You constantly work and fight and train to make all of your pokemon as great as they can be.

You should have the same goal in meat space. Not to pace back and forth and mortally wound scores of birds – to never stop improving yourself. In everything you do, your work, hobbies, fitness, whatever, you should constantly be striving to improve yourself.

Variety > Uniformity

The world of Pokemon, like our world, is not black and white. Out of all the 150 pokemon there really isn’t one best pokemon. Mewtwo and Dragonite have fantastic stats, but one good super effective hit and either can easily be eliminated by a lesser pokemon. Each one has different strengths and weaknesses.

If you want to capitalize on all those strengths and eliminate the impact of those weaknesses, you need to have a variety of pokemon. This is why all the gym leaders inevitably fail. They overspecialize. Any schmuck with a Squirtle can breeze right through the first gym without breaking a sweat because they’re all rock type.

If you make the same mistake, you’re done for. You may think grass type pokemon are awesome, but if you walk into Blaine’s gym and that’s all you’ve got you won’t last five seconds. Then you have to go dig up a water type pokemon and train them for forever to get to the next gym.

The real world parallel is that you have a much, much better chance of reaching your goals if you have a variety of skills and knowledge. By always working to be as good as you can be in a wide range of different areas, you can make sure you’re not pigeonholed when you hit an obstacle that defeats your specialty.

Dedication Pays Off

Abra make me furious. When you first find them they’re rare, they’re exotic and they’re psychic type. Psychic. When everything else you’ve seen are bugs and purple rats, that’s awesome. You need one. So why are they so infuriating?

Teleport. All the Abra have it when you find them, and it instantly makes them escape from battle. You spend forever crawling through the grass, beating countless other run of the mill pokemon until finally, finally an Abra pops up. You get one chance to catch it, then it teleports away and you have to spend forever waiting for another to pop up.

After several hours of trying to catch one every teleportation makes the urge to hurl your Game Boy into the wall harder and harder to resist. You don’t stop though. You keep at it for as long as it takes because you know who don’t have Abras? Quitters.

That kind of perseverance pays off in life too. The only way to fail is to give up, and when you finally achieve your goal (or catch that accursed Abra), it’s all the sweeter for the struggle it took to finally get there.

Follow Your Dreams

You know what I always thought was the coolest thing about Pokemon? Here you have this kid, my guess maybe 13 years old, who decides he wants to be the best pokemon trainer there is. He’s got school. He’s a little kid. He can’t even drive yet. He doesn’t care though, he has a dream.

When he decides to throw everything out the window and go be a pokemon trainer, does his mom try to stop him? Does she tell him to go get a proper education and a real job? No. She tells him to go for it and sends her kid out into the world all by himself to follow his dream.

Ok so maybe sending a 13 year old off on a solo trip around the country isn’t necessarily 5-star parenting, but that’s not the point. He ditches everything to go follow his dreams and doesn’t let himself be satisfied until he’s at the very top. He’s got an awesome supportive mom to help him along, but I get the feeling he would have done it even without her approval.

You should have the same attitude. If you’re not happy, don’t just settle. Set a goal, an ambitious goal, and work toward it. Of all the things you can learn from Pokemon, learning to follow your dreams is the most important.

Do you have any other lessons you’ve learned from Pokemon? Share them with us!

Photo Credit: Stéfan

Why Women Should Lift Weights (Part 2 of 2)

Crossfit Fever Games by CrossFit Fever

Convinced that you should do strength training and lift weights, but not sure where to begin? Look no further – I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to get started quickly and safely.

Wait, you do know why you should lift weights, right? No? Well, go back and read part one.

Before you begin working out, it’s important to make sure your diet is in check. What you eat will have a profound effect on how you perform during your workout, how you feel, and how fast and well you recover. We highly recommend the Paleo diet for both athletes and anyone looking to optimize their health. Having a good diet is essential to gaining and maintaining strength, recovering, keeping your hormones in check and having the energy to do these workouts in the first place.

The exercises I suggest in this article are for people who want to be fit and enjoy optimal health. Everyone should strength train and lift weights so in this article I’m just going to cover the basics. This is a starting point, the beginning. What you should do as far as strength training largely depends on your goals – but I’m just going to focus on attaining basic, functional strength that everyone should have to maintain optimal health.

Before you go running into a gym, let’s cover the basic movements you should be doing and how to do them. I’m talking about lean, strong muscles gained by doing workouts that target lots of muscle groups all at once – compound workouts – no curls or any workout that only focuses on one muscle at a time.

These movements will always be in the form of:

  • Pushes
  • Pulls
  • Squats
  • .. And generally picking up heavy things

Body Weight & Dumbbell Workouts

If you’ve never done any sort of strength training and have been fairly inactive, you need to start slow and somewhere easy. This is where you get an idea of how much you can do, and perfect your form. Having good form is crucial to not hurting yourself and ensuring that you are getting the most out of your workout.

Body weight and dumbbell workouts are an excellent place to start out for someone new to strength training: there’s no need for a gym membership, it’s inexpensive to get started, you can practice good form without too much risk and it will give your body a chance to get used to being used.

So, what body weight workouts should you do? Well, let’s go for…

The Exercises:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull Ups, Rows and Inverted Rows
  • Squats
  • Planks & Side Planks

These are the basics, and all can be done with body weight alone.

Since we are going for strength gain and not mass, you’ll need to keep your repetitions and sets low – 5×5 is a good place to start. Yes, just five sets of five push-ups, pull ups, or squats, with brief rests of about 30-90 seconds in between. If you need to rest longer, then do it, but ideally keep it shorter. You could even cycle them (circuit training) so that your “rest” is doing another activity, then going back to the previous one. If it is easy, then add weight and then do your 5×5.

Adding weight for some exercises, like the squat, is pretty simple – just hang onto some dumbbells while you do it. For others, like the push-up, it’s not quite that simple, but there are other solutions. You can wear a backpack with light weight in it, prop your feet up on a box or chair while your hands remain on the floor, or you can shoot for a hand-stand push-up. Should the push-up on the ground be too hard, you can do like I had to do, and raise your upper body by doing your push-up with your hands on a stair step (which also makes it easy to see how stronger you’re getting, by how close to the bottom step you get). To make a push-up harder, raise your feet on something. To make it easier, raise your upper body. If you have a lot of trouble there are ways to build up to doing your first real push up.

Doing an inverted row, for example, can be made easier or harder depending on how far out your feet are from where you are pulling yourself up to.

Woman Doing Push-Ups with a Weighted Vest at a Crossfit Event by Amber Karnes

These simple exercises, done 5×5 should take you between 15-30 minutes, and only need to be done at least one day per week, but no more than three days per week. You have no excuse not to do it! Between each strength day, take a day off to rest and be active in other ways, so your your muscles can recover.

How to do Body Weight Workouts with Proper Form

Practicing good form from day one is essential, so, even if you think you already know how to do these workouts, please read through this just in case there is something you didn’t previously know. I’ll also include links to videos that explain how to properly perform them so you can get a visual for what you’re attempting to do.

Push-ups are a basic movement that pretty much everyone knows how to do: you get on the floor, either on your toes or on your knees, keep your back straight, palms on the ground on either side, lower yourself slowly and then in a controlled, quick manner… Push yourself back up! Just remember: straight back, and not let your butt poke out.

If you can, you should do pull-ups. Find a tree limb, buy a doorway pull-up bar, or make your own, whatever you can use. Grab on with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and palms facing away. Leading with your chest, pull your body upwards until your chin is level with the bar. As slowly as you can, lower yourself back down. Repeat.

If you can’t do a pull-up yet, then do dumbbell rows or inverted rows to work your way up to one. For the dumbbell row, place the dumbbell on the floor. Place one hand/knee on a bench to stabilize yourself while you bend over, keeping your back straight, and grab the dumbbell in your opposite hand, and pull it straight up to chest level, and then slowly lower it back down. Repeat for the opposite side.

For the inverted row, find a bar you can toss a towel or rope over (and, ideally, affix a pipe to). Grab the bar/rope/towel how you would with a pull-up, and place the back of your heels forward so you lean back (optionally, you can also put them on a raised surface). Keeping your body straight, pull your torso up to the bar like you would a pull-up, and then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. The farther from your center of gravity your feet get, the harder this will get.

The squat is, in my opinion, the most essential exercise. It is also extremely complex, so this description will take a while. I’m sorry, but this is crucial, especially since so many people just don’t know how to squat right. So much of what you do depends upon the dozens of muscles this workout targets – and yes it is much, much more than your knees and thighs. If you do it right, your life will be easier, better, and you’ll enjoy physical freedom for years. If you do it wrong, you’ll set yourself up for pain. This is not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how important good form is here. You need to do squats so please, start slowly and have someone check your form for you (or do it in front of a big mirror, video tape yourself, whatever you need to do, do it.)

To perform a proper body weight squat, begin standing with your feet a bit more than shoulder width apart. Your knees and feet should be pointing away from you at about 45 degree angles, and you’ll want to keep them in line with each other the entire way down and back up. Slowly lower yourself – first by poking your butt out backward, almost like your sitting – until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, although ideally you will go as low as you can. If this is difficult, then just practice going lower and lower each time. Remember too to keep your gaze down and forward about three or so feet in front of you. Additionally, remember to keep your back straight the entire time. Do not round, or over extend your back. And, well, repeat.

The squat, when done correctly (great form and going as low as you can), is not only the safest, but also the most optimal exercise for your knees and posterior chain. It produces more stable knees than any other exercise, and works the entire set of muscles from your lower back to your knees in unison, together, how they would normally be used. So, if nothing else, then do squats for optimal physical health.

Once regular bodyweight squats get to be too easy add weight with dumbbells, or try doing one-legged squats (commonly called pistols.)

Planks and side planks are easy to perform but surprisingly difficult. Thankfully, you only really need to do one set. You might want a mat or towel under you for comfort, but begin by lying on the floor face down, keeping your back, butt and legs straight, your feet together and you will rest on your elbows (which should be kept under your shoulders.) Hold this position for as long as possible, working your way up. Once doing 90 seconds is easy, try adding weight (like a backpack.)

For side planks, lie raised on your side with your forearm on the floor under your shoulder – perpendicular to your body. Keep your legs together and straight in alignment with your back and hips. Hold this position for the set time, and then do the other side.

Picking up heavy things is a tricky one. Without a barbell it’s difficult to do a deadlift, but you can always find work-arounds. Get buckets full of sand or concrete, dumbbells or kettlebells, a box with canned food in it, or find some other random, somewhat heavy thing to carefully pick it up and then put back down. Deadlifts are the only other absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, and also where everyone is their strongest. However, it is also crucial to start slowly so you can practice good form. Yes, it may get annoying but I’m going to repeat it over and over because it is that important.

Ideally you’d be doing your deadlifts with a barbell, but if it is not available to you, you can mimic the movement or do alternative, similar movements like the Farmer’s Walk, which is to pick up a weight in either hand, walk a set distance, and then put them down. And, of course, repeat.

For a deadlift, begin standing in the center of whatever you’ll be picking up, with your feet shoulder width apart and the object as close to your toes as you can. Keeping your back straight and slightly bending your knees, bend down and grab the object and then lift until you are standing straight up and arms hanging, keeping the object close to you. The movement will be driven by your hips and lower back, so make sure to keep your back straight and your head and chest up. Carefully reverse to put the object back down, and repeat.

Body weight workouts are a great place to begin however, as you’ll find they will quickly become just too easy, and you’ll need to add weight.

Lifting Weights

Ideally, you’ll workout with barbells and not stop with body weight and dumbbells. You can go to a gym, or you can buy a set for your house at a sporting goods store or craigslist (I highly suggest looking into a power rack.)

Barbell exercises are much like the body weight equivalents, only much harder and much more beneficial.

The Exercises:

  • The Barbell Bench Press
  • The Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • The Barbell Squat
  • The Deadlift
  • The Pendlay Row

This is where it gets serious. These will tax your system enormously, so do make sure you eat right and don’t over train. Do only 5 sets of 5 repetitions of each of these, except the deadlift – which you should do just one set of five. Additionally, split this up into two workouts: Workout A (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press) and Workout B (Squat, Overhead Press, Pendlay Row.) Again, shoot for three days a week with a rest day in between each. If you can’t, don’t sweat it. As long as you exercise for one day each week you will see benefits, just not as much.

You should begin with the bar – a proper (olympic) bar weighs 20.4 kg/45 lbs, and slowly working your way up each workout session – adding 5 lbs each time. Although for your first week or two I highly suggest doing the entire workout with just the bar so you can practice form and get it down, then adding weight each session.

If it gets too difficult, try doing 5 sets of 3 reps or backing up a little and working your way up again. Even if you can only do 5 sets of 1 rep, with a long break in between each, you will see progress.

To warm up, keep it intuitive. If you do 50 jumping jacks before you lift weights – you’ll be weak and likely sloppy. Instead, you should do the workout with lighter weights. So, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at half-weight, then finally the 5×5 at full weight. For example, if you are going to squat 100lbs, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at 75lbs, then 5 sets of 5 at 100lbs.

How to Lift Weights with Proper Form

When you begin working out with barbells, practicing good form is even more crucial. Begin with just the bar – no weights – and practice the exercises.

The barbell bench press is a common and thankfully easy exercise. Lie on a bench with your back flat and feet flat on the ground. Make sure the bar height is comfortable and adjust as necessary. Grab the bar with your hands elbow-width out (or, biceps parallel to the ground) dismount the bar from the rack and slowly lower it to the middle of your chest and press back up until your arms are fully extended. Repeat.

Performing the standing barbell overhead press is similar to a bench press, which is why you do it on your alternate day, but it does work a few different muscles. You’ll want to begin either by cleaning the weight (a deadlift, then pulling the weight up and onto your chest) or start from a rack. When you hold the barbell, it should be able to rest on your chest just below your collar bone, and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your feed shoulder width apart. Press the bar up above your head until your arms are fully extended, then slowly lower it. Repeat.

Much like a normal squat, the barbell squat is complicated, so bear with me. Ideally, use a power rack to squat. Begin with the bar racked a few inches below shoulder height, so you will squat under it to dismount the bar. Repeat.

For the deadlift, begin standing in the center of the bar with your feet shoulder width apart. The bar should be over the middle of your feet (with weight on it - if it is empty then it will be just in front of your toes.) Bend down, back straight and knees bent slightly, and grab the bar either with a front or alternate grip (front grip means both of your hands are over the bar facing the same direction while alternate grip means one hand faces toward you and one faces away from you) and lift until you are standing straight up. Lifting the bar should be powered by your hips extending. Be sure to keep your chest up and back straight. Once you've lifted it, carefully reverse and put the bar back down, keeping it close to you. Repeat. Watch your knees that you don't hit them!

To perform the Pendlay Row begin almost like a deadlift - with the barbell on the ground in front of you, except this time the barbell will be forward some and you will be bent over it. While keeping your back straight and upper body parallel to the ground, grab the bar and pull it up to your chest, then lower it back down to the ground. Keep your gaze forward during the lifts. Repeat.

Other random parting advice:

This is your template - a starting point to lift weights so you can enjoy strength and optimal health all of your life. Feel free to tweak this workout to your needs/desires, but whatever you do, DO NOT remove squats and deadlifts, and make sure you are doing compound movements at high intensity (high weight) with excellent form (unless, of course, gaining mass is your goal, then go for it).

Why always squats and deadlifts? Well, they create the most positive hormonal response - which you want, to build muscle and burn fat. Furthermore, they are the most important as far as optimal movement since they work everything from your back and posterior chain to your legs and knees.

Three exercises each session may not seem like much, but once you begin adding weight you'll understand why. These are compound movements with heavy weights, working nearly every muscle in your body, which gets very taxing. This is why it is important to not over train. Over training will cause your body to release cortisol (bad) and weaken your immune system (very bad.) Lifting weights will take a bit longer than a body weight workout, between 30-45 minutes to complete.

During your workouts focus on your form, breathing, and don't rush it. Slow, controlled movements are always better than rushed, sloppy ones. By going slower, you'll see more strength gain, as well as ensuring that you are doing the movement correctly.

On non-strength training days, feel free to do whatever other activities you want. You can try out Tabata Sprints, go for a walk, play, whatever you want. Just don't lift more weights - recovery time is as important as the workout itself.

Speaking of recovery, there are two big important parts to it. Sleep, and nutrition. Make sure you get several hours of quality sleep, and eat reasonable amounts of vegetables and protein. You will be hungrier than normal but it's okay - you need it! Eat until you are satisfied and don't over do it (4000+ calories per day.)

Additionally, track everything for about a month or so: measurements, weights used, etc. This way you can see clear increases in strength and track how your body changes. Using this you can adjust your diet or workout to whatever you need.

Finally, I focus in this article on bodyweight and free weight workouts, which are far, far superior to using a machine or smith machine. I could write a novel on how useless they are, but, I've already written a lot so in a nutshell: machines not only make working out easier in a non-beneficial way, but they also do not work the muscles like a free weight does. Machines work you with fixed cables and weights, and life isn't on a fixed track. Free-moving weights require more muscles to keep you stabilized. Smith machines are horrible in particular because they force you to practice with incorrect form which is just plain bad. Finally, most machine movements are isolation movements - great for bulk but functionally useless.

The Workout

You officially know everything you need to know in order to begin with strength training and lifting weights. So, to review, here's what you should start doing to build strength:

Body Weight & Dumbbell Version

  • 5x5 Push-ups
  • 5x5 Pull-ups, Dumbbell Rows, or Inverted Rows
  • 5x5 Squats
  • 1x__seconds Plank + 1x__ sec Side Planks (one for left and one for right)

Free Weight Version

Workout A

  • 5x5 Barbell Squats
  • 5x5 Deadlift
  • 5x5 Barbell Bench Press

Workout B

  • 5x5 Barbell Squats
  • 5x5 Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • 5x5 Pendlay Row

Oh, and one more thing...

This ten year old girl is stronger than you.

Photo Credit: CrossFit Fever and Amber Karnes.

Why Women Should Lift Weights (Part 1 of 2)

Woman Doing Barbell Front Squat by Completeeveryday

<sarcasm>Ohh, look a her! Her muscles are soo huuuge... </sarcasm>

The topic of women strength training or working out with any weight that isn’t light as a feather and coated with bright colored plastic is one that ignites a great debate. Real science and good advice get lost between the broscience and magazines that spread myths, unfounded “advice” and fear.

An unfortunate amount of people, particularly women, get the short stick when it comes to exercise – especially strength training. Like I said myths, fears and ridiculous, unfounded advice often keep women away from working out with weights when in my opinion, we should be running toward them (but not into them.)

I’m tired of it. All of it. I’m here to tell you that you should be working out with weights – and not the little pink ones. I’m talking barbells. Giant, heavy barbells.

I didn’t think like this when I was younger. Like lots of women, I was guided by magazine wisdom, fear and a lack of knowledge. I wanted to be fit and look great (who doesn’t?) but feared getting too bulky. When I started I was skinny fat – at 169.5 cm (5’6.75″) tall I only weighed roughly 49.9 kg (110 lbs). I had literally no muscle – I couldn’t even lift a gallon jug of water – and, despite being skinny, still managed to have a flabby belly. After a scary visit to the doctor I woke up and began my own health journey. I had no idea what I was doing so I started out with conventional wisdom – eat ‘healthy’ and do cardio. Lots and lots of cardio. That’s the only way to stay fit and not become a she-hulk.

Right?

Wrong.

My belly went nowhere and still couldn’t lift that darn water jug. I decided to turn to science and learned I was doing everything wrong and needed to lift weights. I weigh more now than I did back then, but my waist is smaller, I’m stronger and I can do a heck of a lot more.

So, here I am now, telling you to lift weights and do strength training. Though I’m sure you’ve got some objections I’ll have to deal with first.

You bet I do! Lifting weights will make you into a bodybuilder! Duh! Everybody knows that!

Does everyone really know that?

This is one of the most ridiculous myths in fitness. People look at bodybuilders and think “Ohmaigawd, they’re huge and are lifting huge weights so if I lift weights I’ll look like that too!” This is not only unfounded, but to think that you could just so simply become a bodybuilder is, quite frankly, an insult to bodybuilders and a gross lack of understanding/knowledge as to how they got where they are. You don’t just accidently become a bodybuilder, and it sure doesn’t happen overnight.

A lot of factors go into becoming a bodybuilder. It requires years and incredible amounts of dedication to a specific diet and a specific workout routine, plus a good bit of genetics and supplementation (legal or otherwise.) All of which are not things I’m going to suggest in this article, nor are things we suggest on this site (since, you know, we aren’t into bodybuilding.)

Like I said above, it doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t happen quickly. Additionally, don’t do isolation exercises, and as long as you can tell the difference between your mouth and a vacuum cleaner (No excessive calories – like over 3000 per day, no GOMAD, etc.) you won’t get bulky. It also requires lots of testosterone which women don’t generally make much of naturally anyway, and even men have a hard time making enough of it naturally to become a bodybuilder. Some testosterone is good for a variety of reasons, but healthy women also create a fair bit of estrogen which fights the muscle-building process (also why men are naturally more stronger – less estrogen!) so you’ve really got nothing to fear.

In short, the closest you could get to a bodybuilder is by going nuts with a can of spray-tan and a can of PAM.

Okay, maybe it wont make me bodybuilder-big, but I don’t want to get bigger at all!

Not lifting weights because you’re afraid they will make you look big is like saying you’re afraid of reading a book for fear of looking like a nerd. It really boils down to what you do, and how you do it. What I’m going to show you in the next post is how to lift weights to build functional, lean, strong muscle. Or, strength training. Keyword here is functional – if it got really big then it would just get in your way and slow you down.

Now, I’ll concede, if you’ve never worked out a day and have very little muscle you’ll see some gains, but it wont continue forever. You’re just making what is already there better, not adding anything to it.

I don’t really care about getting strong, I just want to do some toning/scuplting/firming.

First off, erase those three words from your vocabulary. Particularly “toned” – they’re all made up, meaningless words crafted by marketers and magazines to sell you more junk. And, quite frankly, lifting a tiny 1/2 lb dumbbell for a hundred reps is an incredible waste of time, money and energy.

If anything, weight lifting will give you a much more curvier shape – tucking in around your waist, a rounder butt and nicer thighs and arms. Plus, you get the perk of being stronger which comes in handy all of the time – and will be helpful as you get age – especially you’re of retirement age.

Okay, fine, but I just want to lose the fat on my belly and see a bit of abs. Can I just do the workouts targeting that?

I once heard someone say that “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym” and it’s completely true. Roughly 80% of body composition is a result of diet, and only 20% is fitness.

If you think you can “target” certain areas of loss, well, that also is a ridiculously widespread myth that originated from someone who doesn’t know and obviously didn’t bother to look into how the human body loses weight. Sorry, it just doesn’t work like that. You can build muscles in targeted areas by working them, yes, but fat burning is all dependent upon your genetics. The only possible way to spot-reduce fat is plastic surgery.

But guys lift weights! I’m not a guy!

Yes, yes they lift weights too. Unfortunately broscience and magazines have conspired to instill in society this idea that men and women are two completely different species. While we have our obvious differences that make us male or female, our basic muscular-skeletal makeup is the same. Therefore, men and women get stronger doing the same movements.

So you’re telling me to lift heavy weights – and you are sure this won’t make me big and bulky…

Like I said before, you won’t become a body builder by accident. It takes time and incredible dedication to a very specific routine and diet. The movements/workouts we at Road To Epic advocate, which I will cover in the next post, won’t make you big because they promote strength and myrofibrillar hypertrophy, instead of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

What’s the diff, you may ask? Because you’re apparently in some kind of hurry. In a nutshell, myrofibrillar hypertrophy produces hard, dense muscle fibers which make you stronger without a lot of bulk and is produced by lifting heavy for few repititions (2-6). Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, by contrast, is the result of increased sarcoplasm (a fluid-like substance) creating a puffy look and is attained via lifting somewhat-heavy-but-not-maximal for several repititions. Not to mention, the workout movements themselves are different.

So, in other words, different diet & workout routines for different goals.

But I’ve never done it before and don’t want to look stupid!

Really? You’re more concerned about not looking stupid than your health?

Okay, fine, then why SHOULD I lift weights?

Progress! Excellent! I’ve been eager to talk about that…

Why You Should Lift Weights

There are so many reasons why you should do strength training. But, here’s just a few:

  • You’ll Get Stronger “Well, duh” you say, but I’m being serious, it needs to be repeated. Lots of people underestimate how great being stronger really is. Getting stronger is a GREAT thing! Not only will you be able to carry more weight (furniture, suitcases, books, groceries, kids, pets, etc.) but you will also see benefits when doing other physical activities. You won’t get tired as fast, you’ll have greater mobility, better posture, less likely to sustain an injury, and if you keep it up when you hit your senior years, you wont need a cane or scooter and will be able to move around better than most other elderly folk. Speaking of elderly…
  • Greater Bone Density Yes! Lifting weights/strength training increases bone density! Screw you, osteoporosis! (One of several studies here.)
  • Live Longer Aside from it helping our joints, bones and mobility, it also helps us live longer! It helps in a number of ways, but most importantly, the more lean muscle we have the more organ reserve we have – or our organs have greater functional capacity to support life and fight illness and toxins. As we age, it naturally goes down, as does our lean muscle. However, muscle mass and organ reserve tend to be correlated, so if we increase one we increase the other. This is aided by the fact that when we have more lean muscle mass, the muscle helps our bodies deal with stressors and aids your organs, so they have to work even less.
  • Improved insulin sensitivity Why is this important? Essentially, greater insulin sensitivity means you handle glucose well, which means less dietary glucose becomes body fat and less insulin is required for normal functions (Study here.)
  • Lifting Weights Accelerates Fat Loss It’s true! Alwyn Cosgrove, a fitness expert, wrote an in-depth and well-cited article about the Hierarchy of Weight Loss taking a careful look at cardio vs weight lifting. One study he looked at highlights it best:

    “Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks). The weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic only groups respectively). Basically, the addition of aerobic training didn’t result in any real world significant fat loss over dieting alone.”

  • Look Better Naked I know I said it above but it needs to be repeated, strength training will make you have lean muscles with will give you a curvy look. Squats and deadlifts in particular will give you a tight, rounded butt too – who wouldn’t want that?

Okay, so, you’ll live longer, have stronger, more dense bones, feel better, perform stronger and faster, fight illness more effectively, have better recovery from disease, lose weight, and also improve your insulin sensitivity. Do I need to say more?

And yes, I could easily go on with even more reasons why you should strength train, but I think I’ve made my point with these – the main important ones. Is strength training starting to look appealing now? Wouldn’t you want to lose weight with less time working out than by doing hours on a treadmill? Wouldn’t you want to have nice curves and a lean, strong and efficient body that lasts into the golden years? It’s never too late to start.

“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” cannot ring any more true in the realm of fitness. If you don’t work your muscles, they’ll disappear and you’ll be left a skeleton, barely able to move around (if at all.)

We’ve blasted broscience and magazine wisdom, and shown you just some of the awesome benefits of strength training. You’re ready to give it a shot, but where do you start? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in Part 2.

Photo Credit: Completeeveryday

Learn Efficiently by Understanding Comfort Zones

Empire State Pigeon by ZeroOne

Getting out of your comfort zone doesn't have to be this extreme...

Learning a new skill is hard, time consuming work. Whether you’re learning a new language, learning to play guitar or learning to breakdance – it all takes a lot of effort. Luckily, we can make it an easier and more efficient process if we understand our comfort zones. Few people do, and I see the same problem coming up again and again in people learning all sorts of different skills. They either don’t understand their comfort zones, or they understand them but don’t know where to focus their efforts to maximize learning. As a result, they either sit at a standstill and never progress, or they drive themselves into the ground and never make any progress. So how do they fix it?

Understanding Comfort Zones

Comfort zones are exactly like they sound – the zones of differing levels of comfort for an activity. By comfort, I mean any type of comfort, social comfort, mental comfort, physical comfort, emotional comfort, whatever. The type of comfort applicable will depend on whatever skill it is you’re trying to learn.

Now you can divide these zones into as many as you like in general but for our purposes only three are important. These three zones are the Easy Zone, the Challenge Zone and the Frustration Zone. Each of these is represented in the picture as a concentric circle. The green is the Easy Zone, the yellow is the Challenge Zone and the Red is the Frustration Zone. Let’s look at each one of these in detail as applied to someone learning a new language.

Comfort Zones Diagram by Adam Wik

These are the three basic comfort zones you can occupy while trying to learn a new skill.

The Easy Zone

Any practice or learning that requires little to no effort and generates little to no discomfort falls in the Easy Zone. In the case of learning a new language, some things that would fall into the Easy Zone might be occasional work with a computer program, a one hour language course conducted mostly in your native language or for some people, flipping through some flashcards.

Lots and lots and lots of people fall into the trap of never leaving the Easy Zone. This isn’t surprising, people don’t like to be uncomfortable. The problem is, practice in the Easy Zone is just too easy. The reason it’s called the Easy Zone is that nothing you do here is any real challenge. As a result, you’re never pushed beyond your current limits and never make progress. People who focus all their efforts in the Easy Zone feel like they put in a lot of time, but they stagnate because it’s halfhearted.

The Challenge Zone

The Challenge Zone is the sweet spot. This is where all the most efficient learning happens. Practice here is challenging, like the name would suggest, but not so difficult as to be frustrating. For a language learner this might be writing a letter or e-mail in the target language, ordering a meal in the target language or having a short conversation. Anything that causes a good bit of discomfort goes here, whether that’s the mental discomfort of struggling with new sentence structures in an e-mail or the social discomfort of having to have an actual conversation with a native.

The reason the learning happens here is because this is the not-too-hot not-too-cold Goldilocks zone. When you focus your efforts on this zone you’re working on things that are far enough beyond your current level to challenge you, which is what forces you to grow. The real trick is to not go too far into…

The Frustration Zone

If you hit the Frustration Zone, you’ve gone way too far. The Frustration Zone encompasses any practice that causes so much discomfort, is so difficult or so stressful that it burns you out and makes you frustrated with your attempts. Some examples for a language learner might be trying to understand an entire movie, read a whole book or take a college course in the target language way before they’re ready.

Now that isn’t to say those three things aren’t great ways to learn a new language, but if you jump into the them too early they can seem impossible. After a while of throwing yourself at something that seems impossible, frustration inevitably sets in. Frustration leads to quitting, or at best a lot less practice because you dread doing it. A lot of people dive into things with the best of intentions and wind up pushing it too far. They never get any further than the people who keep it too easy because they burn out and quit before they make any real progress.

Making It Work

The first step to making your learning more efficient is to figure out where the Challenge Zone is. Sit down and think about all the practice you could possibly do, and figure out what makes you uncomfortable or what seems hard but isn’t so daunting that you would have almost no chance of success. Once you’ve got that, just focus all your efforts into those activities.

The list will change from person to person and from skill to skill, but as long as you keep most of your practice time in-between way too easy and way too difficult, you can guarantee you’ll be learning something and you won’t be likely to give up in frustration.

Have any experience stepping outside your comfort zones? What are some things you’ve found help you learn more efficiently? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: ZeroOne

3 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

I Will Find The Droids I'm Looking For by Stephan

Last month I decided to dive headlong into a new challenge – writing 50,000 words in 30 days for National Novel Writing Month. Ok, so really I decided to write 60,000 in 30 days but that’s not important. The important part was the challenge, and it was definitely a challenge.

As much fun as it was, and as happy as I am that I was able to surpass my goal of 60,000 words, I also must confess I’m glad that it’s over. I went into it thinking that, given the amount of writing I do on a regular basis, it would be a piece of cake. Unless we’re talking about a piece of lead cake wrapped in razor-wire and resting on a downed power line, I was way off. It was a grueling 30 days and seriously tested my ability to commit to a project like this. Having trudged through the hardship I’ve found my reward isn’t just 60,000 words of terrible first-draft fiction – the experience has also taught me a number of valuable lessons.

1. It’s Easy to Conquer Big Tasks Through Deconstruction

I’m sure everyone has heard the old saying about how one goes about eating an elephant – one bite at a time. While I’m not one to put stock in something just because it’s an old aphorism, I have to concede that the moral of that one holds true. In fact, the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is built around it.

To most people, writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days seems like a monumental task. It is, really, but that’s not to say it’s unobtainable. In the end it works out to only about 1,667 words per day. If we assume an average typing speed of about 80 WPM that’s only about 24 minutes per day. You can double that to account for pauses to think and distractions and round up a little to an even hour.

Everyone has at least one hour per day they can devote to writing. When you look at it in that light, it doesn’t seem so difficult anymore. In fact it, it seems a little surprising everyone hasn’t written their own novels.

This divide and conquer strategy can be applied to any big task, with or without a deadline attached. The trick is to go over whatever your task is and deconstruct it into manageable chunks.

Want to lose 20 lbs. in a month? That’s only 5 lbs. a week or roughly 3/4 of a pound per day. If you focus on just losing at least 3/4 of a pound everyday, you’ll hit your goal easily.

Want to learn to play guitar? Pick one thing per day to practice (a few chords, a scale, the first few bars of a favorite song) and before you know it you’ll be better than you ever expected to be.

2. You Can Develop New Habits

Not just bad ones either, good habits. Habits that you want to develop. It’s not even all that hard when you approach it the right way.

Like I mentioned before the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is to dissect this giant 50,000 word goal into daily, manageable bites to achieve it in 30 days. If you don’t want to fall behind, you have to be putting your time in every single day to at least hit that 1,667 word minimum. Interestingly, this has the side effect of teaching you a little bit about habit formation. By the end of the month, I found that if I went a day without writing anything it bothered me. Writing daily had become a new habit.

The true key to habit formation isn’t to possess some kind of superhuman willpower with which to force yourself to do something each day until it’s habitual. That will never work. You just can’t fight your nature like that for that long, in the end you’ll always lose. The key is to only commit to a little bit and slowly, as you acclimate, to increase the intensity.

Think of it like exercise. If you’ve never worked out before you wouldn’t jump in and expect to bench, squat and deadlift 300 pounds three days a week as your new routine. Even if, by some miracle, you could do it the strain it put on you would probably make you dread the second week. You would inevitably crash and quit. Instead, you start out at low weights and work your way up.

NaNoWriMo works the same way. If they asked people to write 5,000 words a day, it would never work. People would make a few days, but overall the task would prove too much and people would give up. For some reason, I always see people take this approach when trying to develop a new habit. They commit to working out every single day of the week or to studying for two hours every night or the like. It’s always too much and it never works.

Instead, take the NaNoWriMo approach. Start with something easy and work your way up. Five minutes of flashcards everyday for a week. Anyone could do that. Then bump it up to ten minutes. Still easy. Then fifteen. Before you know it, you’ll be studying for an hour every night just because you’re used to it. That’s how you develop a habit.

3. Procrastination Is Poison

I have a confession to make; I am a serious procrastinator. No matter what it is I’m trying to accomplish that sweet, seductive voice whispers in the recesses of my mind, “There’s always tomorrow… You can do it later… You’re not in the mood to work right now…” Always it tempts me away to other, more wasteful pursuits.

NaNoWriMo proved to be just what I needed to exorcise my procrastination demons, primarily just by being so demanding.

About halfway into the challenge, I faltered. Things got in the way, we had computer problems, excuses excuses excuses. Before I knew it, almost a full week had passed and I hadn’t written a word. Thankfully, NaNoWriMo gives you lovely charts and graphs plotting your progress and projecting just how many words you’ll need to write per day to finish.

My little lapse in attention had almost doubled what I would need to write every day if I wanted to finish on time. What was worse, each day I procrastinated added to the workload of the rest of my days which made them even more daunting which made me want to do the work even less. The more I procrastinated, the more hopeless my chances of finishing on time looked and the more I was inclined to procrastinate.

In the end, I sat down one day and pounded out about 10,000 words in one sitting. I’m still trying to get the blood stains off my keyboard, but it caught me back up to where I needed to be.

If you’ve set yourself to a task, particularly one with a deadline, it is vitally important that you don’t allow yourself to procrastinate. One way to avoid it is to challenge yourself to complete just a little extra work each day, or to pretend your deadline is before your actual deadline.

Now, you don’t have to give NaNoWriMo a shot to learn all these lessons, but I’d encourage everyone who’s interested to give it a shot sometime. If you’ve had a go at NaNoWriMo in the past and have some other lessons to add feel free to share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephan

50,000 Word Challenge: Part 5

M4 Sherman Tank - V2 by DuneChaser

This is the fifth and final installment of my 50,000 words in 30 days challenge. It’s a completely unedited first draft written with the primary goal of getting out as many words as possible in a short time, so don’t expect too much from it. More parts will come each week as the challenge progresses. You can read the previous chapter here.

Chapter 5: Detour

Eli knew of nothing but running. The world around him ceased to exist, falling away into a waking dream. The only thing he was still aware of was the entrancing beat of his own footfalls. And the bobbing of the people around him keeping time with the slap of his feet in the mud.

After a time, who knows how long, the downpour relented and trickled away to nothing. The dark thunderheads bled away from the night sky and the world shone for them under the still mostly full moon. There was a freshness about it, glistening under the moon with the sheen of a fresh rain. Eli was dead to it though. He knew the ache of his knees. He knew the distant heaving of his haggard breath. He knew running.

They were still running when dawn broke over the horizon. As the first warm fingers of light met the group Maj. Hawkins held up a hand and signaled they could stop to rest. It was as if that gesture had dispelled some enchantment over Eli’s legs. Now unensorcelled they collapsed from under him like a marionette with severed strings.

A small thicket surrounded the place Maj. Hawkins had chosen to stop, and they began to set up camp there once the breath had returned to them. Normally it wouldn’t have been hard work, but after the ordeal of the previous night it was near Herculean. Once they were finally settled Maj. Hawkins gathered everyone around to determine their bearings.

They had covered more ground the first night than they had originally intended. Those monsters had hunted them relentlessly through the night, never quite catching up but always calling behind them, taunting promises of a violent, bloody end. It had driven them on and even when the hooting finally ceased sometime in the night they refused to stop moving. They had run twenty five miles that night, covering the distance twice as fast as intended.

“The good news,” Maj. Hawkins announced as he studied their maps, “is that means we have some time to rest before we continue.

“What’s the bad news?” Cpt. O’Donnell asked.

“The bad news is that we veered off course a little. We should be here.” He planted his finger on the map. “Instead, we’re here. Five miles away.” He slid his finger a few inches over to indicate a different spot. “We’re about five miles or so away from where we should be. In addition, now there’s a town between us and the target.”

“So how much farther to go?” Sgt. Lewis asked.

“About ten miles in a straight line. We can’t go in a straight line though, unless we wanted to march right through the center of that town. We’ll have to go around to be safe, which means another five miles or so.”

“We can cover that,” Agent Walker stated simply. “When do we break camp?”

Even Maj. Hawkins looked up at her as if she were a little crazy.

“Tomorrow. We’ve covered more distance than we expected. I will not take my men into battle without proper rest.”

“Tomorrow!?” Agent Walker exclaimed. “We should be moving out now. The longer we wait the stronger their army becomes and-”

“-and it will be much worse if we fail our mission entirely because we weren’t prepared,” Maj. Hawkins finished. “Rest is a weapon too, Agent Walker. Don’t forget that.”

She looked like she was going to continue to protest but the major’s tone had made it bluntly clear that there was no room for discussion in the matter. With a soft humph she spun, the flames of her ponytail reflecting the light of the dawn sun, and marched back to her tent on the edge of their camp.

The rest of the day was devoted to recovering from their harried scramble the previous night. Maj. Hawkins assigned watches in shifts, each rotating so that they would all have enough time to sleep before moving out the next night. Eli was chosen to be one of the first to sleep. Part of him felt it was an acknowledgment that he was the weakest member of the group, but he wasn’t offended by it. He was too exhausted to be offended by anything, and he appreciated the rest.

Dark dreams visited him in his tent. Dreams of teeth, claws and blood. No matter how far he ran they always caught up to him. No matter where he hid they always knew where he was. There was nothing he could do to escape. The last thing he saw was a row of bloody daggers at his throat.

He bolted upright with a start at a touch on his shoulder. Agent Walker crouched in the tent next to him. She had jabbed him on the shoulder to wake him.

“Relax,” she said as he struggled to regain composure, “It’s our turn to keep watch.”

“Our turn?”

“Hawkins decided we would keep watch together.”

Eli scowled a little. He had hoped there might be an opportunity for him to get away again. There would have been at least a slim chance for it when he was posted on guard. Now it would be impossible.

“What, doesn’t he think I’m capable of keeping watch on my own?” Eli asked bitterly.

“I guess not.”

She got up and pushed her way out of his tent. Eli rubbed his eyes in a futile attempt to wipe the sleep from them and then followed her.

Outside the day had progressed to late afternoon and the setting sun hung low in a darkling sky. Their watch would likely be the last of the night before they broke camp. Silently Eli and Agent Walker walked to their place in the center of camp and sat facing out from the center. Agent Walker positioned herself a few feet away so that her back was facing Eli’s and they were looking out over opposite directions.

They sat that way in silence for a while, like stone gargoyles keeping watch on the campsite. Agent Walker was the first to break the quiet.

“I know what you were doing last night after we landed,” she said.

Eli was glad they were back to back and she couldn’t see the shock that flashed across his face. “What I was doing? What do you mean?”

“The reason you were in the woods.”

“I got confused after the landing, dragged around by the wind.” Eli had rehearsed his excuse while they were setting up camp. “I got lost in there, and then those things started chasing me…”

“You were running away.”

“I wasn’t going to stand and fight all three of them.”

“Not from the dinosaurs.” She said coldly. “You were running away from us. You were deserting.”

The chirp of crickets replaced the void their words left as they fell silent again.

“So what are you going to do?” Eli finally asked.

“Nothing,” Agent Walker replied. “What good would it do now? Besides, I’m pretty sure Hawkins already knows.”

“What?”

“Oh I’m not certain he knows, but I suspect it. Are you really so dense? He didn’t assign us both to watch duty because he thought you were too incompetent of a soldier to yell if you saw something. He was worried you would run off and leave the camp unprotected. I’m your babysitter.”

For a second Eli was a little stung by the realization that Maj. Hawkins didn’t trust him. He quickly realized though that he had actually planned on running away when it was his turn for guard duty.

The stillness crept back in as Eli considered what she had said. He had blown it. If they knew, there would be no way they would leave him unsupervised for even a minute. He found his thoughts drifting back home. Eli wondered if he would ever get to see it again. He turned around to face Agent Walker.

“How do you do it?” he asked, his voice uncontrollably cracking.

She looked back over her shoulder and met his gaze. A single thin eyebrow arched upward in response.

“How do you do it?” he repeated. “How do you put yourself into this so willingly? This is insane. Five of us are supposed to sneak through Germany and destroy some secret laboratory?” Eli’s voice began to get louder as his self-control slipped. “And dinosaurs… Dinosaurs! I nearly got torn to shreds last night by a pack of Deinonychus. Who knows what else is out there. I just want to be home…”

Agent Walker waited for a few minutes until she was sure he had finished.

“I want to go home too,” she said quietly, “but I can’t.”

“Ugh, why? Because you have some duty? Because you have to defend our country? You would lose your honor if you didn’t fight?”

“Because I no longer have a home Eli,” she said firmly.

He fell silent. The firm tone of her voice had shocked him almost as much as her calling him by his first name.

“I grew up in Poland. When I was a little girl, my parents sent me off with my uncle to the United States for schooling. I stayed there, living with my uncle while I attended college. We started getting news of what was happening in Germany, the Gleiwitz incident, the threats that were being made. My uncle left at the end of August in ‘39 to get my parents out.”

She paused to collect her thoughts. Eli could tell that this was difficult for her. She had turned back away from him, her red ponytail falling in a curtain between them. Even with her back turned to him he could feel that familiar prick of rage that had always surrounded her. She drew in a slow breath then continued.

“I didn’t hear anything from him for a week, then two weeks. Word came that Germany had invaded my country. I listened intently to the radio every night for news. Finally, a single letter came. My entire town had been destroyed. They had put up some resistance to the Germans and they decided to make an example of them. Every man, woman and child there was killed and the whole area was burned to ashes.”

A spark of anger began creeping into her voice as she continued.

“I was devastated. I didn’t know what to do, everyone I had ever loved had been taken from me just like that. Eventually, I decided I wanted to fight. The U.S. hadn’t joined the war yet, so I cleaned out all of my uncle’s savings. I bought a gun and tickets for a boat to France.”

She chuckled softly. “Looking back on it, I’m not really sure what I even intended to do. I made it all the way to Paris when a man found me. He said he represented an agency in the United States. He offered me training, resources, said the time would come when I would be able to get my revenge. I’m still not sure how he knew, but it was too good of an offer to pass up. He got me out of France just as Germany was invading Belgium.”

The fire in her eyes startled Eli as she turned to face him. “You want to know how I can do this? You want to know how I can put my life on the line? It’s not for honor, or duty. It’s for revenge. It’s because I have spent every waking minute of the last five years thinking of nothing but what they did to my family. To my home.”

She shuddered a little as she realized that she had let herself get carried away a little. Sighing loudly she leaned back to look at the evening sky. The first pinpricks of starlight were fighting to be seen in the growing darkness.

“I’m not even sure why I told you all that,” she said curtly. “You can finish the watch alone. Don’t run off.”

With that she stood and walked off to her tent. It was hard to imagine how a person could possibly slam a tent closed behind them. She managed.

Eli sat alone in the center of camp watching the last few rays of sunlight dim and fade on the horizon. He reflected on what Agent Walker had said. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed. He was ashamed because of what he had said, how he had lost control, and because deep down he could sense she had opened up and told him a very personal thing.

The starry curtain of night was draped fully over the sky before the rest of the camp began to stir. Eli caught the almost imperceptible flash of displeasure in Maj. Hawkins’s eyes when he found Eli alone in the center of camp, but said nothing. He gathered the group together for a quick meal before they broke camp. Few words were exchanged while they ate, but Eli noticed that several times during the meal Agent Walker’s eyes darted away from his, before wandering back when he wasn’t looking.

Tearing down and repacking the camp took half the time it had taken to assemble it now that everyone was fed and well rested. When they were ready, Maj. Hawkins led them back out into the woods, this time in the proper direction. They would skirt around the northern edge of the town that lay between them and the laboratory, making use of the thick woods to keep them from being discovered.

They marched at a good clip through the countryside. It was nowhere near the mad dash from the previous night, but it was no leisurely stroll either. They were off course and nearly behind schedule. If they didn’t make the evacuation point at the scheduled time then they would be walking back to France.

Maj. Hawkins took the point position. How he could tell where they were going in the dead of night in a thick German forest was beyond Eli, though he knew better than to question it. Behind him was Cpt. O’Donnell followed by Sgt. Lewis. He was directly behind them and could hear bits of muffled conversation pass between the two, but couldn’t catch anything of substance. A snippet of a joke or the tail end of a laugh, never more.

Behind Eli, Agent Walker brought up the rear. He felt like he should say something. Even if it was only an apology for how he had behaved last night. Something stopped him though. The words jammed in his through as he tried to force them out, and eventually he just gave up. They marched on that way for several hours, until abruptly the line stopped. Eli practically ran into the back of Sgt. Lewis before he noticed.

“Hey, why’d we stop?”

“Shhhh,” Sgt. Lewis chided sharply. He took his index finger from his lips and tapped his right ear. “Listen,” he whispered.

Eli listened attentively. A short distance ahead of them he realized he could hear a mixture of sounds. There was the familiar rumbling of engines, some quieter than others. Blended in was another rumbling sound, it had a shuffling quality to it, as if men were beating on giant drums as they dragged them down the street. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it scared Eli. He had learned over the past few days that new sounds were usually bad omens for him.

Maj. Hawkins signaled to move forward slowly and silently. The team crept forward, taking care not to place their weight on an errant stick or bend a branch too far when slipping by. Painstakingly they crawled forward until they found the source of the noise.

A road cut through the forest, leading into the town they were skirting around. In the full moon they could clearly see what was rumbling down it. A long column of soldiers marched down the road into the town. The softer rumbling had been the sound of trucks and cars that accompanied them, carrying supplies and more soldiers. The deeper engine noises proved to be tanks, rumbling by interspersed among the troops. Eli gasped as he saw what the strange drumming noise was and Sgt. Lewis’s hand clamped firmly over his mouth.

Marching behind the main column of troops were three tyrannosaurs. They were smaller than the ones Eli had seen on the beach. He guessed that they weren’t fully grown yet, but that didn’t make them any less terrifying. They were being led by collars chained to trucks. Though they had no reins, each had a man in a saddle on their backs. Behind the tyrannosaurs lumbered what looked like walking tanks. Moonlight glinted off of the bony plates that covered their low heads and ran along their backs ending in a bulging club at the end of their tails. Bolted into the bony shell of each ones back was a machine gun mount, the gunners standing behind a mental plate welded to the gun.

Behind the anklyosaurs marched a line of other horrors. Triceratops horridus, Allosaurus fragilis, Stegosaurus armatus, Dimetrodon grandis… Trucks drove by with caged packs of deinonychus, velociraptors and troodons. Men rode on saddled pachycephalosaurs, metal plates had been fused on to each of their heads. Many of the lumbering beasts wore what looked like armor, and banners were draped over their sides. The grim parade passed within twenty feet of their hiding place, tucked into the shadows of the woods by the side of the road.

Sgt. Lewis never removed his hand from Eli’s mouth as they passed and Eli was grateful for it. He knew if he hadn’t been held back he probably would have screamed. He didn’t know if would have been from terror or from wonder, but he would have screamed and it would have killed them.

After a torturous amount of time the column finally passed away down the street. Maj. Hawkins gave the rumbling of engines and tread of massive feet fade into the distance before he cleared them to dash across the open road. They didn’t stop to discuss what they had seen there, but pressed on in silence. Even Sgt. Lewis and Cpt. O’Donnell stopped their quiet joking, either awed or shaken by what they had witnessed.

Eli followed them blindly, his feet moved of their own accord. His eyes stayed locked on the back of Sgt. Lewis but they stared through him paying only enough attention to step where he stepped and avoid the lash of whipping branches as he passed. Eli’s real focus was turned inward, struggling to process the prehistoric menagerie marching toward the town.

He couldn’t believe how many different dinosaurs they had created. The tyrannosaurs and pteranodons had been terrifying enough, seeing that had such an extensive variety of horrors made him feel absolutely hopeless. How can they possibly hope to beat that? he wondered. The task ahead of them had seemed impossible enough already, now it just seemed hopeless.

The break of dawn signaled that they had traveled far enough. Beneath its rosy light Maj. Hawkins directed them to set up camp again in a small sheltered clearing. No one spoke as camp was constructed, and the work went quickly. Once the major had seen that everything was satisfactory he called everyone together.

“Our intel told us there were no major troop movements in the area,” he said, casting a long look at Agent Walker. “What was that?”

She shrugged her shoulders. “I know as much as you do. The area was supposed to be all but empty, only a few patrols. It seemed they wanted to keep the area around the facility looking low-key.”

“A force that big is anything but low-key,” Cpt. O’Donnell muttered.

“He’s right. Either they’re shifting troops around a lot faster than we thought, or we’re operating on very bad intel here. I don’t like the implications of either. We need to know as much as we can about their forces.” He looked up at Eli. “Care to fill us in, private?”

Eli was startled that Maj. Hawkins had singled him out.

“Me, sir? I don’t know anything about their military.”

“Not their military, private. The dinosaurs. They told me you’re a paleontologist. Tell us about the dinosaurs.”

Eli began pouring out everything he knew about the ones they had seen. Presumed diets, their physical structures, everything he could possibly think of. Maj. Hawkins raised a single hand, cutting Eli’s lecture short.

“What about their behaviors? How they hunt. How they act.”

“I… I don’t know. All we’ve got to go on are bones. We can make educated guesses based on where we find them, their morphology, other evidence, but there aren’t exactly live ones we can study.” Eli caught himself. “At least, there weren’t before.”

Maj. Hawkins sat thoughtfully before speaking. “Alright. I’m not comfortable flying blindly like this. We don’t know what kind of enemies are in the area, we don’t know how many men are stationed in that town and I’m beginning to wonder if any other information has been incorrect. We need to know just what they’ve been gathering here. Private Watts, you and Agent Walker are going to scout the edges of town. Find out what we’re up against here.”

Agent Walker just nodded, but Eli’s jaw hung open.

“What?” he stuttered, “Why me?”

“Agent Walker is an expert on German military forces, she can tell me exactly what kind of armor and manpower they’ve been massing. You are an expert on dinosaurs, you can tell me exactly what kind of monsters are waiting for us.”

Eli understood he had no choice in the matter.

“We’ll set out as soon as you’re ready,” Agent Walker said. “It will be easier while more of the town is still sleeping. Bring your knife, your sidearm and your binoculars. Nothing else.”

She spun and strode off to her tent to gather her equipment. Sighing, Eli did the same. He had to remove more equipment than he had to pack. He hated to leave his Thompson behind. It seemed crazy to go out there armed with only a Colt and his knife. There would be no way to hide the boxy submachine gun though, and he knew she would never let him leave camp carrying it. Somehow it had grown on him, even though he hadn’t used it since the firing range. The weight on his shoulders was reassuring.

Stripped of most of his equipment, he rejoined Agent Walker at the center of the camp. She had also removed most of her own equipment. The Ithaca shotgun and compact grease gun that had hung from her slender shoulders were missing. There were no longer any grenades filling the loops on the front of her dark uniform. She still had both of her sidearms, a Colt like Eli’s jutted from her shoulder holster and another one he didn’t recognize rested at her right hip. For the first time he also noticed she had two blades. One hung upside down on her right shoulder opposite the holster, the other was tucked horizontal to her belt in the small of her back.

Satisfied that she had studied the map enough to find their way to the outskirts of the town, she told Eli to follow her and they set off into the woods. They went silently. He continually had to suppress the instinctual urge to say something, to make small talk. The heavy silence felt awkward and uncomfortable to Eli. He reminded himself this wasn’t a friendly stroll through the woods. Idle chatter in the wrong place could get them killed.

The route to the outskirts of town were long and slow, though the first sounds of civilization began reaching their ears well before they came into sight of it. The map had indicated a small ridge that rose above the tree line and Agent Walker had chosen that as the best place to do their reconnaissance. They crept slowly to the top, keeping their eyes and ears open for patrols, human or otherwise.

Inching their way to the edge, they found themselves looking out over the town. It was comprised mostly of squat wooden and stone buildings. The timbers of the rooftops joined in sharp points, making the silhouettes of the houses against the dawn sun look like a dark row of teeth. The houses radiated outward from a large square in the center of town. Around the square the fleet of vehicles sat quiet. There were countless trucks and cars. They scanned the town through their binoculars, careful to hang a tree bough over them to hide the glinting of the lenses in the sun.

In all they counted ten light tanks. Five were stationed in the north end of the city, three on the south road and two more in the square. The center of the square served as a makeshift livestock pen. The crates and cages of smaller dinosaurs had been unloaded off to one corner. Most of them had woken up and were squawking and hooting noisily. The tyrannosaurs and the allosaurs were chained to the fountain in the center of the square. The other herbivorous dinosaurs had been corralled together as best as possible by a box of trucks, another square of trucks formed the pens for the dimetrodons.

Eli counted the numbers of each dinosaur and worked to memorize which ones were present. He began wishing he had brought a pen and paper, but realized that was a luxury they didn’t have. As he was looking back to recount how many allosaurs there were compared to the tyrannosaurs, he caught sight of a familiar looking man striding out to the fountain from the large cathedral on its north side. He was dressed in a crisp black uniform, the sun glinting off the bright black polish of his boots. Through the binoculars Eli could make out a short crop of bright blond hair creeping out from his jet black officer’s hat.

He came out to inspect the pack of theropods, barking orders at the men who followed him out. He singled out the largest of the tyrannosaurs to the men who were with him, then spun abruptly and marched toward a the front of the square to begin inspecting the other animals. Eli realized why the man looked so familiar when he saw his deathly white face, punctuated by a new jet black eye patch.

“Heinrich von Schädel…” he whispered as he watched him.

A sharp gasp cut through the air to his right. He looked over at Agent Walker lying in the dirt next to him. She had dropped her binoculars and was staring at him intently. The embers of range that had smoldered in her eyes since he met her roared into an inferno.

“What did you say?” she demanded sharply.

“Heinrich von Schädel,” Eli replied slowly. “I saw him on the beach. He’s down in the square looking over the dinosaurs. I gave him that eye patch, so I’d recognize him anywhere.”

Agent Walker’s intense stare had never broken from Eli’s eyes as he spoke, but a nearly imperceptible shake had started within her. Not bother to control the tremors she snatched the binoculars from the dirt and pressed them to her eyes.

“Von Schädel. You said he’s the one with the eye patch?” she demanded.

“Um… well, he’s…”

“Tell me!” she shouted.

“Yes! He’s the blond one in black, with the eye patch.”

“Stay here.” She shoved herself up from the dirt and charged back into the brush racing down the steep hill along the crest of the ridge toward the edge of the town jamming her binoculars back into their pouch as she ran.

“What? Wait!” Eli called out but she was gone. He didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t figure out what she was doing. For a second he thought about following her, but she was already halfway down to the edge of the first buildings. It occurred to him that now might be his chance to get away. He shuffled in the dirt pulling himself away from the edge of the cliff so he wouldn’t be seen when he stood. This was it, he could make it this time. In the daylight there would be no stumbling into more raptors, no bumbling into patrols.

He got two steps into the woods behind the ridge before the guilt hit him. He couldn’t just leave Agent Walker charging down into the town by herself. It was suicide. What could he do though? There would be no way for him to help her from way up there, and he wasn’t about to run into town after her. After all, he didn’t even know what she was trying to do. Yet, the thought of just abandoning her sunk into the pit of his stomach like a lead weight. He couldn’t do it.

He finally decided on a compromise. He would watch through the binoculars just long enough to make sure she did whatever she was going to do and got out safely. Once he was sure Agent Walker was clear, he could slip away before she got back to the top of the ridge.

Belly down in the dirt again he crawled back out to the edge of the rock abutment and pressed his binoculars to his eyes. He scanned the town frantically for any sign of where she had gone. A glint of red fluttered through his lens and he snapped back to find her pressed against the edge of a building two blocks from the square. A German soldier was walking slowly down the street toward the edge of town from the square. He looked like he was whistling something to himself. Eli thought he looked like he was having a pretty good morning. At least, until he walked by Agent Walker.

If he hadn’t happened to turn and look down the alley he may have made it, but he froze as he saw Agent Walker pressed into the wall. Like a viper she snatched him into the alley, a hand clamped tightly over his mouth. There was the flare of sunlight catching a blade and the alley wall was stained the color of Agent Walker’s hair. She let the man’s body slump down into the shadows. A pool of crimson grew steadily from his open, ragged throat. She peered carefully down the man street and then slipped around the corner toward the square.

She ducked behind a parked truck as a small group of soldiers passed by. She flattened out and slid forward under the truck, creeping closer to the square. Eli followed her gaze, trying to figure out what in the world had possessed her to storm into town. Directly in front of her he saw him. Von Schädel. She was going after von Schädel. What was she thinking? The whole idea was insane.

Eli was riveted to the binoculars as he watched her slowly creep toward the square. He lost sight of her beneath a line of trucks and realized she must be crawling her way beneath them up to the square. A soldier stepped away from the edge of the square and ducked behind one of the trucks, lighting a cigarette out of the view of the square. His smoke break confirmed Eli’s theory. He watched as the man’s eyes went wide and he was practically sucked beneath the trucks. A sanguine streak jetted out from under the vehicle, and Agent Walker crawled out to take his place, her uniform stained in blended shades of brown and red.

She had almost made it to the edge of the square when things went wrong.

The men who had passed by Agent Walker before had turned around and were coming back. As they strolled up the street toward the square one made the same mistake the first had made and glanced down the alley. Agent Walker had hid the body well, but the pool of blood had chosen its own course and was slowly running out into the street. The man grabbed his companions and then ran over to the alley, uncovering the still-warm corpse.

All three men began shouting at the top of their lungs and one produced a whistle from his breast pocket blowing a sharp clear note as they ran back to the square. Agent Walker had chosen just that moment to advance and as all eyes turned toward the shrill call of the whistle in the street, she was left standing in the open. Soldiers charged at her from everywhere. No doubt intending to make it her last act, she whipped both pistols from their holsters and leveled them at von Schädel.

Two sharp cracks rang out in the square as she fired both pistols, but the man didn’t fall. A triumphant smile bloomed beneath his jet black eye patch as he strode up to Agent Walker lying on the paved stone of the square. A soldier had tackled her right as she had fired. The lead intended to rip the life from von Schädel was embedded harmlessly in the timbers of a nearby house.

Eli watched powerlessly as the men disarmed her and pulled her to her feet. Von Schädel barked a few more commands and a soldier struck her over the back of the head with his rifle. She fell limp in their arms and the soldiers dragged her off across the square. For a moment Eli was rigid with the terror at the feat that they were about to throw her to the tyrannosaurs. They didn’t pause at the fountain though, and dragged her further off to the cathedral, it’s heavy wooden doors slamming shut as von Schädel followed them in.

Panic filled Eli as he lowered the binoculars back to the dirt. Once he was sure she was safe he had planned to bolt. Instead she was in even more danger and he was the only one who knew. He ran through all the options he had. If he ran now he could escape easily. He knew it. Maj. Hawkins and the others wouldn’t suspect anything was amiss until close to nightfall, and he could be miles away by then. What would become of Agent Walker though?

Eli swore angrily in the dirt. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t just run away when she was captured like that. What could he possibly do though. He was no trained operative. Agent Walker was a million times more skilled than he was and she had gotten caught. How could Eli possibly hope to rescue her? He had to tell Maj. Hawkins. He jumped up from the dirt and raced down the cliff, veering off from the way Agent Walker had gone and taking the path back to camp.

He burst breathlessly into the clearing where they made camp and was greeted by the barrel of Cpt. O’Donnell’s Johnson light machine gun pressed firmly into his mouth.

Cpt. O’Donnell cursed Eli and yanked the weapon from between his teeth. “You idiot! What are you doing crashing into the middle of camp like that, I about blew your head off.”

Eli gasped and coughed and yammered out everything he could about what had just happened. Words and sentences tripped and fell over each other in a garbled mess as they competed for breath with Eli’s screaming muscles. Finally he succeeded in getting the message across that Agent Walker had been captured and Cpt. O’Donnell rushed off to wake Maj. Hawkins and Sgt. Lewis.

Maj. Hawkins burst out of his tent and ran to Eli while Cpt. O’Donnell went to wake Sgt. Lewis. Eli’s breath had returned to him, and his thoughts fought their way back into a coherent order. He recounted everything that had transpired to Maj. Hawkins, pausing only once to bring Cpt. O’Donnell and Sgt. Lewis up to speed before continuing. When Eli finished his story, Maj. Hawkins released his shoulders and took a step back. For the first time Eli recognized the look of genuine concern splayed across his stoic face.

“So what do we do?” Eli asked.

“You have to ask?” said Cpt. O’Donnell. “We go down there, be bust some heads, we rescue Agent Walker and we burn the place down on our way out.”

“We can’t just charge in there,” Eli protested. “There are hundreds of soldiers. They have tanks, not to mention all those dinosaurs. We wouldn’t stand a chance.”

“Why do we even have to go get her?” All heads turned to Sgt. Lewis as his question hung with the puff of smoke from his mouth. “It was crazy of her to run off down there but she knew what she was doing. She got herself into this mess, why do we have to go get her?”

Eli was shocked at his suggestion. “You would just abandon her?”

“Why not?”

“She’s one of us!”

“One of us?” Sgt. Lewis scoffed. “She’s not one of us. She’s a spook. An assassin, not a soldier. She answers to that G-man that gave us all the shoddy intel.”

“For this mission she is under my command,” Maj. Hawkins stated firmly. “I do not intend to leave one of my own behind.”

“Then what’s the plan?”

“Gear up. We’re heading into town.”

With that the three mean broke off to their tents to prepare. Eli rushed off to his own tent to reclaim the gear he had left behind for the scouting. He looped the strap of the Thompson back over his shoulder, satisfied to feel its comforting weight again. He stuffed every pocket he could with ammunition and tucked as many grenades as he uniform would handle into every place they would fit. He hoped it wouldn’t come down to an outright battle, the odds weren’t in their favor to survive it, but if that’s what it came down to he wanted to be ready. Satisfied that he was armed to the teeth, he raced back into the center of camp.

The three other men had been quicker than him in their preparations, but all three were just as thorough, each looking like a walking armory. Maj. Hawkins had even ducked into Agent Hawkins’s tent and her shotgun and submachine gun were slung over his left shoulder.

“I thought she might want these once we’re in there,” he said, following Eli’s gaze. “Well, are we all ready?” Everyone nodded in silent assent. “Then lead the way private.”

They raced as quickly as they could through the woods up to the crest of the ridge where Eli had watched her get dragged off. As they crouched there surveying the town Eli pointed out the cathedral where she had been taken. The town had come alive as a result of the intruder, and soldiers swarmed through the streets. The dinosaurs shuffled restlessly in the square amid the hornets nest of activity that stirred around them.

They wouldn’t stand a chance going down the street Agent Walker had used to slip into town. There was too much activity in and around the square. Their best option looked to be slipping around the outskirts of the city to get behind the cathedral. Hopefully there would be a back or side entrance they could use to get to her.

“We’re going to need a diversion. Something to draw attention away from the cathedral. Nick?”

“I’m on it sir.” Cpt. O’Donnell slid away from the ledge and started down the hill following the path Agent Walker had taken.

“We’ll also need some covering fire. If there are no other exits we’re going to be forced out on the square. Think you can keep us out of trouble, Holden?”

“No problem, boss.” Sgt. Lewis’s Springfield slid up next to him and he peered down the scope at the square, hands expertly adjusting the dials on the sides.

“That leaves you and me private. Let’s go escort the good Miss Walker out of town.”

Maj. Hawkins pushed himself away from the ledge and began trekking down the opposite side of the cliff face, toward the far end of the town. Eli hurried after him, taking care not to slip and tumble down the ridge. By the time they had descended, they found themselves at the back of a a large stone and wood house. In the distance, Eli could see Sgt. Lewis had quickly gathered a handful of boughs from the forest behind him and built a low blind. The workmanship was impressive, Eli knew where to look but even he had trouble finding him.

Eli and Maj. Hawkins ducked into the first alleyway and began winding their way to the looming spire of the the cathedral ahead of them. Twice they ducked into the shadows to avoid passing soldiers. There was no use picking a fight until the last possible moment. Finally they came out on a small courtyard. It sat behind the cathedral, sandwiching it between itself and the town square on the other side. Six guards stood around the large double doors at the top of the steps leading into the building.

Aside from the six guards at the door, the courtyard was devoid of life – empty of the bustle that gripped the rest of the town. Eli and the major waited.

“What now?” Eli asked.

“Be patient, if I know Nick our diversion will be arriving soon.”

As if on cue, a series of thundering booms shook the town from on the other side of the square. Peering out of the alley Eli could see enormous plumes of fire blossoming over the rooftops and dissolving into black clouds of smoke.

“Right on cue.” Smiled Maj. Hawkins. Before Eli could react he stepped out into the courtyard. The men guarding the door had turned at the thunderous noise and noticed Maj. Hawkins too late. Fire burst from his weapon as he fired and the six men fell one by one into crumpled, bloody heaps.

He raced up into the gory pile with Eli close at his heels, clicking a fresh clip into his BAR. His shoulder slammed heavily into the doors when he reached them. They shook violently as he struggled to force them open, but the lock refused to give. Eli was pushed to the side as Maj. Hawkins’s Browning fell to hang from its straps. He pulled Agent Walker’s Ithaca from his hip and leveled the barrel at a sharp angle to the door lock.

The boom of the shotgun was deafening in the alcove of the cathedral doors as the wood around the lock was rent into jagged splinters. The major’s leg chambered in front of him and his boot finished the job. The boom of the cathedral doors being kicked open rivaled the sound of the shotgun blast as it echoed down the hallway leading to the sanctuary.

Eli rushed in behind Maj. Hawkins and they charged down the hallway into the open hall of the cathedral. Even with the dull booms of detonated explosives in the distance and the fresh blood that clung to his boots, Eli could feel the thick, tangible reverence that hung in the room. They stood next to the raised pulpit, long lines of deep mahogany pews stood in straight ranks on either side of a red carpeted walkway that led to the large doors opening out onto the square. Guarding the flanks of the pews were rows of thick stone columns, silently bearing the weight of the long balcony that ran in an open U-shape above the sanctuary.

To one of those columns, in the center between the pulpit and the doors to the square, Agent Walker was bound tightly. She looked up at Eli and Maj. Hawkins and tried to shout something but it was mangled by the rags stuffed tightly between her teeth. Eli started to rush forward to untie her but Maj. Hawkins grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and shoved him down behind the pews.

Just as he did gunfire erupted from the balcony above where Agent Walker was bound and shards of splintered pew rained down on Eli’s head. He scrambled towards the sides and pulled himself behind one of the stone pillars. Maj. Hawkins flicked out from the hallway he had rolled back into and fired the shotgun. Agent Walker yelped through her gag as the mangle mass nearly landed on her after toppling over the balcony into a bloody heap.

There were more men above them and their submachine guns roared to life as they tried to pin down Eli and the major. Maj. Hawkins rolled from the hallway and dove into the pew, tearing another man to shreds with his shotgun. As he did, Eli raced down the corridor between the columns and the wall trying to find a way to get to Agent Walker. Two soldiers ran down the steps near the door to the square and Eli ducked to the side, their bullets gouging chunks of stone from the column that shielded him.

He sucked in a deep breath and recalled what Maj. Hawkins had taught him on the range. He dropped to one knee and slid out from the column. The Thompson jumped and kicked in his hand as he fired two quick bursts and the men on the stairs exploded in clouds of crimson, crumpling at the base of the stairs. Pushing himself back to his feet he glanced back at Maj. Hawkins.

He was darting from the pulpit like a demon, spitting booming death from his shotgun. As another man fell with an anguished, gurgling scream he let the shotgun fall and snatched up the M3. The delay was enough to give the soldiers above an opening and he was forced to dive back into cover to avoid the hail of gunfire they sent to find him.

Eli realized as long as they were up there they would have no chance of getting Agent Walker out alive. He raced to the stairs at the end of the church and leapt over the bloody bodies of the men he had killed. His thumb found the cartridge release and replaced the clip with a fresh one, slipped the former in a pocket of his uniform. Once over the bodies he fell to a crouch and slowed so that he was creeping up the staircase step by step. Peering around the corner of the staircase he saw the men who were keeping Maj. Hawkins pinned. Thankfully they hadn’t seen him.

He slid out from the staircase with his weapon raised and fired. The first man’s head exploded into mangled chunks before they had any idea what was happening. The second man’s chest erupted into a mess of ragged holes as he turned to face Eli and his lifeless body rolled backwards over the balcony railing. The last man was too quick to catch unawares. He fired a burst and Eli dove out of the way barely avoiding being ventilated by the volley of lead.

He rolled hard on the stone floor and used the momentum to lift to one knee. The German soldier whipped his gun to face Eli but this time he was too slow. Eli squeezed the trigger of his Thompson firmly, and the man’s throat and lower jaw were torn to scarlet ribbons. Eli was faintly aware of one of the man’s teeth sent skittering across the stones.

Heart pounding, Eli did a quick sweep of the balcony. Satisfied that that all the soldiers lay slain, Eli slapped a fresh clip into his weapon.

“All clear!” he shouted down to Maj. Hawkins, then turned and raced down the stairs. By the time he reached Agent Walker the major had released her from her bonds. She rubbed the back of her head sorely as soon as her hands were free.

“Where’s von Schädel?” she demanded of Eli as soon as he was free.

“What? Forget him. We’re here to rescue you.” Eli protested.

“Where is he!?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Maj. Hawkins growled sternly. “We have to go. Now.”

He handed Agent Walker’s weapons over to her and she cradled them with the affection of a mother who has had her lost children returned to her arms. Shouting echoed from the courtyard Eli and Maj. Hawkins and Eli heard the unmistakable sound of a large number of feat pounding their way to their door.

“Out the front.” Maj. Hawkins ordered.

They raced down the red carpet, its plushness insufficient to muffle to echo of their boots at they dashed to the front door. Eli grabbed the handle of the left door, while Agent Walker took the right. They both looked to Maj. Hawkins, who stood in the center. He did a quick check of his BAR then lifted it to his shoulder. Finding everything in order he gave a quick nod. Eli and Agent Walker flung the doors open and the three raced out blinded by the bright sun into the chaos outside.

Photo Credit: Dunechaser

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