Lessons from the Master: Be Like Water

Tranquility by Sean Rogers

Water is not only essential to life, it makes a pretty good role model.

“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves.” – Bruce Lee

Being like water is a fairly common goal within the world of martial arts, regardless of style. Students of everything from gong fu to karate to muay thai have sought to improve themselves by emulating its fluidity, force and formlessness. Not only martial artists can learn lessons from it though. So what does it mean to be like water, and how can doing so help improve our lives?

Formlessness

Another quote by Bruce Lee that’s often tossed around is this one:

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.” – Bruce Lee

Technically that was him reciting lines he wrote for his role on the TV show Longstreet, but I think it still reflects both his thoughts on the matter and an essential property of water that can seriously help people in their day to day lives.

Water, as he says, is shapeless. It doesn’t fight when it’s put into a new container, instead it adapts and changes to perfectly fit its new home. If an object is dropped into the water it doesn’t fight back it just moves out of the way and swallows it up. This formlessness and adaptability is a quality that everyone should strive to achieve.

So how are some ways we can practice this attitude? Think of all the times you’ve been forced into a new situation. Maybe it’s something benign like going to an unfamiliar coffee shop or maybe it’s something more serious like losing your job. What have your reactions been like?

For most people change, no matter how small, is at the very least uncomfortable if not completely terrifying. The natural reaction when people are forced into a new situation is to flee or to fight to get back to the way things were. Instead, try to be more like water. Let go of all that energy you’re wasting trying to cling to the old way things were and let yourself reshape to fit your new surroundings.

The key to achieving water-like adaptation to new situations is understanding the concept of formlessness. The reason water doesn’t fight when it’s placed into a new environment is because water doesn’t have it’s own form. There is no one ‘shape’ of water, it assumes the shape of whatever its container is.

The best way to achieve a similar lack of form is to work on letting go of your self-created identity. I’m not saying you should completely abandon your personality, but rather that you should come to accept yourself as a malleable being. Once you understand that, like water, your defining aspect is that you are constantly changing you can easily adapt to any new situations that may arise.

Fluidity

Ok, I understand that fluidity and formlessness are essentially the same thing since formlessness is a general physical property of all fluids, but bear with me here because fluidity as a concept for our purposes has a slightly more nuanced meaning that separates it out.

When water is flowing, like in a stream or a river, it’s difficult to stop. You can try and push it back but it will slip around you and continue on its way. Like all currents it finds the path of least resistance automatically and follows it without effort or hesitation. If there is even the slightest crack or weakness it will find its way through and keep going.

You can apply this principle to your own life through the practice of wei wuwei (爲無爲) or action without action also sometimes referred to as effortless action. The idea of wei wuwei is central to Taoism and is characterized by releasing conscious control of your actions over to the flow of the infinite Tao.

In more Western terms – go with the flow.

As I said this may sound a lot like the above point of adapting to your surroundings but it’s slightly different. Adapting to your surroundings means changing yourself to become as comfortable as possible in the situation that has presented itself to you. Being fluid, or practicing wei wuwei, deals more with how you deal with obstacles.

Traceurs will understand this concept well. The idea is that when faced with an obstacle you react instantly and naturally taking the path of least resistance around it and moving on. Rather than slam into obstacles you let the natural order of things take its course as you glide around them.

Here obstacles doesn’t necessarily mean physical things. These can be any blocks to your progress tangible or not. When manifested into your general attitude it can also be an effective way to overcome mental blocks. When you hit a block in your thinking or creativity don’t dwell on the problem, just accept that its there and move on.

Dealing with problems this way is not only more effective, it keeps stress to a minimum as well.

There are likely other lessons that you could learn and apply from observing the properties of water, the way when it’s focused into a single stream it can cut through steel, the way a tiny trickle of it can dig out the entire Grand Canyon given enough time or maybe the way it’s nearly incompressible. Can you think of any other good additions? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Sean Rogers

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

The Meaning of ‘Fit’

Sports by Slagheap

I don't think there's any argument that this is an example of 'fit'.

Everyone wants to be fit.

In the U.S. the fitness industry pulls in billions and billions of dollars everyday trying to meet the demand for new and effective ways to get fit. Books, magazines & television programs are everywhere shouting the benefits of new exercise programs, eating plans or expensive gadgets.

Through all of it, the only single constant seems to be the inconsistency. One author tells you to do this, another tells you to do the opposite while yet another says to do both or neither. Adding to the confusion is the fact that you have no clear definition for what ‘fit’ even means.

Compare a world class marathoner to a world class sprinter and their bodies composition will be worlds apart, but society considers both fit. Match up a gymnast and a sumo wrestler, a basketball player with a linebacker or a bodybuilder with an Olympic lifter and you’ll find none of them have the same body compositions, but all are considered fit and all of them train, eat and live differently. So what do we do about it?

The lazy response would be to just throw the whole endeavor out the window and collapse on the couch with a box of doughnuts, but that’s not what we’re going to do. We need to come up with one solid working definition to work toward.

Defining ‘Fit’

The easiest way to figure out what our definition for ‘fit’ should be is to go back to its original meaning. The original meaning had a handful of parts to it including: well-suited, adapted or appropriate, qualified or competent, prepared or ready and, lastly, in good health. I think we can distill that down into healthy and well adapted to one’s environment.

We’ll skip over the ‘healthy’ part for just a second and go to the ‘well adapted’ part first. If you’re well adapted to your environment, it means you can exist in that environment with relative ease and little to no stress or harm as a result of being there. We’re just talking physical fitness here, your psychological and emotional fitness is something you can discuss with a mental health professional, so that narrows things down to just your physical ability to operate in your environment as best as possible.

Since everyone’s environment is different, this gives a little leeway to account for differences in what people do. For example, fitness for a Marine is going to be different than fitness for a bodybuilder because they operate in different environments.

Now, here’s where we hit a bit of a snag. See, the majority of people are not professional athletes. Most people don’t have any specialized physical activity that they regularly engage in, even for recreation. On top of that, technology has advanced to the point where existing in modern society requires very little effort on our part. We have supermarkets, cars, plumbing, central air and a fantastic medical system. Overall, particularly compared to the rest of human history, survival takes almost zero effort.

To account for this, we divide fitness into two groups, specialized fitness and general fitness. Specialized fitness encompasses all fitness for people who are in a specialized field that requires certain physical characteristics. You know who you are and you know what ‘fit’ means for you, so we’re not going to pursue that any further.

General fitness is fitness for everyone else. People who don’t have a sport or activity they need to specialize for. These people can be tricky since, because of all those technological advances I mentioned, you can eat until you’re 400 lbs. and still live a halfway decent life. Even so, I don’t think a 400 lb. person could generally be considered fit – there’s that ‘healthy’ part to consider, and I wouldn’t bet on a long life expectancy for someone who weighs that much. We also have the problem of deciding which model of specialized fitness general fitness should mimic.

A Proposal for General Fitness

The way I see it, if you take away as much of that helpful modern technology as possible and simplify things down you find that everyone has a few basic things they all have to do:

  • Move their own bodies – One of the basics that essentially every person has to do is be able to effectively move their own body around. For someone to be considered ‘fit’ then they should be able to move their own bodies in as wide a range of movements as possible with as much ease and as much control as possible. Movements should be quick and effortless.
  • Move other things – This may seem like it should be lumped into the previous point but the two skills are actually appreciably different. A fit person needs to be able to pick up and carry their children, lift and move boxes or furniture or help pull someone up off the ground.
  • Be healthy – If you’re strong and meet the first two criteria, but you’re constantly getting sick or eat Twinkies and french fries until you have a heart attack, then you can’t be considered fit. A fit person should have as few illnesses and injuries as possible and should be able to enjoy a long life.

One of my favorite quotes that I think sums up this whole ideal is ‘Être fort pour être utile’ which means ‘Be strong to be useful’.

You need to be strong and healthy enough that if something goes down, whether that something is serious business like a car accident or earthquake or whether it’s something minor like your kid falls asleep and you have to carry them to the car, you can do whatever needs to be done.

Who then should you seek to emulate to meet that goal?

Gymnasts.

How to Be Fit

Of all the different models of specialized fitness, gymnasts fit the above the best. They can move their own bodies around in an efficient and effortless way, they have the reserve strength to move other objects without any trouble, and they enjoy much stronger immune systems than the general public.

Lost Keys by BombDog

You don't have to be Spiderman like Daniel Ilabaca here, but if you want to be you have to be fit.

Most importantly, unlike some other specialized fitness models like bodybuilders, gymnasts tend to possess an extremely high strength to weight ratio. That means out of all the options they are the most versatile and that’s exactly what the average person needs.

The best way to get started down that road is a combination of clean eating and strength training. If you’re looking for a good way to build up your fitness while having fun, you may even want to give practicing Parkour a try.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment for what most people should aim for to be fit? Do you have a better idea? Share it with us in the comments.

Photo Credit: Slagheap & BombDog

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

Lessons from the Master: A Finger Pointing at the Moon

Hello Moon by Stephen Poff

Don't miss all that heavenly glory.

“Don’t think. Feel. It is like a finger pointing out to the Moon, don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.” – Bruce Lee

It might surprise some to learn that, in addition to arguably being the greatest martial artist that ever lived, Bruce Lee was a philosophy major. His writings, heavily reflecting both his love of martial arts and his love of philosophy, are widely regarded as some of the best on martial philosophy. However, for some reason people often fail to see the applications outside of martial arts.

Take the quote above for example. Lee often expressed that his study of martial arts was the best method of self-expression he could find for himself. His martial arts were not an end in and of themselves, but rather a path to self-knowledge. The finger pointing at the Moon was study of the martial arts itself – if you focus only on the study of martial arts you miss the ‘heavenly glory’ of self-knowledge.

On a slightly more shallow level, this quote expresses another truth about martial arts training. Many people who study a martial art get hung up on whether or not their style or their training method is the best it possibly can be. People argue over whether to do kata or sparring, if traditional arts are better than contemporary arts, if hard styles or soft styles are better and on and on when really – none of this matters.

True proficiency in the martial arts comes when you have gotten beyond the training and can ‘feel’ what you need to do intuitively. When muscle memory takes over and, rather than thinking, you just react; then you are a proficient martial artist. People who focus too much on analyzing the training miss out on the true goal of being able to blend elements of the art together in new ways without needing to think about it.

So what other areas of life can we apply this to?

Language Learning

If there is one area where people most seem to completely miss the Moon for their focus on the finger, it’s in the area of language learning. People go crazy about figuring out which method is the best to learn a new language. They try local courses, Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, online programs and everything else they can. As much money and time as they spend focusing on finding the perfect learning method, they never realize that studying a language isn’t the answer and that you can learn it all for free.

When people start getting too obsessed over the method, they completely lose track of what their goal was in the first place. In the end, all language learning methods are fine as long as they get you where you want to go. Personally I’m a big advocate of learning through immersion and speaking from day one, but if you find a way that works for you that is entirely contrary to everything I suggest – awesome! What matters is that you reach your goal, not how you reach it. Don’t concentrate so much on the method that you miss out on your goal.

Entrepreneurship / Business

I know that most of the people who are interested in living the kind of life Caroline and I are working towards tend, like Caroline and myself, to feel a very strong proclivity toward entrepreneurship.

It makes sense, particularly given that owning your own business and being able to make a living without being tied to one particular location is a huge asset in really being free to live how you want. The problem is, entrepreneurship can be really complicated. Do I start a blog? Do I develop a product? Do I try to make my living off of affiliate links or advertisements? How do I handle all this social media stuff?

Most people, when faced with a complicated situation, turn to the experts for advice. This is where a lot of people can get into trouble though. Not because the experts give bad advice, the majority of the real experts give fantastic advice. The problem is that the prospective entrepreneurs fall victim to paralysis by analysis and information overload. They get so hung up on optimizing minutia like post timing and Twitter strategy, that they lose sight of what they were trying to do in the first place.

If your goal is to build a fantastic blog then worry about creating awesome, useful content before you worry about your social media strategy. If your goal is to sell a new product, make sure you’ve created an incredible product and are connecting with your customers before you worry about tweaking every little bit of your sales pitch.

General Self-Improvement

By now you should be seeing a bit of a pattern. When people set out to do something, it’s an extremely common mistake to focus on the method more than the goal.

Once you’ve realized this tendency you can check yourself in any endeavor you take to improve yourself. Whether it’s learning a new skill like swimming, or working towards your dream of traveling the world. Nothing worth doing is ever easy, and there are always systems and methods to help you do those things. Always remember though that those systems and methods are just fingers pointing to the Moon, if you concentrate on them too much you’ll never realize your true goal.

Do you have any other specific areas where you’ve found you or others tend to focus too much on the finger? How did you get past that tendency? Share with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stephen Poff

Why We Will Never Buy Another Physical Book. Ever.

We used to own a lot of books.

We used to own a lot of books.

All our lives Caroline and I have been rabid bibliophiles. When I was little I read through all the books that had been bought for me and was so fervent about needing something else to sate my hunger for literature my mom caved and let me devour her collection of novels – a decision that led to 1st grade book reports on titles such as Cujo and Eaters Of The Dead accompanied by slightly concerned teachers.

I am the kind of person who would have to be dragged from my house if it caught fire while I happened to be reading. My tendency to bury my nose in books while walking has lead to countless Mr. Magoo style near escapes, some of them humorous others genuinely coming close to finishing my life before I could finish the book.

Understandably as a result of our combined bibliophilia we have amassed a fairly large collection of books.

In the wake of going over our goals for our annual review process we realized that owning all of those books encumbered us more than they helped us.

That’s a problem.

One of our biggest goals is to be able to travel and travel constantly. We want to be able to head off for foreign lands and not come back ‘home’ for months or even years at a time. Maybe not quite as long as Benny’s 8 years and counting of constant travel, but something pretty close. Once we begin traveling we intend to put our current house up for rent (I don’t want to make payments on a house I won’t be staying in), so we would have to find somewhere to store everything we wanted to keep until we returned and found a new place to stay.

It just doesn’t make sense to have boxes and boxes of books that we have to find some place to store while we travel. As a result we’ve come to a decision that has shocked most of our friends and family.

We’re selling all of our books.

Or at least, almost all of them. There are a handful we do want to keep long term, a handful of reference books that we still get regular use out of and a collection of cookbooks that we aren’t finished digitizing yet. We’ve also decided to never buy another physical book.

Instead, we’re switching entirely over to digital copies. So far, we’ve gotten rid of a little over 150 of our physical books and replaced them with digital copies.

Why Switch to Digital?

There’s still a lot of argument back and forth about whether digital really is better than a physical, paperbound copy. I’m not going to argue one way or the other for everybody, but for our situation digital is a lot better and here’s why.

Portability

Portability is easily the biggest factor influencing our decision to go all digital. With our iPhones and with Google Books, we can take our entire book collection with us everywhere we go. That means that if I get the urge to read an old favorite while I’m halfway around the world, I can. It also means I don’t have to worry about storing all the books that I have somewhere here in the States. After all, I’d need to either impose on a relative or friend to put up the space for all our boxes of books or we would need to pay for a storage container.

It’s the information in the books that’s important, not the hunks of wood pulp themselves.

Replaceability

If I had only physical copies of my books and a tornado came through and demolished everything or there was a fire or whatever, those books would be gone for good.

Sure I could salvage some of them, or make a list for the insurance company and try to re-purchase all the books I had lost, but with the volume of books we own that would be ridiculously difficult. I would have bigger things to worry about than getting all of my books back of course, but the fact is the task of getting them all back would be slow, tedious and expensive.

On the other hand, all of our e-books are backed up remotely. If everything I own gets destroyed, I at least know that as soon as I can get back on a computer or an iPhone all of my books will be there waiting for me. A small consolation perhaps in the face of having all of your worldly possessions obliterated, but a nice one nonetheless. Even our PDF books are backed up both remotely on web servers and locally on external drives.

Of course, I’ve had people argue with me that those precautions aren’t as secure as having the actual book in your hands. They say that iTunes or Google could get wiped and we would have no way to prove we owned all of those books. That’s true – but which happens more often, houses burning down or all of Apple’s servers getting wiped? Thought so.

Searchability

I am constantly, constantly finding myself referring back to certain books. We have about a 50/50 split of fiction and informational titles. Usually, after we’ve finished an informational book, it takes a little while for everything to sink in – that means lots of referring back to the text.

I have probably wasted so much time digging through indices, tables of contents, appendices, etc. looking for that one paragraph that I can’t quite remember or that one key sentence that is escaping me that ties the whole idea together. If you’ve not experienced this, believe me, it is maddeningly frustrating.

Digitized books come with a search bar.

Sustainability

E-Books are buzzword approved! Wait, is ‘sustainability’ even a buzzword anymore? Whatever. The point is, millions of trees died so that young girls and middle-aged women could swoon over an insipid love triangle between a vampire, a werewolf and an angst-filled, whiny teenage girl.

That saddens me a little.

A book’s value lies in the information it contains, not in the number of tree carcasses that were ground into a pulp and flown thousands of miles to produce it. If the information can be had without arboreal martyrdom, why kill the trees?

It just seems silly to me at this point, when there is a clear, simple alternative, that anyone would want to burn tons of oil to cut down thousands of trees and then burn more oil to process those dead trees into books which are then shipped over huge distances to get to you. I’m not saying e-books are perfect, I plug my phone and computer into the wall to charge to read those e-books and the servers that hold them all plug in, meaning somewhere oil or coal is likely burned to keep them going. Overall though, I think digital causes less harm.

Affordability

Equally important, to me anyway because I’m kind of a cheapskate, is that e-books on average are a lot cheaper than the old paperbound ones. It makes sense that they should be, given what we just mentioned about sustainability. Cutting down and processing trees, not to mention all the shipping both of materials and of the finished product to distribution centers and stores is really expensive.

All of that expense is passed on to you when you buy the book. Just paying for some data, the information that gives real value to the book in the first place, without all that extra processing is a lot cheaper because it cuts out all that extra work.

Do you really want to pay extra, just so you can get your information in a form that has become largely outdated? You could always get all your books inscribed into stone tablets instead.

For all of these reasons, we’ve decided to ditch all of our books and never buy another physical one again. What do you think though? Are these good enough reasons for you, or do you think we missed the mark somewhere?

Photo: Natalia Osiatynska

Memento Mori: A Birthday Note About Death

Genbaku #2 by Mrlins

The Genbaku serves as a reminder of all the people whose lives were cut short on this day 66 years ago.

Before reading, please note that this isn’t so much of an instructional or informational post like most on here so much as it is a… philosophical one. The intent here isn’t to teach you anything new. Rather, as its name suggests, this post is a memento – a reminder. Specifically, a reminder of our mortality; something that I think is far too easily forgotten nowadays. So if you’re looking for something more informational or just think it’s a downer to be reminded of how fragile your life is, we have lots of other good articles to read. Otherwise, enjoy.

Today is my birthday. On this day 24 years ago, I drew my very first breaths. On this very same day in 1945, 42 years before I got here, 100,000 people in Hiroshima, Japan breathed their last.

It’s fairly safe to say that none of the people who died that day knew what was coming. These were people who were going about their normal day, not worrying about whether they were going to see tomorrow or not. There were children with homework to worry about, people planning vacations, people with dates that evening – likely even people celebrating their birthdays, like I do today.

For all of these people the thought that their last few moments of existence would take place that same day probably never crossed their minds. Honestly, they probably didn’t expect their lives to end for years. They were going about their days just like any other when, quite literally in a flash, they were gone.

Every year on my birthday, as I celebrate the fact that I made it around the Sun one more time without my heart stopping, I’m reminded of all these people who had their lives cut short without any warning.

Now, you might think that that’s a really depressing thing to be thinking about on your birthday and you’re right, to a point it kind of is. However it’s a fantastic memento mori. What’s that? Well, my Latin is a bit… rusty, but basically it means ‘Remember death”, or rather “Remember your mortality”. The exact Latin translation is unimportant, (although individuals more learned than I will probably be horrified by my using it as a noun) the point is a memento mori is something that reminds you that you are mortal and one day, perhaps years from now perhaps later this evening, your life will end.

Ok, but isn’t that a depressing thought too?

I guess it can be, but it depends largely on how you look at it. See, I think that most people don’t think very often about the fact that they may only have today left. That, unlikely as it may be, they may be stricken dead tomorrow and then it would be all over. You might scoff, but the people of Hiroshima would have too on August 5th.

I think its human nature to not think about it very often, or to keep living in a state of pseudo-denial about our mortality, but in the long run I don’t think it’s beneficial. I think people just need to look at things the proper way.

There are several personal memento mori which I have around the house to remind me each day that by this time tomorrow I may no longer be drawing breath. These are things connected to lost loved ones or other events which in some way remind me of my mortality. It isn’t a depressing thing, having all these reminders of my mortality around. In fact, it makes my life a whole lot happier.

I know that if I didn’t have little reminders around that today might be the last day I ever have, I’d be much more likely to squander it. It’s really easy, if you aren’t mindful about things, to completely throw a day away doing things you don’t really want to be doing.

In the end though life is far, far too short and too top it off tomorrow is not a guarantee. I’m not saying you should be stressing out constantly to squeeze every last bit you can from each moment you do get, that would be missing the forest for the trees, what I’m saying is that you should be checking everything you do against whether or not, if you were to die tomorrow, you would be happy you had spent your time doing it.

So place a few memento mori around your house and remember, you will die. Your heartbeats are finite and your days are numbered. You have little more than a blink of existence to do everything you wast to accomplish, and there are no second chances.

So don’t waste what little time you’ve got.

This has been your reminder.

How to Fail by Society’s Standards and Have Fun Doing It

Fail Road by FireflyThe Great

This is the path society has laid out for you.


As a male citizen of the United States born into an upper-middle class family, there are certain expectations that are placed on me.

I’m told that I need a good, stable 9 to 5 job. I’m told that I need to have a college education in order to find that career. After all, I’m told I can’t settle for just any job, it has to have good benefits, and a sufficient salary to provide for my family. I’m told I need to have a house. Not an apartment, no, I’m told I need a yard, property, I need to own land. This property better have a garage too, because I’m told I need to have a car. Not just any car, though. I’m told I need to have a new luxury car. I’m told it should be at least as good as, if not better than, what the neighbors drive. I’m told I need to have about two children. I’m told they should be a boy and a girl, though of course I’m told such things are up to chance.

I’m told all of these things are what it takes to be a success in life.

Of course, with all the telling going on, I’ve noticed no ever thinks to stop and ask, “What do you actually want?”

This really shouldn’t be a novel idea. Yet, I constantly find more and more pressure placed on me to do what I’m expected to, regardless of my own wishes. My own wishes, in fact, seem to be entirely secondary to the opinions of others on how my life is best lived.

Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

Live How You Want

All of that advice on how to live a successful life may have been relevent 50 years ago. Maybe even 20 years ago. The thing is, it’s not anymore. Now, in large part thanks to the Internet, there is no excuse not to be doing what you want to be doing.

Chances are though, you’ve been pushed into following a path in life that society wanted you to take, rather than what you wanted. How can you tell if you could be doing something more with your life?

Evaluate Your Priorities

Sit down for a momement and think about what things in your life are really important. It sounds kind of ‘self-helpey’, but taking a few minutes to sit down and list out all of the things you really want in life can make a big difference.

As an example, let’s look at a few of the things that are important to me and I want in life. I want to travel all over the world. I want to have the financial freedom to go wherever I want when I want. That doesn’t mean I need to be rich, just that I can’t be slave to a job that is location dependent. I want to constantly be improving myself, and helping others as much as I possibly can.

What’s most important to me is continually learning, improving myself and helping others.

Compare Those Priorities to Your Life

Look around you. Is the way you’re living right now congruent with the priorities you just wrote down? If you said your priority is spending time with family, how much time do you spend away from them each day? If you said you want to travel more, what are you doing right now to work toward that goal?

Chances are, the life you’re living isn’t one that’s actually going to move you toward what you really want.

I’ll use myself as an example. When I graduated college and Caroline and I got married, we had tons of plans for how we wanted to travel the world and start businessess and be location independent. So, what did we do?

We got a mortgage and bought a house with help from my grandparents.

Seriously. While I am bound and determined to turn it around and make the whole thing come out profitable in the end, I am amazed at how bad of a decision that was.

Our goal was to travel the world, so the very first thing we do after getting married is saddle ourselves with mortgage debt and chain ourselves to a house. I’m going to plea temporary insanity on this one.

Really, if you ask me now why we made that decision, it just seemed like the thing to do. I know that’s a ridiculous reason to buy a house, but that’s all I’ve got. Like I said, temporary insanity.

The point is that it’s really easy to get lost in the short-term and get pushed into what society expects you to do, rather than think in the long-term about what course of action will actually get you where you want to go.

We’re stuck now, because when buying the house we recieved a $16,000 tax credit. If we sell the house before two years time, we have to pay the government back the $16,000. We just can’t afford that kind of hit, and two years of mortgage payments works out to less than what we’d lose if we sold the house early, so we’re stuck with it.

Are we mad about our decision? No, not really. Sure, if we hadn’t bought it we would be closer to living our dreams – but it’s just one more hurdle making the fight to live life how we want a little more interesting. Wouldn’t be fun without a challenge, right?

Once you’ve figured out what you really want in your life – go for it!

It doesn’t matter if you look crazy or like a failure in society’s eyes, what’s important is that you’re following your dreams.

Posessions Vs. Experiences

When it comes down to it, a lot of the clashes between what society wants you to do to be successful and what you want for your life are an issue of possessions vs. experiences.

Society largely places its value in posessions. You should have a big house, a nice car, a fancy TV, and lots, and lots, and lots of expensive stuff. Society assigns value to a person largely based on what they own.

I value experiences. I’m of the opinion that life isn’t about what you own or how expensive it was, it’s about what you do. It’s about the people you meet, the places you see and the experiences you share with all the people you care about.

You don’t have to live your life the way you’re told to live it. Stop what you’re doing, take a look around, and start living the way you want to live.

Be Unreasonable: Live Life On Your Own Terms

Untitled by кофе

Dare to be unreasonable. Dare to pursue your dreams and goals!

What’s keeping you from pursuing your goals or dreams?

It’s a simple question that easily sparks the most knee-jerk angry replies. A lot of people try to reason it away with things like:

“Let’s be realistic, there’s no way I’ll ever do X”
or
“I can’t do X because I’ve not got the time or money – who does?!”

For lots of people, that is the reality they have created within their heads. They’ve conditioned themselves to an unsatisfactory life, one that will inevitably lead to either the deferment of happiness or worse, unhappiness for their entire lives.

Some people do have honest, good reasons as to why they cannot do whatever it is they want to be doing, whether it be losing weight, travel, or living debt free. However, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the number of people who have real reasons, and not just excuses, as to why they cannot pursue their goals/dreams is probably in the 1-5% of society range.

For many, it’s that they honestly have a lot of self-imposed (or society-imposed) limits and beliefs on how life should be lived.

The cold, hard truth of reality is something we’re conditioned to as citizens starting in childhood. Say, you want to explore the hidden catacombs underneath Paris or something else. You’ll soon be corrected, with “Cut it out. Be realistic and get some safe 9-to-5 and make a decent living.”

At any point in life, if you dare to stray outside the societal norms and do your own thing, people will try to be the “reasonable voice” in your life and keep you from achieving the things you want to do in your life. Dare to be unreasonable.

Others, they have simply chosen to spend their money on other things – like cars, every television station known to man combined with a gigantic HDTV, etc. going into debt for various luxuries.

I’m sure there’s lots of other reasons out there… But, here’s the good news: you can change it! There’s nothing forcing you to live a deferred lifestyle, except you.

The rules of life can be broken, all it takes is changing your perspective.

Take a good hard look at your life and consider what it is you want out of it, and consider what it is that will give you long-lasting happiness? What are your priorities? If you could do anything, be anything, or have anything, what would it be? What are the true costs of those things? If you don’t know, look them up.

The next step, is to figure out what it’s going to take to get there. Plan out what you’d have to do to achieve it. I guarantee you that as you continue this process, those crazy ideas look less and less crazy.

You might need to earn more

There’s lots of ways to earn more. You can start a business or maybe freelancing in your spare time.

Earning more can be difficult – so don’t quit your day job just yet. Find what suits you and your ideal lifestyle first and slowly build it in your free time. Test various aspects of it to optimize earnings to fill the gaps in your income. With dedication and hard work, it’s entirely possible to earn everything you need to live on your own without the help of a “real job.”

Surround yourself with a support team

There’s lots of naysayers out there that will tell you it’s not possible, and try to bring you down. Forget about them! Start a blog, join a local meet up of other like-minded people, whatever you need to do to find people who support you and have higher visions for their own lives, do it.

Have Courage

It takes a lot of guts to go against societal norms. It takes a lot just to look in the mirror and say “let’s do this!” If you’ve got a good plan then there wont be any ambiguity as far as what you need to do. Combine that with the right support team to cheer you on and the dedication to living life on your terms, and you can be an unstoppable machine.

Expect and embrace failures

Failure happens to everyone sooner or later. Some fail more than others. Accept and embrace it. Failures exist so we can learn what doesn’t work and to give us even more reason to succeed. Any more words on failure?

Handy Resources

Here’s two really great resources from two people I highly admire and respect. These are great tools to help get you started in planning your goals and ideal lifestyle, and to help execute them.

Chris Guillebeau’s Annual Review: Chris’ Annual Reviews are an awesome way to create goals and plan out how you’re going to achieve them – as well as aid you in keeping on track.
Link: http://chrisguillebeau.com/3×5/how-to-conduct-your-own-annual-review/

Tim Ferriss’ Dreamline Worksheet: Create a “dreamline” to determine the characteristics and costs of your ideal lifestyle. List up to five things you dream of having, being and doing. This worksheet will help you calculate your ideal target monthly and target daily income. Chances are, it’s less than you think. Even if it does cost more than you currently earn, there are many ways (and many people!) for everyone to bridge that gap.
Link: http://www.technotheory.com/download/DreamlineWorksheet2.0.xls

You’ve got a limited time on Earth, and time is running out. Relentlessly pursue your goals and ideal lifestyle while you still can!

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