Why You Need to Stop Waiting for Your Hero Moment

Pixelblock Danger by Cold Storage

It’s dangerous to go alone, take this!

Ah, the Hero Moment.

It’s so endemic to our storytelling, so ubiquitous and pervasive in everything – movies, TV shows, books, video games – that most people don’t even notice it even as it shapes their own understanding and expectations about their own lives. The Hero Moment meme seems built in to our way of thinking, whether genetic or just as a result of socio-cultural forces, and it directly interferes with our ability to do what we need to do in order to have the highest chance of success.

In other words, the Hero Moment is poisoning the way you think about life and making it harder for you to achieve your long term goals.

We want to stop that.

What’s The Hero Moment?

The Hero Moment is that standard moment in fiction where some huge, defining, life-changing thing happens to the protagonist thrusting them into the main issue of the story. It’s usually accompanied by finding out there’s something special about the protagonist.

Harry Potter finding out he’s a wizard is a perfect example. The beginning of just about any Zelda game is another. Meeting Ben Kenobi was Luke Skywalker’s Hero Moment. The arrival of River on Serenity changed all those character’s course. The common thread here is one big thing happens that changes the protagonist’s life forever.

It’s always a single drastic event.

That’s important, because it’s the main reason this particular meme is so subversive to the way we approach our goals. Life doesn’t work that way.

The Million Dollar Idea Myth – Waiting for a Boat at the Airport

When it comes to assessing your future and your goals, people put way too much emphasis on looking for a single, life-changing moment and severely under-emphasize the importance of consistent, grueling day-in day-out work.

That’s so freaking important I’m going to say it again.

In bold and italics.

People severely overestimate the value of a single life-changing moment and severely underestimate the importance of persistent, daily, habitual work.

People are looking for that Hero Moment. People are waiting for that moment when they’ll hit it big. In the abstract they’re waiting to have their own Hagrid come and tell them they’re the Chosen One. In the real world, this manifests itself as the myth of the million dollar idea.

Everyone is looking for that million dollar idea, that entrepreneurial lottery ticket that’ll turn them into the next Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos. They think it’s just like the Hero Moment – one minute they’re sitting there in their boring day job and then BAM they’re hit with a great idea, flip their desk and run out to make their fortune. People expect there to be something out there that’ll make them hit it big.

That’s just not how it works though.

Success takes work. Steve Jobs failed a ton, and pulled long hours to get where he got. Jeff Bezos didn’t just think up Amazon one day and go pick up his billionaire license – it took hard work every single day. It took struggle.

People don’t think of that though. They don’t sit and dream about how they’re going to lose sleep and work hard and devote 100% of their life to this big goal of theirs, they expect it to fall down their chimney like Santa Claus and be handed to them all nicely wrapped and ready to go.

It’s not surprising this is the model in media, after all it makes for a much shorter, sexier narrative. Hard work is perceived as so boring in most stories it gets glassed over in a couple minutes with a quick montage. Having a character spend ten long years of struggle to become a hero is not nearly as convenient as having Dumbledore show up at your house with some dwarves or being given the single most powerful piece of jewelry on the planet by your uncle.

Overcoming the Poison of Inaction

The reason this all is so bad for us is because it encourages us to sit around and wait for success to fall into our laps.

Success is not a well-trained puppy that will come whenever you call it. Success is a rabid, steroid filled grizzly bear on meth with a rocket launcher – if you want to capture it you’re in for a fight.

Sitting around forever trying to dream up this million dollar hit-it-big idea and expecting it to just come to you is wasting your time. You’ll never get anywhere doing that, and even if you do actually come up with an idea, statistically speaking it’s probably going to fail.

The way people finally succeed and get to a point where they’re living a fulfilling life that they actually want to be living is by putting in the hours every single day, no matter what, and failing over and over and over again until their sheer persistence finally gets them through.

Unlike all the fictional hero stories, this is how it works in the real world. Look at just about any biography of any extremely successful person and you know what common theme will be – lots of hard work and even more failures and an attitude of not giving up until they get where they wanted to be.

That’s the kind of attitude you need to cultivate in order to be successful.

You need to stop waiting for some big thing to happen and you need to start putting in the effort every single day to make something happen. Don’t focus too much on one area, try lots of stuff. If you’re having trouble putting in the hours each day, find some way to make yourself accountable until you’ve developed it into a habit.

In the end it’s going to be this attitude that gets you through, not waiting around for your radioactive spider to come along and chomp you into success.

Have you fallen into the trap of waiting around for your Hero Moment or your big Million Dollar Idea? How’d you get out of it? What are some tricks you’ve used to build a good daily work habit? Help us out and share with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Cold Storage

Flow 101: Figuring Out What Makes You Happy

Math Everywhere by Thowi

Unlike a math test, flow testing can actually be enjoyable.

In the last Flow 101 article I explained exactly what flow is and how you can apply some of its principles to your work and life in general to make the things you do more engaging, fulfilling and enjoyable. The only catch is, what if your work is such that you genuinely can’t do anything to make it put you in a state of flow?

What if your work is so awful, or even so intentionally temporary (waiting tables for a Summer, etc.) that it’s just not ever going to provide an opportunity to be fulfilling no matter what you do? Further complicating matters what if, like most people out there including myself for the longest time, you have no idea what it is you actually want to do?

How do you figure out what will really make you happy?

The flow test.

Be Are a Machine Gunner, Not a Sniper

Most people, when it comes to trying to figure out what makes them happy in life, think they’re snipers.

They conserve their ammunition, they plot and plan and select their targets carefully. They’re only willing to commit to a shot if they have a high certainty of it being a hit. There’s an emphasis on strategy and planning and tactics. This is completely the wrong way to go about things.

The problem with being a sniper is you spend way too much time in your head plotting things out. The truth of the situation when it comes to figuring out what makes you happy is that more often then not the model we’ve built in our head and the reality of whatever it is we’re chasing almost never line up. People spend half their lives lining up their shot, picking a vocation, getting a degree in the field they think they’ll love and then, when they finally pull the trigger – oops, wrong target.

Then they’re stuck. The damage is done and they’re invested in something they don’t enjoy nearly as much as they thought. At best most people repeat the same cycle at this point retreating back to the planning phase and spending a ton of time prepping for their next shot with no more of a guarantee the target will be the right one than they had the first time around.

So what’s the better option? Being a machine gunner.

A machine gunner’s got plenty of ammo. A machine gunner doesn’t have to be choosy about her target selection, in fact she doesn’t even have to have a target – there’s enough ammo to burn she can just fire in the general direction of a target to provide some suppressing fire. Sure she still has to pick targets to a point, but she can be broad about it. She can open up on groups of targets and as a result has a lot more options.

That’s the way you should treat your search for what really makes you happy. Don’t plan and focus too much on one thing, don’t conserve your ammunition – you’ve got plenty – go out and try hundreds of different hings as fast as you possibly can. The goal is not to pick something and fixate but to cultivate a sense of activity ADHD. You want to try something, determine if you enjoy it or not and, if not, chuck it aside and move on to the next thing immediately.

How best can you facilitate this rapid testing? That’s where the flow test comes in.

Running a Basic Daily Flow Test

The flow test is an easy way to cover a lot of potential targets quickly with a minimal amount of effort. It’s your machine gun. There are a handful of different ways to conduct flow tests, but the easiest in my opinion is just an hourly check up.

Set some kind of reminder each hour, whether that’s an alarm on your phone or watch or an hour long egg timer or whatever and then every time that alarm goes off stop what you’re doing and note down the following info on a sheet of paper or Evernote or wherever:

Time:        Current Activity:        In Flow?        Mood:

‘Time’ is obviously the time you’re making the note. ‘Current activity’ is whatever you were doing when the alarm went off and you stopped to make your note. Could be working, exercising, doing laundry, whatever. You can be as precise as you feel necessary but sometimes being more detailed can help fine tune things.

For ‘In Flow?’ a simple yes or no is generally sufficient. To recap, being in flow means you’re in the zone. You’re pumped and feel unstoppable and are rocking through things feeling like whatever you’re doing is effortless. ‘Mood’ is however you were feeling while you were doing whatever it was you were doing when you stopped to make your note. Again, you can be super descriptive here or you can put in simple responses like ‘excited’, ‘bored’ etc.

Do this on a daily basis for a couple weeks while trying to do as many different activities as possible and then go back and look for patterns. Are there things that just never put you in a state of flow? What about the opposite, is there anything that consistently puts you in a state of flow?

If you find that your work never puts you in a state of flow and you’re constantly using mood adjectives like ‘depressed’, ‘annoyed’ or ‘bored’, then you probably need to find a new line of work.

Take a look at what does put you into flow, or even just make you feel a little happier. You might be surprised. Personally, I always knew I enjoyed writing – but doing a little flow testing showed me just how often it puts me in that state where I go into a near trance and am just a fulfilled, delighted productivity machine.

By constantly asking yourself whether the activity you’re engaged in is producing flow for you as well as what general mood it puts you in and then trying as wide a variety of things as you possibly can it gives you the data to figure out what really makes you happy rather than just picking something you think will make you happy. From there you can refocus your efforts on those areas and start to shift your life toward doing more things that make you feel fulfilled and happy.

Have you tried any flow testing before? What kinds of things put you in a state of flow? What things just never do it for you? Share your experiences with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Thomas W

Flow 101: How to Love Your Work

Flow by Alejandro Juarez

Flow isn’t just important in parkour, it’s important in not despising your work.

For a lot of people, work sucks.

It’s built right into our cultural perceptions and usage of the word. When there’s something you don’t want to do, or something that’ll be difficult and unpleasant what do we tend to say – that’ll be a lot of work. Clearly ‘work’ as a concept tends to have some pretty negative connotations.

That doesn’t have to be the case though and, personally, I think the world would be a better place if we could correct this issue. Work can be fun, enjoyable and positive. You can love your work again, or at least change your work to make it something you love by using a single principle as your guiding compass.

Flow.

What is ‘Flow’ Exactly?

Flow, loosely defined, is that feeling of being in the zone when doing something. It’s that sense of being one hundred percent in the moment, of effortless and exhilarating activity, of rocking things out with no sense of struggle.

We say someone is ‘in flow’ or in a state of flow when they’re experiencing this. Think of an experienced traceur moving effortlessly through an obstacle filled environment, reacting instinctively, gliding through like a river around and over rocks and pebbles. That’s a person in flow. Think of a writer who sits down and loses themselves at the keyboard, fingers flying in a creative frenzy until a short time later there are several thousands of words on the page and a smile on the writer’s face. That’s flow. Think of someone playing a video game who tears through a level with perfect efficiency and dominates her opponents without taking a scratch the whole time reacting without having to think about what she’s doing. That’s flow.

This state of flow is essentially an optimal experience. Entering a state of flow both signifies and creates a sense of fulfillment and elation that makes each experience being in flow addictive and pleasurable. In general, when you’re in flow you’re happy.

Criteria for Creating Flow

One of the people responsible for studying and defining this concept of flow is Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The main criteria he lays down for what best leads to experiences of flow are:

  • A clearly defined goal.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed.

The gamers among you, along with the more astute people ought to recognize immediately that the list of flow creating conditions is almost word for word the foundation for good game design. Think about the last really great game you played and examine it along the items above.

  • A clearly defined goal – Finish the level, beat the boss, rescue the princess, capture the flag, eliminate the enemy team, etc.

  • Immediate feedback on progress toward that goal – Moving to the next level, progress indicators, intermediate bosses, leveling up, increasing scores, etc.

  • A task that is challenging, but not to the point of impossibility – Tic-tac toe gets old quickly because it’s too easy, you almost always tie. Conversely games that are too difficult (Ninja Gaiden series anyone?) quickly get hurled across the room in frustration. The best online games always happen when you’re matched against a team of similar skill level making it a challenge, but one where victory is still within reach.

  • Clear indicators of when the goal is completed – Did you die? Start over. Did you beat the level? Hooray! Here’s some fanfare and a big ‘You win!’ screen. Video games always make it extremely clear when you’ve met your goal, when you’ve failed and when you’ve got a little more to go.

This general set up that all games, intentionally or not, are designed to be perfect flow inducing environments in my opinion leads to their extremely addictive quality. Particularly as an escape mechanism when your life is spent in work and activities you hate and you never really achieve flow having an artificial means designed to let you experience that state fills a deficiency in your life.

Finding or Creating Flow in Your Work

So what’s the best way to create flow in work that you generally hate? A lot of it comes down to manipulating the variables above to find something that feels a lot like a video game. In other words you want to have clearly defined goals, clearly defined progress and it needs to be at the right balance of skill level and difficulty.

Challenge Vs. Skill Flow Continuum

Manipulating the balance of challenge level vs. skill level makes a huge difference in finding states of flow.

The first thing to do is make sure that you’ve defined clear goals. Proper goal setting is huge when it comes to success in general, but it’s also what makes finding a good state of flow possible. A good goal should be something that’s challenging enough to be worth pursuing, but still within the bounds of achievability. A good clear goal might be the completion of a project, or finding five more clients. Whatever fits your work.

It’s vital that the goal you make must be challenging but not impossible and on top of that it must have a clearly indicated completion point. Memorize 10 guitar chords is a goal that has a clear state of completion, learn to play guitar is not. We want specific – not nebulous.

Next make sure that you’ve set up milestones or progress markers so that you can track your progress. Have things in place, whether they’re smaller goals that add up to your larger goal or some kind of system of points to mimic the way the games work. Are you moving forward? Are you not making progress? You should always be able to tell if you’re looking to create a flow conducive environment.

A good example of something that’s used gamification to apply principles of flow to fitness is Fitocracy.

I’ve loved Fitocracy ever since I got to play with it in beta because it makes fitness fun. Exercise, like work, has a lot of negative connotations to a lot of people, but Fitocracy changes that. You have a clear goal (level up), an indicator of progress (points earned from workouts), a variable skill level (leveling up is easier for beginners and becomes more difficult as you get more fit) and a clear point of success (a hearty congratulations on leveling up from FRED).

Working to apply these principles to your work doesn’t guarantee you’ll start enjoying it, but it creates an optimal environment for finding joy in what you do when previously it was all pain and struggle. Sometimes the trick isn’t changing your current work environment to facilitate entering a state of flow, but rather finding other work that naturally puts you in a state of flow. I’ll cover that, including an easy test to see what you’d love to do most, in the next article on flow.

Have any personal experience wit flow? Any tips on the best way to get into a state of flow or understand what it feels like? Leave a comment and let us know.

Photo Credit: Alejandro Juarez

Scientific Sleep Hacking: Easy Ways to Optimize Sleep

There is Plenty to Do in a New Empty Apartment by Bealluc

Some sleep hacking ideas get a little ridiculous – let’s start with what the research says first.

There’s something about sleep and sleep optimization that seems to captivate people in the productivity and lifestyle design communities. I suspect it’s mostly because people who are deep into lifestyle design also tend to be fairly ambitious and, as a result, the thought of spending less time asleep and having more time to accomplish things is tantalizing.

Our very first experiment in fact was with trying to switch to a polyphasic sleep schedule. I called it a success at the time, but I recognize now it was a failure.

I’ve not abandoned my interest in optimizing sleep though, and since then over time I accumulated a collection of methods for optimizing sleep that are backed not only by my own personal experiences, but more importantly by actual research.

To Hack or to Optimize?

I recognize I used it in the title, but I needed something to get your attention. Honestly I rather dislike the idea of ‘hacking’ sleep. It feels adversarial to me, like one is attempting to game the system or to cheat somehow. In my experience that breeds the kind of attitude I’ve fallen victim to in the past of trying to be extreme about it. Being extreme about it is almost never sustainable.

Instead I like to think about it as optimization.

Optimization isn’t adversarial, it’s complementary. Optimization isn’t so much about gaming the system you’re working against and bending or breaking the rules to get what you want, it’s about working within the system to reshape things so as to be more beneficial.

Another key difference is that sleep optimization is not about sleeping less – at least not necessarily. A lot of the sleep hacking community seems devoted entirely to the reduction in hours spent sleeping, consequences be damned. Optimization can certainly shave a few unnecessary hours off your time spent asleep but its primary goal is to help you feel as best as you can and recover as much as you can.

We’re not looking to break sleep and conquer it, we’re looking to redirect it so that we get the most out of it and can use it to fit our schedule without all the struggle.

Monophasic, Biphasic or Polyphasic

Right off the bat, polyphasic is out.

In the past I would’ve suggested giving it a try if you thought you could swing it, but having given it a try myself and having dug a lot deeper into the research supporting it (there really isn’t any), research suggesting it’s either unsustainable or flat out detrimental such as Dr. Piotr Wozniak’s and trying to hunt down confirmed successfully long term polyphasic sleepers (there really aren’t any save Steve Pavlina and his claims are still questionable) – I just can’t recommend even trying it.

To the best of my evaluation science as a whole pretty much doesn’t support the viability of polyphasic sleep and I agree with that position.

Biphasic sleep, on the other hand, shows a great deal of promise.

Biphasic sleep (essentially taking a nap somewhere around that midday slump) has a lot of research backing it as beneficial, both to memory, general cognitive performance and quality of sleep in general. There’s also strong evidence supporting the claims that a midday nap reduces the time you need to sleep overnight by more than the time actually invested in the nap.

This research reflects my personal experience (or maybe it’s the other way around). I’m a big fan of naps. Whether that’s just normal daily scheduled ones or short, focused caffeine naps taking a little bit of time in the afternoon to grab a quick nap makes a huge difference in both quality of sleep and the the amount of sleep you need in a night. I also appears to have a strong beneficial effect to memory and creativity.

Better Sleeping Through Science

There are a lot of recommendations out there for how to optimize sleep.

The problem is, not all of them are effective – some do absolutely nothing and others may even prove detrimental to the end goal of getting the most restorative sleep possible in the most efficient way possible. We need some way to separate the wheat from the chaff without having to spend a ton of time with self-experimentation.

To that end I’ve only included things on this list that have some type of research backing them that shows a positive effect. Before some people start yelling about how something can be true even if it hasn’t been proven in a double-blind study, I agree. Some things certainly could have a high efficacy but either haven’t been verified in a controlled setting or have traits that make isolating them in a proper study a logistical impossibility.

That’s fine, and I encourage you to properly experiment yourself with these things to get an idea of whether or not you think they work. I’m not interested in things here though that people think work, I only want things that have been proven to work. That seems like the most logical place to start, then you can start adding your own unproven strategies on top of the foundation of what we know is effective.

Sanitize Your Sleep Environment

When I say sanitize here I don’t mean in the traditional sense of clearing it of bacteria and pathogens and things (though, you know, that’s probably not a terribly bad idea too), but rather sanitizing it of interfering stimuli. Things like light and noise can severely disrupt both your ability to fall asleep quickly and the quality of your actual sleep.

The first thing is to clear your room of any electronics that make noise or give off any light. Claims have been made that even the electromagnetic field generated by said electronics can disrupt sleep although there’s been no studies to confirm it. I’m much more concerned with the bright LEDs and whirring fans of a computer, the glow of an excessively bright alarm clock or anything else that gives off light or noise. Get those out of there, or silence them and cover up the lights.

Next deal with outside sources of light and noise. If you live in a big city spend a little extra to get some light/sound canceling curtains like the thick ones they use in hotel rooms. Even getting some ear plugs and a sleeping mask can go a long way. Neither are terribly expensive and they’re worth the myriad benefits of getting a good night’s sleep.

Eat for Sleep

Your nutritional habits have an immense effect on just about every other physiological process you go through. Sleep is no different. Going to bed hungry can impair your ability to fall asleep quickly. There is absolutely no research supporting the claim that you burn fewer calories at night and that eating late at night will make you gain fat. I’ll say that again because this is a frustratingly persistent misconception.

Eating before bed does not make you gain weight.

The difference between what your body burns when you’re sitting in your chair watching TV and when sleeping is about the same. The importance is the macro composition and net energy expenditure over a longer period of time than just 24 hours.

The primary reason, as best we can tell anyway, your body needs to sleep is so it can fix everything you tore up through the day and clean house a bit. Providing your body a little food not only removes the difficulty of falling asleep through the discomfort of hunger but it supplies your body materials to facilitate the repair work it needs to overnight.

The studies here on the actual effects on quality of sleep have been somewhat mixed in terms of quality, so I’ll concede this tactic is not 100% proven but does show some strong statistical promise of being beneficial. In general the best results have been seen through the consumption of fats and protein prior to sleep with some small additional benefit appearing to come from choosing a slower digesting protein.

My recommendation, based on said research and my own personal experience, would be to go for some cottage cheese (maybe a cup to a cup and a half at least) as a pre-bed snack. You get a little fat and some slower digesting caseinate protein in a relatively small package.

Have a Sleeping Ritual

Without getting into motor patterning and neuroscience and things our brains very much like to go on autopilot when we’re doing something we’ve done repeatedly for a long time. If you’ve ever zoned out on the drive to work and realized disconcertingly on arrival that you kind of blanked out and don’t remember the drive at all that’s sort of what I’m talking about. When we do something repeatedly our conscious minds tend to shut off and we go through the motions automatically.

We can use this propensity for switching to autopilot to help us get to sleep quickly (and wake up) by employing sleep rituals.

A sleep ritual is basically a sequence of actions that you do in the exact same way, in the exact same order, whenever it’s time to sleep. This can be anything you want really, as long as it doesn’t directly interfere with said sleep. Go have your pre-bed snack, let the dog out, brush your teeth and do your other pre-bed stuff then go to sleep. Do that the same way in the same order over and over again and eventually your brain will get the hint and as soon as you go through that ritual it’ll know it’s time to sleep.

It’s important here too to keep your sleeping space sacred. Particularly if you have trouble sometimes falling asleep your bed should be reserved for only sleep and sex. Don’t eat in bed, don’t watch TV in bed, don’t even read in bed (though reading before bed can help you get to sleep, do it somewhere else then go through your pre-bed ritual before slipping between the sheets).

That way your brain has a very clear delineation around your bed that this is where sleep happens and that’s it. If you’re going there, you’re probably going to sleep. Just like the ritual it primes your brain to start the sleep process and get you to sleep quickly.

Be Active

Exercise has been proven over, and over, and over again to have a positive effect on sleep quality.

So go exercise!

Seriously you should be doing this one anyway. In terms of sleep it doesn’t necessarily have to be actual structured exercise either, as long as you’re up and moving around and being active in a general sense your sleep quality will improve as a result. Go for a long walk every day, or go play some games outside. Practice parkour. Whatever.

The point is making a habit of being physically active not only improves your general health but also helps your sleep. To borrow Pokemon terminology, it’s super-effective.

A slight word of caution though – don’t go overboard. Daily heavy lifting followed by HIIT or Met Con workouts or anything that causes too much stress on your system can interfere with sleep. You’ll know if you’re over-training though, so just be cognizant of how you feel.

Use Substances Appropriately

To my knowledge there are no recreational substances that have a positive effect on sleep quality. Caffeine quite obviously serves no other purpose than to specifically inhibit one’s ability to fall asleep. Alcohol tends to make most people sleepy and can make you fall asleep faster but it severely damages the quality of sleep, dehydrates you and can disrupt sleep cycles for a few days following (have you even gotten drunk and then woke up the next morning thinking, ‘I feel super!’?) Marijuana use has been linked to both longer sleep periods and reduced quality of sleep which is doubly counter-productive.

That’s not to say that you can’t still enjoy these substances, but you need to do it intelligently. The effects of these on sleep can last a lot longer than the recreational effects last. Coffee, for example, can disrupt sleep patterns hours after the buzz that you drink it for has faded away. Similarly, even if you’ve sobered up, alcohol can still have an effect on your quality of sleep.

So what do you do? Ideally, you should cut off your use of these substances three or four hours prior to when you intend to sleep. For me 3 p.m. is the limit for caffeine intake if I don’t want it to interfere with my sleep.

Obviously with alcohol this becomes something of a problem since socially it’s most common use is late in the evenings. In general if you’re consuming large volumes of alcohol prior to 3 p.m. there’s a chance you have other problems you need to address. When it comes to alcohol the best things is to just understand the effects of it and regulate your use accordingly.

Every now and again going out and drinking late in the evening is fine, but if you do it every night or even every couple nights it’s going to have a cumulatively detrimental effect on your sleep and your health and everything else will likely suffer as a result. So keep it reasonable. You should also drink a good bit of water before bed to try to mitigate the dehydrating effects of the alcohol. You may have to wake up a few times to go to the bathroom, but interrupted sleep is preferential to the dehydration.

Chill Out and Light Some Candles

Falling asleep is a process that, physiologically anyway, starts well before your head hits the pillow. Putting yourself in an environment before bed that facilitates and encourages those process to start will help get to sleep much more quickly when you actually do head to bed and will make for more restful sleep since you’re primed beforehand.

The first step is to limit your exposure to full spectrum light. Exposure to bright full spectrum light inhibits the brain’s production of melatonin which is a chemical that helps put you to sleep. For hundreds of thousands of years the Sun going down has meant it’s bed time for humans, our brains still operate that way. Shutting off the lights and switching to a non-full spectrum light source encourages the brain to up-regulate melatonin production.

That means no bright computer or phone screens and no TV among other things. It doesn’t mean you necessarily have to sit in the dark though, candles are a good source of gentle non-full spectrum light. So shut off the lights and the bright electronics about 20 – 30 minutes before bed. If nothing else, a house filled with candles every night is a good mood-setter for some sexy time.

The next environmental factor to change is the temperature. People sleep best at an average temperature between 60 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5 to 20 degrees Celsius for our international readers). That’s just a touch chillier than normal room temperature, so turn the AC on gently, open some windows a crack (provided that won’t let too much noise in) or don’t cover up so tightly. You’ll get a much higher quality of sleep.

Putting it All Together

You can certainly experiment with additional tactics to improve sleep quality, but these are the best place to start in terms of building a strong foundation of practices that have been proven to be effective. To recap for all you tl;dr folks.

  • Remove noise & light stimuli from your sleeping environment.

  • Eat some slow digesting protein 15-20 minutes before bed.

  • Follow a pre-bed ritual ever single night.

  • Be physically active or exercise regularly.

  • Limit caffeine and alcohol use.

  • Eliminate light exposure 20-30 minutes prior to bed time and sleep in a 60 to 68 degree Fahrenheit room.

Do you have anything else to add? Something I missed? Have you had success with any of these tactics? Share your experiences with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Bealluc

No One Cares Who You Are, Only What You Do

Car Flip by Alex Cockroach

The world doesn’t care if you’re a nice guy, can you help these people or not?

Imagine for a moment that you’re walking down a quiet street minding your own business when a car driven by a distracted teenager veers around the corner and up onto the sidewalk and clips you (don’t text and drive kids).

You tumble through the air and hit the ground in a heap a few yards away and the teen speeds off. You’re a bloody mess, and are barely hanging on to consciousness when you see a stranger running towards you. He runs up to you and kneels down.

“Wow, you’re really messed up,” he says. “Your one leg’s popped out of its socket, want me to put it back for you?”

“Are… are you a doctor?” you ask.

“No. But I’m a really nice guy.”

Even with tunnel vision setting in you manage a pretty good ‘What the hell’s wrong with you’ look. “If you’re not a doctor can you at least call an ambulance?” you ask.

He shakes his head. “Nope. Sorry. I’m super honest though, and I have a great sense of humor. Oh! I’m a great father too!”

It’s at this point you use the last of your ebbing strength to grab him by the shirt with both hands and pull your broken husk to his face to scream “I don’t care! Do something to help me!”

Actions Speak Louder

It may seem like an extreme example, but society and everyone you meet is the accident victim bleeding out on the street and you’re the guy running up to help.

Everyone needs something. The question is whether or not you’re able to provide that something. If you are then you’re useful, if not – well then in general no one’s really going to care about you.

If that seems harsh to you it’s for two reasons. The first is that it is harsh. Deal with it. The second is that modern culture as a whole has drifted in the direction of pretending to value states over actions. People tend to judge their value based on what they are rather than what theydo.

Not sure if you do too? Ask yourself really quick what makes you so great, why anyone else should care about you. If you’re like most people you default to states of being over actions. You’ll say things like, “I’m nice, I’m funny, I’m a hard worker, I’m generous” etc. When you should be saying things like, “I tell great jokes, I donate 10% of my income to charity and I make a mind-exploding grilled cheese sandwich”.

Everyone needs something. This doesn’t have to be anything huge – they might just need a hug or a little bit of support. Either way there’s something they need and your value to them hinges entirely on your ability to provide things that they need. It doesn’t matter if these are things they know they need or not, just that you are able to provide something of value via your actions.

Learning to Walk Your Talk

If you realize that you fall into this category of people who emphasize states over actions, if you’re the useless guy running up to the accident victim with nothing at all to offer but assurances you’re a nice person – you need to change the way you approach the world.

After all, what do those states even mean if they’re not backed up by actions?

Are you a nice guy if all you ever do is think nice thoughts? If you had two friends and one of them helped you move, like physically picked up your couch and put it in the truck, and the other one just thought really nice thoughts about helping you move, who would you actually consider to be the nice person?

Before you start insisting that all the good traits about yourself you listed when I asked you why anyone should care you exist are backed up by concrete actions – are they?

As a result of this swing toward the ‘it’s who you are inside that counts’ bullshit a lot of people just go on making reaffirmations to themselves that they’re funny, or a nice person, or whatever. Then when you ask them what they actually do that’s so funny, or nice or anything else all you get back is a blank stare and lots of ‘ums’.

So stop thinking about yourself in those terms. Understand that you are what you do.

You are. I don’t care about your hipster, post-postmodernist, feel-good notions of internally derived self-worth. You are what you do. That doesn’t have to mean you are what you do for a living necessarily, but you are a reflection and direct product of your actions and vice versa. So act like it.

Figure out who you want to be and go out and do the things that the person you want to be would do. Change your identity by changing your actions and your actions will in turn reshape your identity.

If you’re not sure who you want to be, pick a new skill – cooking, parkour, speaking a new language, making toothpick sculptures of ducks – it really doesn’t matter what. Pick something and get really, really good at that thing. Good enough to make people take notice. Good enough that people are impressed.

Once you’ve done that once, make it a habit. Learn something else. You have plenty of lives to do it in, so start shifting your way of thinking from trying to be things to doing things. You’ll lead a much better life that way.

Have anything you’d like to add? Think I’m wrong and it does matter that you’re a super nice guy because it’s what your mom told you growing up? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Alex Cockroach

Getting Away With Murder & Living 14 Lives

Post begins below this fantastic and relevant comic.

SMBC - 20120902

Read this, then go open up smbc-comic.com in another tab.

While all that business about every one of your cells being replaced every seven years isn’t entirely true, people do tend to go through major changes in their lives in cycles of seven years or so. Think about your own life broken down into 7 year chunks. How different were you at 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56 and so on?

Beyond the fact that we tend to change in tastes and personality every 7 years, we also tend to refresh our social networks every septennial. That’s not to say you completely abandon your old friends for new ones every seven years, but people tend to replace a majority of them and your primary friends shift. Add on to that fact the general guideline that it takes roughly seven years or so on average to master a new skill or profession and you wind up with what almost amounts to a brand new person every seven years.

I think that’s absolutely fantastic.

Your 14 Lives

Assuming you live to be 100 years old, broken into seven year increments, you’ll get to live a total of fourteen lives. If we cut out the first seven years since a lot of that time is spent getting comfortable in your own skin and even bring your life expectancy down a bit to be less optimistic you still have about 11 lives to make use of.

Eleven opportunities to completely reinvent yourself. Eleven opportunities to start over fresh and be the person you want to be. Eleven opportunities to go try something new and crazy knowing that after seven years you can ditch that and try something else.

Isn’t that exciting?

In general this is a process that you’ll go through on your own, whether you intend to or not. No matter what you do you’re going to change and it’ll probably happen in roughly seven year increments and even if you fight it, you’re only going to delay the inevitable.

What’s worse is that, much like dreading and fussing over and denying the coming of your eventual real demise is only going to make the time you’ve got here right now less enjoyable, worrying and dreading over your septennial resurrection or trying to deny it completely will only taint the time you’ve got now.

Rather than dread these septenni-deaths, embrace them. Make the most out of them. The way I see it I’m not interested in just letting myself die and be reborn every seven years, I take it upon myself to purposefully and intentionally murder my former self every seven years in order to be reborn the way I want.

Murder As a Form of Self-Improvement

Most people have no idea who they are.

I genuinely believe that. I really think that the vast majority of people have less of a notion of who they are, who they really are than the people around them do, because they never think to actually sit down and ask themselves, “Who the hell am I?”

That’s really sad to me, because not only do I think it takes a lot of the person’s self-determination away from them (how can you make informed decisions about where you want your future to go if you don’t even know who you are?) I also think it leads to an extreme lack of fulfillment. You have to know what you want to find a fulfilling life and that’s exponentially difficult if you don’t have a handle on your true self.

The septennial life cycle allows for a golden opportunity to closely examine who you are, who you really are, and change the parts you don’t like anymore.

These little deaths allow you to not only ask yourself the existentially important question, “Who the hell am I?”, but it also allows you to ask yourself the more important question practically, “Who the hell do I want to be?”

Because of this I relish these opportunities. I see them as an opportunity to murder my old self and become someone completely new.

Now, when I say murder that doesn’t mean you have to hate your old self. In fact I find that kind of attitude to be generally negative. I just use that term to emphasize the fact that I think it should be a directed, guided, intentional process. You’re putting your former self in the ground. Chapter closed. Moving on.

Making the Most of Your 11 Lives

Given the septennial nature of these mini-deaths I think it’s important not to squander them – they take too long to come around again to be wasteful with. To that end here are some things I think can help you make the most of your phoenixian transitions.

  • Let Go of Unfinished Business – Dwelling on your past life after it’s over is counter-productive. You’re not a ghost, so just let go. Even if you were really great at something in the past or there was a part of your life you loved that’s gone for one reason or another it’s best to just let it go. There’s a reason the roots for the word ‘nostalgia’ mean ‘old wounds’.

    Instead, focus on the boundless opportunities that lie ahead of you. The old things were great, but they’re gone and not coming back. Reliving past glory in your head is living in fiction. Turn your attention to all the lives you’ve got ahead of you instead. Think about all the possibilities and the great things you could do. Then go out and do them.

  • Don’t Cling to Life – Just because you’ve done something one way for the past seven years, for this whole lifetime, doesn’t mean you should refuse to let it go. There are certainly things you can choose to let carry over into your new life, but don’t artificially prolong the old one.

    Putting yourself on septennial life support because you’re scared to let yourself die is a natural reaction. Death is scary, even if it’s symbolic. Don’t fear the unknown though, embrace it. The unknown is potential. The unknown is a promise that there might be something more, something better. You can never improve in anything if you stay with your comfort zone, so step out of it and let yourself die – or even murder yourself on purpose – and get on with the process of being reborn as someone better.

  • Live Each Life Intentionally – Just letting yourself die and be reborn is good, but leaving the process unguided leaves so much potential on the table. Harness that potential by guiding the process as much as possible. Ask yourself during this seven year transition period what you like about yourself, who you really are and who you want to be.

    List all the things you dislike about yourself and all the things you love about yourself, list all the things you want to do or have always wished you could learn or try, then figure out all the things you can do to embrace the good things, chase your dreams and abandon everything about yourself you no longer like. Make it a purposeful, intentional process.

    This isn’t necessarily an easy thing. You may have to cut out old friends who are leading you down paths you don’t want to take, you may have to make big changes in your career or habits or routine.

    It’s all worth it though since it grants you the opportunity to live an entirely brand new life, chase your own destiny and master something you’ve always wished you could do.

Near Limitless Possibilities

The key principle of the idea of septennial lifespans is, determinism and social mobility aside, you have access to a near limitless amount of potential.

You don’t have to feel constrained by your current life. If you’re feeling unfulfilled and bored with life, if you feel like you’re missing out on something or chasing a goal you don’t really care about, that’s fine! You have the opportunity to write a brand new chapter, really a brand new book, every seven years. Bury the life you hate and rebuild the one you want to live atop its grave.

Have you gone through any big septennial life changes? Have any other tips you’d like to add to make the process more beneficial or efficient? Leave a comment and hare it with us! While you’re at it, go leave a friendly comment over at SMBC too, or pick up a prettier poster form of the comic above – they deserve it!

Photo Credit: Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

26 Lessons from a Quarter Century of Failures, Successes and Troublemaking

26 by Katherine McAdoo

I’ve certainly more than 26 things in 26 years, but these are some of the more important ones.

I am 26 years old – and it terrifies me.

It terrifies me because I recognize that my life is at least a quarter over. Sure I might get hit by bus tomorrow, but even if I have a good run I can’t reasonably expect to make it much past 100. So I’m a quarter done. I’m a quarter done and that terrifies me because I feel like I should be further along in my goals toward achieving the life I want to live.

I know, I know – people will say to calm down and enjoy my life as it is. To be happy with what I’ve got. I am, to be honest, and this shouldn’t be seen as a complaint. While grateful for everything I’ve got I hate complacency. I’m an ambitious person, whether you apply that word as praise or as an insult, so complacency is anathema to me. You can be simultaneously grateful for what you have yet hungry to accomplish more and that is the terribly uncomfortable place I find myself sitting in now.

So – both to assist those who find themselves younger (or older) than myself and yet to seize their ideal life, and for the entirely more selfish purpose of assuaging my own dread that I’ll find myself twenty-six years hence with my goals still unachieved – I’ve collected a list of 26 lessons I’ve learned over my time spent circling the Sun.

1. Everyone Has an Opinion on What’s Right for You – You Don’t Have to Accept It

Everyone, from your friends and your family to complete strangers and society itself, is going to have a strong opinion on what you should do with your life. In my experience it’s usually a lot of bullshit. That’s not to say in the case of those close to you they don’t have your best interests in mind – when your parents push you toward a certain lifestyle they probably are doing it out of love.

It’s also not to say all opinions or advice are wrong, if you’re a crack addict and people tell you to stop that’s definitely a good (if extreme) example of advice you should take. The problem is when you don’t think about the advice you get and just follow it blindly. You go to college, find a job that you’re complacent with and dig in for an uneventful, unfulfilled life following the script society wrote for you. You spend your whole life fishing only to realize far too late that you never wanted fish in the first place.

Take every bit of advice you get with a healthy dose of skepticism. Judge each on its merits for you and then write your own story. You only get one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s narrative.

2. If You Aren’t Pissing People Off, You’re Not Living Boldly Enough

People who create, people who follow their own path, people who do things on their own terms, they inevitably piss people off. There are lots of reasons for this ranging from people just being upset that you’re challenging their beliefs to being jealous that you’re actually doing what you want while they’re still dancing to the unfulfilling tune everyone else has been following. Great things piss off small people.

That means that if you want to do great things you should expect to piss some people off.

There’s two lessons really from this realization because not only does it mean you shouldn’t let the pissed off people get to you, but it also means if you aren’t pissing people off you’re probably not being loud enough. That’s not to say loud in an obnoxious, in-your-face kind of way, but loud in the sense that you’re doing your own thing proudly and don’t care what anyone thinks. If people aren’t pissed off at you then you might need to find something else even greater to pursue.

3. If You’re Comfortable You Aren’t Moving Fast Enough

This ties strongly into the above point – in general if you’re reasonably comfortable you’re probably not moving fast enough. We just don’t learn well inside our comfort zone.

That’s not to say you should be hurtling through life in a stressed out ball of manic inertia, but you should be just outside your comfort zone. You shouldn’t be ripping your hair out, but there should be that tiny bit of pressure edging you on to do just a little more, to go just a little faster. That tiny bit of stress is what’s going to keep you improving throughout your life and keep you from stagnating.

4. Fear Can Be Healthy, but Don’t Let it Control You

I’m not going to tell you to not be afraid of anything, or to ignore all of your fears – they’re there for a reason in the general sense and definitely do serve a strong purpose in keeping you from doing stupid things and getting hurt.

The problem is most people’s fear is seriously overactive.

People wind up terrified of any sort of loss or temporary discomfort, so they sit in their same place their entire life making excuses and resenting their complacency only to die unfulfilled and secretly miserable. If anything you should be scared of that!

You should always acknowledge your fears, because they may be helping you avoid something stupid, but don’t let them rule you. Look your fears in the eye, judge them, and if it turns out they were less lion and more housecat then give them a pat on the head, step right over them and go do something great. You own your own fears, not the other way around, so act like it damn it.

5. Aim for Big Things

I absolutely hate the saying, “Aim for the Moon because even if you miss you’ll land among the stars”. I’m sorry Mr. Stone, you were a great philanthropist and all but your saying is repeated way too much and it belies an extreme ignorance of astronomy.

That being said, I begrudgingly accept the premise. Your goals should be big enough to scare the hell out of you. Aiming for small, achievable things is a great way to build up to a much bigger goal, but if all you ever go for long term are the little achievable things you’re never going to get anywhere.

Big, ambitious, mildly insane goals are the most motivating and will provide the most inspiration for you to actually get out there and do them. There’s an inherent drive to chasing something that seems impossible not present when you only go for things you think you can do. Besides, that’s kind of self-denigrating isn’t it? Don’t sell yourself short, you can do great things so go out and actually do them.

6. You’ll Become the People Around You, Choose Wisely

No matter how much I tell you to ignore what everyone else tells you about how you should live your life, the fact is you’re going to wind up a lot like the people you hang out with. It’s unavoidable. I’m fairly staunchly anti-conformist but even I’ll start adopting the traits and mannerisms of those I surround myself with.

So what do you do about it?

Rather than fight it (you’ll lose), break out some social Aikido and turn that unavoidable fact into a benefit rather than a pitfall. Instead of worrying about being dragged down by people with habits, goals and lifestyles contrary to your own surround yourself with those living the life you want to live.

If you want to be fit, hang out with fit people. If you want to be an entrepreneur hang out with other entrepreneurs. You don’t necessarily have to ditch your old friends (though if they’re being that big of a drag on your life it might not be such a bad thing), you just have to find other people to be around who act as a positive force in your life.

7. Always Be Looking for Ways to Help People

The best way to find meaning in your own life is to help create meaning in the lives of others. Living a completely free life where you have enough passive income that you barely have to work and essentially have the funds to do whatever you want whenever you want doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be happy. You can have everything you think you want in life and still lack meaning.

So find ways to help people.

Whether that means volunteering somewhere, giving to charity or creating something awesome that helps people finding some way to make other people’s lives better will add a lot to your own. Beyond the general altruism thing, there is a self-centered side of making a rule of helping people – the more you help others the more they’ll be happy to help you.

That’s not to say you should help people just so they’ll owe you a favor, people can usually tell when you’re lending a hand for purely selfish reasons. The point is just that when you try to do a little something everyday to help others just for goodness of helping people out it’ll come back to you one way or another for your own benefit.

8. Things Are Easier the Less You Worry

Spending time worrying is pointless and wasteful. Worrying gives you something to do, but it’ll never actually help you accomplish anything. It consumes your attention and, unlike fear which can sometimes be a positive force, worry only leads to distraction, lack of action and bad decisions.

Stop worrying.

Things can be broken down into two categories, things that are under your control and things that are not under your control. People tend to spend a lot of time worrying about both which is extra pointless. Worrying, on its own, is a waste of your time. Worrying about things that are not in any way under your control, things which you cannot change, means that you are wasting time you could be spending addressing things you can change fretting about something you’re powerless to affect.

Even worrying about things you can affect is a waste because you could be spending that time taking action. If you have an hour to spend doesn’t it make more sense to spend that hour fixing the problem or taking action to avoid or correct something rather than spending an hour wringing your hands and fussing about it.

Spending your time worrying about something you can’t change just distracts you from fixing the things you can change and worrying about things you can change is like standing on train tracks pulling your hair out because you see a train coming – stop worrying and just step off the tracks.

9. Systems Will Always Beat Motivation

I have to give the personal training department head at the gym I’m working at right now some credit for this one, so Chab if you’re reading this – thanks.

It doesn’t matter how motivated you are, it doesn’t matter how diligent you think you are in whatever it is you’re trying to do, if you don’t have systems in place to make sure you’re doing it you’re going to fall short eventually. What do I mean by systems? Systems are things that are external to you that force you to do whatever needs to be done everyday to keep you on track.

Things like to-do lists, Seinfeld chains and daily schedules are all examples of systems that ensure that you’re taking the little steps you need everyday to achieve your bigger goals.

People who are successful inevitably wind up with a ton of things on their plate to juggle, usually on a daily basis. If you don’t have systems in place to keep you in line something somewhere is going to slip. Making sure you have the right systems in place will take a lot of the human error element out of your chances of reaching your goals.

10. Be a Little Better Every Single Day

If there were something of a common theme among all of my lessons or pieces of advice, I’d say it would probably be to never stagnate. I firmly believe that, given the severely limited amount of time we have here, we should do our best to get the most out of it. To that end I think what opens up the most opportunities to get the most out of life is to constantly be improving yourself.

That means that every day you should go to bed just a little better in some way or at some thing than you were when you went to bed the previous evening. This can mean you’re a little better at a skill, a little kinder, a little more relaxed, whatever. The point is to always be improving – that’ll lead to a better life and better experiences. Not to mention self-improvement is fulfilling.

11. Take Time to Play

While I stand by my conviction that you should work to improve yourself every single day, that doesn’t mean you should spend every single day working yourself to the bone. Go out and play. Not only is it good for you mentally and emotionally it’s also good for you physically (provided you go out and move).

Try to always make it some kind of physical play if you can – it’s nice now and again to just chill out and play some video games but physical play, getting up and actually moving, is going to be a lot better for you in every way. Go outside and play a game with friends, or go try some parkour or go hiking or something.

Don’t work so much that you neglect your need to have a little fun.

12. Don’t Settle for a Complacent Life

You might be comfortable. You might have a stable job, no real financial worries, a nice house and a healthy family. You might look around at your life and say, “Yeah, this is good enough I guess.”

But there’s a big difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘absolutely fantastic’.

There’s a difference between waking up each morning, flopping out of bed filled with early morning indifference and thinking to yourself, “Well, it’s time for another day,” and leaping out of bed totally pumped yelling, “Hell yeah it’s another day! Let’s do this!” If you want to crawl back in bed in the morning in dread of the coming day rather than jump out of it in anticipation of what’s to come, something is wrong.

Your life should be so great you wake up before your alarm because you just can’t wait to get the day started. If you’re just trudging along in a fog of complacency because you’re comfortable enough then something needs to change. Don’t settle. Make up your own mind how you want your life to be and then go out and get it.

13. Prioritize

How you prioritize things makes a big, big difference in your overall chance of succeeding. I’ve always liked to follow the 80/20 principle since it seems to hold true the majority of the time.

When you know what you want you can focus on the things that will do the most to get you there and ignore the things that are going to give you minimal returns on your time and energy. The smarter you are about your prioritization the more efficiently you can work and the more progress you can make. This also means recognizing when certain things need to be avoided. Is watching four hours of TV a night really a priority? Cut out the things that aren’t helping you and focus on the ones that are.

14. Embrace Failure, but Don’t Set Yourself Up for It

Failing is by far the best way to succeed.

That may sound crazy, but it’s true. You should love to fail. Everyone who’s ever been successful is successful because they’ve failed again, and again, and again and learned from each and every one of them. They try things, fall down, and then get back up and figure out what went wrong so they can do it better next time.

Take note though that this doesn’t mean you should set yourself specifically to fail. Setting yourself up to fail intentionally or to never try at all makes you worse than a failure. Accept failure and be ready for it, but don’t take a dive on something just because you’re too scared of what might happen.

15. Travel

Travel is one of the best things in life. Particularly travel overseas – the ability to meet a much wider variety of people, experience diverse and varied cultures, broaden your viewpoints and be confronted with ideas and customs you may have never considered is invaluable.

You don’t have to give up everything and become a digital nomad, but I assert that everyone should experience travel to a foreign land at least once during their lifetimes. I guarantee once you’ve gone abroad once you’ll itch to travel more.

16. Read as Much as You Can

Reading is another one of the best things in life, because it affords almost all of the benefits of travel in a much more compact if less grand package. Reading and reading often, both fiction and non-fiction, exposes you to so many opportunities.

Reading not only makes you more intelligent by providing direct information about things but also makes you a better person by exposing you to a wide variety of human experiences. It puts you in the shoes of thousands of characters and makes you examine their decisions, motivations and actions. It leads you to reflect on yourself and your own actions, and to consider that some people might think differently than you do. Best of all it’s just plain fun and relaxing.

If there was one thing out of this whole list I would like every single person younger than me to take to heart, it would be that they should read as often as possible. The world would be a much better place.

17. Don’t Worry so Much About Accumulating Stuff

While it would be hypocritical of me to vociferously inculcate upon you the rule that others’ prescriptions for your happiness should be viewed critically and then turn around and declare a particular path the wrong way to True Happiness ™ I’m essentially about to do just that.

I’ll at least include the caveat that I may be wrong – but I think that trying to find happiness by accumulating a bunch of things is just not going to work. If you’re in the U.S. this is kind of the default modality for how to live a happy life. You have to buy the latest gadgets, own a nice car and a big house. You need to constantly be consuming in order to fill that nebulous void you feel.

It usually doesn’t actually fill that void though, and you just wind up cramming more and more stuff in there until you die without ever finding happiness. That sucks. Stop worrying so much about gathering junk and try to view things a bit more minimalistically. Chase experiences in your pursuit of happiness not objects.

18. Live Right Now, not Yesterday or Tomorrow

Remember what I said about not worrying? That also applies to spending too much time thinking about the past and the future. That’s not to say you should totally abandon all thoughts of anything outside the moment and dive into a wild and self-destructive frenzy of pure hedonism – that won’t end well.

It is to say though that you should think about the past enough to learn from it, think about the future enough to plan for it and then that’s it. Don’t dwell there. If you spend so much time steeped in nostalgia and longing for the way things used to be then you’re going to lose all the time you’ve got right now. If you spend too much time worrying and planning and preparing for the future you also miss out on the time you’ve got now- and that future may never even come.

Be present and mindful and enjoy the moment.

19. Be Social

I grew up as a fat, nerdy, socially awkward introvert.

Don’t do that.

Well, ok, I encourage nerdiness. The rest of it though contributed to a lot of the very worst parts of my adolescence. I understand, as a former victim of extreme social anxiety, that it’s not as easy as just saying, “Go be more social!” I hate that. That’s like telling someone suffering from sever depression that they just need to ‘cheer the hell up’. It displays a lack of understanding so severe as to border on the offensive.

That being said, don’t just accept your social awkwardness. There are steps you can take to gradually dig yourself out from under it, and a lot of it hinges on small, purposeful steps outside of your comfort zone. Put the work in. It’s hard, and it sucks, but believe me when I say that the benefits to working at being more social far outweigh the pain of getting there.

Not only are social interactions inherently fulfilling on a subconscious level a lot of things in life genuinely do come down more to who you know than what you know. That isn’t to say you should approach everyone you meet with the mindset of figuring out what you can gain from them, that won’t end well. You should be social for the emotional benefits, but understand that it’ll help out in a lot of other ways too.

You can still be an introvert – I certainly still need my alone time – but work hard to cultivate a solid social life as well.

20. It’s Never Too Late to Start (or Stop) Something

The Sunk Cost Fallacy is some straight bullshit.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve spent twenty years trudging along in a career you hate – if you hate it trudging along another twenty isn’t going to make it better. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since you’ve put a lot of time into the wrong thing that you should put even more time into it to make all that wasted time ‘worth it’ somehow. That’s just insane. No matter how long you’ve been doing something, if it’s making you miserable stop doing it.

There’s never any time when it’s too late to start something new either. While it’s often better to get an earlier start there are tons of people who have taken up something new late in life and mastered it. Saying you’re too old to do something is basically just decided to not even try and to go to your grave having not even made an attempt to do what you want. How awful is that? Even if your 99th birthday is tomorrow, if there’s something you really want to do find a way to go out and do it.

21. Don’t Confuse Patience and Inaction

Patience is definitely a virtue. You’ll get no argument from me about that. The problem is I’ve seen a lot of people say they’re just being patient, that good things come to those who wait, when really they’re just sitting around wasting their time because they’re too timid to go get what they want.

Good things come to those who wait when they need to wait and who act when they need to act. Inaction, laziness and indolence are not going to help you reach your goals. Sitting around and waiting to just know a new language one day isn’t going to get you anywhere. You have to work for it. Hard.

The same thing applies to fitness. If you’re overweight do you think you can just sit around and be patient until you’re fit? No. You’ve got to work your ass off for it. Where patience comes in is the understanding of the necessity of delayed gratification – that right now, tomorrow, maybe the next few months, are going to suck. They’re going to be painful. You’re going to have to do a lot of things you don’t want to. In time though, if you’re patient enough to persist and not give up great you’ll reach your goals.

22. Treat Your Body Well

Speaking of fitness, in a lot of ways your body is the only thing that’s really yours. Don’t trash it.

Aside from all the ways being fit opens up countless opportunities for experiences, additional freedom and just general happiness the fact is you are your body. We can argue about identity and mind/body dualism all day long, but everything that makes you you is just the particular combination of chemicals, electrical signals and neurons that make up your brain.

While we may get there eventually, we don’t currently have the technology to separate your mind from your brain. That means that you are essentially your brain. Given that we also don’t have the technology to keep that brain of yours alive without your body in what could generally be called a fully functioning way you basically are your body.

So why let it fall apart? You’re not in your body, your body is you and you are your body. We’ve come a long way medically, but you still basically only get one, so treasure it and keep in good shape.

23. You Don’t Necessarily Need a Degree

I think more and more people are coming to this realization on their own, but you really don’t need a college degree anymore in most cases.

There are certainly fields where you definitely do need one, but when I was going through school it was impressed on us that every single person needed some kind of degree or they would never get beyond the realm of sub-poverty line minimum wage serfdom. To not go off to college was like occupational suicide – you were ruining your chances to amount to anything.

Anymore though it really doesn’t matter so much. You can do plenty of great things without a college degree, and not being yoked with crushing student debt can even give you an advantage over your peers in a lot of respects. I’d never say a higher degree is useless either, the point is just that you should understand it’s not necessarily a requirement. Look at your situation, goals and options and evaluate for yourself whether or not it’d be a good investment to pursue.

24. You Don’t Necessarily Need to Work for Someone Else

This follows the above point. When I was young the sole goal in life as pressed upon me by the educational system was to choose my function in society and find a nice stable job at a good company doing whatever it was I decided to do on a steady 9 to 5 schedule for the rest of my life.

The concept of starting a business, of freelancing, of pursuing something creative, none of that was even considered.

With the Internet it’s easier than ever to find your own work or start your own business, provided you’re tenacious and persistent enough. I’m not going to suggest everyone start a business, because it’s hard, risky and takes a certain type of person to find success. It’s just not for everyone. You shouldn’t feel like you have to work for someone else either though or get some 9 to 5 that you despise just to pay the bills. Find were you work best and are happiest and go with that.

25. Meditate

Modern life is stressful as hell.

Meditation provides one of the best ways to deal with that stress and find some peace and happiness in a chaotic world. Meditation leads to contentedness (not to be confused with complacency) which will make your days much more pleasant overall while you work toward improving yourself and the world around you.

Meditation also leads to introspection and a better understanding and control of yourself – something that is absolutely priceless in the pursuit of self-improvement. There’s nothing spiritual about meditation, and even if you’ve never done it before meditation is easy to start. Even five minutes of quiet reflection every day will make a big difference.

26. Only You Can Define Your Happiness

After everything else, this ought to be self-evident. No one else can decide for you the best way to be happy. Take time and consider it, deciding what makes you most happy is not something to be decided upon in haste lest you come to the end of your life finding you were mistaken. Mull it over and test things out, try a little bit of everything. You’ll know when you really find it, and once you do don’t let anyone stop you from going after it.

There you have it – 26 things I’ve learned in my time here so far. Hopefully reading it has provided as much motivation and catharsis as I’ve found in writing it. Now go out there and do something great.

Do have anything to add? Any lessons you’ve learned in your time here, however long that’s been, that you feel should be included? Leave a comment and share them!

Photo Credit: Katherine McAdoo

2012 to 2013: A Year in Review

Ashinoko Dreams by Les Taylor

Getting to Japan was one goal that we didn’t accomplish this year.

Being my birthday today, it’s time for another annual review.

It’s been a really long year this time around the Sun, and I plan on doing this review a little differently than ones I’ve done in the past, hopefully to dig in a little deeper and figure out what went well, what didn’t go so well, and most importantly what things I need to change moving forward.

Rather than focus so much on goals like I have in the past, instead I’m going to focus on what I did, what went wrong, what went right and then where I need to go from here in that order. To keep things simple I’m going to try to focus on picking 3 to 5 things for each category so I don’t get too carried away. So let’s get started!

What I Did This Year

  • Left a job teaching English that I despised for one as a personal trainer that I enjoy

  • Published several short fiction stories.

  • Wrote our 60-page getting started eBook.

  • Became an early riser.

  • Wrote over 50,000 words in 30 days.

  • Hit the lowest bodyfat percentage of my adult life.

What I’m Most Proud Of

  • Planning, finishing and publishing our ebook.

  • Getting in the best shape of my life and continuing to improve.

  • Escaping a job that was killing me for one I actually like.

Finishing the ebook was a pretty big project, but we were able to plan everything out, break it into smaller more manageable tasks and rock the whole thing out in a much more efficient manner than I originally expected. In addition to being really pleased with how well it turned out I’m also happy at how fun of an overall experience it wound up being. It almost never felt like work and when I got into the zone I really loved working on it.

To be fair the fitness achievements were a long time in coming and certainly not down to only work put in this past year, but still. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made in the past year and even more proud of the fact that I continue to improve.

Leaving my job as an English teacher was also a big jump since I abandoned a stable, decently paying job to basically be unemployed while I got the necessary certifications taken care of to be hired as a personal trainer at a gym with no actual guarantee any gym would be hiring. It turned out well and I’m happy I had the guts to go for it rather than doing what was easy.

How I’ve Improved

  • I’ve recaptured my focus / drive.

  • I’ve started to focus more on the future.

  • I’ve gained a lot of control over myself.

For a decent stretch of time there, particularly when I was working the most teaching English, I lost a lot of the drive that had enabled me previously to get a lot done. It was a combination of a lot of things, and a big chunk of it was coming home after work and pretty much just wanting to collapse, but I’ve since recaptured my focus. Now even on days when I feel like absolute crap I can pull things together enough to get what I need to do done.

I also had a bad habit of focusing on the past. The death of my grandma this past April caused me to reflect on a lot of things – it still is, she was like a parent to me and frankly I’m still crushed by it. Part of that reflection was realizing that I need to shift my focus to where I’m going and learn to worry less about where I’ve been and things that I have no power to change.

A lot of the control I’ve gained over myself relates to ignoring my compulsions to resist work, particularly when I’m in a bad mood. It might just be my escape from a soul-crushing job, but I’m much more able to suppress my desire for comfort in order to accomplish the tasks I’ve set for myself.

What I’ve Learned

  • Never miss an opportunity to let someone know how much you care about them.

  • Taking social risks opens up countless more opportunities than being introverted.

  • A little progress toward a task each day for a long enough period adds up to be huge.

My grandma lived in an addition on to my parents’ house. We were over at my parents’ house one day to pick some things up and, rather than stop back into Grandma’s house to say hi and visit for a bit before leaving, I figured I’d just see her next time and we left. Two days later my mom called to tell me she had passed away. Never miss an opportunity.

I’ve worked a lot this past year to be more social – growing up I was the fat, nerdy, super-awkward kid so I’ve always been kind of on the shy side. Learning to be a lot more social and work on my social anxiety has been extremely beneficial and not only helped me create a lot of new friendships but opened up a lot of opportunities.

Between finishing my books and, more lately, the beginnings of our latest challenge I’ve found that stable, consistent productivity gets a lot more done than my normal, manic-burst style. Being able to work on our books daily, little by little, added up to a much larger volume of work than I ever could have accomplished in much smaller frantic sprints. I’ll be harnessing this method a lot more often in the future.

What I’d Do Differently

  • Get on a more consistent work schedule.

  • Check more frequently to ensure what I’m doing is getting me toward my long term goals.

  • Take more frequent opportunities to have fun and relax.

All last year my work schedule was inconsistent and frantic. As a result, some things got done very quickly and efficiently like the book while other things fell way behind where they should’ve been like the couple spans on here and on our other site One Clean Plate that went by with zero new posts written.

Checking more frequently to make sure that what I was working on was actually taking me in the direction of my long term goals is another thing that would’ve benefited me greatly this past year. There were a handful of times I think I drifted a little, or lost focus on where I was trying to go and as a result it was difficult sometimes to figure out what I really needed to be doing.

Lastly, the fact that I had such an inconsistent work schedule meant I tended to go overboard when I did work and burn myself out completely. That meant long, non-productive chill out times in order to recover which tended to be really counterproductive and hard to climb back out of. I think I would’ve been a lot more productive and successful if, rather than working myself to the bone, I had made a point of taking time out in intervals throughout those periods to relax and go have some fun.

What I Need to Stop Doing

  • Wasting so much time.

  • Trying to chase too many goals at once.

  • Depending on work from a company for income over my own projects

The first two are things I’ve definitely progressed in but still need some work with. A lot of my time wasting this past year has come from my issue with burning myself out completely and then needing a few days of moping around and relaxing to recover. That definitely needs to stop. I also have a bad habit of taking on way more projects at once than I can juggle and then having everything fall apart. That’s got to stop too.

Lastly I really need to get to a point where I’m not relying on income from an employer for survival. I am finally in work I genuinely enjoy as a personal trainer, but I don’t want it to be what I subsist off of. I’d like the freedom of knowing the income streams that support me come from my own projects and that I can work as a personal trainer more as a choice and less as a necessity.

What I Need to Start Doing

  • Go out and socialize more.

  • Take more action on goals.

  • Sticking to a consistent schedule.

Like I mentioned earlier in the article I recognize that a lot of success is determined not so much by how much you know or how good you are at something but by who you know. You can argue the merits of that kind of system up and down, but regardless I find it in practice to be true. As a result, I think my chances of being able to do the things I want to do and take on the kinds of projects I’d like to take on will be benefit immensely by my getting out and socializing more, particularly with like-minded people.

In a similar vein I need to talk less about my goals and work more toward them. I’ve always been a compulsive planner and as a result I sometimes over-plan and over-analyze and as a result never get to the part where I actually act on my goals. Going forward I need to focus a lot more on the action.

I also need a more consistent schedule to make sure I get what I need to do done. My experiences with this latest challenge and the Seinfeld productivity method have reinforced my notion that consistent regular work is a much better way to get things done. Getting on a better schedule will facilitate this change.

Why I Succeeded

  • I was willing to make risky decisions.

  • I focused intently on certain projects.

  • I didn’t allow myself to worry about things.

Why I Failed

  • I overestimated my own abilities and diligence.

  • I destroyed myself working fanatically on certain projects.

  • I didn’t spend enough time considering what I wanted out of life.

Those last handful I think are fairly self-explanatory.

That’s my 25th year of life in review. How has your current year been going so far? What are somethings you’ve done well? What are some things you need to fix? Leave a comment and let me know.

Photo Credit: Les Taylor

Stop Fishing: Overcoming the Drug of Consumerism

Consumerism Explained by Vermin Inc

Is there any more iconic symbol of consumerism?

Henry David Thoreau, one of my favorite authors, once said “Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing it is not fish they are after.” (Tweet this.)

I think this is an excellent reflection of the consumerism driven cycle most people get trapped in and then spend their entire lives fulfilling. Consumerism dominates modern life, at least here in the U.S. but I would wager throughout the developed world as well.

It’s a pervasive thing that really saturates our culture. That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except it almost always leads to an artificial and transient state of happiness that leaves people unfulfilled. In other words it tends to make life suck.

So how do we break out of the consumerist cycle?

The First World’s Drug of Choice

To understand how best to escape the cycle it’s important to first have an idea of how it works and why it’s so heinous in the first place.

The consumerist cycle primarily operates by creating a deep sense of loss that leads to a sense of need. When you see someone with something new and cool that seems to make them happy you want to be happy too. Not also having this item that’s making the other person happy makes you feel like you’re missing out which creates a strong internal sense of loss.

Loss, as a motivating factor, is much more powerful to humans than a sense of potential gain. Studies have shown that people who have to do something or lose $5 are much more likely to do it than people who have to do something to earn $5. This sense of loss about missing out on the feeling of having this thing is a powerful motivator that strongly encourages you to buy it.

What does that lead to though? As soon as the next thing comes around that sense of loss returns – possibly stronger if reinforced by being rewarded with a shiny new thing last time it came around.

If you look around at the kind of life most people fall into all of their work tends to amount to fulfilling the next step in that cycle. You work to buy a house, a car, a new phone and then once you have them you work more to get a bigger house, a newer car or a better phone.

Then what? The same thing again.

Over and over you repeat this cycle and eventually you die. If you were successful in the consumerist cycle you leave behind a lot of crap for your kids, if you weren’t successful you don’t.

That’s it.

Do You Really Want Fish?

Shopping - Ecstasy by David Blackwell

If you think every shopping experience should feel like this, you’re probably caught in the cycle.

You’re fishing, like Thoreau said, but have you ever actually asked yourself if it’s fish you want?

When you spend your whole day toiling away in a job you may or may not enjoy casting your nets so can have more money, a better TV, or whatever other thing to cram into the nagging sense of lack instilled in you by advertising and society in general is that really what you want?

Some people might say yes and, while I suspect you’re deluded and just haven’t fully considered the alternative, if you want to follow the same cycle of purchasing new things only to work hard the following year to purchase more of the same things then that’s your choice.

Personally, I find that type of life void of any kind of meaning. I find that type of a life terrifying. To think of going to my grave having done nothing but collect successively newer things is repugnant to me in its wastefulness.

Worst in my opinion is it’s difficult to pull people out of this consumerist cycle because in addition to being socially pervasive it’s a really effective psychological drug. Now I’m not insane enough to think this is some kind of conspiracy or anything – it’s just a reflection of a basic human psychological weakness that’s turned out to be awfully profitable. Regardless that makes it all the more difficult to snap people out of it.

Suggestions for a Life Worth Living

I would feel slightly hypocritical denigrating a particular approach at finding happiness in life through possessions as being followed blindly then declaring that the approach to life I espouse is the true way and you should take my word for it.

So I’m not going to tell you my way is best. It works for me and I do intend to share my own suggestions, but I want you sit down and think for yourself about what you really want in life.

At its root one of the reasons the consumerist cycle is so awful is that its accepted blindly when its pushed onto us by society. We’re all brought up being told we need to fish. We’re inundated by media and a societal model that whispers incessantly in our ears that we would be happier if only we had this fish or that fish and so we start fishing, never asking ourselves if we decided we wanted fish or if it was decided for us. WE wind up press ganged into pescetarianism.

So ask yourself if it’s what you really want and, if it isn’t, do something about it.

When I realized that I had the choice I decided that a life spent devoted to material things was not something that brought me real happiness. (Tweet this.)

I feel that overall the worth of a person is tied most strongly not to what they have, or even what they are, but what they can do and have done. Additionally I’ve learned that experiences bring me much more consistent, lasting and fulfilling happiness than things.

That’s led me to pursue experiences, skills and relationships over things. Finally getting that new super high tech TV is something that, as soon as the next, better TV comes out, I will completely forget about. Getting to have meaningful conversations with someone in another country because I took the time to learn to speak a new language is something that will stick with me forever.

Small Steps to Stop Fishing

So what are some things you can do to break out of the cycle?

  • Give Minimalism a Try – Minimalism doesn’t mean getting rid of everything and living like a hermit. It just means closely examining all the things you have and deciding whether they’re genuinely a benefit or a burden. If you want an easy but effective first step, get rid of your TV. We did a while back and I’m extremely happy about it.

  • Invest in Skills and Experiences – A good rule is to always ask, in making this purchase am I investing money in myself or in something else? Am I going to improve personally or develop as a person having done this? It’s not to say every single thing you do has to be focused on personal development, but making it a priority will go a long way. Take a class, practice a new skill, try out a brand new experience, invest in something you’ll actually remember in ten years.

  • Go Travel – Travel is one of the easiest ways to force yourself to go have new experiences, meet new people and expose yourself to new ideas. Don’t make your trip about souvenirs or you run the risk of kind of missing the whole point. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to be wealthy to travel either. Travelling cheap can be easy and it often leads to more experiences, you just have to be creative.

The most important thing is to constantly check up on yourself to ensure you’re doing what you genuinely want to be doing and aren’t pursuing a goal that you unconsciously assimilated from your environment, friends or family.

Do you have any suggestions for escaping the cycle of consumerism? Do you think I’m completely wrong on the whole thing and consumerism isn’t a big deal? Leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Paul Hocksenar, David Blackwell

Seven Lessons Learned from 80 Days Around The World: The Epic Lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland

Around the World in 80 Days the board game.

It’s hard to find someone who hasn’t read or at least heard of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne. At the time Verne was one of the most popular authors alive, and the book inspired people to travel and adventure and much debate arose questioning whether or not it was in fact possible to travel around the world in 80 days.

The story of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition is an obscure but fascinating tale within which are lessons I think are as amazing as they are important. Which is why I’m sharing with you a brief summary of their story and some of the amazing lessons I’ve learned from it.

Verne’s novel was published in 1873 and in 1888 brave young journalist Nellie Bly pressured her editors to let her test the book’s basis. She was known for her audacity and willingness to put her life on the line to uncover a story – most notably when she faked being insane so she could bring to light the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island. It took her a year to convince her editor, but eventually she was allowed to go. She was 25 years old.

The day she left for her journey the paper she worked for published an article announcing the trip. An editor for a competing paper saw the article on his way into work. Once there he called into his office the timid Elizabeth Bisland, who at the time was only 28 years old, and told her to go pack her things and be on the 6:00 p.m. train to San Francisco. She was instructed to beat Nellie Bly.

Newspaper clipping

Meet the Women

Nellie Bly

Before we tell you their story, let me first give you a bit of a background about these two women so you know what kind of people they were. Nellie Bly, born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, came from a humble family. Her father was a laborer who after years of hard work was able to buy the local mill and most of the land surrounding their home. His lesson of never giving up would stick with Bly for the rest of her life.

Nellie Bly

Unfortunately, her father died while she was still young and money quickly ran out – the family lost all their land and had only her mother to rely on. Her mother did eventually remarry but the man she married was abusive and a drunk; the marriage didn’t last long.

Through watching her mother’s struggles Bly learned that as a woman she couldn’t depend on anyone else – she had to be self-sufficient and strong. Which is why when a misogynistic article was published in the Pittsburgh Dispatch arguing that a woman belonged at home and at home alone, she was understandably upset and wrote a scathing rebuttal under a pseudonym. The editor of the paper liked the article so much he asked her to join the paper. Though he rescinded his offer once he learned that Bly was a female, she persuaded him to hire her anyway. It was a much better job than the work she was doing at the time being a maid. It was common for female journalists to take on a pen name rather than use their real name, and Elizabeth chose Nellie Bly.

Female reporters were a rarity at the time and for the few that were they weren’t allowed to write for anything other than the arts and gossip pages of the newspapers, but Bly was different. She refused – she was audacious and willing to risk her own personal safety to expose evils and mistreatment where ever she found it. Frustrated with the Dispatch for refusing to let her, she eventually talked her way into being a reporter at Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World. Her first story: pretend to be insane in order to be admitted to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island and investigate reports of patient abuse. These were the kinds of stories she loved most.

Elizabeth Bisland

Born on what was once a great sugar cane plantation, Elizabeth Bisland was almost the antithesis of Nellie Bly. A sophisticated, learned writer and poet, Bisland didn’t seek out the limelight but rather enjoyed a quieter existence.

Elizabeth Bisland

The Battle of Fort Bisland was fought on the estate Elizabeth Bisland was born on however the family fled during the war, relocating to a home her father had inherited. Using torn and burnt copies of Cervantes and Shakespeare she had found in her grandfather’s estate, Bisland taught herself first to read. Later, she taught herself French so she could read Rousseau’s Confessions in the original French text.

As a teenager Bisland often sent small works of her poetry to the New Orleans Times Democrat under a pen name, although once discovered she moved to New Orleans to write for the paper. Around 1887 she moved to New York and worked for various newspapers, eventually becoming an editor at Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Bly’s style was unrefined and coarse, while Bisland was more elegant and refined. Bly was also more adventurous and scrappy while Bisland was more interested in books and conversation. The only things they had in common were rough upbringings, an interest in writing and that both women would publish detailed accounts of the trip afterward.

The Challenge

In 1888 after having exposed the cruelty of the Mexican dictator and the horrors of the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, Nellie Bly had become fascinated with Jules Verne’s book Around the World in 80 Days and wanted to see if it were in fact possible to circumvent the Earth in 80 days or less. In modern times you could fly around the world in a plane in a couple days, but back then the most they had were steam ships and trains. She had a plan: she’d begin by catching a steam ship to England and would send back brief reports via a new technology, telegrams, and send longer reports via letter. There was a problem though that stopped her editor from allowing it: She was a woman.

Women shouldn’t go across town unescorted, why on earth should she be allowed to go alone around the world? Only a man could do this! Furthermore, she’s a woman: she’ll need 11 trunks worth of clothes and cosmetics that will slow her down trying to keep track of all those things and carrying them from place to place. These were some of the problems the editors of the New York World had with her trip. But that didn’t deter her – it hadn’t stopped her before and it wouldn’t this time either. But Bly wasn’t about to give up, she told them: send a man and I will go for another paper and I will beat him. They remained firm in their decision

A year later though she got a break. The World faced shrinking circulation and needed something to boost readership – a publicity stunt – and Joseph Pulitzer knew just the thing: Nellie Bly. He gave her a few days notice to pack her things and then she would be out. She left November 14, 1989.

On his way into work, Cosmopolitan Magazine owner and editor John Brisben Walker read the front page story in the World announcing Bly’s trip to see if Phileas Fogg’s fictional record of 80 days was possible and if she could beat it. Immediately, he knew this would be an incredible opportunity for him and his publication to get in on. So once he arrived at the office he called for a young writer to be brought to him – and it had to be a female. Literary editor Elisabeth Bisland – who was unaware of Bly’s trip – was called to his office and they exchanged brief greetings before he got to business: She needed to go home and pack her things and be on the next train to San Francisco because she was going to challenge and beat Nellie Bly around the world.

Bisland refused.

She gave excuses at first – she had dinner guests coming that night, she didn’t have enough time to pack, etc. But eventually he wore her down convinced her to go. Her real reason which she admitted to later was that she was a shy, studious and serious writer and as such she cherished her anonymity and privacy. She didn’t want publicity or celebrity – which she knew this would bring. She knew that this would be a sensational story and wanted no part in it. Bly on the other hand reveled that fact.

Bly had left that morning on a steamship east to England but Bisland’s editor believed it would be faster to travel West and so Bisland went via New York Central Railroad to San Francisco.

In Chicago Bisland talked her way onto a fast mail train headed straight for San Francisco. There was a $750,000 contract riding on that train being the fastest yet, and everyone else on the train was either a mail or railroad official. She was the only woman. In Utah the train stopped and changed engineers, the new one being Cyclone Bill Downing who was known for his lack of fear. A few minutes before 1:00 a.m., the train lead by Cyclone Bill Downing slowly began to move forward – but it wouldn’t last for long. He pushed the train to it’s limits careening up and down mountains, around passes, through tunnels and across long plains.

Derailment was common back then and everyone aboard feared the worst – and their nerves were not eased by the trains violent rocking and roar bouncing off the mountains. From the rear car passengers could see a spray of sparks trailing behind them like fire. Many aboard got seasick from the ride, and those that didn’t got sick from the smell of other’s being sick. One man writhed on the floor in terror and was handed brandy to help calm himself.

Bly didn’t have it any easier – she was on an actual ship for the first time and got seasick for a few days. To further complicate things other passengers had no idea why she was on the ship – especially alone. Rumors began circulating about her being an American heiress traveling to mend a broken heart, causing a number of single men to attempt to court her – several of them even proposing.

She eventually devised a plan to end the attention – she “confided” in another passenger that she wasn’t rich, but that a couple charities had raised money for her to go on a long trip to restore her health. The proposals ceased.

Once in England Bly met with a correspondent for the World that told her if she traveled overnight, didn’t sleep and made a few detours she could meet with Jules Verne at his estate in Amnion, France. She was ecstatic – who cares if she had to spend 48 hours straight awake and on the road? She got to meet an immensely famous author whom she respected and loved! While there, she even got to see the map he used to plot out his character’s journey and one he made of hers. He told her that if he beat the fictional record he’d applaud her. He was very supportive of her, even sending her a telegram when she made it to San Francisco to congratulate her.

The two women sent brief reports back via telegram, which the brilliant Joseph Pulitzer realized he could use for more than just status updates. He sponsored a contest for readers – whoever could guess closest to the second that Nellie Bly would arrive back in New York would win a free trip to Europe. Naturally, contestants had to purchase a paper first since the entry form was inside.

Pulitzer’s marketing scheme worked splendidly – the contest was huge and received nearly a million entries. He was careful to never mention Bisland and keep the focus on Bly. The winning entry was off by 2/5 of a second. Second place was off by 3/5 of a second. The contest and paper launched Bly into becoming one of the most famous women in the world at the time.

On the other hand, Cosmopolitan Magazine did a rather poor job of publicizing the race and brought much less attention to Bisland, which was okay since she didn’t want the attention anyway.

The race was neck-and-neck nearly the entire way. While Bisland knew her mission was to beat Bly, Bly had no idea she was racing against anyone else until she got to Hong Kong – about halfway through. The conversation with a ticket office employee went something like this:

Employee: You’re going to lose the race.

Bly: I don’t think so – I’m ahead of schedule.

Employee: Well, the other woman was here a few days ago and is ahead of you.

Bly: What? What other woman?!

The employee filled Bly in on the rest of the story, which greatly displeased her and made her more determined to go faster. On the ship from Japan to San Francisco Bly used her celebrity to convince the captain to go faster – and he did everything he could to get her there on time.

While the trip had its ups it also had its downs – bad weather, miscommunications, mechanical problems and conspirators slowed them down. In the end, it came down to Nellie Bly coming by train from San Francisco and Elizabeth Bisland by steam ship from Ireland. Either women could have won, and the world anxiously held its breath.

Spoiler Alert: Ultimately, Nellie Bly won. Thanks to a ticket salesman who lied to Bisland about missing one of her intended boats and forced her to catch a much slower ship which guaranteed Bly would prevail. Bly’s end time was 72 days 6 hours and 11 minutes while Bisland’s time was 76 and a half days.

Bly’s victory was celebrated with parades and much publicity – by this time she was more concerned with fame than with uncovering immoral actions and becoming more and more arrogant. She attempted to capitalize on it by going on a lecture circuit but it didn’t bode too well. Later s board game and an amusement park in Brooklyn would be made using her name and journey as their themes, however she didn’t profit from either.

Bisland’s return was much less grand although she was just as much changed. She was greeted by a small crowd of curious people and her sister. She wrote soon after returning that she wanted to live her life in such a way that her name would never again appear in a newspaper. However, she would continue to travel. The trip itself had broadened her outlook and opened her up to the world. She particularly loved Japan and would return many times.

Finally, the Seven Lessons Learned

There’s so much that can be gained from the lives of Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland but I’ll just share a few of the more prominent things that stood out for me.

Screw Social Constraints

Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland were unique – they were doing things during a time when women doing practically anything was frowned upon. While most women were being chaperoned to the store and back, Bly and Bisland were traveling the world alone.

Of course, that wasn’t all they did that was unique. During her early career (teens and early 20s) she would do anything required to expose social injustices – even if that meant going into an abusive insane asylum that she might not get out of (not to mention, many of the people there weren’t actually insane.)

Who cares what other people think of what your doing? Why let other’s opinions – which mean absolutely nothing – have an impact on your happiness? Be yourself, do the things you love, not what others have told you to do or love. Be different, and be proud. By doing this, you’ll encourage others to follow suit and do the things they love.

Things aren’t perfect, but everyone – male and female, and of all races – does have it a lot better than things were in the 1800s. If they could do amazing things then, you can do amazing things now. The only limits you have are the ones you set.

Take Risks

None of the things that happened in this story would have been possible if Bly and Bisland hadn’t taken risks. To me it seems that Bly threw all caution to the wind – she knew things would work out in the end if she was persistent.

Bisland wasn’t really one to attract attention to herself or go outside social norms, but yet she took those risks anyway – just in a very cautious way.

Bly took huge risks every time she did an investigative piece – she almost didn’t make it out of the asylum – but her risks paid off every time. People thought she was crazy for doing what she did but because of her life got better for a great number of people, and she even changed government policy to help protect people from abuses like the asylum.

The trip around the world was a huge risk for both women – not only was it dangerous for them to go alone, but if something did happen to them there would have been almost no way to know. There were no cell phones, GPS or cameras and investigative technology and practices were dubious – especially in the less developed countries they went to. But the trip was worth it. Both women learned so much from this trip, and society in general learned more about the world and grew more accepting of the idea of women being capable and able to handle themselves.

Whichever way suits you, you should take risks. Great or small, if you want something you need to be willing to take risks to get it. Maybe changing the world isn’t your thing – it doesn’t matter, even to get something selfish that you want (which is not necessarily a bad thing) there will be some risks involved. It may not be easy – but nobody said it would be. Of course risks have potential downsides, but whether or not you succeed you’ll come out ahead. If you fail, learn from it so you can try again in the future and hopefully then succeed. Take risks, learn from your failures and live without regrets.

You’ve only got one life, don’t waste it living someone else’s.

Travel!

Whether or not travel is something you are interested it, it’s something I highly recommend you do anyway. It’s not always visible at first but travel will change you.

It’s impossible to tell beforehand the exact ways that travel will affect you – it’s different for everyone. The only thing I can guarantee that it’ll do is change how you look at the world and give you a broader perspective than you could have imagined previously.

Furthermore, the world just isn’t scary – you have no excuse not to travel! If two women can muster up the courage to travel during a time when women couldn’t even go outside without a male escort, you can too.

Learning a Language isn’t Necessary for Travel

Bly didn’t speak a word of any language other than English, and while Bisland did speak some others she certainly didn’t speak the language of every country she went to, yet they got by. Things are even easier nowadays and so you can make it in nearly every country without using any language other than English.

There are certainly benefits of learning the language of the place you are going to, but if you aren’t going to stay for long or are only there to do touristy-type activities, then learning is not necessary.

You Have No Excuses NOT to Learn

You may not need to learn another language but if you want to, you really don’t have any excuses not to. Think about it, if Bisland could teach herself French in the 1800s from tattered books then YOU can learn ANY language NOW thanks to the INTERNET!

It’s not an easy task, but learning another language has gotten significantly easier thanks to the sheer amount of resources you have available to you right now for free. There are ways to get around money issues, if you really want it you will make or find time and with some strategic habit-building you can make yourself stick to it. The tools are all at your fingers – if Bisland could do it you can too.

Embrace Minimalism for a Simpler, Hassle-Free Life

Do you really need all those things? Really? Bly most famously only traveled with a single bag that she could carry with her – currently with The Smithsonian – containing only the absolute most essential items.

Going with only the clothes on your back may be a bit too extreme for some, but it should make you consider what are the absolute essentials – what could you live without on this trip? Do you really need multiple pairs of shoes, tons of clothes, or a bunch of electronics? What exactly do you want to do with your time there? Unless you intend on spending your time on your computer or with your nose in a book, skip those sorts of things. Take only a couple of your most versatile clothes (that can be dressed up or down) and only buy clothes at your destination if you need them. When you’re done you can donate, resell or give them to someone else.

What you pack should be indicative of what you will be doing, so unless you plan on spending a lot of time in your hotel, leave all the extras at home.

You are Limitless

When you consider the time period, the limited resources and social constraints that bound Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland, what they managed to accomplish is incredible. The vast amount of resources, knowledge and overall freedom that we enjoy now gives everyone the opportunity to do amazing things.

Pretty much anything you want to do, you can do so long as you apply yourself and stick to it.

So what’s holding you back from pursuing your goals? What did you gain from Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s competition?