Notes: how was your 2016? | OkDork

I recently read Noah Kagan’s article, how was your 2016?, where he reflects on his experiences over the past year, compares them to the original “bucket list” of goals he made at the beginning of the year, and shares his goals for 2017. I haven’t been much of a “goal-setter” recently, but I have successfully made life-changing New Year’s resolutions the past few years, and after reading this article, listening to a few episodes of The Tim Ferriss Show, and reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent autobiography, I figured setting 2017 goals to revisit throughout the year would be an experiment worth trying.

Below is my 2017 bucket list, in Noah’s format, followed by a brief explanation:

To make this list I seriously reflected on: what were the most meaningful actions I took in 2016, what will I be glad I spent my time on a year (or five years) from now, what lessons do I want to learn in 2017, and what is truly important to me.

In 2017 my two main themes (what I usually use instead of goals) are: invest my time by practicing hard and important skills (play the real game and the long game), and be bad at more stuff. The majority of my ambitions are wrapped up into Graduate Unschool, most of what I want to do/learn/become is included in there, and after almost two years it is still a huge priority to me. At the end of 2016 I got in the habit of regularly dedicating time to deeply focusing on Graduate Unschool, which I’ve loved, and I believe it’s the best thing I can do to set myself up for future success, even while I still have no idea what exactly that would look like. 1000 hours is a huge amount of time, but it’s easily measurable and achievable if I make working on it a part of my life, which is the point of this goal. It should challenge me to scale up my best habits. I know that if I want to develop skills the only shortcut to putting in a massive amount of hours of deliberate practice, is putting those hours in while you’re young (which I still am), and using habit formation to minimize willpower depletion. Right now is the perfect time to internalize that lesson.

Why would someone want to spend more time being bad at things? My reason is when you’re starting something new, growing, experimenting, or learning you’re going to spend most of your time failing and being really bad at whatever you’re attempting. If I can become more comfortable shamelessly trying my best, observing objective feedback on my performance, and repeating, I’ll improve much more quickly than if I only practiced skills I’ve already mastered. The hard part about this is that I’m not shameless (yet) and my ego still convinces me that it’s embarrassing to be bad at something. Not anymore, this is the year I’m going to break this pattern. What’s actually embarrassing is being so concerned with how I’m perceived that I’m limiting my own growth. Instead I’ll be reframing poor performance and failure as an essential and important part of the learning process (and practice). In the past I’ve ended up writing less, releasing fewer podcasts, and trying fewer experiments because I’m afraid that they might turn out bad. Guess what? They probably will be bad, but they aren’t the finished product of me as a writer, a podcaster, or a student of whatever else I’m trying to learn. Part of the process of becoming a great writer is writing hundreds of bad articles (like this one) and putting them out in public so I can receive feedback and learn from them. Today I can easily prove complicated real analysis (advanced math) theorems, but years ago I had to learn how to graph functions, and solve for x just like everyone else. Those skills became easier because I solved thousands of math problems (and spent more time failing to solve problems that were outside my skill level), not because I suddenly became smarter. I never viewed elementary math as a demeaning task, so why should I feel foolish flailing my body around to learn a new skateboard trick, or making awful YouTube videos if they’re a part of the skill-building journey? The answer is simple: I shouldn’t.

2017 will be my year of practice. What will you make it into? What’s important to you this year? These are questions worth asking.

Thanks Noah.

Source of inspiration for this article: http://okdork.com/2016/12/29/how-was-your-2016/

Film Notes: Everybody Wants Some

(This post is inspired, in part, by Soraya Simi’s Film School Blog. She writes much smarter articles about filmmaking than I do.)

I initially thought (from the first few scenes) that Everybody Wants Some would be another typical 70s college movie from the dialogue, themes, forced unfunny jokes, and awkward lack of genuine connection between the characters. When characters in the cracked a one-liner, very few people in the audience laughed. However, there were genuinely hilarious moments not only in, but throughout the entire film, and once I realized that the movie knew how to be funny when it wanted to, I understood that the unfunny, awkward forced jokes were intentional, and there was more to the movie than what I naively assumed.

Everybody Wants Some is set in the magical week between when Jake (the protagonist) moves into his college town, and the first day of class. Much like the reality of the scenario, the moments bleed together, and the scenes don’t feel as though they have distinct endings and beginnings. The strong current of new information, exciting stimuli, friend-group dynamics, and seemingly urgent events always pulled me through these moments in my life, and the movie does the same. I was kept so ‘in the moment’ with the story that I often forgot what the main character’s motivation was, how we got there, or what I was supposed to be worrying about. Instead, my mind was fully captivated from the details of the scene around me. I spent my time reading the body language of the girls the main character danced and flirted with, studying the patterns of the different members of the friend group so that I could get to know them better, and trying to understand the relationships between the older members of the team. This to me is the mark of an excellent film, when you forget that you’re watching a movie because you are so captivated by the moments around you. The only elements that pulled me back to reality were the incredibly uncanny moments that were so familiar that I asked myself haven’t I been here before?  Didn’t I know someone exactly like that?  Didn’t I had this exact same conversation in college? The detailed realism is what makes this highly atypical college movie so fascinating. It isn’t mundane, and it isn’t fantastical. It’s the perfect balance of relatable and introspective that also managed to occasionally bring me to the edge of my seat.

The best way I can describe this movie in in the following statement. It is a genuine simulation of what it actually feels like to be a part of a group of male friends. This is something I would have not appreciated, understood or enjoyed until recently. Growing up, I did have a strong tribe of male friends (I usually had female friends outnumber male), excluding ages 12-14 and 15-18 (and now). Connecting with males was always confusing to me.  In college (and before) I felt like I never knew how to get past even the most basic social hurdles, like: how to tell if a guy enjoys my company, thinks I’m interesting, wants to hang out with me, when is the appropriate time is to suggest getting together outside of our location based friendship (which I was naturally very good at, but found myself completely incapable of stepping up the intimacy or intensity of our friendship), or even what we would do if I did manage to get them to spend time with me. I simply never figured it out, and slowly my male friends left my life. I stopped hanging out with Ryan. I didn’t hang out with my male roommates when I lived with them despite often wanting to. I just didn’t think I was interesting enough for people to want to be around.

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This is the way things were before I noticed a giant hole in my life, which I now recognize as a lack of intimacy and social connection, or sense of belonging. The secret course was my (successful) attempt to put an end to the largest source of anxiety, anguish, and emptiness in my life. I spent a dedicated six months putting myself in social situations that made me feel physically uncomfortable, everyday, and slowly at first then all of a sudden I saw my life completely change. I went from having no friends, to having multiple strong tribes of friends. I went from having nobody to share anything below surface level feelings with, to the point where I was losing days to deep, engaging conversations on a regular basis, with: people I’d just met, people I’ve loved for years, and people I’d long desired to connect with, but felt unable to. I went from not knowing what to do around others, to being able to read and give off subtle social cues, and without feeling any sense of “control” over my social interactions, I knew how to get to a place where I felt comfortable. I learned: how to recognize when I wasn’t going to mesh well with someone, how to pull the interesting stories out of anyone who is open enough, how to share my downfalls instead of my triumphs to feel heard and seen as a person instead of a machine who pumps out accomplishments, how to directly talk about the things that make me anxious, and how to enjoy riding the wave of uncertainty and discomfort (enjoying the eustressful intensity) and seek non-deterministic situations where I’m stretched beyond my comfort-zone because that’s how I know I’m trying something new and I will most likely learn something about myself. I learned how to uncover the things that make other people so interesting and hear stories that people had never shared with anyone before, and sometimes had never fully thought through themselves. I learned how to relax, and see all social situations as play, where experimentation and off-beat provocative actions and statements make everything more fun.

Then, I moved to Dallas, where there was already an incredible group in place that I found myself lucky enough to be included in. Every person in the group is such a unique character, and I love diving deeper with all of them because I realize how complex they all are as people and how much I can learn from every one of them. Instead of expressing all my feelings about being a part of a tightly integrated friend group, I’m going to talk about how, in this context, Everybody Wants Some felt like it hit me at the perfect time.

The main character, Jake, is plain looking and quiet, and we see the entire movie through his real-time experiences. Through this we occasionally gain small degrees of self-awareness, not through hearing the thoughts, flashbacks, or fly-on-the-wall scenes featuring others, but purely via observation, because that is how we experience life. This makes easy to relate to the main character causing you to feel as though his newfound friends (the baseball team) are analogous to the people in your life. At first I saw them as one-dimensional foil characters, and the one dimensionality of the characters was bizarre, just the way it can be when you’re meeting a set of characters in your own life. There is an obvious trait that you seem to quickly pick up in everyone, and you seek observations that match that pattern (to prove yourself right) because humans are hard-wired to oversimplify and to recognize patterns, even when they are nonexistent. Later, as you see the people in different contexts, different locations (which the movie is great at pulling you through), different situations, and different emotional states, you realize that these people are as multifaceted and difficult to understand as it is to understand ourselves in our own heads.

The movie couldn’t have chosen a better climax than the scene where Jake spends the entire night, talking with the auburn-haired girl, completely lost in conversation, submitting to their desires and fully experiencing the present together. I remember every night I stayed up talking passionately and deeply with someone, and these often end up being the ‘peaks’ and formative moments of my life. Not the triumphs, but the moments when the world disappears and you only see the person in front of you. When you are only in the present moment and nowhere else. When you’re not worried about what this is, what this will be, what this has been, or where this is going, but simply enjoying that it is. My social goals can be simplified into: trying to enjoy and cultivate (but not put pressure on, control, or expect) perfect moments in my personal relationships, like what was portrayed at the end of the movie, or what I’ve described above. I’ve had an comparatively high density of those moments in magical pre-college week every semester, and while these moments can only ever sneak up on you, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few recently since I moved to Dallas. The old me would wish that I could have more, but the newer, more appreciative, present minded me only hopes to remember to not kill these moments when they start, but to instead submit to the moment, and follow my feelings.

If this movie served a purpose for me, it reminded me to allow myself to fully experience the world around me, and that the best scenes in my own life cannot be created or controlled, only enjoyed. Everybody Wants Some is a fun journey that is embedded with the virtues of patience, understanding, vulnerability, and non-judgement. Whether or not you choose to watch it, recognize that practicing these traits can make you feel much more like a character in the social scenes that play out in front of us everyday, and much less of an audience member.

The words in this article are mine, but the images were borrowed from the film. Go watch it.

Notes: As a Man Thinketh

As a Man Thinketh

The Book that is Changing my Thinking Process

“A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”

Before I found this book I had been struggling to understand why my life had been working out differently than I planned.  Throughout college I had the idea that if I worked hard and outperformed my peers it would simplify my future, and once I graduated I could retire from the grind to enjoy the spoils of my efforts.  After graduating, a more sobering reality set in instead, and I started feeling my life unravel.  Within a few months my family situation became very stressful, I experienced a tough break-up, I discovered the jobs that I was explicitly qualified for were uninteresting to me, I felt betrayed by some of my closest friends, watched as some of my closest friends felt betrayed by me, and I developed a major project (partially to pull myself out of my negative mental state) which I told myself I could only fail by not giving it my best effort, only to turn around and do exactly that.  I started to lose my energy and live in a smaller world, and most disheartening of all I started to feel that somehow on my continuous journey of self-improvement, I had become so misguided that I was becoming progressively worse with the passing of time.

Being a self-proclaimed “problem solver” I started applying almost every solution I encountered towards turning my life around.  I removed the relationships from my life that I felt were toxic or simply draining me of energy (and mistakenly removed some healthy relationships that I had been misreading).  I started being honest, open, and vulnerable as often as possible.  I alleviated the constraints I had placed on myself that I believed were contributing to my anxiety and stress.  I spent hundreds of hours reading books on emotions and overcoming adversity.  I consumed motivational podcasts and movies (sometimes on repeat).  I demanded that people treat me the way I wanted (but was unsure if I deserved) and I made hundreds of plans to get myself out of the emotional well I was drowning in.  All of these plans stuck tightly to one of two formats: once some specific thing happens (an e-mail, a phone call, the success of a project, the return of an estranged friend, …) then I would feel content with my life, or once I accomplish some specific thing (finding a perfect career, healthy relationship, landing a difficult skateboard trick) then I would feel happy and fulfilled.

Amazing opportunities started presenting themselves to me, including but not limited to: a dream job working with my oldest friend, the introduction of people into my life who learned more about me and appeared to care more for me than the friends I had been closest with over the past few years, finally finding tribes that I fit into, and having almost complete freedom of time.  Even with all this abundance, I continued to feel worse as hours, days, and eventually months evaporated away from me.  If this weren’t enough to cue me on to the idea that I may be trying to solve internal problems with external solutions, I recognized a deep shame I felt about myself after the thick fog of college busyness cleared from my head, and my friends began pointing out my personal habits and behaviors that appeared to come from a place of deep seeded self-loathing.  I decided to contribute a significant amount of my efforts to self-love, but I honestly had no idea where to start, or how this would solve all my problems.  I’d tried various other things, but nothing seemed to reverse my downward trajectory.  It wasn’t until I was exposed to the ideas in As a Man Thinketh that I gained clarity on how I found myself where I was in life, and received actionable advice on exactly how to overcome it.

I was advised that it was extremely difficult (if not impossible) to become fulfilled when one’s thoughts are in the wrong place, and perhaps more importantly, that my thoughts were very clearly in the wrong place.  Life is complicated, everything we encounter seems to be abstract, subtle, or misleading, and in my state of perpetual overwhelm I was not prepared (or qualified) to decode another cryptic self-improvement book, and doing so would have probably only led me to create more problems.  Exactly what I needed was (and still is) something short, simple, and direct that tells you exactly how to think, so that I could test it and make my own judgements.  As a Man Thinketh does exactly this, and in a short (<40 pages) pamphlet sized book that I read in a single sitting.  The message can actually be fully expressed from a single passage of the book:

“A man should conceive of a legitimate purpose in his heart, and set out to accomplish it.  He should make this purpose the centralizing point of his thoughts.  It may take the form of a spiritual ideal, or it may be a worldly object, according to his nature at the time being; but whichever it is, he should steadily focus his thought-forces upon the object, which he has set before him.  He should make this purpose his supreme duty, and should devote himself to its attainment, not allowing his thoughts to wander away into ephemeral fancies, longings and imaginings.  This is the royal road to self-control and true concentration of thought.”

Simple and actionable.  If you need convincing that this is true, or examples of how it manifests, the majority of the rest of the book is dedicated to illustrating that, but what I have quoted above is everything I needed to dramatically improve my thinking process (and as a consequence my life).  I trust this advice because I naively followed it on my last major endeavor, college.  I entered largely unqualified for what I’d hoped to achieve, and exceeded even my greatest expectations, which I think is largely due to my adoption of this mindset.  I decided weeks after graduating high school that I would push myself to do as well in college as possible.  I was dedicated to this idea for the next four years, and I realize now, that that dedication came from the centralization of this idea in my mind.  I created an identity and self-image in which I was some sort of academic genius, and spent enough time and energy trying to attain this ideal that it started to feel deserved.  I filtered every decision I made through the heuristic: is this the action that a valedictorian would take?  This eventually led to a top-down reorganization of my life: I found smarter, and more academically focused friends, I talked mostly about math, physics, learning and school, I started spending a large percentage of my money on textbooks I did not need (nor was ever recommended) for my classes, my most common nightmare was missing a test or forgetting I signed up for a particular class, my summer and winter breaks were filled with learning experiments, online courses, and head-starts for my classes, and instead of my heart being split between what feels like 100 desires like it is now, I really only wanted one thing, and I eventually got it.  After graduating my focus was lost, and so was my guiding star.  Problems felt more real because I didn’t know what I wanted, and I felt like I was going backwards because I couldn’t commit to a single direction.  In college when my relationships ended I only felt sorry for myself in the time I had already allotted to be distracted, usually three hours or less a day, the rest of the time I was worried about something more important to me, my next test, homework, or project, the next task in my supreme duty.  The more I let this idea simmer, however impersonal it may sound, being dedicated to a single purpose for a long period of time has improved the quality of my life and my general well-being more than probably everything else I’ve ever done combined.

Armed with an understanding that the secret to fulfillment is to purify one’s thoughts and align them with one’s chosen purpose, how then does one find a legitimate purpose?  While this initially sounds like something so difficult I would indefinitely procrastinate on it, the passage quoted earlier continues to say:

“Even if he fails again and again to accomplish his purpose (as he necessarily must until weakness is overcome), the strength of character gained will be the measure of his true success, and this will form a new starting-point for future power and triumph.

Those who are not prepared for the apprehension of a great purpose should fix their thoughts upon the faultless performance of their duty, no matter how insignificant their task may appear.  Only in this way can the thoughts be gathered and focussed, and resolution and energy be developed, which being done, there is nothing which may not be accomplished.”

For me, this takes all the pressure off.  Whatever my duty is I must just stick to it, which is ultimately the best way to accomplish whatever I hope to accomplish, even when I don’t know exactly what that is right now.  Allen never praises having a purpose, but focuses his energy of encouraging the committed pursuit of a purpose.  My takeaways from the book can be understood by practicing two short exercises:

1. Choose something you want to do (don’t worry about it being a true purpose, just something you want to achieve) and make it your purpose starting today.

2. Commit to it as fully as you can, imbed the message deep in your actions and deeper in your mind.  Remove what detracts from your purpose.  Continue to deepen your commitment until you achieve your goal, or find a greater purpose (which you should immediately recommit to), leaving the past behind you.

What I was missing after I graduated was a purpose, and a disciplined way of thinking.  It wasn’t the issues I brought up earlier that were tearing my life apart, but it was my lack of purpose that allowed them to bring me down, and caused at least half of them to happen in the first place.  In less than an hour Allen led me to the solution of all of my perceived problems, and that is a truly rare and valuable experience to have.

The rest of the book is great, and helps you understand that your mind created the prison you may be living in, and teaches you to precisely how to repurpose this tool (your mind) to build your kingdom.  This book changed my life, seriously read it, and give it to anyone who is experiencing a rough time, living in stasis, or embarking on an ambitious journey, since it will help anyone improve the one thing they spend the most time and energy doing, thinking.

As a Man Thinketh Annotations

Some of my Annotations