Monthly Archive: January 2015

Life Lessons for My Younger Self

I’m a bit late for the New Year, but here are things I would tell my younger self. I got some of these right and some of these wrong. I’m still working on some of them!

Get health insurance. Having the worst-case-scenario covered allows you to take greater risks.

Get disability income insurance. You may need it someday, and when you can no longer get it, you’ll be grateful that you already have it. See above re: covering the worst-case scenario.

Don’t major in something impractical, unless you double-major in something practical.

Don’t go into student debt. It will constrict all of your life choices. Top colleges will pay a large part of your tuition if your family’s household income is below a certain threshold. Try to get admitted there. If you don’t, go somewhere cheap and supplement your learning with free online courses.

Be self-motivated in your work and education. No one else will make you be successful.

Start a company while you’re in college. As long as you don’t flunk out, this is a virtually risk-free option on your future.

Learn to program. It’s the lingua franca of the 21st century. Learn how to explain what you’re doing to someone who doesn’t know how to program.

Learn to write. It will serve you well in any career.

Learn to sell. Many unknown artists were just as talented as the famous ones. Maybe more talented. But does anyone care now?

Even when you don’t think you’re selling, you’re selling.

Most people are bored most of the time. Try to make their day a little more interesting, and you’ll be a great presenter.

Understand that the five minutes you spend stopping by someone’s office to say hi are more important than the five hours you spend on a presentation that no one sees if no one knows you. Human connections are the heart of LIFE. And of business.

Have compassion. Allow the possibility that the only difference between you and someone else may be circumstances.

Don’t be afraid to love. In the end the people you love, and the people who love you, are one of the most important things.

Do something important if you feel the urge. This is the other most important thing. Don’t permanently suppress your desire to do good to fulfill your desire for money. With persistence you may be able to have both.

Don’t put everything on Facebook or your blog. There is no “I Forget” button.

Keep a little bit of yourself to yourself.

Be generous with your time in helping others, but stay focused at your core.

You can do a lot of things one thing at a time. You can’t do everything at once. Multitasking is bullshit. Procrastinating productively, on the other hand, is not. A second project can help you complete both projects.

Sleep the number of hours you need almost every night. It makes you more productive and often happier.

Don’t eat crap. In the U.S., most processed food, meat and dairy are crap.

Give thanks for who you are and why you’re here. Then get it done.

Don’t give up easily. Keep at it until you solve the problem, for as long as you feel you can solve it and a little bit past that point.

Listen to yourself, not other people, on the decisions that really matter. Taking a job to please someone else is never a good idea.

Don’t do risky things that aren’t worth the trade-off (motorcycle riding, if you’re a neuroscientist).

Jump bravely into low risks that are masquerading as high risks (leaving a job to try something new, investing during a market crash, telling someone how you feel about them).

You can be yourself while still learning who you are. Just be willing to adjust as you go along.

Creativity and persistence combined are the greatest force on Earth. Use them well and wisely.

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Endangered Species: Concentration and Solitude

Other than ridicule, great thinkers and discoverers of the past had something else in common: lots of time to themselves to think and experiment.

Our amplification-loop world is making solitude a rare commodity and concentration a rare ability. We’ve gained exponential connectivity with others but should be aware of what we’re losing.

We can get a lot more information a lot faster. But what are we doing with it? The next great breakthroughs are waiting while we browse Facebook.

Do you remember how it felt to sit and read for hours, uninterrupted?

Concentration Rehab

I’m not sure how to rediscover concentration amid the noise, but I’m trying. Here are some ideas I’m testing:

1.    Schedule at least one day a month for solitude.
2.    Just breathe and think for a little while each day — even 15 minutes helps.
3.    Take a walk outside, alone.
4.    Read for five hours straight in a paper book, where a “Go to Facebook” option doesn’t exist.

A Blue-Sky Dilemma

Solitude as a team also should be more highly valued when an idea is off-the-map and likely to be rejected by status-quo decision makers. In all sorts of environments, ranging from large companies to Startup Weekend, I’ve seen truly interesting ideas eliminated early in collaborative processes because they fell outside of normal bounds.

Those are often the most promising ideas.

Crowds rarely make breakthroughs. They’re good at enforcing the status quo, and (if organized well) at generating incremental improvements. They also eventually popularize breakthroughs, but only after a sufficient number of early adopters look sufficiently cool enough to make them jealous.

I’m not saying that early validation of high-level ideas with customers is bad. If you’re considering an idea that’s not truly novel, it’s a great thing to do. But vetting blue-sky ideas by committee or with customers is, I suspect, counterproductive in early days. The really great ideas are too impractical, too unlikely, too risky or anti-status quo to make it out of committee, unless you work at Google X.

Solitude Before Sharing?

For blue-sky ideas, a possible approach might be: Build solitude (or a small, trusted team that respects it), work hard, try new things, succeed  at a small scale, and then share.

It’s not as fun in the moment. Focusing intensely on a tough problem with no guarantee of a breakthrough often is not fun. It requires saying no to many things, giving up some trappings of respectability, and generally being perceived as odd. But it brings the possibility of doing something truly great, instead of just pretty good.

If people are telling you you’re crazy, you may have a truly terrible idea, or you may be on the right track. It’s difficult to parse that feedback, but it’s not always a stop-sign. The biggest stop-sign is feedback along the lines of, “Yeah, it’s okay. Go ahead.”

Los Angeles, Again

Apologies for my absence from the blog for the past few weeks; I spent the time immersed in Udemy, getting my new course ready for publication. It’s submitted for review now, waiting only for an image before it gets set live. I’m super-excited and will let you know more when it’s released.

I’m spending the winter in Los Angeles.

I promised myself last winter, as I was freezing in my NYC apartment with the heat cranked up to max and my poor tree actually leaning away from the window to escape the polar vortex (who knew trees even DID that?), that if I actually went ahead and pursued this plan to travel and learn and find a new path, I’d spend the winter someplace warm.

I chose L.A. I’ve lived here before, for four-plus years in the early 2000s, and I know where to go, where to avoid, where to relax, where to hike. Most of all, I have friends here who I’m looking forward to spending time with, making the city feel more like a village hamlet or a reunion than a sprawling sprawl.

I’m already feeling the pull of L.A.’s unique rhythm, the blend of seasons into endlessness, the no-hurry mornings and the bright blue perfection, though now I am uniquely qualified to fight it with productivity. I spent the last seven years in New York, where busy-ness is a way of life, even when it’s fabricated.

I remember traveling around L.A. when I was working in journalism, wondering as I passed by cafes in the middle of the day, “Who are all these idle people?”

Now I am one of those people. But I’m not idle. In the past month I’ve doubled down on my (now-working!) Xcode plugin, signed up to present it at a SXSW breakfast, added new capabilities and started planning a standalone software product; created a Udemy course to teach basic programming concepts to would-be programmers, non-technical co-founders, and parents and teachers; and fixed major bugs in my flashcard app that were preventing progress. I’ve spoken with a lawyer about creating a company and am prepared to move forward.

I expect to launch all of these projects by the time I leave in March, along with an organic food finder I prototyped last summer. It’ll be an interesting couple of months.

Then I’ll see what sticks.

In the meantime, I’ll enjoy being productive in the midst of laid-back L.A. I’m also trying to get back on track with my organic, hack-your-health lifestyle, which I decided a few years ago was non-optional if I wanted to live an optimal life. It’s super-successful for me when I’m on-board with it, so I’m back on board and ready to enjoy my (non)-winter.

73 degrees. I love it. Lots of work to do.