Monday, November 20, 2017

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

I don't read a ton of short stories or science fiction, but Stories of Your Life and Others has made me rethink that choice. Each of Ted Chiang's eight stories in the collection truly deserves its own post, they were all just. so. good. Unfortunately I don't have the time or the attention span for that. But I will tell you why this book was so amazing, and hopefully in the process convince you to read it for yourself.

Good fiction explores how humans react to challenges and dilemmas. Good science fiction also takes reality, tweaks couple details, and explores possibilities that could result. Chiang masterfully does both of these things in each of his stories. He brings to life deeper, more challenging philosophical and spiritual ideas than I've come across in ages. And he does by exploring topics in physics, mathematics, biology, linguistics, and cosmology that are some of the most arcane I've ever encountered. As a result, the satisfaction of contemplating deep philosophical ideas is amplified by the excitement of exploring truly novel scientific and mathematical concepts-- in every single story. This, my friends, is a stunt few writers can pull off. It's why the stories have won several awards, the book has gone through several printings, and why people like me are still raving about this book fifteen years after it was first published. To put it succinctly, Ted Chiang is in a league of his own.

If all this sounds nerdy, that's because it certainly is. Mind-blowingly, wonderfully so. Even Hollywood has started to figure this out, as they released Arrival last year, a major movie based on the title story. It got really good reviews, and from the sounds of it, they didn't even dumb the story down for mass consumption. A rare feat. I can't wait to watch it. But if you haven't seen it yet, read the book first. It's always better that way.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lula and Pepper

Part of the reason for the decreased number of posts over the last 6 months has been the addition of 2 puppies to our family. I wanted to chronicle my feelings on dog-rearing while in the throes of it, so here they are. And hopefully you'll see why my blogging has taken a backseat for the moment. So here are some pros and cons to dog ownership, many of which I'm sure carry over to child ownership, but I'll let you draw your own inferences.

Lula Mae
Pepper Dean

-Their infectious, uninhibited joy and zest for life. Dogs can teach you how to be totally in the moment. Lula Mae is always up to run after something and chew on whatever object is at hand. And Pepper practically melts with joy when you open the car door.
-I think canine companions have been demonstrated to lower stress hormones, which makes sense. But don't quote me on that claim because I don't feel like verifying it right now.
-They love to cuddle. Pepper, always. Lula, whenever she feels like it. Now that they're in the 70-pound range, though, the logistics of cuddling have gotten rather tricky. Sigh #1.
-They get you outside moving around more than you would otherwise. There is even some data that dog ownership lengthens your lifespan. Thanks, furry friends!
-They protect you, your house, your garden, and any animals you have from all sorts of intruders. Great Pyrenees and Anatolian Shepherds (both Lula and Pepper are 50/50 mixes of these two breeds) were actually bred to fight off wolves and survive temperatures as low as -30 degrees. They also can tolerate quite a bit of rain before getting cold. Neat!
-They are fun and interesting subjects to study. Lula and Pepper are vastly different in temperament, yet somehow complementary. Lula is always busy with something and has never met a stranger, while Pepper stays chilled out most of the time. They mirror some things about Mindy and me freakishly well. And more of their temperament comes out every day. This morning, Lula started pulling out carrots from the garden bed intact in between chewing on stakes she had pulled up, while Pepper alternated between staring longingly through the sliding glass door at us, keeping watch on the land, and fending off attacks by Lula.

-They take more time than you expect. And they are destructive. Lula, gleefully so. She delights in grabbing that one thing you don't want her to find and immediately prancing off to destroy it. Just this morning, I found Mindy's credit card in the front yard-- riddled with toothmarks. Sigh #2.
-They are expensive. Shock collars, invisible fences, home repairs, food, toys, treats, and last but not least, veterinarian fees. Though we're glad they've gotten the care they need, we've also learned how much of a scam vets can be. I get you're just responding to incentives but no, we don't need cytology on their ear crust, and you know what, I think they'll be perfectly fine without a Lyme disease vaccine, thank you very much.
-They interfere with your sleep. Not as much as a newborn, I'm sure, but some nights it seems like Pepper thinks the zombie apocalypse is descending on Ridge Rd, and despite our best efforts we've been unable to convince him by coldly rational arguments that zombies are, in fact, pure fiction. A bark collar has been more persuasive, but when he really wants to bark, shocks be damned, he's gonna do it.
-When the invisible fence is down, as it was a few weeks ago when some neighbors ran over it with a backhoe, the dogs. run. amuck. The good news is, they only played with the neighbors' chickens and didn't massacre them. But said neighbor was still understandably ticked off by the situation. Sorry! Sigh #3.

All in all, the dogs have been good investment. They've brought us joy, experiences, and lessons we otherwise wouldn't have had, and isn't that what's truly important in life? I'll accept some fitful nights of sleep and a modest hit to my bank account balance for that. And hopefully at some point in your life, if you haven't already, you will too.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I'm gonna go play with my pups now. And the cat. Sorry, Molive. I'll write about you one day too, I promise.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Level Up!

Part I

I’m always looking to level up. Though everyone has their type A tendencies, I am by nature and training more driven than most, and a big reason I blog is to spur myself to level up more frequently in more areas of my life. One example of this is my deep dive into personal finance early in the year, which resulted in a quantum leap in my financial literacy. But more important than this transformation has been the growth in my spirituality over the past six months. Here's how this has unfolded:

Like countless people throughout history, I've experienced my share of existential angst and “dark nights of the soul.” Like many postmoderns, it started with learning that evolution is actually true-- in college, in my case. And like most millennials, it ultimately resulted in disaffection with institutionalized religion. For me, it took from 2007 to 2014 to reach my breaking point. Yet break I did, and for three years I struggled to find my way forward out of intractable doubt and unbelief. It didn't help that I was consumed with my work as a resident, with little margin to even begin to dig deep into my mountain of doubt, fear, and anxiety. So I stuffed my doubts down, acknowledging them only to myself and a small handful of close friends. I stayed in the closet.

A key concept that started progress in the right direction last year was that I needed to be more transparent-- especially to Mindy. Stuffing wasn't working; it never does. Though I knew it would cause anxiety and uncertainty, I realized that the only shot I had to get through my doubts was to allow us to face them together. So last fall, I started being brutally honest. Fortunately, core values of Mindy's are transparency and faithfulness, and I experienced nothing but acceptance and assistance from her. She pointed me towards Mike McHargue's Doubt Series, which catalyzed my period of growth. And though the results weren't immediate, I started noticing a change within a few months. Challenges from atheists to my weak and wounded faith didn't quite break me anymore. Objections from fundamentalists didn't frustrate me quite as much. And then, I started to see it-- the middle way.

The middle way involves the idea that doubt is not a sin to be fought, but a power to be harnessed. The destination is a non-dual consciousness. And it turns out there’s a huge river of tradition created by people whose spiritual deconstruction has actually made their faith stronger. The desert fathers and Cappadocian fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Ancient and modern Eastern Orthodox mystics. Western mystics like Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, and Richard Rohr. Modern theologians and philosophers like Paul Tillich and Pete Rollins. Authors and popular intellectuals like Kara Tippett, Rachel Held Evans, and Rabbi David Wolpe. The Liturgists Podcast and The Deconstructionists podcast delve into the ideas of thinkers such as these. Though I’m just starting to digest some of the meaty ideas they’ve served up, here are few different frameworks that have helped me process my own spiritual transformation:

Part II

The first concept is that spiritual deconstruction and reconstruction is a never-ending journey of growth and discovery. It is the persistent “farther up and further in” that C.S. Lewis imagines at the end of The Last Battle, something we only start here and hopefully continue forever in heaven. Study, contemplation, and action are the keys to this process. To understand anything, it is first necessary to study both the object itself and the systems of knowledge that produced the object. But since God is not an object, but rather the force that holds all objects together, we cannot study Him directly or understand Him fully. In addition, our understanding of the systems of knowledge that produced our comprehension of God (including the Bible and our respective traditions) is severely limited. So if we are not frequently finding our philosophical and theological constructions to be inadequate in light of the infinitude and mystery of the divine and the complexity of human history, we’re doing something wrong.

Moreover, since language itself is built on metaphors, which can only reveal certain aspects of an abstract idea, it can never give us a perfect sense of the idea itself. So in its attempt to articulate truth, language itself will forever prove to be limiting. And if that wasn’t enough, theology and physics have both demonstrated that mystery and uncertainty are essential characteristics at the heart of our universe. So although study is necessary, it is not sufficient to discover truth. All of which should give us a hefty dose of humility.

Yet as I’m sure you’ve noticed, humility is something that seems to be in short supply in most camps these days. Exemplars of arrogance that come to mind include atheists Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, Christian fundamentalists Ken Ham and Jerry Falwell, and Islamic fundamentalists the world over. They easily garner media attention because they make absolute, inflammatory claims that are sure to evoke emotional responses from all sides. And even worse, they are blind to their own hubris. So how are we to respond? I would humbly submit that in order to prevent ourselves from being caught up in their egotistical and ultimately fruitless arguments, we must contemplate.

Mindfulness-based meditation and mantra-based prayer are a couple contemplative practices I am starting to integrate into my daily routine. With this kind of contemplative practice, we can silence the noise of our monkey brain enough to gain an awareness of the beautiful mystery of being and the transcendence and immanence and oneness of God. Words are inadequate to describe what happens subjectively in meditation, but the objective physiological benefits should be more than enough to motivate us all to have a regular contemplative practice. Unfortunately, the evangelical tradition is anemic at best in this area, so the best place to start with this is Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Hopefully we’re all open and humble enough to not feel threatened by other traditions, because of how much we stand to learn!

Action, or service, is another essential of spiritual transformation. Theological and philosophical ideas become more real to us when they are experienced. Love in particular, the most essential element of God’s nature, is less an idea than a relational experience that can only be understood in community. By mindfully and generously giving time, energy, thought, emotion, and resources to others, we access the core “stuff” of the universe-- whether we call it God or something else. And that infuses our lives with Meaning. Conversely, if we do not love, we are nothing, and life becomes meaningless even if we happen to profess a belief in God. See I Corinthians 13 and I John 2 if you’re not convinced.

Part III

So that’s my best shot at explaining my new understanding of spiritual growth. If you’re still with me, I’d like to some frameworks of spiritual development that I have found extremely helpful. The first is James Fowler’s 6 stages of faith, which Sarah Bessey references in Episode 14 of The Deconstructionists podcast. Based on a neurocognitive model of development, it presents spiritual development as a linear progression from least to greatest sophistication. Here it is:

  • Stage 1: Intuitive- Projective

This is the stage of preschool children in which fantasy and reality often get mixed together. During this stage, our most basic ideas about God are usually picked up from our parents and/or society.

  • Stage 2: Mythic-Literal

When children become school-age, they start understanding the world in more logical ways. They generally accept the stories told to them by their faith community but tend to understand them in very literal ways. A few people remain in this stage through adulthood. Stage two persons have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic. During this time metaphors and symbolic language are often misunderstood and are taken literally. People stuck at this stage are usually self-centered and often find themselves in trouble due to their unprincipled living. If they do end up converting to the next stage, it often occurs in a very dramatic way.

  • Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional

Most people move on to this stage as teenagers. At this point, their life has grown to include several different social circles and there is a need to pull it all together. When this happens, a person usually adopts some sort of all-encompassing belief system. However, at this stage, people tend to have a hard time seeing outside their box and don't recognize that they are "inside" a belief system. At this stage, authority is usually placed in individuals or groups that represent one's beliefs. This is the stage in which many people remain. At this stage people rely on some sort of institution (such as a church) to give them stability. They become attached to the forms of their religion and often get upset when these are called into question.

  • Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective

This is that tough stage, often begun in young adulthood, when people start seeing outside the box and realizing that there are other boxes. Individuals here take personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings, which leads to angst and struggle. As they critically examine their beliefs, they often become disillusioned with their former faith. As a result, people either lose their faith or develop a new complexity of faith. Ironically, Stage 3 people usually think that Stage 4 people have become "backsliders," when they have actually become more sophisticated.

  • Stage 5: Conjunctive 

It is rare for people to reach this stage before mid-life. People here begin to realize the limits of logic and start to accept the paradoxes in life. They begin to see life as a mystery and often return to sacred stories and symbols, but this time without being stuck in a theological box. Individuals resolve conflicts from previous stages by a complex understanding of a multidimensional, interdependent truth that cannot be fully explained by any particular statement.

  • Stage 6: Universalizing, or “Enlightenment”

Few people reach this stage. Those who do realize that there is truth to be found in all the previous stages and that life is paradoxical and full of mystery. More emphasis is placed on universal love and justice than on individual concerns, and people become free from worry and doubt.

So that’s Fowler’s stage of faith. But though it’s hugely helpful, it leads to pride if you start to see yourself as more advanced or sophisticated than other people. So along with gaining an intellectual understanding of this framework, it’s key to maintain insight into our own limitations. For which contemplation is necessary (see above).

Part IV

A less linear, more complex conceptualization of this process was described by The Liturgists Podcast in Episode 5: “Spiral Dynamics.” Even though this post is getting long, I think it’s important to briefly share this framework because of how helpful it is for understanding societal dynamics. Here is a link to a textual description of this concept if you’d rather read about it than listen to the podcast episode. And here is an image with brief descriptions of each valueMeme of level 1:

Part V

Finally, I’d like to share something from Episode 49 of The Liturgists Podcast: “Spiritual Trauma,”  in which psychotherapist and author Teresa Pasquale Mateus outlines 11 steps to recovery from spiritual trauma. Though these stages aren’t always experienced in this kind of linear fashion, it’s a helpful framework for understanding how a traumatic spiritual experience influences the stages of faith that are outlined above. They are:

1. Recognize the hurt, inconsistencies or wrongdoing in your faith system or with the persons within your faith system.
2. Begin to question.
3. Seek outside input.
4. Leave your spiritual home and/or faith of origin.
5. Begin your own pilgrimage into the spiritual desert.
6. Enter the anger stage of grief and loss.
7. Explore other ideas, beliefs and opportunities.
8. Begin to re-integrate meaning, values and beliefs in some way for yourself.
9. Begin to trust in individual and communal relationships again.
10. Move toward a non-dual consciousness (or the middle way) and away from absolutes.
11. Enlightenment. Game over. You win!

Though my spiritual trauma has not been as dramatic as many others’, it was was hugely encouraging to learn that I have been joined by countless others in my questioning, leaving, grieving, exploring, and reintegrating. Simply sharing this roadmap with someone who is questioning can give them hope when they may feel hopeless, and direct them down the path of healing when they feel like there is none to be found. It also removes the guilt from leaving the church and entering a time of “detox,” which is not something I was ever encouraged to do when I was in beginning my pilgrimage. That was probably because I didn’t seek enough outside input, but it still would have been helpful to hear that it was good to stop reading the Bible and going to church for a while, which is what I was doing anyway. Michael Gungor's song "You" and Derek Webb's track "Goodbye, For Now" poignantly echo this sentiment.

So if and when you find yourself in the wilderness, do not despair-- just be brutally honest with yourself, and with a couple close friends. Journal-- focus on wherever you feel stuck, no matter how painful. Read, listen, and learn from those who have traveled this lonely path before. Use this time as an opportunity to explore streams of thought beyond the tradition in which you were raised. Explore different contemplative practices. Meditate. Stay healthy. And above all else, love-- yourself, others, and all creation. And healing will come.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Summertime update

Now that summer has arrived, here's a quick update on a few totally unrelated areas of my life:

1) Home Gym!

The home gym is open for business! As you can tell from the photo above, I've purchased a barbell, bumper plates, kettlebells, dumbbells, and medicine balls, and installed gymnastic rings, a punching bag, barbell stands and a bench along with a large area of foam ground padding. Though there's more I'm ultimately planning to do with the space, it's very functional, and I'm pumped. Literally.

I'm also happy to report that over the last month, I have consistently worked out every other day, even during work weeks. I'm currently doing one major lift (squat, deadlift, powerclean, snatch, or bench) and spending the rest of the time working on developing my handstand using this great online program I found. I've been about 80% consistent on getting up before 6AM and doing 20 pushups, 20 squats, a minute of plank, and various stretches before heading off for the day. I've also been 80% consistent on extending my fast to 10 or 11 am, which makes a big difference in my energy level for the day. I'm also trying to do sprints once a week, and plan to add in a swim at a local gym or in the nearby river at least once a month.

Best of all, Mindy is getting more motivated than ever before to work out, too. Hopefully I'll also have some other workout partners soon, which will help to challenge me, maintain consistency, and keep me from developing too much of a rut.

2) Doubt

Image result for unbelievable podcast

A completely unrelated thing I've gotten into lately has been the Unbelievable podcast, which hosts debates between Christians and atheists or between different strains of Christians. It's been the most helpful thing I've encountered in my long process of weighing what I should believe about God, the universe, and everything. I honestly can't think of anyone who wouldn't benefit from a listen. I'm also working through the book Know Doubt, Science Mike's Doubt Series, and am starting his book Finding God in the Waves. I'm planning a full post on this topic once my ideas crystallize somewhat.

3) Gardening!

Ah, summertime, when planting turns to harvesting. As you can see, my main plot is a castle protected from deer with a 7-foot fence. So far, I've harvested radishes, lettuce, spinach, kale, cilantro, green onions, and a bell pepper. Carrots, tomatoes, other peppers, blueberries, and collard greens are just around the corner. I've also build a couple trellises for the squash, zucchini, watermelon, and cantaloupe, which have just started to grow. The potatoes, cauliflower, blackberries, some of the raspberries, and asparagus have also sprouted. Unfortunately, the celery, okra, sweet potatoes, and cabbage mostly failed, but I'll hopefully work out the kinks next year.

4)  Relationships

After four months in our new digs, Mindy and I are finally starting to feel settled. Progress is being made on many fronts, and I'm more and more thankful each day for all of our blessings. Though new relationships have been slow to sprout, we're excited that our friends Bryant and Rachel Ward are transitioning back to Boone after 1.5 years in Togo. Just the other day, my friend Sam and I decided to summit Mount Ranier in 2020. We backpacked across Europe in 2010, so it was time to decide to do something like that again. Mindy and I also got a cute puppy dog that is in need of some serious obedience training before she becomes too big to handle. Just as in other areas, I'm sure we'll get there.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I decided to read The Power of Habit at around the hundredth time someone referenced it in an article, podcast, or conversation. As if to illustrate how much of a touchstone of the self-improvement movement the book has become, a guest of the Brute Strength podcast referenced it less than an hour after I finished the book the other day. Since I'd read several articles detailing various principles Charles Duhigg outlines in the book, I didn't know how much I'd gain by reading it cover-to-cover, but I decided to take plunge because of my need for fresh habits to match my fresh digs. I'm hopeful it will pay off in several areas of my life.

First, I'm starting a gymnastic strength training program, and the next few months are crucial for me to establish a habit of consistent mobility work, proper form, and fighting through fatigue to maintain positions. It's much easier to establish habits in new activities than override bad ones, and I'm excited to start some healthy ones.

Another area I've written about before is waking up early. It's been three months since I've gotten up at 5AM consistently, and by golly I'm going to get back to that this week. Along with exercise, getting up early is one of my keystone habits that make everything else in my life flow. I've been doing pushups, squats, and planks most mornings lately, and hope to continue that budding habit during my early morning hours.

I'm also actively cultivating healthy habits in my daily interactions with Mindy, such as emotionally and verbally empathizing with her and writing her more notes and letters. We are also hoping to start a routine of reading a relationship book and praying together on my weeks off. As I've observed, habits are especially powerful in the context of families, and I hope we can work together to create powerful and fun family rituals.

Finally, I'm always on the lookout for better ways to do my job. My hospital is currently promulgating the acronym AIDET (Acknowledge, Introduce, Duration, Explanation, and Thank-you) as a way to improve patient-provider communication, so I'll be looking for ways over the coming weeks to make that a standard part of my encounters with patients. Hopefully I'll have progress to report on that front in a few months.

If there's inertia in your life you haven't been able to overcome, I hope the ideas in the outline below will empower you to create new habits to overcome the old.

Prologue: The Habit Cure
A key to major life change is a focus on changing one habit-- a keystone habit- that teaches you how to reprogram other routines your life.

Chapter 1: The Habit Loop: How Habits Work
The basal ganglia is central to recalling patterns and acting on them.
Habits never really disappear. They're encoded into the structures of our brain. But we can create new neurological routines that overpower old habits.
Even people that have lost their ability to form new memories can still form new habits.
Studies indicate that families usually don't intend to eat fast food on a regular basis. What happens is that a once a month pattern slowly becomes once a week, and then twice a week- as the cues and rewards create a habit- until the kids are consuming an unhealthy amount of hamburgers and fries.

Chapter 2: The Craving Brain: How to Create New Habits
Choose a simple and specific cue and clearly define a reward. Over time, this will create a craving that drives the habit cycle.
Most successful dieters envision a specific reward for sticking with their diet, for example, a bikini they wanted to wear or the sense of pride they felt when they stepped on the scale each day. They cultivated this craving into a mild obsession that crowded out the temptation to drop the diet.

Chapter 3: The Golden Rule of Habit Change
The habit loop = cue--> routine--> reward. The golden rule of habit change is to use the same cue and provide the same reward, but change the routine.
Changing the habit loop works until a stressful situation arrives. That is when you need belief in something greater than yourself to get you through (e.g. AA). And belief is easier when it occurs within a community.

Chapter 4: Keystone Habits, or the Ballad of Paul O'Neill
Keystone habits like exercise, eating dinner together, and making your bed are small wins that set in motion forces that favor other small wins. Winning patterns convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. [see Admiral McRaven's 2014 University of Texas commencement speech.]

Chapter 5: Starbucks and the Habit of Success
Self-discipline predicts academic performance more robustly than IQ.
Willpower is a muscle that gets tired with exercise but which can be strengthened over time. [See The Art of Manliness series on this.]

Chapter 6: The Power of a Crisis
During turmoil, organizational habits become malleable enough for a leader to be able to both assign responsibility and create a more equitable balance of power. [This point was rather obvious to me.]

Chapter 7: How Target Knows What You Want Before You Do
If you dress something new in old habits, it's easier for people to accept it. [This connects to some of Adam Grant's ideas in Originals-- that people with original ideas that run counter to the status quo sometimes need to adopt a Trojan Horse approach to introducing their ideas in order to preempt resistance.]

Chapter 8: Saddleback Church and the Montgomery Bus Boycott
When the strong ties of friendship and the weak ties of peer pressure merge, widespread social change can begin.
Then people must put in place habits to perpetuate the change.
Finally, for an idea to become self-propelling, those habits must help them figure out where to go on their own, and which change participants' sense of self.
The only way to get people to take responsibility for their spiritual maturity is to teach them habits of faith.

Chapter 9: The Neurology of Free Will
"Some thinkers," wrote Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, "hold that it is by nature that people become good, others that it is by habit, and others that it is by instruction." For Aristotle, habits reign supreme. The behaviors that occur unthinkingly are the evidence of our truest selves, he said. So "just as a piece of land has to be prepared beforehand if it is to nourish the seed, so the mind of the pupil has to be prepared in its habits if it is to enjoy and dislike the right things."
If you believe you can change-- if you make it a habit-- the change becomes real.

Appendix: A Reader's Guide to Using These Ideas
Going back the idea listed in Chapter 3, the habit loop = cue--> routine-->reward.
The framework for habit change is to isolate the cue, identify the routine, experiment with rewards, then come up with an alternate routine using the same cue and rewards.
Cues include location, time, emotional state, other people, and immediately preceding actions.
An example of putting this process into action is the author's habit of getting a cookie at the cafeteria every afternoon, which had resulted in significant weight gain. He quickly discovered that the cue was simply the time of day, sometime around 3:30 PM. After some tinkering, he found this habit sprang from a desire for distraction and socialization (the "reward"). He was able to replace this routine with a new habit of getting up from his desk and finding a coworker to talk to for 10 minutes. After a few months, this new habit became automatic.

To bring things full circle, the cues for the new habits I'd like to start include my alarm clock, getting home from work or a reminder from my phone to work out, interacting with Mindy, and introducing myself to patients and families. The rewards are increased physical, intellectual, relational, spiritual, and professional flourishing.

What are the cues and rewards you can use to reengineer the unhealthy habits in your life? Give it some serious thought and let me know what you come up with!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Originals by Adam Grant

A couple months ago, I worked by way through Adam Grant's Originals. In it, Grant lays out dozens of stories of how non-conformists were able to overcome the status quo and impact the world, and in the process identifies the keys to their successes. It was a fascinating read. I'm glad I took notes on each chapter, because there would be no way I could have remembered all the ideas I picked up. Below are the ones I found most insightful. If you'd like some context, head on down to your local library and pick up the book yo'sef! 

Image result for originals adam grant

Chapter 1: Creative Destruction

Contrary to popular belief, successful entrepreneurs are more risk-managing than others. 

A balanced risk portfolio means that stability in other areas of life allows originals to take extreme risks in their area of focus. 

Vuja de-- looking at familiar things in an unfamiliar way-- is a key skill of originals.

Chapter 2: Blind Inventors and One-Eyed Investors

Successful originals are more prolific than other creators. The number one path to original is to do a huge volume of work. There is no trade-off between quality and quantity. Most of what everyone does is a failure, but your odds of success are heightened with fecundity. Most people fail to achieve originality because they generate a few ideas and then obsess about refining them to perfection.

Artistic avocations help us to be more creative. Here is some data on how different types of hobbies stack up:

Chapter 3: Out on a Limb

Giving people the negatives about your ideas inoculates them against the negative and counter-intuitively makes them more open to the ideas.

Frequent, short exposure to ideas warms people up to them. It often takes twenty or more exposures to achieve the desired effect. Marketers know this.

If we could do things over, most of us would censor ourselves less and express our ideas more.

Below are the four strategies we can choose when we are confronted with a situation we'd like to change:

Chapter 4: Fools Rush In

Procrastination allows creative, engaged people to generate more original and novel ideas.

People have a better memory for incomplete tasks than complete ones, because once something is finished, we stop thinking about it.

The best architects and CEOs rate themselves the lowest on efficiency, promptness, self-control, and conscientiousness, but as more spontaneous.

Great originals procrastinate strategically, making gradual progress by testing and refining different possibilities. 

First-move disadvantage: Most pioneers fail, and most settlers succeed. Unless there are patents or strong network effects involved, it is usually better to wait, balance your risk portfolio, and learn from the mistakes of the pioneers rather than be impulsive.

Young geniuses vs old masters: there are two radically different styles of innovation: conceptual (young sprinters) and experimental (old marathoners). Conceptual innovators like Einstein and Cummings eventually become the captives of an important early achievement and become entrenched in their once-new mindset. Conversely, while experimental innovation can require years or decades to accumulate the requisite knowledge and skill, it becomes a more sustainable source of originality. The more experiments you run (or speeches you give, like MLK Jr), the less you become constrained by your ideas from the past. So be relentlessly curious and constantly tinkering.

Chapter 5: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse: Tempered Radicalism

Our former adversaries are the most effective at persuading others to join our movements because they can marshall better arguments on our behalf because they understand the doubts and misgivings of resisters.

Transparency isn't always the best policy. Sometimes you have to disguise your real objective if it is going to be considered too radical.

Chapter 6: Rebel with a cause

Firstborns are raised by their parents and the path to success by conformity is open to them.

Laterborns are raised by their siblings and don't have as many responsibilities. If they are 2-5 years away from their older sibling(s), they are more likely to pick a more original, risky, creative niche. Laterborns are much more likely to engage in dangerous sports and behaviors, steal bases, and be comedians. But wherever we fall in the birth order, when we have compelling role models or mentors for originality, they expand our awareness of niches that we had never considered.

Originals are much more likely to have been raised in a family where principles were explained to them in age-appropriate ways rather than commanded to follow rules. Empathy and guilt are crucial emotions to draw out.

When children do something good, praise their character, not their action-- this will result in more internalization of those traits.

Chapter 7 Rethinking Groupthink

Popular ideas of the phenomenon of groupthink do not recognize that there are usually people in the group who dissent, but who do not feel safe or empowered to speak up.

Idea meritocracies occur when leaders exemplify radical transparency and openness to criticism and employees are rewarded for criticism and punished for staying silent. Healthy debate where strong opinions are weakly held and the most important principle is that people think for themselves. An example is Ray Dalio's Bridgewater Hedge Fund. 

Chapter 8 Rocking the Boat and Keeping it Steady

When we are not yet committed to a particular action, thinking like a defensive pessimist can be hazardous. Looking on the bright side and labeling strong emotion as excitement rather than anxiety activates enthusiasm and increases success in sudden, stressful situations. But once we've settled on a course of action, when anxieties creep in, it's better to think like a defensive pessimist and confront them directly. This enables us to harness anxiety as a source of motivation to prepare him to succeed.

It is important to get early small wins so that when doubts arise, one can look back and draw upon successes already attained.

Humor is a powerful tool in the face of oppression.

Adopting original causes requires a sense of urgency. 

If you want people to modify their behavior from the status quo to a risky behavior, it is better to highlight the costs of not changing rather than the benefits of changing, since people are usually comfortable with the status quo and want to avoid risk. You have to cultivate dissatisfaction, frustration, or anger at the current state of affairs. But if the new behavior is safe, it is better to emphasize all the good things that will happen if they do it.

Venting doesn't extinguish the flame of anger; it feeds it. Avoiding venting was a central theme in the training of civil rights activists. To channel anger productively, we need to reflect on the victims who have suffered from it.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet is a book about introverts, by an introvert. But introvert and extrovert alike will gain much-needed insight into this common but misunderstood personality type by reading this book.

The introvert-extrovert spectrum is much like that of gender. Everyone has a different mix of inner-directed and other-directed qualities, just like everyone has traditionally male and female traits in unique proportions. But, broadly speaking, about 30% of us are introverts, with the rest being extroverts or ambiverts (equally introverted and extroverted-- androgynous personalities, if you will). This is a higher percentage than most people think, because many introverts have learned how to come across as extroverts. We have to. We live in the most extroverted culture in history. Indeed, Cain spends the first couple of chapters of the book exploring the transition from a culture that valued more introverted qualities like character and thoughtfulness in the 19th century to the America of self-help and salesmanship that we recognize today. In particular, she hones in on Dale Carnegie-- his career as the original self-help guru as well as his personal transformation as a young man from a shy and awkward boy into a dynamic public speaker. This was an especially riveting section to me since I was really impacted by How to Win Friends and Influence People when I read it a couple years ago.

But the most influential part of the book for me was when she discussed a few illustrative personal experiences. She describes her experience at a Tony Robbins "Release the Power Within" conference in vivid terms, relating how she felt like the only person with a shred of self-awareness in a sea of rowdy extroverts, and how being in such an environment only drove her more inside herself. Those of you who are introverts who have ever been subjected to an ice-breaker (which means all of us) can relate. Similarly, I resonated with her inner turmoil when she described a high-level business negotiation where she was nearly crippled by self-doubt, but overcame it beautifully by letting her thoughtfulness, compassion, and confidence shine through. This discussion of the value of authenticity was a welcome counterweight to the prevailing wisdom that we must adopt a blustery facade to keep from getting steamrolled in life. 
However, Cain also discussed in the context of a popular college professor how useful and important it can be for introverts to adopt an extroverted facade at particular times. Without his engaging demeanor in the lecture hall, the professor could have never made the impact on his students that was so important to his life's work. In another anecdote, she describes how a retreat with a bunch of other introverts started out great with lots of time for silent reflection, but ended up being boring after a while. In contrast to the ills she ascribes to extroverts in other parts of the book, she found herself missing the excitement and fun that extroverts bring to the table, and I think most of us can relate with that. At a recent long weekend with my college friends, I recognized how much more enjoyable it was having a few extroverts and ambiverts in the mix. It just wasn't as fun when they weren't there.

Cain also provides loads of research that paint a complex picture of how introverts and extroverts function in society. For example, she describes how the financial crisis of 2008 can be attributed to extroverts. Extroverts had apparently come to dominate the financial industry in the preceding decade by jumping on hot opportunities and throwing caution to the wind, while introverts who saw the red flags were marginalized because of their lower short-term earnings. We all know how that went. So if you're an extrovert, take note. Make sure to listen to the introverts in your business-- and your life, for that matter.
So I walked away from the book with a more nuanced understanding and heightened awareness of the role that introversion plays in my life and in society. It's practical stuff. For example, it helped me understand why being fully present with other people is so dang hard for me. On average, about 25% of my attention is inner directed, and sometimes it's a whole lot more than that. Conversely, over 90% of extroverts' attention is naturally focused on the here and now. They're more engaged-- and that's why they're more engaging! Sounds obvious, I know, but even knowing those numbers has helped me keep my engagement in check when I feel myself become more inner-directed. It's also tuned me in to the introversion level of the people I interact with. After thinking about this stuff for a couple months now, it's second nature for me to identify in a split second how introverted someone may be, and this has helped me know what I can expect from them. 
As a side note, I listened to this book on audio, and it's amazing how deeply the lessons have sunk in after absorbing it drop by drop over several weeks. It's been a real help in my struggle for better moment-to-moment presence. So if introverson is a topic you'd like to spelunk, don't just give it a read-- give it a listen!

Monday, March 20, 2017

First Quarter Report: Personal Finance

I've been preoccupied the last few months. Buying a house-- which Mindy and I did last month-- will do that to you. But before the house, I was obsessed with learning about personal finance. In fact, over the course of a couple months, I ended up reading about a hundred posts by Mr. Money Mustache, dozens of posts by the White Coat Investor, several  books, and listening to a lot of Radical Personal Finance podcasts. I learned a ton. And it changed me. In fact, it led me to radically redefine my long-term personal and professional goals. If I can reach a 50% savings rate, I should only have to work full-time for about 10 years. 10 years! I could then scale back to part-time. When I realized the shockingly simple math behind early retirement (in the words of Mr. Money Mustache), worlds of possibility opened up to me. With the house paid off and investment dividends covering my basic expenses, I'll be able to spend most of my time with my family around the homestead, working on projects, writing, reading, contemplating, and going on an occasional long-term trip. I could be free! (At least with my time. A lot more people in this country are going to have to become libertarian for me to also be able to legally quit paying taxes and submitting to stupid laws.)

Indeed, the realization that I could be financially free at a relatively young age has been akin to my political conversion to libertarianism back in medical school. Now as then, I feel both excitement at my recent enlightenment and chagrin for not seeing it for so long. How could I have been so blind, so careless? I have to believe that the only people who aren't excited by financial independence either haven't thought about it or have believed the self-defeating lie that it's not possible for them. Surely everyone with sound mind and body would be on the FIRE (Financial independence / retire early) train if they realized that with some sacrifices and wise investing early on, they wouldn't have to work by the time their kids are teenagers. Right?

Now, if you just dismissed those words because I get a doctor's salary, allow me to humbly point out that the vast majority of people on the train to early retirement are earning less than six figures-- and some of them are semi-retired even at my age. Recognize that most of your reasons why you can't retire early are rationalizations. However much you make, the key is achieving a high saving rate by ruthlessly eliminating all expenses from which you don't derive a benefit. It also helps to have a side-hustle to make extra cash, but that's secondary. If you stop telling yourself the self-limiting story that early retirement isn't for you because of x, y, and z, and start living well below your means and investing wisely now, you'll wake up one day pretty soon with the freedom to do whatever the heck you want. 

And when that day comes, give me a call. We'll go do something awesome.