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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#42)

A week of release: A lot happened this week, as the kids and I battled sickness (Therazinc and tea tree oil to the rescue!), I finished my trial with Automattic (one of the hardest stretches of work I’ve done), we took a weekend jaunt to Linlithgow Palace, and had a Sunday day doing nothing but playing.


I felt a little like this over the past five weeks: During my trial I felt so tired at the end of each day. Reading the The grandmaster diet: How to lose weight while barely moving made me think about just how much energy I was expending:

In October 2018, Polar, a U.S.-based company that tracks heart rates, monitored chess players during a tournament and found that 21-year-old Russian grandmaster Mikhail Antipov had burned 560 calories in two hours of sitting and playing chess — or roughly what Roger Federer would burn in an hour of singles tennis.

Robert Sapolsky, who studies stress in primates at Stanford University, says a chess player can burn up to 6,000 calories a day while playing in a tournament, three times what an average person consumes in a day. Based on breathing rates (which triple during competition), blood pressure (which elevates) and muscle contractions before, during and after major tournaments, Sapolsky suggests that grandmasters’ stress responses to chess are on par with what elite athletes experience.


I attended the Rangers v Feyenoord football match on Thursday. Before moving to Scotland I knew next-to-nothing about the club, but the history is epic, and the Wikipedia page for Rangers F.C. does not disappoint:

Rangers have won more league titles and domestic trebles than any other club in the world, winning the league title 54 times, the Scottish Cup 33 times and the Scottish League Cup 27 times, and achieving the treble of all three in the same season seven times. Rangers won the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1972 after being losing finalists twice, in 1961 (the first British club to reach a UEFA tournament final) and 1967. A third runners-up finish in Europe came in the UEFA Cup in 2008. Rangers have a long-standing rivalry with Celtic, the two Glasgow clubs being collectively known as the Old Firm, which is considered one of the world’s biggest football derbies.

Note that they have to keep the stands next to and above the visiting team’s fans cleared (visitors are the few stands in the far corner). The multiple rings of police in yellow coats can give you an idea as to why.

All those yellow coats in the distance are the police…

Reading the Lessons of History and really enjoying the writing:

So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it – perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of tis tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.”


A good question to help cut through the clutter: From Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir on how she recovered from not qualifying for the 2014 Crossfit games (she won in 2015 and 2016):

I wasn’t a failure. I had just failed at a certain event. Past tense. What could I do in this exact moment to get better? It got me focusing on giving my absolute best in any given situation without the pressure of constantly stacking myself up to others.”

Timothy Ferriss, Tribe of Mentors

A useful definition of art from Seth Godin:

Art is a human activity. It is the creation of something new, something that might not work, something that causes a viewer to be influenced.

Art uses context and culture to send a message. Instead of only a contribution of beauty or craft, art adds intent. The artist works to create something generous, something that will change us.

Art isn’t painting or canvas or prettiness. Art is work that matters.

It’s entirely possible that you’re an artist.

Everyone can be, if we choose.

Thing I learned about Scotland: Fall walks are as brilliant as ever.

A little path through the woods by our house. Fall is starting to peek through.
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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#23)

Some profound advice on the meaning of life: I’ve read and re-read and shared Hunter S. Thompson’s Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life a bunch over the past week. It’s worth reading the whole thing (not long), but here’s the main message:

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).
 
In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Filing that away in the stuff I want to tell my kids folder…

Book I started reading: Picked up Keep Going by Austin Kleon by chance at a bookstore last week and it’s a potent little book. Here’s my favorite pic so far that about sums it up:

Speaking of keeping going and of finding a chosen way of life: Check out To Spain… and …then to France. This is my idea of a good trip and one I hope to emulate.

From https://mostlydrawing.com/2019/05/04/to-spain/
From https://mostlydrawing.com/2019/05/10/and-then-to-france/

Favorite book excerpt:

In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work your best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot — and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice.

From Art & Fear by David Bayles, Ted Orland

New music for work: The artist djblesOne and his Soundcloud and Bboys Bboy Forever (on Spotify). It’s all break beat mixes, all flying jump kick-type energy, and it’s super conducive to getting shit done.

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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#19)

Drawing kids is hard: We were traveling all last week and I tried making some time to draw the kids at the breakfast table (in ink as is my norm right now). It was a (fun) disaster.

A book excerpt that made me think: In Draft No 4 by John McPhee lies the following quote from Cary Grant: “A thousand details add up to one impression.” The implication is that the small things really are the big things. Focus on doing the next thing the best you can, and the next, and the next. Create as many of these chains as you can. That is the definition of quality.

All about the robocall crisis: I get a few of these calls every week and my wife gets way more than I do. This gave me some backstory (and lots of interesting reading) on the cat-and-mouse game of robcalls: The robocall crisis will never be totally fixed.

A new coffee preparation: Found on the board of a coffee shop in Tofino, a cortado is a coffee preparation originating from Spain, consisting of half espresso, half milk. It’s similar to a flat white, but without the “textured” milk that is typical of Italian preparations. I still prefer my coffee black, but when I’m in the mood for something different, this is my new go-to.

My new goes-in-anything sauce: I’m super late to this party but Franks hot sauce is going in my pantry. It’s not really hot, and it’s got a acidic bite that can help balance any dish. When I was at a cooking class not long ago, they added it to anything that needed more acid (French cooking, Italian cooking, you name it).

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What I learned last week

What I learned last week (#8)

  • I never realized what I was missing by not trying a neti pot earlier: The family and I have been battling various sicknesses for the past month, and on a friends advice I started using the NeilMed Sinus Rinse. It feels weird at first, sure, but the results are real.
  • This short exercise to change your mindset: I’m about half-way through the Sam Harris Waking Up course and have been listening to some of the lessons as well. Like the rest of the course, this short lesson on gratitude really has had an impact. I find that a lot of the time I am in a mental malaise at the end of a work day, especially after a long commute home. This is a fantastic tool I’m using to break any feeling of mediocrity.
  • The most nutritious plants: I didn’t think this article, Ranking Vegetables on How Healthy They Are, would be as surprising to me as it was. In particular, the fact that 100 calories of spinach has more protein than 100 calories of beef. Being vegetarian-turned-pescatarian now for 5 months I’m still learning about all of goodness out there. (Hat tip: Ben Tamblyn)
     
  • A quote I’ve been pondering:

“To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day.”

Lao Tzu
  • Vivian is a natural Bansky: I did a quick portrait sketch of Sam on Sunday morning and showed it to Vivi. She said I could draw her also “as long as you don’t make me look weird”. I left the room to change Sam’s diaper and didn’t think of it. Later in the afternoon I opened and found that she drew herself in the notebook on the opposite page.
A couple of sunday morning portraits
My portrait of Sam on the left, Vivi’s self portrait on the right.

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Featured Misc

A Drawing A Day

I want to be an artist!

I would say this to myself and others while I was growing up. It was a big, nebulous goal that I actively worked on in fits-and-starts throughout my childhood and into adulthood. I loved the practice of art but also romanticized an artist lifestyle that I would surely one day realize. Why did I want to be an artist? What habits and techniques did I need to develop to get me there? I didn’t know, I just knew I like it. My goal proved effective on it’s own as a way to focus energy in a general direction, but I could feel that some things were left out. For one, I wasn’t very intentional about achieving my goal.

intentional (adj): done on purpose; deliberate.

I’ve generally felt that new years resolutions are only partially effective, similar to my experience with the goal of being an artist. The same way I’m put off by the question “where do you want to see yourself in 5-10 years”, resolutions tend to be, at least for me, at risk for being too big to wrap my arms around and too focused on a destination versus the journey. Instead of just having big resolutions/goals, I’ve learned that I have to first have solid principles that ground me as well as a set of good habits and routines that support the experiments necessary to improve and progress toward my goals.

The Experiment

I recently remembered an “experiment” I did when I was 16. It was the summer of ’96, and while my sister and I went to school in Seattle, in the summers we visited my Dad in Wyoming. This meant that I didn’t have the distraction of my classmates, and in a surprising moment of wisdom, I took advantage of that situation. I set forth a goal of spending an hour per day doing one drawing. The only real criteria I set was that the drawing is done completely in one sitting. I remember that I was really interested in becoming a better artist and I knew I had to practice in order to advance to the next level, but I wasn’t very disciplined at setting aside time and always felt like I needed an idea before I started. In turns out what I really needed was to get out of my own way. I obviously didn’t think of it in any deep way though, I just enjoyed drawing.

So, I got a sketchbook specifically for the task and every afternoon, sometime between 3pm-5pm, I sat down at the desk in my room and did a drawing. The subject of most of these were of superheros and heroic adventure scenes and high-flying car chases, and a lot of them are not very good technically (my figure proportions are way off), but I did it. I filled an entire sketchbook front-to-back with full drawings, and I “finished” them by spraying fixative on at the end (thus they wouldn’t smudge). They exist to this day. There is even one or two that I love.

I drew action scenes like this a lot. Seattle Five-0!
Landscapes and buildings, definitely my thing.
This is where I started to find my style.

The Result

Even though the habit of a drawing a day was simple in theory, it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I didn’t really want to draw, or didn’t feel like I had a good idea for what to draw, but regardless I sat and and drew something.

Until last week, I hadn’t thought about a drawing a day in years and was almost shocked when I remembered how much satisfaction, joy and energy it gave me as a teenager. A drawing a day was a step towards being something I wanted to be and was totally in my control. It required the simply the discipline to put a pencil to paper and move it. A purpose, goal and action aligned.

A drawing a day led me to ultimately pursue web design, begin a career in technology and was a precursor for my approach to other changes that have most positively impacted my life. Recent examples include experimenting with my diet (going 30 days without caffeine, alcohol, gluten, meat, etc) and another experimenting with mindfulness (starting with 10 min meditations a day for 30 days).

Experimenting with your life frees you to create differently, but you need to choose new causes (intentions) consciously. If you don’t choose different intentions consciously, unconscious parts of your personality (the frightened parts) will choose them for you, along with the consequences they will create for you.

Gary Zukav, from the article Intentions and Effects

As I reflect on the past year, I can see that I’ve been pretty good at setting goals (although I can always be better at making them more SMART) and am all-in on progress through experimentation for achieving those goals, but I still struggle with feeling buffeted about by things outside of my control and sometimes feel that I don’t have an internal compass. What’s open for experimentation vs not? How should I choose what to prioritize? How do I weather different challenges and emotions with confidence? What I’ve been searching for can be summed up brilliantly by the following:

“You might not always achieve success, but you can always behave honorably. You can act in alignment with essential values, attaining the peace of mind I call ‘success beyond success.”

Fred Kofman, from the book Conscious Business

The Next Level

My next step is to spend more time developing and refining my “why” (thank you Simon), also know as my principles, and lining up my goals and actions accordingly. Here’s the framework I’m (experimenting) with in order to be more intentional:

  1. Establish principles. I have a list of principles that I have been building and refining over the past year. These are the things that provide the foundation for my intentions and who I want to be. Want help figuring these out? Try this: write down three people you admire. Now write down 3+ traits each of them have that are the basis for your admiration. Those are the same traits you want to have and, I bet, already do. An example of a principle I have is to focus on quality over quantity, and a sub-bullet under that is focusing on on depth of experience vs a material goods.
  2. Set clear goals. I have a written list of goals, the things I’d like to explore or make happen. These build off of my principles and can and will change. An example of one of my goals is to be a self-published writer and an artist. Another is to move to Scotland with the family.
  3. Make progress be experimenting. I treat all my tactics as really small, achievable experiments. This is the path to achieving my goals, as they force action and naturally lend themselves to adaptation. Setting aside 60 mins to draw and write each day for the next 6 months is an example. Creating content for this blog with my wife is another.
  4. Reflect and refine. I try to do reflection on a weekly and monthly basis, it’s so important. Thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t tends to feel like wasted time, as we want to just get on with the next thing. Spend more time here than you want to and it will benefit. After all, that’s how your principles came about in the first place!

In many ways setting goals is the easy part. The challenge is in knowing yourself well enough to set the right goals, and in having the discipline to sit down and work on them, one drawing at a time.