What I learned last week (#36)

Learned last week: Kids learn fast, habits need to be formed before they can be optimized, you don’t need a rarefied job, and more.

Practical application for my recent focus on habits: We just started to tackle a big habit (/skill?) with Sam: using the toilet and getting used to no diapers anymore (yessss!). It started out horribly on Monday, and it seemed he was doing more pee and poos on one day than in the last month combined, all of them directly in his pants, on the floor, or on us. But that lasted only one day and then he has, incredibly, been on point for over a week now. We’ve also been tackling a big skill (/habit?) with Vivian as well: riding a bike by herself, no training wheels or hand-holding. She’s on point now to. How’d we do it? We didn’t, they did, we just provided plenty of space, encouragement and positivity. These kids learn fast!


Podcast that I enjoyed: Sticking to the habit theme, I listened to James Clear on 10% Happier where he was discussing his book, Atomic Habits. There was so much to like and here are a few notes that stuck with me (my paraphrasing and thoughts mostly):

  • Habits need to be formed before they can be optimized. Don’t try to make them perfect at the start. Keep the bar low, get a chain going, and then don’t break the chain.
  • We shouldn’t vilify addictions as we often do. The process of living a healthy lifestyle, one that’s right for you, is really the process of finding the healthiest addictions.
  • “The heaviest weight at the gym is the front door.”
  • “Every action you take is a vote for who you want to be.”
  • Pay attention to the story you are telling yourself and others, the words you use matter. Instead of saying “I have to pick up my kid from practice (so I can’t do X)” or “I have to go to work on Saturday (which I don’t want to do)”, swap “have to” with “get to” and suddenly the whole thing shifts from a focus on some set of expectations not being met to a focus on appreciating the reality of what you have.
  • Think about your life as a series of seasons. Be honest with yourself about what types of habits and focus are right for the current season you are in (i.e. you aren’t going to be meditating for 1-2 hours a day if you have young kids, but it doesn’t mean you never will).

Idea I am thinking about:

“You don’t need a rarefied job, you need a rarefied approach to your work.”

From Deep Work by Cal Newport

A few references from Deep Work: I’ve been really enjoying this one. Although the concepts are straightforward (and have been covered in many forms since this came out) they are still profound and the examples, arguments and resources are fascinating. Here are three things I am checking out from last week’s reading:

  1. Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
  2. Art of Focus by David Brooks
  3. The Eudaimonia Machine by David Dewane

New music: The latest from Moodymann, Sinner, was on repeat during trips to Edinburgh and Glasgow this week, and is equally well suited to long car rides or work sessions. (Note: It’s almost exactly 45 minutes which makes it a decent timer listening front-to-back.)


New beer, this time from Estonia: Got my hands on a couple of bottles of imperial stout from Põhjala the week before last. The Vahtra, one from their cellar series, was one of my favorite BA stouts in recent memory. The inclusion of blueberries gave it a slightly tart finish and was a welcome compliment to the expected choc/coffee notes and addition of maple syrup.

What I learned last week (#32)

Learned last week: big change can be done, downsizing is hard, practice alone is not enough, and more.

Big changes are possible with small incremental steps: Last week we (finally!) closed up shop in the US and started our Scotland experiment. By midweek, all of our belongings fit into the back of an SUV and a small crate sitting somewhere in the port of Seattle. Amazing to get to this point. There were countless small decisions that were made moot by making the one big decision to move, and executing that big decision was a matter of one day and step at a time.


Getting rid of things is harder than I thought: We’ve sold and given away a lot of stuff as part of our move, and we’ve invited many friends and strangers alike to go through our stuff to pick out things they might like or find useful. During this process my feelings have swung all the way from gratitude to ambivalence to resentment and back again, sometimes very rapidly, and it’s surprised me how hard this was to moderate. I often felt like someone “owed” me for something they were given, or even bought. Or I felt they didn’t “deserve” these things that I valued so much, etc, etc. I think I navigated this ok, but it was harder to keep my mindset on the right things throughout the process of shedding stuff than I thought.


Documentary I finally got a chance to watch: I’ve been waiting to watch Free Solo, and finally snuck it in while Sam slept on me in the flight to Scotland. One part that stuck with me was when Alex Honnold was reflecting on the difference between himself and his girlfriend, and he says something to the effect of “her goal is happiness, having a comfortable life. Nothing great has ever been accomplished by being happy and comfortable. My goal is performance.” It’s incredible what he has achieved by being so laser focused on performance. It is a mindset I admire, and strikes me as very similar to that of another person I hold in high regard, Josh Waitzkin.


Tips on how to become a craftsman: In the midst of everything last week I was somehow able to sneak in some reading, this time it was So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I love how the book is structured, how it provides summaries at the end of each section and the conclusion where he brings it together and applies the rules. The part that I’m thinking a lot about, a core idea to the book, is the section on how to become a craftsman and build valuable skills. Of particular interest is the one-two punch of putting both a structure in place that allows you to spend the time on practicing a skill, as well as being very deliberate about having that practice be stretching oneself through challenging and uncomfortable work.

In his 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, here’s how Steve Martin explained his strategy for learning the banjo: “[I thouhgt], if I stayed with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.”

The image of Martin returning to his banjo, day after day, for forty years is poignant. It captures well the feel of how career capital is actually acquired: You stretch yourself, day after day, month after month, before finally looking up and realizing, “Hey, I’ve become pretty good, and people are starting to notice.”


Quote that relates to what I was watching and reading:

“What you do everyday matters more than what you do once in a while.”

Gretchen Rubin

Book excerpt I loved:

We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

From Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Good mornings

As life has gotten more fluid and less predictable, I am finding a lot of magic in my mornings.

Mornings are my favorite part of the day, and I typically protect them fiercely, to the point where I have been reflecting on whether I’m being well disciplined (my intention) or overly rigid (definitely not my intention). I’ve learned the hard way that morning routines are made to be disrupted, especially with young children in the mix. Add in moving to another country, leaving work and selling all belongings, including the bed you sleep on, and the idea of holding tight to a morning routine seems like a perfect recipe for unhappiness. So yeah, I’ve been trying to take a softer approach as of late.

The week before last, I spent a rare Friday morning with Sam because Kav wasn’t feeling good. She usually gets up to watch the kids on work mornings (she’s the best) but this morning I had the rare sense that I ought to forgo my routine to help out. I made coffee (for me) and poured milk (for Sam) and put on some music (Damien Jurado in this case) and we sat on the couch in mostly silence, he on my lap, watching the birds in the trees out back. The only break in silence between us being when a new bird flew into view, Sam pointing and saying, “Daddy Nick that birdie go high!” or “Not sunny Dad, cloudy”.

Eventually, Sam and I started in on some important topics, like which one of the Paw Patrol was his favorite (Marshall), which was mine (Chase), and the same for his Mom (Rubble) and sister (Sky). Vivian came down after a while and joined us, and they both pretended I was a pillow instead of a person, and tried to find ways to “get comfortable” on me that involved poking, prodding and wrestling me as much as possible. Once that slowed I got up to make breakfast, only to have them quickly grab on to my legs and hold fast while I walked around the kitchen, pretending to be some type of growth that couldn’t be easily shaken off.

Later, Sam followed me upstairs into the shower (he would stand in the shower all day if you let him), and we sang a few songs and used our fingers to draw fruit on the foggy shower door until we were wrinkly. In time Kav was able to take over and I resumed my regularly scheduled programming and went to work.

Fast forward to the past week. I got a surprise visit from Vivian just after 6am while I was starting my workout, and I subsequently spent the morning in my garage doing pull-ups (and other exercises) while Vivian took notes on how many reps I did and then made the numbers into animals in between sets while I rested. I varied the number of reps in my sets so that we could get different numbers and make interesting animal number combos. Instead of 10 reps each time, I did 8, then 12, then 9, then 13.

When I did my push-up sets she joined in too, doing 3 or 4 push-ups alongside me. She thought it was funny how my nose touched the mat each time and cracked up, making me also laugh in mid-rep, which surprisingly added to the challenge and seemed like it made for a better work out. When I reached for my towel to wipe off the sweat from my brow she told me her friends at school get really sweaty and sometimes “they come in from recess with their hair soaking wet.” Burpees were her favorite. Both because of the name (“It sounds like buuuuurrrp”) and because it had to be done “fast” (her own conclusion after watching me for a few minutes). During my cool down she flipped to a blank page of my notebook and drew a horse, and then a fence, and then I drew a cowboy and a squirrel, and we made up a story about what they were all doing together and going to do together next.

Eventually I resumed my regularly scheduled programming and went to work.

With all of the craziness of moving to another country, resigning from a place I’ve worked for 13 years, saying goodbye to a place I’ve lived for 27 years, and doing all the usual stuff that comes with trying to be a good husband, father and son, I would expect that I might not only be more stressed, but also be letting more of the smaller moments in life go unnoticed, and I’m trying to not judge myself to harshly for this. However, quite the opposite has happened, and I’ve found that my appreciation for the magic of everyday moments has grown right along with the craziness increasing.

As life has gotten more fluid and less predictable, my approach to my routine, and my mornings, is softer and more malleable. I am finding a lot of magic in it all. I’ve thought about both of these mornings every day since, and I’m paying attention to the one I am having right now.

What I learned last week (#19)

Learned last week: the small things are the big things, robocalling sucks, a new coffee preparation, and more.

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).

What I learned last week (#12)

A useful perspective on passion, a new service that reminds me what I’ve read, and reasons to keep reading.

  • A different perspective on answering the question “what you are passionate about?”: With the upcoming move, I’ve been doing a lot of writing and thinking about what I want to do next for work. As part of that, I’ve been thinking a lot about, and answering, similar questions to this. The postWork before passion by Seth Godin, and related TEDx talk from Terri Trespicio, resonates with me here. Instead of trying to articulate what I’m passionate about, I choose to be attentive to the fact that I’m constantly discovering things I’m interested in, that there are so many interesting and worthy problems out there to solve, and that I want to do work that matters.
  • A service so useful I can’t believe Amazon doesn’t own them: I recently started using Readwise.io. They send you 5 highlights from your e-book library at random each day and you can tag and organize them. It’s been surprisingly good for me. I’m a big Kindle reader and highlighter/note taker, and although I export my notes into OneNote, having them sent to me inevitably puts things in front of me I wouldn’t of revisited. It makes me want to read even more.
  • A thought-provoking essay on reading: Sticking with the theme this week of reading, Reading in the Age of Constant Distraction made me ponder what I love about reading (and how I feel when I go for extended periods without it).
  • Continuing to work on mindfulness and came across this (a highlight from my Readwise digest): From Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig: “The past cannot remember the past. The future can’t generate the future. The cutting edge of this instant right here and now is always nothing less than the totality of everything there is.”

A Drawing A Day

This experiment, during a summer break between junior and senior years of high school, is rooted in life skills I’m still trying to master.

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.

Read this before you go back to work

To me by me. A reminder before going back to work after time away.

Hey there,

You are about to go back to work after some time off. Maybe you just finished the weekend or you were off for a couple of weeks for the holidays, it doesn’t really matter. You’re going to need to get back in the groove of things and it’s highly likely you will feel overwhelm along the way because it’s happened before. Many times. In fact, it always happens.

See if this sounds familiar:

It’s Monday and you are looking forward to getting back to work so you can get back to your routine (alone time, finally!), contribute to something with like-minded people and do meaningful work. You get up and do your morning workout and are feeling pretty good. You sit down before looking at mail or other inputs and start making lists and getting organized so you can be intentional and focused right off the bat. Hell yes!

Seems all good but quickly that to-do list gets long and you start realizing how much stuff there is that was left hanging before you left or that you’ve committed to doing to meet your goals. Then, you look at your calendar and realize how many things shifted around, how many new things are there and, shit, what you actually scheduled that you need to prepare for and you need be “on” for a meeting an hour. Along with that, you start looking through all of the emails, messages, notifications up, and holy shit there is zero time to sort through it before you are sucked into the “Hey, how was the break?” catch-up conversation and you never got to really think about things before your first meeting starts.

This is the tipping point. Recognize that feeling of overwhelm? Say hi. It’s here just like we knew it would be. Now you have a choice.

One path is to dig in and grind. You can try to catch-up while in your meetings, not being fully present, get through your unread messages, not fully comprehending them, and get a partial list of your to-dos down on paper, which adds to the feeling of overwhelm. Now you’re still feeling behind, and you feel bad for how you showed up in that meeting. This is the path of resistance.

The other path is to realize that beginning again will be a bit messy, and focus on doing things well versus doing things fast. Focus on being present, only reading or working on what you can do with full attention, connecting with people and asking them what you can help with, be ok with a lot of unread stuff. Stay centered on your intention and don’t sacrifice quality. This is the path of acceptance.

Which path will you choose? Here is a checklist of things that have worked for you in the past and that you should pay attention to:

  1. Set the right conditions up-front. Ensure your good autopilot is turned-on prior to arrival. Eat healthy, sleep well, exercise and take care of yourself the day before.
  2. Be intentional. Set your intention for the day and week, keep perspective (practice zooming out), manage your to-do list and limit work in progress.
  3. Stay present. Focus on making the next 5 minutes rock. Don’t worry about the future, it will take care of itself.
  4. Fly high. Don’t give any mental space to negativity, blame, or criticism. People will forget the problems of the day but they will remember the way you handled them.
  5. Be gentle with yourself. The golden role applies in reverse. How you treat yourself is ultimately the way you will treat other people.

That’s it, now go get ’em. You’re going to do great.

Love,
-Yourself