Only Up

I have never seen a stock that only went up. I have never seen a tide that only rises. I have never seen someone only breathe in.

Often our minds are set on growth, and we do not stop to think about decay. For us to advance, part of us must die.

A gardener is aware of the seasons. There is a time and a place to sow, and a time to harvest. A fresh tomato is only fresh for a moment. 

Learning new things means unlearning old things. Progress is not only up.


I watched the movie “Unforgiven” last night. I had no preconceptions other than a recommendation from a friend that it was “great”. Unforgiven is a Clint Eastwood Western made in the 1990s. I found the movie enjoyably jarring. It was peaceful and chaotic. The cinematography was beautiful and distant.

The movie starts violently, and ends rather violently. But the violence is not natural. No one thinks the violence is normal or warranted. All of the characters seem to inhabit a violent world, and are forced to violence, but against their will. 

Thinking about the movie after I watched it, I was struck by how on the nose the point of the movie was, and how I had missed it while I was watching the movie. There are no good guys. Everyone is tainted. 

In one scene, Clint Eastwood is waiting for payment with a young kid who has just killed for the first time. The kid is confessing and drinking whiskey. Clint Eastwood is squinting towards the horizon. The kid says, “well I guess they had it coming” – to which Clint responds, “we all have it coming, kid”. That is the essence of the movie. We all have it coming.

In our own “cancel culture” of 2020, this struck me as apropos. In Unforgiven, no one is innocent. Everyone is a combination of good and bad. If you look for the good, you’ll find some. If you look for the bad, you’ll find some. In our own culture, it feels like we are in a righteous pursuit of saints only. Who wouldn’t love a nation of saints? Perhaps we get there, perhaps we end up revealing a nation of hypocrites. 

Hell Week – Round #1

One week a quarter, I will be conducting my own personal Hell Week. This is my first round.

Why would I do this? Despite my best intentions, I regress to comfort. I watch TV instead of working on a book. I run a mile less because I am not feeling it. I hit snooze because my first meeting is not until later.

Some argue that the main obstacle to our growth is our desire to stay inside our comfort zone. The goal of Hell Week is to shatter the comfort zone.

Rules for round 1 of Hell Week:

  • Hell Week will go from August 1st at 5:30am to August 8th at 5:30am
  • Must wake up (and not return to bed) by 5:30am
  • Must complete throughout the course of the day – 500 pushup, 500 squats, and 500 ab moves*
  • Must run 35 miles over the course of the week
  • Follow a 16:8 Intermittent Fast until the 36 hour fast
  • 36 hour fast starting Wednesday August 5th until the 7th
  • Must complete 5,000+ word article
  • No TV
  • No Instagram
  • No Twitter from 5:30am to 12pm
  • Cold shower every day
  • Meditate 20 minutes everyday
  • One 45 minute Meditation

I will track my fasts with the app zero. I will use the Waking Up App to track meditations. I will use Nike+ Running app to track runs.

The goal is to reach a point where I do not want to continue, and to push through that point. To realize that there was a reason I created the challenge in the first place and to trim a little fat off my soul.

Bonsai as Anchors

A bonsai is simply a tree in a pot. Of course, we all conjure up something more in our mind when we think of a bonsai. Mr. Miyagi carefully pruning. Or a 100 year old tree in some exhibit perhaps. Bonsais feel…unattainable. But, at their core – bonsais are simply a tree in a pot.

Over the course of this pandemic, I have reintroduced myself to the world of bonsai. A world that has always had outsized appeal in my heart. One of my first additions to my apartment when I got a place of my own was a bonsai. And then another. I ended up with 7. One was a beautiful redwood forest that was about 15 years old. They all died the first summer I had them. I had a 12 day trip and the water system I attempted was no match for the southern heat.

I have not let myself get back into bonsai over the past decade. The amount of travel and general chaos in my life did not allow for the level of care a bonsai deserves. And then the pandemic came. We started working around the house more and I noticed all sorts of small trees growing in our yard. I started to dig them up and put them in pots.

I have a maple that is holding on. An oak that is doing much better than I could have imagined. And then I went to Lowes. I bought a boxwood and a barberry. And then we visited a Japanese maple nursery and I bought a 3 foot Peve Stanley Japanese maple. My love has been rekindled.

On the whole, bonsai, as an art, is still well beyond me. I have watched many hours of bonsai videos and read many articles. (I highly recommend Bonsai Mirai) Each type of tree has its own wants and needs. Every location has its own challenges.

But for me, right now, bonsais are trees in pots. I water them everyday. I spend time with them. And for me, they serve as an anchor.

While everything around us is changing so much, my trees only change a little. A new leaf here or there. The boxwood took off faster than I expected after I repotted it. But on the whole – they feel manageable. They feel like life at a pace that is understandable – enjoyable. And then I log on to Twitter.

Love, Hate and

My relationship with the puzzle feature is borderline masochistic. The premise is simple – you are presented with a chess game that has progressed to a certain point and it is up to you to make the next move. 

There is one correct move you can make. If you make that move, you may be prompted to make another move – of which there is only one correct move. Sometimes the puzzle can involve up to 4 or even 5 moves, I believe. If any one of those moves is not perfect, you lose points off your ranking.

I have completed over 2,400+ chess puzzles. I occasionally go through periods where I pay extra and can do 25 puzzles a day – but usually I am limited to the 5 free puzzles a day. I also go for months without any puzzles, but I always return.

My ranking is a miserable 713 currently. Here is my all time chart:

My ranking never really gets any better. And that is the point of this post. The source of the masochism. I desire to actually improve, rather than just play for fun.

My current plan is to keep a journal of mistakes and revisit them. also now has a learning feature. I will work on those puzzles with the same focus. I will also document my thoughts upon looking at a difficult board and reflect on if there is a better chain of thoughts through which I can analyze the board.

My goal is to break 900 by August 31st.

This experiment has more to do with growth in learning than chess specifically. Chess is an arena that gives immediate feedback so it will be my current training ground. I am hoping the lessons learned in improving my chess puzzle score can be applied to any area I wish to improve.

How hard did you go?

At the end of a Nike+ training workout you are asked, “how hard was that for you?” Another way of asking the question might be – how much effort did you put in?

I was doing exercises measured in duration – so if I wanted to go harder, I simply needed to go faster. This is one of the ideas behind Crossfit. The exercise could be as simple as 300 pushups – not difficult for world’s most elite athletes. But competing against each other as fast as you can – it becomes more difficult.

So “how hard was that for you”? You get to slide a bar between 1-10. When I slide this bar, I often want to stop on 7. And then I hear the voice of our first realtor. When we would go visit homes, she would say “rate the house on a scale of 1-10 but you can’t use 7”. 

So I push the bar up to 8. And then I think – why is this not at a 10? Why am I not giving my max effort? 

The answer is ego. The answer to many problems is usually ego. We seek self-preservation over growth. We want to think, “that was easy and I could have gone way harder”. Even though we were just making strange noises a few seconds ago. 

I don’t think that putting 7 or 8 is wrong – I just wonder if it is right? What would happen if you had to slide a scale at the beginning of the workout that asked, how much effort are you about to put in? Would we say 8? Should we seek 10?

The “30 Day Challenge”

Photo by Tomáš Malík from Pexels

“I meditated 1 hour every day for 30 days”, there are tons of these click-bait headlines out there. Why do they work? Matt D’Avella has built a subscriber base of 2.8 million followers on this formula. I am one of the followers – but why?

The question must be broken into two parts – why do people attempt 30 day challenges and why do people love to watch other people do them?

Making a change in one’s life is hard. There are some great books out there devoted to this – my personal favorite is Atomic Habits by James Clear. But the concepts are all the same. We often know the things that we should be doing. Procrastinate less, eat better, wake up earlier, stop binging tv and start working on a side project – but we struggle to act on them.

The reason is straight forward – change is hard. Make change can feel like trying to move a boulder. The 30 day challenge provides a pile of rocks. It’s manageable. And it works. But perhaps not the way it would seem.

Most people don’t make it through the 30 day challenge. Therefore, they think 30 day challenges don’t work. I argue that the challenge succeeds if you fail because it reveals to you what you need to fix. Examine the issues that prevented you from achieving the goal and restart. That is the only way things get done. The ability to fail and fix is the foundation of progress.

The other side of the equation is our love of watching people do things. “Improvement porn”. Some part of the brain gets triggered to release the same chemicals as if we accomplished the thing ourself – without the effort. 
I think watching people strive is beneficial – but only as much as it prompts you to action. If you notice yourself watching many of these videos without making progress – it’s time for a change.

If you are looking for some ideas on 30 day challenges, here’s a great article that features many.

Personally, I am going to try to sell 30 things this month.

Face Masks and Communication

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

How are masks changing communication? 

Some studies estimate as much as 93% of communication is nonverbal. I think the number is much lower – but we do send many communication signals nonverbally. The most information dense area of nonverbal communication is people’s facial expressions. Because of COVID-19, all of a sudden, everyone has half of their face covered. We have unwittingly entered into an unmeasured experiment.

For a more in depth dive on this I like Markham Heid’s piece over on Elemental, “Face masks hide what words can’t say”.

The other day I experienced this first hand. A routine interaction in my office building escalated to a lecture from a stranger on proper behavior – something I have never experienced. (We were both wearing face masks. The lesson was on…rudeness? Not sure.)

This was a completely foreign situation for me and I blame the mask. Perhaps our face says more than we know. 

Have you had any strange communication experiences with masks?

Unshared Reality

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Log in to Netflix and you get a customized view. No one else sees what you see. The same is true for Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Reality is personalized.

Reality is, and always has been, unshared – to some extent. People see colors differently. They experience moments differently. And this subjectivity goes all the way down – because we take ourselves with us wherever we go. 

We all bring different parts of ourselves to the things we see – but until now, we at least saw the same things. Now we bring different parts of ourselves to different realities. We no longer have a collective experience. Instead each of us is awash in their “daily me”.

To continue with the Netflix example, it’s not just that we are recommended different movies and shows. Even the covers of the movies or tv shows change daily. Companies AB test the images against our profiles to see what gets us to click. And, by the way, just clicking for more information starts the video. All you get is an image to pick from and that is how the algorithm shapes your future.

This is happening everywhere, everyday.

It’s not all bad. We do not lack for entertainment. I just wish there was a page on each of these platforms that was a “universal view”. Some shared experience. So we could all reference a shared reality – however briefly. 

On Becoming a ‘No’ Person

On the desk of a senior person in my company there was a sign – it was the first thing you saw when you walked in – it said one word, “NO”. This always disturbed me. It made me not want to be in the room. It made me feel like this person either didn’t care about finding solutions or was too overwhelmed to try. And neither seemed like a good opening for a conversation around work. But, she was more senior than me – had a good track record of success and I was in my 20s and new to the organization.
I think about that “NO” sign often – is it a good idea to have that approach towards life – or a bad idea?

The idea of saying “no” falls squarely into the realm of the big five personality trait agreeableness. The other four are openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and extroversion. There is no right or wrong personality – unless your particular culture happens to reward some particular end of the spectrum. In our culture, research shows that being agreeable can negatively affect your chances of success in the workplace, both in terms of intrinsic happiness and extrinsic rewards. 

Why would this be the case? Agreeable people are characterized by “compassion, friendliness, politeness and empathy. People high in this trait can be described as ‘nice’; they tend to make good friends, are good listeners and good team players.”

This seems like the perfect person to have on a team! But alas, it takes more than being agreeable to succeed. The economy is not run on agreement, but on success. In order to reach objectives and targets the right answer must be reached – not simply a consensus amongst a team. 

I think of it like a raft lost at sea. Camaraderie and morale are important, but alone are worthless. The goal is to get rescued or find land. Any actions that do not lead to those outcomes create failure. 

So if you find yourself falling in with the crowd that keeps missing their objectives, it might be time to become more assertive. Stand up for what you believe in and be able to say no. Here is one definition of assertiveness that I like, “having the ability to confidently communicate what you want or need while also respecting the needs of others”.

Here are some pointers on how to become more assertive:

For me, this can be married well with the “5 Second Rule” from Mel Robbins. Disclaimer: I have not actually read the book – but I assume the idea is that you have 5 seconds to take action, and I like thinking about it that way. Imagine you are in a meeting and you hear something you do not agree with. There is a small window of opportunity. A 5 second time has started – either you speak up and exercise your ability to not be agreeable or you let the moment pass and have a mountain to climb later.