Monthly Archives: December 2016

How to Be a Zen Master while Spending the Holidays with Your Dysfunctional Family

When you leave home for the first time, you discover yourself. Or, as in my case, you can engineer yourself with the help of some brilliant professionals. This is a simple matter of applying principles of behavior change to your environment to make desired behaviors effortless.

When you cannot control the environment, ideal behavior becomes a taller order.

Periodic visits are mandatory in most families and every homecoming reminds me of the strength of old habits and interpersonal dynamics. Every tendency I have eliminated through careful environmental controls rears it’s ugly head once I’ve returned to the family farm. I only win these battles with a combination of preparation, vigilance, and reflection.

I want to share with you my strategies for dealing with the uncontrollable home environment we all encounter when we return to our parents and siblings for the holiday season. You don’t have to become a child just because you’re in your childhood environment.

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The Beauty of Self-Education

Questioning your assumptions is a good thing. It fosters critical, logical thought. It is the cognitive manifestation of natural selection. A Darwinian ecology of ideas — in your head.

A good strategy for questioning your assumptions is to engage in debate. It gives you opportunities to voice your opinions and challenge them with opposing ideas. Those opposing ideas usually come from other people who disagree.*

If two people hold contradictory ideas to be true, at least one of them must be wrong.

Today’s liberal arts universities preach to students, advocating that they “think for themselves”. This is ironic, because the structure of American schooling generally fosters the opposite of independent thought. When your teacher tells you to “think for yourself” what they actually are saying is “think about yourself”.

Young people often get into trouble with their friends. They will justify themselves by saying “Everybody was doing it”. The authority’s response will be: “why don’t you think for yourself?”

What they are really saying is: “Ignore your friends, think about your own well-being.”

To map it out: herd mentality is an instinct. Young people following an imprudent trend is the result of a natural inclination towards social activity. The counter-argument is to “think for yourself” or  “think about your own well being” or really just “THINK“.

This isn’t really advice at all, since for most people, thinking isn’t optional.

Traditional education seeks to educate us so that we can think for ourselves, but only succeeds in preventing us from thinking at all. This is why we have universities with strict safe-space policies and required coursework that is totally irrelevant to the student’s chosen area of study.

In The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Howard Roark is expelled from architecture school for thinking independently and challenging existing architectural paradigms. The novel is fiction, but in reality people are expelled from institutions for all sorts of reasons all the time. Often, the reason is not academic, but ideological.

“What am I going to do after high school?” – Average students everywhere.

If you don’t want to think too hard about it, just go to college. It’s the safe bet, says your every single one of your advisors, counselors, teachers, parents, and mentors, ever.

They all advise the same thing, because they have invested heavily in traditional education structures. To advise otherwise would basically be admitting that there was a better investment to be made and that the advisor invested incorrectly. Consistency bias is the University-system’s greatest free marketing tool ever.

One effect of traditional education is that it relinquishes you from responsibility over your own beliefs. If you are a liberal, it is because you went to an Ivy League school. If you are a conservative, it’s because you were in a Greek Organization in the south. It makes sense that we are a nation of conformists, since we are all taught the same mantra: Think about yourself. And whatever you think, just remember, it’s not your fault if you’re wrong.

The beauty of being self-educated, is that you are liberated from the group-think. You are free to pursue whatever ideas you like, in whatever order you choose. This forces the student to be intrinsically motivated.

Individuals are outliers. Individuality produces the Mahatma Gandhis, the Elon Musks, and the Buddhas of the world. The United States has a culture of ambition which provides the most prolific breeding ground of individualists in the world. Unfortunately, the Soviet-Harvard mission is to enhance collectivism and raise the average as opposed to support the individual.

You’ll often hear liberal philosophasters wax about the superior education systems of Scandinavia and south-east Asia. They will tell you about “average test scores” being higher in these cultures.

Here I will state unequivocally that I am unconcerned with average results. I am only concerned with extraordinary results, which is what the United States is really good at. We are really good at it, because of individualism and a culture of ambition. We are good at it despite the constant collectivist morality-warp.

How to Autodidact

Hopping from topic to topic on a whim fosters creative connections that most students never get. It is a joy for myself to write this essay based on my independent research and reasoning for my own purposes. 

When I attended schools, I wrote other people’s papers for money. Papers on economics and sociology and anthropology. Papers on altruism for cheaters in theology courses. Most of the time I wasn’t in the course I was writing the paper for. I was in school to learn whatever I wanted — or whatever I was paid to. I thought the advised course requirements were silly so I strategically declared majors that had fewer first and second year requirements.

The system is a game, so game the system.

Even now, when my primary areas of study are human behavior and computer science, I have a simple framework for determining my daily study:

Identify, research, plan, synthesis.

Identify

I ask myself questions like: What will the next game-changing technology be? What do I know, at the highest level about this technology? What domains am I especially weak at? What is sparking my excitement to learn at this precise moment?

Sometimes the answer is obvious. Today, I am rereading Antifragile  by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I was reminded of a letter I wrote to my inner circle on education and I decided to revisit the idea.

When I’ve completed this essay, I will move to a new context and begin some technical pursuit. Lately I’ve been exploring the automation of organic 3D models. This satisfies the engineer in me.

Research

[Warning: Super Unpopular Position)

Research is continual and virtually passive. Normal scholastics would consider the process lazy. Frequently neglect to cite many sources. Simply don’t maintain that sort of trivia. The important learning is a learning of principle not a learning of source.

I derive great enjoyment from the flow of reading and exploration sans maintaining a bibliography.

Planning

Most interesting projects take a proportionate level of planning. Designing  a better calendar takes years of calendar use, sketching, math, analysis, knowledge of various tools and principles of design.

I learned each of these, except math, from my own self-study. The basic math I used to turn 365 days into almost-a-perfect-square is something that could be taught in one day of concentrated study. And that’s the worst case.

All great works require planning to synthesize.

Synthesis

Doing the work. This is where at least half of my learning comes from. I wouldn’t understand square roots as well as I do if I never put 365 days into  square blog. I wouldn’t understand web technologies if I hadn’t built a few apps. I wouldn’t understand design if I had never mocked a product design.

Centrally Planned Education Kills Creativity, Begets “Normal”

The most popular Ted Talk of all time agrees with me here.

The trouble with a homogenous nationwide curriculum is the same with a homogeneous nationwide food system: quality suffers. If most people grew up learning cookie-cutter ideas, most people will have cookie-cutter minds and cookie-cutter aspirations.

“I want to have a house with a big yard. Two kids, a refrigerator, and two cars…”

You’ve all heard that refrain, it’s the “American Dream”. By now, we’re all tired of hearing it. An American dream only comes about through an American Indoctrination, or, an American Dogma. When I was in school we would say the pledge of allegiance to our flag every day. This is a “blue ribbon” public education. Yet, I frequently hear of my classmates OD’ing, dying in preventable accidents, committing acts of violence, or spending their lives on “average” pursuits (An interesting effect of a gaussian distribution: a disproportionate number of outliers in one direction will pull the bell-curve in that direction).

What many don’t realize, is that even as they’ve architected their lives to be “normal” but what is “normal” for them is a Black Swan in the universe. Life will change and one day their ideas will become abnormal.

The self-educated person does not fear abnormality. They have not been conditioned (or were resistant to the conditioning) to see failure as a bad thing. When the self-educated person discovers that they were wrong, they adjust their premise. They do not cling to beliefs that are objectively untrue when faced with incontrovertible evidence. They are free from self-consciousness and free from self-doubt. Failure is a good thing because it equates with additional education. In traditional systems, failure equates with less education: “If you fail, you’ve learned less.”.

When the self-educated person is wrong there is no one to blame but herself. She can never rationalize away her own responsibility. She selected her curriculum, if it turns out to be false, it’s because she did not consider the alternative. She cannot blame society, her teachers, or anyone else for the falseness or her beliefs.

So, not only does the self-educated person gain more from their failures. They also get to take responsibility for them. The most successful people take responsibility as much as they can. The least successful people avoid responsibility as much as possible.

* I challenge you to comment and disagree with any of my assertions. It is one of the ways I learn and if I am found to be wrong I will learn much from the experience.

The five kinds of friends and how they will impact your business.

To change your social habits in 2017, try out the 2017 ONE CAL wall calendar that I made specifically to help with habit tracking in my own life.

These are some of my best friends.

The average angel-backed startup is running on one thing: Trust.

They’re mostly comprised of 20-somethings. They don’t have wives or kids. They have friends. They live with them, they hire them, they eat their breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them. Their co-founders are their oldest friends. They share studio apartments paid for up-front on maxed-out Amex’s. They invest in each other’s companies and they cover each other’s bar tabs.

Now that I work with startups around the clock, I’ve seen how friendships can affect business: How college roommates can become effective leaders in the private sector. How starting up with your family can tank the company in six months. The nature of the relationship makes all the difference.

There are 5 kinds of friends when you’re involved with a startup. They can exist within your organization or come from other places. They can be family members, mentors, or some combination.

They are, in no particular order:

1. Bad Friends
2. Good Friends
3. Best Friends
4. Imaginary Friends
5. Demons

The differences lie in the costs and benefits as well as the corporeal existence of the entity in question.

Bad Friends (Waste time, waste energy)

Bad friends are toxic. They take up time and energy. They have bad habits. They are bad friends to you, and to themselves. They make you feel judged. They are not in alignment with your goals. They have expectations that can’t be managed. If you don’t spend time together, they stop being friends.

You should stop spending time with these people. They consume your time and your energy. There’s a compound effect for every toxic relationship you maintain.

Sometimes, bad friends are extravagant. They convince you to spend precious time and money on toxic behaviors. They want to party. You want to work. They want to eat fancy, you want to eat healthy.

They’re fun, but they’re bad for you.

If you’re wondering if a specific person is a bad friend, they probably are.

Drop these people from the team. Simply stop communicating with them. With they text, ignore them. When they call, ignore them. When they email, ignore them.

Some people will say you’re a being a bad friend. I contend that you’re saving everybody time and energy and being a good friend to yourself.

Good Friends (Spend time, gain energy)

You might spend most of your free time stressing about the things you’re not getting done. Good friends get you to forget about the to-do list for a while. The best entrepreneurs are present in the moment and soak up this time together.

You should get energy and insight from your friends. This is what separates the good friends from the bad. They both take up time. Good friends give you something in return: energy.

Good friends have different goals from you. They are working towards a different end.

Good friends are good people. They feed your soul. They don’t cost you any money. They barely cost you any time. They are supportive, understanding, and considerate. You have to spend time on good friends. You have to keep in touch and hang out together. If you weren’t regularly in contact, you’d drift apart. This is a sad but necessary fact of friendships. Drifting apart doesn’t have to be painful. A good friendship can be rekindled without hard feelings as long the mutual energy transaction is still present.

Best Friends (Save time,  gain energy)

The best friends take up no time at all. Every moment spent with your best friends is a moment spent on the cause. They are working towards the same goal you are. These are the people you found companies with. People who you partner with for 10 years to achieve the moonshot that is your life’s work. They come around once or twice in your lifetime if you’re lucky.

These relationships are not strategically planned. They are serendipitous.

You gain energy from these people. You save time by knowing them. They are the ultimate force-multiplier. They are your secret weapon, your competitive advantage.

Imaginary Friends (Save time, spend energy)

In Think and Grow Rich, Napoleon Hill suggests the formation of a personal cabinet. This is a set of imaginary friends that you consult regularly to get advice. These are usually role models and icons that live in your head and help you think from the perspective of a genius you admire. Here are mine:

1. Jesus
2. Gandhi
3. Elon Musk
4. Tim Ferriss
5. Steve Jobs
6. My future self

I go to these people with different issues. Jesus reminds me to love my fellow man. Gandhi reminds me that the truth will set me free and that I have to be the change I want to see in the world. Elon reminds me to focus on big problems. Tim asks me if I’m working on the right things. Steve keeps me focused on quality, because if it isn’t quality it’s shit.

My future self is on the cabinet as a reminder to check in. How am I treating myself 12 months from now? How about 12 years? How am I treating the person I should (ostensibly) care the most about?

Maybe you haven’t put together an imaginary cabinet.

That’s fine, I’m kind of a freak.

But, you certainly have mental schemas and representations about people in your head. One of my portfolio CEO’ssays, “I just ask myself what my mother would think of what I’m doing”.

That’s the same thing. Those mental representations require energy, but they can save you a ton of time by giving you an outside perspective.

Demons (Waste time, lose energy)

Demons are your internal saboteurs. Positive Intelligence lists the ten saboteurs as follows:

  1. The Avoider
  2. The Controller
  3. The Hyper-Achiever
  4. The Hyper-Rationalizer
  5. The Hyper-Vigilant
  6. The Pleaser
  7. The Restless
  8. The Stickler
  9. The Victim
  10. The Judge

These have been described in depth in Positive Intelligence (which, yes, you should read). They all affect us in some capacity at different times.

I’m certainly a victim of my own demons. I tend to judge others harshly. I tend to be restless, bouncing from task to task. I frequently wonder if the task at hand is the most important task I could be doing. A regular mindfulness practice has helped me be aware of and address these tendencies in a constructive way.

Demons waste our time and our energy. Whenever you catch yourself engaging with your demons, you should consult with your cabinet instead.

Understanding your friends, real and imaginary.
The real Tim Ferriss once said that if he could put anything on a billboard, anywhere, he would put it on the campus of the country’s biggest college. It would read: “You are the average of the five people with whom you associate the most.”

This a popular concept and really potent one. It’s critical to professional and personal growth to accept that our social circle is individually formative.

I include our good and bad imaginary friends on this list to emphasize that time spent in reflection is at least as important as the time spent in action.

High performers are good at asking: “What am I spending my time doing?”

The question I’m suggesting we ask is: “Who am I spending my time with?”

Start + Up

(This piece was originally distributed in my email newsletter. Thanks to everyone who contributed feedback.)

My first business venture was a lemonade stand. Cliché I know, but worth exploration because I did things a little differently…

My grandmother cared for me through my elementary school years.  She lived in a tiny apartment with a public swimming pool right across the yard. At the pool was a beautiful woman named Jamie who worked there as a lifeguard. She would babysit me regularly and I referred to her affectionately as “my girlfriend”.

During the summer months, I would impatiently wait for precisely 12:00 PM. Then I’d sprint out my grandmother’s back door, across the green grass to the gate of the pool. Jamie would be there testing chlorine levels and doing whatever lifeguards do to prepare for their day. I would help her in whatever way I could and she would teach me how to swim and hold my breath under water.

I’d stay from noon when the pool opened to 8pm when it closed. This was my summertime routine for years.

At some point, I became aware of lemonade stands as a rite of passage.

My first attempt was a stand right in front of my parent’s house. This was in autumn and the setting was a quiet suburban street. Nobody bought my lemonade.

I was bored and broke. I quickly gave up on selling lemonade after school in front of our old 1950’s-style rancher.

Then summer rolled around and an idea struck me.

I took my family’s lemonade stash to Grandma’s pool, set-up shop by a table with an empty tin to collect cash, and increased my prices from a quarter to a buck fifty. The apartment complex supplied a steady stream of thirsty pool goers and we quickly burnt through the first tub of lemonade.

We increased prices and I convinced Jamie to buy me some Maryland crabs so I could sell steamed them for several dollars a piece.

Of course, all good things come to an end, as my lemonade stand did when the fall came around. That was ok though, because we’d be back next year.

Boy, did that tiny business change my life.

I learned resilience, perseverance, and how to reinvest in a profitable process. I learned how to count change and how to handle customers. I knew how to get a loan (thanks Jamie) and manage inventory.

I learned how to iterate on a model. I learned that timing and location matters. I learned that there is seasonality in every market. I learned that a business doesn’t have to be an app with hockey stick growth. It can be a plastic table and a pool umbrella with some cool beverages and ice borrowed from the community club’s freezer.

It was my first business, but not my last. Since elementary school, I’ve been a freelancer, a CEO at a design firm, and the head of software at one of those hockey-stick startups.

Now I’m in the process of starting again. This time, I’m building the first Zombie Strategy FPS for SteamVR. The VR ecosystem is on the verge of a massive explosion in popularity. I love games and designing for new paradigms. This platform affords a litany of frontiers from interface to engineering. I can’t imagine a more dynamic industry.

If you have an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, please sign up for SURVIVE: VR now to be the first to play it when we launch our beta in the next few weeks.