Goals Learning Practical Philosophy

How I Conduct A Personal Annual Review – and Highlights from 2017

Every year, for nearly the last decade, I’ve conducted an annual review.

When writing a personal annual review, my process looks like this:

  • Going on the week by week view of my 2017 calendar and listing out every single thing that I spent my time doing. Given that most days I usually have 10-20 things on my calendar scheduled per day, this ends up being 4 or 5 handwritten pages. It goes faster than I would expect but usually takes about 2 hours. I list everything from phone calls, trips, and time spent in transit to meals (personal or professional), time at the cafe, time spent meeting vendors, and weekly standing meetings.
  • I go through and sort all of the items listed by category: business appointments, hours spent writing, hours spent exercising, hours working at the cafe.
  • Once I’ve organized everything by category, I give it a positive value judgement – a score from 1-10 on how much joy I derived from this activity, and a negative value judgement – a score from negative 1-10 on how much dissatisfaction I got from this activity. Each data point gets two specific numbers.
  • I mostly pay attention to the high scores of joy and the high scores of dissatisfaction. I circle the 8, 9, 10s of both positive and negative. I’ll list those out by peak experience by the positives like surfing, travel with my family, and time with my girlfriend, and the negatives like raising sponsorship, handling vendors at Robin’s Cafe, and time spent driving.
  • Next, I take this into action for the new year by grading the quality of my experiences over the year. If there are specific people that fall in the negative 8, 9, or 10 category, I may have to sever ties with them, which can be very challenging. I may email the person outlining the reasons why I am taking steps to set new boundaries in our relationship.
    • Ex: When I did this reflection in 2016, I noticed that there was a person that I had spent a lot of time with that year who I hadn’t enjoyed the quality of our time spent together. I asked myself – would I rather spend this time with this person or would I rather spend this time alone? To make a change going forward, I stopped calling him up. He invited me to a few things this year, and I declined. It was a pretty easy change.
    • Ex: Writing – I spent a lot of time writing in 2017. How much satisfaction did I get from the act of that process? Is that something worth repeating in 2018?
    • Ex: Time spent exercising – I spent significantly less time exercising in 2017 than in 2015 when I studied ballet every day. Is that amount of time per day enough? If the answer is no, I can schedule time to exercise everyday for a few hours in my calendar for 2018 for first few months.
  • Finally, I write down the 3 – 5 most significant changes or projects that I accomplished for the year (my trip to Morocco, my training in Puerto Rico, the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference, Responsive the book, and my relationship).


Significant Events & Projects in 2017


I’ve written about cultural lessons learned on my trip to Morocco but less so about the importance of time spent with my parents. Growing up, I traveled with my immediate family several weeks per year but have not done so regularly as an adult. For my 30th birthday present, my parents took me on a 5 week trip to Morocco. What is interesting, in retrospect, is that even more than the cultural experience of traveling, was the importance of that time with my family. Taking time as an adult to get to know each of my parents, see myself in them, and be grateful for the quality of time spent has been, and continues to be, life changing.


Puerto Rico training

I spent 4 years in my early 20’s studying deep somatic practice with Anat Baniel and another 4 years studying at the Option Institute. While I no longer participate in either organization, I achieved a level of mastery with the tool sets that each of these organizations teach and continue to practice them to this day. On my first day of my first training with Anat Baniel, I told her that someday I would like to teach this material, and now 10 years later, I have done so only minimally.

The Puerto Rico training, which I co-taught with a friend in June of 2017, was my first public offering to teach and further refine the tool sets that I was fortunate enough to be exposed to and truly changed my life throughout my 20s. I am excited to further teach these tools through a variety of mediums in 2018.


Responsive Conference

2nd Annual Responsive Conference from Robin Zander on Vimeo.

The 1st annual Responsive Conference was a giant unknown as I had never previously curated and directed an event of that magnitude before. The 2nd Annual Responsive Conference was less of an exploration and more of a refinement. My single biggest goal was to form a cohesive organizing team, and in that I succeeded magnificently. Further, I sought to make intentional the curatorial choices I had begun in 2016 including factors like venue, speakers, and working with speakers to present fresh and relevant content. Across the board, the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference was a triumph. We had 225 people from more than 10 countries and with the help of my production team, the event went off pristinely. I am excited in 2018 to further refine and automate the processes that made the 2nd Annual Responsive Conference a success – aka to do less!

Responsive: What It Takes To Create A Thriving Organization

I have never been able to write as other than a very intentional act, and writing had been one of the primary things I avoided throughout most of 2017. Thus, I am thrilled to have actually publishedResponsive: What it Takes to Create a Thriving Organization which is a compilation of three years of interviews and curation on the future of work.



Finally, and by no means least important, I entered into a new relationship midway through the year. I moved in with my girlfriend in December of 2017. This is far and away, the most significant romantic relationship I have ever had, and it’s no coincidence that we have become collaborators on multiple professional, as well as personal, projects. Relationships of all kinds are perhaps one of the three most important aspects in any of our lives, and I couldn’t be any more pleased with this developing romance.

What were your highlights in 2017? Lowlights? What do you want to build on in the year ahead? Let me know in the comments!

Entrepreneurship Practical Philosophy

Doug Kirkpatrick on The Morning Star Company and Building Self-Managed Organizations

Doug Kirkpatrick is the author of Beyond Empowerment: The Age of the Self-Managed Organization.

He spent the first season of his business career in the manufacturing sector, principally with The Morning Star Company of Sacramento, California. In addition to being a world leader in the food industry, the Morning Star Company is known for being a completely self-managed organization, which we discuss in the interview.

Doug now engages with the Morning Star Self-Management Institute and other vibrant organizations and leaders to co-create the future of management.

I asked Doug to come on to the podcast because he has more experience than most with non-hierarchical organizations and I appreciate the philosophical underpinnings that shape his thinking.

Connect with Doug Kirkpatrick on LinkedIn

Entrepreneurship Practical Philosophy

Meredith Haberfeld on Fostering Leadership and Building High Performing Organizations


My guest today, Meredith Haberfeld (@merhaberfeld), is the co-founder of Think Human, a coaching company that has worked with a wide variety of organizations – including, among many others, SoulCycle, Spotify, and Flat Iron Health – to foster leadership and build high performing organizations.

Meredith looks at things from a unique viewpoint bridging a scientific, business savvy, and soulful perspective. Since we first met over coffee half a year ago I have been increasingly impressed with Meredith, and how she carries throughout her professional and person lives.

I had the opportunity to spend time with Meredith’s family on a recent trip to New York, enjoyed late night conversation on human development and organization design, and saw first hand the quality with which Meredith treats everyone: using questions to foster each person towards growth.

Meredith will also be a speaker at the 1st Annual Conference in the Bay Area on September 19-20th.

Show Notes

2:00 Meredith’s personal story
5:45 Think Human
9:00 3 lenses: Science, business, and soulfulness
11:30 Coaching and training
15:00 What differentiates the people that work at Think Human
18:00 Building the right team
21:00 Shifting an organization
25:00 Rewire your brain
34:00 Meredith’s experience with SoulCycle
37:00 Having a clear vision
41:00 Building wins for everyone
44:00 Meredith’s vision as a parent
47:00 Meredith’s purpose
Reach out to Meredith:

Practical Philosophy

Are You Afraid of the Happy Idiot?

Happiness is an overused term, and rarely well defined.

The Happy Idiot

Usually, when we think of a “happy” person, what comes to mind? A kind-hearted, somewhat bumbling buffoon. Charlie from Flowers for Algernon in the earliest and latest stages of his development. And yet we spend most of our lives, in innumerable ways, trying to achieve fulfillment and satisfaction.

What I Strive For

When I was eight years old I wanted to own a drum set and to be a drummer. Why? Because I thought that becoming a musician would make me happy.

When I was eighteen and had never been kissed, I wanted a girlfriend. Why? Same answer.

I’m twenty-nine years old and I’d like to think that my aspirations are a bit loftier. Certainly, I strive for a fulfilling personal and professional life, which includes financial success, satisfying relationships—all the usual. But I can want those things and still celebrate the moment. In short, I strive for happiness.

How Will You Define Happiness?

Define happiness however you like: fulfillment, gratitude, gratification, achievement, joy, or something more personal. But inevitably, we find that everyone is seeking the same thing. The toddler and the jihadist, though they seem to have nothing in common in their pursuit of specific goals, are actually both doing what they’re doing because that’s what they want to be doing. Because they believe it will lead them to more happiness, now or in the afterlife.

These are personal questions, without clearly defined answers. Consider them.

I suggest reading Stumbling on Happiness and Flowers for Algernon for two incredible perspectives on these questions.

Entrepreneurship Practical Philosophy

When Everything You Have Learned Is Sufficient

I’ve never considered myself a sophisticated business person. Several years ago (albeit, after interviewing more than a dozen MBAs) I decided against going to graduate school in business, focusing instead on a less tradition career of which business is more the necessity than the focus.

That said, I enjoy learning. And “business” – encompassing everything from tax law through client sales – have increasingly become a part of my daily life. And still I’ve carried around the idea that compared to those who make the study of business their life’s work, I’m an amateur.

What better way to pass the flight than by chatting about business? (Photo: Dizzy)

So it was that after 4 cups of coffee on a recent flight from New York City to San Francisco, as I was stretching in the back of the airplane that I got to talking with the flight attendant. He had a menu displayed on his computer and we started talking. It turned out that he and his partner run a Soul Food Truck in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I began to ask questions about his food, employees, marketing efforts, revenue and more.

Practical Philosophy

The Best of Robin’s Reading List from 2014

In 2014 I’ve read more books than in any previous year of my life. That includes the Reed College humanities curriculum, which is just ridiculous. I chalk up the depth and breadth of my reading to the combination of my  infra-red sauna, Amazon Prime, and the fact that I’ve been writing. These are some of my favorite books, and miscellaneous media, from 2014.

2014-11-30 13.42.16

A Fighter’s Heart – A must read for anyone who has tried a martial art and everyone on the other end of the spectrum who has asked the question “why fight.”

Apollo’s Angels – Your primer in the history of ballet. Also, a national bestseller..

Average Is Over – Read this book! Think of it as an investment in your future. The best future-thinking and economics book I’ve read in many years.

Daily Rituals: How Artist Work – A series of short epitaphs looking at the daily habits of artists, writers, and scientists.

Flow – The book that popularized the term. Now its time to understand what flow really is and where to find it.

Fluent in 3 Months – Fascinating tools, applicable for learning a language and for learning anything else with great rapidity

How To Do A Handstand – I wrote my first book this year, which has since become a Japanese National Bestseller.

The Moment with Brian Koppelman – A podcast explore creativity, presence, the arts, and more.

The Monkey Wrench Gang – A classic which is responsible for my love affair with the desert. Also useful if you’re feeling a bit rebellious.

The Morning Pages – This workbook is the most useful tool I’ve discovered for unearthing obstacles. I think of it as a tool for getting my crazy out on a page, so I can spend more time doing productive work.

The Number of the Beast – Heinlein is responsible for coining the term “grok” and the “Heinlein” crater on the moon. This book is a wild romp through time, space, and mathematics.

The Obstacle Is the Way – No nonsense Stoic advise from throughout history on getting through the rough spots.

Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit – Dance choreographer Twyla Tharp tackles the question how to be more creative, more regular, more diligent and more productive. Hard work, clear thinking, and a lot of sweat. The specific tools in this book are invaluable.

Well Fed – Whether you’ve considered the Paleo diet, read cookbooks for pleasure (inconceivable to me), or just want to talk about food this is among the best.

I hope you enjoy whichever of these books catch your eye. Each has served me well in 2014, and I’m looking forward to many more discoveries in 2015. On a related note, if you’re interested in a similar exploration into a diverse array of topics, try my Learning List emails.

Practical Philosophy

Getting Back Up Does Get Easier

Fair Warning: This post is more personal than many of my solution-oriented articles. If you are more interested in specific tools for cultivating successful habits, the blog is full of them. I think it is only fair to share stories of challenge, too.

I have fallen over more times that I can possibly say. Literally, in my variety of movement disciplines, and figuratively, into wells of recrimination and despair – I am no stranger to feeling like shit.

One particular evening a few weeks ago I rushed out of ballet class early to see the dance company Batsheva. The performance was simultaneously inspiring and deepened the gulf between where I am and what is possible.

That performance was the capstone on a challenging couple of weeks. I had been trying and failing bring all of my attention to ballet, and learn as quickly as possible. Instead, I was floundering through four hours of ballet technique every evening in a self-referential cycle of feeling awkward, making a mistake, and then feeling worse. To compound matters, though my professional life and dance life are mostly not directly overlapping, some of that despondency did seep into my workdays.

I’m on the mend from a whirlwind of activity, action and misery, and I’m excited to report that there’s bright sunlight at the end of this tunnel. Every tunnel I’ve ever been in the midst of seems to eventually reveal sunshine.

In reflecting about my experience of that period of a few weeks that culminated in the Batsheva performance I notice that this fall into a descending cycle, like the last and all the others, wasn’t any easier. I’m quite as capable of making myself unhappy as I was as an angst-ridden teenager just beginning to date, or a hormone-heady early-twenties scared of my place in the world. If anything, these days my unhappiness is more nuanced and more complicated. I’m more aware, and feel like I have more to lose. It turns out that falling down doesn’t get any easier.

There is an upside to this story. From the middle of my ballet upset or in watching Batsheva and wondering how I could fall so far short of what is possible, my assent to joy seemed impossible. And yet through my writing practice and asking myself a few loving questions, I realize that no matter how inadequate I feel, I will keep on trying.

It is probably a combination of the passage of time and application of specific tools I have cultivated, but I am pleasantly surprised at my rapid return to normalcy. While the fall was no less arduous than any I’ve experienced, the return to comfortable action was. Through practice, we can get better at picking ourselves back up and trying again.

Practical Philosophy

Why Habits Are The Future

Habits are the future of our health and livelihood.  While you might not think in terms of the word “habit” you probably recognize that you are pulled between nearly infinite information and how you chose to spend your time. Current educational systems are unable to change to teach to 21st century challenges quickly enough. The solution to modern problems are up to us, and the individual choices we make. Even more simply, the habits that each of us build into our daily lives are going to shape the future.

These are habits I’m cultivating. What’re yours? (Photo: Eren)

Consider the number of ways that you might receive communications each day: instant messages, text messages, Google+ messages, Facebook messenger, Snapchat. And we haven’t even begun to consider email or phone calls. The amount of information is enormous and we have very few tools for handling the influx. For those of us who decide that we aren’t 1. Going to completely cut ourselves off from the modern world or 2. Approach these problems with a lack of attention and let the industries that create these products and services dictate how we use them, there is only one option. We have to be the ultimate arbiters of how we consume information, what kinds of information we decide to process, and when we say enough.

Self Motivators Win

The future is going to be determined by those best at self-motivating, at moving themselves in the directions they want to go instead of letting their fates be decided by the tools they use, the world they grew up in, their current socio-economic status, or their health. In Average Is Over economist Tyler Cowen paints a stark vision of a future where people are divided into three categories: self-driven, those with money who can afford expensive personal coaches and boot-camp like schools, and the rest. Habits and learning are learnable skills, that we can all use to self-direct and self-regulate our educations, relationships with people and technology, and futures. Short of epiphanies, which I, for one, don’t know how to trigger, or magic pills, which I don’t believe in, simple interventions in our daily lives that have lasting impact are the quickest, easiest way to foster change and growth.

Simple Changes Have Substantial Impact

It has been repeatedly demonstrated in scientific studies that small adjustments can create life-long changes. A famous example is a study for which families of severely underprivileged toddlers in Kingston, Jamaica were educated in simple nutrition, social and motivational skills. Twenty years later those individuals were found to be indistinguishable from more wealthy populations (Gertler, Heckman, et al., 2014). Those simple interventions were able to effectively erase the fact that those children came from impoverished backgrounds.

Marshmallows and Delayed Gratification

Another example is the oft-cited marshmallow study, in which a child’s early-life ability to delay gratification has been shown to be predictive of life-long measures of success (Mischel, Ayduk, et al., 2010).

However, interventions, when poorly designed, can have contrary effects. In a lesser-known variant of the marshmallow study, prior to being given their first marshmallow the children were promised crayons or similar enticement by an adult who did not deliver on the promise. In all of the cases of this reneging on a promise, children ate their first marshmallow right way (Kidd, Palmeri, and Aslin, 2013). Children were trained to take what was available because they could not rely on a future promise, which has implications for the long-term future of those children.


Characteristics like the ability to delay gratification in the marshmallow study are a part of a broader theme, namely meta-learning and the ability to learn how to learn. Meta-learning encompasses learnable skills include creative problem solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. Education often fails to teach to these goals, instead focusing on training domain-specific knowledge under the assumptions that these more complex skills will come about naturally. Specific knowledge is valuable, but in the modern era information is abundant and relevant knowledge changes very quickly. What actually matters most is the ability to learn whatever new information may be important, and to use it productively.

Habits and Meta-Learning

Habits can be learned, practiced, and improved. Wether you are starting from a very basic perspective of looking for simple solutions to improve your health, or have already read Getting Things Done, mastered “Inbox Zero” and want to further optimize your efficiently systems, the skill of habit building is worth developing. You can never get too good at building better systems. Just like neural connections can be improved and myelinated in the brain through increased use, habits can be trained, strengthened, and improved. The end goal is empowered people, capable of making their own informed decisions and acting with clarity of purpose. This comes of an understanding of yourself and the learning process. All of which starts with small habits.

If this sort of post is interesting to you, please let me know in the comments!

I’m spending all of my waking hours working on these topics. My next book “Unstuck” will be coming out this November. I’m project managing, putting out fires, and studying meta-learning at the educational start-up Socos. I’m organizing Design for Dance, exploring the impact on learning, creativity, and health through dance in the workplace. Oh, and I’m training classical ballet 30 hours a week, which is about as on-the-ground as learning can get.

Practical Philosophy

Fixation, Addiction and Pursuit of Perfection

When I find something I like – a new sport, person, company or restaurant – I fixate. Culturally we usually discuss fixation only in terms of “addiction.” I’ve discussed before the benefits of enthusiasm for special needs children and non-attachment for overcoming hurdles. There is utility to the boundless (perhaps incessant) enthusiasm that accompanies discovering a new passion.

Learn From Your Enthusiasm

Children fixate beautifully. When a child discovers her fingers for the first time, her delight in her own experience is all consuming. In adults, this behavior would be called self-centered and selfish, but we’d never challenge a child in her explorations. Enthusiasm can be all consuming, and some of the richest learning experiences are to be had when 100% of the learner’s attention is fixated on the object of study.

Forming Habits – The Good and Bad

Many are the times that I have discovered a new fixation. Sometimes this just looks like somewhat obsessive behavior. For example, I have eaten the same type of burrito for lunch for several years. In other situations, fixation can become a problem. I think of myself in a specific college relationship with exasperation – refusing to admit that it was time to move on. The word “fixate” tends towards negative connotations because of situations like this last: times when we completely shape our behavior around a non-healthy focus or endeavor. Ignore the potential outcomes of fixation at your peril; go in eyes open, knowing that there are downsides to forming new habits.

Build the Habit of Pursuing Perfection

Perfection is an unachievable state. There is no “there” there because as soon as you have accomplished your goal, the objective has shifted and become even higher. Dancing ballet for me is a constant struggle between seeking perfection, and the impossibility of achieving that state. There is no achievable “perfect” ballet technique. Unlike my burrito habit – which hasn’t changed much in years – dance is always new and challenging. And while I fixate like a child discovering her fingers, dance is an outlet in which I can continue my pursuit without negative side effects. Dance has provided a point of fixation where the focus is not a succeed/fail endeavor. As a result I can relentlessly strive for perfection that can never be fully attained.

Find a fixation, and constantly strive to improve in that domain. Forming habits has a downside, but fixation can also serve you well.  Get curious and discover a new depth of learning.

Physical Performance Practical Philosophy

Always Be Cross-Training – How Multiple Disciplines Will Help You Succeed

I am always cross-training. I’ve just returned taking letters to the post-office, meaning that I ran there and ran back. I could have used Shyp or driven to the Post Office but it took less time to run, and besides, I was cross-training.

I don’t mean cross-training in just the traditional sense. While I do find it valuable to run in addition to studying ballet, I was actually doing a lot more. If we could have fMRIs while I was running we would have seen a lot more activity than from just my running circuits. I was training. Specifically, I was training  jeté en tournant.

I cannot actually do jetés nearly to that degree, but I was mentally rehearsing even while running. A little like the scene in Billy Eliot where he is leaping down the street, whatever it is I am doing, I am always practicing.

There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

There is always going to be someone more talented than me. So I practice getting used to it, and train accordingly. I didn’t start dancing ballet at 8 years old like most professional dancers, or drop out of college to work for entrepreneurial titans like marketer Ryan Holiday. Consequently, to make up the time, I think critically and hustle.

Think Critically

Cross-training doesn’t just mean doing an activity that complements a primary purpose, like running might complement ballet. It also means thinking hard about specific directions you’d like to go. Though I’ve flirted with the idea of starting a new company, I haven’t done so because I’m not convinced that doing so is the best use of my time, talent and resources. Instead, I’ve begun to advise several other companies, simultaneously learning, cross-training a skill-set applicable for my own business, and helping out. All for a few hours a week.

As a result of a talk I gave at Design For Dance, I’ve begun to explore Design Thinking. Instead of spending $40,000 and two years in school, I’ve begun to get acquainted with the domain by readings – a lot! I might found another company company in the future and I might go back to school in design. Right now, I’m thinking about what I’m interested in and looking for the connections across disciplines. In other words, cross-training.

Practical Philosophy

Attached to the Outcome? Doomed to Fail. Try These Shortcuts!

Anytime someone is completely fixated on a specific outcome, they are doomed to fail. I recently found this to be true when a broken toe severely limited my ability to turn in ballet, but we see examples across the board – from special needs to athletic performance to business successes. When someone is fixated on things going a certain way they are much more likely to go in the opposite direction. This post picks up where we left off last week: on some solutions for being attached to the outcome.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. – Albert Einstein

Fail Better

Though we use the word failure, what we mean is more complicated. We have a stigma around failure. We believe that failure is bad, never mind how many times a child falls down before he learns to walk. Actually, failure is a fundamental part of learning. We are built to try and fail many times for each success. This didn’t help on the day I was determined to ride a “broken” motorcycle but embracing the concept of failure as part of any growth is the simplest pathway to overcome the limiting belief that failure is bad.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. –Samuel Beckett

Think Different

The most common situation I see is someone wanting a specific outcome, and thus getting committed to that outcome regardless of the path necessary to get there. One of my favorite shortcuts entails circumventing the attachment by reorienting the outcome. If I still want to train my ballet turns while recovering from a broken toe, I can strengthen my non-dominate side and visualize turns on my dominant side. Trying to force myself to turn on my broken/dominate foot doesn’t work. What happens if we come up with several more variations? Greater flexibility.

5 New Routes Challenge

I have a challenge which I call the “5 New Routes” challenge. When I drive I usually have a systematic route that I take to my destination. To add some variety I visualize 4 other entirely new routes to the same destination. These might be routes that I will never actually drive (like from San Francisco to Mexico on my way to visit family in LA). The point isn’t the routes themselves, but to expand the current realm of possible options. When I began this exercise years ago I would map out routes on paper. These days, I just visualize the trajectories beforehand. Build the skill of flexible thinking before circumstances demand it.

Practical Philosophy

Cultivate Presence

The last 5 months have a been a whirl-wind. Since January 1, 2014 I’ve founded a corporation, attempted to launch a 500+ person workshop in the Bay Area, failed to publish a book, begun ballet and achieved triple pirouettes, spoken at Stanford University, UCSF, and Ignite SF, and more.

Today I’m going to look at something I’ve been exploring as a part of all of these projects, and probably the single biggest factor that keeps me sane. I have been cultivating presence. First, though, let’s look at this presentation which I gave to a group of professional runners.

So much of our day-to-day is spent in a state of judgement. As an example, just one time bend down and touch your toes. About 98% of the population has self-judgements about not being flexible enough. When I ask almost anyone to bend down and touch their toes, they immediately begin to judge themselves for not being flexible enough.

Every one of the runners I was working with in the video noticed differences after doing the second series of exercises. Why? Simple: they were much more present during the exercise. They were curious about what they were doing. Without former knowledge of the activity they didn’t have as many pre-held judgements. I gave the instructions slowly and carefully. And I gave very different instructions the second time. I had participants notice themselves and pay attention to their environment. We did a lot of variations. But most of all I didn’t put the runners in a situation that triggered all of those self-judgements they had about their flexibility. I had them put their hands on your knees and round and arch. This isn’t a series of movements that most people have ever trained, and it certainly isn’t one that most people have judgements around.

Being present is a seemingly simple concept with vast implications. People who practice being present have more (to quote Martin Seligman) self-reported well-being. Athletes who take presence to an extreme in flow states are exponentially more effective. I write better.

What Worked?

In the movement sequence above, here are some of the aspects I employed to help people notice a difference:

  • Slow down
  • Check in with yourself (or someone else)
  • Take breaks
  • Practice small bits in situations that aren’t already stressful

Why do these elements impact the runners’ flexibility? Simple. They are some of the simple building blocks that allow for increased presence. By slowing down the nervous system, reducing fear and stress, and allowing time for learning, change happens much more quickly. But what are specific ways that we can use being present in our daily lives?

Practical Philosophy

The Attitude That Works to Learn Anything

The Attitude that Works is how I describe an attitude I bring to my coaching with special needs children, and try to apply everywhere, in any learning environment. The attitude consists of three parts:

  • Love
  • Presence
  • Acceptance

For background, I’ve been developing an attitude that works for years. When I talked a guy down from jumping off a bridge in college, this is what I was using. This philosophy is what makes me effective in coaching children, and also throughout my physical studies. I am by no means perfect – far from it – but formulating guiding principals has been extremely useful as a reminder of what creates an effective environment for learning.


When I began working with children with autism I discovered that they often lack the social standards that we take for granted. I found that the only way to work with these special children was through being completely compassionate to their experience, even if I didn’t know what that experience was. These children rely on their sense of those around them – their intuitive feel for the attitudes held by others – instead of just the social niceties. It turns out that we all sense the attitudes held by those around us, whether we recognize them or not, and that these attitudes profoundly shape how we behave. When we are compassionate or loving with someone else we are much more inviting to that person, and more likely to foster a connection. The rule holds true for ourselves, as well: when we are compassionate with ourselves our brains are literally more available to process new information and form novel connections.

Practical Philosophy

How to Learn From Entrepreneurial Manic Depression (And How To Avoid It)

I chose the header of this blog for a very specific reason. The up and down arrows are a reminder to me that learning anything has ups and downs. Last week I wanted to punch things and felt like sleeping all day to avoid reality, but had to get out of bed, answer emails, issue refunds, and make sure I wasn’t sued. Within the course of 3 days, the project that I have put 80 hour weeks into for the last 4 months folded, I and two friends lost $60,000 in business, and I was threatened with a lawsuit over the publication of an e-book. Rough and cause for a step-back.

So, what do you do when life knocks you down? For a start, watch this video…

A couple of things I’ve learned already from last week’s dip:

Build the Habit of Self-Care

I cannot emphasize self-care too much. For the last four months I’ve exercised 6 days each week. I always eat (at least) 3 meals every day. These two components made getting through the more difficult moments last week possible. I build habits that reinforce taking care of myself because they feel good on a day-to-day basis, but I am really, really grateful for them when the going gets rough. Last week there was never a doubt when I would exercise or what I would eat for breakfast. Similarly, I find mediation (or my preference: gratitude training) works best though daily practice.

Practical Philosophy

Closing the Creative Gap

Learning anything worth learning is tough. And especially for those of us who want to not just learn a skill but excel, there are a lot of ups and downs. It seems that the more exciting a venture is, the more I’m liable to turn manic-depressive. This is actually the reason I created the header of the Learning Curve Experiments blog- to remind myself that learning is full of ups and downs, victories and setbacks, along the way.

So when I saw this video recreation of Ira Glass’ talk on “Closing the Gap” it struck a cord. It is hard to fathom Ira Glass as other than the calm and loving voice we know him to be. (Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve heard his voice.) But apparently even Iran Glass was once a beginner.

THE GAP by Ira Glass from frohlocke on Vimeo.

Ira gave a talk at Reed College in 2010 during which he insisted that when he started out in radio he sucked. Ira Glass not good on the radio? Inconceivable! But in watching this video I’m reminded that in any endeavor we can only start from where we are and move forward from there. The more we try, the more our skills catch up to our taste.

So here’s to taking steps forward! And maybe – just maybe – celebrating some of the pit-falls along the way.

Practical Philosophy

Ask Questions with an Attitude That Works

I have spent most of the month of January refreshing my study of the Option Process Dialogue, a form of socratic questioning which I have found invaluable in my practice, personal life, and physical training.  If you haven’t heard me discuss questions before then by way of introduction, I suggest reading my post Ask More Loving Questions.

Ask Questions

In a world full of people willing to give advice, there is a scarcity of good questions asked without a directive intent. Thus the Option Process Dialogue, an incredible way of being present with another person and asking them questions. I completed a recent course alongside these five fabulous certified Option Process Mentors, each of whom have put in their 10,000 hours refining their practice and understanding of this process.

2013 1 25 Ask Questions

I have read Socrates’ thoughts on the purpose of questions and seen many fine examples of well-honed questions used to extract information, assist someone in hard times, or convince of a particular viewpoint. (For an amusing recent example of two world-class questioners take a look at this interview of Neal Strauss by Tim Ferriss.) While I don’t generally conduct playfully combative interviews, I recently practiced asking questions on a live stage…

Stretching for a Couples Dialogue

One scene from these last weeks stands out. I am in front of a room full of people, facing two friends – a couple. I am the “mentor,” responsible for asking these two questions and aiming for a non-directive, following attitude. Years ago, when I began my study of this dialogue process, it was a struggle to just be present with one person for 5 minutes at a time. Last January I acquired the requisite skills to maintain this presence for 50 or more minutes at a stretch, with few or no momentary lapses.

In the room with my friends this last week I stretched even further. I was asking both of them questions and switching back and forth between them based on my momentary decisions, best judgement, and trained instinct. The system for asking questions is straightforward. While there are many sub-components, it is loosely designed to help the “explorer” uncover beliefs, following an ABC for Adversity -> Belief -> Consequence model for understanding human behavior. We call it Stimulus -> Belief -> Response.

While I find the technique of questions equally fascinating, what actually makes ours unique and useful is the attitude with which we ask questions.

Physical Performance Practical Philosophy

Tiny Steps Towards Change

Tiny is my all-time favorite habit building tool, created by B.J. Fogg, PhD of Stanford University.

BJ studies how to change habits. and over the course of his decades of research B.J. has come up with the Tiny Habits system. The idea is quite simple: smaller habits are easier to build and sustain than big habits. Habit building is a skill that can be improved. When people aim to change small habits they are much more likely to continue building the skill of habitual change and thus make bigger changes in their lives.

Tiny Steps

In the last year I have used Tiny Habits half a dozen times to encourage myself to do projects ranging from handstands to monitoring my finances. Tiny Habits is free, lasts for 5 days, and has allowed me to adopts several habits that I will use for the rest of my life. Even more exciting, though, are some of the aspects of building habits that I have gleaned from Tiny Habits and begun to apply elsewhere.

Practical Philosophy

Make Smaller Circles

In The Art of Learning Josh Waitzkin has a chapter called “Making Smaller Circles.” These three simple words have profound implication on the learning process and on rapid skill growth.

Making smaller circles fits with my experience of learning in several different ways. First, I’ve been making a habit of examining the small steps necessary to make big changes. The smaller the steps the easier it is to create lasting change.

I also make a habit, personally and professionally, of asking questions. In my friends’ and clients’ answers I see another example of circling. Hundreds of times, while describing an obstacle, I have heard someone say “I feel like I’m just going in circles.” And in a way, they are. Last week a friend described his romantic difficulties and then complained that he was just circling around the same issues of a year ago. In fact, he was struggling with romance a year ago, too.

Enjoy Making Smaller Circles (Photo: Procsilas)

When I heard that comment though or when I am trying (and sometimes failing) to take small steps towards my goals, I prefer to think that we are all making smaller circles.

Practical Philosophy

Ask More Loving Questions

His hands were tied behind his back and he was standing on the outside of the bridge railing, preparing to jump. As I moved towards him, he shouted over to me: “One step further and I’ll jump!” He sounded hoarse and it was clear he had been crying. I stopped and stood, waiting.

This occurred six years ago, in the middle of the night, in Portland, Oregon. I had been biking along the river, taking a break from a college all-nighter when I came across this man.

I stopped, as instructed. And as I stood there I had an amazing experience. It was as if I was at the center of a deep, wide pool. His shout and threat were like a pebble hitting the surface and I was so deep down in the pool that they made no impact. Inside I felt quiet and still. “How are you feeling?” I asked him, calmly.

“Thinking is just the process of asking and answering questions.”
-Tony Robbins

Today I make a habit of asking this sort of question. These questions sometimes sound a bit odd but provide the person I’m with to examine themselves in a way not otherwise available to them. I can only ask such questions by intentionally falling into that calm attitude that I found so many years ago on the river in Portland. In that state of mind, anything – and I do mean anything – that someone says is okay. In that mindset I am completely accepting and totally nonjudgmental. This is a mindset that I trained on my own and then later at the Option Institute. In what follows I’m going to detail a number of different reasons we ask questions and discuss what makes loving questions unique.

In my experience there are four different types of questions, each with its own purpose.

Questions that Judge

 “Why did you do that!” (We often leave the “you idiot” left unsaid.)

The question “Why did I eat that pint of ice cream when I know I feel sick after eating ice cream?” is really a statement of self criticism. What I am actually saying is: “I’m dumb for having eaten ice cream. I should have known better!”

Questions to Learn

Imagine a reporter interested in your story. Reporters, and all of us, ask directive, inquiring questions to gain information.

Questions that Teach

Teachers ask their students subtle or even blatant leading questions like “Why do you believe that is the best answer to this math problem?” or “How would you go about solving it?”

Questions to Explore

“Why did you do that?”

That night on the bridge I used what I’ve come to think of as exploring questions. These are the rarest of questions in that they are non-directive and completely accepting. I have studied what is formally called “The Option Process(R) Dialogue” which teaches how to use these questions to help explorers come to their own conclusions. With the man on the bridge these are the sort of questions I asked. Guided by instinct and luck I asked the bridge jumper how he felt and then later why. I don’t know what would have happened if I had told him not to jump, or tried to teach him that he shouldn’t. I can speculate that things might not have gone so well.

For the record, I spent three hours with the man on the bridge. He ended up sitting and crying with me. The next morning he called his sister and I left him in her care.

Why Ask Loving Questions

Everyone has opinions and most people are willing to share them. What people don’t do, though, is set aside their personal biases and become completely present with another. Instead, meaning well, most people judge or try to fix. By providing the person questioned with the option to discover answers for themselves, we provide a safe space to step forward and, if we so choose, come to our own conclusions.

These are the four components of a loving question. These four make up what is termed the “attitude” by the Option Institute. I have called it the Attitude That Works.

This is what distinguishes these questions from all others. To ask these questions the questioner must completely let go of the belief that they know what’s best for another.

To ask non-directive questions the questioner must be completely present with the person being questioned. Otherwise, it is not possible to follow where they lead.

Often loving questions are asked in the face of self-judgements. It is essential to not buy in and engage with those judgements.

Of all four this is the most important. Having compassion for another is fundamental to asking this sort of question.

I don’t always ask loving questions. Not even most of the time. But I have the capacity to sit across from someone considering suicide or crying over heartbreak or jumping for joy, follow exactly what they say, and then ask them what they are thinking, what they feel or why. I’m not unique and anyone can learn to do this. The more I ask such questions the better I get.  And as an added benefit: it feels great to be there for someone in this way.

So here’s my advice: next time you or someone you care for is in a slump, don’t try to fix them or solve the problem. Ask just one loving question. It can make a world of difference.

Practical Philosophy Special Needs

Breeching The Comfort Zone (And Thoughts On Working Abroad in Buenos Aires)

I’ve talked before about one of the reasons I love working with autism. Kids on the spectrum are constantly violating my assumptions and in order to be effective I have to continue re-evaluating my beliefs and discarding what doesn’t work.

This week I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina working with several families with special needs children. And I’m experiencing a whole new model for breaking down my assumptions. Growing up I was taught that it was useful to travel because it “expands horizons.” I never really questioned that that means. On this trip I’ve come to see why traveling can be extremely useful and how expanding horizons actually works. To make a long story short – it can be hard, but it is very worth doing.

Palermo in Buenos Aires (Photo: Xomiele)
Palermo en Buenos Aires (Photo: Xomiele)

First off, my work can be challenging. I am work with children who may bite or scream or both. (They are incredible, too.) But on this trip I’m also in a new city, speaking a non-native language, and practicing tango. The number of challenging factors has increased by several exponents! So let’s look at how exactly this is a good thing…

Physical Performance Practical Philosophy

Tools to Learn Anything Well (Hint: It Is Simpler Than You Think)

The more time I study learning the more I realize that the tools which improve performance apply across disciples. Everywhere we look there are struggles and every-day heroes overcoming those struggles: athletes achieving record-breaking feats, regular people losing that last 10 pounds and children with autism self-regulating, tantruuming, and improving.

I make a study of the commonalities (and differences) between seemingly unrelated disciplines. What does the Gymnastics Giant and curing autism have in common? It turns out there is method to the madness and more commonality than difference among disparate paths.

Experiment. Stick out your tongue once in a while. (I suggest not biting it, though.)
Practical Philosophy

Lessons in Spontaneity: Driving for Lyft

I’ve rarely taken taxis in San Francisco, generally preferring to walk, bicycle or drive myself. But with the recent abundance of peer-to-peer ride sharing in San Francisco I couldn’t help but be impacted and eventually get involved. Among my peer group I am a middling adopter of new technologies so it was only after Lyft had been in San Francisco for well over a year that I asked my housemate about the pink mustaches on cars throughout the city. “That’s Lyft!” he told me enthusiastically. My other housemate chimed in: “I meet great people and they drive me home!” I was still further intrigued when I saw advertisements that Lyft with hiring drivers and paid up to $35 an hour. I charge much more for my work with autism, but sometimes have slow months and driving my car around the city for pay seemed like an interesting thing to try. It has turned out to be much more than I would ever have expected.


I’ve driven 20 hours this last week and given rides to 50 different people. In that time I’ve had the opportunity to chat with a venture capitalist from Greylock Partners, a woman who raised $30,000 on Kickstarter to fund her café on Bernal Hill and been invited home by a drunk customer – to show off my backflips and/or have sex with her housemate (I declined on all counts). I have had several fabulous discussions about parenting, learned about Bangalore, India (where I have work schedule in February) and a group of Business School “bros.” offered me beer on the job.

I plan on continuing to drive when my schedule allows it, just for the social aspect of the job. I like meeting new people, asking them questions and gaining some new insights or perspective. Here are a few of the reminders that I’ve taken away from this last week of chatting with strangers:

Practical Philosophy

Escape, Exercise, or Appreciate? A Few Shortcuts to Happiness

One Habit That Will Change Your Life, which I posted during Thanksgiving in 2012, has been shared more times than anything else I have ever written. In that post I described one habit I’ve cultivated, What Went Wells (or WWWs) as described by Martin Seligman in Flourish. This is just one of many behavioral patterns I’ve begun to cultivate in the last couple of years – shortcuts and simple tricks for getting myself out of a funk and leading a more fulfilled life. I create these and practice them, so I thought it useful to share them here. If you missed the bandwagon, take a look at this post, read Flourish and skim the “Shortcuts to Happiness” chapter in Happiness Is A Choice.

Delight (Photo by Photosightfaces)

Leave It Behind, at Least for a Moment

One quick way I have found to shortcut to comfort and  ease is just to leave behind whatever I was doing discomfort about in the first place. (And it sounds so simple!) Often I have found that when I am unhappy I intentionally stay in the environment in which I began my discomfort in an effort to “solve” the situation now. Instead, practice leaving. Growing up I was taught that “running away” was to show weakness. In my family leaving a difficult conversation was considered bad form. Over the years I’ve changed and now see stepping aside to be a useful step towards resolution. Just as we might give a child a time-out if she is tantruming, try taking a time-out from whatever you are struggling with. This isn’t a permanent solution or resolution to the problem. It isn’t meant to be! But when you return to the challenging situation you will find you are often much happier and better equipped to handle the situation.

Practical Philosophy

Parking in San Francisco is Easy (Or How to Hack Any Task)

There’s just one secret that anyone parking in San Francisco needs to know. Read the fine print first!

No Parking

I use my car to travel throughout San Francisco, a city that has twice as many cars as parking spaces. I was recently parking in the Inner Sunset – or attempting to. I circled the area six times before stopping in front of the sign that clearly read “No Stopping” with more text too small to see in the dark. It turned out that the sign was only valid until 6 PM and I parked within 30 feet of my destination. Read signs thoroughly before deciding whether to follow the directions.

But let’s also take a moment to extrapolate. So often we make things out to be difficult and then – low and behold – they are.  I was taught that a workday goes from 9 AM until 5 PM (okay, maybe 8 AM until 6 PM). For many years I worked between those hours even if that work was unnecessary. Now, I make a habit of looking for the shortcuts that other people don’t see. This doesn’t mean short shrifting. Actually, I do more than I did in years past. The difference now is that before doing those many hours of arduous work I look for shortcuts that other people might have overlooked. Whether parking in San Francisco, improving my business, or improving the life of a child with autism I find shortcuts that save time and produce better outcomes. Think before you act and find the options that other people have mistakenly assumed are against the rules. What shortcuts have you discovered that other people overlook?

Practical Philosophy

Option Process® Dialogue – The Practical Philosophy Tool

I spent the month of January 2013 at the Option Institute – an international learning center and home of the Autism Treatment Center of America. I am now one of 125 people in the world ever to be certified as an Option Process Mentor. I’ve brought in a friend from the Institute – someone who spent the month of January on the other side of my training program – to describe what is like to be an Explorer within the Option Process Dialogue and why this process can be life changing.

What is it like to be an Explorer in The Option Process® Dialogue?

Enter Shannon:

Being the Explorer in an Option Process Dialogue is a bit like being in the driver’s seat of a really nice car with a good friend and trusted companion in the passenger’s seat. You’re in complete control of the conversation and where it’s going. The Mentor is merely there to ask where you’d like to go next. They’re along for the ride, ready to follow you anywhere you want to take them. The most amazing part of having a Mentor as your passenger is that you can feel at ease because, with them, you’ll never get lost.


I’d like to share with you my experience of exploring with Robin, who I had the pleasure and privilege of Dialoguing with when he was in Mentor Training at The Option Institute.

The volunteers who were scheduled to Dialogue with our Mentor trainees would sit in a room, waiting patiently for our Mentors to arrive and whisk us away to our Dialogue room. Robin, always smiling, popped his head into the room, gave me a grin, and cheerfully led me to the room where we’d be spending the next 50 minutes talking about what was going on for me at the time.

Physical Performance Practical Philosophy

Running 100 Miles “Because It’s Fun”

January is the biggest month for personal trainers everywhere. February and March make up the largest number of discarded fitness goals every year! When I am continually successful within any new discipline it because I really want to act and enjoy the process. So I’ve brought in my friend Kiwi to talk about how she runs 100 mile runs “because it’s fun!”

Enter Kiwi:

Robin asked me to write a guest post about my ultramarathon runs.  So I’ll tell you about the best run I ever did, in 2008, on the Western States Trail in California.

Every June some of the most hardcore trail runners in the world complete this 100 mile trail running race starting in Squaw Valley near the Nevada border, reaching a height of 8500 ft on the mountain trails of the Sierra Nevada, traversing a series of deep canyons, usually in sweltering heat, and finishing in Auburn, California just outside Sacramento.  I’m not as tough as many of these ultra-runners, but I reckon I have more fun than most.

Practical Philosophy

One Habit That Will Change Your Life – What Went Well

Gratitude works. What I mean by this is if you want to have a good life – be grateful. Try this short exercise: think of one thing in your life – be it a friend, an object, or an experience – that you are grateful for. Picture that thing clearly. I find it helps to write out a short paragraph. I guarantee that as you describe this thing that you are grateful for you will feel good. It is not possible to feel bad while simultaneously experiencing gratitude.

Gratitude? This holiday is about food! (Photo: Ruthanne Reid)

So here’s your homework. Three things each day that went well for ONE WEEK. That’s it. If you do this for five days you will have an amazing week. If you do this every day for the rest of your life your life will improve beyond recognition.

You might be saying: “That’s a nice idea Robin. But come on…”. In this I have clear scientific evidence to back me up. Remember last week when I was reading Marin Seligman‘s Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being?  Next time I see Marty shopping at Whole Foods I will shake his hand. He has conducted exhaustive research proving that as little as three statements of gratitude written each day substantially improve many different aspects of well-being. (Well-being, in this case, is a technical term.) And I have a couple of extra bonuses, even more exciting. One of my concerns is about building the habit. I might do an exercise for a week but who’s to say I’ll continue? Marty addresses this by discussing how a vast majority of tested subjects from universities, middle schools, and the US Army all maintain the practice of writing down statements of gratitude because doing so is extraordinarily implicitly rewarding. Best of all Marty has done the work for me of coming up with an acronym that I will never forget. WWW stands for What Went Well. Write three things that went well during your day just before you go to sleep at night. You’ll get a profoundly better outlook on life.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Practical Philosophy

Learn How to Overcome Discomfort (by Jumping into Ice Covered Lakes)

I’ve always gone swimming in really cold water. I’m not sure that I really enjoyed the swimming part but the thrill afterwards kept me going back for more. From an age when I was still learning how to walk I would follow my father into High Sierra snow melt.

There is one lake that I didn’t go in that I still haven’t lived down. It was completely covered in ice at 10,000 feet in June. I was – maybe – nine years old. My father jumped in. My sister went in up to her waist. I vividly remember taking off my shoes and deciding that this lake was just too much for me – while my mother spoke to me consoling from the shore.

Today I am the 0nly member of my family who jumps in naked and screaming to every body of water below 50°. Every year I go camping with my family in the Sierras and those cold water dips are a highlight of each and every day. Friends often goggle as I dip into very cold water on our first night, often well after dark. (By the end of the trip those friends have usually learned to enjoy my ice baths too!)

But all of this serves as back story to my current exploration: I have recently begun taking very cold baths in my home in San Francisco. I grew up taking baths, Japanese-style in scathingly hot water. This was my mother’s ritual every night bed and I’ve adopted it. In the last several months I have begun to add cold water to my regimen. Since I acquired an infrared sauna in February 2012 I have had less desire for long soaks in hot water. Over the summer I regularly took cold showers after exercise and sauna. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I began to elaborate on these showers by making my baths cold, as well, but I am shocked at how much I’ve come to enjoy them!

What is particularly interesting to me is the diminishing of discomfort that I experience in very cold baths. They keep getting more comfortable – almost cozy – and the transition has been remarkably quick. I’m at this moment just out of one and tingling with a warmth that I know well from my time in mountain streams. But tonight – four weeks after having started taking cold baths at least four out of every seven nights – I got out of the bath, realized I wanted more soaking, and got in again for another few minutes. Granted, I’m a bit odd for wanting ice-covered lakes and cold showers to begin with. But wanting more time soaking in middle-of-the-night very cold bath water?

My take away from this is the use and utility of looking at fear and discomfort and facing them head-on. I’m not advocating ice cold lakes or other extremes for all people. I am suggesting to take a second look at those things we fear or avoid. The discomfort lasts a very short time and the benefits of getting over that discomfort last a lifetime.

I’m often afraid of a freezing cold lake in the middle of the night and ice bath were only slightly more appealing. But I know that at the end of a long day of hiking in the mountains a cold dip feels good and that the feel after a cold shower is exquisite.

So what if I want to exercise more this month or write more? How do I change something I don’t want to do into something I look forward to doing daily? I want to know how I can apply what I’ve learned to other areas of my life: getting up early, writing 3000 words a day, running a marathon.  What did I do to learn to enjoy my ice baths?

  • Started small. I began with short showers and I built up from there.
  • No push. I didn’t take a cold shower except when I wanted to. This isn’t a thing anyone I know does or thinks they should do. The magic of the experience for me has been the increased desire to bath in freezing cold water.
  • Variation. I didn’t bath cold unless I wanted to. I still vary it up between hot and cold.

I am going to take these ideas into new areas of my life. I’d like to run a marathon so I am going to start with running a few miles just a few days a week. I’d like to write 3000 words a day. I am not going to write that much tomorrow and that’s okay! I’ll start with editing my book and beginning another blog post. Say, 800 words.

And languor for 20 minutes in a very cold bath – something I would have swore I would never do four months ago – you bet I’ll  do that!

Practical Philosophy

Sweaty and Frustrated – Shortcuts to happiness

As I write this I am covered in sweat having spent the last hour pushing a 600 pound motorcycle up San Francisco “hills.”

This is my angry face! Photo courtesy of college classmate and tanguero William Henner.

Had I stopped–paused for just a moment–and considered why the bike wasn’t starting up I would have realized that I had forgotten to turn the fuel valve back on. No gas, no engine. Instead of taking that moment to reflect I pushed 600 pounds of steel up a steep hill, rode it down and it died at the bottom every time. I was dead set on fixing the problem now (or maybe just getting home and taking a shower) that I didn’t take the moment I would need it to recognize my error.

So what could I have done differently? Things turned out okay: I’m home, safe, sweaty and the bike is fine. And I could have saved myself a lot of effort! But how–in those moments of stress–could I have done it differently?

Call a friend
I could have called a friend. I have a few people in my life who would have gotten really upset that I was having so much trouble. The owner of the bike. My mother. But most people would ask me a few questions starting with “What’s going on?” and “Why are you upset.” A calm voice in the background would’ve been enough for me to reconsider my situation.

Ask a question
I could have asked myself a question. Just like those in the previous paragraph asking “what,” followed by “why” would have led quite quickly to (at least) a distraction from the current situation and (at best) happiness and calm leading to a quick resolution.

Change the channel
I could have stopped. Just that. Stopped, taken off my sweating gear, walked around the block and then come back. What was I pushing the bike uphill for anyway? So that I could get home, take off the gear, and take a shower! Why not do that first and then reconsider the situation?

I didn’t because I was regarding the sweaty motorcycle situation as urgent. If I were on a train track with the train bearing down on me I would not have time to call a friend, ask a question or change the topic. I would need to act! Now! I was treating this motorcycle stall as a life-and-death situation, one that I needed to resolve immediately. But why? This is a motorcycle, stalled on a quiet road with plenty of parking and walking distance from my house. I could leave it for days! I was treating it as a life-and-death situation because that is how I know to handle what I label as “important” situations. Like the old adage “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a jail” one of the tools in my belt is the idea that important situations should be solved now! In my childhood there was often a feel of urgency. Our culture, too, that doesn’t teach that slow and gentle are the best ways to handle the unexpected. It was assumed that I would be nervous when I was taking AP exams. I was taught in college that stress is good for you. More recently I have found many ways in which this is untrue. I learn movement best by going slowly and with great care. As a result I love learning and learn very quickly. And in some places – like with the motorcycle today – I treat the important with urgency and upset.

As a take away for this whole affair, I have a couple of new skills. Next time my bike stalls I’ll recognize my own freak–out, call a friend, ask a question, or take a break. I live, I learn and I keep improving. And you can be damn sure that I won’t leave the fuel valve off again!

I would love to hear from you: what is the situation (the more specific the better) where you freak out and what are some tools you use to calm and learn yourself out of the situation?

Practical Philosophy

Stimulus Belief Response (or How to Be Happy at a Funeral)

We’re upset when someone we love dies. Why?

I wrote the following in preparation for a speech I gave on the usefulness of choosing beliefs. This is philosophical approach I subscribe to because I find it useful and I’ve often been surprised with how violently people respond when I put it into action! I’m not endorsing being happy all the time (though that is an option). I think we get to decide all the time how we want to feel.

While you read this consider: how would your peers respond if you weren’t upset at a funeral?

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

This quote is from Viktor Frankl, a medical doctor and psychiatrist who survived the holocaust by keeping his spirits up. He regularly gave speeches in front of imaginary audiences as a way to validate his own importance!


What is a stimulus?  A stimulus is anything, in our environment, internal, external, person, place, thing that we are aware of, react to, interact with.  Our response: how we respond to that stimulus.


I find it useful to believe that in between a stimulus and our response there is a space, and in that space is a belief.  We form beliefs and change beliefs all the time.  Raise your hand if you have believed in an imaginary figure?  In Santa Claus, in elves, in fairies, in the Easter Bunny?  How many of you believe in those today?  Everyone here has believed in an imaginary figure and nearly everyone no longer does.  We change our beliefs!  Where do they exist?  If you cut me open you don’t find beliefs floating around inside of me!  Beliefs are make-believe anyway.


If I come up to a beautifully dressed woman and say “you are a terrible dresser” she might take offense!  If I come up to a man who appears to have brown hair and say “I can’t stand your bright pink hair,” is he more likely to be confused or angry?  What determines these responses?


I think that it is a belief that they hold about themselves.  This woman might be dressing up because she cares about her appearance.  She comes to a speaking club and want to look good?  She is perhaps believing that it is important that she looks good.  So if I say that she has bad taste, and she reacts, she is reacting to her own beliefs about her appearance.  However, he believes with some certainty that he doesn’t have pink hair.  There’s nothing in my statement of pink hair that lands on him.  He doesn’t judge himself as a pink-haired individual.


If we lived in a stimulus – response world everyone would react to the same stimulus in exactly the same way.  If I tell everyone in the room that “I love you!” everyone would experience the same feelings and respond in the same way.  My experience is that if I tell two people the same thing I am more than likely going to get two very different responses.


We make up beliefs moment, by moment by moment.  The job of the brain is to make sense of our environment, to make sense of the world that we live in.  We do that through the creation – moment by moment – of beliefs.  And these made-up beliefs affect every aspect of what we perceive and what we respond to.  And this is great news!  This means that we are not bound to our responses.  We are not determined – fatalistically – to respond forever in the same way.  We have seen that we have all changed beliefs at some point in our lives.  Given different information, different evidence we change beliefs all the time!


Feeling whatever we experience: responding with anger, with sadness, with frustration, with joy.  These are choices based on how we view the world.  Based on specific belief.  “Santa Claus isn’t real?”  “You are very poor dresser.”  “I love you!”  How we respond is based on the beliefs we hold.  By examining our beliefs we can change our responses and change our life!


Viktor Frankl celebrated the space between stimulus and response.  I find it useful to identify that space as a belief.  Frankl survived the holocaust by internally validating himself, by making believe that he was talking in front of imaginary audiences of thousands.  He survived to go on to do so!  Frankl survived the holocaust by creating inside himself a feeling of importance. How might we examine our beliefs, change them – if we want to – and thereby fundamentally change our responses, and improve our lives?