I’m traveling with my family to Mexico for two weeks this winter. The trip is a throwback to holidays from my childhood. Every other year, my family avoided the holidays altogether and traveled to Latin America. As a kid, I was sad to miss the holidays, but in retrospect those international trips were formative. This will be the first family trip in a decade and the first time with my nephews (7 and 10).
When I took a month-long trip with my mother to Ghana, I had to get very clear in the months leading up to the trip why I was going. And my purpose for taking the trip wasn’t to have a great experience.
Visiting Ghana was a lifelong dream of my mother’s and a trip she wouldn’t have attempted alone. My primary reason for going to Africa was to support her; to facilitate her having a positive experience.
As you are heading into an experience with family, ask yourself why you are prioritizing spending time in this way:
What are you hoping to get out of it?
What do you want for your family members?
The more clearly you know why, the better you will be at boundaries and making productive use of the time.
Habit: Write down 10 different reasons “why” you are taking the action that you are. They won’t all feel true, but you’ll find something new through the exercise.
There’s no problem so big you can’t walk away
I use this phrase, which is oft repeated by a close friend, to remind myself that I have agency. We always have the ability to leave – even when it feels like we don’t.
It is something of a cardinal sin in my family to leave a conversation or issue unresolved. And yet I’m always calmer for stepping away for ten minutes and coming back to the issue later.
Any of us is free to take a break or walk away at any time.
Habit: Remind yourself, maybe even aloud, that “There’s no problem so big I can’t walk away.” Repeating that serves as a reminder that you are not stuck in a difficult situation.
Take a pee break
Years ago, a friend taught me the trick of taking a “pee break.” Maybe you actually need to use the toilet, but that’s beside the point.
The goal is that when you are upset you take a couple of minutes to reorient yourself and come back refreshed.
Under very few circumstances is it considered socially inappropriate to take a couple of minutes out of a conversation “because I have to use the restroom.” And often you come back better able to handle whatever challenge has been going on.
Habit: Practice “taking a pee break” when the stakes are low. During an otherwise unheated conversation say, “I’ll be back in 2 minutes. I need to use the restroom.” The better you get at taking a break, the better you’ll be able to when things get heated.
Therapy with your parent/child
I’m a proponent of facilitated conversation: therapy, coaching or anything else that works for you.
In advance of our trip to Ghana, my mother and I went to therapy together. The objective was to create some guidelines about what we might expect while we were traveling in Africa, and how to collaborate better.
My mother and I walked out of therapy with a new willingness to listen to each other, which led to a gentler trip in Ghana then might have happened otherwise. (It was still an intense experience!)
Habit: Organize a facilitated conversation. It might not change anything, but it might also result in less drama.
We had regular family meetings growing up. Once every few weeks, our family of four would sit down and discuss challenges that had come up recently.
I don’t remember what got discussed, but “let’s have a family meeting” remains my family’s shorthand when communication is getting tough.
Habit: Schedule a brief “family meeting.” The goal isn’t to change anybody’s behavior, but to create space for airing of grievances – so they don’t bubble over at inopportune times.
As I get ready to spend two weeks in close quarters with my family in Mexico, I know that I am going to need to practice a lot of these habits and tools. I hope that one of these habits is useful for you as you head into your own holiday plans.
Earlier this week I signed up for an Ultra Marathon. I’ve never run a marathon before, or anything more than ten miles. And while I’m a strong runner, 50 kilometers is a big step. I’m afraid. And I’ve been reflecting that when I’ve been afraid, and taken action anyway, are the times I’ve experienced the most growth and joy in my life.
The times I’ve gone “all in” on a relationship. Even when it didn’t work out.
Even when I started the Evolve newsletter!
Beginning something new never gets easy. But most good things come on the other side of fear.
Fear is an Indicator
My car indicates if there is something in my blind spot. It also indicates if my tire pressure is low or I’m out of gas. Fear should be treated like the indicator: neither good nor bad, but warranting further attention.
Fear is always an indicator that something merits further consideration. It can be a good guide of the direction you want to go.
Notice What You Are Avoiding
Pay attention to what you are avoiding.
There are always things in business that I would just as soon ignore and opening my mail is high among them. As I discussed in How to Reframe Failure, the reason behind my reluctance to open mail was fear of failure. By noticing the avoidance, I was able to identify the fear.
There’s often a hint of something that you are not wanting to start, or that you are afraid of in the tasks that you are putting off.
We treat fear as something to be avoided.
Whether the thing you are afraid of is asking for a promotion, starting a new business, a first date, or running an ultramarathon – get curious. That is a form of courage.
Curiosity is a way to channel your attention and take a small step. Though it doesn’t feel like action, bringing your attention to focus on what you are afraid of moving towards your fear.
“Fear Setting” Exercise
Tim Ferriss popularized the idea of “fear setting” through this TED talk and the article “Why You Should Define Your Fears”. The purpose is to identify the worst case scenarios, which usually turns out to not be quite so bad.
The simplest version of this exercise is to repeatedly ask the question “What am I afraid of?”
What are you afraid of? Not being able to do an ultramarathon
What about this are you afraid of? That I’ll try to run the ultra and get injured.
What about this are you afraid of? That I’ll feel like a fool.
What about this are you afraid of? Even if I don’t run it or don’t finish, signing up gives me an objective and six months to train.
And I recognize that my fear isn’t as big as I’d made it out to be.
Take a small action today
The final step towards accomplishing a big audacious goal is to take one incremental step.
No one who has done something you admire got there in one big step. Unfortunately, we usually see the endpoint and not the journey along the way.
Notice what you are afraid of, get curious, and then take some tiny action towards your fear.
Signing up for an ultramarathon when I’ve never run more than 10 miles might sound crazy. It is, as they say, “jumping into the deep end.” But I like to run. I’ve wanted to run a marathon. And the worst case scenario isn’t that bad. I’m excited to discover who I am as I go towards this thing that I am afraid of.
Do the thing you are afraid of. Take action. Fear is a good indication that there’s something there for you to learn.
I spoke with an entrepreneur recently who described founding her startup as the loneliest of jobs. Elon Musk, somewhat more dramatically, said that “starting a company is like staring into the abyss and eating glass.” Running Robin’s Cafe was the loneliest job I’ve held. It taught me a lot about my own emotional management, which has made running companies since somewhat less difficult.
Regardless of whether you are building a business, trying to get better at managing a tough situation, or starting something new, I approach emotional management in two stages: avoid the spiral and incremental growth.
What is the Emotional Spiral?
Throughout the first few months of running Robin’s Cafe, I lived in a state of overwhelm. With everything that needed to be done, there were nights that I’d finish cleaning the cafe after midnight and then sit alone in the dark, too tired to go home.
That’s the emotional state I call the spiral. A state of overwhelm, of being upset about being upset, where it is impossible to make forward progress or to plan ahead.
How to Get Out of an Emotional Spiral
Recognize the spiral
During the worst moments of Robin’s Cafe, I often called my best friend and complained that I wanted to close the business. She would remind me that I could, in fact, walk away at any time.
The reminder that I wasn’t stuck – that I had the ability to shutter the business – allowed me to step outside of my emotional spiral and move forward slightly less overwhelmed.
I’ve described bystander apathy, the cognitive bias in which we assume someone else is going to take action. Just as the solution to bystander apathy is to remember that it exists, the path out of an emotional spiral is to recognize it. Simply identifying a spiral can serve as a heuristic to take action.
Take Incremental Action
One block from Robin’s Cafe is another cafe called Stable Cafe, which has been around for a decade and functions seamlessly. On my bad days at Robin’s Cafe, I would compare my business to Stable – and berate everything about my own small operation.
It is tempting to focus on goals and aspirations that are far out of reach, but the consequence is feeling bad about where we are. We amplify that which is at the center of our attention. Being stressed about being stressed results in even more stress! Take some small positive action to build momentum.
Begin by taking one small step in the direction you want to go.
Take Any Small Step
Sometimes you don’t know what the right next step is. I didn’t know how to start a cafe! As I’ve written about in How to Conduct an Effective Interview, I had to interview a lot of professionals and then take some action. When you are in a spiral, take some action.
Don’t attempt to solve everything in a single moment. Put one foot in front of the other. Make each step as small as possible. If you try to do something dramatic, you are more likely to fail and resume your spiral.
Adjust Course As You Go
Think of a sailboat leaving San Francisco for Hawai’i. You don’t leave the coast, point the ship towards the Hawiian islands, and then stop navigating. You’ll get off course.
The best way to navigate is to adjust course as you go. The best time to adjust your trajectory is while in motion.
There were a lot of difficult days building Robin’s Cafe – moments of panic, overwhelm, and loneliness. The businesses I’ve built since then have gotten progressively easier. There are still incredibly hard moments, of course, but I don’t stay stuck.
I have more mental and emotional fortitude, better habits to avoid the spiral and to get out quickly. I hope this framework will help you do the same.
As I discussed in last week’s article, “Resistance” was coined by Steven Pressfield to describe the inertia that gets in the way of our most important work. If you missed last week’s article on recognizing Resistance, read it here.
My own personal story: I’ve long had a writing habit. I like how I feel when I write regularly. Writing clarifies my thinking and makes the rest of my work better. And yet I haven’t written anything publicly since my last book in 2017. Why not? Because of Resistance. Here are some habits that can help.
Ask yourself “why”
Ask yourself why you are resisting. Despite writing on the Internet since 2007, I don’t create nearly as much as I want to. Among other things, I have a handful of books that have never been published.
One reason I don’t share more is shame. I’m avoiding the shame I’ll feel when I publish this newsletter and find a typo immediately after, or when I declare something that, looking back a decade later, I’ll cringe upon re-reading. For me, examining that shame has been a key to unlocking Resistance.
Another reason I don’t create more is that I frequently compare myself to other people. My father is a better writer than I am. My friend Todd is more even-tempered. Ryan Holiday reads more than me. These comparisons put me down, without motivating me towards a path towards greater efficacy or change.
What are the reasons that you aren’t doing your most important work? The underlying reasons will be different for you, but the better you can get to understanding those emotions or motivations, the closer you’ll be to overcoming Resistance.
Make it tiny
I’m currently writing 2 hours every day, but I didn’t start there. A few months ago, I challenged myself to write for 10 minutes each day. That escalated pretty quickly to 20 minutes, and then eventually into an hour, then two.
The key, throughout this process, though, is that my baseline has remained the same: 10 minutes a day counts as success. Otherwise, it is too easy to fall out of the habit and not come back again tomorrow.
For more on this idea, watch BJ Fogg’s Tedx talk on flossing one tooth.
Make the tiny habit inevitable
As my friend Michelle says, the goal is to make a habit so small, so tiny, that you can’t help but to achieve it.
Instead of trying to go for a three mile run, make a habit of stepping foot outside.
In lieu of aiming to clean out your entire closet, pick one item to donate each day.
Rather than answering all your email, just read one.
I’ve been journaling for 30 minutes each morning for years. To start writing for a wider audience again, I substituted 10 minutes of journaling for 10 minutes of writing instead.
Make the small habit so small that accomplishing it is practically inevitable.
Stack your habits
To start a new habit, especially one you’ve been avoiding, add the new habit you just after something you already do regularly. This is “habit stacking.”
For me, my writing habit comes just after journaling. I journal each morning, so it wasn’t all that difficult to add 10 minutes of writing immediately after my journaling habits. By stacking the new habit immediately after a pre-established habit you are better able to do it.
Decide what you are going to give up
I learned during my 30 days of mediation that to add something substantial into your life requires that you also give something up.
To begin writing every day, I removed 10 minutes of journaling, so as to carve out the time. What are you going to give up in order to take on something new?
Whether you call it Resistance, writer’s block, or inertia, we all have habits we want to pursue and that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid. Identify those obstacles and then take small steps to combat Resistance, and maybe you’ll finally be able to begin. Thanks for following along!
In the fall of 2003 I broke my neck on a trampoline. (That sounds dramatic, I know, but isn’t uncommon in gymnastics). To heal, I began to study with a woman who specialized in working with kids with autism.
While her work focused on helping parents help their special needs children, I found it also helped me with my injury. Pretty soon, I too began working with autistic kids and traveling around the world to teach parents how to help their children flourish. In the process, I became a student of how different variables create a supportive learning environment for these children and families.
Even more than the rest of us, kids with autism respond to their environment – to the emotions of the people around them and the situations they are in. They don’t respond to pressure.
Learning is a vulnerable process that requires that we try new and uncomfortable things. But just like any other skill, you can get better at learning with practice. Today I want to share how to create an ideal learning environment. While most of us don’t require ideal conditions for learning, these tools are applicable everywhere.
Attention – paying attention to what is happening while it is going on
I found that kids’ attention was the deciding factor in their ability to learn. What we attend to, we make bigger, and this single notion is the bedrock for learning.
We live in a world where everyone, and everything, is vying for our time and attention. Advertisements, social media, push notifications all interrupt our focus for their own agendas.
Practice channeling your attention – whether for a few minutes or a few hours. Direct your attention to the things you are most interested in improving. The more concentrated attention you can bring, the faster you’ll be able to learn.
Slow – “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast”
Moshe Feldenkrais, founder of the somatic discipline the Feldenkrais Method, said, “Fast, we can only do what we already know.” Learning demands that we stretch outside our comfort zones, and that is much harder under pressure, urgency, or force. Learning benefits from spaciousness and safety.
While it is counter-intuitive in today’s fast-moving world, slowing down is the best way to get faster. A similar idea comes from the Navy SEALS: “Slow is Smooth and Smooth is Fast.” Moving slowly means moving with intention and attention; it reduces the risk of making the kinds of mistakes that then would take more time to undo and correct.
Consider how you’d approach a skittish horse or a nervous child. The best way isn’t with force or aggression, it’s instead to approach gently and from the side. To move your hand slowly towards the horse’s muzzle or ask the child, in a quiet tone, how their day has gone.
In slowing down you are better able to absorb and make sense of novel information. You’ll create better conditions for learning and deeper integration.
Variation – playing with the variety of options available
When I was in university, I studied the impacts of variable practice. Here’s how it works:
You and I are on a basketball court, taking turns shooting hoops. You shoot from the free throw line while I shoot from all over the court. In effect, you are learning to shoot free throws – and only free throws – while I’m learning to shoot baskets.
Assuming we are starting from a similar baseline, your free throws will outperform mine during this practice period. You are shooting from a single location while I am shooting from all over, so you get more practice at the specific task.
But when we test at the end of the trial period – even as little as 30 minutes later – I have better performance. My performance is still better several days later, and from a variety of conditions around the court. Practicing with variation results in more learning.
This concept extends beyond the basketball court. When you are feeling stuck, try variations around the edges of what you can currently do to learn more thoroughly. Approaching the problem from a different angle offers the opportunity for more connections and perspectives.
Enthusiasm – enjoy the process
During the years I worked with autistic kids, I often attended training programs for parents of special needs children.
One day at a workshop, I walked into the dinning hall to see my friend Stan in the center of a circle of attentive parents. As I walked up, Stan paused what he was talking about and asked: “Robin, why did you come up?” I responded that I was curious what was going on.
Stan explained that he was being enthusiastic deliberately, so that the parents in the room would be excited to learn from him. He went on to share that this was what each of us needed to do to create the conditions for success and learning for the children in our lives.
It worked: when I was engaged, excited, and energetic, the kids I worked with were more engaged with me and our shared activities.
Even when you aren’t trying to teach or inspire someone else, you can be deliberately enthusiastic about what you’re learning. Excitement reinforces positive feelings about the process, which, as I’ve discussed in this essay about celebration, is a great way to incentivize behavior change.
Flexible Goals – be flexible in how you define “success,” especially during the learning process
Goals are great. They give you direction and motivation. But your goals need to be reevaluated regularly because every step you take provides more information about whether that goal is realistic or even worth your effort.
Most often, you are learning something new with a clear objective in mind. I worked with kids with autism to help them function more effectively. You practice shooting basketball with the goal of making baskets. We practice for the outcomes that practice gets us.
But if the metric of success is too narrow, it sets us up for a win/lose binary. Instead, working towards a goal is ultimately about practicing the skill of learning.
Growth is a vulnerable process. Take the pressure off and you’re better able to absorb new information!
I’ve long since recovered from my trampoline injury, and the years of working with autistic kids are also behind me. But when I’m feeling stuck or not learning as fast as I want, I incorporate more enthusiasm, flexible goals or variation into my daily practice. I invite you to do the same.
Everything in life is sales. From inviting your child to do her homework, to deciding where to go for dinner, to encouraging a colleague at work, the situations we encounter daily are filled with the dynamic of sales and persuasion. And, unfortunately, most of what you know about sales is wrong.
What is Sales?
My favorite example of sales comes from a scene from the classic Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street.
In Miracle, the Macy’s department store Santa asks each child who sits on his lap what they want for Christmas. Santa then tells the family where they can purchase that toy at the best price, even if it means at a competing department store. At first, the store manager is outraged that Santa is supporting his competitors – until he sees enthusiastic customers returning to Macy’s because of the excellent customer service. The value to Macy’s of Santa’s recommendations is greater than the sale of a single children’s toy; it’s customer loyalty.
Sales is having a clear solution – a service, opportunity or opinion – that can help to solve somebody’s problem. Like Santa, good sales means aligning yourself with the interests of the person you are talking to, to discover if your solution is a good fit for them. If it is, invite them toward your solution, and if not, move on.
How to Do It Wrong
Sales and persuasion are most often practiced with pressure and urgency.
Think of the reputation of a car salesman – pushy, fast-talking, deceptive. They aren’t considering what is best for the customer. They only want to sell a specific car at the best possible price. The result: nobody enjoys the experience and the customer won’t recommend that product or service in the future.
Pressure and urgency can work, but only in the short-term. They don’t increase trust or loyalty.
How to Do It Right
A Process of Discovery
Done well, sales and persuasion should be a process of discovery. Instead of using force, inquire about what your friend wants to eat for dinner. Get curious about why your colleague doesn’t want to do the work assigned to them.
When you start by asking questions about what someone is looking to solve – for themselves, their business, or their family – you’ll discover if what you are selling is a good fit for the other person.
People relate through the stories that you tell them, so share your experience, too. As I discussed in “Everything is Storytelling,” your story should be brief, personal and relatable.
Useful Beliefs About Sales
Abundance – If the person you are talking to doesn’t want the solution you are offering, somebody else will. There are between 7 and 8 billion people in the world today. If the person you are talking to is not a good fit, move on.
Believe it – Believe in what you are selling. That doesn’t mean that it is valuable to every single prospective buyer, only they can tell you that. But believing that it is valuable in the world makes closing easier, genuine, and fun.
Decrease the stakes – There are very few game changing moments in life, and this specific sale isn’t likely to be one of them. Whether or not you make this sale today isn’t likely to matter over the course of your or your customer’s life.
Autonomy – Foster the belief that everybody knows what’s best for themselves. You aren’t trying to convince anyone, but rather inviting them to entertain if what you’re offering is a good fit for them.
Look for “What I’ve learned” – It is useful to hold that even if you don’t close a sale, you will have learned a lot along the way. This practice of iteration and repeated repetitions will make you better at closing future sales.
Put in the Reps
Improving at sales is a matter of practice and incremental improvement. Many of the most successful salespeople and deal makers in the world have practiced tens of thousands of times. Sales is as much a performance as trying out for a sport or auditioning for a play, and practice makes for consistency.
Your Attitude Closes Deals
Who you are and how you show up with a prospective customer is what will determine whether they buy. Who you are closes deals.
Maintain an attitude of enthusiasm and want what is best for the other person. You’ll have a better chance of having things go your way.
Next time you are debating with your spouse about the dishes, trying to get your child to do their homework, or asking an employee to fill out their hours, think of Santa, sitting in Macy’s department store, referring customers to the competition.
There are a lot of things about being an entrepreneur that I avoid, but one of the silliest is opening physical mail. When I was starting Robin’s Cafe, I got a lot of mail – plans from the San Francisco planning department, legal documents, food permitting, alcohol permitting, pest control notifications, more.
I was so busy figuring out the day-to-day of running the business that I developed the bad habit of just ignoring mail and leaving the pile to build up on my desk for weeks on end.
When I finally got around to dealing with the pile, there was always a notice that I’d ignored for too long – a vendor I was late to pay, an IRS document I’d missed, etc. As we all do when a task is too big, I came to dread opening my mail.
Failure as discouragement
When you fail at a task, the experience is often one of discouragement, and that discouragement leads to a diminished desire to attempt that same task in the future. As I discussed recently, success is usually tied to positive feelings and the release of dopamine. Negative feelings often have the opposite effect and result in a feedback loop of negativity and failure. For me, that meant avoiding the mail until I discovered late bills, which meant I’d continue to dread opening mail and let it pile up further.
Failure is often a sign that the task you are trying to undertake is too big. A trick, then, is to leverage the cue of the negative feelings of “I can’t do this” into action and try again, but make the next attempt different. One way to do this is to break the task down into smaller parts.
Make the next step smaller
When you are overwhelmed by a new behavior, the easiest way to tackle it is by making the next step smaller.
I don’t need to open and respond to all of my mail on the day it arrives. A small step is to open every envelope, even if I don’t take the mail out right away. This small step moves things forward and makes the next steps – removing the contents, reading them, responding – easier.
Take your large goal and just take one small step in the right direction.
Create positive associations
I have a letter opener that I really love – it is a beautiful folding knife with an olivewood handle. I’ve learned, in the years since Robin’s Cafe, that I derive a particular delight in opening mail with this knife.
Look for ways that you can create positive associations around the edges of the habit you’ve been avoiding. Positive feelings equate to feelings of success.
Play and self-judgment are antithetical. When we are being playful or curious with a habit, it is impossible to regard an outcome as a “failure.”
The best way I know how to play – especially when I’m not feeling playful – is to get profoundly curious about the task I’m trying to accomplish. Another is to make a game of the process. Personally, I get delighted when I see weeks worth of dealt-with mail pile up in my recycling bin!
Look for a step by step breakdown
You can almost always find a step-by-step breakdown of the task you are trying to accomplish. Google “how to do x” or interview someone better at that thing than you are. If you’ve hit a roadblock and aren’t sure how to make a task more manageable, someone else has likely solved this problem before you. In writing this article, I asked a few friends about how they handled their daily deluge of mail and got some interesting ideas I’ll try in the future!
At Zander Media, I receive 10x less physical mail than I did at the cafe. And while there are still remnants of my avoidant behavior, I’m excited to reframe failure as a cue for novel action. These days, I look for areas of my life where I’ve historically failed and replace the cue of failure with the understanding that I haven’t made that behavior small enough, yet.
I’ve told the story of Robin’s Cafe – how I started it in 3 weeks and eventually sold it on Craigslist – hundreds of times. I love talking about the incredible culture we built behind the counter and the amount of learning I went through to start a restaurant But time and time again, when I mention selling a restaurant on Craigslist, I invariably get a laugh. “Craigslist?” They ask, incredulous.
Over time, I’ve iterated on this story so that I both get to share what I most care about while also setting up this great punchline. And as a result, this story never fails to kick off a great conversation.
As humans, we’re social animals and we live and die by the stories we tell each other. And yet we forget that storytelling—or if you want to sound more sophisticated, “narrative strategy”—is what shapes the work we do, why we do it, and who we work alongside.
In today’s newsletter, I thought I’d share some habits of storytelling that have helped me leverage this skill to foster more meaningful connections with every audience: from the conference stage to the board room, and even with friends and partners.
A good story fosters an emotional connection
We like to tell ourselves that we are highly rational creatures, but ultimately, a lot of our decision-making comes down to our emotions. And nothing is more emotion-laden than our relationships and connections with other humans.
I recently read Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight, about the founding story of Nike. One of the world’s most iconic brands, Nike’s marketing focuses on helping people connect, not only with the athletes Nike represents, but also with the athlete inside each of us. Nike accomplishes this by telling great stories in their advertising of athletic challenges and triumphs, instead of just marketing their newest product line. They’ve built a brand association based on connection and inspiration, and the product sales follow.
A good story matters to both you and your audience
During the COVID pandemic, I moved in with a partner, and within a couple of weeks, they were able to parrot back to me the handful of stories that, apparently, I told over and over in the course of all of my Zoom calls. The stories that come up the most frequently are the stories worth your focus because they speak strongly to you.
In addition, when I am telling a story I pay special attention to the reaction of my audience. My story about Robin’s Cafe gets a predictable chuckle whenever I mention selling the restaurant on Craigslist, and so I’ve used it to break the ice in conversations and have refined the story over time to set up this moment as the punchline. I focus my stories on what is interesting and engaging to my audience, and thus my audience is interested and engaged.
A good story takes practice
We’ve all been there at a holiday dinner table when a relative rambles on and we think, “I wish they would get to the point!” We take for granted that actors rehearse their lines before a performance and athletes run drills before playing games, but storytelling is no different. It’s a refined craft that you can get better at with time, and it especially takes practice to make your story feel natural and organic.
Taking the time to really think about your story can help you hone it in. What are the main milestones of your story, and what details do you include to move seamlessly from beginning, middle, and end? Where are there superfluous details that distract from your main point? What’s the punchline, and how do you want people to respond to it?
Podcast I’m listening to: Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast. These folks are absolute pros when it comes to the nuances of dog training. Whenever I’m preparing to tackle a new element of dog training, I look for an episode on that topic on this podcast.
Tactic I’m revisiting:Clicker training was originally developed with dolphins, since it is pretty damn difficult to negatively reinforce aquatic mammals. What’s a trainer to do? Jump into the pool and chase them around? But the idea of a clicker or marker to queue a future positive reinforcement has broad application. In particular, I’m wondering how I can mark positive behavior for myself! (Look out for an upcoming essay on the value of celebration.)
Quote I’m pondering: “It is a crowded bar. Tip with twenties.”
I originally heard this quote applied to dog training in reference to using high quality treats. In a world where there are a million interesting smells, but you want to control a dog’s attention, it pays to use high quality rewards. But that same advice can be applied well beyond the context of dog training!
How to Extinguish Unwanted Behaviors – or Why Dog Training is Like Riding a Bike
I originally heard this quote applied to dog training in reference to using high quality treats. In a world where there are a million interesting smells, but you want to control a dog’s attention, it pays to use high quality rewards. But that same advice can be applied well beyond the context of dog training!
I have always enjoyed training dogs. Dog training is about reinforcing good habits, both for the dogs and ourselves. And I’ve found that we have a lot to learn about habits, and ourselves, from the process.
I was working with a dog recently; he is 100 pounds, and a complete love. Unfortunately, he had some traumatic experiences as a puppy and can be reactive. But this was the first time he was reactive with me: teeth bared, snapping. He alternately wanted my attention and was scared that I might hurt him.
In all fairness, he had just been to the vet and had to be sedated. The next day – still recovering – he snapped at me and wouldn’t let me pet him, as usual. I had a moment of despair: I sure as hell don’t want to interact with a reactive dog! But also, up until this incident, I’d thought of this dog as a friend. And I began thinking about how likely it is that a dog can ever be completely trained out of unwanted behaviors.
How completely, how thoroughly, can behavior really change? As I was considering this dog, I realized that changing behavior is like riding a bicycle.
When I first learned to ride a bike, I fell off hundreds of times. But in the thousands of hours I’ve logged since, I can count the number of tumbles I’ve taken, including barreling down city streets at 45 miles an hour.
And accidents do happen. We do sometimes make mistakes or revert to unwanted behaviors. It can be tempting to avoid making mistakes by removing the conditions that led to them or ceasing the activity altogether. A way to ensure I never fall off my bike again would be to never get on it in the first place. I could take the same approach with this dog. He and I could never interact, or he could stay locked in his house alone. But these aren’t viable solutions. All are based on fear, perfectionism, and a fixed mindset.
We all have unwanted behaviors and habits we want to change. But, that’s not really how learning works. Put anyone in a stressful enough situation and they can revert back to earlier patterns. I eat a lot of mint ice cream, and would like to change this behavior. Offer me mint ice cream when I’m hungry and I’ll probably eat it. Put me on my bike, on a bad road, amidst distracted drivers, and I might get into an accident.
Even if we never, for the rest of our lives, repeat a habit we’re trying to extinguish, we always have the capacity to do so.
What this means is that, instead of looking for perfection, the solution is to look for learning. When I repeat a habit I want to avoid – when this dog snaps at me when he’s scared, when I eat too much ice cream, or when I fall off my bicycle – there’s only one option: get back up and try again.
Build from where you are
Building from where you are is usually the best option, since it adds on to what we already do and increases the range of what’s possible. With this dog, that means first acknowledging that he’s reactive today, and not letting my ego get in the way. Staying frustrated, or even feeling betrayed (“We were friends yesterday!”) clouds judgment. Working with where he is today means not denying the reactive state he’s in, which in turn allows me to avoid repeating interactions that will reinforce the undesirable behaviors.
Don’t try to remove unwanted behaviors.
I have some counterintuitive advice: don’t try to remove unwanted behaviors. You may want to remove unwanted behaviors, but it is rarely that simple. Habits and behaviors can’t simply be turned off; that’s not how neuroplasticity works. Change comes by rewiring the brain and building upon what is currently possible. We crowd out undesirable behaviors by positively reinforcing desirable ones. Focus on the behaviors you want to encourage and the habits you want to cultivate.
Reinforce what you want
In interacting with a reactive dog, I want calm and gentle behavior towards me, other people, and other animals. My goal, then, is to positively reinforce the dog every time he offers me, or anyone else, the slightest bit of gentleness. Getting him to focus on treats and positive interactions is a much stronger incentive than yelling at him (and thus scaring him further).
Work around the edges
Instead of trying to repress unwanted behaviors, work around the edges of what is currently available. Take what is currently easy and try small variations. With the dog, that might mean that petting is off the table at first, and I have to begin training with a bit more distance than I’m used to. With my current addiction to mint ice cream that might be:
Trying a different flavor of ice cream (to get me out of my habitual rut)
Eating out of a bowl (because then I’ll demolish the whole pint)
Drinking water before I have ice cream (I’ve learned that I sometimes reach for ice cream when I’m thirsty)
Making a fruit smoothie instead of ice cream (it comes close to the temperature and texture that I’m seeking)
Failure isn’t failure
Progress isn’t linear. One moment of reactivity isn’t indicative of how an interaction is going to go tomorrow. When I eat too much ice cream, it often feels like I’m repeating a “bad” habit and failing to practice a “good” one. But a moment of failure is just that: one moment.
The real mistake is to consider one misstep a mark of complete failure. In times of stress we revert back to more primitive versions of ourselves. For me, that might be stress eating ice cream as a form of self-soothing. For a dog, that can mean protecting himself the best way he knows how.
Learning happens like a ball repeatedly rolling down a hill of sand. With every iteration, the grooves of the ball’s path become deeper and deeper and increase the ball’s tendency to follow a similar pattern. That doesn’t mean that the ball will sometimes roll along a different route, but the more a pattern is reinforced, the more consistent that habit will be.
My consumption of mint ice cream is something I’m working on. I eat more ice cream when I’m stressed, hungry, and it is readily available. But I’ve begun iterating on habits to change my relationship and these habits.
I’ve never trained a reactive dog before and I’m nervous! But I know that change is not only possible, but – given the right prompts, patterning, and reinforcement – it is almost inevitable.
Behavior change, however minor or significant, is the culmination of millions of small influences, moments, and habits. Regression isn’t necessarily going backwards. I’ve got nothing but excitement for all of the behavior change ahead.
Last month, I went for a hike to celebrate my father’s 74th birthday. My father is a botanist, and it was with profound joy that I watched him meticulously bend over to identify flowers amidst the California bloom. Aside from being happy to see my father doing something he loved, I was moved because this simple habit, walking and bending down, was almost impossible for him 5 short years ago.
For most of the last two decades, my father suffered chronic back pain – the result of years of pounding concrete as a runner. It pained me to see him suffer and I desperately wanted to help him. I tried everything I could think of to get him to change his habits and improve his back pain.
Nothing I did had a lasting impact. Hard as I might try, I couldn’t “fix” him and my father would inevitably return to the habits that caused pain in the first place. Moreover, my judgments and pressure created a wedge between us.
Then, after decades of worsening pain, my father underwent back surgery, which resolved the back pain.
Early in his recovery, I lent him my Concept 2 Rower and a few free weights. I’d recently taken up rowing, and built out a home gym. While I had no expectation that he’d adopt a new physical routine, I enthusiastically shared what I’d been learning. I taught him a few simple exercises: how to row with good form, how to lift some basic weights, and how to hang from a bar.
When I came back to reclaim my Concept 2 Rower a month later, he was rowing and practicing the exercises I taught him every day. In the two years since, I’ve helped him continue to build on his exercise habits until he’s exercising for two hours most days!
My father’s transformation has been profound. He is out of pain, working in his garden, and exercising several hours a day. I am immensely proud, but ultimately can’t take much credit for his recovery.
They have to want it
I have some tough news: you can’t change people. People have to want change in order to make progress.
If they don’t want to change their behavior, that’s where to begin. You can start with data, with a personal appeal, or any other approach that you think will work to help them want to change. But without the core desire – their “why” – change is impossible.
Let go of the outcome
My biggest learning, and one that I’ve had to confront again and again, is that in order to help someone we love, we have to let go of the need for them to change. You have to let go of the outcome.
You don’t have to care less, but we all know when we’re being pressured, even if it isn’t explicit. And – I don’t know about you – but when I’m pressured, I dig in my heels and resist change all the more!
To encourage someone you love to change their behavior, you have to first get comfortable with the fact that they may not ever change.
Attitude is everything
I spent many years helping kids with autism build better habits and learned an invaluable lesson: attitude trumps everything.
Many of the kids I worked with were non-verbal, and they, and their families, would often be bossed around by therapists and specialists who believed things should only be done a certain way.
These kids learned to respond, primarily, to a caregiver’s attitude. And I learned that when I showed up with a loving presence, we’d be able to connect much more easily.
This same approach holds true for everyone. To help someone you love change, showing up with a kind and gentle attitude is more than half the battle.
Be like gravity
The best invitations feel like gravity; impossible to resist
We’ve all been sold to by pushy salespeople. Gravity is the opposite.
Instead of pushing and pressuring, be so engaging, so inviting, that people want to gravitate towards you, and towards the changes you’re asking for.
Start where they are
For someone to change, you have to begin with where they are right now.
That’s true for any of us in pursuing any kind of behavior change. And it is particularly true when you’re wanting someone else to make progress.
We can’t run a marathon tomorrow if today we’re healing a sprained ankle. We can only build small habits from where we are right now.
Change takes the time that it takes
This comes back, full circle, to “we can’t control people.”
Change takes time, usually more than we want to give it. This is as true of change in others as it is for change within ourselves!
Helping someone we love takes the time that it takes. We can’t dictate how long a transformation will take. Impatience can not only create a negative atmosphere of pressure that slows down progress, but it also can mean that we miss important markers of progress along the way or lose the opportunity to be part of someone’s journey as they come back from a setback.
During a conversation with author and conflict resolution specialist Dana Caspersen, she said to me, “Not only can you not change people, but it is none of your damned business.”
My judgment of the habits that led to my father’s injury and pressure for him to change did not help him recover, but actually got in the way of us having a healthy relationship.
Trying to get anyone to do something that they don’t already want to do is wasted effort. All that we can do is support and celebrate where someone is, and encourage them to take incrementally small steps in the direction we’ll hope they’ll go.
We all have habits and behaviors that we acknowledge are important to do – and which we will come up with any justification to avoid. Cold calling a sales prospect, a difficult conversation with a loved one, or your least favorite chore.
I feel most alive when I do two things every day: my movement practice and writing. But, just as I procrastinate before getting into my cold plunge, I can come up with an infinite number of reasons to avoid sitting down to write.
I haven’t written regularly since since 2017, when I published Responsive: What It Takes To Create a Thriving Organization. And the process of finishing Responsive was so painful that afterwards I stopped writing altogether. (Much of that challenge actually came because during that same period I sold Robin’s Cafe while going through a very difficult breakup. It was a difficult year.)
This spring, I’ve finally built back my daily writing habit and recognized that the real reason I haven’t written regularly is “Resistance,” which was coined by Steven Pressfield in the The War of Art, to describe why we don’t do our most important work.
In today’s article I’ll break down some habits and tactics for recognizing Resistance, and then next week I’ll share habits for overcoming Resistance.
The first step is to identify Resistance.
It’s taken me six years to realize that writing every day was something I was avoiding. Having identified that, I can now begin building habits towards writing more regularly.
Whatever the thing is that you’ve been avoiding, ask yourself if the underlying reason you’re avoiding that behavior is Resistance?
What’s your most important work?
You know the most important work that you need to do. When you find yourself coming up with any excuse to avoid taking that action, that’s a good indicator that you are succumbing to Resistance.
Look for the moments of pride or excitement in your life. These might give an indication of what you could be doing more of.
One question to ask yourself is “What are the habits or behaviors that you would like to do more of – but aren’t?”
What one action will move everything else forward?
In work, and in life, there are always a few actions that will have an outsized impact.
the person you most need to call
an email that you’ll feel relieved having sent
the sale you need to close
the unopened pile of bills to pay
the one food you need to cut from your diet
Whatever the thing is that creates the biggest point of leverage in your personal or professional life, chances are, if you’re not taking that action, the reason why is Resistance.
What are you already doing (at least in some way)?
Many of my proudest professional moments in the last decade have incorporated writing:
I’ve always had a contentious relationship with sleep. As a child, I’d get up after the house was quiet to enjoy a few hours of time alone and as a result I’d chronically wake up tired.
In college the common refrain was “you can sleep when you’re dead.”
It wasn’t until I recognized the profound impact a good night of sleep had on my physical performance (in ballet, specifically) that I decided to prioritize sleep. And even so, it has taken me another decade to cultivate robust sleep habits.
Here are a few of the habits I’ve found helpful:
Catch dawn and dusk
Prompted by Andrew Huberman, I dug into the research around sunlight. Getting a bit of sunlight at sunrise and sunset resets your circadian clock, and makes falling and staying asleep easier.
Cold plunging in the morning
My current habit is to spend 6 minutes in my 39 degree cold plunge in the morning. This doubles as my sunlight exposure and an abrupt way to wake up in the morning. The release of cortisol and adrenaline, and afterwards, dopamine, are the best way I’ve found to start the day.
(While I love cold plunging in the morning, or anytime before sunset, doing so after dark interferes with my sleep.)
When I’m the most tired is when I’m least good at going to sleep
I’m world class at procrastinating going to bed and turning a 20 minute bedtime routine into multiple hours. I’ve learned to set up the hours leading towards bedtime into as efficient a process as possible. There’s no problem that isn’t better to tackle first thing tomorrow, instead of late tonight.
“Just go to bed earlier. You’ll feel better in the morning.” This is a phrase from my childhood, meant to sooth a discontented child (i.e. me). And it still holds true today. There’s no problem that isn’t better to tackle first thing tomorrow, instead of late tonight.
Don’t watch television at bedtime
Television doesn’t get in the way of my falling asleep, but after a show or a movie my sleep is much more restless. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter what kind of television.
I’m not big on tracking everything about myself, but spending several weeks tracking what time I fall asleep was really helpful in moving my bedtime earlier. The Oura Ring is the best tool I’ve discovered for tracking what time I fall asleep and how much of each type of sleep I get. (REM, Deep Sleep, etc.). I’ve gotten competitive with the Oura Ring’s report of what time I should go to bed, and now always try to go to bed before it says I should.
Here are some supplements I’ve been enjoying.
L-Theanine – is an amino acid found in green tea that has been shown to relieve stress, and improve mood and sleep
Apigenin – is an extract from chamomile. While I’ve historically enjoyed chamomile tea at night, I’ve found apigenin to provide that same sense of soothing at bedtime.
Magnesium – Most of us are deficient in magnesium, so taking magnesium is a good habit, regardless. And I find that if I supplement magnesium most days, I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with muscle cramps.
Krill oil – Oddly, I love the taste of krill oil, and especially the Kirkland brand.
Omega 3s – There’s a growing body of research on the benefits of supplementing Omega 3s. We could all do well to take more EPAs and DHAs. I like Nordic Naturals ProOmega.
Melatonin – Melatonin is the old standby, but I find that while 1 or 3mg of melatonin put me to sleep, I invariably wake up at 4am and can’t get back to sleep. These days, I only take melatonin when I absolutely need it.
Hot bath or cold shower
I’ve taken hot baths at bedtime since I was young. This doubles as my favorite time to read physical books. Lately, though, I’ve been also enjoying cold showers just before bed. Hot baths prompt the body to cool off quickly. Cold showers get the body to warm up. Maybe it is something about the temperature change, but either a hot bath (with enough time to cool down before bed) or a cold shower (so long as I get in bed quickly) puts me right to sleep.
I notice that I sleep better at night if I’ve had enough sex in the preceding days. Everyone is different, but I fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer.
Exercise the dogs – and the people, too
The dogs will sometimes bark in the middle of the night, particularly at the raccoon that lives in the oak over my house. Getting the dogs enough physical activity before bedtime solves this issue entirely. And when I get a good cardio workout I sleep better, too.
What are tools or habits you’ve discovered for sleep? I’d love to hear!
I turned 37 earlier this week and thought it would be a fun creative constraint to list out thirty-seven lessons learned in the last few decades.
Drop me an email and let me know your favorite, or if there’s one you think I missed!
Follow the thread of your interest – The best way to learn anything new is to follow your curiosity. You never know where the threads of your interest will take you and this kind of self-directed learning is much more fun.
Growth isn’t linear – You can’t estimate your progress by looking at who you were yesterday. Growth doesn’t happen that way.
What you practice is who you become – If you want to judge progress, look at the habits you practiced today and the direction they point. That will show you who you’ll become.
Motivation comes in waves – Motivation isn’t constant. While it is a skill you can practice, it also comes in waves. When you’re feeling motivated, harness it. (I am at my most creative in the morning, so I’ve learned to harness that momentum, not work against it.)
Know what fuels you – We all derive energy from different sources. Know what gives you energy, and use it.
Change is inevitable – Trying to fight change is like trying to fight gravity. Since things are going to change, you might as well celebrate it when they do.
Everyone begins where they are – We can only begin from where we are. And that’s a good thing.
Small habits are everything – Every tectonic shift grows from a small beginning. Focus on the small habits, and the big changes will take care of themselves.
Start smaller – Make a new habit so small that accomplishing it is practically inevitable. And when you think you’ve gotten as small as possible, go smaller still.
Celebrate to reinforce – Celebrate your successes, no matter how small. Celebration removes your self-judgment and cements a new habit.
Habit stacking – Good habits build on each other. (Bad habits do, too.) Cultivate one new habit, and then layer the next one just afterwards.
Small is smaller than you think – Make a new habit so small that doing it is practically inevitable.
Don’t judge when you backslide – Judging yourself when you regress just means that you feel bad about yourself. Instead of judging, acknowledge what’s changed, and then continue to build.
Failure isn’t failure – Failure isn’t a permanent state. Years later, you’ll look back and have learned something from the experience. If you’re going to do that later, you might as well do that now!
Comparison is the thief of joy – Comparing yourself to someone else or against all of the things that you haven’t accomplished yet removes any chance of appreciation for where you are now.
Competition is fuel – Competition can be good fuel to do difficult things. Competition against yourself is healthier than competition against someone else. (See Comparison.)
Physical activity makes everything better – There aren’t a lot of things that can’t be improved by physical activity.
Get outside – A short walk. Glimpse the sky. Climb a mountain. Get outside and you’ll feel better.
Love the process – The key to learning anything well is to fall in love with the process.
Prioritize mindfulness – Good things come from carving out time for mindfulness and introspection. Find an approach that works for you, and then practice.
Pursue positive addictions – Get “addicted” to things that are healthy for you.
Child-like, not child-ish – Maintaining child-like wonder makes for a much more enjoyable experience and life. This attitude shouldn’t be confused for child-ish.
Skepticism is overrated – It is easier to criticize and doubt. Skepticism is an excuse for avoiding action. Be bold.
Go all in – When you’ve decided to try something, go all in. Even if you change your mind later, when you go all in you’ll learn faster, enjoy it more, and won’t second-guess afterward.
Optimism is a superpower – Cultivate an optimistic worldview, and things are much more likely to go your way.
Attitude over words – Your attitude comes through, regardless of the words you use. Prioritize how you show up over the words you speak.
Ask more loving questions – Ask questions with love and attention. These questions allow someone to see themselves more clearly, which is a gift.
Vulnerability – Vulnerability is at the heart of connection and positive growth. When you show up with vulnerability, you invite others to do the same.
Bravery – Fear is a great north star. If you’re afraid of doing something, that’s probably a good indicator to consider doing it.
Play to your strengths – Know what you do uniquely well, and do more of that.
Don’t forget bystander apathy – The bystander effect is a powerful force that allows each of us to justify inaction. The key to overcoming bystander apathy is to remember it exists.
Variable reinforcement – we’re all subject to variable reinforcement. Use this to your advantage to reinforce the behaviors you want.
Remember The Dip – There’s a point in any learning curve when most people quit. When you’ve decided to do something difficult, remember The Dip.
It is all make-believe – We create our reality. Don’t like it? Reinvent. (Read Illusions.)
Grant yourself grace – We all make mistakes. Grant yourself, and others, grace to try again.
History rhymes – It is often said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Your history rhymes, too.
Time for money – Don’t trade your time for money, unless it is also spent doing something you love or the learning is worth it.
Who you are is more important – Are you kind to waitstaff? Do you prioritize the most important people in your life? These things are more important than your list of accomplishments.
I haven’t had anything to eat or drink except for water for five days. That would have sounded bonkers to me just six months ago, but this is my fifth multi-day fast this year. ( Here’s a video about my first 5-day fast.)
Tomorrow, I’ll eat my first meal in 130 hours. I’m really excited! But, honestly – I’m feeling great, have a ton of energy, and haven’t been hungry in two days!
Several years ago, intense stomach pain forced me to consider my digestion. But, it wasn’t until four close friends were all diagnosed with cancer last year that I began to study the benefits of fasting – both to improve my gut health and prevent cancer. And I went down the rabbit hole!
I had a lot of reasons to fast: To improve my digestion and gut health. To explore the performance-enhancing aspects of fasting. To be able to support my friends with cancer. Because I like new experiences! The more reasons we have to try a new habit, and the clearer those reasons are, the easier it is to begin.
Even without realizing it, I started small.I’ve been doing intermittent (partial-day) fasting for years without knowing it for years. When I danced ballet, I didn’t have time to eat for 6+ hours at a stretch. In the last few years, I haven’t made time for breakfast between work meetings. All of these were small steps towards fasting, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. The only way to attempt something big is by starting small.
Here’s what else I’ve learned:
We are capable of so much more than we think
I had no real notion that the body is capable of going multiple days without food. Having done something new that I used to believe was impossible, I’m inclined to consider what else might be possible that currently feels out of reach.
The benefits of delayed gratification
The marshmallow test, or our ability to delay gratification, is predictive of positive life outcomes. Unfortunately, I’ve always believed that I was bad at delaying gratification. Through this experience, I’ve come to realize that this is not true, and actually been enjoying this experience.
As an aside: fasting is the most difficult form of delayed gratification I’ve ever tried.
We are designed to go without food
Humans are made to go without food. Prior to this year, I didn’t realize that there’s a switch that flips, and our bodies transition from using glucose for fuel to burning fat. Far from my body shutting down, I’m more alert, more present, and more capable during long fasts even than during my normal life.
This is an altered state
I’m an adrenaline junkie and enjoy the altered states from things like cold plunging or exercise. Long-term fasting is certainly an altered state. I wake up with a lot of adrenaline, need less sleep, and have a very different kind of focus than usual. I couldn’t live like this all the time, but it is certainly an interesting experience.
Hunger pangs go away
I’ve always been afraid of what happens when hunger pangs get bad. It turns out that on the other side of hunger is… nothing. During the first 2 days of this fast, I was mildly hungry, on and off. Since then, I’m simply not hungry anymore.
I still get mildly hungry for a few minutes a few times a day, andI certainly have fantasized about food over the past five days! But, by and large, I feel great.
If you’re interested in trying fasting, I thought I’d share my top three habits for fasting:
Drink a lot more water
Go without breakfast for a few days (try intermittent fasting)
Pay attention to how you feel
Drink more water
Most of us would benefit from drinking more water. I still haven’t successfully created the habit of drinking enough water when I’m not fasting, but even during an intermittent (partial-day) fast, I carry a full water bottle with me everywhere. A key to my longer fasts is drinking a lot of water, especially when I feel hungry.
To start: Have water nearby as a cue to ask yourself the question, “Do I want a drink of water?”
Go without breakfast
Skipping breakfast has become a popular form of intermittent fasting, or eating all of your meals within a prescribed 8- or 10-hour window. The main goal of this habit, though, is to learn that hunger pangs go away, and that we aren’t fundamentally tied to eating every day or a specific schedule.
To start: Delay eating for a few minutes, when you get hungry. If you eat breakfast at 8am, try eating at 9am. If you’re comfortable swapping breakfast for brunch, try delaying brunch by an hour.
Most of us don’t pay attention when we eat. Amidst the demands of work and life, I often don’t. I’ve also used intermittent fasting as a crutch, when I don’t have time to eat. But skipping a meal is useless if you aren’t still paying attention along the way.
My number one habit for someone starting out fasting is to pay more attention. It turns out that the intense stomach pain that got me started on this journey was the result of years of stress, drinking coffee on an empty stomach, and a lack of attention. I wasn’t aware of how much the stress and astringent coffee were combining.
To start: Notice the sensation of eating a bite of food or a drink of water. When you feel the first glimmer of hunger pains, sit with them for a moment instead of immediately reaching for food.
Let me know if you like today’s focus on fasting! If you want to learn more and try fasting yourself, just reply to this email and I’m happy to share more thoughts with you, directly.
As ever, thanks for reading!
Until next time,
P.S. Nothing here is, or should be construed as medical advice. Please consult with your physician before trying fasting, or anything that might impact your health.
I was standing on the hilltop, sweating, having just run up 1200 vertical feet in under 10 minutes. The loose gravel shifted underfoot and tears stained my face. I was upset and afraid, and wanted to crawl out of my own skin. The reason: I was in credit card debt.
That was an afternoon ten years ago.
As a kid, I’d internalized that debt was bad, and credit card debt was a cardinal sin. Of course, I didn’t know how credit cards actually work. Monthly statements? Statement balances versus minimum payments? The tactics of money, and credit cards in particular, were unknown to me.
That day on the hill, I wanted to die with the shame of the financial debt I had accumulated, but in the decade since I’ve built a lot of financial habits towards greater ease and more resilience. (I went on to pay that credit card debt off over the next two months.)
A handful of years later: I was in debt again. I had borrowed $40,000 from family and friends to open up Robin’s Cafe – my restaurant and events venue in the heart of the Mission District, San Francisco.
What’s funny is that the credit card debt that I couldn’t bear was about $6,500. By contrast, I carried $40,000 in debt from Robin’s Cafe with pride.
Building the cafe was my personal MBA, and even if I lost it all, $40,000 was cheap for an MBA. (Unforgivable student loans, notwithstanding.) But, within a couple of months of opening, I was able to build a cash-positive business, and began paying down that debt each month.
The psychology of money is perhaps the most important thing I know about money, and something I wish I had learned much earlier. It has taken me until 36 years old to begin to get a grasp of this topic, but now that I have begun to think about money, and the behaviors that shape our finances, I couldn’t be more excited.
Money is psychological. In the same way that light is both a particle and wave (don’t ask me. I don’t understand physics.), money is a habit, energy, time, and a social agreement that allows us to enact our will in the world. People who handle money effectively know these things intuitively. But when I was 26, with tears staining my face, I didn’t believe it.
Here are three simple money habits I practice today:
Checking bank and credit card balances every day. Most of us avoid the issues when we are uncertain or afraid – or in debt. It feels easier to not open mail or look at a bank balance, in case it might be a bill or an overdraft fee. For me, checking on a bank balance every day helps me to break any potential cycle of avoidance.
Depositing into long term savings each week. As someone who’s never had a single day job or salary, it has sometimes been difficult to automate my savings. I’ve handled this over the last few years by automatically transferring a small amount of money from my checking account to long term savings every week. Out of sight; out of mind.
Asking people questions about money! I ask people all sorts of uncomfortable questions about money (though usually with the caveat “feel free not to answer”). I find that talking about money is the fastest way to learn about my own and other’s insecurities and build better habits.
I’ll be writing about money habits more soon, but for now I’ll leave you with a question: what’s one of your money habits? Leave a comment and let me know.
I was skeptical, going into this book, because I was afraid it would be a “gotcha” look at Tony Hsieh’s troubled last few years. And while the authors do their due diligence on the challenges he faced, and his resulting death, they paint a well-rounded image of a man – who I knew to also be a gifted and generous human.
Tool I’m Using
Oura Ring – I’ve always had a complex relationship with sleep. And when I struggle with sleep, my mental health and physical performance deteriorate. While I’m still cultivating a routine I can stick to, I’ve enjoyed tracking what time I actually go to bed, and how many hours I sleep. (I’m currently averaging 7.5 hours, and sleep best if I’m in bed by 10:00pm.)
Something I’m Practicing
Archery – Because of my high standards, I find it helpful to practice a novel skill, and to practice being a complete beginner. I recently picked up archery for the first time in decades. I’m not good yet – and that’s exactly the point. Undertaking a novel skill helps me remember that achievement need not always take precedence over enjoyment and wellbeing.
Habits for Mental Health & Addiction
A video I made recently, about talking someone down off of a bridge, has gone viral. The video, and the story behind it, has me thinking a lot about mental health.
There’s a lot of addiction in my family. My uncle died of pills, and my grandfather died of alcohol. I have always been leery of my own addictive tendencies, and tried to steer clear of the worst of those patterns. Fortunately, my addictions – to things like exercise and cold plunging – have a lot of tangible health benefits, and are harder to abuse than, for instance, alcohol.
I started drinking regularly while running Robin’s Cafe and at my peak would have a drink every evening of the pandemic. Then, in September 2021, I gave up alcohol entirely. (This continues to be a bit of a challenge, since my girlfriend makes exceptionally good cocktails.)
In reading Wonder Boy, I see facets of myself in Tony’s story. He saw the world differently, and that allowed him to accomplish great things, but led him to struggle to exist in our shared reality. I’ve done things that people told me were impossible, and, as a result, found myself in situations that felt nearly impossible to handle.
I haven’t carried the level of responsibility Tony did. And, perhaps I also wasn’t born with Tony’s heightened gifts/challenges. But I do understand facets of what Tony faced. Even as I am, today, in the best physical and emotional health of my life, I worry that things might change. Life is extraordinarily fragile. In a moment, and without warning, things can shift, again, and we find ourselves in completely different – and worse – situations, and have to build back from there.
I don’t see a concrete way around this, beyond celebrating when things are going well, and reaching for gratitude even when they aren’t. All any of us can do is focus on the daily habits that build in the direction we want to go. I like who I am when I exercise a lot, so I take small steps towards building a life where I train movement for several hours each day. Building healthy habits and routines while things are good have given me a stable foundation to fall back on during tough times.
For you, that might be starting with 10 minutes a day – or some other habit entirely. Don’t compare yourself to me, or anyone other than who you were yesterday and who you want to be tomorrow. I often think of a quote from James Clear: “Every action you take is a vote in the direction of the type of person you wish to become.”
Who do you want to become this afternoon? Tomorrow? Let next year and other people worry about themselves. Just take one step in that direction of who you want to become.
My guest today is Allison Baum Gates, a General Partner at SemperVirens Venture Capital and a lecturer at the Business School at Columbia University and the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.
Allison got her start working in finance and investing, but quickly saw that technology was changing everything about her work and our world. So Allison decided to go into technology, and to focus on investing in the technology that would be doing the disrupting in 5 or 10 years.
She spends her days talking to startup founders and cultivating SemperVirens’ ecosystem of forward-thinking startups. Allison is making an incredible impact with the companies in her portfolio, and her passion for people and growth is clearly a guiding force in her work.
It was a real pleasure to hear about how Allison is trying to make the future of work a reality.
I’m turning 35 today and thought I would take a moment to write some of my lessons learned from the last several years.
I’ve always had a pretty thorough movement practice, but among the most positive changes in my last 5 years is the fact that I now move every single day. I’ve found that one of the biggest, simple changes anyone can make is a routine to get your body in motion. What’s interesting to you? What’s a thread, an exploration, a discipline of study that you’d like to pull on? Go try it! These bodies of ours are meant to move.
Find work that you love. Keep looking until you do.
I enjoyed much of what I did professionally 5 years ago, but that pales by comparison to the amount of delight I get from my work today. As someone who has had more than 40 different jobs in more than 15 different industries, I can tell you that it’s really tempting to settle. You don’t have to settle for good enough! Keep looking.
Work with people you love.
While the work matters, doing it with people that you love matters even more. Among the most positive characteristics of my work today is that I get to spend my working life with people I enjoy. Find those people that you are proud to work alongside, and build your professional life with them.
Fear is a good guide.
I’ve often gone towards fear, but it’s only in the last year that I’ve recognized, specifically, that fear can be a useful guide. It’s natural that we move away from things that we are afraid of. That’s fine: it keeps us safe. But sometimes, it can be useful to go towards the things we are fearful of, instead. There’s a lot to be learned in those shadows.
Everything takes the time that it takes.
As somebody who prides himself on his ability to move quickly, patience with myself is a hard won feat. In the many years that I was dissatisfied with my work, I was constantly pressuring myself to have already found my perfect career path. Over many years of wanting a family member to take better care of himself, I was always wanting him to change more quickly. We don’t get to decide how quickly or how slowly things change.
You don’t get to control people. (And actually, it is none of your business.)
Years ago, my friend, Dana Casperson, told me “you don’t get to control people, and actually, it is none of your damn business!” This has been hard feedback for me to receive, and I’ve repeated that quote to myself many times over the years. I’ve often derived meaning from trying to “help” (control) people whom I love. We don’t get to. Practice letting go of the desire for control.
“You’ve always been a little bit slow.”
Something my Dad said to me on my 30th birthday – jokingly, but with a grain of truth: “Robin, it’s okay. You’ve always been a little bit slow.” I’ve accomplished a lot that I’m proud of in the last 35 years and some are things that most people don’t let themselves even dream of trying. But I also went on my first date at 19, years later than anyone else I knew, and am frequently the last person to recognize something new about myself that’s obvious to everyone else around me. While I have excelled in many areas in my life, I have also moved slowly in areas that my peers are much quicker. That’s fine. Going slow works, too.
Get familiar with grief.
This has been a particularly hard one for me, having gone through two substantial heartbreaks in the last 5 years. I haven’t found that grief gets any easier, but I’ve found that I can develop better toolsets to help deal with it. Endings, deaths, and partings are a natural and inevitable part of our lives. It helps to practice getting familiar with grief.
Relationships get better with time. “Make new friends, but keep the old.”
I was pretty antisocial until 19 and then turned a corner and learned the name of every single person in my entering class in college. I love meeting new people. (And a good thing too, since that’s most of my job today!) But novelty doesn’t hold a candle compared to my most intimate friendships that go back 10+ years. Relationships get better with time. Make room for that.
Leave room for introspection.
I’ve long had the tendency to distract myself by being busy when things get tough. It turns out, at least for me, that when I leave more room for introspection, growth happens more quickly and way more gently! I’m blessed that I have bandwidth in my life today for a lot of quiet introspection. But however you do it, leave room for yourself, too.
Along with my propensity to get busy, I frequently don’t make enough time for reading. It feels like cheating – taking time for myself, selfishly, to learn. But in a world that is filled with distractions, I find so much delight in handling a physical book and diving into someone else’s world. So this advice is mostly just for myself: read more.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can be very playful. Not usually childish, but frequently childlike. There’s a lot to take seriously in the world right now. Balance that with play.
There is such a thing as too much caffeine.
5 years ago I would have believed no such thing. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I sleep better at night if I stop drinking aged pu-erh after noon.
The last year and a half has been tumultuous for everybody. Beyond that, in the last 5 years, my personal and professional life have changed more than I could have conceived. These practices have become bedrock in my life. I’m going to spend the next five years deepening these and developing more. I wish you well in finding yours!
My guest today is Gayle Karen Young Whyte, former head of People and Culture at Wikimedia (the parent company behind Wikipedia). These days Gayle is very politically active and consulting with a select group of executives on organizational and culture change.
I’ve known Gayle since she spoke at the first Responsive Conference in San Francisco in 2016, and have followed her work ever since.
In this conversation, recorded in late 2020, we talk about resilience, inquiry, the COVID-19 pandemic, and what we can all do to rise to the challenges of these times. Gayle brings wisdom, simplicity, and kindness to the questions of how to continue learning, growing, and thriving as new opportunities arise in our lives.
How would you live your life differently if you knew you were going to die tomorrow?
We’re all so busy rushing through our lives that we sometimes forget to pause and remember that we have fleeting time on this earth. Watch this short vlog for a reminder to be grateful for what you do have in your life, and the time you do have available now.
To celebrate my 30th birthday, I spent five weeks in the spring of 2017 with my family traveling through the Kingdom of Morocco. I have fantasized about visiting Morocco ever since I was introduced to the character T. E. Lawrence through the movie Lawrence of Arabia at eleven years old. I was entranced by Lawrence’s charisma and self-certainty, especially alongside the mysticism of the Berber tribes and the stark ferocity of the desert.
Unsurprisingly, Morocco wasrather abruptly different than the images of camel treks across the desert and Atlas Mountain mystics I had envisioned. What I found was even more special.
A brief word on Moroccan History
Morocco is a country dense in history and culture. Frequently called the “Kingdom of Morocco,” it is ruled by a king, who is by all reports benevolent, well-loved, and politically savvy. While not rule of law, it is customary for every establishment in the country to display a photo of the king, and most show him in cinema-perfect wilderness or religious setting. For more than 50 years, Morocco was a French colony, and French is still the language used to conduct government business today.
Morocco is on the North-Western corner of the African continent, with coasts along both the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea. It has always been a export-rich country, through which salt, gold, and other valuables were ported to the coast, and from there shipped to Europe or Asia.
Morocco is a majority (98%) Islamic country, which comes with it’s own history and philosophies. The pervasiveness of the Islamic faith influences every aspect of life, such that those few locals I met who consider themselves religiously atheist, simultaneously are still culturally Islamic. While Morocco is liberal compared to many Middle Eastern countries, a call to prayer echoes around even the smallest of Moroccan towns five times each day. On my first night in Morocco, the call to prayer woke me up in fear at 4am with long drawn-out Arabic chanting that even native speakers may have a hard time deciphering. We eventually came to recognize the most common phrase, “Allah akbah,” which means “God is great.” By the end of 5 weeks, the call to prayer had become such a comfortable ritual that my first morning back in the United States I woke up confused for lack of the pervasive chanting.
The headscarf is a mixed symbol of oppression or free speech depending on one’s perspective. In Morocco, the headscarf is not encouraged by governmental institutions, and generally frowned on by urban middle and upper classes. That said, throughout Morocco, the headscarf is very common. In the city of Fes, for example, I rarely encountered local women with their heads uncovered. To further highlight these complicated socio-political factors, in January 2017 Morocco banned the manufacturing, marketing and sale of the burqa — the full head and face covering which leaves only a woman’s eyes visible. And yet it was not uncommon to see women in full burqas in the inland cities we visited.
Prior to Islam, Morocco was inhabited by three culturally distinct tribes of Berber, which continue to exist as their own integrated-yet-distinct cultures today. In my time in the Dades Gorge, for example, I encountered several groups of locals who spoke not a word of French or Arabic, but only their local flavor of Berber. I had even learned a few words of Berber a few days before, which didn’t translate at all across the several hundred miles we’d traveled since.
Culture isn’t ever black and white
There are some truly beautiful things about Moroccan culture. If you are a guest visiting the house of a neighbor and admire something of theirs, it is customary for the host to offer the admired object to you as the guest. There’s an emphasis on family honor, that it is sacred to each individual, that another is respected and felt welcomed. As a tourist who has traveled in a variety of countries around the world, I have never felt more welcomed and included as I did in Morocco.
There is a tradition, adopted from the Berber, of mint tea to celebrate every occasion. Moroccan tea is made with a large bunch of fresh mint, Chinese green tea, and an overabundance of sugar. (It is not a coincidence that a preponderance of Moroccans have bad teeth.) If you stop by the house of a local in an city or town throughout the country you will be offered tea, and turning it down can be difficult to do.
Over several days of strolling the souks (open air markets) of Fes, we downed gallons of the extra-sweet mint tea. Every shop we visited had someone ready to run and fetch us a fresh brew, and the longer we stayed in a single location the more pressure to join for yet another tea ceremony.
Fes is by far the most magical city I’ve ever encountered, and often referred to as the country’s cultural capital. The narrow streets of the Fes El Bali, or old Medina, would be called alleys in any other city, just wide enough for two mules to pass abreast. The walls are of thick mud-brick, 10 feet high, overshadowing the streets. Ever few feet these streets twist and turn, and side streets branch off in a variety of directions. The side streets get smaller and smaller until they dead end to a Hobbit-sized door, which is the entrance to someone’s home.
The city has several distinct districts, including the UNECO site of tanneries, which have been used as a within-city leather manufacturer for thousands of years.
As tourist walking aimlessly through the city, you will periodically get accosted by a carpet seller and brought into his Dar (Arabic for house), while his wife or cousin runs to bring everyone tea. Dars in Fes consist of a majestic central courtyard, usually open to the sky, with a variety of rooms surrounding it. It is startling to find the majesty of these traditional Dars at the end of the dark, narrow lanes of Fes.
My family stayed in one of the five rooms at Dar Romana on the northern edge of Fes Medina. From our rooftop terrace we had a panoramic view of this mystical city, the old fortified walls of the Medina, and the surrounding countryside.
I quickly befriended Semu, one of the servers at Dar Romana, and he and I spent hours together over the next week. I taught him some of my daily physical routine and he taught me Darija, or Moroccan Arabic, which is Arabic intermingled with the variety of linguistic characteristics unique to Morocco, including French, Spanish, and Berber.
Semu and I would sit and study together for an hour each evening. We began with some basics of the language. “Hello” is “Shalom aleichem” which is from Hebrew and translates as “Peace be upon you.” The proper response is “Aleichem shalom.” I was taught that it is improper not to respond to this greeting.
My friendship with Semu also gave me the opportunity to ask all of the questions that a 30-something male has in a foreign country.
“How do you meet women?”
“What do you think of arranged marriages?”
“Do you believe in God?”
Semu, and other similar friendships I forged throughout the country, provided a brief glimpse into Moroccan culture that went beyond the superficial look allowed by more typical tourist interactions.
When I opened up my cafe, I spent every waking moment for several months taking care of small emergencies. When there weren’t emergencies to solve, I spent my time afraid of the next fire that I would have to put out. I came to resent the amount of time I spent opening the cafe, establishing protocol, and picking up the pieces when things didn’t work out. In juxtaposition, a restaurateur in Fes who spent so much time teaching us how to make Moroccan mint tea to perfection, my friend Semu who taught me the basics of Darija, and the countless carpet salesmen who spent endless hours pulling rugs down from ceil-high stacks to find the perfect fit — these people didn’t attempt to calculate their time in the way I had. Looking back, I wish I had savored the process of opening the cafe, even the most difficult aspects, rather than constantly trying to optimize my time.
While so many of us in the West are constantly set on optimizing every moment of every day, there’s a sense of spaciousness to Moroccan time. It is more important to deeply appreciate your mint tea in this moment then to rush to be on time to whatever appointments you have coming up next.
The Gender Gap
Juxtaposed with these beautiful aspects of the culture, there are many that I find less favorable. I am quite social and befriend new people everywhere I go. As a tourist in Morocco, I befriended dozens of local men. Over the same period I met exactly three local women. Women in Morocco work and socialize mostly in the home, so my experience is understandable, but far outside my day-to-day norm.
While there are no laws forbidding women to work, it would be very strange for a local woman to sit down for cafe noir, a national favorite consisting in equal parts of espresso and sugar, at the men’s-only cafes that exist on almost every street. It would be even more strange for a woman to serve customers at any one of these cafes. Highlighting my own lack of expertise in Moroccan culture, female friends who have had homestays in inland Morocco describe the interior of the home as the women’s domain. All those men, drinking cafe noir and smoking endless cigarettes in street cafes, are reported to have been kicked out of the home by their domineering wives. I don’t know the truth of this gender dynamic, but it is clearly complex and substantially different than my own day-to-day.
Young People Everywhere
After Fes, and a brief visit through the Sahara Desert, we traveled through the south of Morocco over a stretch known as the 10,000 Ksars. A Ksar is a mud-brick fortified village, usually around a small oasis, and inevitably surrounded by hectares of parched, dusty, desert countryside. Most of these 10,000 villages are abandoned or have fallen into disrepair. However, we discovered one in the town of Tinejdad, that had be repaired and re-inhabited.
We spent a single night in Tinejdad. Late that night, after my family had gone to bed, I found myself in a conversation in broken French, English, and Arabic with a couple young men in their early 20s who were working the front counter at our hotel.
The conversation began because, with the four foot thick mud-plaster walls and desert temperatures, I was searching for an extra blanket. I asked how to say “blanket” in Darija, and my hosts, who turned out to be brothers, spent several minutes in friendly bickering about word choice and pronunciation. My new-found friends asked where I had learned Darija, and I explained about my friend Semu and our lessons. I asked questions about the various languages they spoke and they launched into a description of Berber, interspersed with good-natured sibling squabbles.
Half an hour into this conversation, a young woman who also worked for the hotel, joined us. She sat down on the couch next to us and began looking through my notebook. She was clearly well-educated and curious, and flipped through my entire notebook, correcting my spelling, offering pronunciation suggestions, and changing several of my most frequently-used phrases to the local dialect. In return, I taught her words in English that she struggled over as she read my notes on our previous day’s travel.
I sat and watched, intrigued but also a bit stunned, since this was the most familiar interaction I had had with a woman on the entire trip. Looking back at my notebook, I’m also in awe of the amount of diligent correction and adjustment she offered.
Our lesson ended when her fiancé called, as translated to me by the two brothers, who had continued their playful bickering throughout. In the midst of my new-found friend’s call with her fiancé, one of my companions turned to me and asked quite frankly, if I was married. I explained that I was not. He nodded in understanding and said that he, too, was “searching for a wife.”
There are so many parts of that evening that stand out in my mind — the openness of the brothers, the familiarity of my tutor and her insatiable curiosity, and that short exchange with another single man. It could have been a conversation with a acquaintance in the San Francisco Bay Area, discussing a recent date. In a country, frequently strange and magical, that was a refreshing reminder that young people are young people everywhere.
Culture is a felt-sense.
Walking paths in the Dades Gorge, which that have seen constant human habitation for 3000 years, or through the narrow alleyways of Fes, which has been lived in for 4000 years, there was a permanence of place unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Throughout so much of our lives, there is a sense of impermanence, the idea that things might change so quickly that you wouldn’t even notice.
As much as I might explain about Moroccan culture, words aren’t nearly as important as experiences. You can watch Lawrence of Arabia for images of the Sahara (actually filmed several hundred miles from the Sahara), or Indiana Jones for Marrakech (this time filmed in Hollywood), but none of these compare to the lived experience of a Saturday night in the Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square, or a week wandering through the narrow alleys of Fes. There is a depth of lived experience in these places that cannot be fully understood unless experienced.
It seems obvious when I state that you cannot know Morocco without traveling in the country, and I would argue without living there for years. Culture is a felt sense. It has to be experienced to be even partially understood. There was a richness I experienced throughout my time in the Kingdom of Morocco: aspects that I loved, others less so, and many that I will never understand. I’ll always be somewhat haunted by the country and its people, and grateful.
There’s a concept in cognitive psychology called priming. In its most abstract, this means that if we are given a reminder of a stimulus before being presented with that stimulus, we are more likely to behave favorable towards that stimulus. People who are shown pictures of money before being asked to calculate the cost of groceries are more rapid in their calculations and people who are reminded of aging through subtle cue words like “Florida” and “retirement” are more likely to walk slowly immediately afterwards.
Some of these priming examples have unfortunate consequences (like the so-called old-aging “Florida priming” example) but I’d like to look at how we might use these realities to improve our performance, too.
Here are two cases studies:
Asian Test priming: asian students who are reminded of their ethnicity prior to tests, perform better than the same students not reminded that of asian-students-make-good-test-takers stereotype. In this case, students are simply being reminded of the biases they themselves might hold. My curiosity then is how else might we use our current beliefs to stimulate behavior in accordance with those beliefs?
Age priming: In the “Florida priming” example, participants in the study walk more slowly due to the reminders of behaviors of the elderly. In this example, participants are performing according to the dictates of a different stereotyped group. How then could we stimulate performance according to the group different then our own?
I am going to examine both of these cognitive biases from the perspective of learning ballet, but the lessons can be applied across any physical or mental discipline.
I recently gave a talk at Ignite San Francisco. The presentation was well received and fun to deliver. Below are my slides from the talk. In this post I’ll break down my process for becoming one of the speakers (hint: just ask!) and how I built my talk.
If you don’t know Ignite, take a look at some of these. I learned about Ignite from my friend Karen Cheng, who had given talk previously. I asked for an introduction to the organizers and asked Karen’s advice on how to get chosen for a position among the speakers.
Ask For Help
Which brings me to the first things I learned from this experience: Ask for help! Even if you don’t need it, but especially if you can use it – ask people you respect for their thoughts and opinions. When possible, ask from a place of excitement rather than desperation. I’ve been on both sides and know that asking from desperation or being asked from a desperate person are both no fun. Karen gave me two pieces of advice. The first was an introduction to the organizers. The second, which I would never have thought to do myself, was submit three talk requests to be considered. I don’t know which of these made a bigger difference, but together they worked.
This idea is tossed around a lot but my experience of speaking at Ignite reinforced the idea. Having a friend on the inside, of course, means I’ll be more likely considered for a speaking position. This isn’t biased and unfair treatment, it just makes sense that the organizers are busy, have limited time, and are more likely to choose someone who is, by affiliation, not crazy, than someone they don’t know.
Scratching For An Idea
I take the word “scratching” from Twyla Tharp, who discusses scratching as a part of the creation process in The Creative Habit. My scratching looked like this:
I have given a lot of talks in the last couple of years. I’ve used the same set of public speaking skills to give presentations ranging from autism to how to learn handstands and how not to stretch. I am currently attending a course on public speaking and group facilitation at the Option Institute in Sheffield, MA and decided to put down some of these tools in writing.
Most of the time when I give a short speech I have two goals:
For many introductory talks I am the content. Even when giving a talk on advanced topics what makes the content stick is my personal stories. The content is only relevant to the extent an audience can connect with the speaker. Throughout my life I get many of the same questions. Probably most people do. “What do you do for work?” And for me: “What did you do in the circus?!” A short presentation designed to share a story from my life is a chance to share the answers to a lot of those basic questions so that I can rapidly move relationships on to some more advanced topics and areas of play. I’m happy to talk about my dance company or a workshop I am putting on. And if I can get the basics out of the way in a group it saves us time for more juicy topics later.
The ask is a bit more complicated and depends on the audience and the context of my talk. Almost always when I’m giving a talk, though, I have a clear purpose behind the situation, something that I’d like to get, teach or contribute. When I have a clear ask I usually save it for the end to give my audience something clear to remember when they think of my talk.
Recall is heavily weighted towards the combination of the beginning and end. Thus, I like to start out my talks with something pretty hard-hitting about myself (when that’s the topic of the talk) and end with a clear ask (when I have one). What comes in between established authority or context for my talk, tells the story.
My taxi driver was gesticulating wildly, swerving in and out of traffic, as he impressed upon me his opinions of Argentine politicians. I was very silent in the back seat.
I have been warned to avoid discussing politics with Argentinians, but I was silent for a completely different reason: I was too scared to talk. Growing up in California I was exposed to a lot of Spanish and have a good ear for the language. So long as we are speaking slow and in the present tense, I have about the capacity for conversation of a precocious 4-year-old. The reason I was silent in that back of that taxi was that I was more scared of speaking poorly then I had interest in engaging in the conversation.
I’ve just returned from two weeks in Buenos Aires, Argentina and in this post I’ll share my fears of language learning and the newly launched Start-Up 100, which I’ll be using to overcome that fear.
On Tuesday night I went to the Herbst theatre in San Francisco to hear neuro-scientist and writer Jonah Lehrer in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt. While I grew up listening to City Arts and Lecturs, this was my first live discussion and a much needed return to academic discourse (not to be confused with discussion, debate, or dialogue). As an alumnus of Columbia and Oxford Universities, Lehrer is now a contributor to Scientific American, National Public Radio, and Wired Magazine, among others. He has published articles in The New Yorker, Nature, Seed, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe and maintains the blog The Frontal Cortex.
Lehrer’s talk was especially interesting personally because of his combination of academic affiliations and real-world application. As a scientific correspondent Lehrer straddles disciplines with which I myself struggle: the balance of academic research and real-world application. Lehrer speaks and writes with the ease of a well-read academic. In discussing one of his two books – Proust Was a Neuroscientist – Lehrer cited Plato to confirm his thesis that some fundamental ideas currently espoused by popular neuroscience were conceptualized by the Greeks. (I grow bored with the use of the classics merely for the edification of ones argument though this trend is by no means exclusive to Lehrer. In my opinion, references should be accessible to the audience to which they are cited.) However, I heartily concur with Lehrer’s argument that the humanities use different methods to answer fundamentally human questions about thought, cognition, existence, humanity… . What artist, writer, poet, dancer – who?! – does not seek to answer such questions through whatever medium their profession employs? Jonah Lehrer’s most recent book, How We Decide, encompasses decision making throughout the development of research psychology all the way to recent publications in neuroscience. I have a pretty thorough grounding in classic Behaviorism (B. F. Skinner, etc.) and Cognitive Psychology. It was interesting, then, to hear studies with which I am very familiar (the classic example of Pavlov’s dogs trained to salivate at the sound of a bell which ques food) in the context of neuroscience. Lehrer discussed Chimpanzees being fed squirts of apple juice and conditioned to respond to a bell just as Skinner’s dogs were, with the important difference that these Chimps were also undergoing brain scanners. The brain scans showed anticipation of food as clearly as did Skinner’s dog’s saliva. My cognitive psychology profession Dan Reisberg used to argue that neuroscience would not replace cognitive psychology but merely confirm what we (as cognitive psychologists) had already learned. I saw echos of this throughout Lehrer’s discussion.
In all, I very much enjoyed Lehrer for his wit, humor, and melding of neuroscience with the news. I am critical of academic’s trend to use lofty references to establish credibility but I see this everywhere that academics publish. And truly, Plato had some interesting things to say. I will be adding The Frontal Cortex to my blogroll and will certainly be posting about Lehrer in the future.
As an aside I am also amused by Lehrer’s public image:
This rumpled look is awfully reminiscent of the graduate students I know in the sciences at UCSF.
A couple of clarifying notes as relate to my most recent post on Neurons and Excitability…
Often, when one hears Central Nervous System the inclination is to think of the brain. This is accurate but not a complete picture. The CNS also includes a region of the spine down to about the waist line – the spinal cord. It is important to note that the spinal cord does not extend the full length of the spinal column.
Sensory information may arrive at a wide variety of points along the spinal cord or reach the brain itself. Information that is processed along the spinal cord without reaching the brain results in what we call reflexes. This is why reflexive actions occur so quickly: they need not travel the length of the spine and into the brain.
I have spent a great deal of time dissecting cadavers this year. This has been an amazing opportunity to learn in person about human anatomy and physiology and is deeply informative for my continuing work with clients seeking to overcome pain. In examining these bodies, generously donated to UCSF/SFSU, I have spent a great deal of time isolating muscles as well as bony landmarks and nerve bundles. A muscle cell, technically called a muscle fiber, is composed of interconnected proteins which contract and release. The first part of my revelation was that each of these fibers is the full length of the muscle of which it is part. This means that a fiber (remember, that means a muscle cell) which makes up a small part of the Rectus Femoris (the outermost of the quadriceps muscles, it runs from the pelvis down to the knee cap) also runs the full length from the pelvis to the knee. My second breakthrough was in connecting this fact to a similar detail about nerve cells. A nerve cell is called a neuron and the aspect of the cell responsible for transmitting electrical impulses from the body of the cell to the outputting ends is called the axon. Note the axon of the neuron below, covered in a myelin sheath.
When I bump my toe everything happens so fast that it is nearly impossible to tell what is going on. The sensory neurons in my toe send a signal to my spinal cord or my brain for processing, which then facilitates either a reflex or a processed reaction to the stimulus. Perhaps, I withdraw my toe and cradle it in pain. The signal, as it travels in both directions, is traveling from neuron to neuron or along the axon of many neurons, from extremity to the central nervous system (CNS, see following post for further discussion of this system) and back out again. Some of the axons responsible for conducting the impulse to and from the toe are the length of the distance from toe to CNS! Once the signal reaches the injured extremity it excites muscles fibers which contract (too late) to bring the toe out of harm’s way. In these contractions, remember, fibers the length of the muscle are contracting.
Given two facts – that muscle fibers run the length of a muscle and that axons may run the distance between an extremity and the central nervous system – we can begin to understand why we can experience pain in parts of the body distant from a specific injury. Neurons begin to respond when other neurons in their vicinity are excited. Thus a wave of signals traveling away from the CNS may excite offshoots and facilitate muscle contraction in an area not directly impacted by the original stimulus. As part of the healing process, this interconnectivity may be utilized by subtly adjusting areas peripheral to the site of injury.
I was recently working with a client, a professional dancer, who suffered injury to his ankle some years ago. Since that time his career has been successful but he reports always having noticed less mobility at the site of injury. He had seen physical therapists and massage practitioners about the issue with little or no success. He reported that these practitioners had spent considerable time working directly on his foot and ankle and wondered aloud why I was dedicating so much attention elsewhere on his body. But consider: if muscle fibers systematically run the length of a muscle and the axons of nerves may run from an extremity to the CNS, what impact might working elsewhere i.e. on the same leg have on the point of injury? Muscle cells that directly connect to the area may be as far away as the knee. Neurons that directly relate the the area may end as far as the upper spine or head. Conceivably – just given these two facts – we could have worked on his head and seen results in his foot. Certainly, my clients saw results!
That muscle fibers and neurons can be the lengths discussed should not be taken to completely explain interconnection throughout the body. How neurons communicate is a very active field of research. How axons come to be a certain length is not thoroughly understood. Nor should the story of my client be an incentive to start poking at a friend’s head in hopes of provoking a response in her foot. It probably will only serve to get you a good swift kick. Of course, none of this changes the two tenants of the discussion.
Next time you stub your toe, consider: where did your responses originate?
The Lives of a Cell by Lewis Thomas does not contain of the exclusive scientific vocabulary one might expect from a Doctor of Medicine who was professor, chairman, and dean at some of the most prestigious hospitals and medical universities in the United States. Thomas writes not as a scientist but as a scientifically-minded poet. The book is a slim volume which covers a great deal of territory: each of the ten chapters takes a different perspective on issues relating to micro-biology, human evolution, the natural world, the pursuit of science. The consistent humor and delicacy with which Thomas delves into difficult issues is a primary connection between the essays’ diverse topics.
Before properly beginning the book properly I turned to a random page and read:
Watching television, you’d think we lived at bay, in total jeopardy, surrounded on all sides by human-seeking germs, shielded against infection and death only by a chemical technology that enables us to keep killing them off.
These descriptions of our fearful actions continue for a lengthy paragraph and it is only at the end of the page that Thomas begins an outright discussion of the chapter’s topics of disease and the micro-organisms held responsible. He sheds light on human behavior as relates to germs, behavior based not on knowledge of the cells themselves but rather on our own immune responses. Thomas elaborates on several cases in which changing our approach could achieve more productive outcomes.
Lives of a Cell covers much more than just a discussion of micro-biology, even as relates to human behavior. In “Some Biomythology” Thomas seriously discusses mythical beasts from a diversity of cultures and casually compares what these have to teach us about the animal kingdom with what recently-discovered micro-organisms can reveal of biology to the public.
In “Ceti” Thomas discusses Tau Ceti – a nearby start which resembles our sun, the CETI (Conference on Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and the logistics of communicating with intelligent life beyond our solar system. He revels in the potential miscommunication. What of ourselves would we choose to share with newly-found intelligent life if the beginning of our conversation spanned hundreds of years? Our recent discoveries in science would be an embarrassment 300 years later. He draws the reader into the realization of how quickly human society is changing, and proposes that perhaps music – Thomas favors Bach, specifically – could be our greatest ally.
Lewis Thomas’ prose are not what one might expect from the highest echelons of academia. He is far too human and humble in his stringing together of abstract ideas; too good at reaching a broad audience. I cannot wait to get my hands on his earlier book The Medusa and the Snail, on his many published articles, maybe even articles published by his colleagues, to discover whether the beauty of his thoughts and writing extend beyond these pages. I hope they do.