It’s the Little Things

I recently joined a local Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school that happens to be run by one of the sport’s legendary characters. I was lucky to have moved within walking distance three months ago. Having been useless at exercising regularly since… I think 2010, learning BJJ was something I instantly knew I needed in my life and it became a personal goal of mine to someday win a BJJ competition. It’s been tough to get myself to the school on account of the ass-kicking I receive, but I try to remember that it gets a little bit better each time and that’s all you can really ask for.

Anyway so after class today, the big boss Carlson Junior stops a few of us on our way off the mat and I received from him the white band you see on the belt above. In BJJ it’s kinda like getting promoted from Private to Private First Class in the army. It’s such a small, silly thing but honestly felt great. Here’s a tangible, almost visceral metric for success. Here’s progress in the flesh, which required blood and sweat (thankfully no tears yet).

Not going to deny it made me feel like a kid again, but maybe there’s something there. Maybe the desire for that feeling of accomplishment is core to our beings and ought to be felt more often. There’s power in doing things you’re afraid of, then having proof that you’re doing them well. I have a feeling Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is going to be in my life for a very long time.

photo credit: myself

The Hole

I wanted to share something that helped me visualize my life and the changes I’ve been making in it lately. This is the scene right outside my apartment, looking at a tree across the street. It’s about 7am in late July, and the sun is starting to peek through the leaves.

What I saw in this tree, directly in the center of the photo, is a little hole through the leaves. This little hole gave me the best image of how to answer the dreaded question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Now, I tell people I want to be going right through that hole in five years. But what is that hole, and how do you get there?

First off, what defines the hole? Only you can really answer that question. In my example, it might be something like: Divemaster. Fluent Spanish speaker. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor. Business Partner. Every island in the Caribbean under the belt. Things like that. Pick the things that you want to experience, improve, or become, and roll them up into a ball; or a hole, if you will. More on goal-setting to come later, so let’s move on.

Think of your life as being on a trajectory, slowly but inexorably moving towards that tree. I want it to go right through the dead center of that tiny hole. What this requires is setting the appropriate trajectory now and then protecting it vigorously, because tiny errors along the way will mean missing the mark significantly.

Lately every morning I spend a few minutes staring at that hole before catching my train. I think of all the things I need to do or stop doing in order to make it through that hole by the time I’m 40; this illuminates the adjustments that must be made now now to make that happen. Find your own hole, remove anything that knocks you off the path to it, and double down on things that stabilize & refine the trajectory.

photo: just outside logan square blue line station, chicago
credit: myself

Balance & Clarity

This post originally started growing on the end of a previous one and I decided it deserved special treatment. Much of this talk of essentials, habits, routines, and everything else that self-help gurus tell you to do (do a nice thing every day! go to bed early! keep a journal!) leaves little room for something obvious: doing plain old fun stuff, the stuff that you intrinsically enjoy that doesn’t really “get” you anywhere.

Here’s the secret: in many people’s lives, the fun stuff is out of balance with the essentials. I know it was in mine. That balance must be restored. Everybody will remember the age-old “Walnuts and Sand” experiment (known more popularly as “big rocks, little rocks”) where if you put sand into a jar first you can’t fit all the walnuts; but if you put the walnuts in first, you can fit all the sand too. Classic illustration of balance, but how do you motivate yourself to actually make that happen? What are the practicalities that get you there?

The key is increasing your mental clarity so you can finally see the proper place recreation should have in your life; what its real purpose is. Going back to my flywheel post, the best part of making the flywheel spin faster is that you finally understand why you should do all the little things that self-help gurus keep telling you to do. You begin to see it contributing to something beautiful in the future, and suddenly it becomes much easier to put the walnuts in the jar first.

But James, you would be forgiven for asking, how do I make the flywheel go faster? How do I develop the clarity? Greg McKeown points out in Essentialism that the biggest enemy of Signal is Noise; the biggest enemy of mental clarity is mental clutter. Eliminate thoughts, pursuits, relationships, projects, or anything else that isn’t directly contributing to your desired direction in life and the clarity will hit you right in the face.

Photo credit: Susan Hoffman Fishman and Elena Kalman


Life is like a book, start at the beginning. Keep reading, turning pages. Be excited about what lies in the pages ahead, but don’t let that excitement spoil your enjoyment of how the story is unfolding. One warning: don’t keep re-reading the same page over and over. You’ll never get to the good stuff. I look back at my life and I see the same page being re-read for years. Late nights, shallow friendships, too much drinking, neglected relationships, parties that damaged both dignity and bank account alike, all with nothing to show for it in the end. Living a life, like reading a book, requires progressing through the story. Not all at once; but keep making little bits of progress each day and you’ll get to the good stuff soon enough.

When you finish the last page, close the book.
Mr. Wu, “The Love Bug”

Keep the Flywheel Turning

My old thinking, which I held for decades, was simply wrong. I used to be excited when I found myself at home at “only” 9:00 or 10:00pm. I would regularly abandon any more pressing concerns and get on with fun stuff. Stuff, specifically, that was effective at increasing my pleasure factor RIGHT NOW but had no lasting impact or benefit of improvement.

What I never really considered in those moments was the future; building to something greater in life, and the impact that decisions in those moments would have. Annie Duke calls this “mental time-traveling”, thinking ahead and visualizing what difference a small decision right now will make in five or ten years. This gives us a critical new perspective on bets we’re about to make, takes us out of the emotions & biases of the moment and shows us more potential outcomes that will increase the accuracy of the decisions we make now.

Another concept that I learned recently was Jim Collins’ Flywheel. The Collins Flywheel is explained in the context of building momentum in your business to turn a good company into a great one. But I’ve found that it’s just as applicable to your personal life. Betting on your future instead of just your present makes your personal flywheel go a little faster, and you want to keep that momentum building.

So next time it’s 9pm on a weeknight, choose to go to bed and wake up early tomorrow ready to do the essentials again, except this time a little bit better than before.

PHOTO: The Ashton Frost engine at Mill Meece Pumping Station. The flywheel is 19ft 6in (5.944m) in diameter and weighs 31.5 tons (30,481kg).