The Quotable Mihaly

I recently finished “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (or just Mihaly as I now refer to him), and will simply say that it was a genuine mind-opener on many levels. I won’t go all the way into it, in the hopes that you pick up the book yourself. But to whet your whistle, here’s some of my favorite quotes:

“A person who has achieved control over psychic energy and has invested it in consciously-chosen goals cannot help but grow into a more complex being.”

“A person who cannot override genetic instructions when necessary is always vulnerable.”

“The battle of self-discipline is not a battle against the self, it is a battle for the self.”

“Any fool can fall in love when young.”

“Writing is not meant only to transmit information; the point of writing is to create information.”

“Set yourself the challenge of reaching your [work] goals while helping [your boss] and your colleagues reach theirs.”

“A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with; someone who does not expect us to be always true to form.”

In the words of Carlyle, when asked how to reform the world: “Reform yourself: that way there will be one less rascal in the world.”

The lion, when he runs after a pack of gazelles, can only catch one at a time.” (as quoted from a man named Reyad that Mihaly interviewed)

Paradoxically, this sense of humility–the recognition that one’s goals may have to be subordinated to a greater entity, and that to succeed one may have to play by a different set of rules from what one would prefer–is the hallmark of strong people.”

“The meaning of life is meaning; whatever it is, wherever it comes from, a unified purpose is what gives meaning to life.”

It’s not Mean, It’s Clear

As odd as it may be to hear this from a 35-year old man, this year is the first year I’ve genuinely learned to express myself clearly without getting emotional. Usually in the past I’ve chosen to simply say nothing or placate somebody. 2018 is the first I’ve realized that it’s fine to disagree with someone and it’s fine to say so. It’s OK to not like what’s been said or what’s going on, and to express that too. The truth is that not only is this acceptable, it is actually the best course of action for all participants.

Kim Scott tells a story in Radical Candor about walking a beloved but undisciplined dog. The amount of love for this dog is preventing her from cracking down on its bad behavior. A passerby rolls up on the two, and seeing and understanding the situation, gives some direct orders to the dog. The dog complies, and as the person then turns away they leave with a parting statement: “See? It’s not mean, it’s clear!” Effective communication is achieved when both parties are 100% understood by each other and cool heads have prevailed.

Now when I go into a conversation, I try to go into it with a goal. I ask myself, “what do I need to say?”. Make a plan, visualize it. Similar to accomplishing anything difficult if you tell your brain what you want to do, when you’re in the moment you’ll be more likely to do it. Try this out sometime. Let a few seconds of silence sink in, while you answer yourself in your own head, “what do I really need to say here?” Then let it flow.

The Seven Year Struggle

When I started the Conquer List, smoking was an obvious charter member.  As I write, I’m 5+ weeks since the last cigarette and the cravings are gone. How’d that happen?

The Conquer List is all about methodology; hunkering down and building out a holistic plan for killing the enemies of my goals. But smoking didn’t get conquered that way at all. Most habits take time to kill, like a slow strangulation. I had expected this for quitting something I’ve done pretty regularly since working a bar in Grand Rapids near the end of 2011. But it did not happen that way.

What makes the Conquer List so effective is that everything on it has a direct correlation to my top-level goals. Let’s look at two of them: becoming a Divemaster, and winning a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competition. Being a Divemaster requires time, money, and health. BJJ requires the same. What’s something I can conquer that would give back more time, more money, and better health? Exactly.

So there I was at BJJ class, after about two weeks. This class was special because it was the first time I’d done an actual “roll”, which is a free-form sparring session. You’re essentially fighting a guy for 5 straight minutes.  This absolutely murdered me, and made me realize just how poor my conditioning had become. In fact, it reminded me of Day 1 at police academy which was difficult even as a 25-year old who didn’t smoke.

Walking out after class into the warm summer air, still gasping, I realized that I’d never get anywhere in this sport if the smoking continued. And so it stopped. The crazy thing is it was really just that simple. By the time I had walked the five minutes home, my mind had decided that BJJ was more important. Since that moment back in August I have had two cigarettes in total.

I understand that this isn’t going to work for everybody. I also went through the traditional remedies; spent lots of money on expensive gums and vaporizers. Phone apps with pictures of my crush du jour to motivate me to quit. Everybody is different and I expect that different things will work or not work. I do believe though that the mind can decide that there’s something important that it wants to do, and suddenly anything that doesn’t fit gets written over with something that actually helps get it what it wants.

Where the mind goes, the body will follow. -Arnold Schwarzenegger



The Outcome Doesn’t Matter

Annie Duke’s book Thinking in Bets was transformative for me. I was one of those many people who see the outcome of decisions and let that define the entire experience. Annie taught me to evaluate the decisions that led to the outcome, not the outcome itself.

Ultimately, good decisions are only more likely to have good outcomes. They are not guaranteed. Similarly, bad decisions are less likely to end in good outcomes. But they still can. If I jump out of an airplane with no parachute (to use a fairly absurd illustration) and somehow survive, would you think that it was a good decision to jump without a parachute?

Let’s make it a bit more real. You meet a girl in highschool, fall in love, get married at age 19, and have a lifetime of marital bliss. Does your successful marriage mean that it was a great idea to get married to the first girl you dated when you were still a teenager? Hell, I bet you didn’t even have a pre-nup. I would argue that you made a bad decision that resulted in a good outcome – good for you, but I wouldn’t have bet on it.

And there you have the title of the book – every decision you make is actually betting on one outcome or the other. How certain were you about the bets (decisions) you made today? Did you really have enough information to make those bets accurately? Thinking this way has really opened my mind to uncertainty being one of the fundamental rules of life.

Thanks, Annie!

Tale of Two Masters

Tonight I attended the “Advanced” class at my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu academy for the first time. This was a big step for me; “Junior” (Carlson Gracie Jr, the Big Boss) had told me about a month ago that in a month it would be time for me to bump myself up to the advanced class. He then had promptly disappeared (one assumes to Brazil), and tonight was his first night back. Advanced Class it was for me. As we were learning & drilling, the Muay Thai school that shares the same space had wrapped up for the night and the evening clean-up rituals were being attended to.

It was actually a bit of a relief, as the Muay Thai students make a hell of a lot of noise during the earlier beginner class and now I could hear Junior clearly this time as he explained a particular Open Guard pass to the crowd of eager Jiu-Jiteiros surrounding him. It was a good crowd; word had gotten around that Junior was back. Just the drills were getting the better of my poor conditioning. It’s been getting noticeably better since I started, but my conditioning is still laughably worse than the veterans in the room.

The class went about 55 minutes or so, and I was wiped out. To nobody’s surprise, every single other student that was in the class stayed for the open mat period afterwards. Despite my progress in staying calm during sparring, I’m still good for nothing about thirty seconds into a roll. Plenty of room for improvement, but to quote Bane, that comes later. Tonight I instead hobbled over to a chair off by the dressing rooms and caught my breath in preparation to leave.

As I sat there I saw that the guy who was cleaning the Muay Thai school the whole time was still working a full hour later, diligently sweeping dirt into a pile with a smile on his face. What surprised me the most was that it wasn’t a janitor or junior student; it was Andre Madiz, the owner and master instructor of the school. It was a beautiful thing to see. How ironic that the most important lesson of the evening came after the class had ended.

There is no champion without sacrifice. – Andre Madiz

Photo: Niteroi, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Andre’s hometown.

What Inspiration Feels Like

Today I had a familiar sensation, one which has historically always been an indication that something special is going on. It starts out with a sort of anxious frenzy, as an uninhibited stream of thoughts pours through your brain due to some stimulus. Over a decade ago, in the summer of 2017, this occurred when I woke up the morning after having a second run-in with law enforcement in as many days. The anxiousness was replaced with resolve, and accompanied by a deep drive to pursue being a police officer as a career.

More recently this happened when I returned from a vacation to Jamaica, during which I had done four dives out to the reefs around the island. I was overtaken with a love of the sea and being underwater, something which is certain to play a big role in my future somehow. There is this moment, kind of a flash, and it excites you like crazy and you suddenly cannot consume enough information about whatever it is, or stop yourself from writing down a million ideas. You no doubt can point to a similar moment in your life. This, I believe, is what inspiration looks and feels like.

The kicker about what happened today is that this time, the essential framework for making things happen has started to take shape in my own life. Finally understanding what pursuit of goals really requires, and why they are so important; “protecting the asset” by getting sleep and eliminating non-essentials and vices; just, I dunno, these basic management things that all proceed in the direction of being maximum at life. Without the foundations, the big ideas resulting from the inspiration I had today will remain only as ideas.

Now let us see if we can turn them into reality.

photo: Bamboo beach club, ocho rios, jamaica

Latest Edition

Now this here, this is what the Conquer List was really meant for. This book, according to the author, is “designed for persons who cannot draw at all, who feel that they have no talent for drawing, and who believe that they probably can never learn to draw.” This describes me exactly.

Drawing is something that I’ve always told myself “I’ll never be able to do that” which made it a perfect candidate for the Conquer List. The reality is that drawing should be no different from learning any other skill. My first inspiration in this regard came from Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”, in which she defines a “Growth” mindset as being one which the mind always feels it can learn more about anything. Talent, as people have generally thought about it, is way over-hyped. Or is it? We shall see, my friends. We shall see.


One of my big things for September was the formalization of what I called my “Conquer List”. This is simply a list of things that in my past seemed insurmountable, but could be considered essential for life. The thought was to write down anything that I’ve ever said to myself, “I’ll never be able to do that”, or “I’ll never be any good at that.” Classic examples from the past have been cooking, dancing, money, mornings, and math.

But writing these things down and wanting to conquer them of course isn’t enough. Reading Ray Dalio helped me start to formulate a plan for how to approach conquering these things:

  1. Clearly define what it is.
  2. Identify problems that will prevent you from doing it,
  3. Find the root cause of the problems,
  4. Design plans to get around these problems, and
  5. Push through to results.

This is simplistic of course and doesn’t point out some essential goal-setting elements (like measuring, for example), but it sheds some light on a key fact: if there were no problems preventing you, achieving goals would be a cakewalk.

As I’ve built out the list and done further reading, my thinking on the Conquer List has shifted. The List is great but what’s really behind it? I’ll tell you. What are you really conquering? Put the focus on the problems, or as I like to now call them, the Enemies. When you evaluate something in terms of friend or foe, you will identify the things that are in fact existential threats to becoming who you want to be. Could be simple things like drinking, smoking, and/or being lazy. Could also be difficult things like deeply-broken personal relationships that need to be repaired.

You should definitely try thinking about all the stuff that most people wouldn’t put in a dating profile, and then draw some lines between those things and what your goals are. You have just identified some enemies to conquer, and now that you’ve identified them, you can take them out.

artwork: julius caesar


Morning routines, as it turns out, are amazing. There’s probably nothing closer to actually creating time by magic. All these small, easy-to-do things used to seem impossible, but now boom: it’s 6:30 AM and they’re all done and I’m walking out the door to work.

In turn, the routines program the brain very similar to the boot-up routines on a computer. As a young lad I had great fun fine-tuning the scripts for these boot-up routines, and if something was missing or done in the wrong order the computer wouldn’t do what you wanted it to do. Our routines program our brains the same way, and we can choose what our own programming is and design our own personal machine based on what we need ourselves to do.

The end result is, to use one of my favorite new words of 2018, transformational. All that stuff you’ve heard about people who succeed getting up early and getting after it? Super true.

artwork: The Persistence of Memory, Salvador Dali, 1931
The Museum of Modern Art

Who’d Have Thought

Maybe Your Sleep Problem Isn’t a Problem

I always enjoy coming across articles like the one above (you should read it, too) that tell my old story: the story of a person who for literal decades proudly proclaimed “I’m not a morning person”.

I’ve spent most of my adult life lamenting about how ungodly it was to be up before the ass-crack of dawn, bitterly cursing when I needed to trudge to the shower at 5am to prepare for some early obligation. I remember a business trip a few years back with an early-rising sales rep that had me up at 3:30am three days in a row to make 6am flights between cities, rather than my usual routine of evening flights the night before.

Ok, I think that last scenario even dedicated Larks would agree was a ridiculous idea. But what I’m getting at is that nobody (with the possible exception of my oldest sister) can claim more Not-a-morning-person cred than myself.

And I don’t want to sit here and tell people like the author of the above piece that they can change. “Pray-away-the-lazy”, as it were. We recently had Daniel Pink (author of Drive! and When) give a talk at our office. I definitely buy the science that he aggregates for us in his book When which tells us that certain people are genuinely wired as Owls, and that society wants to kill them. I thought that was me; I even remember being spot-tested for my crono-type by Daniel directly and him informing me that I was “owl-ish”.

And then, as if by magic, I changed into a Lark. Or (plot twist), did I actually just discover that I was a Lark all along?

People who love touting the fact that they’re not “morning people” remind me of a similar group of people who are proud of “not being good at math”. For the vast majority of people, lack of mathematics ability equates directly to the level of effort they’ve put into learning it – functionally zero. Relating this to myself, I can honestly say that my lack of morning-person skills were directly attributed to not developing the right habits to support it.

That changed about six weeks ago. I had read a number of books that talked about the need for getting enough sleep. One author said seven hours. Greg McKeown (Essentialism) made a convincing case for eight.  I then got introduced to the “Morning Sidekick” accountability journal and began using it immediately. Six weeks later, I am up at 5am every weekday (hopefully soon I will extend this to weekends as well) and killing it at work two hours later, usually 45-50 minutes early.

This has taken discipline and compromise, but after cutting out the wrong things and adding in the right things here I am. Mr Hates-the-morning guy is now excited to hit the bricks at 9pm on a Tuesday to roll it over and get started early on making Wednesday even better. Perhaps a true Owl would not be able to fight their DNA and accomplish this, but how many Owls out there are just Larks with bad habits? If you think you might be one, there is only one way to find out.

photo credit: david cooper