Progress

Hit two important milestones to wrap up 2018. Firstly, another stripe has been added to the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu belt:

It took about 4 months between stripes, but the next one will be quicker. I am rapidly becoming obsessed. I keep a journal of everything learned in class. I visited a BJJ school in my hometown while on vacation. This is a forever thing.

Secondly, this happened just now: I hit 10,000 XP on Duolingo, which puts me at the top of my list of friends:

If I can keep a 365 day streak alive in 2018, this number will be nearly 20,000. Let’s see if we can make that happen.

Reflecting

Allow me to share with you a fantastic end-of-year journaling exercise that I stumbled upon yesterday. I am three days into my traditional year-end trip to the homeland (Grand Rapids, Michigan), having descended from the wooded mountain cabin sanctuary in Chicago. Yesterday afternoon the parents went next door to share their neighbor’s joy in having seen seven deer in their back yard minutes previously and I found myself alone with the journal for a couple of hours. The idea I had was to write down the names of all the humans that have impacted my life in some way in 2018. This was inspired by a conversation a day before with friends regarding their copious Christmas card collection, and how I felt that perhaps I should send those things next year.

Ed Catmull would tell you that you need to invent the future if you can’t predict it, and so the idea was simply to end up with a Christmas card list. But the result ended up being more than just a list; I wrote down two to three lines about how each person or couple helped change my life this year, and it was an amazing experience. As I would write names & experiences down I would remember small things about them that I wanted to encourage them on and would send texts out as the list got longer. The end result was nearly three full pages of amazing people, good times, good lessons, and a heart full of gratitude and happiness.

Taking it a step further back, it is interesting to note that the Maximum lifestyle engineering project that I began this year significantly reduced the time spent with other people and increased the time spent alone focusing on myself. This however has had a knock-on effect of magnifying the importance of the specific individuals that made it on to my list. Less people, but better experiences and greater impact. I’m sure the list would have been even longer during other years of my life but those years were so noisy and chaotic that all of this beauty was lost in the shuffle. It’s safe to say that the Important People List has become a staple activity for my year-end reflections here on out.

Life or Death

The other day I had an interesting conversation with Kyle, a co-worker of mine. We had talked about motivational and inspiring authors several times in the past, so it wasn’t abnormal when he asked me if I had heard of a certain guy who had transformed himself from a 300-pound couch potato to US Navy SEAL and world-class ultra-marathon runner. I had not. After telling me the story, Kyle made a very interesting statement.

“It would be so awesome to have that kind of motivation, you know?”

“What kind?” I asked, arching an eyebrow.

“You know, the kind where you realize you have to do something or you’re going to die.”

It took me a moment to come up with a response. It’s not the kind of statement that is necessarily refutable; surely survival instinct plays a huge role in the attempts many people make to improve their lives. But to my mind this was a bit different.

“That’s true” I said eventually. “but all motivation should be like that.”

That sums up my idea about motivation: it must ultimately begin with the desire to improve your current condition or situation. Whether for something urgent like a life-or-death situation, or something non-urgent like putting in the effort to finish an important work project early, that desire to improve your circumstances is ultimately the same thing but with other drivers acting on it. Motivation + Survival will get you through a natural disaster. Motivation + Reproduction will get you into a relationship. Motivation + Avarice will get you into stock market speculation. Focusing strictly on the motivation, though, it’s all the same thing.

It’s obviously a very important thing, but I wanted to stress to Kyle that he didn’t have to wait around for a survival scenario to experience this kind of motivation. In the case of the converted ultra-marathoner, I believe that what drove him on to the great heights he has achieved and what was truly enviable was the moment of discovery. Realizing, after a lifetime of self-doubt and self-defeat, that he could actually lose 10 pounds after all. And then 150 more. He could actually run a mile, and then 150 more. In fact, turns out his body had basically won the ultra-marathon genetics lottery; he just needed to discover it.

Once you can imagine something better a month, a year, a decade in your future and really sell it to your own mind, the motivation you feel is no less potent than if a gun was being pointed to your head. In fact, it is more so. The really amazing stuff starts to happen when you get into the world of Motivation + Discovery; therein lies no limit.

Photo: David Goggins
Credit: madbarz.com

How to Start a Riot

I’ve written quite a bit already about how I’ve become a morning person. For this particular post, I want to share how it came about originally and some of my more recent observations with regard to how developing a morning routine has helped me change.

First off, the inspiration for mornings as a Conquer List item began with me being me. Aside from the 1-year period between late 2007 and late 2008 in which my all-compelling motivation to become a police officer got me out of bed super early, I have always been the worst. The worst at snooze buttons, the worst at rationalizations, the most vocal about “ungodly hours” and “sleep being better than sex”. You literally couldn’t find a more dedicated anti-morning person than me. As for how that came about, I will discuss at a later point. But it suffices to say that as recently as this June, most mornings you could find me lagging about until the last possible minute in bed.

Before I actually did conquer the mornings came the Awakening. I’m actually not sure what I want to call it. The Renaissance? The New Age? I’m sure some inspiration will come to me. Coming off the heels of a post-breakup trip to Jamaica with my mother, I had realized a few somewhat dire things about my work life: if I did not find a way to motivate myself and make my own way, I was pretty much sunk. My employer was big on goal-setting, but this as a concept had never been introduced to me. On top of that, nobody else seemed to know anything about it either. What was the purpose of goals? What should they look like? How do you set them? Basically anything to do with goals was completely foreign to me. On the other side of Jamaica, I was armed with the desire and inspiration to figure this out for myself. Since I didn’t know anything about goals, that seemed like the most obvious goal right there: Find things to read that would teach me what it meant.

Now, I’ve always styled myself as a “reader”. I’ve always kept a library going at the apartment and taken in pride in looking at the titles. The real truth however was that I was a terrible reader. I’d start a book, then set it down for months if not permanently. If I did manage to toil through a title, it would be months after starting and then naturally I’d consider myself among the most learned of men to walk the earth (I’m imagining a “Finishes one book” meme here with a picture of me followed by Aristotle or something). So this was actually something that would be a bit of a challenge, but I had something going for me: my daily commute. Roughly 40-45 minutes a day on the Red Line, plus other mass transit time around town since I’d ditched my car a couple years before. So the plan was hatched: I would find books that would teach me about goal-setting and other corporate core values, then read the shit out of them.

The first book was a goldmine: Angela Duckworth’s Grit. Within a chapter or two she had introduced me to the concept of the “goal hierarchy”, in which lower-level goals roll up to larger goals of which they are aggregate parts, which in turn roll up to an Ultimate Concern that gives purpose to everything beneath it (I hadn’t yet discovered what purpose was… that wouldn’t happen until about three books later).  Adopting this concept immediately, I continued to plunge into title after title. Mindset (Dweck) taught me I could improve at anything. Start With Why (Sinek) taught me about the power of purpose. The Power of Habit (Duhigg) taught me about keystone habits; the little things in life that generate small wins and build into big things. Essentialism (McKeown) taught me about “Protecting the Asset”. And then the final breakthrough was a tip from Kevin Anderson in “Your Oxygen Mask First” about a cool company called Habit Nest that created the “Morning Sidekick”, a purpose-built journal designed to ingrain a proper morning routine for anybody willing to pick up a pen and commit to the program. The Conquer List item was official.

By mid-July when I started the Sidekick journal, I was already getting into things like making the bed first thing after getting up. Great start, but it was still getting put off on the regular occasion when I just didn’t get up with enough time to bother with it. I was so hungry for it when I began the journal that it almost felt natural. Initially I stuck to 10pm bedtime and 6am rise, which then shifted to 9pm bedtime and time 5am rise. The routine began to stick: Journal. Glass of ice water. Shower. Do chores. Do push-ups (I had to start at a max set of 6 reps). Make the bed. Get dressed. Process yesterday’s expenses. Study German. Basically, over the sixty days that the journal covered, I was able to fit into the morning routine 20-30 minutes of activities to support all my other conquer list items. Life was changing rapidly now. The riot had begun.

This was all not without its troubles and pains, mind you. I found that the people I regularly associated with were sapping me of time, money, and health. I was still drinking enough to forget things every Friday night and it would be almost at the end of the first sixty days before I was able to keep the journal going through the whole weekend. My budget was revealing some major pain points that had been bleeding me dry for years. Ultimately, though, it was getting better a little bit at a time and that is genuinely all you can hope for.

Recently I’ve discovered how routines can save your life. I came off a pretty decent bender – Nashville bachelor party. I had started drinking Thursday right after work, and that pretty much continued until I was home Sunday at 7:30pm. This basically ruined me, but the routine was still there to catch me. By Wednesday AM I was nearly back to 100%. It reminded me though of how easy it is to kill good progress. How many times in my past had I had great intentions going into a fun weekend, and by the time I came out the other end I was right back where I started? For this reason, I am so grateful that prior to developing this routine I engineered a lifestyle that would support it even if there are the occasional trips out to the edge.

Make it Stick

Once in a while I’d really attack something and I’d be really proud of myself. Get it done right away, put the right priority on it, whatever else I thought “attacking something” was supposed to look like. The off-times I’d do this would convince me for a fleeting moment that I was a real go-getter. Getting a credit card down to zero for the first time in a year. Wow, I must really have my shit together.

But back home the laundry basket was overflowing, two Blue Apron meals were spoiled in the fridge, and I hadn’t been to the gym in months (while paying a $50 membership fee for each of those months). And sure enough six months later there was another $7500 somehow sitting on that card again. The go-getting didn’t stick; I would always find myself back in the same spot, doing the things I liked but refusing to do the things I didn’t like. How did this change?

I changed what my mind likes by first recognizing mundane but essential daily life things as not boring, but a challenge. Next I discovered the joy of overcoming those challenges. I have flipped yet another script in my head; instead of blowing off the easy thinking I’ll focus on the hard, I attack & conquer the mundane, boring, easy things. Through this I have literally re-programmed my brain to procedurally do the needful. The routines have enabled me to switch from having to make conscious decisions to attacking small but consequential things in the right priority automatically.

It trickles down into everything. Now instead of tossing clothing on the floor it somehow automatically finds its way into a folded state in my dresser. Socks are now always right-side-out after I take them off so I don’t have to do it at laundry time. Dishes are done. Laundry is clean. Beds are made. German is studied. Books get read. Blog posts are written. Food gets logged on my phone. And I barely even notice it happening! 

These tiny little things that improve life in micro-increments now are on autopilot. The Good Priorities Autopilot underpins essential, hard things like getting up early, getting my ass to Jiu-Jitsu class, getting ugly projects at work done, all of it. I have started to see the contrast between the things in life that move me forward and the ones that get me nowhere (or worse). Even better, I have started seeing how little things become very big things in the aggregate.

With this new clarity, I now see everything as a choice: do I build my life right now, or do I spin my wheels? I don’t want to let 45-year old me down, so it’s time to make good decisions stick.

photo: Car Stuck in Mud, c. 1920
credit: Underwood Archives

The Root of It All

I spent many years enjoying pleasures at the expense of having a well-ordered life, but recently I realized the truth. In fact, the well-ordered life is itself among the highest of pleasures. Not because there is much about it that is intrinsically pleasurable (though I’m sure for some it is), but because the well-ordered life holds the promise of all the other pleasures. A well-ordered life increases the frequency of good things happening and decreases the frequency of bad things happening.

At a deeper level, there are two specific things that engineering a well-ordered lifestyle has unlocked for me. First, it has enabled me to essentialize; to apply the rule “Less, but Better” and sharpen mental clarity by removing noise from the signal of life. Second, I have taken the new reservoir of attentive energy provided to me by removing non-essential things and invested it into things that get me to where I know I want to go rather than the opposite. As simple as all that sounds, it’s been a revolution for me.

photo credit: Spoon Boy, “The Matrix”

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.
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