Bell tower, Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

As a self-professed agnostic, I’m not a terribly religious, spiritual, or superstitious person. In fact, I’ve spent much of my life incredibly skeptical of both religions and religious practitioners. My skepticism was so strong that if you had told me 5 years ago that I would one day spend not one, but two full weeks in a Buddhist monastery, I think I probably would have done a spit take. And yet, in July of this year I did just that (minus the spit take) and, though I didn’t love everything about the experience, it was pretty incredible overall.

Of course, this change in perspective didn’t exactly happen overnight.

Meditation

It all started when my father discovered meditation while I was in college. He found it helpful to him in his everyday life, and introduced my mother to it, who also took a liking to the practice. Together, they practiced a form of transcendental meditation, which often makes use of the stereotypical mantra that most people think of when they picture meditation. As parents are liable to do when they find something they think is good for them, my parents started trying to get their kids–my little sister and I–interested, telling us about the researched positive side-effects of meditation such as reduced stress response and a resistance to mental conditions like anxiety and depression. As children are liable to do when their parents tell them to do something, my sister and I both did the opposite. We went so far as to make fun of our parents for the way they would meditate, repeating their mantras back to them in mocking tones.

I became very resistant to meditation and to the idea of meditating because the form of meditation my parents practiced was closely tied to Indian spiritual and religious practices. Over time, I had developed an automatically suspicious response toward anything remotely religious or spiritual. I used to think of religious faith and dogma as nearly synonymous, and I’ve always refused to accept ideas from people who are unwilling or unable to think for themselves or who might discourage me from doing the same. To me, if a belief or an idea is really worth keeping, it must survive the scrutiny of reasoned doubt, and it must continue to survive that scrutiny as new information becomes available. I could never have respect for, let alone faith in, a leader or a deity who might punish those who seek to draw their own conclusions or find their own answers.

For many years I boycotted meditation, unable to extricate its true value from the religious leanings of my parents’ practice. I saw meditation as a spiritual practice and wanted nothing to do with it. It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I discovered an entirely secular form of meditation called mindful meditation. One of my acquaintances on Facebook had a spare coupon code for a free one-month subscription to a mindful meditation app called Headspace. To give away the coupon, he challenged his friends on Facebook to do Headspace’s free 10-day foundational series, and offered to raffle off the coupon to one of the people who did so and reported back to him. This was the first time I had heard someone other than my parents advocate for meditation, so on a whim, I downloaded Headspace to try it out.

To my surprise, I was really intrigued by my first 10 days of Headspace. In fact, I don’t think I would be exaggerating in claiming that those 10 days started me down a path that would drastically change my life for the better. That introduction framed meditation as a mental exercise rather than a spiritual experience, and helped to dispel many of my false preconceptions about the practice. Since the guy who issued the Headspace coupon challenge on Facebook was a mere acquaintance, I never actually told him that I was inspired by his giveaway, but I ended up buying myself a subscription to Headspace on my own and continued to practice.

Mindfulness

Through meditating in the Headspace way, I’ve learned about mindfulness, which could perhaps best be described as the opposite of mindlessness. You know when you’re driving a car and you suddenly realize you’ve been on autopilot for the last 30 minutes while you thought about something totally unrelated and, often, really not that important? Or when you open a bag of chips for a small snack but before you realize it you’ve emptied the bag? Or the itch you get to pull out your smartphone anytime the world in front of you fails to provide the stimulating experience you’ve grown to expect? These phenomenons are good examples of what I would describe as mindlessness: a lack of awareness of and presence with wherever we are, whoever we’re with, or whatever we’re doing in the moment.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Without realizing it, many of us spend a large proportion of our lives in a relatively mindless state. While that’s not necessarily a terrible thing in all cases–multitasking, for example, can sometimes be beneficial though it necessitates a degree of mindlessness in dividing our limited consciousness–I’ve learned through practicing that there are appealing benefits to mindfulness as an alternative such as self-awareness of habits and patterns along with more initiative to change them; a resistance to getting caught up in the kinds of thoughts and emotions that otherwise lead people to anxious or depressive states; a heightened appreciation for the small things in life, leading to a higher average sense of joy and well-being; increased presence, which may correlate with charisma, focus, and flow among other things; and a greater sense of self-acceptance, and acceptance of others.

Sounds a little like snake oil, doesn’t it? Fortunately, there are a number of studies backing up the positive health and mental health benefits of meditation and mindfulness. Even without those studies, though, many of these effects make sense to me. At its core, mindfulness is about training our awareness so that we become practiced at recognizing when we’re distracted. Overtime as I’ve gotten better and better at noticing this during mindfulness exercises, I’ve begun to internalize the skill. With training, I find that I become distracted less often, and that when I do become distracted, I notice more quickly than I used to.

Cover of The Charisma Myth

Cover of The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane

As a result of this awareness, I’m more likely to notice, and have the wherewithal to stop myself, when I’m about to take a habitually self-distracting or even self-destructive action (e.g. opening Facebook or Reddit). I’m less prone to get caught up in the negative thought and emotional loops that lead to anxious or depressive cycles because I notice when the loops start and am able to make the conscious choice to refocus on the present when it’s clear the current line of thinking can’t possibly lead anywhere good. At the same time, I fear my negative emotions less because I have come to realize that, like my breath and all things, all of my emotions are transient, and will come and go in their own time so long as I don’t get overly involved in them. When I’m aware, I start to notice and appreciate more of the little things in life like how blue the sky is today or how green the trees are–sort of the mindfulness equivalent of “stopping to smell the roses”–creating a sense of profound gratefulness and joy just to be alive. I’ve also noticed that charisma, as Olivia Fox Cabane claims in The Charisma Myth, has its basis in being fully present with people–people like being around people who offer the gift of their full attention and presence, which makes them feel important, special, heard, and understood–that presence and focus are nearly synonymous, and that flow–that sense of being on a roll when we’re working–is a byproduct of creating a working environment where we’re able to be totally present with what we’re doing.

Mindfulness in Many Forms

Mindfulness comes in many shapes and forms. Yoga, rock climbing, martial arts, and other physical activities that demand the full presence of our minds in unison with our bodies are other common forms of mindfulness that many people practice without realizing it. Improv, acting, public speaking, and other mental activities that require us to be completely present in order to succeed are also hidden forms of mindfulness.

In reality, meditation is just one of the many forms of mindfulness, but it also turns out to be one of the most portable and readily accessible methods available to us. In its most basic form, meditation is mindfulness applied to our breathing. It’s the art of being as close to completely present with the act of breathing as we can–following the cool rush of air through our nostrils, the expansion of our lungs as we fill them, the natural extension of our abdomens with each breath.

Learning to be mindful while breathing may not sound terribly useful or fun in comparison to activities like yoga or improv, but the advantage is that if you are a living, conscious human being, you can always breathe. You may not always be in a place where doing yoga stretches is appropriate, or where you have people to play improv with, but you will always have your breath–if you don’t, you have bigger problems to worry about than reading this; please pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 or your local equivalent :). Meditation doesn’t have to involve all these things people imagine like sitting in a full lotus position, or pinching your fingers into the stereotypical O-shape, or incessantly repeating “Om”, or even closing our eyes. It can be done virtually anywhere and virtually anytime by simply noticing and following our breath.

While we don’t really need to practice breathing the way we may need to practice yoga or improv–most all of us pop out of the womb as experts in breathing already–learning to recognize when we’ve become distracted or lost our focus is a very useful skill applicable to nearly everything we do. This is the primary skill that we train when we meditate, or when we actively practice mindfulness, and it turns out to be a pretty difficult skill for most people to master, especially as our attention spans grow shorter and our lives get busier in the digital information age.

Other Benefits of Meditation

Mindfulness is actually just one of many skills that we can train through meditation, and the others I’ve found are equally powerful and profound. For example, once we get more accustomed to being mindful of the breath, or even just being present with the act of meditation, we can learn to introduce things like visualization into the practice. As human beings, one of the mental super powers we have is the ability to replay past feelings and emotions through our memories as if we are experiencing them in the present. With practice, this means that we always have access to frame of mind we need for the task at hand. In my daily uncertain and sometimes anxiety-inducing life as a nomadic solo entrepreneur, I use this often to help me reconnect to a sense of hope, love, and optimism so that I can avoid making decisions out of despair, anger, or fear, which I know I’m likely to later regret.

But I digress. All of this is to say that mindful meditation was an important discovery for me, and that this discovery was a crucial first step in what led me to a Buddhist monastery. While I discovered mindfulness years ago, the other important developments are more recent.

Anger and Buddhism

I have and have almost always had a difficult relationship with my parents. They never got along with each other, and as a result I always had a hard time getting along with them. I picked up a lot of bad habits and emotional patterns from childhood as well. Most notably, my sister and I are the heirs to my mother’s temper.

After I quit my job in Silicon Valley, moved out of my house, and said goodbye to virtually everyone I knew, I moved back in with my parents for about 6 months before I finally pulled the trigger and started traveling. Though I took care of myself and did well in school, I was never a terribly obedient child, in part because I recognized my parents’ inevitably flawed nature very early in life and questioned both their authority and infallibility. Many of these old patterns resurfaced when I came home, and as one might expect, the occasional argument ensued.

In the wake of one particularly heated argument, I remember angrily shutting myself in my room. Desperate for answers and for a solution to what felt like a never-ending cycle of rage and hurt in my family, I went to Amazon’s book section and searched “anger” (I do this often when I identify sticking points in my life :P). I bought the first few results and was particularly drawn to Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

The cover of Anger by Thich Nhat Hanh

Anger was one of my first true exposures to Buddhism and to Thich Nhat Hanh, who I would later learn is a famous Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master and Nobel peace prize nominee. Mindfulness turned out to be a central tenet of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and it would not be far from truth to claim that the flavor of Buddhism he teaches is the natural philosophical extension of what it might look like if the principles behind mindfulness defined an individual’s entire way of life.

Through reading just the first few chapters of Anger, I was introduced to the beginnings of a few important insights, which I would eventually develop further during my time at the monastery: that I was angry because I was hurt; that my parents get angry and hurt me because they are, themselves, hurting; that because I am their genetic continuation, try as I might I’m not so different or so separate from them; that hurting my parents with my anger because I am hurt will only ever cause them to continue hurting me in turn; and that my parents are, themselves, victims of their parents’ and their parents’ parents’ pain, some of which has almost certainly been transmitted for generations as a kind of twisted, unresolved emotional heirloom.

In the first few chapters of Anger, Thich Nhat Hanh also mentions Plum Village, which piqued my interest. By the power of Google, I discovered that Plum Village is a mindfulness practice center not far from Bordeaux, France that Thich Nhat Hanh founded in 1982. I also learned that Plum Village opens itself to the public during certain times of the year for mindfulness and meditation retreats. Because I was impressed by Thich Nhat Hanh’s writing and his ideas, this knowledge would become the seed that sprouted into my 2018 goal to attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat. Though I didn’t entirely connect the dots at the time, Plum Village would also turn out to be a Buddhist monastery home to 100-200 monks and nuns hailing from all corners of the world–Vietnam, America, Europe, Eastern Europe, and many more. I, of course, went in with the image of “mindfulness practice center” in my head–had I thought of it primarily as a Buddhist monastery, I’m not sure I would have gone.

Love and Buddhism

The last step, which reaffirmed my commitment to make my way to Plum Village, was traveling to Vietnam and falling in love. (Yes, I am aware of just how cliché that is.) My Vietnamese girlfriend blew me away during our first date by self-professing to be both a Stoic and a Buddhist–two surprisingly similar philosophies that had recently captured my interest, and which I was also exploring. For me, the connection was instant and almost spooky–I felt there almost couldn’t have been a better match unless she had literally stalked me before we met.

Having been raised Buddhist in much the same way many Americans are raised Christian (i.e. a follower in name, but not really in spirit), she had a much longer history with Buddhism than I did. Recent events had led her to rediscover Buddhism on her own terms, so she had discovered Thich Nhat Hanh earlier than me and had already read most of his books. During our time together in Vietnam, she invited me to watch Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch,

Movie poster for Walk With Me

The movie poster for Walk With Me, a documentary about Plum Village

and we passed many evenings talking about life and philosophy. Though Anger had given me a nice introduction and opened me up to Buddhist teachings, it quickly became true that I had learned almost everything I knew about Buddhism from her. What I learned fascinated me: Buddhism in its purest form is not a religion, but rather a philosophy that tries to unpack how the insights and practices that led the Buddha to enlightenment. In short, it’s a very practical philosophy that aims to provide framework for how to live a good life. Yes, there are more mystical components like reincarnation and karma ingrained in some Buddhist teachings, but even these can be interpreted in non-religious ways (e.g. reincarnation doesn’t necessarily occur in the literal sense that my consciousness will be reborn, but certainly occurs in the sense that all parts of what is “me” will be recycled and reused by the universe long after I am dead).

More than knowledge, though, my Vietnamese girlfriend taught me much about what Buddhism looks and feels like in practice. With her, from her, and for her I learned what it means to love someone with deep compassion and understanding, in the Buddhist way. While I had even been exploring books like Adult Children Of Emotionally Immature Parents and contemplating the idea of distancing myself from my parents as toxic influences in my life, she had acknowledged how and why her parents caused her suffering, and chose to love them anyway. When I returned to the States in May and was thrust into the middle of a vicious family conflict–this time between my sister and my mother–she was my guide in learning to view both sides of the conflict with compassion so that I might help them understand each other. Without her counsel, I know my instinct would have been to respond with anger, suspicion, and punishment rather than love, understanding, and forgiveness–I would simply have added fuel to the flames.

Though our relationship ended in a rather messy way and under complicated circumstances, I remain eternally grateful to her for what she taught me. I think it’s even fair to say I still feel that deep Buddhistic sense of love and respect for her, though I’m convinced that she and I have important growth needs that couldn’t be met by our relationship, so I try not to remain attached to it. This is, however, a longer story about love, suffering, forgiveness, and compassion which is not yet–and perhaps never will be–anywhere near ready to be told in so public a fashion.

When I finally made it to France, I made my way to Plum Village because I had promised myself I would; because it was a dream I had shared with my ex- to go; because I wanted to learn more about how to deepen my mindfulness practice; and because I knew there was much I could learn there about how to heal, both from the aftermath of my recent romantic relationship, and from the cycles of suffering extant in my familial relationships. I’ve made it part of my mission to end these cycles and learn to resolve my own suffering so that if I decide to have children someday I don’t unwittingly turn them into victims of my own, and my parents’ shortcomings. I’ve made it part of my mission to heal myself, and help the people I love heal, too.

Plum Village did not disappoint.

Stay tuned next week to read my reflections about my Plum Village experience. I plan to publish my journal from my time there in its almost-raw form, edited just for clarity and concision.

Being honest with myself, I think I missed the mark in 2017–and that’s OK! I had some pretty ambitious goals and I had a lot of goals. I stretched myself attempting to complete them, and learned a lot in the process. A lot of great things also happened as a result of the intention behind this set of goals, even though I didn’t even come close to hitting them all. There were some confounding factors like deciding to leave my job earlier than I thought I otherwise would (I had hoped to go to Paris through work, but those opportunities didn’t materialize, so I advanced my timeline), but even so I think I’m willing to admit that I bit off more than I could chew. I’ve learned that there are only so many things I can effectively focus on at once, that I should define my plans for goals in terms of sustainable habits rather than just one-off events, and that I could give myself a little more flexibility to adapt and improvise. All-in-all, I’d have to give myself a D+ this year. I’m not quite comfortable giving myself a passing grade, but quitting my job was a big deal and all the work I did conquering other fears definitely helped me get to that point. I’m taking my learnings into 2018 so I can keep improving the process as I go forward :)!

Detail

  • Conquer my fears and insecurities by cultivating courage.
    • Do at least 150 things total that scare me this year. (Does not have to be 150 unique things if appropriate level of fear is still present.)
      • Honestly, I did a terrible job of keeping track of this. I’d guesstimate that I did on the order of 75-100 of these, but didn’t keep a good record. Off the top of my head here are some memorable ones:
        • Quitting my job. I could probably argue that this counts as multiple since this has regularly exposed me to a lot of fear, which I’m still learning to process effectively.
        • Learning to lead climb. This is a form of rock climbing where the rope comes up behind you as you clip it into the wall to save your progress. When you fall, you can fall as far as 10-15 feet. It took me awhile to get over the fear of falling.
        • Scuba certification. Open water still scares me, and the idea of vulnerability while diving worried me. At this point, diving in a group doesn’t scare me at all, though I’d probably shit myself diving alone.
        • Completing an Alcatraz swim. There be sharks in these waters ._.
        • Rejection. There was a decent amount of rejection this year :). Those double count here, but I’ll leave a longer accounting of them for below.
    • Conquer my fear of failure.
      • Figure out what I would do if I weren’t working at Palantir.
        • I’m now doing it :)! It’s not entirely clear exactly how long I’ll continue to do what I’m doing now, or what I’ll do after this. Most likely I’ll continue for as long as what I’m doing now feels like the best way to grow, or until my priorities change.
      • Stretch: Take a leave of absence from work or quit and do my own thing for 3-6 months or leave my current job to work on something more risky.
        • I ultimately couldn’t get Palantir to send me to France on a timeline that made sense to me, so I went with the last option and left. What I’m doing now is much more risky, and much more self-directed, which is both amazing and terrifying. Can’t say I’ve totally beaten my fear of failure yet, but definitely on the right path.
    • Conquer my fear of rejection.
      • Get rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things.
        • I didn’t do a great job of tracking this one either. I probably hit ~50 with scattered rejection challenges earlier in the year, and then 30 challenges in November.
      • Complete at least Foundation Level 2 improv at BATS.
        • I got this one done real early! And I’ve fallen in love with improv in the process. When I left the Bay Area, one of the first things I did was find a new place to go to continue improvising. I’m not sure how I’ll keep it up while I’m abroad, but someday I think it would be really fun (and frightening) to participate in an improv performance.
    • Conquer my fear of sharks.
      • Go swimming in a shark cage.
        • This didn’t happen. Logistically this was difficult as there weren’t many local opportunities for this in the Bay Area, and most of the services I found were prohibitively expensive. If I can find an opportunity for it, I may end up doing some version of swimming or diving with sharks while I’m abroad in South East Asia though!
      • Unfortunately, didn’t do much for this despite some risk mitigation steps outlined during my mid year review. The Alcatraz swim ended up being the closest thing I got to facing my fear of sharks.
    • Conquer my fear of spiders.
      • Hold a tarantula in my hand without freaking out.
        • I got nowhere close to this.
      • Unfortunately, didn’t end up doing much for this despite some risk mitigation steps outlined during my mid year review. I still hate spiders :/.
    • Conquer my fear of falling.
      • Go bungee jumping.
      • Go rock climbing outdoors.
      • Stretch: Go lead climbing outdoors.
        • Lead climb certified! Never logistically got around to organizing a group to climb out doors, let alone lead climb outdoors, though.
      • I didn’t end up getting to all of the key results here, but I honestly don’t feel that irrationally afraid of falling anymore. The idea of going bungee jumping or sky diving doesn’t really bother me. I know there’s inherent risk in doing things like this, but I’ve learned not to overly worry about things like equipment failures, which are unlikely and relatively out of my control. (By contrast, the first time I went sky diving I mentally prepared for that day to be the last day of my life :P.)
    • Conquer my fear of open water.
      • Complete an Alcatraz swim.
      • Complete scuba certification.
      • Stretch: Go on 2 additional dives after certification.
      • Hilariously, I completed all of the key results for this one, but am definitely still irrationally afraid of swimming in open water. I think this is because the fear wasn’t properly defined here: it’s becoming more and more clear to me that I’m afraid of swimming alone in open water, but most other cases are fine.
  • Become confident around attractive women.
    • Ask out at least one woman I find attractive each week in person.
    • Go on at least one Tinder date.
      • This is a terrible key result. But I did go on a Tinder date this year, and I did go on a Coffee Meets Bagel date this year. In the bigger picture though, I’ve pretty much completely divested from dating apps at this point–would really prefer that I learn to get comfortable approaching and talking to women I find attractive. Plus, I honestly suck at texting strangers and kind of don’t see the point.
    • I noted in my mid year review that the key results for this goal weren’t planned well. I still believe that’s true. I did go on a record number of dates this year, but I think that was 5 or 6 dates total. All first dates–for either logistic or compatibility reasons I didn’t really ask for second dates.
    • I think I could have done a lot better on this. I did learn a lot this year, and my anxieties around going on a date have mostly disappeared now that I’ve experienced it a few different ways (ask me about the time I crashed a sailboat over a beer sometime :). I won’t argue that I’m amazing at dating, but I do think I’ve gotten a lot better at listening to how I’m feeling during an interaction with someone and acting authentically based on that (rather than feeling like I need to act like I’m having fun, feeling like I need to impress them if they’re not also making an effort to impress me, or feeling like I should do this or that at a particular point in the date). I still have a lot of approach anxiety, though, and the idea of making a special effort to put myself in situations where I have to approach and talk to a stranger I find attractive with the intent to get to know them and maybe ask them out still scares the crap out of me. I think I should have done more to force myself out of my comfort zone for approach anxiety. This is something I’ll need to continue to actively work on, perhaps by doing some dating-oriented version of my rejection challenges. Technically, this falls under the umbrella of “fear of uncertainty” for 2018, but I’m not sure how realistic it will be to pursue romantic interests while abroad.
  • Read more
    • Learn to speed read.
      • Read a book about speed reading.
      • Watch speed reading lectures I have saved.
      • I failed to make practicing speed reading a consistent habit, despite recognizing mid year that this was what was needed. I have some decent software which, if I used regularly, I’m fairly confident would get me to where I want to go. I just haven’t.
    • Read at least 40 books.
      • Looks like I actually only read 39 books this year -_-. I think I got complacent here–I expected that my normal reading habits would easily get me to 40 books, but apparently not. I did start and not finish a record number of books this year, which doesn’t help. I have also been doing less reading since being self-employed, in part because I accidentally broke my Kindle… now that I have a new one, I need to get back into the habit of reading at night!
      • My top books of 2017:
        • The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams
        • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
        • The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss
        • Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
        • Little Princes by Conor Grennan
        • The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee
        • Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson
  • Become a polyglot
    • Become fluent in French.
      • Spend at least 1 hour each day learning French.
        • Definitely didn’t make this! I did have some regular French habits for awhile, but they fell off when work got busy, and I definitely didn’t re-establish them when I became self-employed.
      • Earn the DELF B2 French language qualification or higher.
        • Didn’t end up registering for a test or making a concerted effort here. This fell off the priorities list once I became self-employed, and I also realized that I’m trying to learn the language so that I can communicate with real people, no so that I can pass a test. As noted in my mid year review, I did pass a diagnostic claiming to be rated at a B2 level, however (by the skin of my teeth).
        • Stretch: Earn the DELF C1 French language qualification or higher.
      • Read Harry Potter in French.
        • I have the first book in both French audio and on Kindle! I don’t have a good excuse. I can’t quite read all of it without pausing to look up some words on a regular basis, but most of the gist makes sense. I just never got much further than the first chapter. I think my weakest areas in French are speaking and listening, however, which is maybe why I de-emphasized reading.
  • See the beauty and strength of which my body is capable.
    • Qualify for the Boston Marathon.
      • Injuries earlier in the year, and then after I became self-employed I decided to double-down on the gym since I don’t know if weight-lifting will be a real option while I’m abroad. Ultimately, I could probably have made progress toward this, though actually qualifying for the Boston is going to take at least a few attempts. I think after my injuries I mentally knew this wasn’t going to happen this year and let myself slack. I’ve recommitted for 2018, however!
    • Develop a 6-pack.
      • Not much progress here from mid year. Still 4 up top, and no sign of the other 2.
      • Get down to 9% body fat.
        • Closest I got was 13%, which is pretty laughable since I think I started at ~14% or 15%. Palantir fed me 3 meals a day and I had trouble getting myself to be disciplined about macros and calorie restriction. I tried meal planning after I left Palantir, but keep finding reasons to cheat which sink me. The meal plan did seem pretty effective however–I think if I really committed to a well-designed plan for 3-6 months, this would happen. I just like food a lot >_<.
      • Do an abdominal workout three times a week.
    • Stretch: Lift weights three times a week.
      • I lifted weights regularly when I got back to San Diego, but can’t say that I did this often enough to give myself credit. This wasn’t really the priority.
  • Improve my ability to regulate and compartmentalize thoughts and emotions, especially negative and anxious thoughts and emotions such as fear or insecurity.
    • Meditate for 20 minutes every day.
      • I definitely didn’t get every day, but I think I did this enough to feel that it made a difference, which is good.
    • Write in a journal at least once a week.
      • Once a week is pretty excessive–I don’t always have anything useful to journal about on that schedule. I do have a decent number of journal entries from 2017, but there isn’t a consistent pattern to when. Sometimes I’m very regular, other times I’ll go months without thinking to write.
  • Become more politically active.
    • Become more politically informed.
      • Read at least 2 books about healthcare issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about global warming and environmental issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about education issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about immigration and globalization.
      • Read at least 2 books about economics.
      • Read at least 2 books about political theory and political philosophy.
      • This is something I’d like to do, but I keep not actually taking the time to read books that get me closer to it. I think it’s not the highest priority right now–when trying to figure out how to feed oneself, one doesn’t worry as much about politics.

Reflection

2017 was another interesting year for my goals. I can’t quite call it an equivocal success, but it certainly wasn’t a total failure, either. In the first half of the year, I accomplished a decent amount of what I had set out to do, and was looking reasonably on track to hit the majority of my goals with a little bit of extra effort. In the second half of the year, however, I shook everything up by quitting my job and starting to actively work on my broader fear of failure. Doing so has, inevitably, led to a bit of a slow down on the rest of my goals.

Interestingly, this is the second year in a row where, in the second half of the year, I’ve decided to take a major leap toward a larger goal that I hadn’t otherwise been planning to tackle in the current year. (2016’s leap being making an attempt at an Ironman triathlon many months earlier than expected.) In both cases, I took action because I recognized that my largest growth opportunity lied in a direction that perhaps didn’t completely align with my yearly goals. While I’m proud of both of these steps, I think that this trend is symptomatic of my goals not being focused enough, my motivations not being clear enough, or not having enough flexibility allowed by the set of goals I’ve chosen.

I also wonder if I really would have been able to complete everything on my goals list had I been more committed to doing so. Last year I argued that I probably would have. This time I’m actually not so certain.

Most of my goals are not things that are immediately achievable, so they require longer-term, consistent effort. For these goals (e.g. learning a language, speed reading, running a marathon), it’s less about big pushes and spurts of effort, and more about the little habits that slowly but surely push me toward where I want to go. Ultimately, my ability to create sustainable habits is integral to accomplishing these goals.

If I’m being totally honest with myself, I think in 2017 I struggled to create and maintain new habits in support of many of my goals. I’ve had success with new habits in the past, so I definitely know how to do this under certain conditions. Training for my first marathon, and later for an Ironman, for example, required that I build the habit of exercising 5 or 6 days out of the week.

So why did I struggle this time? I think one of the major factors here was focus. I had a lot of goals this year, and there were times when I think I probably threw too much at myself at once. Creating new habits isn’t too hard if I have just one or two to focus on, but I overwhelmed myself a little with the sheer number of habits I wanted or needed to create all at once. I think I might have been more successful if I had chosen a smaller number of things to focus on or if I had organized my goals into “phases,” giving myself a couple of new habits to focus on at a time until each had set. Willpower is finite.

Another factor was my environment and a failure to either change it or adapt to it. When I was working a full-time job, there would sometimes be busier periods where I wouldn’t have the time or mental bandwidth to keep up a habit, so my progress would be lost. Adding in a frequent coast-to-coast travel schedule also made it challenging to establish habits and routines without more thought or effort. Again, here I think focusing on one or two things at a time could have helped. I trained for my first marathon despite traveling coast-to-coast every week by running on treadmills in NYC hotels after work. I was able to make this happen through the establishment and prioritization of a single, very important habit. When the shit hits the fan, it’s much harder to do the same with 5 or 6 different things.

There are two other major factors differentiating some of my past successes from the goals I’ve been struggling more with: 1) a sense of consistent, measurable progress and 2) a plan which, when followed, provides relative surety of making it to the goal. When training for an Ironman or a marathon, it’s hard not to notice myself getting stronger each week as the workouts get harder or longer and I still manage to complete them. This feeling is exciting and motivating in and of itself. I’m also usually following a workout plan put together by someone else whose had experience with the event, allowing me to reasonably safely assume that if I can complete the workout each day, then I’m on track to actually complete the goal. I’ve found it harder to establish both of these conditions when working on a goal like learning a language, for example. Sure, sometimes I have a sense that I’m a bit more fluent, or can understand a little more, but this is nowhere near as measurable or granular as having completed a 10-mile run last week and 12-mile run this week. I’m also finding that plans for many of my non-fitness goals are much less cut and dried–at the end of the day 3 miles is 3 miles no matter how fast or slow you run it, but what’s the equivalent metric for language training?

Despite the struggle to establish habits, I did learn a few useful things to carry into the future. I was having only sporadic success with rejection challenges before I decided to crowdsource challenges from friends and publicly commit to doing one challenge a day for 30 days. From that experience, I was reminded how helpful it can be to get friends involved in goals–they can serve as both an accountability check and a support network. I was also reminded of how powerful it is to have a “streak” doing something. After 10 days of doing rejection challenges, the momentum was enough to keep me from quitting even as the challenges got increasingly uncomfortable.

All-in-all, I think my big takeaways from 2017 goals were to focus more on a few things at a time, to re-frame my goals in terms of sustainable habits I can create that will ultimately get me where I want to go, and to leave myself the flexibility beyond that to pivot when necessary–committing to the spirit behind a plan is sometimes more important than following the exact letter of the plan. I’ve incorporated these learnings into my strategy for 2018, where I have notably fewer different goal threads, and have left things a little bit more vague. There are still some strong themes for growth areas, and while there are a few key results I intend to hold myself accountable to, I was overall a lot less specific this year, hopefully giving me a little more space to adapt and improvise.

At the end of each year I take some time to reflect and to write out new goals and resolutions for the coming year. This exercise is about more than just the goals themselves, though–it’s about really taking a moment to check-in on my growth and to find alignment between my values, how I choose to spend my time, and my overall life direction. These words were written to inspire a future, struggling version of myself to stay the course and keep pushing to grow despite bouts of discomfort or laziness (both of which are natural parts of the journey).

I’ve been doing this for a few years now, and for the last couple I’ve chosen to make my goals public here on my blog. I don’t publish these to show-off, and I don’t pretend to have all the answers–if you spend 20 minutes reading this blog you’ll quickly realize that, while I have some strong convictions, I’m very much a work in progress. In fact, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that not every goal I’ve ever written down here has been accomplished. (Fortunately, though, many of the really important ones have.)

I publish these in the hope that, if I’m lucky, my journey to improve myself and an account of what I learned along the way will inspire or enlighten even just one other person. I hope that by writing about living my ideals and leading by example–with all of the bumps, blemishes, and bloopers left in–I may lend someone else the courage, the discipline, the perseverance, the authenticity, or even just the awareness to start living their own. Life is about the journey, and this is how I make the most of mine.

 

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2016’s theme was discipline, concluding in an Ironman triathlon. 2017’s theme was courage, culminating in leaving my job to pursue my own path. 2018, in a sense, is going to be a combination of the two. There are two main areas that I really want to work on:

  1. Learning to deal with uncertainty, and to fight against my instinct to plan and control everything.
  2. Learning to identify, trust, and follow my authentic inner voice.

Learning to Deal with Uncertainty

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
–The Serenity Prayer, Reinhold Niebuhr

We spend the first two decades of our lives with an abundance of externally-defined structure. Grade school, high school, and college all provide relative rigidity with our parents, our teachers, or our majors delineating a path forward and giving us a definition of success to strive for. Then we graduate, and suddenly all of that structure evaporates. In the vacuum, the game becomes about defining meaning, purpose, and success for ourselves, before learning to apply them in the face of life’s fundamental uncertainty.

There are two primary ways we learn to cope with uncertainty: 1) creating, finding, or borrowing structure so that we have control over what we can control and 2) learning to let go of the need for control over things we fundamentally cannot control. Both methods are important, and they involve different and opposite skills: the former requires that we learn to be a proactive and creative force in our own lives, the latter that we learn to go with the flow and not burden ourselves with what we can’t control (e.g. the past, the vast majority of the future, how others think and act).

In my limited experience, most people I’ve met excel at one of these strategies, but not both. In fact, in a funny way, those who naturally excel at one strategy are often awful at the other–when you have a hammer, everything kind of looks like a nail. Personally, my hammer has always been proactivity and control (that’s why I started writing these goals in the first place); acceptance and going with the flow has always been a weakness. Ideally, one masters both of these strategies. Once that’s done there is a third challenge: learning when to apply each strategy for maximum effect.

In the past, I’ve written a lot about courage and discipline. In fact, last year I wrote, “I believe that I need two main virtues in order to accomplish everything I want in life: the courage to dream, and the discipline to execute.” I don’t think I realized it then, but those virtues map pretty well to the methods of dealing with uncertainty I just described: discipline involves creating and following through on structure, while courage requires a learned acceptance of the things we cannot control so we can function despite fear.

Though I still have a lot to learn about both courage and discipline, and though I’ve made a lot of great progress in the last couple years, I’m realizing now that a piece has always been missing from my thesis: learning how to use courage and discipline together, and when to apply one over the other. As it is, my instinct is still very much to control, plan, and analyze. I think in 2017 I learned a bit more about how to let go, but I still struggle with when to let go. Finding or creating opportunities to practice this skill is one of my top priorities in 2018.

Learning to be Authentic

Learning to deal with uncertainty is a little like learning to sail a boat: you have to learn how to trim the sails and weather different conditions at sea. Ultimately, though, you could be the best sailor in the world and never get where you’re trying to go without some means of navigation. Authenticity is our means of navigation on the capricious sea of life; it’s the compass needle subconsciously guided by our deepest values, and the north star that lights the way to who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do. I believe authenticity is one of the highest pursuits in life, not because there’s some pot of universal truth or meaning at the end of the rainbow, but because it’s the path that maximizes individual long-term happiness realized through integrity and self-actualization.

Sometimes, however, the compass spins or the night sky is cloudy, and we can’t seem to find our way. This is because the concept of authenticity is complicated–certainly more complicated than “just being yourself,” as the platitude goes. There’s a multitude of different influences in our lives–our parents, our peers, our significant others, the culture or environment we grow-up or live in–that can passively or actively push our internal compasses away from true north. Completely avoiding any of these influences on our lives is impossible, and not entirely desirable: sometimes pieces of external influence create resonance, shedding some light on what we truly value. Other times, though, our internal compasses point us in directions that lie in direct conflict with where external influences would have us go. When this happens, one of two things occurs: we choose to go someone else’s way, thereby learning to wear a mask; or we follow our inner voice, moving us closer to our authentic selves.

That process is, of course, also not as easy as it sounds. The more external voices there are and the louder they are, or the meeker our inner voice–if, for example, we aren’t very secure about ourselves–the harder it can be to identify, trust, and listen to our inner voice. Ultimately, I think the goal is to be able to remain true to self especially in the presence of strong external influences. Personally, this is something that I’ve struggled with quite a bit in my life to date, and there have been a few key points where I’ve caught myself walking a potentially inauthentic path, not the least of which led to my leaving Palantir and Silicon Valley.

I’m very much still learning to trust myself, to feel internally rather than externally secure in who I am and who I choose to be, and to follow my internal compass. I think that these are among the most important things I can learn in life, both because I believe it’s the path to truly internalized happiness, and because life is full of stories about the archetypes played out by the alternatives: the entrepreneur or creative who regrets never believing in herself enough to take a chance; the ego-driven playboys, businessmen, and politicians who believe attention or money lead to happiness only to find themselves feeling hollow inside; and the go-getters who climb the corporate ladder in a desperate desire to “get ahead” without ever stopping to wonder what it really means to be ahead.

Goals

How will I pursue the two priorities outlined above?

  • Running my own business
    • Uncertainty
      • As I’ve been learning for the past few months, trying to get a business off the ground is sometimes overwhelmingly uncertain. By continuing to pursue this path, I think I place myself in an environment where I have no choice but to apply both courage and self-discipline, and where I must learn to accept the occasional inevitable negative outcome that I cannot really control.
    • Authenticity
      • Being self-employed means that I’m solely responsible for setting my priorities, giving me the freedom to pursue work, growth, and meaning the way I want and at my own pace.
      • Learning to create value on my own will help me to learn to trust myself (or, perhaps, require that I learn to trust myself). I think there’s also no baser sense of personal security than knowing that if I have to fend for myself in this world, I can.
    • Key results:
      • As hard or as scary as it gets, stick with it for the entire year. Don’t take on consulting projects unless they’re actually really interesting, or I somehow really need the money (I shouldn’t this year).
      • Launch 4-6 (more ideally, 8-12) different projects this year. These don’t all have to be of the same magnitude or significance, but they should all have some monetization plan from the beginning. Learn to scope projects well, learn not to be afraid of throwing something over the fence before it’s perfect, and really get the process down to a science.
  • Travel
    • Uncertainty
      • I’ll be moving around a lot in 2018, and I think doing so will help to create an environment chock-full of uncertainty. I expect to encounter situations I couldn’t predict, and I think this will challenge me to learn to find the balance between acceptance and proactivity.
    • Authenticity
      • Traveling around to new places, meeting new people, and encountering new perspectives will give me opportunities to learn more about what I’m drawn to.
      • Pulling myself away from past influences, including my parents, my college peer group, my existing friends, Silicon Valley’s culture and environment, and all past and current romantic interests will help to turn down the volume on the external voices that sometimes drown out my own voice.
    • Key results:
      • Meet new people and have adventures wherever I go. Try to spend every weekend doing something exciting, new, or terrifying. Don’t get so singularly focused on running a business that I become a shut-in.
  •  Mindfulness
    • Uncertainty
      • Mindfulness has and continues to be one of my most important mental tools for learning to deal with uncertainty. My mindfulness practice has taught me skills to accept my thoughts and emotions, as well as other external situations that I can’t otherwise rationalize away or control.
    • Authenticity
      • Many of the same mindfulness practices useful for accepting external situations are also very useful for accepting myself. The more I accept myself, the stronger my inner voice becomes.
    • Key results:
      • Attend a 2-week mindfulness retreat.
      • Complete the Headspace Pro series in one continuous streak.
      • Meditate for at least 20 minutes every day.
  • Reading
    • Uncertainty and Authenticity
      • Books exist for pretty much every topic imaginable. Some books I’ve read have addressed topics relating to uncertainty and authenticity directly. Others have characters and plots that explore questions and themes that are central to my own life, and so are inspiring, or instructive, or at least thought provoking. Still others, simply introduce me to new ideas and new perspectives I might not have otherwise considered (and some of which I’d never have found by just meeting people). The more of these I’m exposed to, the more I get to see what I do and don’t resonate with, refining my internal compass.
    • Key results:
      • Read or listen to 52 books this year.

I have just a few other goals unrelated to this year’s primary objectives:

  • Compete in the Boston Marathon
    • Why?
      • Exercise is an important part of my health and happiness, but I’ve found that I honestly don’t do well with just exercising 30 minutes a day to stay healthy. I need something larger than that to work toward, or I don’t end up putting my heart into it. I’ll also be moving around a lot next year, and though other exercise equipment may not always be readily available, running is pretty much always an option. As a runner in high school, and now a post-college amateur endurance athlete, qualifying for the Boston Marathon represents a huge accomplishment in speed, not just endurance. (Qualifying times for my age and gender require running a full marathon at an average pace of 7:00/mi.)
    • Key results:
  • Become conversationally fluent in French
    • Why?
      • This is part of a larger desire I have to learn several foreign languages. This time, though, I actually have a one-way ticket to France in May 2018, and I’m going to need to work on my French both before and during if I want to survive/thrive while I’m there.
    • Key results:
      • Spend at least 3 months in French-speaking countries in 2018.
      • While in French-speaking countries, actively push to have a conversation in French every single day, no matter how uncomfortable, awkward, or broken my spoken French is.

I’m purposefully trying to keep my list of goals leaner and more focused this year, so I’ve cut several threads from 2017 that weren’t totally completed. Rather than overtax my focus and willpower, this year I’ll narrow in on a few larger things, and will consider throwing in more if I seem to be totally crushing it with lots of time left in the year.

Rejection Challenges

One of my New Year’s resolutions this year was to conquer my fear of rejection by getting rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things. I have done quite a few things to that end: I’ve taken several Improv classes, and I’ve tried a couple of self-directed rejection challenges here and there. Admittedly, I haven’t kept great track of where I am out of 100 different ways to get rejected, and I still have a moderate fear of rejection which is currently manifesting itself as a resistance to putting my work as a self-employed individual into the world for real feedback.

In an effort to fight back and make real progress toward this goal before the year ends, I’m trying something a little different with November: I’ve asked six friends to each give me five rejection challenges of varying difficulties for 30 challenges total, enough to do one a day for each day in November.

Why am I doing this?

The short version is that I read Rejection Proof (affiliate link), a book about Jia Jiang’s mission to get rejected once a day for 100 days and everything he learned from the experience. Reading his book made me realize that I am acutely afraid of rejection, judgment, and just plain looking silly; that that fear limits me; and that I also could potentially learn a lot from being rejected a whole bunch of times. The longer version of the story is that this is part of a larger campaign to challenge my fears and cultivate courage–topics about which I’ve written a (at time of writing unfinished) series of posts.

Of course, the goal isn’t to reach a point where I completely disregard others’ opinions–that’s called being a sociopath, and I certainly don’t want to get there. The hope is, however, that a lessened fear of rejection, and a weaker preoccupation with what others think of me will lead to a greater sense of self-acceptance, a higher degree of authenticity in all of my interactions, and the courage to ask people for what I really want.

What is a rejection challenge?

Loosely described, a rejection challenge forces me into a scenario where I need to ask someone for something to which the answer could be “no” (or, equivalently, to which the answer could be something I don’t like or maybe don’t want to hear, e.g. negative feedback). The challenges I have here are all over the place ranging from simple and easy requests, to requests that are just completely ridiculous and awkward, to requests that require me to bother people I wouldn’t otherwise bother, to requests for things that I might actually feel somewhat emotionally invested in. These challenges are designed to make me cringe, and I imagine that they will be extraordinarily cringeworthy (and/or just amusing) to watch.

Accountability

By asking friends for challenges rather than coming up with them myself, I’ve added some very acute social pressure to actually follow-through, and by publishing this post, I’m adding some additional public accountability to the mix. I’ll be making every effort to do one of these challenges every day, and if I can figure out how to make it work, I may even vlog them on YouTube so everyone I know can make fun of me (in a sense, this is its own rejection challenge). At the very least, you can expect that I’ll write about the more interesting or informative experiences.

The Challenges

Without further ado, here are the challenges rank ordered by approximate relative difficulty scored out of 10:

  1. 2: Smile, make eye contact with, and ask for a high-five from every person you encounter while walking down 2 blocks of street (or equivalent distance in a mall).
  2. 3: Ask a waiter to take you to the kitchen and meet the chef/see how things get made.
  3. 3: Ask a homeless person if they will eat dinner with you.
  4. 3: Ask a homeless person to tell you their life story.
  5. 4: Ask to make your own sandwich at Subway.
  6. 4: Go to a mattress store and ask to take a nap in one of their beds.
  7. 4: Go to a convenience or grocery store and ask to speak over their intercom system.
  8. 4: Go to a burrito joint and ask if you can come behind the counter and call out a few orders.
  9. 4: Ask to help prepare something in a food truck.
  10. 4: Call the office of the Mayor of San Diego and ask for a meeting.
  11. 5: Challenge a stranger on the street to an impromptu chess game.
  12. 5: Ask 3 strangers if they will play a quick game of Simon Says with you.
  13. 5: Ask to walk a stranger’s dog.
  14. 5: Ask a running stranger if you can jog with them.
  15. 5: Ask 2 people to jump into the Pacific Ocean with you.
  16. 5: Offer to autograph a stranger’s hand with a sharpie.
  17. 5: Try to sell a roll of paper towels to a mall stall vendor or street-side vendor.
  18. 6: Ask 3 strangers if they can text you a screenshot of their phone’s home screen.
  19. 6: Ask someone if you can create chalk art in their driveway.
  20. 6: Ask 10 people on public transit (or at the beach!) what they’re listening to and try to turn it into a conversation.
  21. 6: In a crowded place, ask a stranger if they’d be willing to pose with a potato mango as if they were in the Lion King while you take a picture.
  22. 6: Ask a stranger to join you as you walk like a crab for at least 1 block on a fairly busy sidewalk (or until you pass at least 3 people, whichever happens last).
  23. 6: Ask a stranger to swap shoes with you for a block.
  24. 7: Carry a rubber chicken around, and ask a random stranger if they will kiss it.
  25. 7: Ask someone to give up their seat for you on public transportation. (Bonus: Do this when there are empty seats around them.)
  26. 7: Ask a stranger to apply sunscreen to your face.
  27. 7: Try to convince a stranger to feed you a banana.
  28. 8: Spend at least 30 minutes busking in a crowded place. Explicitly walk up to someone at the end of a performance and ask for some money.
  29. 8: Go to a karaoke bar, a stand-up venue, or something similar. Perform, and then explicitly ask a stranger from the crowd for feedback afterwards.
  30. 9: Apply to be a chef on Feastly. If approved, host a pop-up kitchen event and cook for a bunch of strangers through Feastly. Ask them for their honest opinions after the meal.

Closing Thoughts

Are some of these challenges incredibly socially awkward? Yes. Do some of them force me to break social norms? Absolutely. Will they get me in trouble? I’m really hoping not. Are all of these completely realistic rejection scenarios? Of course not. Do I think they’ll teach me something anyway? Definitely.

Regardless of whether they are realistic or contrived, socially acceptable or socially awkward, all of these challenges will put me in situations that make me at least a little bit uncomfortable. As I’ll elaborate in a soon-to-be-published post, learning to act in spite of that discomfort and that fear is an important part of what I’ve learned to call courage.

Wish me luck!

 

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Interested in keeping up with the challenges? Please consider subscribing to be the first to know as new content comes out!

Have a great rejection challenge idea? Tell me about it in the comments below, and I may end up doing it later this year!

Related Posts

2017 New Year’s Resolutions

Fear: The Invisible Prison of the Mind

Emotional Inertia: The Secret to Unlocking Potential

How Busy People Learn Languages

The two biggest myths of language learning are that it takes years to learn a language and that you need a lot of time to do it. In fact, many languages can be learned in a year or less with a time investment of no more than an hour a day, but this doesn’t happen learning languages the way most of us have been taught.

As an aspiring polyglot, I’ve tried learning languages in just about every imaginable way: I took Latin classes in grade school, I tried night school Japanese at a local university, I’ve had private Chinese tutors, I completed the Duolingo tracks for both Spanish and French, and I even spent an entire summer at a Chinese immersion program run by the famed Middlebury College. Some of these things worked better than others, but most have either felt inefficient or unsustainable; classroom and self-taught curriculums often require large time investments and don’t emphasize real-life conversational fluency, and immersion, while great, doesn’t teach strategies to retain hard-earned progress long-term.

If, like me, you’re a busy person without all that time and energy to spare, you can’t afford huge time investments with low long-term returns. Fortunately, there are strategies and techniques used by successful polyglots that can take you to fluency quickly and maintain that fluency with minimal effort. I’ve personally been able to use many of them to get myself from beginner to intermediate/upper-intermediate in French in under a year.

Disclaimer: as a fledgling writer and aspiring digital nomad, I do sometimes receive compensation for sale or use of products and services mentioned on my blog. I do, however, only mention products and services I have used personally and strive to always provide my honest opinion positive or negative. I will never compromise the integrity of the content on this blog for financial gain.

The Shortest Path to Conversational Fluency

Trying to speak a new language can be embarrassing!

Trying to speak a new language can be embarrassing! (Image Source)

When it comes to conversational fluency, the real problem with most approaches is that they don’t force you to confront what’s really holding most people back in foreign language conversations: fear of rejection and sounding stupid. Instead of challenging themselves in a difficult and potentially embarrassing situation, most people retreat into book studies, telling themselves that if they just memorize a little more vocabulary or if they just keep studying those conjugation tables, they’ll be ready soon. Except that soon almost always turns into never, and even when it doesn’t no amount of book studying can save you when you panic and your mind goes blank. (If you read last week’s post, you may recognize this as a form of emotional inertia: talking to people in a new language and risking sounding like a lobotomized second grader is terrifying, especially for recovering perfectionists like myself, so it’s easier to just avoid that situation altogether.)

When you force yourself into real conversations with native speakers, you start to overcome the anxieties that make these situations scary. As a result, you begin to open yourself up to more opportunities to learn by speaking to people in new and different contexts. Furthermore, the quickest way to learn the vocabulary and phrases you actually need to carry on conversations is, well, trying to have conversations. (Captain obvious saves the day!) Each time you have a new conversation, it highlights new areas for directed growth toward your weak areas. (Contrast this with the sort of shotgun approach taken by most structured curriculums.) Didn’t know how to say “hello,” “thank you,” or “how are you”? Go memorize them. Couldn’t figure out how to express a thought or opinion? Figure out how to say “I think that…”. Struggled to answer a certain question about your life? Prepare an answer offline that you can practice and deliver the next time someone asks. Your conversations may last as little as 10 seconds before switching to English, but over time you should be able to push this further and further until you’re having full and rich conversations in your target language.

Learning Mindset

It's all about the mindset.

It’s all about the mindset. (Image Source)

With the right mindset it’s almost never too soon to start talking to people in your new language. In fact, Benny Lewis, an accomplished polyglot and author of Fluent in 3 Months, encourages people to start having foreign language conversations in their first week of learning. The trick is to remember that the goal is to understand and be understood without reverting to English for as long as possible, and that failing and making mistakes is totally OK. In the beginning, everything is fair game–pointing to objects, bizarre and convoluted hand gestures describing abstract concepts, or interpretive dances–just try not to revert back to English in fear or frustration. Don’t let yourself get caught up on the mistakes you’re making–the words you mispronounced, the grammar you botched, or the vocabulary that left you when you metaphorically shit yourself–instead remind yourself that perfection takes time and practice, and that even native speakers make mistakes sometimes. Your speech may be broken, and you may sound like you were repeatedly dropped on your head as a child, but so long as the gist of your meaning is somehow getting across, you’re doing great. You don’t need years of classroom instruction, you just need, as with most goals, a few ounces of courage to get started, a dash of discipline to consistently keep at it, and a pinch of perseverance to help you through the most embarrassing moments.

Immersion programs work so well because they give you no choice but to fall into this mindset, and then force you into uncomfortable situations where you don’t know what to say or how to say it. Conversely, some of the more popular language learning tools like Duolingo aren’t as helpful because they give you the illusion of progress without actually dragging you into real conversations. This isn’t to say that things like Duolingo don’t work–if you spend enough time with a tool or set of tools, you’ll eventually reach a certain level of fluency, but then, if you spend enough time trying to crack a coconut open with toothpicks, you’ll eventually succeed. (Don’t quote me on that–I’ve, uh, probably, never actually tried this.) Don’t get me wrong, I love Duolingo–I think what they’re doing is great, their product is moving in the right directions (chatbots are beginning to help close the conversational fluency gap), and I love their mission of providing free language education for all, but having graduated from two of their language tracks, I can attest that it never took me to a sense of real fluency in either language. Tools like these are great supplemental resources, but they’re not going to get you where you want to go on their own.

Language Exchanges

If we’re on the same page at this point, you’re probably thinking, “Great, thanks Daniel, I get that having real conversations is important, but I don’t know anybody who speaks Klingon, so what gives?” Fortunately, it’s a wonderful time to be alive and we have this amazing thing called the Internet (maybe you’ve heard of it?). The primary mechanism I use for having conversations with native speakers is called a language exchange, wherein I connect with someone on the other side of the planet who speaks the language I’m trying to learn and is trying to learn English, so we’re able to trade competencies. There are a lot of websites out there to help facilitate language exchanges, but the one I currently use is called italki. (Disclaimer: this is a referral link, so I do have a small incentive to advertise here. You and I would both receive $10 in italki credits if you take a lesson with one of italki’s very affordable–sometimes as cheap as $10/hr–community tutors. That said, I primarily use italki for the community, not for the tutoring, though both are great.) Through italki, I’ve connected with native French speakers in Europe and Africa. It honestly still freaks me out every time, but doing more of these was one of the improvement areas I identified for my French-learning goals during this year’s mid year review. Aside from italki, I’ve also found that there is a wealth of language-related meetups, so it’s usually not hard to find other language learners to practice with. If you’re feeling really brave (or really desperate?), it can be surprisingly easy to find people to practice with spontaneously in the real world as evidenced by this video of a couple polyglots speaking 12 different languages with random strangers in Ohio of all places.

Efficiently Learning Everything Else

If having real conversations is the strategy for getting us past our anxieties and identifying our areas for improvement, the next natural question is: what’s the best way to improve once we know what we need to improve? And how can we maintain our language gains with minimal effort?

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition allows you to review information efficiently.

Spaced repetition allows you to review information efficiently. (Image Source)

The answer to both questions is a memory technique called spaced repetition, which is actually already in use behind the scenes in some popular language tools like Duolingo and Memrise. Spaced repetition involves reminding yourself of a piece of information at an interval that optimizes your likelihood of remembering it without overexposing yourself to it, theoretically resulting in better long-term retention of the data each time you review it, while minimizing the number of reviews.

In practice, if you’re using spaced repetition with a deck of flashcards, rather than review those cards every day, the first day you would review all of your cards. Then tomorrow, you would go back and review your cards again, and you’ll save the cards you remembered correctly to review again in two days. The cards you didn’t remember correctly, you’ll review again the next day. Each time you successfully remember a card, its review interval increases exponentially (so if it had been two days since you saw this card, now you’ll snooze it for four days), and each time you fail to remember a card, it starts over in the process. Eventually, you won’t need to review some of these cards for months or even years. In order to avoid having to study hundreds of cards at a time, you can also break the deck up and just learn a few cards every day to keep things manageable.

There are a few software tools out there for automating the spaced repetition process, but the main two I’ve come across are Memrise and Anki. I personally prefer Anki because it’s more flexible and customizable and virtually every polyglot I’ve ever talked to uses it. It’s also free so long as you can get away without it on your mobile devices. It is however, a lot less sexy and modern-looking than Memrise. Of note, Gabriel Wyner also has a Kickstarter out for a new language learning app, which promises to be a solid competitor to these existing options. (In fact, many of the tips in this section originate from Gabriel’s book Fluent Forever, which likely does them better justice than I can.)

So what is it we’re actually using spaced repetition to memorize? Well, truthfully, you can use this to memorize anything (I’m looking at you, future doctors and lawyers), so long as it comes in small, quizzable chunks. That said, for learning a language, the main things you’ll want to memorize are vocabulary and grammar, and primarily you’d be doing that through flashcards.

Memory Hacks for Flashcards

To get the most out of each flashcard, you’ll want to abuse a few memory tricks. First, every flashcard should have an image. We have visual memories, so associating a foreign language word with an image is much better for you than associating a foreign language word with an English one (which would more-or-less sets you up for translating word-by-word in your head later on). It can be fun to Google image search foreign words because sometimes the subtle differences in the connotation of the word as it’s natively used and its English translation become apparent. (Gabriel Wyner calls this “spot the differences” in Fluent Forever.)

Second, choose an image that is really provocative. Our minds tend to remember things that are really out there: really strange, really funny, really sexy, or really violent. (No joke, I have some pretty racey flashcards–it doesn’t help that a non-trivial number of French words turn up unexpectedly sexual image search results.)

Last, if you can, write a word or short phrase that reminds you of a memory you have that is somehow associated with the vocabulary in question. When this card comes up, try to remember what this phrase was as well. Since our memories operate as sort of associated networks of information, the more connections you’re able to make between a new word and other new or existing memories in your mind, the easier it will be to remember.

Learning Vocabulary

When it comes to learning vocabulary, you need to get yourself to the point where you’re picking up new vocabulary words in the wild–as opposed to from a list–as quickly as possible. This ideally means finding new words and sentences to learn from in their natural contexts–from easy reading, from watching YouTube videos in the target language, or from playing video games in the target language, for example. Unfortunately, the shortest path to getting to this point does involve memorizing vocabulary from lists, but not the lists you’re used to finding in your textbooks. Instead, you’ll want to grab a list of the most frequently used words in your new language. This works because the most frequently used words in a language appear disproportionately often in context so, for example, by learning the 600 most frequent words in a language you can actually learn most of the words you’ll expect to see in the wild, which will typically leave you able to guess at the meaning of most simple sentences, even if you don’t recognize all of the words.

It’s typically not terribly hard to find a list for your language free and available on the Internet, but I personally bought a frequency dictionary for French and don’t regret the investment. I’m also a big fan of Gabriel Wyner’s frequency lists, as they offer a more visual and thematic experience.

When it comes to vocabulary, one of the really important points is that you make your own flashcards. There’s an abundance of existing flashcard stacks on the Internet for any language you could want to learn, but the experience of creating the flashcards in the first place, if done right, is a valuable first step in establishing a concept in your memory. For each word, you’ll want to create at least a couple of flash cards using as little English as possible: 1) picture of something on one side, word itself and other info (like gender, pronunciation, similar words, or relevant memories) on the other side; 2) word on one side, picture and other info on the other side.

If you use Anki, check out Gabriel Wyner’s Anki card templates and use Forvo to grab native speaker pronunciations for words and sentences you make flashcards for.

As a bonus tip here, for languages with those pesky gendered nouns, you can actually shove this information into your visualization centers by associating a descriptive verb with each gender. For example, I like to use “freezing” for feminine words and “burning” for masculine words, so if the word is “farm” and it’s feminine, I’ll picture the image of the farm that I have on the card, but with everything frozen over. Anything that creates a provocative image when combined with the images on your cards will do–melting, shredding, eviscerating (disemboweling? ._.)–let your imagination run wild :).

Learning Grammar

The mechanisms behind learning grammar are similar to that of learning vocabulary. Use all the same memory hacks, but generally use sentences rather than words now. For grammar, it’s easiest to use a sentence you’ve either written yourself or found somewhere and create a blank in the sentence that you have to fill. For example, if I’m trying to learn a verb conjugation, rather than make myself a flashcard for the second person singular of that verb, I’ll just create a sentence flashcard that implies second person singular and leaves a blank for the verb form. I’ll usually give myself the verb infinitive, since the goal here isn’t to test if I know the word, but rather the form of the word that fits here. You can also do the same thing for other grammatical constructs like learning which preposition to use. Eventually, you can also use fill in the blank sentences to learn vocabulary words.

Again, I would check out Gabriel Wyner’s Anki card templates for this if you use Anki.

Learning Pronunciation

Some example minimal pairs difficult for English learners.

Some example minimal pairs difficult for English learners. (Image Source)

Some languages have pronunciation systems or just consonants and vowels that are really different from English. For example, Mandarin Chinese has a tonality system that English speakers find excruciatingly confusing, and French has some very, very subtle pronunciations that sound similar. Sometimes you’ll find yourself staring dumbly at a native speaker who insists that two things that sound exactly the same are actually completely different words or phrases. (Fun fact: these words/phrases are actually called minimal pairs.)

Don’t worry, you’re not dumb. You really can’t hear it. When we’re young, our brains automatically learn to cluster the sounds of our native language into vowels and consonants we recognize. Some languages have slightly different sound clusterings that other languages get easily confused because they get lumped into a sound clustering that we do recognize. But don’t lose heart, it is possible to train one’s ear and one’s tongue to hear and say these sounds.

I recommend checking out Gabriel Wyner’s resources for minimal pairs. He even has Anki-based pronunciation trainers for most languages, which I’ve found helpful for French.

Keep it Fun

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho in French.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho in French.

When it comes to learning a language, don’t forget to be creative and keep it fun! Search for new and interesting ways to immerse yourself in the language. I try to read easy books, I watch TV, and I play video games in French. I’ve even changed the native language of my phone to French–Siri now only does things for me when I talk to her in French and my pronunciation is sufficiently non-shitty–and have gotten used to things like navigating app interfaces in French or having Google Maps tell me how to get where I need to go in spoken French.

Don’t stay chained to a textbook or to flashcards! Your ultimate goal is to be able to function in your new language the way you function in English–don’t forget to find pleasurable ways to do that. Just remember to occasionally make yourself a flashcard or two when you encounter a new word or sentence structure you didn’t know before ;).

Conclusion

I spent my whole life learning languages the wrong way, and up until recently have always felt frustrated by the slow pace of progress or the inability to hold on to a new language over time. Much of that has changed for me after discovering the techniques described in this post, none of which any of my language teachers in school ever bothered to teach me.

With regular conversations in my target language, I’m able to get a better sense of how actually fluent I feel, and with all of the memory hacks I’m able to download a huge amount of information into my brain pretty quickly. While I can’t guarantee the same results for everyone, and you definitely get more out of a language the more time you put into it, I’ve personally put less than an hour a day on average into learning French this year and, though my written and spoken communication still lag behind a bit, I’m able to pass diagnostic tests placing me into intermediate and upper-intermediate French levels. By the time my spoken French skills catch-up–hopefully in the next few months–I expect I’ll be fairly conversationally fluent!

I hope this information will help inspire you to pick up a new language or finish learning a language you started in the past. It doesn’t take years, and it doesn’t require chaining yourself to a textbook for multiple hours a day!

 

* * *

 

This was just an overview of some of the language learning methods and hacks I’ve learned this year.

If you found this fascinating or helpful, please consider taking a moment to react to this post on social media, or even share it with your friends.

If you have questions about any of this, please leave a comment on the post, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can!

Lastly, you can expect more posts on this blog outlining smart ways to accomplish common goals in the near future. Become an email subscriber to be among the first to know when new posts come out!

Further Reading

Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World breaks down a lot of the barriers that people run into when trying to learn languages: fear of jumping into conversations, the belief that they just don’t have a talent for language learning, and the idea that one has to fly halfway across the world to really get exposed to a new language. This book is the basis for this blog post’s section on “The Shortest Path to Conversational Fluency,” and also contains a number of cool memory hacks and language learning tricks that I didn’t have space to cover in this blog post. I’d also recommend checking out Benny Lewis’ website and blog.

 

Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It is an excellent and comprehensive resource for language learners. Many of the memory hacks and techniques outlined in this post under “Efficiently Learning Everything Else” come from this book. It’s also worth giving Gabriel Wyner’s website and blog a look, and checking out the Kickstarter he’s running for the Fluent Forever App.

 

 

 

There’s a little less than 6 months left in 2017, which means I’m due for a check-in on my annual goals. This is just a reflection on goal progress over the last 6 months and on how I can do better in the next 6. For more context on the goals themselves (e.g. why I even care about doing some of these things), see the original post.

Summary

At a high-level, I think I’m generally moving in the right direction for most of my goals. There are a few where I’ve honestly made very little progress, and there a few where I’ve already hit my stretch goals. If I had to grade myself, I think I’d give myself a C+.

Qualitatively, I do feel generally more confident and less afraid and je peux parler une petite peu de francais :).

For the rest of 2017, I should try to do a better job of tracking metrics for my goals and try to establish more goal-related habits and routines to help me make consistent daily or weekly progress on some of the longer term goals.

Review

Green below means an objective or key result is done. Red means it hasn’t been done or is at risk. For mid year, it’s a good sign to be averaging yellow on all of these.

  • Conquer my fears and insecurities by cultivating courage.
    • Do at least 150 things total that scare me this year. (Does not have to be 150 unique things if appropriate level of fear is still present.)
      • I haven’t done a very good job of tracking this, but I think I’ve probably completed on the order of 30-50 fear challenges this year, especially since this overlaps with rejection challenges. Some of my favorites include:
        • Committing to leaving the safety and comfort bubble I’ve built for myself in Silicon Valley. (I leave at the end of July.)
        • Learning to lead climb and passing my lead climbing certification test.
        • Night diving in San Diego. (Though I was with friends, so it
        • admittedly wasn’t as freaky as it could have been.)
      • Risk Mitigation: Track challenges more consistently. Figure out how many of these I really need to do each week in order to stay on track, and try to hit those numbers rather than worry about the yearly numbers.
    • Conquer my fear of failure.
      • Figure out what I would do if I weren’t working at Palantir.
        • I admittedly have taken none of the steps to network with people in various professions or problem spaces that I had set out to at the beginning of this year, but much of what I’ve learned about myself recently tells me that this isn’t the right time for any of that. Nevertheless, I have enough clarity now to say that I know generally what I would do for at least a year post-Palantir.
      • Stretch: Take a leave of absence from work or quit and do my own things for 3-6 months or leave my current job to work on something more risky.
        • While I haven’t yet committed to leaving my job, I have asked Palantir to send me to France and, while I intend to keep an open mind about this, I do have a timeline along which I am mentally committed to leaving lacking any large changes.
    • Conquer my fear of rejection.
      • Get rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things.
        • I haven’t done a very good job of tracking this, but don’t think I’ve hit 50 unique things so far. I’d guess I’ve done on the order of 20 different rejection challenges of varying difficulties including:
          • Asking several attractive women out on a date.
            • I only ever do this when I’m genuinely interested and want to get to know someone better.
          • Going on some dates with attractive women.
            • Again, I only ever go on dates when I’m genuinely interested.
          • Attending a speed dating event.
          • Asking for a kitchen tour at Joya in Palo Alto.
          • Asking random strangers at the mall for a high five.
          • Asking strangers on University Ave if they’d be willing to take a picture with me.
          • Generally trying to get to know co-workers that I otherwise have no reason to talk to (e.g. sitting with a random new group of total strangers at meal time).
        • Risk Mitigation: Track challenges more consistently. Figure out how many of these I really need to do each week in order to stay on track, and try to hit those numbers rather than worry about the yearly numbers.
      • Complete at least Foundation Level 2 improv at BATS.
        • Finished this one in March!
    • Conquer my fear of sharks.
      • Go swimming in a shark cage.
        • I actually think I wouldn’t be afraid to do this today. The issue is more around time and money–I think last I checked shark caging is pretty ‘spensive.
      • I haven’t done much on this front other than swim Alcatraz despite knowing there are great white sharks in San Francisco Bay.
      • Risk Mitigation: Put together a fear hierarchy for exposure to sharks which I can use to gradually combat my irrational fear/anxiety when around them.
    • Conquer my fear of spiders.
      • Hold a tarantula in my hand without freaking out.
        • Most of the issue here is that this goal is, itself, entirely too hard for me to tackle from the outset. I definitely need smaller, more realistic goals leading up to this and I’ve failed to define those so far.
      • I’ve done very little on this front.
      • Risk Mitigation: Put together a fear hierarchy for exposure to spiders which I can use to gradually combat my irrational fear/anxiety when around them.
    • Conquer my fear of falling.
      • Go bungee jumping.
      • Go rock climbing outdoors.
      • Stretch: Go lead climbing outdoors.
        • I haven’t been climbing outdoors yet, but I did take a lead climbing class, and I do now have a lead climbing certification card at Planet Granite. This has done a lot to help me get over the fear of falling.
    • Conquer my fear of open water.
      • Complete an Alcatraz swim.
      • Complete scuba certification.
      • Stretch: Go on 2 additional dives after certification.
        • I’ve actually gone on 3 dives past my certification! Twice in San Diego, and once in Nice, France.
      • All of the key results have been accomplished for this one, but I’ve noticed that I am still irrationally afraid of swimming in open water alone. Large groups like a swim race aren’t a problem, and I strangely don’t feel a lot of fear while scuba diving (perhaps because I’m always with a guide?). I think I could plan to push myself further here, but I may leave continued progress on this one to next year in order to hit some of my other goals.
  • Become confident around attractive women.
    • Ask out at least one woman I find attractive each week in person.
    • Go on at least one Tinder date.
      • I haven’t gone on a single Tinder date :P. I did go on a Coffee Meets Bagel date, but I honestly find it hard to genuinely connect with a complete stranger over text. Pretty much all of the dates I’ve been on this year have been with people I met somehow in real life, and then asked out later either in person or by  message.
    • I realized pretty immediately after I wrote my resolutions that these key results are awful and needed to be altered.
      • “Ask out at least one woman I find attractive each week in person” is entirely too aggressive given my comfort level, given that I’m extremely picky, and given that I don’t meet new women that often.
      • “Go on at least one Tinder date” isn’t something that I can immediately control, nor is it necessarily a good proxy for the actual goal here.
    • Overall, I actually feel like I’m doing well here. At the beginning of this year, I felt like I had no idea at all what I was doing when it came to asking attractive people out, or being a normal human being (as opposed to a puddle) when talking to them, or dating them. At this point, I feel pretty comfortable with just being honest and just being myself. I’ve found that if I express my honest attraction to a woman directly and confidently, I can walk away feeling like I have paid her one of the highest compliments I can give regardless of whether or not she agrees to see me. I’ve also found that I’m very happy with who I am and how I communicate with others in my most natural of states–I’m usually a little sarcastic and dry, but overall I like to think I’m a fun and amusing person to hang out with–most of my anxiety around attractive women comes from being too worried about her perception of me and therefore failing to be present. Anyway, to summarize: I feel like I’m probably on the average side of dating ability now, whereas before I really just didn’t feel like I had any idea what I was doing. I’m still afraid of the idea of walking up to a total stranger and trying to get to know her from there and I’d like to feel like I can handle myself in that situation, but I’m doing OK.
  • Read more.
    • Learn to speed read.
      • Read a book about speed reading.
      • Watch speed reading lectures I have saved.
        • Didn’t do this, but am replacing knowledge-oriented key results with just time practicing at this point.
      • I haven’t been practicing consistently, but I did purchase some software (7 Speed Reading) which I think would get me to where I want to be if I just used it for 20-30 minutes regularly.
      • Risk Mitigation: Commit to doing 20-30 minutes of speed reading practice every other day.
    • Read at least 40 books.
      • So far I’ve read about 20 books, so I’m tracking well here. 80% of those books were read in the first 3 months of the year, however, so I have slowed down and that does present some risk to completing this.
  • Become a polyglot.
    • Become fluent in French.
      • Spend at least 1 hour each day learning French.
        • I was fairly consistently at 30-60 minutes for awhile at the beginning, but have been learning a little bit more passively since. So far I’ve memorized ~1000 of the most frequent French words, did a few language exchanges through italki.com, studied a grammar book and did a large number of exercises, and spent 10 days in France realizing that I still suck at talking to people. Right now I’m mostly doing things to increase my exposure to natural French language like playing video games (Skyrim aka Bordeciel is awesome for this haha), reading books, and watching TV.
      • Earn the DELF B2 French language qualification or higher.
        • I haven’t taken a super official test, but I do have a McGraw-Hill certificate stating that I passed one of their B2-level French diagnostic tests. This was probably the lowest test score I’ve had in my life (#asianproblems), but I passed… on the second try haha.
        • Stretch: Earn the DELF C1 French language qualification or higher.
      • Read Harry Potter in French.
        • I have the first book in French both on Kindle and on Audible and have done a few sessions where I read along while I listen, but progress is a little slower than I’d hoped. I’m actually having more success with L’Alchemiste by Paulo Coelho, perhaps because it’s one of my favorite books and I’ve already read it multiple times in English.
      • Risk Mitigation: Hoping to spend about 6 months in France starting in August. Ahead of that, I need to focus more of my attention on actually talking to native French speakers. Book studying is great, but not really what I need right now.
    • Future: Become fluent in Chinese (Mandarin).
    • Future: Become fluent in Japanese.
    • Future: Become fluent in Spanish.
  • See the beauty and strength of which my body is capable.
    • While I haven’t exactly let my fitness languish, and I’m still in pretty good shape, I haven’t made much real progress towards my goals here in the past few months.
    • Qualify for the Boston Marathon.
      • Strategy here was to break through to a 5K time that would extrapolate out to a Boston-qualifying marathon, then work up to the same for a 10K, then a half marathon, and finally a marathon. I’ve come close to the fitness level required for the 5K (~6:00/mi), but in boosting my run intensity I’ve struggled with knee injuries. I’ve spent much of the last few months in physical therapy, but if I’m being totally honest with myself I know I could also be doing more to speed my recovery so I can get back to racing. As is, this goal is at risk, and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that I’ll qualify for the 2018 Boston Marathon.
      • Risk Mitigation: I need to double down on my physical therapy exercises to make sure I can keep running in the long-term. Additionally, I’d like to try a few different things with my training. Boosting intensity on shorter distances is definitely helping my speed, but I think it could also do a lot for me to simply train back up to marathon endurance and continue competing in races to just chip away at my personal record.
    • Develop a 6-pack.
      • Still just have the 4 on top with no sign of the bottom 2 underneath the blubber.
      • Get down to 9% body fat.
        • Started at about 15%, still at about 15% :/. Finding that discipline with food is hard for me especially when the company I work for offers all-you-can-eat meals 3 times a day. (I know, I know… world’s smallest fiddle here…)
      • Do an abdominal workout three times a week.
      • Risk Mitigation: Well, my physical therapist has also recommended lower abdominal exercises, so I don’t have much excuse anymore here. I’d like to focus more on the diet aspect of this. It blows my mind that I was able to get myself to exercise for 20 hours a week to complete an endurance event, but not eating things is so hard. Ideally, I start planning my meals and combine calorie restriction with ketosis. I’ve also started experimenting with intermittent fasting as a method of achieving some basic calorie restriction and to help pull me into ketosis more quickly. Honestly, much of this is bro science, but the first step is building the discipline to hold to a routine long enough to determine if it’s working. Ketosis seems to work well for me since most of my guilty pleasure free calories come from carbohydrates like desserts and snacks… :(.
    • Stretch: Lift weights three times a week.
  • Improve my ability to regulate and compartmentalize thoughts and emotions, especially negative and anxious thoughts and emotions such as fear or insecurity.
    • I haven’t been amazing about the key results here, but I’ve found that through a combination of rejection challenges and self-administered cognitive behavioral therapy, many of the skills for doing this are becoming increasingly internalized.
    • The single most helpful thought for this has been remembering always that “this, too, shall pass.” This thought helps with not panicking when things aren’t going great, and helps provide perspective to not take feeling great for granted so I notice why I feel great when I do. I can then optimize for making things that usually lead to me feeling great happen more often.
    • Meditate for 20 minutes every day.
      • I’m a bit on and off with this. I have long streaks where I’m good about it, and long streaks where I’m not. I do best with this when I make it part of a routine and meditate early in the morning when it feels like I have all the time in the world.
      • Risk Mitigation: I’ve definitely found that consistently waking up early (6AM or 7AM) and meditating first thing completely kills the excuse of “I don’t have time” or “I don’t have energy.” When I actually wake up several hours before the work day, I feel like I have all the time and energy in the world to do these things.
    • Write in a journal at least once a week.
      • I’ve written a few journal entries, but mostly this tends to happen when there’s a lot on my mind and I just need to get it out of my head. So I haven’t been super consistent about this, but I’d also say that once a week is probably a bit too frequent.
  • Become more politically active.
    • Become more politically informed.
      • I have books picked out for all of these categories, but haven’t read them yet. I have, however, read a number of biographies of political and philosophical figures I admire including Martin Luther King, Bruce Lee, Joe Biden, and Ben Franklin.
      • Read at least 2 books about healthcare issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about global warming and environmental issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about education issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about immigration and globalization.
      • Read at least 2 books about economics.
      • Read at least 2 books about political theory and political philosophy.
      • Risk Mitigation: Not sure there’s much I can do here but read more, and focus more of my reading time on these books rather than whatever else appeals in the moment.

 

On January 1, 2016, I started a personal tradition of committing my New Year’s Resolutions and yearly goals to paper and sharing them for all to see. I’m continuing this practice in 2017 because the true commitment to those goals, the pressure from having incremental milestones, and the higher stakes from making them public really gave my year and my life a sense of direction and purpose I had never experienced before.

I used to spend exorbitant amounts of my free time doing things that felt meaningless and unproductive like binging on video games or TV. Where before I might find myself bored in my free time or searching for something to do, now I find myself energized to use nearly every free moment of my time to accomplish my goals. I’ve always known that professional growth is important, but I’ve learned that the growth I find in my own pursuits is just as important if not even more so. Where before I might have let myself throw my free time into work or school, now I find myself protecting that time aggressively, drawing boundaries that ultimately make me a better professional and a happier, more interesting, and more fulfilled person. I used to wonder when or how or if I’m going to get the life I want, but now I feel like I have the roadmap to get there, I just need to follow it and make a little progress every day.

The roadmap on its own, however, is just one part of the picture. The other part is a cycle of regular review, reflection, and introspection which helps me make sure that I’m holding the right map, that it’s not upside-down, and that I’m progressing down the path as quickly as I can. 6 months into last year, I conducted a mid year review where I forced myself to think about where I was doing well, where I needed to redouble my efforts, and what I had learned along the way. This post is meant to be the same thing for the end of 2016.

Review

Overview

This year’s goals were somewhat eclipsed by the longer-term goal to complete an Ironman Triathlon, which I decided to accelerate in August and ultimately accomplished at the end of November. Unfortunately, doing this meant a conscious sacrifice of many of my other goals. Sacrificing everything else wasn’t an easy decision, but here’s why I did it:

  1. Training for some of the longer legs of the Ironman (like the cycling) was taking the majority of my time and energy on the weekends, making it much harder to make consistent progress on some of the other goals.
  2. After completing a 100mi bike ride I realized that I had enough fitness and training momentum to complete an Ironman before the year ended. Building that fitness and momentum takes a lot of time, so it made sense to capitalize on what I already had and take it to the finish.
  3. Training for an Ironman in general is a very time-consuming process (~20 hours/week of exercising) and I realized that I wanted that time back for other things like tackling other goals, seeing friends, and romance.

If I’m completely honest with myself, I think there’s also an element to which I knew I was in a little bit of trouble for some of my other goals. My options were to either: a) push hard to complete them or b) push hard to complete an Ironman and feel justified in not completing the rest. Had I not chosen to compete in the Ironman, I think I would have reached about 80% completion on these goals. As it is, I reached 50-60% completion but also completed an Ironman. I don’t regret my choice.

Goals

  • Complete a standard distance triathlon (0.93mi swim, 24.8mi bike, 6.2mi run).
    • Ironman.
  • Complete a 2.4-mile ocean swim.
    • Ironman!
  • Complete a 112-mile bicycle ride.
    • Ironman!!
  • Stretch: Complete a long distance triathlon (1.86mi swim, 49.6mi bike, 12.4mi run).
    • IRONMAN!!
  • Super Super Stretch: Complete an Ironman Triathlon (2.4mi swim, 112mi bike, 26.22mi run).
    • Basically, I killed this whole set of Ironman-related goals very, very dead :).
    • Wasn’t actually supposed to do this in 2016.
  • Complete the Duolingo French track.
  • Read 52 books.
  • Lift weights three times a week.
    • ~60% completion.
    • Dropped in favor of Ironman training, which did not include weight workouts.
  • Do an abdominal workout three times a week.
    • ~60% completion.
    • Dropped in favor of Ironman training, which did not include dedicated abdominal workouts (but my core nevertheless got pretty shredded ;).
  • Get scuba certified.
    • Pool training done, ocean trips still pending.
    • Dropped in favor of Ironman training, which made it very hard to find a weekend I could spend in Monterey instead of exercising.
  • Meditate for 20 minutes every day.
    • ~30% completion.
    • Might have been able to make time for this one, but continually failed to make it part of a routine. When Ironman training started, “I don’t have enough time” became an excuse again because I barely had enough time to finish a 60+ hour work week and 20 hours of weekly training.
    • Easy to stop meditating when I don’t feel like I need it to deal with whatever is going on in life, but important to remember that meditation helps me practice important skills and mindsets that. If disaster strikes and I’m not still good at those skills, I’m screwed.
  • Go on at least 4 scuba diving trips.
    • Dropped in favor of Ironman training, which prevented me from completing my scuba certification.
  • Pass the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) Level 3 test.
    • Dropped in favor of Ironman training, since I barely had energy for both work and training. Didn’t feel that I could commit myself to daily Chinese practice without overcommitting myself.
  • Stretch: Pass the TOCFL Level 4 test.
  • Earn the DELF B1 French language qualification.
    • Also dropped in favor of Ironman training.
  • Stretch: Earn the DELF B2 French language qualification or higher.
  • Get down to 9% body fat.
    • Ended up around 15% body fat, which is more-or-less where I started.
    • Could probably have done more to focus on this earlier in the year. Really requires watching diet and nutrition very closely, and in order to lose body fat one generally needs to calorie restrict to some degree. Once Ironman training started and I was burning an extra 1,000 to 2,000 calories every day I was not willing to calorie restrict and pretty much just let myself eat whatever I wanted.

Learnings

In sharing my learnings, I use the second person because it’s convenient, but I know that it can come across as arrogant, condescending, or pedantic. I want to be clear: this is what works for me. Everyone works a little differently so I don’t presume that my learnings are universal. I have no interest in forcing my opinion or my way on others. I do, however, think some people will find these reflections helpful, so I encourage you to be honest with yourself, take what’s useful, and leave the rest. If you find my learnings helpful or interesting and want to talk about them or want advice on how to apply them to your own goals, please feel free to reach out!

Articulate Your “Why”s

I have come to believe that the most important part of thinking through my goals is articulating the “why” behind what I want to do. Sure, milestones and action plans are important and they make it look like you’re going to do something, even give you a framework and a set of deadlines for doing so, but none of these things by themselves will motivate you.

When I’m feeling down, or unmotivated, or tired the only thing I have found consistently remotivating is remembering why you set out to achieve something in the first place. Write it all down when you’re feeling fired up and excited about it. Read it again when you’ve forgotten how to feel that way. Your own words will inspire you to action.

Don’t Be Afraid to Change the Plan

I spent a lot of time thinking about how specifically I was going to achieve my goals in 2016. I broke it down into careful steps and milestones. I made sure everything was actionable and only dependent on my taking action. However, I’ve found that no matter how meticulous or thorough you thought you were at the outset, you cannot see the future. As you get into the work of actually making progress on your goals, you may discover that what you originally planned doesn’t work well for you, or that there’s a better way (in fact, it’s only a week into 2017 and I’ve already realized that some of my written milestones, approaches, and actions for this year’s goals need to be reworked). That is okay! Re-strategize as needed, and optimize for what works best for you.

You’re allowed to hit bumps along the way and you’re allowed to course correct. Just don’t give up.

Pace Yourself

When I get really into thinking about all of the things I want to do and how I’m going to do them, I get really fired up. Then I get impatient, then I push myself too hard, and then I burn out and make less progress in the long-term than I would have if I had just paced myself.

For example, in committing to learn French this year I know I impatiently want to be fluent in the language as fast as I can so I can move on to other languages. Because I’m impatient, I could commit myself to several hours of French study every day. However, in a few months things will change, work might be more busy, or other goals will start pulling my attention. If I feel like I need to keep up with several hours a day to be successful at French, I put myself in jeopardy of just not doing it at all because of the amount of energy it sounds like it will take. Alternatively, if I set myself a fairly easy daily goal like, say, 30-60 minutes of French every day, I can pace myself in a more sustainable way and avoid burn out or demotivation when other things in life start to pick up.

Resolve to Complete the Goal on Your Own, Welcome Friends Along for the Ride

When you want to work at something and you have friends who are working towards the same goals, it can be incredibly helpful and incredibly motivating. However, if I become dependent on the external motivation of my friends encouraging me or working toward a goal with me, on some level I put my ability to achieve that goal in their hands. If they’re not feeling like working out today, then maybe I won’t go, either.

Instead, of falling into this trap, I try to make sure that I’m working towards my goals for me (having a well-articulated “why” really helps here). Then I make sure that I’m doing what I think I need to do to get there, and I invite friends headed in the same direction to come along if they’d like, but I don’t stop the show if their motivation wanes. It’s sort of the difference between saying “I’m going biking with these friends weekend” and saying “I’m going biking this weekend. It would be awesome if these friends feel like coming, but I’m going with or without them.”

Don’t Beat Yourself Up When You Miss a Milestone

I’m generally pretty hard on myself, so I’m terrible at this one, but in the long-term I’ve never found it helpful to beat myself up for missing a milestone or missing a workout. Sure, it’s better if I don’t, but in the event that I do if I beat myself up over it it’s easier to completely lose momentum and I’m much more likely to just give up. Instead, better to forgive yourself for our past transgressions, realize that I can’t change the past, and then focus on getting today’s task done.

As a corollary to this, I’ve found that “making work up later” is also generally not a good idea. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed when I do this to myself as “punishment” because if, for example, I didn’t find 60 minutes for French yesterday, I’m twice as unlikely to find 120 minutes for French today. Because I don’t think I can make up yesterday, I might not even do today’s work because the perceived amount of mental expenditure is too high.

“I Don’t Have Time” Is a Terrible Excuse

I’m stealing this from somewhere else I can’t remember exactly where, but every time I think “I don’t have time” I like to replace those words with “It’s not important to me” and then see how I feel. Since we have a finite amount of time to spend on the things that are important to us, life is never-ending game of prioritization. If you’re not finding time to fit something into your life, it’s because, by definition, something else has been prioritized above it. And that’s okay–certain things really are more important than others. However, when I say “I don’t have time,” I find it much harder to be honest with myself about this. In fact, sometimes when I say “___ isn’t important to me” instead, I get back a statement that really doesn’t resonate with me. When that happens, I’m forced to re-examine and sometimes reshuffle my priorities, which is a good thing :).

For example, I might say “I don’t have time to exercise.” When I rephrase this to say “Exercising isn’t important to me,” I kind of feel like I’m saying my health isn’t important to me, which causes alarm bells to go off in my head. Usually after that I find time :P.

Give Yourself a Break Every Once in a While

Everyone needs breaks to just do nothing once in awhile. It’s not worth beating yourself up over it, and often taking a break from something leaves you feeling more refreshed and able to do get things done in the long-term. Better to acknowledge that breaks are a good and necessary thing and just build them into your schedule!

“There’s a million things I haven’t done just you wait!” –Hamilton

I was born on New Year’s Day, so I’m big on New Year’s resolutions. Last year I started a personal tradition of writing out my resolutions, really thinking them through, and then publishing them online for all to see. I go through this exercise because I know how easy it is to promise yourself you’ll do something in a given year, and then not to make meaningful progress towards that goal or to abandon it completely by March. Instead, I use my New Year’s resolutions as an annual check-in to examine where I think I really need to grow in life and organize specific, measurable, and actionable goals around them. I make these resolutions public in the hope that it will inspire others to take their goals seriously and live life purposefully. I also make these resolutions public because telling the world I’m going to do something and then not following through sounds pretty embarrassing :P.

Summary

  • Conquer my fears and insecurities by cultivating courage.
    • Do at least 150 things total that scare me this year. (Does not have to be 150 unique things if appropriate level of fear is still present.)
    • Conquer my fear of failure.
      • Figure out what I would do if I weren’t working at Palantir.
        • Network with people in non-tech career paths that I’m interested in.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who went to law school after an engineering career.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who went to business school after an engineering career.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who work in legislation.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who work in policy.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who work in politics.
          • Talk to an Air National Guard recruiter.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who have joined the Air National Guard.
        • Network with people working on small companies doing things I care about.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on healthcare issues.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on education issues.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on environmental issues.
          • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on social issues that don’t match the above.
        • Stretch: Take a leave of absence from work or quit and do my own thing for 3-6 months or leave my current job to work on something more risky.Conquer my fear of failure.
    • Conquer my fear of rejection.
      • Get rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things.
      • Complete at least Foundation Level 2 improv at BATS.
    • Conquer my fear of sharks.
      • Go swimming in a shark cage.
    • Conquer my fear of spiders.
      • Hold a tarantula in my hand without freaking out.
    • Conquer my fear of falling.
      • Go bungee jumping.
      • Go rock climbing outdoors.
      • Stretch: Go lead climbing outdoors.
    • Conquer my fear of open water.
      • Complete an Alcatraz swim.
      • Complete scuba certification.
      • Stretch: Go on 2 additional dives after being certified.
  • Become confident around attractive women.
    • Ask out at least one woman I find attractive each week in person.
    • Go on at least one Tinder date.
  • Read more.
    • Learn to speed read.
      • Read a book about speed reading.
      • Watch speed reading lectures I have saved.
    • Read at least 40 books.
  • Become a polyglot.
    • Become fluent in French.
      • Spend at least 1 hour each day learning French.
      • Earn the DELF B2 French language qualification or higher.
        • Stretch: Earn the DELF C1 French language qualification or higher.
      • Read Harry Potter in French.
    • Future: Become fluent in Chinese.
    • Future: Become fluent in Japanese.
    • Future: Become fluent in Spanish.
  • See the beauty and strength of which my body is capable.
    • Develop a 6-pack.
      • Get down to 9% body fat.
      • Do an abdominal workout three times a week.
    • Qualify for the Boston Marathon.
    • Stretch: Lift weights three times a week.
  • Improve my ability to regulate and compartmentalize thoughts and emotions, especially negative and anxious thoughts and emotions such as fear or insecurity.
    • Meditate for 20 minutes every day.
    • Write in a journal at least once a week.
  • Become more politically active.
    • Become more politically informed.
      • Read at least 2 books about healthcare issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about global warming and environmental issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about education issues.
      • Read at least 2 books about immigration and globalization.
      • Read at least 2 books about economics.
      • Read at least 2 books about political theory and political philosophy.

Detail

Objective: Conquer my fears and insecurities by cultivating courage.

Why

“You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.” –Aristotle

I believe that I need two main virtues in order to accomplish everything I want in life: the courage to dream, and the discipline to execute. Last year I completed an Ironman Triathlon which, for me, was the ultimate test of my discipline. I now have very little doubt that if I put my mind to something I’ll find a way to make it happen. Instead, I now find myself constrained by what I’m willing to dream up.

Like most people, there are plenty of things I’m afraid of–failure, rejection, and spiders to name a few. Some of these fears dictate the life I live in obvious ways: the fear of failure makes me more afraid to quit my job and start a company, the fear of rejection makes me more afraid to talk to that cute girl over there or show my true self around others, and the fear of spiders makes me scream like a young child and flee in the opposite direction 😛 (ok, it’s not quite that bad, but you get the idea). However, these same fears often control me in more subtle but no less pernicious ways. For example, my fears can lead me to seek comfort, certainty, and stagnation rather than discomfort, uncertainty, and growth. The quest for comfort can even trick me into believing that I don’t want to start my own company, when really I’m just afraid of failure, or that I want to be single right now, when really I might just be afraid of rejection. The quest for certainty biases me towards defining things in blacks and whites, towards over planning and overthinking, and keeps me from fully embracing life which can so often be beautifully messy, gray, and uncertain. Furthermore, it can be hard to be honest with myself about fear which makes it hard to tell if I truly want or don’t want something for legitimately good reasons, or if I’m just searching for rationalizations to mask my fear and avoid discomfort.

Escaping from this invisible prison of the mind and cultivating courage is my top priority this year. I want to do things that scare me. I want to lean into discomfort wherever I can find it. I want to embrace uncertainty. I want to be sure I live the life I do because I choose to, not because I’m afraid of the alternatives.

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” –Unknown

Notes

There are a couple of different kinds of courage. There’s the more tangible and visceral courage involved in facing fears of corporeal things like spiders or sharks, and then there’s the more intangible and psychological courage involved in facing fears like a fear of failure or fear of rejection. At their root, I think these two types of courage are linked and cultivating one also cultivates the other, so I make no distinction between them.

As an example: my little sister recently taught me how to put a candle out with just my fingers. Once she had done it, I knew it was possible. Once she told me how she did it, I knew intellectually that it I could do it. However, even knowing intellectually that I could do it, I hesitated to touch the flame. I feared that if I did it wrong, I’d burn myself and get hurt. In that moment, I realized that the emotions and discomfort I felt were pretty much the exact same as what I have felt right before asking a girl out. In other words, the fear or the flame and the fear or rejection sparked the same set of feelings. Learning to become comfortable with those feelings and quickly move past them in either setting will certainly help with the other.

With such an aggressive set of goals overall, I’m not yet comfortable fully taking the steps I think I need to in order to conquer my fear of failure. Instead, I’m committing to doing some of the prep work to determine what my next career step might look like.

I’ve stolen the idea of getting rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things from Jia Jiang, who wrote Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible Through 100 Days of Rejection, one of the most memorable books I read last year.

Some of the key results here overlap. For example, I’m sure I will get my fair share of rejections asking women out this year, and I’m sure working up to talking to those women will initially freak me out. I’m expecting the overlap, but have designed this so I’m still forced to get creative with things that scare me (even if I complete every key result on this list, I expect to be well below 150) and with ways to get rejected.

Key Results

  • Do at least 150 things total that scare me this year. (Does not have to be 150 unique things if appropriate level of fear is still present.)
  • Conquer my fear of failure.
    • Figure out what I would do if I weren’t working at Palantir.
      • Network with people in non-tech career paths that I’m interested in.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who went to law school after an engineering career.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who went to business school after an engineering career.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who work in legislation.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who work in policy.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who work in politics.
        • Talk to an Air National Guard recruiter.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 people who have joined the Air National Guard.
      • Network with people working on small companies doing things I care about.
      • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on healthcare issues.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on education issues.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on environmental issues.
        • Identify and talk to at least 3 companies working on social issues that don’t match the above.
      • Stretch: Take a leave of absence from work or quit and do my own thing for 3-6 months or leave my current job to do something more risky.
  • Conquer my fear of rejection.
    • Get rejected at least 100 times trying 100 different things.
    • Complete at least Foundation Level 2 improv at BATS.
    • See “Become confident around attractive women.”
  • Conquer my fear of sharks.
    • Go swimming in a shark cage.
  • Conquer my fear of falling.
    • Go bungee jumping.
    • Go rock climbing outdoors.
    • Stretch: Go lead climbing outdoors.
  • Conquer my fear of spiders.
    • Hold a tarantula in my hand without freaking out.
  • Conquer my fear of open water.
    • Complete an Alcatraz swim.
    • Complete scuba certification.
    • Stretch: Go on 2 additional dives after becoming certified.

Milestones

  • End of Q1:
    • Complete scuba certification.
    • Get some professional swim coaching and bring my mile swim time below 40 minutes.
    • Register for an Alcatraz swim.
    • Complete Foundation Level 1 improv at BATS.
  • End of Q2:
    • Complete an Alcatraz swim.
    • Complete Foundation Level 2 improv at BATS.
    • Complete 75 total things that scare me.
    • Get rejected at least 50 times trying 50 different things.

Objective: Become confident around attractive women.

Why

This is a complicated one for me, and probably even deserves its own post.

I want to learn from my mistakes in order to grow and my relationship/dating history has no shortage of useful nuggets. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on past experiences–what went right? what went wrong? what might I have done differently? what might my partners have done differently? In order to contextualize my experiences, I read a number of books about dating and relationships last year.

Many of the ideas I’ve come across in these books have been incredibly enlightening. Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help YouFind – and Keep – Love by Amir Levine and Rachel S. F. Heller helped me become more aware of how/why I behave in romantic relationships and how/why others behave in romantic relationships. That awareness has enabled me to consciously make different choices than I have in the past and given me hope that I can do better. Models: Attract Women Through Honesty by Mark Manson gave me hope that there’s a way to approach dating that is consistent with my standards of honesty, respect, and integrity.

At the same time, some of the ideas have been extremely uncomfortable. In The Manual: What Women Want and How to Give It to Them, W. Anton paints a picture of dating that, while possibly accurate, feels like it doesn’t hold men to a high enough standard. Anton writes about how men must appear “dominant” because it’s masculine and attractive or should not apologize to women too often because it shows a lack of confidence. Further, it often felt like Anton’s singular goal is to seduce women in order to bed them, though he still tries to frame it all as a personal journey. There were moments when I almost abandoned The Manual, but I kept reading because I know there’s growth in discomfort and it’s rare for a book to challenge my assumptions on such a deep and visceral level.

The contrast between the ideas in all these books has made apparent that I must adopt my own philosophy for dating. For example, I don’t believe in the “dominant” approach. Dominance may be a classically male characteristic, but I believe we only speak of dominance over those who are less than us, and I refuse to approach or pursue anyone who I believe is anything less than my equal, or to treat them as anything less than my equal. Additionally, I find the notion that a man should not apologize to women too often ridiculous. Perhaps it looks more confident and self-assured, but I believe it takes honor and courage to admit one’s mistakes and I value these things in an individual far more than I value confidence. I can’t argue that Anton is wrong–perhaps his methods work–but I can choose a philosophy more consistent with my values.

Ultimately, the biggest takeaway from my reading has been that, while self-respect is the singular most important thing men need when pursuing women, the appearance of self-respect is often just as important. If a man doesn’t seem to respect himself, it’s ridiculous to expect that anyone else will respect him either, especially the attractive, self-respecting women that every man wants (or, at least, every man like me wants–I’m not convinced Anton cares if the women he attracts respect themselves or not). Furthermore, if a man doesn’t seem to respect himself his attraction isn’t as flattering to a woman because his implicit belief that he is not the best there is to offer signals to her that she isn’t really the best there is to offer, either.

Self-respect manifests itself in a few main ways: selectiveness, confidence, and boundaries. A person who really respects and values himself believes he deserves the best, and therefore settles for nothing less making him selective. A person who really respects and values himself has no doubt that he is worthy of approaching, talking to, and dating someone he finds incredibly attractive, and is comfortable being himself around her making him confident. Finally, a person who really respects and values himself will not compromise his own needs in order to meet someone else’s–healthy and happy relationships form when two people can consistently meet each other’s needs without sacrificing their own. Accomplishing this often requires boundaries.

Some men struggle with self-respect because they don’t feel successful with women, creating a circular problem. Dating books often try to solve this with a sort of “fake it until you make it” strategy, leaving men initially without true self-respect, but with the appearance of self-respect (e.g. well-scripted pick-up lines can give a man the appearance of confidence even though he doesn’t really have it). While I’m sure there’s some of this for me, I think I mostly struggle with the opposite: on many levels, I do truly respect myself, but when confronted by a woman I find extremely attractive I often fail to show it. In other words, I experience self-respect on at least an intellectual level, but I somehow fail to consistently embody that self-respect in my interactions with attractive women.

There have been times in my life when I might have argued that I didn’t really respect myself–at the beginning of my first relationship in college, for example, and at many points during it. However, at this point I have earned my own respect by adopting a value system that I am proud of–values like honor, integrity, courage, discipline, honesty–and by constantly pushing myself to live a life that exemplifies those values (writing, sharing, and accomplishing these resolutions is part of that). There will always be more work here, and I’ll never be perfect, but I am already enough.

At this point in my life, I have ridiculously high standards because I honestly believe I deserve to meet the woman of my dreams, and I refuse to settle for less–I’m happy enough on my own that I’m willing to stay single until I find her. (Note: I don’t actually believe in the concept of “the one”–the “woman of my dreams” is more of an allegory for the general type of woman and type of relationship I hope to end up with. Some parts of this are more specific, others much less so. The definition is also constantly evolving as I learn more about myself and my values.) However, I’m afraid of approaching women I find attractive due to irrational fear of rejection, which leaves my chances of meeting the woman of my dreams pretty slim. Furthermore, I get nervous if I do finally find the courage to talk to a woman I find attractive. If I make it as far as dating someone I find attractive, I have so little idea of what effective dating looks like (I’ve been on, maybe, two first dates) that I put too much effort into it and then worry I’m crossing my own boundaries or creating an imbalance in the relationship dynamic that I’m not sure any self-respecting woman could truly reciprocate. I start to second guess myself since I don’t really feel like I know what I’m doing, which can lead to feeling and acting insecure. It usually doesn’t end well.

In truth, I’ve known I’ve had this problem for awhile, and have been meaning to do something about it. In fact, I had been preparing to take action earlier last year, when I first began to identify what it is I’m lacking. Then I fell for someone I was really excited about. I knew there were things I wanted to work on, but I wasn’t sure if I needed to work on them before pursuing something serious. I was, however, pretty sure I would regret passing up an opportunity with someone I was that excited about. So I told her how I felt, and tried as best I could in the moment to be honest with her about what I need to work on and where my remaining insecurities lie. I was nervous to talk to her and it all came out different from how I imagined it. It still makes me cringe to think about. Nevertheless, she was gracious, understanding and accepting, and that, to me, was even more incredible. I thought that maybe if we could continue to be honest and vulnerable with each other something really could work–maybe I really didn’t need what I was missing to make it work.

We danced around the idea of a relationship for a little while, but it ultimately didn’t turn into anything serious. The reasons were, I think, complicated on both sides, and though I was disappointed, I understood that both of us would have needed to change and grow independently before something could even possibly have worked. For my part, if I’m honest with myself I now know that the confidence I’m lacking and the insecurities spawned from lacking it are truly holding me back. Because of that I no longer just want to work on building my confidence, I now know that I need to if I am to end up with the woman of my dreams. (This is not to say that the person I considered a relationship with is the woman of my dreams or that she is not–we didn’t really get far enough for me to determine.) The woman of my dreams deserves–expects, even–a man who has the confidence to sweep her off her feet, the courage to love her fearlessly, and the integrity to always be himself. I hope to become that man. I don’t think I should consider another serious relationship until I do.

Notes

I want to be clear in my intentions for this, since there’s a very fine line between confidence and narcissism or arrogance. I need to build my confidence with attractive women and my method for doing so will be to practice and put myself in more and increasingly uncomfortable situations where I risk rejection. However, I don’t intend to do this in a way that compromises on any of my values. I will continue to treat others and myself with the respect, integrity, and honesty they deserve. I will continue to be selective, and will do my best to balance the need to gain practice in various situations with not wanting to move forward with someone for the wrong reasons (paradoxically, practice is definitely a wrong reason). I don’t intend for my quest for growth here to be a closely held secret (otherwise, I wouldn’t be making it public), and do intend to be honest with the people I meet about where I am in all of this if it comes up. This is not about playing the field, this is not about casual sex, and this is not about becoming a “player” or a womanizer. This isn’t even about meeting the woman of my dreams. This is about personal growth and becoming the person the woman of my dreams dreams of, not because it’s who she will want me to be, but because it’s who I want to be.

“Be with someone that makes you happy.”

Key Results

  • Ask out at least one woman I find attractive each week in person.
  • Go on at least one Tinder date.

Milestones

  • End of Q1:
    • Feel comfortable approaching and talking to an attractive woman in a bar or club.
    • Go on a Tinder date.
    • Increase goal number of attractive women to ask out each week to two.
  • End of Q2:
    • Feel comfortable going on a first date with someone I find attractive but don’t know very well.
    • Increase goal number of attractive women to ask out each week to three.
  • End of Q3:
    • Feel comfortable approaching and talking to an attractive woman in any setting.
    • Increase goal number of attractive women to ask out each week to four.

Objective: Become a polyglot.

Why

Language is the gateway to truly experiencing a new culture. Without speaking a language, I can travel and see a foreign culture from the outside, but I’ll never be able to truly experience the culture. I’m also excited about the idea of reading books and other cultural outputs in their original language, even the best of translations can never capture everything about the original ideas encoded in the author’s choice of words in the original language.

I want to learn French so that I can, eventually, go live in Paris and attend Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in French. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll even convince Palantir to send me to Paris for 3-6 months this year.

I want to learn Chinese so that I can fully understand and experience my Taiwanese/Chinese heritage. It sucks feeling like an outsider in the country of your ancestors.

I want to learn Japanese because I’m still in love with Japanese culture, and it feels like a shame not to finish this language out after spending a year learning it in high school. Would also be fun to attend the Tokyo Sushi Academy in Japanese.

I want to learn Spanish because it’s an incredibly prevalent and useful language where in California where I live. Since Spanish is a romance language, I’m also of the notion that Spanish will be easy to learn quickly, especially once I’m done with French.

Notes

Many of last year’s goals were dropped due to accelerating my Ironman timeline, but I have found that it is hard to focus on more than one language at a time. I don’t think it’s impossible, and I think I could do it if I really put my mind to it (and sacrificed some other goals), but I’ve decided to put Chinese on the backburner to really challenge myself to reach fluency in an easier language in a shorter time frame. I think that once I’ve achieved fluency in French, the lessons I learn from the process of learning language will help to greatly accelerate my learning for other languages. I’m also trying to define fluency in more practical terms this year e.g. the ability to read a book or watch TV in a foreign language. I would also like to complete a qualification test, but most of my milestones will be in terms of more practical skills.

I’m also changing my methods this year. Instead of using tools like Duolingo, I’ll be taking a more self-directed approach to my learning as outlined in the book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner. This approach will involve using a spaced repetition system to quickly memorize vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. I’ll also be using frequency dictionaries to memorize the first 600-1000 words in my target languages so that I’ll very quickly be able to understand writing and television.

Key Results

  • Become fluent in French.
    • Spend at least 1 hour each day learning French.
    • Earn the DELF B2 French language qualification or higher.
      • Stretch: Earn the DELF C1 French language qualification or higher.
    • Read Harry Potter in French.
  • Future: Become fluent in Chinese.
  • Future: Become fluent in Japanese.
  • Future: Become fluent in Spanish.

Milestones

  • End of Q1:
    • Memorize the 1000 most frequent French words.
    • Attempt the DELF B1 French language qualification test.
  • End of Q2:
    • Attempt the DELF B2 French language qualification test.
    • Read Harry Potter in French.

Objective: Read more.

Why

The more I read, the more I fall in love with reading. I’ve read books about all kinds of topics last year, and feel like ideas from books are responsible for an impressively large proportion of my growth. This year, I hope to continue to read often, but I’m also lowering my yearly reading goal in order to make time to speed read. My hope is that by learning to speed read, I’ll have the chance to read many, many more books in the long-term. There are just too many interesting things out there to learn about!

Key Results

  • Learn to speed read.
  • Read at least 40 books this year.

Objective: See the beauty and strength of which my body is capable.

Why

Before I completed an Ironman last year, I joked frequently that I’d be content to eat popcorn on my couch for the rest of my life once it was all over. Those who know me well know that I’d go insane if I actually did that :P. Though the Ironman is done, I’ll keep exercising because it helps me destress, makes me feel and look good, and helps to build overall confidence. I’d like to see what I’m capable of before I get too old to do so.

Notes

The Ironman is done, but I’ve still got plenty of work to do. In particular, I’m hoping to compete in the Boston Marathon in 2018. The Boston Marathon is going to be tough, as it will test of speed more than a test of endurance, but I’m hoping to leverage my Ironman endurance to springboard me into Boston Marathon training. On the bright side, at this point a marathon sounds pretty short ;).

Additionally, I’m still hoping to develop a 6-pack. Last year, once I had decided to do an Ironman, I stopped messing with my nutrition (restricting calories when already burning an extra 2500 calories most days just sounded like a bad idea). This year, I’m making it a priority, and am hoping that marathon training will help.

While I’d like to keep lifting weights to maintain my upper body muscle mass, I’m not yet sure if I’ll have the time to make building more upper body muscle a priority. Thus, I’m leaving weightlifting as a stretch goal in favor of ensuring I have the time to run consistently.

Key Results

  • Develop a 6-pack.
    • Get down to 9% body fat.
    • Do an abdominal workout three times a week.
  • Qualify for the Boston Marathon.
  • Stretch: Lift weights three times a week.

Milestones

  • End of Q1:
    • Get down to 13% body fat
  • End of Q2:
    • Get down to 11% body fat
  • End of Q3:
    • Get down to 9% body fat.

Objective: Improve my ability to regulate and compartmentalize thoughts and emotions, especially negative and anxious thoughts and emotions.

Why

Over the years I’ve learned that I sometimes struggle to regulate and compartmentalize my thoughts and emotions. Often this means getting caught in negative thought and emotion loops, which spiral downward. When I’m in this state, it’s really hard to maintain a positive perspective. Being stuck in these loops negatively affects how I perceive the world, perceive others’ actions, and how I react to things.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten a lot better at managing this with practice. Through meditation, I’m learning to become more aware of when I’m in a negative loop or beginning to enter one and learning to accept and then let go of thoughts and feelings rather than hold tightly onto them. Once I’m aware of what’s going on, I can sometimes compensate and restabilize.

I think there’s still work to do on this front, however. I’d like to get to a point where I regulate automatically! Additionally, getting better at being aware of and letting go of emotions should also help me break through the feelings of fear, anxiety, and discomfort I expect to feel while cultivating courage this year.

Key Results

  • Meditate for 20 minutes every day.
  • Write in a journal at least once each week.

Objective: Become more politically active.

Why

When Donald Trump was elected president last year, I was still spending most of my free time training for an Ironman. After the election, part of me was frustrated that I hadn’t done more to make sure the values I hold dear are defended and upheld in our government. I think a lot of liberals, myself included, were shaken out of complacency last year.

The rise of anti-intellectualism and populism around the world concerns me. Demagogues are popping up everywhere to take advantage of isolationist fears and tendencies brought about by globalization and terrorism. I worry more and more that the peace the world has enjoyed during my short life is unstable, that rational thought is being cast out in favor of blind emotion, and that most politicians today don’t truly embody principles that I can respect or admire.

Longer-term, I hope to do something about this. I think the first step is to educate myself, so I plan to read a number of books both about political theory in general and about specific issues relevant in today’s world. Once I have more of a stance on how things should be, I’ll be ready to take more direct action to make it a reality.

Key Results

  • Become more politically informed.
    • Read at least 2 books about healthcare issues.
    • Read at least 2 books about global warming and environmental issues.
    • Read at least 2 books about education issues.
    • Read at least 2 books about immigration and globalization.
    • Read at least 2 books about economics.
    • Read at least 2 books about political theory and political philosophy.

On overworked legs, I pass a sign that says, “El dolor es temporal pero la gloria es para siempre”–pain is temporary, but glory is forever.

I hold this thought in my mind as I reflect on the past 14 hours over which I’ve endured a 2.4-mile swim with multiple jellyfish stings, a 112-mile bike ride with indigestion, and most of a 26.2-mile run with several stops to puke my guts out.

My legs ache, and I’m pretty certain I’ve sustained stress fractures or worse, but I’m still on my feet, and I’m still moving. I can’t stop. I won’t stop. Hundreds of cheering voices impel me to summon what little strength I have left and run the last quarter mile to the finish.

And then before I know it I’m there. “DANIEL CHIU, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!!!!” the announcer shouts with more enthusiasm than my tired mind can fathom. I hobble, trip, stumble–whatever my leaden muscles can manage–across the finish line where, still in shock, I’m given a medal, and whisked away to recovery. I’m an Ironman. The pain is over. The glory is forever.

Reflection

This is the end of a very long journey. A little less than 6 months ago I finished my first triathlon, this time last year I finished my first marathon, and this time two years ago I had just finished my first 5k since leaving for college. When I started this I literally had to swallow my pride and walk laps around Lake Lag to get back into shape because my legs, heart, and lungs couldn’t take much more than that.

I set out to do this because at first it seemed impossible and I wanted to prove to myself that the limits were only in my mind. Though my personal power has grown, and my limits have been stretched, I have to admit that crossing the Ironman finish line was underwhelming. At first, I thought this was because of the shock and exhaustion–all I wanted to do right after the race was sit my ass down, never look at a piece of food ever again, and nap somewhere warm for the next several millennia.

What I’ve realized in the two weeks since finishing the race is that the 13 hours, 58 minutes, and 16 seconds it took me to complete an Ironman isn’t actually what made me an Ironman. It’s not as if the final step of that marathon transformed me into a fundamentally different person. Instead, I believe I became an Ironman little by little, step by step, over the course of the past two years.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from this experience–other than that you should always chew your goddamn food–is that personal growth isn’t about medals or accolades, but about journeys. It’s about the little challenges we face everyday, the choices we make, and who we decide to be even when nobody’s looking. I am who I am today–an Ironman–not because I crossed a finish line and earned a medal, but because I decided to put my sneakers on everyday, rain or shine, and train; because I resolved to do so even on those days when I lost sight of the goal and didn’t want to–yes, I have those days, too; and because I chose to push myself to keep going even when parts of me wanted to give up.

Truthfully, this is a journey I strongly believe anyone can take; there’s nothing fundamentally different or special about me. Perhaps the goal doesn’t have to be an Ironman, but we all have the occasional lofty dream we think is impossible. I encourage you to chase it–the limits are so often in our minds. Maybe it doesn’t feel within your power now, but with the courage to dream something crazy and the discipline to pursue it passionately, relentlessly, and consistently, it will be before you know it.

Acknowledgements

I want to thank everyone who supported me, encouraged me, and cheered me on from afar.

Additionally, there are a few really incredible people in my life who I want to specifically call out. Behind every Ironman is a kick-ass Ironman support crew. Here’s mine:

To my Dad: Thank you for always doing what you can to support me. Thank you for making it to my track meets and cross country races when I was younger. Thank you for being my coach on those days when I needed you there to time my intervals around the track. Thank you for always doing everything medically in your power to keep me happy, healthy, and in the game. Thank you for letting me steal your amazing bike to finish this race. I don’t honestly think I could have done this without you.

To my Mom: Thank you for supporting and encouraging me despite being terrified for my safety and wellness. Thank you for always making sure I’m doing OK and that I’m taking care of myself. Thank you for raising me to believe in myself and that anything is possible. For better or for worse, I don’t think I would have turned out crazy enough to try this without your parenting.

To Rhed: Thank you for being there with me on race day. I can’t imagine having gone to Mexico  without you. Thank you for so often being patient with me and for dealing with my ego (he escapes sometimes). Thank you for being an incredible friend, a brother, a comrade. Congratulations to you on your momentous achievement. Nobody can ever take this away from you.

To Yushi: Thank you for believing in me enough to come along for the ride. Thank you for training with me–for the long runs, the long bike rides, and the big meals. I eagerly await your Ironman race day. Don’t you dare give up. There’s no time like the present.

To Josephine: Thank you for being an amazing friend and supporter. I had your emotional support when I finished my first marathon, my first triathlon, my first century bike ride, and my first Ironman. Your being there for me and believing in me has meant more than I can say.

What’s Next?

This is the end of my Ironman journey, but it’s just the beginning of what I hope will be a life full of adventures, challenges, and growth. Expect to see me compete in the 2018 Boston Marathon. More and bigger challenges yet to come :).

There’s a moment in every hard race when your body wants to give up. In this moment your mind begins to negotiate with itself–what’s the point in going on? can’t I just take a short break? why am I doing this to myself?–a crescendo of arguments against continuing as your muscles howl in rebellion with each desperate footfall. In that moment you have a choice: listen to the cacophony of your inner voices and give up, or drown them out, grit your teeth, and remember what drives you as you find the strength to take step after step after step.

This moment–“The Wall”–is a test of mental fortitude rather than physical endurance. It requires an unshakable clarity of purpose and the knowledge that something is more important than the pain you expect to sustain. In eight short weeks I hope to complete my first Ironman Triathlon, so I’d like to rehearse here what I intend to remember when I hit The Wall on race day:

 

When I started this journey nearly two years ago I felt I had to prove to myself that I have the discipline to follow-through on the promises I make–both to myself and to others–no matter what it takes. As I stood on the threshold separating college life from the “real” world I felt I had to prove to myself that I have the power to realize my dreams–even the ones that at first sound impossible.

From that kernel came the desire to complete one of the hardest athletic challenges I could find despite still having 10 pounds of my Freshman Fifteen left to lose. In fact, when I first expressed an interest in training for an Ironman, I don’t think anyone took me seriously. Everyone says they’re going to do something like that, they must have thought, but so few people actually do. Their skepticism was fine by me–I’ve always worked best with a chip on my shoulder.

As I started training, the dream slowly but surely came into better focus. After I finished my first marathon something incredible happened: an inspired friend reached out to me and asked to start training with me. Six months later, our group grew again when we inspired my roommate to try his hand as well. In the last ten months, I’ve watched both of them go from little to no prior athletic experience to running a half marathon, completing an Olympic triathlon, and destroying a 101.8-mile cycling race. It’s hard for me to express what it’s meant to me train with them or how proud I am of them for how far they’ve come.

This journey may have started off being about proving something to myself and to everyone who doubted me, but along the way it’s become so much more. It’s become about the camaraderie I feel when I train alongside my friends and watch them achieve things they never believed they could. It’s become about inspiring others to believe as I believe: that often limits only exist where we create them for ourselves. It’s become about proving that this power I have found within myself is not uniquely mine, but instead something we all have latent inside.

So I take this step, and the next, and every other grueling step between here and the finish line for myself, for my friends, and for anyone who dares to dream impossible dreams and seeks the power within to realize them.

Let’s go get ‘em.