flexibility many doors

Challenge #4: Removing the Middleman

I told everyone that I would work to create a simple summary of my current life plan. Well, my two weeks are up!

Making a life plan: Why you should try this 

Writing notes in a notepad

We all want to achieve something in this life. While it's difficult to conquer our goals, it can be nearly impossible when you don't even know what the goals are! The difficult part isn't desiring something, but staying on track and reaching the endpoint. The first step to overcoming this problem is to clearly understand what exactly you want. Keeping your answer short and simple is a good way to remember it.

My book-length version

Of course, my ultimate wish is to be happy! To that end, my life plan's number one goal is to establish a flexible life. Everything else dangles off the thick branches protruding from that one towering trunk. 
In pursuit of that goal, I became a self-employed businessman and blogger. I founded the company as a way to learn about foundational business concepts. It's also teaching me how to design a life around my ideal work-life balance. And I publish the blog to document the journey. You can read more about the idea behind the project on "About This Blog."

Interest and necessity

Clicking around that page, you can see reasons behind the project like "travel," "language skills," "[this kind of work] can be done anywhere," and "[there are] two paths [for next year]." Many of the goals in my life plan revolve around these basic ideas.
Part of this is interest. Travel and learning foreign languages are integral and irremovable parts of my life. For me, a life without these is not a life at all. I'm helplessly yanked towards alternatives because these two interests furiously collide with most people's norms of work
The question I asked myself is, "How could I possibly travel 3 months a year, aggressively forge ahead in learning languages, and still hold down a well-paying job?" 
row of doors, lots of choicesPart of this is necessity. I cherish flexibility and autonomy. Flexibility creates choices, and autonomy allows me to pick what's best. Researchers discovered the importance of autonomy on people's happiness decades ago (Psychology Today, American Psychological Association). Not only is it fundamental to human happiness, it's simply more enjoyable. And also less stressful! That's because flexibility eases the tension between work and life. Overall, it already feels more "human"--my schedule revolves around life itself, not around the artificial schedule of the international 40-hour work week. Whether starting a company in Singapore, a family in America, or a new travel adventure in Africa, flexibility leaves the door to fulfillment and enjoyment open a little wider
The question I asked myself is, "How can I possibly find the time to do everything I want to do and not completely burn out?"

drawn to it like a moth to a flame

Long-term rationale

Business offers opportunities for flexibility that most other professions cannot. It inevitably draws me in like a moth to flames. Whether acting as an independent consultant, continuing my work as an entrepreneur, or assuming a more traditional role at some point down the road, business is ripe with suitable possibilities.

Adding specificity

I'm satisfied to leave my life plan in its current generalized form. I'm already proficient at setting out smaller goals on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. It's the long-term goals that challenge me! But for those who are looking for something a little more concrete, here are 5 specific goals to tide you over:
  1. Travel to 3 countries every year (2 must be new) 
  2. Always be enrolled in at least 1 online class
  3. Practice each of my 3 foreign languages at least once a week 
  4. Start a master's degree program by 30
  5. Always keep my current weight ± 10 pounds

My 4-sentence version

More than anything, I wish to be happy. For me, that means building a life that is flexible enough to accommodate my mixed bag of desires and needs. I'm pursuing entrepreneurship so I can design a life that gives me the freedom to travel, learn, work, and live as I see fit. I started this company and blog as the first step toward building that life.

My 1-sentence version

I started my company and am pursuing entrepreneurship because I want to have a life that gives me the freedom to travel, learn, work, and live as I see fit.

eliminate the middlemen

Challenge #4: Eliminate the middleman 

In Tim Ferriss's book Tools of Titans, he offers up plenty of questions to ask yourself. The point of this is to 'exercise your creativity muscle.' Over the next 2 week, I want to focus on this one: 

10 industries where I can remove the middleman

I don't just want to come up with 10 quick answers and walk away. Rather, I want to briefly pursue each of the 10 ideas and then share any insights with everyone. 

Until next time!


5 simple productivity hacks

5 Simple Productivity Hacks

Now that you understand how to use "productive chunks" you're ready to take your productivity to the next level!

Mnemonics to the rescue: A short guide to easy productivity hacks

D.E.T.E.R. distractions and bad habits by always using these 5 simple tricks. Use them to boost your productivity and gain hours of fun time with friends, the free time needed to plan your first business, or cuddling time with your Corgi. You create the time, you choose how to use it! 

5 productivity hacks infographic

Using your Do Not Disturb mode is your new secret weapon. Most smartphones have this feature pre-installed. Turning it on stops your phone from ringing, vibrating, and lighting up. Macs also have this feature by default. Need to get some work done? Activate this mode and crank out an hour of pure work. Control your phone; don't let it control you! Pro tip: set your phone to automatically enter this mode around bedtime.

Using earplugs will change your life. Crying baby on an airplane? Earplugs. Noisy coworkers yammering away all day long? Earplugs. Have a problem in life? Earplugs! Pro tip: buying in bulk is much cheaper. 

Using a timer is a great way to divide up your tasks and stay on track. My personal recipe for success? 50 minutes of work followed by 10 minutes of rest. Don't think you can get away with a 10 minute break? You can now that you're getting your work done in less time! Pro tip: using voice assistants (like Siri) is quick and easy.

Using your energy wisely is a critical but often overlooked component of increasing productivity. First, work hardest during the parts of the day where you're naturally more productive. I'm a morning person, so I cram most of my productive chunks in before lunch. Second, work in the place you feel most productive. Third, if you know something is going to wreck your chunk, then reschedule it. It's often better to save it for a time with less intrusions. If you're going to do it, do it right! Pro tip: if you can, do your productive chunks in the same place each time.

Using your reminders app will help you remember what has to be finished and when. Check and make sure you have one installed. If you don't, download a free one. Pro tip: use 1 list for repeating items (like "update financial records" every Friday afternoon) and a different list for one-time tasks (like "respond to Cathy's quote"). 

An example of my productive chunk 

I can learn new vocabulary better in the morning, so I always schedule my Chinese review early. This is one way I use my energy wisely. At 7:45am, my phone reminded me that I have 15 minutes before I should begin. I grabbed a glass of water and headed to my desk. I lazily checked my email and Facebook for a few minutes. I put in my earplugs, set my timer for 50 minutes, and put my phone on Do Not Disturb mode. I did only one thing for 50 minutes: focus on Chinese vocabulary. 

At 8:50, I took out my earplugs, stood up to stretch my legs, refilled my glass of water, and relaxed for the next 10 minutes. 

Productivity Challenge

Give it a try! Choose a good time and a good place, pop in some earplugs, set your timer, and turn on Do Not Disturb mode. Try it a few times and see if it helps. Share your experience in the comments below!



hour glass with red sand

Hack Your Routine: Productive Chunks

Want to catch up on the latest season of Orange Is the New Black but can't find the time? Fear no more! 

Strained mom juggling an online business and two kids? I've got your back. Student buried nose-deep in his books? Absolutely! 9-to-5er trying to balance work duties and Facebook Messenger? You bet!

Whether you have full autonomy over your schedule or not, you can achieve greater efficiency and free up more time to do what you enjoy! 

"Productive chunks"

You can use "productive chunks" to get more work done in less time. What can you do with your extra time? Anything you want! 

"Productive chunks" are times that you will designate for working with MAXIMUM efficiency.

"Unproductive chunks" will be any other time (even if you're working).

hour glass with red sandExamples

Example 1:

Let's say you spend an hour talking on the phone, cleaning up the house, occasionally responding to emails, stirring tonight's chili, texting coworkers about tomorrow's meeting, listening to music, and organizing your work papers. Which kind of chunk is it?

Perhaps to your surprise, this would be an "unproductive chunk." 

While you might have felt productive, in all likelihood you probably wasted a lot of time and energy. In the end, you gave your friend only 1/2 your attention, the house still isn't clean, you have misspelled words in your emails, the juice in the chili is almost dried up, you don't remember what your coworkers said about the meeting, the music started to give you a headache, and your papers are anything but orderly.

If you had focused on just one of those things, you would've done it faster, better, and been less mentally exhausted at the end. Multi-tasking and being productive are FAR from being the same thing. 

Example 2:

Let's say that it's 10am (your most energetic hour) and your phone dings to remind you about tomorrow's presentation. You decide to work on it from 10:15 to 11 o'clock. You grab your coffee and head to your home office. Sitting down, you set a timer for 45 minutes and then put your phone on silent. For these 45 minutes, you will focus on 1 thing: preparing your speech for tomorrow's meeting. When the timer is up, you're free to go! Take a short rest and then decide what your next chunk will be. 

Which do you think led to a better result? Which will leave you tired at the end of the day? 

A challenge

Now that you have a basic idea about "chunking times," I want to challenge you to try it. Choose 1 task that takes about 1 hour to complete. Focus solely on that task, doing whatever you can to eliminate distractions and maximize efficiency. 

Once completed, add your comments below! How did it go? What was difficult about it? Did you finish the task? 

Read on learn some simple hacks that can help you maximize your productive chunks!

Orange Is the New Black, here we come!

cast of orange is the new black


sharpening a pencil sitting on a notebook

Challenge #3: Articulating My Life Plan

Second Challenge - (Not) being busy: complete!

As I mentioned at the beginning of my second challenge, not being busy is already something that I do. I fully expected to succeed. That said, writing the article itself did have the effect of strengthening my resolve to abide by that principle. Spending the last two weeks reflecting on the importance of "picking my battles," I feel a renewed sense of determination to keep trudging down my current path. 

On to the next!

Third Challenge

For someone who prides themselves on being relatively articulate, I often find myself stumbling over words to explain my life plan. It's not that a plan hasn't been formulated. In fact, it's re-formulated on a daily basis. In order to explain my tongue-tied feeling, I want to share a story about Japan, an excerpt from a book, and an idea from culture and linguistics.

Cultural contextuality

In 1976, anthropologist Edward T. Hall wrote about a new cultural spectrum. In short, he delineated the breadth of human's cultural dimensions into two broad categories: higher-context and lower-context cultures. All cultures, he said, fall somewhere on that high-low spectrum.

The basic idea is that "in a higher-context culture...many things are left unsaid, relying on the context of the moment and the culture as a whole. In a lower-context culture, it becomes very important for the communicator to be very explicit with the words in order to be fully understood." Japan, with its highly homogeneous island population, reliance on Japanese language, and overall immersion in all-things Japanese, would be considered "higher-context." Everyone shares the same assumptions, so you don't need to spell it out. America, on the other hand, with its diverse population coming from vastly different cultures, is "lower-context". We all have different assumptions, so we have to spell out what we want more clearly.

In line with this classification, the speaker/listener dynamic is altered too. In Japan, it's the listener's job to make sense of what is being said. In America, it's the speaker's job to communicate clearly. 


3 japanese geishasOne of the oddest things you'll find when first starting to study Japanese language is the omission of subjects. "I," "we," "he," "her," and others are often left out of the sentence. The context provides the clues to understanding who or what the subject is. Compared to English, the word "you" comes up so infrequently in Japanese that teachers often forbid its use until the second year of study.

The mechanism behind subject omission is quite simple. If I have been talking about myself, then the sentences are obviously about me until I bring up a new subject. Therefore, I do not need to repeat "I" ad nauseum throughout. Similarly, Japanese grammar can make up for the lack of the "you." For example: if I want to say "I will read you this book" in Japanese, I could simply say, "本を読んであげよう." This roughly translates to "[I will] give [you a] read [of this] book." If I'm looking at you, holding this book, and using the grammar "to give" + the verb "read," then it's obvious that the person who will read the book is me, and the person who I'm going to read it to is you. 

If you're still shocked and thinking, "but still, how can they possibly figure out what's going on every day?!" then you know the feeling of every student's first semester studying Japanese. But, it's not as bad as it seems. I'll share a story to prove my point. In university, my Japanese teacher joked about people's misunderstanding of Japanese ambiguity. Retorting to the criticism, he said something along the lines of, "yeah, right, like everyone in Japan is just walking around completely confused about what is going on, like the engineers at Toyota--one of the world's most efficient, successful, and technologically-advanced auto companies--walk around saying, "I just have no idea who's supposed to be doing what!"" 

isolated island in FinlandFinland

Likewise, I read a book (the name of which has escaped me) where the author told a story that took place in Finland. Yet another country with a homogenous population and thick cultural and linguistic heritage, Finland has been argued to be both higher- and lower-context. Higher, because of the habits of the language. Lower, because of some of the oddness that is often associated with the Finns. Noting this oddness, the author tells us about a man whose car had broken down on the side of the road during a winter storm. A passerby stopped, got out, helped him fix the car, and left...all without either of them saying a word.

If this was a normal occurrence, it would lend credence to idea of Finland as a higher-context culture. In Finland, the assumption might be, "Someone's stranded? Help him and go." The person stuck on the side might have the same idea, thinking "I'm stranded? Someone will stop and help." Done. I know that's what will to be done and so do you. It's expected and understood.

In America it might be more complicated. The passerby might think, "Someone's stranded? What do they look like? Boy or girl? Seem safe? Are there other cars around? Should I just call the police? Will someone else drive by? Does it look like he's got it under control?" At the same time, the person on the side of the road might think, "Will someone stop? Should I call for help? Do I look like someone who people would stop to help?" And on and on. 

In both the Japanese and Finnish situations, we can see that what is left unsaid can often come down to culture. When everyone shares uniform assumptions about people and the world, you can do away with some of the linguistic fluff. 

Explaining my life plan

E.T. extraterrestrial

So, why did I bring up these two stories to talk about my struggle to define my life plan to others? Simply put, I think one of the biggest obstacles for me to overcome is to understand that the way I see the world--and my life in it--can often times differ dramatically from those around me. I take living abroad, 4 months of annual vacation, hours per week of voluntary extracurricular studying, speaking multiple foreign language, and entrepreneurship (to name a few) as obvious givens. "OF COURSE that is what I do!" is what I'm usually thinking when people appear baffled by my life.

It rarely occurs to me that the person I'm talking to might find my lifestyle wholly alien. Like Japanese and Finnish people (and everyone else), I make sweeping assumptions about what my listeners will understand. In my case, however, that's often wrong. I feel like a Japanese person using English to talk to an American as he would use Japanese to speak with another Japanese person; the logic is there, it's just that I don't realize I have to explain my assumptions first. This is only exacerbated by the fact that I don't have to describe my plan to anyone at all. I'm a self-funded sole proprietor and thus am accountable to no one; it's not a big hindrance if no one understands my plan at this time. Likewise, I often don't describe my plan because I'm somewhat of a homebody. Not only do I not consider the proper way to explain, but there are few situations where I would even have to. 

Tackling the problem

My challenge for the next two weeks will therefore be to articulate my grand strategy for (the current iteration of) my life plan. More than figuring out what my plan is (which I know), I'm going to try to focus on explaining why I want and need my plan to be this way now. Despite the topic being my entire life, I'm going to whittle down my explanation to: 1) a longer 5-sentence version and 2) a shorter 2-sentence soundbite version.

Given my propensity for writing book-length text messages to answer the question, "do you have a charger I could borrow?" the condensed writing might turn out to be more difficult than articulating the life plan itself!

Check out Challenge #4 to see my answer!



studying at desk with coffee

Skill Mindset – Hard Work Over Talent

In this article, I want to lay down the simple groundwork for understanding success as based on effort. I will do this by describing my personal experience, sharing popular examples, and backing up my assertions with information from leaders in the subject and peer-reviewed articles. Through this, I hope to show "natural talent," if not as simply fallacious, then at least as a phenomenon so rare that it should never be the basis for how to lead your life. 

Effort is more important than natural talent 

"Natural talent"--the sparkling jewel of birth we all wish had been bestowed upon us. It's the intellectual equivalent to being born beautiful. "If only I were just naturally amazing at something," we lament to ourselves, pondering how much better our lives could've been. Feeling as though we lack something, whether knowingly or not, far too many are hampered by the burden of their self-proclaimed ill birth. Below, I want to make a strong case for something you can control: effort.

building the foundation of our understanding

Laying down the foundation of effort 

Maybe what follows is just the senseless ranting of a deluded person without talent, forever convinced of his ability to change predetermined fate. I not only hope that's not true, but I think there's compelling evidence to refute that idea. While there are seem to be a neverending line of "natural-born" geniuses flaunted on TV, laid out for all our hungry eyes to envy, the vast majority of us get by on something a bit more pedestrian. Effort, it seems, is a quintessential component to achieving success.

Before we dive into the details, I want to take a moment to discuss the phraseology of this subject. As of late, the word "hard work" has taken on a slightly disparaging aura in some circles. "Work smarter, not harder," is the battle cry of modern intrepid entrepreneurs. I agree wholeheartedly that working smart is crucial for your success. After all, if you work hard trying to burrow through a mountain with a shovel (instead of smart with an industrial-size excavator), it's doubtful that you will be praised or rewarded for any success likely to be achieved.  

That said, hard work isn't ready to be dumped next to phrenology in history's dust pile of long-forgotten ideas. Not even close. Yes, it's important to work smart. But what is working smart without working hard? Simply thinking about it? Mere ideation? The intersection of your success lies in the ability to strike a balance between working smart and sustained effort. 

portrait of EinsteinCombating Hollywood 

There might be someone out there who could effortlessly spend an afternoon completing everything that takes me a week...but I doubt it. Newspapers and magazines adore the unstoppably creative brainiac inventor, the indomitably rugged adventurer, and the casually successful and suave start-up billionare. Through attention-grabbing headlines, we're told the stories of these fantastical beasts of industry and thrill. 

And why should they stop? We all love a compelling narrative. We hang on to the verbal thread of a story spun from hardship and eventual triumph. It's not that I believe their stories are not worth telling, but that the "story version" and the "full version" give a slightly different picture of how things unfolded. Glossing over the details makes for a great episode of Oprah, but offers little in the way of genuinely applicable inspiration. It's the apparent uniqueness in their story that makes it both so captivating to hear and so hard to apply to our own lives. Hard work? That's a bit easier to mimic.

Catching our breath for a second, it's easy to find a plethora of articles that detail the fallacy of this kind of thinking. Newspaper titles like, "Successful people openly lie about what it takes," books with names like "Outliers: The Story of Success" (which talks about the 10,000 hour rule), and adages like, "practice makes perfect," all show a different side of the story. 

Similarly, the idea that "geniuses" are always successful is a complete misunderstanding of the situation. As this article, "Why the smartest people often fail at work," indicates, being smart doesn't always mean being the best. In fact, those IQ tests can be used to measure certain aspects with statistically significant results, it has been shown that the relationship between IQ and income is probably not what many people think it is.  

Real world example of hard work

I originally wanted to pull an example from mathematics, a field overflowing with stories of prodigies, but it's a bit cliché. So, I'll turn to words instead of numbers!

nihar janga - spelling bee champNihar Janga was the 2016 Spelling Bee co-champion. It's easy to think that an 11-year-old correctly prattling off the spelling of words as convoluted and unfamiliar as gesellschaft, Feldenkrais, and pneumatomachy is a sure sign of genius. I mean, how could it be anything else when I, a college graduate, still sometimes mix up breath and breathe?!

But behind the veil we can see a different story. In his article, Chris Weller details some of the contributing factors that have led the co-champion to victory. He mentions, "two to three years of continuous training translated into NSF 9-year-old having thousands more words under their belt." Likewise, the article details how the kids will "spend time studying not just ordinary dictionaries, but dictionaries made up solely of prefixes and suffixes [too]."

There are a few important details to single out from those sentences. The operative words here are "training" and "studying." These kids didn't wake up one day with the knowledge of how to spells words suddenly branded into their brains. They learned it through effort! Similarly, studying prefix dictionaries doesn't really jive with our Hollywood-inspired notion of the confident and carefree genius. Stereotypes notwithstanding, you would be hard-pressed to find a skill out there that didn't come with a hefty helping of grunt work and tedium. 


Quirks of neurobiology 

Ok, so maybe Nihar is just an incredibly ambitious and hardworking student after all. To many, that might sound like an insult. But to me, this is even more extraordinary than being a "natural born" genius. Nihar poured hundreds of hours into his craft. Like a rags-to-riches story, isn't that more admirable than someone who was just born into it? Furthermore, Nihar's effort is uplifting for another reason: it shows that we can do it too! No longer a right of birth, self-improvement and even "genius" are more in our reach than we thought! 

But what about the REAL geniuses, like Kim Peek (who could read two pages of a book simultaneously in under 10 seconds and recite them with 99% accuracy) or Stephen Wiltshire (who can draw astonishingly detailed pictures with photo-realistic accuracy after seeing a cityscape for just a few moments)? Because these people represent the top 1% of 1% of 1%, I'm going to afford them a proportionately small segment in this article. 

picture drawn by Stephen Wiltshire

First, in a staggeringly high number of such cases, the quirks of neurobiology that gifted them with such extraordinary abilities has also taken something valuable away from them. Kim Peek might have only needed 10 seconds to mentally figure out which day of the week it was 3,000 years ago, but he couldn't button his shirt. 

Second, because of the absolute rarity of these instances, it's completely nonsensical to use them as a basis for understanding our own minds. There's nothing we can readily glean from their experiences. Yes, there are undeniable benefits to researching their minds and using such findings to better understand ours. But for the average Joe, the more useful takeaway is that they cannot be used as model for how to live our lives. 

Interest: where working smart and working hard bring the best results 

Thus far, I have tried to accomplish two main goals. First, I tried to show that hard work is the wind at any "natural-born" genius's back (if they exist). Second, that anyone who lies so unfathomably far from the abilities of ordinary people is of exceedingly limited use in understanding how to live our lives.

In the following segments, I want to move away from "geniuses" and savants and focus more on us plebeians. Besides, if a genius is defined as someone with an IQ in the top 1/4 of 1%, then for the sake of marketing I should probably tailor my article to the remaining 99.75% anyhow! 

One great way us hard workers can achieve our goals is by applying our effort to something that interests us. As Rupert Murdoch said, "It's all hard work. Nothing comes easily. But I have a lot of fun." To illustrate my point, I'll use an example from my own life. 

Storytime: living in a linguistic world 

I was nervous on my first day of high school. I had gone to school with the same group of 20 kids from K-8. To make matters worse, my high school also had a middle school, so 90% of the students had already been there for 3 years. In a school of 1,000 students, I knew 0.

kanji on japanese lanternsWhen it came time to pick classes, one of them leaped off the page at me: Japanese. Thinking back on my initial interest, I'm still dumbstruck about why Japanese struck me. With the pressure of being in an utterly foreign situation, my dad highly recommended I choose Spanish instead. "It's easier," he said, "and more useful too." In truth, he was right about both of those things. Had I taken Japanese as a freshman, there's a decent chance I wouldn't have done well. In fact, I continued taking Spanish for the next 4 years of high school + another 3 years in university. Spanish officially became my second language, I enjoy learning it, and it has proved useful (once or twice)!

Four years later, I arrived at my university. With still a week to spare, I got started on the most important things for any green college student: picking out furniture, finding the best restaurants, and meeting new people. On my second day in the new city, a familiar situation presented itself. It was time to pick classes! A booklet of all the possible courses I could take laid out before me, anything could've caught my eye. Yet, there is was again: Japanese. Why wouldn't it just leave me in peace to study the preterite and imperfect tenses of Spanish?!

Joking aside, this time was different. I wasn't taking advice from anyone, had developed good study habits, and wasn't at all worried about life on my new campus. Without hesitation, Japanese became the first class I signed up for as a freshman in college. 

Three years later, I had studied Japanese for 6 semesters, lived in Tokyo for 1 year, and even took Japanese classes at third university in the summer. Japanese was everything I thought it would be and more! I loved the twisted grammar and the cutesy sounds of vowel-heavy Japanese syllables. I also loved how it meshed so well with my interest in Asian culture and history. 

Where am I going with this?

As my Japanese and Spanish improved, I ran into the same phrases again and again. "Wow, your Japanese is great! You're so good at languages." "I wish I could speak Japanese, but I have no talent for learning foreign languages." "Ugh, I'm so jealous! I wish I could pick up a language as easily as you."

pile of books to study

studying at desk with coffeeIt wasn't until I moved to China and started learning Mandarin that I really realized how vast of a disconnect there was between their statements and my reality. "Good at languages? A talent for language? Just "pick it up"? This couldn't possibly misrepresent my experience more! What were they talking about? 

The answer slowly dawned on me. People who hear me speak Chinese for the first time are seeing a semi-finished product. What they can't see is the production process. I, however, know the truth. What they didn't see was that I studied Chinese vocabulary in my room for 3 hours a day. What they didn't see was the notebook that I used to write down every single unfamiliar word I heard in a TV show or saw on a billboard. What they didn't see was how early before work I got up to study, nor how late I stayed up after work to practice. Good at language? It certainly didn't feel like it! Just "pick it up?" Maybe that's possible for kids, but for me? Not a chance! I had to bust my butt for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, just to learn how to order food in a restaurant! 

I could easily turn this into a C-grade Hollywood story about my linguistic brilliance, but I would hate to buttress people's misconceptions about learning and success. So, loud and clear: NO, I do NOT have any special gift of language that you do not. I chose to study (not "pick up") these languages, dedicate hundreds of hours of my time to it, and in the end came out with a passing fluency in each. 

Surviving the hard work 

Remember that headline about "interest" way back up there? Yeah, me neither, but that's ok. While this routine might sound grueling, it was anything but. Learning languages is an intense interest of mine. When it's an interest--and not a chore--time has a way of effortlessly floating by. Give me 3 hours to do math problems and it will feel like 6, but give me 3 hours to study Chinese and it will feel like 45 minutes.

This is something called a "flow state," and companies like Google actively try to create it. A flow state is a special place where hard work feels less burdensome, a place where hours of dedication can pass by like a relaxing spring afternoon. A flow state is the closest I can get to feeling like an effortless genius--I can just sit down, work hard for hours, and not feel that I've done any hard work at all. 

Hard work--not innate ability--is what propels me through my days and closer to my goals. Being interested is what makes it easy. 

Applying these lessons to your life

Not a genius? Great! Me neither. I hope that I've convinced you that the designation is irrelevant anyhow.

Here are the three simple points I hope you take away from these scrambled ramblings: 1 - "geniuses," if they exist, also rely on hard work; 2 - everyone else relies on hard work too; 3 - working hard on something you love is the easiest hard work you'll ever do.

Check out my previous article "Skill Mindset - How to Conquer Travel Fears" to read more about the benefits of rethinking how to think!


Energy to Succeed: How I Do It

laptop on deskDays of Business and Nights of Study

I'm quickly approaching the halfway point of my year-long project. My days are increasingly full (but NOT busy). 10-hour days are the norm and 12-hour days are totally acceptable. I'm drawing closer to my first branded product each day, and the inquiries, negotiations, and research are picking up in proportion to the added complexity. 

Daily business habits

As I mentioned, my schedule is "full" but not "busy," and, "Not only am I doing whatever building my company directly entails, but I'm also studying Chinese, reviewing Japanese and Spanish, helping my mom fix up her house to sell, traveling, and taking classes on finance, importing, photoshop, marketing, web design and Excel (just to name a few)."

The fact that I'm not "busy" is particularly obvious in my level physical inactivity. 90% of my work time is spent quietly at my desk, working through the tasks and minutiae of the day, planning my next move, and thinking up ways to capitalize on my business ventures. But it's not just work. Need to study Chinese? Language exchange via Skype. Have to replenish inventory? Check Amazon and then order more on Alibaba. Got to write a new post? Take care of that at 1:15. My computer is my company's lifeline; I rarely leave my house, hardly use my car, and spend virtually no money outside of necessities and travel. Driving costs time, and basically everything except the library costs money. A shoestring budget makes for an interesting business companion!

blue skies

A bit of insight

After reading those few paragraphs and my article about not being busy, you may ask, with tears ready to roll down your confused face, "But why punish yourself like this?! "Don't you want to have some fun in life?!" 

Before we get into the thick of this subject, there are some things you should know about me. First and foremost, I'm a very optimistic person. Not the kind of "beaming-sunshine-light-up-a-room-with-smileful-energy" kind of optimism, but rather the optimism that comes from recognizing a simple fact: "I've made it this far intact and I'm fine. QED: life is good!"

Second, I can have a fantastic amount of focus. Before you get too far into thinking that I have some preternatural ability to block out distractions and work on a task with laser-focused attention, I must confess that my attention span isn't any longer than yours. Rather, I've learned through trial and error what works for me (e.g. setting my phone to "Do Not Disturb") and how to use it to my advantage (e.g. use this mode during all working hours). Case in point: if I'm bored, I will NOT pay attention. Won't happen. End of story. 

Third, I DO enjoy this! Dedication, focus, and pursuing an interest are interconnection and self-reinforcing. The more you do it, the better you become at it, so the more you want to continue doing it. I never feel like I'm suffering from this venture. Besides, if it's were so terrible, I could walk away at any minute. No one is holding a gun to my head! 

The nitty gritty: penchants, personality, and the past

"That's all good and well," you may say, but still wonder, "Where does all your energy come from?!"

I'll be the first to admit that I'm about as far away from the "active, outgoing, mega-socializing ball of energy" that people often associate with entrepreneurs. In fact, I'm quite possibly the polar opposite; I'm usually so relaxed that I can fall asleep anywhere and anytime in under 5 minutes. At my most stressed times, you might still need a doctor to check my pulse to make sure my heart is still beating! 

I could go on all day about this, but here are a few of the reasons I think I can handle this workload with ease:

  1. Truth be told, I've had a pretty easy life--no sob story here.
    • I'm not even close to being considered well-off, but I've had everything I've ever needed (including a supportive family).
  2. I was blasé about school until university (e.g. not accepting the relevance or importance of grades)  
    • Read: my report cards look like a rollercoaster at Six Flags.
  3. But I love learning, especially self-directed learning!
  4. I never bend over backwards to make it to the #1 spot. Rather, I just do my best, fulfill my responsibilities, and do what I can to help people, companies, etc. move forward in the best way I can. 
    • Competition may be extant in the world, but not in my mind. If I make it to the #1 spot, great; if not, oh well. 
  5. I've had a borderline-obscene amount of leisure time (mostly due to my interest in traveling).
  6. In general, I only do things that make me happy.
    • If something makes me unhappy, at the least I'll adjust it, and at the most I'll remove it from my life.
    • I've only got one life to live, and while there are things that occasionally I must do, I refuse to live an unhappy life.
  7. I can get frustrated, but I very rarely feel stress.
    • I think this is related to optimism (mentioned above). Why feel stressed when I know I'll make it out ok?

No stress + doing what makes me happy + actively seeking leisure time = plenty of energy to use as I see fit!

Real-life application

There are some things a person is born with. For example, I have naturally brown hair. Most things, though, are amenable to change--so long as you're willing to work toward it. My relaxed demeanor, unrelenting focus, and love of self-directed learning weren't things I was born with; they're things I've cultivated (mostly by accident). These things have conspired to provide me with the energy, the know-how, and the interest to pursue a job that is in line with my interests. Right now, that happens to require a ton of work, and I'm totally ok with that. 

If you have some deeply concealed goal that you've always wanted to pursue, there are plenty of encouraging blogs to read out there. I mean, check out this video of a guy climbing Mount Kilimanjaro without legs or arms! This video highlights the importance of my first step: stop making excuses. If Kyle can scale a mountain on padded elbows and knees, then I can chill at my desk and crunch numbers for a few hours. My lifestyle is likely wholly unsuitable to you--and that's ok! Find out what you want to do, what it will take to get you there, and how you can make it happen. And while you're at it, throw away the idea that you're "just not that person." If you want to be that person, you can be.

Coming full circle 

full chargeSo, in conclusion: when it comes time to actually get to work and keep my nose to the grindstone, I have decades of energy reserves to use at my disposal! And why shouldn't I use them now? During the 4.5 years since graduating university, I have collectively worked full-time for only 2 of them. The other times were spent studying (on my own), traveling, planning, or (admittedly) relaxing. I'm ready and willing! 

My energy comes from many places. I've set myself up for success by cultivating good habits, training myself to be positive and calm, and being mindful of my goals, strengths and weaknesses. This makes my life smoother and easier. I've thought long and hard about what makes me tick. This means my life is more inline with my interests. I've tailored my job around those interests, as well as the strengths that I've built up over the years. This has allowed me to create a job that's a good fit for me.

My happiness, success, and energy meet at the confluence of my personality, habits, interests. All of these things were learned, practiced and reinforced. While my life might seem drastically different or odd on the surface, I'm actually just a normal person like all of you. As I affirmed in my article about traveling with a skill mindset, I'd like to repeat my main takeaway here: if I can reconfigure my life to achieve my goals, you all can too! How we get there and where we're going are the only differences.



Challenge #2: (Not) Being “Busy” (Part 1)

First challenge - Meditation: complete!

As promised, I started my meditation challenge with two 10-minute sessions. I started with the 10-day program with Headspace for iPhone. I did one session upon waking at 6:30am and another at bedtime around 10:30pm. So, how did it go?

candles in a dark roomTo my surprise, it was enjoyable! I admit that I'm guilty of not taking it seriously for the first couple of sessions. I kept thinking to myself, "What in the WORLD am I doing right now? Am I serious?!" But I quickly shook off my doubts and excuses when I realized that it was incredibly relaxing. I also quickly realized one of my biggest mistakes: doing this right before bedtime was guaranteed to put me to sleep before finishing the session. In fact, I don't think I stayed awake past the 3- or 4-minute mark for the first few nights. For someone who routinely falls asleep in less than 5 minutes, this shouldn't have come as a shock.

I'll also confess that I did both sessions while laying in my bed for the entire 2-week duration. While that might not have been ideal, the level of relaxation I can achieve in bed is significantly higher than if I were sitting in a chair or on the floor. I'm uptight and composed for most of the day, so I unashamedly prefer to worm-out whenever any relaxing activity comes my way. Sue me! Wait, don't...I need that for my company...

Anyway, after moving back the night session to around 9:45, I was no longer in jeopardy of snoozing through my personal ponderfest. I won't lie and say that this challenge has revolutionized my life (an unrealistic goal for just 2 weeks), but I will gladly say that I've enjoyed this contemplative time. I started to look forward to the quietude and inactivity. 

Future plans: I can't guarantee that I'll do this every day, but I can easily see "meditation" becoming an occasional activity throughout my week--especially when things get tough.  

do not disturbMeditation Tip

One of my favorite strategies is what I'll call the "gone strategy." I learned about it from Tools of Titans, which is the book that started this whole bi-weekly challenge thing. When a thought comes creeping into my quiet mental space, saying the word "gone" helps me drive it away. You can replace "gone" with anything, but the point is to recognize your thoughts as objects which can be manipulated and controlled by you. This turned out to be a crucial step in calming my mind down during the first few minutes of each session.


Second Challenge: (Not) Being Busy

For this week, I want to share a quote without a challenge. I chose to do this principally because 1 - these next two weeks are full to the brim with things to do and 2 - it's something I already do and feel is crucial.

"If you consistently feel the counterproductive need for volume and doing lots of stuff, put these on a Post-it note: Being busy is a form of laziness--lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions." 

thumbs downIn addition to lots of great quotes and information about meditation, Tools of Titans frequently talks about the importance of choosing one's work and social activities carefully by saying "no" to things that are extraneous, wasteful, or just simply things you don't really want to do. This is the end of being busy. 

I'm already a king of "NO." In fact, saying "no" is so mindlessly easy and reflexive to me now that I might need an intervention in the opposite direction! There are plenty of people in my life who can tell you the negative side of this. Family, friends, coworkers...they all know that getting me to do something can be harder than achieving nirvana (which my 2-week meditation challenge failed to accomplish). 

That said, I want to momentarily speak in defense of it. After all, it's the theme of this post!

Saying "No"

Historically, my "no"s were based more on financial concerns than time constraints. After all, I didn't move to China, travel Europe for 3 months, or save up enough cash to start a company by letting money seep through the cracks. I was poor before I was busy!

save time piggy bankTime, Not Just Money

When it comes to planning, it's easy to place the focus squarely on the financial aspects. However, that's only part of the story. While I'm still heavily focused on keeping my dollars bottled up, time constraints are always another rival vying for my consideration. As such, I could just as easily rewrite the sentence above to say, "After all, I didn't move to China, travel Europe for 3 months, or save up enough cash to start a company by letting my time seep through the cracks." 

Using my time wisely has always been just as important as how I manage my money. Life throws lots of things your way. Work, school, parties, dinners, conferences, birthdays, meetings, exercise, leisure, financial troubles, invitations, complicated relationships, medical bills, and on and on. Most of these take money, but all of them take time. So, like my money, I guard my time with unforgiving efficiency. It's a must. 

busy as a beeNot only am I doing whatever building my company directly entails, but I'm also studying Chinese, reviewing Japanese and Spanish, helping my mom fix up her house to sell, traveling, and taking classes on finance, importing, photoshop, marketing, web design and Excel (just to name a few). These may appear disparate to you, but all of them (apart from fixing up the house) are part of a much longer-term plan related to international business. Only by paring my schedule down to its essential components have I been able to push my plan forward this quickly.

Too busy? Not exactly...

This brings me back to my main point. While I reflectively say, "I've been sooo busy lately," I very rarely feel it. My days are occupied productively, my mind is constantly stimulated, and I'm still happily doing what I want. I wouldn't say my day is "busy" as much as I would say it's "full." 

Eliminate distractions and choose your tasks wisely. Each person will have a different strategy to accomplish this. I like to bust my butt--focusing solely on work--until it's time to travel and let loose. Maybe my feast-and-famine mentality is wholly unsuitable for you. Nonetheless, I think everyone who has goals should purposefully think up a realistic yet effective way to balance those goals with everything else. Don't be "lazy" by saying yes to everything; be "active" by choosing those things that really matter to you. Don't have a busy schedule; have a full schedule!

Curious about how I do it? Thinking, "Don't you also want to live life a little?!" See my next post to find out where my energy reserves come from, how I stay focused, and how I manage to always be positive and happy through it all!

Also check out my new post, Challenge 3 - Articulating My Life Plan, to see the results of Challenge 2!

Challenge #1: Simple Meditation

The Challenges Begin!

I mentioned in a former post that I wanted to challenge myself to do something new every 2 weeks. This will be my first challenge!

"If you don't have 20 minutes to delve into yourself through meditation, then that means you really need 2 hours." --Timothy Ferriss, author of "Tools of Titans"

Relaxing pastel sunset

The word "meditation" carries a lot of baggage. For some, it's the weight of thousands of years of history, theory, and practice. For others, it's the humorous sitting pose we use as kids to say "ohmmmm" for 20 seconds. For me, I (wrongly) associate it with something too esoteric or arrogant to include in my own life.

Defining Meditation

In this article, and during any future mentions of meditation, I will use the word to mean "the practice of focusing on being quietly contemplative, reflective, and/or mentally present, for the purpose of relaxing your mind, improving your mood, focusing your thoughts, or achieving some other goal."

In this definition, I intentionally left out any mention of spirituality or religion, but that doesn't mean you have to. I chose to do this because I just want meditation to be an activity where I can learn more about my mind, how to influence it, and how it influences me. Maybe other concerns and interests will arise later, but at this beginning stage I will keep it simple and practical. This definition is admittedly too nebulous or dull for many practitioners, but for me its suitability is second to none.  

Think the flowers, feel the flowers, BE the flowersMeditation Expectations

Ok, back to the book.  Timothy Ferriss repeatedly mentions some form of meditative practice as a clearly recurring theme in many of his interviewees' lives. Scientifically speaking, there is good evidence that meditation can have beneficial effects on a person. For example, it has been shown that meditation can reduce stress and anxiety (1, 2), and potentially improve memory and creativity (3, 4). 

Now, let's be clear: I'm not expecting this short meditation to completely improve every aspect of my life, turn me into a genius, give me the inner peace of a Tibetan monk, or make me the next Steve Jobs. I'm just looking for a simple, healthy, and potentially useful way to spend 20 minutes of my free time. At the very least, I'm pretty sure it's not harmful (although apparently it can lead to false memories!).


So, my challenge for the next 2 weeks:

  • Week 1: "meditate" for at least two 10-minute sessions every day
  • Week 2: "meditate" for at least one 20-minute session every day

I plan to use these 2 apps to help guide me through my first 2 weeks.

  • Headpsace: Guided Meditation and Mindfulness
  • Calm: Meditation to Relax, Focus & Sleep Better

I can't wait to see how this first challenge unfolds. Head back to my blog in 2 weeks to see what I did, how it went, what I learned, and if I'll stick with it!

UPDATE - Challenge: Complete

The Most Quotable Book

Reading as a Hobby

I'm a relatively avid reader. On average, I work my way through 1-2 books every week. In general, I read on my Kindle Paperwhite right before bed. The high contrast screen with low light output is ideal for bedtime browsing. 

book on a deskThough I'm interested in just about any genre, I admittedly have a preference for certain types:

  • Non-fiction > fiction
  • But story format > technically description 
  • For every pro-[topic] book, I must read one anti-[topic] book
  • I usually switch genres and topics with each book 
  • I almost never read more than 1 book at a time
  • I almost never read the same book twice 

I also won't deny that self-help books are rarely my cup of tea (I prefer green tea!). I don't hold anything against such books. On the contrary, they're deeply valuable and intrinsically interesting. Rather, I just tend to be drawn toward compelling narratives in certain settings (e.g. sci-fi novels) or informative content related to one of my interests (e.g. non-fiction). 

Unlikely Interest

Which is why I was so surprised to stumble across "Tools of Titans" by Timothy Ferriss. Perhaps "self-help" isn't the most accurate label to categorize this sweeping set of interviews with some of the most successful leaders from nearly every industry. It was created as the "ultimate notebook of high-leverage tools" that can be used to help you reach new heights in your life. 

bird in flight sunset

Like any book, I suspect that each person who reads it will walk away with something different. Useful, but different. I also suspect that everyone will identify with a different aspect. For some, it might be the wonder of what these people have been able to accomplish. For others, it could be the push needed to keep them trucking down their difficult path.

Main Takeaway from Tools of Titans

For me, it was how obviously peculiar each person was. From start to finish, the recurring trait that struck me the most--more than how many meditated or woke up early--was how each interviewee had their own little quirks and eccentricities. Perhaps this stuck with me because I myself am on the unusual side. I'm introverted, but have no social anxieties. I can stay home for weeks and work on a schedule without a break, but then also fly to far-flung parts of the world for months of unstructured travel. The oddity in me recognized and appreciated the oddities in them. 

As I read "Tools of Titans" on my Kindle, I left behind a long trail of highlighted notes. These include short quotes, long excerpts, and specific advice that I wanted to read again later. All in all, I saved more than 100 entries! Seeing the expansive list of highlights in front of me, I started thinking: what if I challenged myself to use these in my own life? And thus the idea of 2-week challenges was born!

Call to Action

Starting in May, I will challenge myself to try one new habit I found in the book. After completing the challenge, I will let everyone know about my progress, what I thought about the habit, and if I think I'll stick with it. While I'm more than happy to take on the challenges alone, I certainly wouldn't mind a bit of company along the way! Feel free to join in on the challenges at any time. Comment below to let me know!