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!


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!



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!