One More Step

The Story Of Creating Business And Music

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Commitment

“The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating — in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around like rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.”

― Anne Morris

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Taking Responsibility

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One reason I love running is that my runs are a microcosm of my life. The stress created by running causes every struggle, doubt, and frustration I face in life to come to surface, distilled and amplified. This story is about one such run. I’m not proud of how I acted, but I learned a powerful lesson that I feel the urge to share, and then hopefully put to good use.

Some time ago, I went on a tempo run. A tempo run is a specific kind of training run where you warm up for a while, and then run a predetermined distance at what is usually described as a “comfortably hard” pace. I’ve found that it’s not all that comfortable. You’re not all-out sprinting (which isn’t sustainable over the long run), but pushing your body to run at a challenging pace over a set distance. This builds speed and endurance.

Although it was a hot and humid July night, my mile-long warm-up felt good. After warming up, I slowed down for a bit, caught my breath, put on a playlist of motivational songs, and took off for my hard mile at tempo. I enjoy tempo runs; they’re challenging, but I can feel my endurance and sense of control improve with each run. The hard middle mile takes unwavering physical focus, and as I run, I use my (very limited) mental abilities to keep track of traffic lights and cars. Occasionally, I see aggressive or careless drivers, and think about telling them off, but I’ve always managed to avoid them, and have never run into any trouble.

So, there I am, about half way through my mile, pushing hard to keep my pace up. I start to cross the street when I see a car coming up on my right, barely touch-and-go at a stop sign, and turn towards me, driving at a red light to my left. Needless to say, I’m not doing a lot of hard thinking at this point – I am wholly focused on my run, my brain devoid of blood and cognitive ability. So, I wave my hand angrily at the middle-aged man driving the car, expecting him to stop. Except, he doesn’t stop. He keeps driving towards me, at the red light behind me, and brakes at the very last moment, furrows his brow and motions angrily right back at me. At that point, something within me snaps, and I abruptly stop and turn towards the driver.

(Now, for the sake of this story, let’s assume that I’m right on the traffic law. I’ve included a little diagram below so you could judge for yourself. My reaction was poor regardless, and would have been that much worse if I was wrong.)

So, I stop right in the middle of the empty, night-time road and turn towards the driver. For the first time in my life, I am yelling at the car like a lunatic, with zero regard for what I look like or whether he can even hear me. I’m incensed, antagonized that the guy almost drove through a red light with no regard for my safety, and that he has the gall to argue with me when he’s so clearly wrong. I flip him off, I’m waving my arms like a madman, motioning aggressively at the (bright red) traffic light behind me, shouting obscenity-laced arguments: “Are you fucking crazy? What? What? What do you got!? The light is clearly red, you fucking idiot! It’s red! Can’t you fucking see?” He is waving his arms inside the car, yelling back at me, and I’m pretty sure neither of us can hear and don’t care to hear, what the other is saying.


After about ten seconds of this, I see him ease up and look away, whether because he realizes he’s wrong, or that I’m a madman and there’s no calming me down. That’s enough for me – he’s backed down, so I’ve gotten my fill. I turn back to my route, and resume my mile run.

And as I finally cross the street and turn my mind back towards running, it suddenly hits me – I still have to run the rest of my hard mile, and now I’m tired because I’ve wasted so much energy yelling at some guy I’ll never see again. It dawns on me, that it was easier to confront someone for their faults than to confront myself to run a hard mile.

As I continue to run, now out of breath, I slowly realize how many times in my life I’ve been in a less intense version of this situation. A friend, colleague, or manager would say or do something that seemed unjust, and I would let it get under my skin, overwhelm me to the detriment of my goals and my work. I’d sit there and steep, fantasizing about proving them wrong, instead of pursuing whatever my actual goals were. And now, this stranger was everyone I never got to speak my mind to, and I exploded with all the things I never got to say.

And it did nothing for me. Traffic laws to hell, this outburst only hurt me and my run. The truth is, it was my responsibility to watch the lights and signs, keep myself safe, and not wholly expect drivers to do the right thing. It did nothing for me to yell at a guy who broke the law, and I didn’t even choose to stop and set the guy straight. In the heat of the moment, it was easier to chase the satisfaction of being right than to chase a faster mile.
I finished my tempo run a bit slower and a lot more tired than usual, humbled by my reaction, processing the takeaway:

It’s often easier to confront others about their faults than confront yourself about what really matters.

You might be thinking that there are caveats worth considering. It’s never this simple in real life, and people are rarely that inconsequential. Perhaps my anger was justified; the driver was reckless and could have actually hurt me, calling him out might have prevented further accidents, it’s important to stick up for yourself, and so on. But, regardless of whether I was right was wrong, losing control was not justified. I’ll trust you to follow my point and let the caveats go in light the larger lesson.

It’s been a few weeks now, and I watch drivers more carefully when when I run. Sometimes they’re less careful than they should be, but I try to focus on the road and remember where the real challenge is.


In case you’re curious, here’s how it went down:

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Lessons Learned In 2017

Sometime early on this year, I decided to try to intentionally learn as much as I could from my experiences. In my mind, I dubbed this my “year or learning”, although “year of self-awareness” would probably be a more fitting title. This came in part from learning more about the fixed and growth mindsets, in part from a healthy dose of humility after being brazenly wrong, and in part from thinking about what it means to grow as a person.

Rather than just getting frustrated and trying to resolve or win whatever troublesome situation came my way, I approached it with an attitude of curiosity and humility, looking to crack the nugget of wisdom within.

Did I succeed? Not often; many times, I was pigheaded and fueled by ego. However, over time, I definitely took away a few lessons; observations about my own interactions and reactions to the world. I’d like to share these with you today.

I view these takeaways as beginnings of revelations – not lessons learned and shut away. I may have had an ‘aha’ moment, but changing my ways is a longer journey. You might also find that none of these learnings are revolutionary – you’ve probably read them somewhere before. However, until I learned these through experience, I they were just platitudes to me.

Anyway, here’s what I learned about myself in 2017:


1. Hard work produces results; talent doesn’t

Any achievement in my life I’m proud of (running 6 miles at a time, writing my best music, coding and launching big projects) came from repetitive hard work – a consistent decision to do what was necessary over what I wanted to do in the moment. However, whenever I tackle a new challenge, I often look for motivation and inspiration and inherent talent – and react to the inevitable failure along the way by questioning my abilities. This is a staple of the fixed mindset.

Especially with running, it was incredibly motivating to give up the idea of talent and put in repetitive hard work – and watch my numbers improve consistently as a result.

2. My mind will do whatever it takes to shut me down 

I learned this one over 80+ runs this year. I found that my first mile was often the most miserable, and was encouraged to learn that this was the case with other runners as well. Running is hard, and I noticed that my mind would try to tell me whatever it could to get me to stop.

My muscles are sore. This is my third hard run this week, I should ease up. It’s okay to quit just this one – everyone deserves a break. My last personal record was just a freak accident; I already peaked. Taking three days off has hampered my progress. Is my ankle sore or irreparably broken? I haven’t improved in weeks; I should go back and rethink my running strategy. 

After a while, I noticed zero correlation between good/bad runs and how I felt in the first mile. Aside from the obvious extremes – acute pain – I realized I couldn’t listen to my mind; that my brain was doing whatever it could to stop me from running. Then I realized that this applies just as much to anything else I try to do – running is just the easiest to conquer it in.

The  next step is figuring out how to overcome this. With running, it’s simple – lace up, run, don’t stop unless you feel sharp pain. With other endeavors – building and monetizing a project, for example – I’ve yet to figure it out.

3. Two good people could look at the same facts and see two different narratives

I’ve been in many arguments – some important and some petty, and always wanted the situation to be black and white. I was either right or wrong, and my goal was to figure out which as soon as I could, and then either apologize or wait for an apology.

Watching two good friends struggle to make sense of a high-stakes, emotionally-charged situation taught me otherwise. Both were good people trying to do the right thing, both had built a valid narrative from the same set of facts, and both felt hurt and disrespected. And, in the process of trying to resolve their differences, they spoke right past each other, almost as if in different languages. Parts of the argument seemed to have an objective right and a wrong – but surrounding this was a whole messy gray area of good intentions with bad outcomes and an increasing pattern of miscommunication.

Turning inward, I found this pattern in many of my own conflicts as well. Crucial Conversation taught me that in an argument, people tend to hyperfocus on being hurt, offended, or  validated. Our reptilian brains take over in an extended fight-or-flight response, and we miss the the complexity of the communication. Aiming to survive, we fail to see the opportunity to learn about the other person. I realized that this happened to me constantly; in the heat of an argument, I’d lose my empathy and ability for complex thinking, and reduce situations to win/lose.

There’s a lot of gray area, and stronger relationships are built when you explore this gray area, despite the discomfort.

4. How strongly I feel isn’t an indicator of how right I am

This one seemed painfully obvious once I saw it: the strength of my emotions is separate from the quality of my decision making. I thought these were the same thing – I got angry or hurt because my values were assaulted, so I’d need to defend my values, and an emotionally-charged response represented how right I felt. When I became upset, I never felt like I was lashing out,  I never said things just to hurt someone – I always felt like I was just telling the truth. I assumed that my emotionally-charged response was representative of the validity of my argument.

This is incorrect; they are two separate responses. Feeling angry, hurt, in embarrassed in the moment is not usually an indicator or how right or wrong I am, and it’s worth exploring why I feel the emotions that I do. I’ve found a number of weaknesses this way. For example…

5. Who I think I am is largely irrelevant

This is another “how could you not realize this??” obvious point, but only once you get it.

I think I’m an empathetic communicator and manager. But, there were a number of situations this year where I was neither. I think I’m a creative, motivated entrepreneur. But, I had a number of opportunities to come up with great ideas, or create cool products, and I failed.

If I’m a composer, where is the music I’ve written? If I’m a product manager, where are the products I launched?

This is another way of saying that talent – or my idea of what talents I might have – is irrelevant.  It doesn’t matter who I think I am (beyond motivating me) until I my results demonstrate this. Otherwise, I’m just lying to myself and the world, living on an over-inflated sense of self-confidence.

6. It’s easy to cut people out, but friends are not replaceable

I lost a very good friend this year. I lost the relationship years ago, actually, because I insisted on being right during a challenging situation. I regret this; whether I was right or wrong, I’ve now lost a universe of possibility in this relationship. I had an opportunity – but not the patience – to do better, to offer empathy, patience, and love. Instead, I chose to satisfy on my ego and prove myself right. I felt good about myself for a few weeks, but now, at multiple birthdays and gatherings, I miss my friend. It wasn’t worth it.

It’s okay to walk away after a long pattern of frustration and disappointment. However, while cutting people out is easy, it’s generally a bad idea. Great friends are not replacable.

7. Putting my cards on the table is usually a good thing

Both at work and in personal relationships, I’ve often avoided sharing my honest perspectives, frustrations, or fears. I did this out of a sense of vulnerability and sometimes ego – I wanted other people to figure things out themselves, or I was scared of sharing my honest thoughts due to fear of offending others. I’ve found that when I did finally have the difficult conversations, often out of a sense of desperation or having my back was against the wall, the outcomes were surprisingly positive. It was refreshing to lay my cards on the table and let the truth out – and then I could take honest, genuine steps towards improving the situation.

People around me were (generally) more receptive than I expected to helping me or understanding me once I opened up.

I then realized that this point extends back to myself. I have weaknesses I’ve avoided confronting myself on my, believing that I either can or can’t do something (again, deeply rooted in the fixed mindset). When I finally do come clean about failing at something, or being afraid of something, exciting possibilities emerge. I find that I can improve, that it’s okay to admit that I need help, that there is a path forward.

 

 

Living More Deliberately in 2017

My birthday is on December 28th, so I have the fortune of reassessing my personal growth at the same interval the world runs on. In other words, “how has the year been” and “how has your year been” are the same questions for me.

Every December 27th, the night before my birthday, I sit down to reassess my past year and plan ahead for next year. Over the past four or five years, I’ve come up with a short list or high-level goals I’ve wanted to accomplish. Time and time again, most of these do not get accomplished, and those that do happen in ways I couldn’t predict or didn’t actively work towards. For example, during one such session, I committed to save $X (at my then-income) by next year. I was failing miserably until I changed jobs and got a significant raise, which made saving $X a breeze. Although I worked hard to get a new job, within my initial plan, the increased income was effectively a windfall and not the product of deliberate action.

The yearly check-in is useful to remind me of my high-level priorities and I always walk away feeling re-centered. However, like many other people whose New Year resolution fail, I then get completely sidetracked. I commit to friends’ projects and follow new ideas that come to mind. I find myself paralyzed by inaction, not sure where to begin. Finally, I tend to massively overestimate the amount of and quality of work I can do in a short period of time. I procrastinate, then I hit the “oh shit!” moment, and then I chide myself for not doing high-quality work.

Last year was a little different. First, the sheer amount of time and energy I spent at work pushed me to seriously consider how I spent my free time and whether I’m building my own life, or letting others build it for me. Second, I went back and reviewed my goals a few times during the year; in Apr, Aug, and Sep. This didn’t have a major impact (because it was sporadic and not supported by planning,) but still provided a serious kick in the butt. Third, after a really great trip to Iceland, I reviewed my past accomplishments to try and zero in in on what type of work makes me happy. Finally, I sat down and wrote down a list of common mental traps I repeatedly fall into.

So, in 2016, I did a lot of good thinking, but not a lot of good doing. In 2017, I want to implement the lessons I learned. In an effort to live more deliberately, I want to make a few commitments.

1. I’m going to keep an up-to-date, definitive list of all the projects I’m involved in. These focus on three themes – coding, writing music, and getting fit. Undoubtedly, I have other goals – like straightening out my finances, getting my own place, creating my own ventures, etc – but I believe that doubling down on these three themes will build the foundation for everything else.

2. I’m not taking on or starting any new major projects, and cutting my past ones. There are a bunch of projects from my past that I was fully intent on finishing – projects I believed in, like the Explo coffee-table book, or the article on how writing code and writing music go hand in hand. However, I have to cut my past projects in order to focus on the present ones. This is difficult to do – I have to admit that I cared about these, but ultimately didn’t care that much – and will undoubtedly disappoint the people involved. While it’s possible I’ll come back to these in the future, when I feel that I have a better grasp on my current goals and do a better job staying disciplined about my work, for the time being, these projects are over.

In years past, I’ve chased after many  other projects, hangouts, and other commitments that distracted me from my main goals. It’s easy to come up with a new idea and say “yea! I’m doing that now.” This often leads to half-baked, unfinished, disappointing projects, and further stress. While I don’t want to shut away serendipity and spontaneity (never say never), I plan to focus on my existing, high-priority projects and not take any new ones.

3. I’m going to write out the specific benchmarks and actions I’ll need to take in order to succeed. This takes guesswork and inspiration out of work. I’ve long found that all my greatest accomplishments are built on the back of focused, sustained effort – and yet I keep counting on inspiration (and am discouraged by lack of it) to get things done.

4. I’m going to track and constantly revisit my goals. My friend James does a great job of this with his budget, regularly logging and reviewing his purchases. I think doing the same with all my goals will help motivate and keep me focused. Tracking and revisiting is uncomfortable, because it forces me to confront failure and focus on work, which doesn’t offer the same kind of immediate gratification that playing Black Flag does. However, I think it’ll also bring me closer to delivering the results I want to see.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking, “so, what exactly are your goals?” The high-level answer is that I want to exclusively focus on coding, writing music, and fitness. Beyond this, I’m now defining specific benchmarks and a schedule for me to follow. I think that publicizing specific things I want to accomplish will only make me less likely to complete them. However, I’ll be sure to share when I start making progress!

Between these commitments, I hope to end a year from now on a much more positive – and productive – note.

Chasing My Own Tail

I’ve noticed a pattern – I spend my week at work fantasizing about cool projects I want to tackle and the skills I’ll need to learn to complete these projects. However, when I can carve out a day, escape away to a quiet coffeeshop somewhere, and try to focus on my own work, I often don’t know where to begin. I need to figure out a way to structure this better.

I also need to decide on my first weekly challenge.

Weekly Challenges

Back in college, I started taking up a challenge a week, where I made a small change to my life, and committed to follow through for a week. Just a week – which is usually no big. Consistency, discipline, and follow-through continue to be the biggest challenge in my life – I tend to work best in bursts, and when other people count on me (some would say “typical ENFP“) – so this might be a good way to explore some ideas with a defined commitment.

My First Collaborative Coding Effort

I’m excited to share the first game I programmed collaboratively with my good friend James Mayr:

Boss Fight

Always On

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I woke up this morning and made a conscious effort not to check my phone. I washed up, got dressed, locked my sixth-floor apartment door, and waited for the elevator. My hand crept into my pocket. I commanded it to stop. Instead, I let my mind wander. I looked at the door frame and remembered how tall it looked when I was a kid.

I got on the elevator, went out the door, and took a three minute walk to the train station in the brisk morning air. I was forcing myself not to succumb. I was trying to just enjoy the beautiful morning.

On that three minute walk, my mind meandered and I thought of writing a blog post about what I was experiencing. So, now I’m sitting on the train, typing it out on my phone. I guess I succumbed.

Every day, I spend a ridiculous amount of time starting at screens of various sizes, and it has an eerie calming effect on me. It’s a full-blown addiction. I check my email first thing in the morning, then go to work for 8-10 hours, then come home and watch shows online, or play an odd computer game. On the subway, I play games on my phone. I never have to stop and be bored.

It’s odd, but I can’t keep myself away; the effect is numbing and it keeps me from having to think about what is happening in my life. At both my current job and my last, I find myself checking work email early in the morning and right before bed. I don’t do it because my job is that stressful, or because I enjoy it so much (I do – within work hours.) I do it because answering an odd request here and there gives my life an instant sliver of meaning. I’m bored, and rather than channeling my boredom into creative, artistic pursuits, I go after the lowest hanging fruit: meaningless Facebook chatter, work emails that can easily wait till I’m back at work, obsessively checking Reddit.

I have a very limited experience with drugs, but in my head, drugs are what you take to get away from reality, and deceive yourself that everything is great for a few hours. By that definition, being “on” all the time is unequivocally my drug.

And so I find myself laying in bed at night and anxiously starting into the ceiling in the fifteen minutes between when I shut off my computer and when I finally pass out. Most nights, I try to go to bed so exhausted that I don’t have to confront my thoughts.

It’s not always like this; I do manage to disconnect and enjoy life sometimes – usually when I have a longer break from work. I can cling on to little nudges of inspiration and motivation and create something, or find the time to get out of town and go on a trip. Then I start feeling alive, happy, balanced. However, these days are getting fewer, and I can’t blame work or others for it. I need to find an escape from the screen addiction.

Some brilliant scriptwriting by the masterful Aaron Sorkin.

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