I’m starting this year with a mix of pessimism and optimism, both because I can’t help it.
I’m pessimistic about the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. I think it will happen very slowly, partly because it already has and partly because there are just so many people to vaccinate. Israel is crushing it, with 10% of their population vaccinated in just two weeks - but that means it will take 5 months to reach everyone. My county happens to have roughly the same population as Israel, meaning if we were extremely efficient, I could have my vaccine by June.
Therefore, I’m accepting that there may be another lost year, another year when we can’t safely travel or visit people in person. This sucks, but not as much as dying of COVID-19. (Or COVID-21?) I’d rather assume that 2021 will be more of the same, and be wrong, than get my hopes up and have to keep resetting expectations.
The optimistic part is that I’m still alive, and there don’t appear to be any vaccine refusers in my immediate family. That means all I have to worry about this year is staying safe and keeping busy enough to manage my disappointment.
Making my goals and resolutions is my favorite part of the entire year, even when I don’t reach them all. Many years I’ve hit all of them, or 90%, and that’s enough reason to keep trying and keep planning even when the outside world is a mess.
I have some hunches this year. I have a super strong hunch that we’re going to wind up moving. There is a non-zero chance that we will wind up relocating for work at some future point, and it’s absolutely impossible to guess when that might be, but this year is more likely than last year. I dreamed I was driving again, so I think it will be outside of SoCal. (Several years ago I had a premonitory dream that we moved to Sacramento, and then we did).
Some people would be horrified at the prospect of moving, especially a sudden move to a new city. For me, at this point, in many ways it’s less hassle than packing for a camping trip or... going to Costco. Mainly this possibility will inform whether I hang stuff on the walls or make bulk purchases.
I also think this might be the year I manage to get back into school in some way. This would impact whether I commit to any other large-scale projects. I’d like to keep my dance card open.
Now for my 2021 goals:
Personal: To expel my math anxiety. [uggggghhhhhh] Every year I like to take on a massive personal challenge, something that intimidates me to the point of making myself a little ill. It started with running, then public speaking, then martial arts, and now I don’t have all that much left that freaks me out! The only thing that really and truly gives me dread and trepidation now is mathematics, by which I mean, algebra and beyond. The deal here is that I want to go to grad school, which likely means the GRE, which means I have to master calculus, and that is something I’ve never done. I did a math placement test that had me stuck on some 5th-grade math things, so I guess this fits the bill. Try to always work on something that keeps you humble and it can help from having your ego balloon out of control.
Career: Become a futurist. It’s plausible that I can move in this direction without grad school, and it’s also plausible that this can happen through my current job. I really love the company where I work, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be right now, so I’m going with it. This promises to be a very lively and intriguing year at work.
Physical: Back to my goal weight. I was shooting for this last year, but I got COVID instead. I’m at the point where I feel like my weight gain is actively interfering with my respiration. Strangely, I was in the same position in 2004-5, so I have reason to believe this will work. It’s not that I regret learning to box, but the weight I put on that year has been disastrous for my health and energy level.
Home: Probably move to a larger home. We’re waiting until the pandemic winds down, because it just doesn’t make sense to move right now. But we are ready for a place with a washer and dryer and a proper kitchen. Probably also a second bedroom, so we can shut a door between us when we’re both on conference calls.
Couples: Save for a house. We’ve decided that if we buy a house here, where we currently live, it would have to be after a slightly improbable series of events. (Start our own company etc). Maybe we’ll buy a house elsewhere. We’re learning a bit about remodeling and interior design, trying to figure out what style of place we would like.
Stop goal: Stop hoarding reading material. Okay, this one is painful but I feel it has to be done. My husband looked at me and asked, “Including digital?” I nodded and he winced. It is a key part of my job to Read All the Things, but I don’t really need to have absolutely thousands of articles in my queue. Do I? I don’t even know how to do this goal other than to quit putting library books on hold. The point of all these goals and resolutions (this is a resolution, BTW) is to explore and learn new ways of doing things.
Lifestyle upgrades: New bed. Our bed went like this: Years 0-10, glorious. Year 10, lumpy. Year 11, terrible. If only we’d known to replace it before the pandemic...
Do the Obvious: Assume another year of WFH. I might work from home forever and I like it that way.
Ultralearning: Data visualization - Tableau, Excel, etc. This is a goal that is inevitable, due to my job responsibilities, so I might as well give myself credit for it. By this time next year, I’ll know all sorts of things that I don’t know right now.
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon (2025). A quest is quixotic and I’m not ready to let this one go. If I can ever run any decent distance again, I’m sure I’ll cry so hard I’ll soak my shirt.
Wish: To visit my family safely!
Personal: To expel my math anxiety
Career: Become a futurist
Physical: Back to my goal weight
Home: Probably move to a larger home
Couples: Save for a house
Stop goal: Stop hoarding reading material
Lifestyle upgrades: New bed
Do the Obvious: Assume another year of WFH
Ultralearning: Data visualization - Tableau, Excel, etc.
Quest: 50 for 50 ultramarathon (2025)
Wish: To visit my family safely
Categorizing these, the math anxiety thing is a challenge; the futurism career is a mission; reaching my goal weight again, moving to a larger home, saving for a house, and getting a new bed are goals; and it is a resolution to stop hoarding reading material. Ultralearning is a project. A quest is something big that probably takes more than a year to do, and a wish is something that you can’t simply make happen through an obvious action. I like to be clear with myself about how I’m going to go about making something happen in my life. That’s all this is: pick something and do it!
I feel super dumb right now, and I don’t know what to do with this feeling other than to 1. Broadcast it in public and 2. Come up with a plan to deal with it.
Why do I feel dumb? Because I’ve been taking math placement tests, and apparently I need to redo stuff I supposedly learned in fifth grade.
Is this an after-effect of COVID-19? Maybe?
Or is it more like all the other people around my age who are trying to help their kids do their math homework, only to discover they don’t teach it the way we learned it in the Eighties?
Either way, it’s basically like this. Either I sit down and shut up and start re-learning how to use decimals, or I give up on taking the GRE.
One way to look at it is that at least grade-school math should be somewhat easy. I can get math games with cute animals and fun sound effects. As far as I could tell, none of that sort of thing is available for adult-style things, like filling out more complicated tax forms for the first time or forming a corporation.
Another way to look at it is that I have spent the last several years forcing myself to take on the worst, most obnoxious challenges I could come up with, and that this is just the last one on the list.
What have been the hardest things for you to learn to do in your life?
For me they were learning to drive, getting over my fear of public speaking, and learning to take a punch in Krav Maga. I did all those things. The first one made me cry myself into a sick headache, the second one made me think I was going to faint, and the third one was, well, kinda awesome.
Maybe what is different there is that I found it humiliating to be so bad at driving, humiliating to be rendered so overwrought by the simple act of standing behind a lectern - yet martial arts made me feel brave and powerful.
(After, that is, I hit my head on the floor trying to do sit-ups).
This is just another one of those things that I do. I supposedly like to start from a place of abject uselessness and gradually work my way up to a level of basic competence. I can look back at all my hard work and confirm that it works, that grinding away at something will eventually get you somewhere.
More importantly, I can look at my new-found skill and think, I’ll never be as bad at this as when I started, ever again.
Why math, though? Or, rather, arithmetic? Why would I do this to myself??
What’s particularly rough about this is that I work with astrophysicists and aerospace engineers. Our shipping clerks and security guards are probably demonstrably better at basic math than I am today.
The other rough thing is that I’m a card-carrying Mensan. It doesn’t even seem to fit.
How does that even happen? Like my husband, I’m unusually gifted in one area while pretty average at another. For him, math is the big kid on teeter-totter, and spelling is the little kid about to get slammed onto the ground. For me, it’s more of the reverse. I can live-translate in two languages on the same afternoon, but I need total silence before I can calculate a tip.
Something weird about all this is that I am good with money, budgets, and estimating how much I’m spending at the store. It remains a mystery to me. Maybe I can find a way to financialize every math problem?
If I had to choose between being “good with money” and being “good at math,” I’d definitely pick the former, but perhaps that is a false choice and it’s possible to become equally good at both.
Anyway, here I am, facing my own inadequacies and frustration and embarrassment. About to step into the space of humility, for my own good. The way I do every few years.
How am I doing it?
I poked around for a few days, looking at various websites and apps, considering paper workbooks. I decided that I wanted an app that could track my progress and perhaps help point me to areas where I needed more focus, rather than a stack of workbooks that would not correct or even notice my many errors.
I looked at games, and what I found were games for really tiny kids, focusing on addition and subtraction. I was hoping for something like that touch-typing game that kills zombies while you build your typing speed. If you want an idea for an app to build, something that gamifies math from the earliest levels to the highest could potentially do well. Maybe help some junior math whiz learn pre-calc in her high chair or whatever.
I compared the various education apps I already have on my phone.
The app I chose was Khan Academy. You can start out with preschool math, if you want to, and take a test to see if you’re already done with that level.
This is where I was when I discovered that the skills I stalled out at in my earlier placement test are not 7th grade math, but 5th. Are kids getting smarter, or have I been getting dumber?
This is all a moot point, because the point is to develop and reinforce a growth mindset. WE CAN LEARN NEW THINGS! It doesn’t matter how bad I am at something today, if I’m willing to apply myself and keep learning.
My goal is to pass calculus, something I never did in high school. For that to happen, assuming I was a senior, I need to get through eight academic years. How long is it going to take me? My husband says I can blast through it in a few weeks. I know better, and I know that thinking that way is demotivating for me. I don’t want to feel competitive, I just want to make sure I nail this material so I never have to go over it again.
These are the levels:
Arithmetic, basic geometry, pre-algebra, algebra, trigonometry, statistics, pre-calculus, and then apparently there is more than one kind of calculus??
All right, I’ve just shown the world my dirty laundry. Now to you. Is there anything you’ve always felt a little inadequate about that you might be able to study? If you could magically give yourself one new skill, what would it be?
The biggest problem with New Year’s Resolutions is that they get miscategorized. If you want to win at this game, you have to be clear about the rules. What does I WON look like?
The whole thing is much easier when you look at it as a game and approach it with curiosity, or hilarity if you can manage it.
Typically it looks like this. Someone blurts out a resolution on New Year’s Eve, and then quits by the middle of January because they couldn’t manage a perfect streak. Each time they feel guilty and dumb for trying.
The only things we should have a perfect streak at are all hygiene-related!
Like, go ahead and skip Duolingo - I don’t care what that owl says, unless it’s a barred owl in which case watch out - but please don’t skip washing your hands or brushing your teeth, mmkay?
Okay, let’s say the goal is to choose something fun and entertaining to do over the rest of the calendar year. We’ll use my friend Ed’s idea from 2018, which was to “ride more roller coasters.”
How does Ed know that he has kept his resolution?
What he has done is to set an “implementation intention.” He is going to ride “more” roller coasters. He has a clear vision in his mind that he and his wife are going to drive over to an amusement park, buy tickets, and get on the ride. (At that point, willpower no longer applies and the rest of the resolution happens on its own).
Technically, if Ed and Mrs. Ed rode zero roller coasters in 2017, and one in 2018, then he has kept his resolution because one is “more” than zero.
In actuality, this roller coaster deal happened throughout the year and became a fun, memorable series of dates.
This was a successful “resolution” but it could also reasonably be considered a “quest” or a “mission” or a “project.” It could even be an “experiment,” the purpose of which was to overcome the fear of roller coasters.
(That’s called exposure therapy, and it usually works for most people, just like public speaking did for me).
The idea here is to find a way to explore your intent and desire in a way that is not punishing or shaming, because what fun is that? How does it get anyone anywhere? If it really is important or interesting to you, then you would probably want to figure out how to set yourself up for success. By the end of the year, whatever it was that attracted you would be satisfied in some way.
A regular part of your daily routine?
A memory and interesting story?
Information that taught you that it wasn’t what you thought it was, and now you no longer want to play the bagpipes after all?
Certainly an escape clause should be built in. You want a way to release yourself from your internal contract. A learning experience is not failure; in fact, far from it. Every learning experience gets you closer to the ideal vision of what you want for your life - and do not want!
A friend of mine has made a resolution to stop making assumptions about other people’s intentions. He had the insight that he tends to tell himself stories about what other people are thinking when they do or say certain things. This type of projection is stressful, and often wrong. This is a great example of a resolution, because it is meaningful to him and because it will take time to get it down. If he’s right, it will improve his life and there would thus never be a reason to quit doing it. It’s a resolution without a specific timeline or destination, which makes it poorly suited as a traditional “goal.”
Meanwhile, someone could have a goal of returning their ancient overdue library books from three years ago. That would be a clearly defined “goal” that also counts as a resolution. They would know when they were “done” and they would also have kept their implementation intention. (I did this once for a client and the librarians emailed me because they were so curious how I got ahold of the books). This same hypothetical person could make another resolution to “only check out digital books” so they never again have an overdue book, yay!
One of my resolutions for 2020 includes a “project.” I am learning about new ways to simplify, automate, or eliminate household chores. Built-in motivation, right? I have no idea how much I am going to learn or how long it will take me to explore this, which is why it’s a project and not a goal or a resolution. Another person might have a cooking project, or something like making raised garden beds, turning their garage into a music studio, or building a treehouse.
I also have a “quest,” which is to train for a fifty-mile ultramarathon over the next five years. If I were able to do this within three years, that would be amazing. I also wouldn’t be disappointed if it took me longer. The idea is to be fit enough to do an ultra at age fifty, so performing this magic trick at an even more advanced age would actually be an improvement over the original vision.
I have a traditional style of “resolution,” which I call a “stop goal.” I only frame stop goals when I realize that I’ve been doing something to drive myself crazy and annoy myself. One year it was to stop leaving tissues in my pockets and then running them through the washing machine, so that little shreds of wet tissue would disperse themselves throughout all the clothes. Years later I am six-sigma successful at this. This year it’s to stop procrastinating on listening to my voicemail on the rare occasions when I get them. Perfection is not the aim for a stop goal; it’s actually liberation from an easily preventable form of self-bothering.
Even if you only do it once, that’s one less time than usual, one less time of annoying yourself for no reason.
Probably the reason so many of us quit and give up on our “resolutions” is that we pick the preachy ones. Quit biting my nails, stop smoking, Lose Weight, save money. If we had any idea how to do these things, we definitely would have done them already. It’s not our fault if we don’t know what to do on day one.
This is why I believe that it pays to set aside two months to be streak-free, goal-free, and thus failure-free. December is for deciding what to do, and January is for starting to learn how to do it. The more clarity we can get on what we want, how it looks and feels, and how other people have generally made it happen, the more likely that we are to keep our resolutions. Because we want them, they are fun and interesting, and we like them!
Where do you want to be ten years from now?
Answers to this question tend to come in two varieties:
grandiose plans with no clear information about how to get there.
In these days, a lot of dreams that once would have sounded completely impossible are now fairly reasonable. Like, I want to be a colonist on Mars! Or, I want to be a rock star! Or, I want to talk to a celebrity! Or, I want to build a robot! The more technology makes possible, the less impressed we are by it.
We’ve seen so much dramatic change in our lifetimes that it’s really hard to picture the future. The further out it is, the harder it is to imagine it in detail.
I can definitely say that in 1990, I had no idea about most of what we take for granted today. I would have had the hardest time picturing cheap or free long-distance phone calls, cheap airfare with people wearing shorts and flip-flops on the plane, or everyone having tattoos.
In 2000, I still couldn’t picture little kids talking on cell phones, YouTube, Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, or robotic appliances.
In 2010, I couldn’t imagine how easy it would be to have everything delivered, rideshare, or controlling everything from your phone.
Now 2020 is almost here, and I have no idea what it is that I’m not seeing, even though it will be a regular part of my life in the near future. 2030? Your guess is as good as mine.
The other thing is that as difficult as it is to picture technological innovations before they arrive, it can be even more difficult to imagine the major events of our own lives. New friends, job changes, moving and living in a different home, or even medical issues can come as such huge surprises. We feel buffeted and attacked by circumstances.
We forget or deny that we have free will. We don’t realize the infinite power we have to make choices, overcome obstacles, and create our own circumstances.
I do think the ten-year framework can help clarify things, though.
If you’re in an on-again, off-again relationship, do you think you’ll still want to be with this person ten years from now?
Do you think you’ll still be living in the same place?
Will your pets still be here? (People usually fail to realize that bringing home a kitten can be an extremely expensive 20-year commitment)
Will you be at the same job?
Will you have any savings? Will you be debt-free?
If you knew you would wind up in the hospital ten years from now, do you have a few solid guesses about why?
(I kinda always assumed I’d probably need a root canal one day, and guess what, I was right)
Will you have new family members in your home? A kid, or one of your parents moving in with you?
The lessons of middle age have a lot to do with responsibility for others, one annoying medical or dental thing after another, financial planning, and being the one who has to answer the Bat Signal. We can get so caught up in the endless waves of problem-solving that we lose sight of the dreams and idealism we had when we were young.
Also we find out how expensive they are.
Or assume they are and never bother to check.
I travel a lot - my dad got a job with an airline when I was a little kid and I started early. It always surprises me how often I meet people who have never gone anywhere. Often they’re so captivated by a certain country or city that they have pictures or artwork about that place. Oh my gosh, I think, you could get a flight there for $600, you could go this year! There are SO MANY travel-related jobs, you could even change jobs and literally get paid to go there. To me travel is the easiest dream because I know how to do it.
Other people might feel that way about a makeover, or learning to write code, or cooking or interior design or going back to school. Sure hon, I can help you with that, what are you doing tomorrow?
It’s humanly possible and they’re probably hiring.
A friend of mine wants to go to Antarctica. I told her I would totally go with her and she said she would do the research. All right, I guess I’d better start parka shopping...
The thing is, though, there’s never an obvious right time to board your dog and just go to Antarctica. There’s never an obvious right time to book a resume consultant and start job hunting.
There was an obvious right time for me to go back to school and get my degree, because my first husband asked for a divorce. Don’t wait for that kind of “opportunity” - just make up your mind and go for your dream now.
How old are you going to be in 2030? I’ll be turning 55, how about you?
Where do you want to be? Do you want to adopt a kid, see the world, get your teeth fixed, launch a website, buy a motorcycle, get your passport? When are you going to do it?
One of the most provocative ideas I ever heard is that most people could make their ten-year goal happen in six months. That is patently not true if you want to do certain very specific things, like study to be a surgeon, but that list is really short. Most of the most common goals, like losing weight, going back to school, paying off debt, training for a marathon, or traveling to a new city, absolutely can be done in that timescale.
Most ten-year goals are so easily reachable, reasonable, and modest that they aren’t motivating enough. They also draw naysayers. Nothing annoys other people as much as when someone achieves something that they want for themselves. Go on and bother them, then. None of these goals are zero-sum or exclusive. That’s why I suggested that I would go with my friend to Antarctica, because I know we’re both more likely to go if we have a buddy.
Sometimes that buddy shows up in the process of planning your dream. It’s a great way to make new friends, friends who can’t imagine you in their life yet, either.
Who will you be celebrating with on New Year’s Eve 2029? What resolutions will you be making that year? What is it that you want to experience in your lifetime?
Do you think you’ll do the research and make it happen? Do you think you’ll show up for yourself?
In forty years of regular library use, I continue to be amazed that I’ve been missing out on stuff. Every time I think I’ve finally hacked it, I stumble across yet another dimension of awesome and free library features. This has been another year of rediscovering how fabulous is Benjamin Franklin’s greatest contribution to civilization, the public library. Now I’m using it to plan a big ultralearning project for the New Year.
Here is a quick rundown of my favorite library hacks, before I show off my new finds:
I have five active library cards! A lot of people can access multiple libraries depending on where they live. For instance, both San Francisco and Los Angeles allow anyone who lives in California State to become a patron, and you don’t even have to show up in person. Other libraries will allow outsiders to buy in with an annual fee. I have a county card and four city cards, two of which give me access to regional library systems. On rare occasions, I request physical books or DVDs, where they show up on the hold shelf around the corner from my apartment. Mostly, I use electronic media.
I use four apps to get ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines. There is an exploit here, because I’ve discovered that all my holds are counted separately, on the four apps and the fifth way, through the physical collection. ALSO, for some mysterious reason, none of the resources in three of these apps show up on the library catalogue, only through the apps themselves, so there is virtually zero competition for those collections. About 80% of the time I can just check out a hot new book immediately, even when there are over 500 people waiting for it via normal means.
That’s the basic level. I can put somewhere around 90 books on hold at a time and I’m pretty sure I could check out over 100 if I really wanted. (This made me curious, and it turns out most of my resources don’t actually have a limit). (!)(!)(!)
Next I figured out that I could use an app to speed-read text. Simply copy and paste ebook text, one chapter at a time, into the Outread app. While you can listen to an audiobook at 2x speed through most apps, Hoopla can play them at 3x!
I was happily reading along, feeling awestruck and blessed by this abundance of books, when I realized that there was still more out there. Between my various libraries, I found out that I had access to The Great Courses AND Rosetta Stone. *thud*
Then I started poking around a bit more, partly because I am thinking about a foreign language for my ultralearning project. There are a bunch of different language learning materials...
And THEN I fell down a black hole. As I was writing this, it occurred to me that I almost never look at the main webpage of any of my libraries, and that I had never done a full overview of all their offerings. What else did they have?
Professional development courses
Practice exams for the GRE (and all the college-prep stuff)
Tons of genealogy material and historical archives
I even found out that there were yet more apps where I could have been checking out ebooks and audiobooks all this time. The reason most of them don’t have a wait list is that they have an unlimited amount of checkouts, so nobody has to wait!
THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING
There’s a certain paradox with library holds. Classic books that are usually pre-copyright, like anything by Dickens or Jane Austen, will often have a months-long wait list. It never occurred to me to simply search for them elsewhere. The lesser-known apps have complete collections of all this stuff. For completists, your wait is over, and now you can read through your checklist as quickly as you like.
Something else that hadn’t occurred to me is that the library gives us access to entire collections in various languages. If I want to improve my skills in Spanish, for example, I’m not limited to textbooks or workbooks; I can try to read bestsellers or anything else that I would have read in English. This has just blown my mind because I was wondering what I would do if I ever managed to become fluent.
For language study, I have:
The Great Courses even has Latin and Ancient Greek!
At least one of my local branches has language clubs, where people meet to practice their skills on certain evenings of the week.
I’ve also been flirting with the idea of going back to school for a master’s degree (but in what?). I like to joke that it would be funny to have people introduce my husband and me as “Doctor and Mister” - which is only even remotely funny because he is an aerospace engineer with a master’s degree and multiple patents in process. He’s been far too busy for the past quarter century, so if one of us is getting a doctorate at some point it will most likely have to be me. Now that I know I have access to all these free math courses, and GRE practice materials, I can’t use either the academic calendar or money as an excuse.
For anyone thinking of their poky, musty little local library, don’t be sad. If you are reading this, then you are online, and you have free access to basically anything ever. Many universities, libraries, and museums around the world offer free access to their entire online collections. You could be browsing through those offerings right now instead of reading this.
The biggest hindrance that we have in learning new things, once we are no longer formally enrolled in a school, is that we have to choose our own materials and set our own schedules. All of us could find 10 or 15 minutes a day to learn something new, whether that’s a new recipe or a few words in sign language. We just have to decide to do it and move forward with something exciting.
My first step was to look at what materials are available to me. My second step will be to schedule when I’m going to work on my new ultralearning project. Over lunch? During my workout? My third step will be to start the new year with the hope that I’ll end it, in December, knowing something new.
How about you?
After reading his newsletter for years, I got the chance to meet Scott Young this year at World Domination Summit. Hearing him speak got me even more fired up about reading his new book Ultralearning than I had been before. I want to do my own ultralearning project, and I’m taking his advice by planning it first.
Like most people with internet access, I tend to be a dilettante. Dipping in here and there on demand is one of the best things in life. I swear the main reason the internet was invented was to share video proof of cross-species animal interactions. Hardly an evening goes by that my husband and I aren’t leaning our heads together and going “WHOA!!!” I never expected to learn so much about capybaras in my adult life. Probably a lot of us have accidentally found ourselves serious students of... something. Slip-and-fall safety hazard analysis? Lip-syncing techniques? Fashion photography? Real-time descriptive linguistics?
(I used to joke with my parents in middle school that I was “doing my social studies homework” when I was on the phone).
All our internet time has gone to something. Somehow we’ve all adapted along the way. We’re using haptic technology, understanding skeuomorphic icons, picking up new slang, figuring out ways to send each other files that were totally unimaginable twenty years ago, and I know because I can distinctly remember how much I struggled with each of these developments. If I’d set out with a serious plan, thinking “Me learn tek now,” I’m sure I would have wound up on the floor reading graphic novels instead. (Which, if you’re into it, also has a certain onboarding process).
We’re able to do it easily when we think it’s fun, when we don’t think of it as “studying” in the first place. Just like when my husband taught me his method of making a seven-layer dip earlier this year. All I could think about was 1. Why I never knew, through fourteen years of friendship, that he could make this seven-layer dip and 2. How great it would be to have seven-layer dip on demand.
Everything should be like that. It should always feel that obvious just exactly why we would want to learn something new. How great it will be! AHA!
Scott Young himself has picked some really impressive ultralearning projects, which is of course why we care to read his book. First he put himself through a self-taught version of MIT. Then he learned four languages in a year. Then he learned to draw portraits. Then he wrote a book, got it published, and it became a bestseller. Nice! He’s still quite a young guy, so all we can do is to stand back and wonder what he’ll take on next. Building his own house? Becoming a master chef or a chess grandmaster? Black belt in Kung Fu?
This raises the question, if I think all of these projects are cool, would I want to do them myself?
It is a very special moment when it dawns on you that, if something is at all humanly possible, then YOU YOURSELF could learn to do that thing.
For instance, when I started “running” and almost blacked out after one block in my neighborhood, I wasn’t thinking about it. But a couple of years later I was: If millions of people have run a marathon, that’s... 26.2 miles? If millions of people have done it, then I bet I can.” And I did.
I’ve rarely been so happy and excited as the day I first got a hula hoop to spin, except for the day I finally did a headstand a few years later.
Stupid Human Tricks. Those are my forte. I couldn’t do any of this stuff as a little child, but as a middle-aged woman I’m 1. Stubborn enough, 2. Smart enough not to pull this stuff when my mom is watching, and 3. Covered by excellent health insurance. If I want to spend my forties trying to finally do the splits then that is my prerogative.
I’m thinking about an ultralearning project for 2020, and the first place my head goes is toward circus tricks, stunts, and stage magic. Here I thought I would be focusing on academics.
Whatever I choose, once I’ve made a public commitment then I know I will take it extremely seriously. This is, after all, how I generate content for my blog. Otherwise it would be literally nothing but photos of my pets, a list of books I read while lounging around with my pets, and perhaps sandwiches I ate in full view of aforementioned pets.
I like to spend the entire month of December in planning and review. This is because I can’t stand Christmas music and I try not to go out in public until it feels safe. Over the past decades, my New Year’s planning ritual has taken on a life of its own. It helps me to feel like I am living intentionally, finding time to do interesting things, and making sure I have something to show for my time on this planet. It puts a clearly defined timeline with regular reporting dates on my calendar.
Goals that I have chosen in the past tend to expand into three-year projects. I haven’t really gone out of my way in the past to set public three-year goals, mostly because I never feel that I’m making a three-year commitment when I start. It’s just that as I start to delve in, I start to get more and more curious about the subject, and the more curious I am, the more I learn, and the more I learn, the more interesting it gets. Three-year blocks of my life keep passing, one after another. If I’m going to get three years older regardless, I may as well have spent that time learning something that fascinates me.
The question is, how about you? What would you like to learn?
The thing about goals is that they’re often too small, too easy to reach. It takes something on a grander scale to be really exciting and worth chasing, and that’s the visionary scale of a dream. Just like goals, though, dreams may not be what we had imagined when once we actually make them real. As time goes by, we may not realize that what we really want is something entirely different.
That’s when it’s time to release an old, expired dream and start chasing a new one.
When I was a kid, like a lot of children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. It’s fun to say big words and impress adults. As I started to realize what veterinarians actually do, I changed my mind. All I could picture was having to give shots to puppies and kittens all day, and owie! Now, as a middle-aged person, I know a few vets, and the truth is that theirs is a very difficult and often sad profession. It’s been over thirty years since I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was okay with letting that dream go.
(But thank you ever so much to those of you who pursued it!)
Optimists like myself have a fairly easy time of it, recognizing and letting go of expired dreams. We’re future-facing, and we’re more interested in moving forward, toward something appealing. The reverse is true of a lot of people, those who lean toward melancholy and regret. Releasing an expired dream can feel achingly sad in these cases.
I have a dear old friend who is at the top of his profession. This is funny to me, because I’ve known him since he was a university student, filling his study area with towers of cola cans. He is literally working his dream job, the only thing he’s ever wanted to do with his life, and he’s wildly successful at it. He’s making more money than he could have imagined, living in his dream city, married and traveling the world. Yet he’s constantly wistful about his teens and twenties and in some ways feeling like life is passing him by.
Why? What could have been better than the outcome he got? Staying twenty forever, battling bad skin, being broke and not knowing how to cook?
As we get older, the past starts to put on this golden, hazy glow. We forget the bad parts and the rough edges. This really seems to start to kick in after we hit our sixties, and it’s part of why older people tend to be happier. We can see it in action if we compare the stories someone tells us with the version they were telling ten or twenty years ago. We can compare their notes with those of their friends and family who were there, we can compare it with photos, we can compare it with journals and letters and news headlines. Gee, that sure isn’t how you were telling it when it happened!
Come to think of it, *I* was there, and that’s not how I remember it either!
It’s probably for the best. Our shiny new versions of tawdry old events are part of what keeps us going.
Nostalgia isn’t a very good bargain, if you ask me. Why trade future visions for feeling like our best times are behind us? I know that isn’t true in my life. I wouldn’t even want to go back two months, much less two years or twenty years. I look better today than I did in old photos. My life is easier and better, and why? Because I’ve always chased my dreams and continued to dream bigger.
I live the life I do because I’m specific about what I want, and that motivates me to go out and get it.
The easiest of the expired dreams to let go is the dream of being with your old crush. One of the greatest things about social media is that it’s easy to find people and see how they’ve turned out. In my case, my crushes are now of an age to have grown vast wizard beards, which is awesome, but my husband can do that too.
Any single one of my old crushes would not result in the marriage that I have today, and that’s a thought that makes me feel small and panicky. Trade this for that? No thank you.
Dreams can be of any size or duration, just exactly like clouds. Is yours continent-spanning majestic size, or a house-sized bit of fluff? Is it going to drift away before you can grab it?
Here are some dreams that I’ve released, and why.
I used to dream of having an electric car, when they were new and uncommon. I’ve released that dream because I hate driving! My dream is not to have a car at all, and I’ve been living that out for nearly three years now.
I used to dream of being 5’10” - six inches taller than my adult height - and I’ve released that dream. Now I understand that my size is efficient for things I like to do, such as distance running and backpacking. It’s easier for someone of my size to do pull-ups and other body weight exercises, too.
Once upon a time, I dreamed of earning a degree in Classics. I released that in my senior year, when I changed majors, because I finally realized that nobody understood what it meant, and I got tired of explaining it. Also, it struck me that I could spend my time learning modern languages rather than Latin and Attic Greek. (I did come away with rather splendid Greek handwriting, though).
It’s interesting to picture myself as a tall woman driving around town in an electric vehicle and wielding a Classics degree. What am I doing? Am I a professor of antiquities? Hmm. A valid life, an intriguing dream, but... nah. I’ll take what I have today, thanks.
Aspirations usually show up in physical form, and they’re far more likely to manifest in small consumer items than in bigger things, like acceptance letters or class syllabuses. We buy little trinkets as placeholders for our wildest desires. I see this all the time, and in fact I can usually pinpoint someone’s expired aspirations within minutes of entering their home.
Foreign language dictionaries, unopened packages of art supplies, dusty fitness equipment, books with pristine spines, mute instruments, clothes that don’t fit... signs and relics of unlived personas, untouched fantasies, untested dreams.
These are objects of power, mind you. There is vast energy stored in these sigils, these artifacts of past dreams.
Let’s all agree to forgive ourselves for having lived our actual lives. Let’s let go of this idea that things might have been better if only we had been someone else. Imagine if everyone you loved was someone else instead: would anyone be left to love you? Love yourself the same way, just the way you are. Then box up your old aspirational clutter and offer it to someone else, someone for whom that dream still has bits of sparkle to explore.
The Third Door is an incredibly entertaining book. It’s also a story about how to create your own luck. Alex Banayan set out on a self-created quest to interview a series of famously successful people, even though he knew no one and came from a family of immigrants. What follows is The Third Door, Banayan’s account of blind optimism, persistence, doubt, failure, awkwardness, and, of course, dizzying success.
That’s what makes this book destined to be a classic, and guarantees that “the third door” will become a common catchphrase in entrepreneurial circles.
“The third door” is the one that geniuses create for themselves by bypassing the ordinary way of doing things. Most of us get the first door, the main entrance. Those born to wealth and privilege get the second door. During his interviews, Alex Banayan discovered that what the most interesting people had in common, even though they didn’t know it, was the initiative they took in making their own door.
You know, “Hey Kool-Aid!” *crash*
(If you’re too young to get that joke, congratulations! You have more time than you think and your whole life is ahead of you).
The Third Door could have been a compilation of interviews, and it would have been a good one, or maybe just an ordinary, mainstream one. Instead Banayan structures it around his quest, focusing on all the stumbles and bumbles and what it took every time he had an inspired moment or gained an ally. This book is about the thought process. It’s also about the emotional reality of committing to something big, a public quest, and how scary it can get every time it isn’t easy, which is most of the time.
Banayan’s process would probably work for anyone who is genuinely trying to create a third door of their own. Get an Inside Man, someone who will help you to connect with the person you want to talk to. Be grateful and polite. Stay in touch with and befriend the various people you meet. Be likable. Have people check your work and edit your cover letters. Get a mentor and pay close attention to their advice.
Perhaps most of all, do your research. Banayan’s biggest score came after an enormous amount of research to find someone he wanted for a mentor. He made several guesses as to the person’s email address, got a two-line response, and dropped everything to accommodate that person’s schedule. He trusted his gut, but only because he had done so much research beforehand.
Banayan had a lot to overcome. Shyness and stage fright, social awkwardness, lack of resources. Really a boy like him had no business even thinking about this project, much less attempting it. He did it anyway, figuring out the rules as he went along.
I loved The Third Door as an example of possibility thinking. I also loved it as a madcap adventure story. It’s a fun book that would make a perfect gift for a young graduate.
The Big Thing is a terrific book about chronic procrastination. Phyllis Korkki had been wanting to write a book for forty years. Never mind that she worked as an editor at the New York Times, living a lot of people’s dream career. She was going to let her vague dream of Writing a Book torment her and make her feel like a procrastinating lazy person for most of her life.
What exactly is a Big Thing? According to Korkki, it’s whatever you want it to be. There are numerous examples in the book of other people’s projects, including performance art, creating a museum, remodeling houses, and, of course, The Big Thing itself. What these things have in common is that they are personally meaningful, complex, have no deadline, and “require sustained concentration and effort.” So my trying to learn to wrap a burrito properly probably doesn’t count, but my desire to go to grad school (and study... what, exactly?) probably does.
In the course of writing her book, Korkki consults all sorts of experts in fields as diverse as ergonomics, dream research, and mindfulness. She even sees a dating coach. This process of research is funny because it’s so wide-ranging, vastly increasing the level of difficulty of her Big Thing, and yet she feels that all this extra activity qualifies as procrastination. Same here. In engineering we call it “scope creep.” It’s something of a miracle that this book exists, and it’s wonderful because it feels very much like being inside the mind of a divergent-thinking creative and working artist.
What causes people to put off doing their Big Thing? It’s different for everyone, just as the accomplishment and achievement of various Big Things is different. Perfectionism, ambiguity, drug use, chronic pain, mental illness, all sorts of things can be obstacles, although people are overcoming them to live out their dreams and finish their projects all the time.
One of the most interesting insights in the book is that Korkki is challenged on her description of herself as lazy. According to one of the experts, laziness and procrastination are not only not the same thing, they’re almost mutually exclusive. A truly lazy person wouldn’t work on anything at all, or even have a job. Delaying on something is its own form of commitment. It often involves “structured procrastination,” when the supposed procrastinator is bustling around doing other types of chores and tasks. There’s an argument here that the emotional flogging that goes along with procrastination makes it even more difficult than simply getting on with the work.
Not everyone has a Big Thing; maybe only half of people do. Some people would rather focus on daily life, friendships, and uncomplicated contentment. Korkki distinguishes between happiness and meaning. This is part of the secret to getting past procrastination: to acknowledge whether the Big Thing is truly worth doing, and then to find intrinsic value and enjoyment in the process rather than focusing on outcomes and deadlines.
Korkki learns how to finish her Big Thing by working on The Big Thing. She learns to reframe the project. She collects insights from others about how and why they work on their own Big Thing. She practices mindfulness and continues to return her attention to the project when her focus wanders. She works on turning off her self-judgment. She hires a couple of accountability partners, including one who milks cows at 4:00 AM. She thinks about leaving a legacy in this world. Finally, she finishes her dream of a lifetime, a provocative and curiously compelling book about procrastinating that is completed by not procrastinating.
I procrastinate, I’m lazy (although others would disagree), and I have low energy unless I’m under the gun.
And now I understand why I was so lazy for all those years. It was a way to forestall this anxiety I am now feeling on a daily basis.
The moment when you heave yourself over from inactivity to activity is the hardest to endure.
Can I use this intensity somehow? I don’t want to waste this pain. I don’t want it to be for nothing.
My failure in earlier years to write this book amounted to a broken promise to my future selves, who were counting on it for their happiness and fulfillment.
Sleep is mysticism. It’s easy to believe that when you’re so tired that you start to think burrowing a trench in the sand would be a good way to get some rest. Any habit is a complex blend of many factors, not a single one of which will solve a persistent problem on its own. Quality sleep is so valuable that it’s worth focusing on marginal sleep gains.
The ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ is the term for the cumulative effect of small inputs.
Let’s take a pizza for example. I’m going to make you a pizza with a frozen crust, canned tomato paste, and a packet of herbs I got at the dollar store. My friend is going to make what he calls “bachelor pizza” with a slice of white bread, ketchup, and a slice of processed cheese. Hopefully he remembers to remove the wrapper.
Because you’re a smart person, you’re going to make an excuse to leave and get a pizza with a crust from scratch and fresh ingredients, baked in a proper pizza oven.
There is no single factor that differentiates these “pizzas” - they each combine features that make a whole. Even my friend’s bachelor pizza would be marginally improved by using pizza sauce instead of ketchup.
What does this have to do with sleep? A word of advice: don’t eat pizza late at night if you’re having sleep problems. Have it for lunch instead.
Where are the aggregate gains for sleep going to be found?
Some of this depends on the individual. Most of it, I suspect, is universal, and in a couple of decades we’ll have a better understanding deriving from tech, big data, and sleep research. The trouble is that we tend to associate sleep with one specific aspect, our ability to fall asleep in the first place.
As an example, I can think of three people off the top of my head who claim they are fine on no more than six hours of sleep. All fall asleep quickly (go figure) and all are great at their jobs. Unfortunately, all of them are also crabby, snarky individuals with short tempers. What they think of as their “personality” is what I’m like after a rough night. Because they share the common Puritan-work-ethic problem of scorning sleep, everyone will just think they’ve mellowed out during retirement rather than correcting a problem that was decades in the making.
When we’re looking for marginal sleep gains, we want to be clear about which areas are up for improvement. We also want to broaden our time scale, so that we’re talking about sleep by the week and month, not just individual nights.
For myself, I’m looking at sleep gains in:
Falling asleep more quickly
Sleeping through the night without waking
(Or at least waking fewer times)
(Or at least not lying awake for 90 minutes each time)
Sleeping eight or more hours per night
No night terrors
I’m also looking at “externalities” that not everyone would think are related to sleep.
Other people might be looking at:
No restless leg syndrome
No circles under the eyes
Or any other way that sleep loss lowers your quality of life.
What I’ve learned from years of quantifying my habits is that the approach that works for one thing may have nothing to do with something else. This is why tracking is so important. Marginal gains may take a month or a year to really notice.
For instance, when I finally quit my day job, I slept about 15 hours a day for three days, followed by 12 hours a day for a month. A few months later, I started taking melatonin supplements (careful here!) and hated them because I felt drowsy all day long. I told my husband I was going to quit, and he was shocked. He said I finally had color in my face again. I kept at it. By the end of the year, I had lost 15 pounds (from doing literally NOTHING but sleeping all day and mastering all the crops in FarmVille) and suddenly had the bright idea to take up running.
At the time, I found my constant sleep and lethargy to be embarrassing and unpleasant. That wasn’t the reason I quit my job! In retrospect, that year completely changed my life, helping to make me the athlete I am today.
For thyroid disease, I found my biggest change came from extremely strenuous activity. For migraine, it was keeping my body weight in a certain specific range. For night terrors, the secret was the timing of when I ate - nothing for three hours before I go to sleep. I suspect one of the major keys for sleep, at least in my case, is hydration - drinking enough water at the right time of day.
The secret for me was a change in attitude. I adopted the philosophy that I call Do the Obvious. I assume that there is no reason to deviate from mainstream health advice unless I have tested it on myself in multiple ways. As a scientist I fully commit to designing a proper experiment that can give quality results, and then I analyze my metrics like I really mean it. If I don’t like the answer, then I am choosing my own suffering.
The aggregation of marginal gains does not apply only to one area of life, such as sleep or headache management. It all combines into one big thing, which is your experience of daily life.
As a young, broke, exhausted person, I know I would have been deeply annoyed with the expectation that I make the kind of changes I made for the quality of life I have now. What, quit drinking soda? Go to bed earlier? Lose twenty pounds? Get out of here! Yet the fact is that that young version of me suffered from four-day migraines and often felt sad and hopeless. Today Me would never return to Young Me’s habits out of fear of Young Me’s cruddy life experience.
Today Me has great faith that Future Me will sleep on a peaceful peachy cloud of sweet dreams and aromatherapy. This is hard as Today Me has to listen to Today Upstairs Neighbor clomping up and down the stairs at 5:00 AM.
Here are some of the factors that have gone into the marginal sleep gains I have made so far:
An air filter/white noise generator (or you can try a phone app and/or a fan)
Cracking the window at night
A $25 pillow I discovered at a hotel
A $9 eye mask
Drinking all my water for the day before 8:00 PM
Not eating for at least three hours before sleepy time
Putting my phone in Do Not Disturb mode from 10 PM to 10 AM (and now that I think about it, I should change that to 8 PM)
My husband training our dog to quit whining at 5:30 AM
No naps after 3 PM under any circumstances
Wearing a sleep tracker at night (Fitbit Flex 2) and checking metrics daily
Worth noting: I never drink coffee or alcohol.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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