Grades in College Part 2: Grades and the Student

We saw in Part 1 that the grading system is intended to assess students' work ethic and skills for employment as well as reward students for cooperating with the institutional and career goals, respectively, of their university and professors.

I'll examine to what extent the system is successful in accomplishing that later. In this article, let's look at the effects of the grading system on the students who are subjected to it.

[I'm making a causal argument here, so let me disclaim by saying I have done no research beyond my 16.5 years as a participant-observer and that's not really valid for making a causal argument. Regardless, I trust my intuition and I can wait to verify it until after I've recorded my thoughts.]

Secondary Lessons


Whatever college students do or do not learn as part of their class curricula, there are certain things which the grading system is sure to teach them:
  • "It's okay to cheat as long as I don't get caught." Once that letter "A" is on a student's transcript, employers don't know or care how well the applicant actually knows the material taught in that class. In fact, most don't even look at the transcript. They just see the GPA. So the assessments of specific skills get glommed together and employers just get a sense that the applicant is generally studious or not. There's no accountability between when the student takes the test and when it's too late and the student already has responsibilities for which s/he's ill prepared.
  • "I only need to learn this material long enough to write it down on a test." Students inevitably learn a lot by spending time with the material and being graded forces them to do that. But there's really no system in place to make sure students really learn it instead of just cramming before a test and forgetting everything after.
  • "I will be rewarded for doing what I'm told above all else." Assessment of my ability to regurgitate information from my short-term memory is certainly a large part of what goes into a grade, but an even larger part is my ability to follow instructions. I can learn everything, think hard about the problems, work all day and all night, and still fail a class if I miss deadlines, misunderstand essay prompts, talk too little in class, arrive late, leave my student ID off the header of my exams, don't participate in supplemental experiments, forget to staple my homework, fail to catch grading mistakes on returned exams, or cite sources improperly. None of these things are related to actual learning. Of course these things are valuable to employers who need adherence to company policies and workers who will do what they're told by their managers, but they're not useful for promoting creativity, leadership, and independent thinking.
  • "Quality can be assigned by a superior." Students are taught not to pursue quality for its own sake as they perceive it, but for other ends as a professor perceives it.

Pain Aversion


Being assessed as constantly as college students are is very stressful and it takes a massive toll on their well-being. If it were just the specter of future unemployment, that would be awful enough. But grades are such a part of students' lives that they become integrated into their sense of self and a means for social competition between students. Here are some of the things I've heard walking around campus over the last two weeks.

"What grade did you get on the exam?"

"Is the class curved?"

"I need a good GPA booster next semester."

"I got sick for two weeks and tanked my midterm. So much for law school."

"This class was supposed to be easy, so either I suck or they started deflating grades."

When I walk into a classroom, the students look anxious and tired all the time. If they were ever here to learn, they're not anymore. We're constantly evaluated. Not a week goes by without any quizzes, midterms, finals, papers, labs, problem sets, or presentations, and even if I didn't have all those things, I know I'm daily evaluated on my attendance, punctuality, and participation in class discussions. If I were ever in school to learn, I'm not anymore. Sixteen and a half years in, I work because I'm scared and stressed and anxious about what will happen to me if I fail a test. I'm still learning, but because I have a gun to my head.

I wonder how much more I would learn, how much more sleep I would get, and how much more content I would be if I could appreciate again the musical quality of Emerson and Thoreau, the efficient elegance of a good computer program, and the explanatory power of Nash equilibria.

Stress


All that stress takes a toll on the student. NPR does a good job of describing what it's like for high school students, but the stress barely diminishes in college, and the article falls way too short of offering a solution. Dropping courses, managing one's time better, prioritizing, and avoiding catastrophic thinking might help for a bit, but I argue that the nature of grades and constant assessment adversely affect the student even with a perfect workload and proper time management. (Also, I actually encourage catastrophic thinking and asking "what if" questions, as long as you answer them honestly.)

Stress in small, infrequent amounts is good and potentially life saving - why else would humans have evolved to stress? But being evaluated day-in and day-out for decades is like living in an Orwellian dictatorship.

In high school, I was so stressed out for so long that I developed a psychosomatic disorder. About once a month all through 2009 (the year I applied to college) I would wake up in the middle of the night with acute abdominal pain and vomit for hours. The pain was so bad I even went to the hospital once and was treated with morphine. The more sleep I lost and school I missed, the more stressed out I became. Neither the hospital nor my GI ever found anything wrong with me, but the disorder went away on its own once I was accepted into college. I've talked to a few people at school who have had similar experiences either in high school or college.

Psychologists know that when students experience such extreme and prolonged chronic stress in their teens and early twenties, they're more likely to develop depression ten years down the road and suffer from the major western diseases. Those include heart attack, stroke, type II diabetes, and obesity. They're more likely to use drugs as coping mechanisms.

To recap: students take problematic lessons from a grading system, learn to view education as pain aversion, and suffer from chronic stress through unrelenting assessment.

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Next up Part 3: Fixing Grades
Update: Part 1: Why Do We Use Grades?

Grades in College Part 1: Why Do We Use Grades?

A brief introduction: I have for a long time been frustrated with schooling and angry at being personally subjected to it. For all its costs, though, I think it's incredibly important. I agree with the prevailing understanding among people who study education that it leads to unparalleled economic, health, and social benefits for both those who get educated and for society as a whole.

This is, of course, when it works as it's supposed to work.

Education is often - or maybe even usually - not provided at an acceptable quality. Even in the United States, with a GDP the size of most of the rest of the world combined, education services are dismal for the majority of the population. I hope to, at a later time, address that issue in my writing or even in my career (through Teach for America or another such organization). However, that is beyond the scope of this series of articles.

What I would like to do here is examine the question of how higher education - where it is already of the highest quality, such as at my university - can be improved. I have never formally studied the philosophy or psychology of education, though I have a stack of books on assessment theory waiting for me in my room. Before I allow my opinions to be swayed by those authors' opinions, though, I wanted to take an a posteriori look at the system of assessment under which I personally have served my time and see how it can be improved.

That study begins with the question in the title: Why do we use grades?


The Obvious Answer


The obvious answer is that "we need to have some idea of how well Daniel learned this subject."

Okay, sure. Like I said, that's obvious.

But why do we need to know how well I learned this subject?

It Depends on Who You Ask


If you ask me, I don't need to know how well I learned this subject. Take a class I'm currently in: Introduction to Computing Using Python. I really don't care to know how well I learned Python. I can't think of a reason why that would matter to me. I do want to keep programming, but I don't need to know how well I know how to program to know how to program. That's confusing, but basically I just need to know how to program. If I try to program something and I realize I don't know how to do it, I'll just look it up online or read a textbook on the subject until I do know how to do it. At no point does assessment of any kind become useful.

If you ask my Computer Science professor, grades probably help in a couple ways. Our class has over 450 students, so student evaluations tell him how well we're absorbing what he's telling us, what pace to go through the material, how clear to make the instructions for assignments, etc. If he just asked us point blank, we might not give accurate answers and the class is too large to have an intuitive sense. Quantitative data about how many questions we get right on a test is definitely useful to him.

Beyond that, there's another use to the professor for having grades, and this is where things get interesting. Let's go through this, step by step. The professor gets paid by the university for teaching computer science. The professor basically has perfect job security since he has tenure, but even then, he has an economic incentive to make sure the students learn the material as best as they can. If he wants to move up in the department or win teaching awards, he has to make sure the students learn the material as best they can. He can provide the curriculum for the students to learn the material, but ultimately it is up to the students to learn the material on their own.

If I don't come to class, pay attention in lecture, come to labs, strive to complete them, complete the coding assignments, read the textbook, ask questions when I get stuck, and review the material periodically, the professor cannot achieve his goal. So his desired outcome depends on my, possibly undesired, contribution. He then holds grades over me as an incentive to give him what he wants.

The goals of the university are closely aligned with those of my professor. It too has an incentive to teach the material thoroughly if it wants to stay in business. My parents would not send me to college (read: pay) if they felt I were not learning anything here. So the university needs me to learn and it uses grades as a an incentive to cooperate with its goals.

If you ask employers in the tech industry, grades are useful because they allow recruiters to determine which students are qualified to do the work they need done. We can argue to what extent my GPA reflects my relevant skills and abilities, but if someone majoring in computer science graduates from my university with honors, it's a good sign they possess a strong work ethic (whatever that means) and knows how to program well. That makes it easier for companies to narrow their search.

To recap: employers need a way to narrow their search, universities need to incentivize their students to work hard, and professors need feedback on their teaching. It is a system imposed on students from which they do not directly benefit.

###

Stay tuned for Part 2: Grades and the Student.

Update: Part 3: Fixing Grades

10 Incisive Quotes from the Complete Collection of the Brothers Grimm's Household Tales

I finally finished my complete collection of Brothers Grimm stories. I read a story or two every few nights before falling asleep for the last 3 years. Here is some of the more interesting prose. You can see our cultural inheritances in these quotes, as well as some of the more terrifying things parents told their children over 200 years ago. Keep in mind the book was first published in 1812 and the stories date to the 18th century.

The wolf to Little Red Cap (who we know as Little Red Riding Hood): "You walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out in the wood is merry."

"The King gave notice that whosoever should capture or kill the wild boar should have his only daughter to wife. Two brothers...declared themselves willing to undertake the hazardous enterprise; the elder, who was crafty and shrewd, out of pride; the younger, who was innocent and simple, from a kind heart."

Origin story of 'Thumbling' (who comes to us as Tom Thumb): "The woman fell ill, and after seven months gave birth to a child, that was perfect in all its limbs, but no longer than a thumb."

From 'Little Snow-white': "'Oh, Queen, in this land thou art fairest of all.' Then her envious heart had rest, so far as an envious heart can have rest."

"Shall I take for myself so much of this gold, that I have sufficient for all the rest of my life, or shall I go farther?"

"A month afterwards he went up to the garret, intending to gather some old tin and sell it, and saw a great heap of money lying. Then he was happy again, made purchases, became a greater merchant than before, and felt that this world was well governed."

"He gave the father a hundred thalers... But with the money that was left, he went back to the High School and went on learning more, and as he could heal all wounds with his plaster, he became the most famous doctor in the whole world."

"The soldier was tried, and though he had done nothing wicked, the judge condemned him to death."

"Once upon a time, there was a child who was willful and would not dowh as her mother wished. For this reason God...let her become ill... When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again... Then the mother herself was obliged....to strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground."

Three brothers are bitterly competing to inherit their father's house. The third brother wins. "His brothers were satisfied with this, as was agreed beforehand; and, as they loved one another very much, they all three stayed together in the house."

First Podcast Interview - David Streitman!

I'm super excited about this interview. We go deep - as deep as it gets. Streitman talks about how he juggles being his best with trying to fit in with the majority. He's got some really good thoughts and I highly, highly recommend you listen to this right now. It's funny. It's cerebral. I just listened to it 3 times while I was cutting it and I keep learning things from it. It's that good.

 

You'll notice I've migrated once again from PodBean to podOmatic. Hopefully this proves to last longer. PodBean wouldn't let me upload more than 50mb without subscribing to their premium features which is ridiculous. If I were making videos on YouTube, it would either be free or I would be the one getting paid.

Finding Your Internal Locus of Control

If there is one key to becoming the person you want to be, it's finding your internal locus of control. Create a life for yourself where you control access to the most important things. This requires a simple two-step process that takes a long time but which is actually pretty easy.
  1. Only value things which you can control.
  2. Work toward controlling those things you value one step at a time.
Disclaimer here: There is nothing in your life you can utterly control. But there are plenty of things you have some control over. Most things in the world you have approximately zero control over.

Here are the things you can control:
  • Your behavior.
  • Your emotions.
  • Your values.
  • Your creative projects.
  • Your resource allocation (time, money, will)
  • Your social sphere.
  • Your home.
Controlling any of these things is impossible in the short run. You can't just go out and become a new person with a new life today. But these are things in what Stephen Covey calls your Circle of Influence. You can control them to some extent.

On the other hand, you can't control most things. You have virtually no control over other people, not in any significant way. You can try to make demands, guilt, trick, please, encourage, give feedback, beg, but you can't make someone like you. You can't change people.

How do you control what you can control, though? If you're like me, you feel like you don't actually get to make that many decisions about how you spend your time or what feelings you have. You either feel like you're bogged down by commitments and living out a script somebody else has written out for you or you're riding an elephant and that elephant's just going wherever it wants.

Start small. Find exactly one thing you can do once that is utterly and completely in your control. Maybe sit down and meditate for 2 minutes, have a tall glass of water, or go for a 10 minute walk around the block. Do you see how incredible it feels to make a decision and follow through on it without being told what to do? When was the last time you did something without being told to do it by your boss, teachers, family members, friends, or advertisements? That's called personal leadership. It's called being proactive. It's called being independent.

To be honest, when you're trying to control your life for the first time, it can be brutally hard to accomplish much. You're not used to having free will, so you have to start small and not get ahead of yourself. Walking around a block sounds like an easy activity, but it's hard when you have to be the one to tell yourself to do it. Make it so easy, that it would be an absurd proposition to try to weasel your way out of it. Do it in response to a specific trigger every day and stop thinking about it. You'll still be following a script - except this time, you get to write it.

Once you've built your first habit for several weeks and have started to build a feeling of control, move onto another one that's just as easy. Add another line to the script and follow it like you're a computer following a programming script. Control isn't deciding to follow lines of code others have written for you. It's writing the code.

Podcast update



I'm migrating from Soundcloud to PodBean to host my files because I had upload problems with Soundcloud, too small an upload limit, and no RSS 2.0 support. The PodBean widgets aren't nearly as classy so I'll work on toning them down, but they do work, which is huge. Now I can get my podcast into iTunes, too, so keep your eyes open for that.

This is just a repost of the same story I posted earlier in the week. I've also uploaded the companion episode I promised below.



The next step is to get a nice microphone, maybe one that hooks up to my cell phone so I can play around with doing videos. Ultimately I'd love to have nice sounding 1080p videos on YouTube. I just don't have any of the tech I would need to do that. I don't have the camera, the mic, the software, or the computer. I'll just keep taking it one step at a time.

5 Big Picture Ways to Not Be in Crisis Mode all Semester Long in College

For much of the time I've been in school, I felt like I was constantly reacting to crises and barely staying afloat with school and other commitments. Eventually I found out it didn't have to be that way, but to get to that point I had to pivot 180° in a bunch of ways. Now I'm at the point where I can take harder classes and assume more responsibility than ever. Sometimes I still feel like I'm in crisis mode, but it's no longer the norm. Here are the 5 ways I got the biggest gains in reducing stress while accomplishing more.

Remember Why You're in School


You may not think about it on the reg, but you enrolled in school for a reason. You may have had multiple reasons: your parents wanted you to go to school, you wanted to earn more after college, you were interested in a particular subject, you just love learning, you felt lost and didn't know what else to do, you didn't want to feel left out when all your friends went off to college, the parties or the clubs sounded great, etc. All of those are valid and common reasons, but probably one of those were more important than others.

My reason was that I wanted to redesign the way America feeds itself, but I knew I didn't have the social, political, or scientific skills I needed to do that. All those other reasons I mentioned were in there, but this was the main reason. In the last three years my motives have changed, but I still feel like college is serving my goals.

It's easy to think while you're in college that all your efforts need to be devoted to "getting good grades," but I think people default to those three g's--myself included--when they lose sight of the real reason they're here. If you can remember why you're here and realign your time and energy to that reason, you'll find yourself a lot happier.

Take the classes that are important to you beyond filling major and distribution requirements and get involved with clubs that are related to your purpose here. The closer you are to living the life you want to live, the happier you'll be.

More importantly, when things "go wrong" and you miss a deadline or blow a presentation, you can just remind yourself that you're not here for the grades - you're here to learn. You haven't sabotaged learning, just your GPA.

Write Tasks and Events Down as Soon as You Hear/Think of Them


The more information you keep in your head, the harder your life will be. Carry a small notebook or a fresh sheet of ruled paper with you at all times. The second you think of something you'll want to do in the future, write it down and forget about it.

Then, move everything over to a master events list and a master tasks list once a day. For tasks that you want to complete within the next 24 hours, schedule them at a specific time and place on your calendar.

Make your decisions about how you're going to dispense your time only once a day and just stick to the plan the rest of the time. On top of that, if there's a regular task you'll be doing, like a weekly problem set or readings, book it on your calendar at a specific time and place for the semester. Then build a habit out of it and it will make you less likely to procrastinate.

Keep a Regular Schedule of Work Habits


I've basically been running a "work while it's light, shirk while it's night" routine. From the moment I wake up until about 7pm, I'm go go go. Can I get all my work done between breakfast and dinner, though?

Probably not.

I'll never be done with my work, though. I literally have more to do this semester than I could do in four years. Work expands to fill the time available for its production. If you restrain the time available for working to daylight hours and give yourself time to relax at night, you'll be surprised how easily you can stay on top of your tasks.

Plus, remember two things: willpower is more limited than time (for most of us) and meeting deadlines is not the goal of college (for must of us).

So give yourself a ton of time to work. Work hard in that time. Then shut down for a bit and relax with friends or a book.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify


Take no more than five classes. Four is better. Three is fine. Study hard and master the subjects. Go all in with one extracurricular.

That's all I'm going to say on that.

Plan Best, Worst, and Most Likely Scenarios Ahead of Time


If you plot your likelihood of finishing a task on the y-axis and time on the x-axis, the graph you get is a bell curve (the normal distribution). That is, it's very unlikely that you'll get it done in an instant, only slightly more likely you'll get it done today, quite a bit more likely you'll get it done next week. And then it's less likely you'll get it done in a month since it'll be way past due by that point. See what I mean?

So when you're planning things out, you can be optimistic and book a task for the next day. Just don't be surprised when a friend comes into your room asking for advice on how to text a cutie and needs advice PRONTO just as you're sitting down to get the job done.

In advance, mark your schedule with "this is when I'll try to do this" at the earliest possible time, "this is when I'll probably end up doing this and that's fine" at the most likely time, and "Jesus, it's really important you get this done NOW" at the latest possible time.

Understand that deadlines in your life are artificially hard, not actually hard. Treat them more as time frames that you can move about in.

The Daniel Seth Lewis Podcast Episode 1 - The Hamster Ball: A Parable

I wrote the script for this up about 6 weeks ago and planned to do a video of me telling the story. I hit a bunch of roadblocks trying to get a good video setup for it, and rather than fail to put anything out, I simplified. I just pulled up Audacity, told the story, and uploaded it to Soundcloud. There, it's out there. I'll still try to get a good video setup going because I want to do videos, too, but this is better than nothing. I hope you enjoy!
 
The story's kind of weird and opaque, so I did a companion episode with commentary and explanation. I'm having technical difficulties with uploading it to Soundcloud, so I'll put it up in a separate post later. For now, think about the story without any explanation...

Managing Extremes

Humans seem to have a roughly fixed average level of contentedness. That is not to say that we have a fixed level of contentedness, because we don't.

Sometimes we feel so incredible it's like we're a fireworks show - glowing, energetic, tremendous, expansive, colorful. Sometimes we feel so low it's like we're like a clogged drain - gross, broken, slimy, cold, stuck.

Sometimes we stand on a mountain, our hands spread out wide and feet planted, watching the clouds below, and feel like gods. Sometimes we lie on our side in a ditch, clutching our knees to our chest, shivering, and feel like crying or throwing up.

Sometimes the one happens right after the other. It is from the greatest height that we fall the farthest, and from the deepest vale that we climb the tallest peak.

Yet, if you average those peaks and troughs of emotion, they don't change drastically from month to month or year to year. The best years of my life were only marginally better than the years that preceded or followed them. Our emotions may or may not swing wildly, but our overall level of contentedness stays roughly the same.

There is a perennial debate in the different disciplines whether the peaks are worth the troughs or whether, knowing that the higher we climb, the farther we fall, it makes more sense to try to regulate the cycle. Or, put another way: "Is getting drunk worth the hangover?"

I don't think there's any denying that alcohol feels really good the night you drink it and really bad the next day. Take it as given that the good is roughly cancelled out by the bad. So if you just look at averages, it would have the same net benefit as not drinking alcohol at all. That doesn't mean it's as if you didn't have it, though. You did. You felt great all night and terrible all day. That's a totally different experience than feeling okay all night and whatever all day.

The psychological phenomenon of negativity bias suggests that humans weight negatives more heavily than we weight positives. So it takes less bad to make us feel bad than good to make us feel good. I'm not sure that's relevant here, though, because I'm taking it as given that you feel equally good and bad in succession, not receive an equal quantity of good and bad things.

Keynesian economists say we should regulate the economy to "stabilize output over the business cycle". I'm reluctant to give the same advice to individuals, though, because I think that policy is relevant only to the emergent properties of large economics systems.

Personally, I'm not sure I could say goodbye to those peak experiences, even if sacrificing them meant having a better overall life. That being said, I do try to manage the troughs by giving myself time and space to process the pain, nibbling on high quality chocolate, and listening to Side B of Abbey Road.

Is Efficiency a Good Thing?

Even if you're not like me, with an innate love of efficiency for its own sake, you probably recognize that it's generally considered "good." For instance, a factory that can produce 10,000 Barbie dolls in the same time allowance and at the same (marginal) cost as a factory that can produce 5,000 Barbie dolls is more efficient, and therefore "better."

I'm going to argue that idolizing efficiency is not as simple as I made it sound in the Barbie doll example and then I'll go over some problematic thoughts and actions of which I'll encourage you to be aware.

What could possibly be wrong with getting more outputs with the same inputs?!


Any time we make normative distinctions, that is, we say "this is better than that," we do so relative to a certain desired quality. When we say Factory A is more efficient than Factory B, we make that distinction relative to its rate of production. That works fine when everything else is equal, but that's not the case with our factory example, is it? I said that the time allowance and marginal cost are equal, but I didn't say everything else is equal, too. Yet how many people, reading that example, would say that we don't have enough information to decide which is better.

That's natural. If we go into something already decided that we're going to make a normative distinction, then we act on the information available to us. I don't think it's irrational. It can just be dangerous.

To take another example, think about a time when you tried to maximize your resources by packing your day full of activities and tasks. If you sleep 9 hours/night, your day is 15 hours long. That's roughly constant from day to day, so we can assume your time allowance on a given day is 15 hours. One day you might pack your schedule with meetings, lunch and dinner dates, a big project, going to the gym, and so on. You pack it with productive tasks and events from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to sleep. Every second is planned out and you sprint from place to place because walking wastes time and running is better exercise anyways. You brush your teeth while you pee and make calls while you commute. You're a busy person whose trying to accomplish  lot and you don't have a moment to waste.

Now think about a time when you planned nothing in advance. After waking up, you laze around for a bit, flitting between reading a book and watching TV. In the early afternoon you go for a stroll with a friend or your SO, pay some bills that are coming due soon, and parse through your closet trying clothes on to maybe donate a couple pieces. At the end of the day, you can't really think of anything you accomplished. "The day," you think, "was wasted."

But remember: whenever you make a normative distinction, you do it relative to a particular quality! Sure, you can measure the days against each other relative to tasks completed. That's probably the most obvious way to measure efficiency. Under that metric Day 1 was more efficient (and "better") than Day 2.

Use a different metric, though, and you get a different result. If you measure the days against each other relative to willpower efficiency, then Day 2 was more efficient. On Day 1 you had to expend an inordinate quantity of willpower to stay on task constantly, without break. You'll pay the cost of that over the several days that follow. Day 2, on the other hand, will leave you feeling refreshed and ready to hit the ground running the next day.

Maximizing Efficiency is Overrated


I don't really want to go into this, but I do want to emphasize that most of the times you try to maximize efficiency in your life, there are hidden costs to doing so. Any positive quality not selected as a metric for efficiency gets sideswiped. It's more than: "sometimes it's nice just to kick back and enjoy the moment without trying to be efficient." It's that even when you're trying to be efficient, it's easy to overvalue the product and undervalue the costs.

But it's also nice sometimes to just kick back and enjoy the moment with out worrying about efficiency.

Better or Easier?

Whenever you're about to buy a new (durable) good or declare a new habit, ask yourself why you're doing it. You can categorize it as one of two categories.

There are things that will make your life 'better' by making you stronger, healthier, more attractive, more educated, etc. but which will require future effort. A habit of this sort might be Go to the gym every day after work. A purchase might be a blender for making protein shakes. I think anyone who reads this blog agrees that exercising every day and eating protein are things that would make your life 'better.' You'll also agree, I hope, that going to the gym more often and making protein shakes will require more of your time, money, willpower, and effort.

Then there are things that will make your life 'easier' by giving you more time, money, space, willpower, or other resources, but maybe at the expense of other goals you have. A habit of this sort might be Say no to the first offer of a commitment each day. This will make your life easier by freeing up time in your schedule and only costs a bit of willpower. It may not make your life better, since who knows how unproductively you'll spend your time when you're not at your friend's crappy play, but it does conserve your resources and make your life easier. A purchase that makes your life easier is something that will help you do something you're already doing: a backpack to help you carry stuff around at school or an unlimited bus pass so you don't have to keep refilling your Metro Card. You expend a small amount of resources to free up a larger amount of other resources. Automation of any kind usually falls under this category.

One type of habit/good is not better than the other, per se. But if you're trying to get stronger, get more dates, get promoted, cook and clean your place every night, read more books, learn a new language, and write a daily blog all at the same time, you're leaning too heavily on yourself to make your life better. Focus a little more on making it easier: cancel commitments, throw away all the junk you own, buy things that will make it easier to do what you're already trying to do, block out more time for sleep in your schedule, and keep things simple.

What other examples can you think of for ways you make your life 'better' and ways you make it 'easier?'

America's Lethal Void of Communal Rituals

As we suck out the everyday poisons of life - sleep deprivation, sweets, caffeine, this or that liquor, erotic media, frivolous internet use, the pursuit of divers young men or women's sexual gifts, cannabinoids or harder drugs, excessive audiovisual stimuli - it becomes harder to connect with our peers, our close friends, and even our family. Many a relationship develops on the collapsible soil foundation of a particular base instinct. The ways we waste our time are so few and universal, so irresistible and enthralling, that they become the default conversational kernel for a budding relationship.

"Hey, you watch How I Met Your Mother?"

"Let's get sloshed!!"

"Did you guys hook up last night?"

"Know where I could find a bowl around here?"

"Do you want to grab coffee this week?"

And so on and so forth. Our lives are filled with cheap drugs, in part because they're the de facto mass rituals of our society. Paradoxically, in such a relatively new, complex, and secular society (here I mean America), the more we advance socially, economically, and technologically, the more we're pushed to sacrifice our longevity for instant gratification. I'm not talking about advertising. I mean we're pushed by others in our flits through the social fabric to bond therein via drugs.

I blame America's newness because it takes a long time of dedicated effort to build public rituals to tie us together and I think that mass media has offered itself and the drugs it pushes to fill that void. As individuals and smaller communities we have readily accepted that offering. I blame its' complexity because the broader we extend, the more we differentiate, and the more narrowly we narrowcast, the lower our least common denominator becomes. And I blame its secularism for the disintegration of powerful and stringent religious rituals which once might have given us enough commonality to avoid defaulting to watching trashy movies and drinking to excess to connect with others.

Unlike usual, I won't put forth an answer because I've only just thought of the question: How do we as individuals seeking to shuffle off these intoxicating burdens maintain our connections with our friends and families at the same time we mean to escape the draws on which those relationships were founded? The fact that I choose to no longer eat sweets does not decrease my love for the friends I made looking over the dessert table, but it does make it hard to transition to a healthier life.

What has happened, for me, at least, is that I've stalled in my personal progress rather than risk losing my friends. I'd love to hear any suggestions.

Sleeping at College

Update 9/20/13: I forgot to mention napping. Is napping OK? It's better than OK! If you can, start your nap by 2PM, though, so it doesn't screw with your bedtime.

There's a lot of mystery surrounding sleep at college. People ask me a lot, "What is sleep?" or "I've heard about sleep, but where do I find it? I googled it and everything, but I'm still tired."

I'll try to answer some frequently asked questions about getting enough sleep in college.

How much do I need to sleep on average?


This depends on the person. One good way to figure it out is to let your body sleep for as much as it wants for a couple weeks straight. See how much your body wants to sleep. You can probably function just fine on slightly less sleep than that, but you really should just sleep as much as you can. Your body won't try to sleep for longer than it needs.

OK, I figured out I need 9.5 hours/night on average. Can I get 6 hours during the week and backload that sleep on the weekend by getting up at 4pm on Saturday and Sunday?


Well, sort of. I know a handful of people who function just fine like that. I never hear them complain about being tired all the time, they get their work done efficiently, and they even work out regularly. So it's definitely doable. But it's not a good idea. Our bodies are designed to be on a pretty static circadian rhythm. They want to go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, and get enough sleep each night. This regularity will allow you to fall asleep quickly, even if you're not sleep deprived. It will get you more REM. Beyond that, it also helps cement a good eating schedule, which is good for digestion, and a good habit schedule, which is good for productivity.

I read that Franklin wrote, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." He's famous, right? Didn't he discover electricity and help found the most powerful nation ever to exist? Does that make this good advice?


It doesn't make it good advice, but it is generally good advice. The important thing is that you get enough sleep, and get it at the same time each night. If your first class each day is 1:25pm and you like to get your work done late at night after everyone else in the building's asleep, it's fine to sleep from 3am to 12pm. Personally, I like to be up for as much daylight as possible so I sleep 10:30pm to 7:30am.

I've got 9am classes during the week and I like to go to parties on the weekend, which start at 10pm at the earliest. Can I just have a weekday sleep schedule and a weekend sleep schedule?


Dude, I wish. Unfortunately our bodies were not born to party. My advice is to enjoy the parties, but maybe don't go to them three nights a week. If you can, choose one you're really excited about, go have a peak experience, and then let your body rest for the other nights. And don't stray too far from your normal schedule on the nights when you do party. Every minute you stay up will hurt you later.

Speaking of parties, it is part of my fraternity's/sorority's/school's dogma that I should drink heavy quantities of alcohol on a regular basis. Will that hurt my sleep?


You bet it will. Beyond the fact that people tend to drink late at night (read: when they should be sleeping), the more alcohol you drink the worse the sleep you do get will be. Your body will go into REM less often and stay in REM for less time. It's OK to drink occasionally, but try to do it earlier in the night and don't go overboard in quantity. A couple shots of tequila at 9pm will hurt your sleep a couple hours later, but not much. If you're ten deep when you pass out at 2am, you're not going to benefit very much from sleeping.

I'm an early riser, but all my friends are night owls. How do I get enough sleep without missing out on all the fun they're having? I don't want to be "that guy."


This is a more philosophical question about fomoism (fear-of-missing-out-ism), which I believe is the bane of many students' college career. Bombarded incessantly with awesome things to do - hikes to go on, movies to watch, clubs to join, classes to take, parties to attend, people to meet, lectures to hear, books to read - we try to do the absolute maximum we think we're capable of. That sounds fine in theory. In practice, however, that pursuit of stimulation and fun is driven by a more sinister anxiety about missing out. And there's more to do than can ever be done. So at the same time we're worn out, rushed, busy, and stressed about all the things we're trying to do, we're also anxious about all the things we still aren't doing.

Listen up! Your friends aren't doing anything that exciting. Don't stay up to play Smash or Mario Kart with them and don't lose sleep over missing out on it.

That's hard for me to deal with right now, but I understand where you're coming from. Surely, though, there are things happening at school that are worth staying up for!


Absolutely. Most of my best memories from college happened late at night. Staying up until 3am talking about the nature of human existence with people I'd just met; romping around downtown Ithaca with a new friend; cracking bawdy jokes and sipping whisky with my best friend; laying out and watching the stars on the roof on the last day of classes. No large number of them happened sober, either. I'm not saying never do drugs. I'm not saying never stray from your sleep routine. Nor should you never skip any habits ever. But don't do it to watch Step Brothers for the fifth time by yourself or to play old video games or play pong with freshmen you don't give a crap about. Do it when it will be intense, memorable, exciting. The rest of the time, focus on being awake, alert, and productive.

I've got a fancy bed at home with a memory foam mattress, 1000-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and a nice comforter. Plus I grew up in the quiet suburbs with no light pollution and blackout shades. Now my bed sucks, there's loud music playing down the hall, my curtains are useless, people are screaming all the time outside my window, and it's 86 degrees in here.


Yep, welcome to college. Your parents literally pay a third of a million dollars for the best education the world has ever seen and you live in squalor while doing it. It's part of life. I suggest learning to wear ear plugs and eye shades. If you can install blackout shades, go for it. If the noise is especially bad, try a brown noise generator. If you've got the funds, splurge on nice sheets and a mattress topper. Be creative, experiment, and don't be afraid to spend a lot of money. When you're paying as much as you are for college, anything that detracts from you learning is more costly than you realize.

My roommate goes to sleep at a totally different time than me and wakes me up when s/he's getting ready for bed/class. How do I handle this?


Yep, welcome to college again. Having a roommate can be the best or worst thing that happens to you here. Just talk to him/her about it and see if s/he can be quieter or get ready outside the room where it won't disturb you. Besides that, just get earplugs and hope for the best. Also talk to him/her about trying to sync up your sleep schedules a little more.

Speaking of my roommate, s/he sexiles me a couple times a week and it massively delays my bedtime. What to do?


Ah, the age old sexile question. Tell him/her s/he can do it once a week or once every other week and that's it. They're welcome to go screw in the shower if they can't wait. Just do it in a friendly way, because it will come back to haunt you if you ever offend your roommate.

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I'm working on an "Eating at College" piece to continue this series, which started with "Succeeding at College." I'll probably do a "Making Friends and Getting Numbers at College" piece, also.

On Being 21

I've heard from a lot of people that this is the last birthday that will be this exciting. From here on out, there's no more "Finally I have a driver's license!" or "Finally I can vote, buy porn and tobacco, drink in most foreign countries, sign legally binding contracts, purchase a firearm, and go to strip clubs!" or "Finally I can go to bars, nightclubs, and dispensaries (in Washington and Colorado)!" It's like once the government stops granting you the right to endanger yourself and others in a handful of ways, you might as well not even have a birthday.

Well, you know what? Birthdays are only as exciting as you make them. As much fun as it was to sit at a bar and drink beer on tap last night, what really made this birthday special was my--and my friends' and family's--enthusiasm. I got greeting cards and dozens of birthday wishes on Facebook, my phone was buzzing constantly all day with a different relative or friend trying to reach me, and one friend in Florida even sent me a picture of a cake on which she'd photoshopped "Happy Birthday Daniel!"

No offense to the MoD Squad, but getting tipsy doesn't compare to triple digit "Happy Birthdays" from the friends I made in college, my fraternity, my magazine, my gap year program, my high school, middle school, preschool, summer camps, youth group, family in California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, and Israel. I even got a "Joyeux Anniversaire!" from the family I stayed with in France. It's so easy to forget all the people who (apparently) care about me and I'm so grateful to have such a wonderful extended family.

My friend Jason Haas told me he'd never seen anyone so excited for their 21st. Well, that's because I'm not excited for my 21st (not more than others, anyways). What I'm excited about is my life. I'm excited to have a community that I love and that loves me. No heaping pile of booze, guns, and strippers can match that.

I'm not sure anything can match that.

For those of you bored on their 25th or whatever birthday, stop moping. Contentment is nearly directly correlated with gratitude. Find something to be thankful for.

So thanks all for the birthday wishes! I really do love you all.

One last note: I was super excited to vote. I'd rather be able to vote than have friends. Just kidding. Or am I?

Succeeding at College

Success in college can take a lot of different forms, and as a student you may feel that you need to succeed in multiple of the following ways to actually feel like you're succeeding. As usual, perception defines our self-image and sense of accomplishment.

Without further ado, I present a list of common metrics of success, generally in order of popularity:

  1. Obtaining a high Grade Point Average. What exact GPA makes you feel content varies from person to person.
  2. Creating a community for yourself. 
  3. Preparing for a career, either through actually learning necessary skills and/or knowledge or by obtaining the necessary set of credentials for grad school.
  4. Finding a boyfriend or girlfriend.
  5. Leaving a mark of some sort on the broader community. This can take the role of running a club, competing on a sports team, doing exciting research, publishing creative materials, and a thousand other things.
  6. Building soft skills for the workplace and society. These skills include networking, dating, self-discipline, time management, dressing well, and becoming well-read, among other things.
Obviously these things include the whole spectrum of self-development efforts, and taken together, they're far beyond the scope of this one piece. What I'd like to do now is go over some concrete strategies for a) determining what's most important to you during your years in college, b) reducing stress in such an overwhelming environment, and c) learning as much as you can while bringing up your grades.

Prioritizing


There's more to do at college than you can possibly do in four years. Way more. There's way more that you will want to do at college than you can possibly do in a lifetime. Therefore, you absolutely must simplify. Cutting out commitments gives you peace of mind, time to explore, and time to recharge. I absolutely promise you that you will never be bored if you don't want to be, even without any commitments.

As a general rule, you should take four to five classes (12 to 18 credits). You can have as many extra curricular things going on as you want, but don't commit to more than one. By "commit" here, I mean that you should never have more than one activity for which other people are depending on you. You're welcome to join as many clubs as you want that don't require commitment.

Remember the rule of one. Unless you're really feeling like you have a lot more time and energy to devote to something, it's better to work a thousand hours on one thing than one hour on a thousand things. Have one mindbogglingly hard class. Have one club that you lead to greatness. Have one workout routine. Have one major.  Carefully prioritize each and give them your all.

Reducing Stress


I don't know where you go to school, but my university is an unforgiving pressure cooker. Students are expected to spend between 45 and 60 hours a week on their coursework, have leadership positions, socialize on a regular basis, volunteer, prepare for grad school entrance exams, and work out in PE classes or at the gym, all while being tempted by a revolving door of famous speakers, an awesome concert lineup, constant parties, readily available drugs (alcohol, sugar, caffeine, porn, tobacco, and somewhat-harder-to-find narcotics), television, beautiful surroundings, an art museum, myriad student-run events, an on-campus movie theater, surfing the internet, etc.

Needless to say, it's too much.

So the first thing you do, as I've said, is prioritize. Make sure you're focusing on the important stuff and then fill in the gaps with other things.

Besides that, if you're struggling with stress, try the following three things. 

  1. Meditate for 3 minutes every day (I do it after I get out of the shower every day).
  2. Sleep the absolute maximum amount your body will allow (I get about 9 hours a night on average).
  3. Give up on competing with others.
I'll go into a little more detail on this last one. College can quickly turn into an arms race as students compete for precious academic, career, and social resources. Here are some stressful competitive behaviors to avoid doing.
  • Don't ask other people what their grades are on tests or quizzes, in classes, or their GPA.
  • Don't talk to others about their salary, cost of living, or financial aid status.
  • Don't compare your appearance to others. As I've harped on before, body image is 80% perception.
  • Don't complain about how tired you are, how stressed out you are, how busy you are, how unfair your professors are, how uncomfortable the weather is, how much time you've put into studying, or how much you feel you've missed out on. Nor should you give the time of day to "friends" who just complain all the time to you.
You don't know others' situations. Take that gorgeous dime at tri-delt who has 6500 friends on Facebook and over half as many in real life, easily pulls off a 4.10 in mech-e, drives a Bugatti, and has a boyfriend who you think might be Ryan Gosling. Yes, on the surface her life looks perfect. But when it comes down to it, you don't know how happy, satisfied, or content she is. You don't know what's going on in her head, in her family, under her clothes. You simply don't know. So stop comparing yourself to her.

Be happy with the classes you have, with the grades you have, the money you have, your friends, your life, your body. Popularity, brilliance, money, and sex are great, undoubtedly, but they are not the keys to contentment. That comes solely from within.

Learning a Lot and Getting Good Grades


I'm not going to go into much detail on this because you should really just read Cal Newport's How to Be a Straight-A Student. But. Here's some general advice. Good grades and massive learning gains are a product of hard work, focused effort, proper planning, pacing, and asking for help when you need it.

Hard work - expect to put in about 3 hours of time per week per credit. If you're taking 16 credits (like me), put in 48 hours per week, including class time.

Focused effort - figure out what your professors expect and only do that. Don't waste your time with optional readings, guest lectures, and related-but-not-required material. Not testing you on something is your professor's way of letting you know it's not important to her. And professors know what they're talking about. If it's not important to them, it's not important.

Proper planning - write down important tasks, events, and ideas immediately. If you don't, you will forget. Then, spend 5 minutes exactly each morning going through the days schedule, making sure you're on top of everything, and recording in a master database everything you have going on. Plan your day with realistic precision. Don't leave large chunks of time empty if you'd like to make use of them. (I use Workflowy for tasks and Google Calendar for scheduling).

Pacing - work a little bit on all your commitments every day. Spread out long projects evenly over the time allotted for them. That is, if you have a test in two weeks and you have thirty articles to review, review two a day.

Asking for help when you need it - don't you dare start writing a paper until you've discussed your thesis with both your TA and your professor. Don't submit it until you've had a couple people review it and then follow their advice. Go to office hours and tutoring every week for your hard class. That being said, don't study in groups. Never study with others. Lock yourself in a corner of a deserted, far-flung library and get to work on your own.

Go get 'em! May this semester be your most successful ever!

Summer 2013: A Retrospective

Before I dive in, let me say that one thing I hate about myself is that I've never really been able to live in the moment. I plan everything in advance, live it for a few moments, think deeply about those few moments I lived, and then think deeply about the whole process. And then think about it again as I write about it. And then again as I read what I wrote about it. Probably 10% of my life, max, is actually living said life. That being said, I can't really help it. I just naturally, massively over-think everything. Rather than try to stifle that, I'm trying to channel it into a productive outlet in this blog. My hope is that one day someone else will benefit from my introspective misery.

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The summer was great! Every summer since 2010 -- when I failed to get a job, lost my grandfather, and was too anxious about starting the rest of my life to do anything productive -- has been great. I spent this one mostly in the Bay Area and travelling less than normal, but I visited Los Angeles in June and I'm leaving for a massive adventure in less than two days. San Francisco to New York City to Amsterdam to Nairobi, and then a safari all around Kenya and Tanzania, before doubling back to NYC and shlepping up to Ithaca.

I worked full time as a researcher for Russell Reynolds Associates, about which I can't speak highly enough. Everyone was so energetic about their work, brilliant, well-educated, and funny, to boot. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. Learning a lot on the job was my #1 goal for the summer and I'm really grateful to my awesome research team for helping so earnestly. They took me under their wing and taught me all about Russell Reynolds and business in general.

Another big project was getting fit. I slowed a little bit with the program I'm on, You Are Your Own Gym, but I stuck to it about 90% of the time and made some obvious gains, especially in balance and leg strength. I also (sort-of) made it through the most difficult workout of my entire life last week which felt amazing to do. I was high off of it for two days afterward. It was 20 minutes of constant exercise, rotating through sets of 8 pull ups (which I can't even do by itself), 6 dive bombers, and 12 one-legged squats. Just brutal.

I've had pretty good success with working on this blog. It looks better than ever and I've dumped just an insane amount of content out there. Don't expect this to continue through the coming semester, but I do plan on putting out content about twice a week going forward. I want to get a real trove of content up before I worry about SEO and marketing. My hope is to average three posts a week in general, so that when people do find this site, its quality will be too good to ignore.

Another thing that makes me proud -- which might be against the rules for it! -- was meditation. I've made it a rock-solid habit, my body loves it, and it's just had a overwhelming positive impact on my life. I was a classic Kagan-ian high-reactive kid, and although I've never needed to be treated for anxiety, I don't do well with stress. As you may know, I had nightmarish GI problems in high school which I'm pretty sure were caused by stress. I've come a long way from that, but the meditation has brought me to the next level. It's made me more aware of when there are environmental stressors around me and when I'm having anxious thoughts. I automatically go right into focused breathing and get through it. I've managed my pathological fear of needles with it, I've learned to work in an open cubicle in an open office, and to stay calm when others are angry and frustrated. Between the meditation, working on my posture, and down-talking, I actually got to the point where I my boss cautioned me against acting so cocky. If someone had told me that would happen four years ago, I would have laughed in her face. Feels good, man.

The last big gain for the summer was learning personal finance for the first time and getting everything in place. I got a credit card, transferred my childhood savings to my own name, opened up CDs, bought some mutual funds, established an IRA, and put together a budget. I also learned a ton about investing, the markets, economics, and statistics. I want to thank my dad for all his help with this. It was as much his accomplishment in helping me with it as mine in doing it.

I puttered along on a few other projects: decluttering all my accumulated childhood crap, quitting sugar, turning screens off by 9pm, putting out a video blog, upping my protein intake, building up my upper body strength, reading hella books, getting plans in place for the Lunatic, and working on my friend Rachel's and my baller, top-secret startup idea. I've got a long way to go on all of these. Good thing I'm not dead yet.

It was also an awesome summer for doing cool stuff. My parents and I took a cruise out on the Bay to see the Louis Vutton Cup where we saw Oracle Team USA and got no more than a 100 meters from Emirates Team New Zealand doing a time trial. I hit up BFD, where I finally caught up with The Airborne Toxic Event there, who played a mindblowing set. I saw Owen Cook and Robert Lustig, two groundbreaking geniuses in their respective fields, give talks in San Francisco. I tired Burmese food for the first time. I visited my favorite, and only, first cousin who is now 2 and as beautiful as ever. Damn, I love that girl.

It was a really, really good summer. And now I'm off to Africa.

Whatever You're Doing, Make Sure it's a Positive Positive Feedback Loop

A positive feedback loop is a repeating series of actions that each reinforce the following action in the series. Here's an example.

Fig 1. Work, consume, be silent, die.

This is a basic action-reward cycle, in which being rewarded for your action makes you want to do the action even more, and then doing the action even more gets you even more rewards. There are a few interesting things about it.

First, cycles are both hard to break into and break out of. Until you get that first reward, you don't really have a reason to work hard. Sure, you might have the idea in your head that there's some potential reward down the road, but hard work is hard! Most people can't work hard for very long without a reward. That's why I advocate doing work that is its own reward. Then you can work hard all you want and make it into the cycle.

I mentioned that cycles like these are hard to break out of. Once you are getting a reward, it's hard to stop doing even actions that make you miserable. When that happens, you have to say goodbye to an infinite cycle of positive reinforcement. That's hard for anyone to do. This is another reason why you should do work that is its own reward in the first place.

Second, although I call it a "cycle," it's really more of a spiral. Simply getting paid ceases to be a reward at some point. People need bigger, faster, strong rewards each time around. We build tolerance to all things as we feel that it's become normal. We need more drugs each time to get the same high. We need bigger and bigger promotions to feel like our careers are "on track." We need to do more and more reps to feel "strong." I've seen this in too many people to count, in every area of our lives. I'm not sure if it's a cultural value of western society or America, but it's certainly ubiquitous here.

And I'm not making judgments. I think this might be simply how humans are and we should take advantage of it. Although we can succumb to the need for rewards--we can become drug addicts who take larger and larger doses until we die--we can also use the cycle to propel ourselves to ever greater accomplishments.

The cycle pictured above is sometimes called "work, consume, be silent, die" (WCBD) and I don't think it's a good way to live your life. It's a positive feedback cycle, but it's not a positive positive feedback cycle (PPFC). Working is only good for you if you like the work and consumption usually isn't good for you--though it's not necessarily bad, either.

Here's a better cycle for you and for the world you live in:

Fig 2. Positive positive feedback cycle (PPFC).

It's just as hard to break into, but also just as hard to break out of as WCBD. If anything, it's harder to break into than WCBD, which has clear precedents in nearly everyone you've ever met. People who make it to the point where they've honed their skills for the sake of improving the world are likely even more happy than the rest of us slaving away at spreadsheets all day and watching premium cable channels all night, but we don't see them. They're too rare.

And once you get to the point where you have good skills, it's really tempting to use them to make money instead of helping others. At that point you transfer to WCBD instead of cycling through PPFC.

In PPFC, you still need bigger and bigger hits of reward, but 1) your work is its own reward and 2) the external rewards you seek are pro-social, so they're both easier to find and they attract help from others like you wouldn't believe. People are generally good, if misguided. When they see you accomplishing massive gains in helping others, they'll want to get in on that pronto--just as much as if you had just won the lottery and they want a piece, except instead of your money, they want your karma.

You just need to be willing to share.

I'm Totally Addicted to Building Habits and I Love It

Without getting into the medical details, I went to the doctor last week and was told, a little brusquely, that:

  1. The cosmetic disorder I was consulting the doctor on is semi-permanent,
  2. I needed to stop taking the medicine that had been helping most for it,
  3. and there was nothing else I could do.
I felt terrible. It made me aware of my own mortality, which is never pleasant, spoiled my body image, and made me depressed about my prospects for the future. Beyond that, I hated the feeling of powerlessness.

At first, that whole cocktail of negative emotions was just a mess and I couldn't sort out all those different causes of me "feeling bad." But as I thought about it more and examined my thoughts, I was able to parse those apart. What I found was that I cared way more about the sense of impotence than the mortality salience. I took that at face value, but then I realized that was a huge discovery. Because: while I can't do anything about dying, and while I probably can't do anything about the cosmetic defect, I totally can do something about the sense of impotence.

When I thought about that sense of impotence a little more, I realized further that I did not use to feel that way. Years ago, I would have been relieved to not be able to do anything about it. I was lazy and would have been happy to not do anything about it if I could justify it to myself that I was out of options. Now, what bothers me most is the opposite - the feeling that I'm giving up and being lazy. That's actually kind of awesome.

Thus, I resolved to not take no for an answer and do some research on my own. I found a veritable wealth of information on the internet about steps I could take to work on it. Beyond that, one site I found suggested habituating a concrete, triggered twice-daily regimen. I cannot express in words how relieved I was at that discovery. Obviously I'm addicted to doing habits.

It felt shockingly good to me - and not just because I was relieved to be doing something. I really love exploring how I'm going to make the habit work, putting that first foot forward, putting that second foot forward, building momentum. I love talking it up to others and thinking through the whole process of trigger-action-reward. I love setting up my accountability log on chains.cc, clicking those first couple circles, and hearing that silly chime sound it makes. I love knowing that it's not just a one-time experience, that I'll get to do it hundreds or thousands of times. Commitment feels really good when you know you're fully capable of following through on it.

If you're not at this stage yet - and most of you probably are not since it took me over a year of constant, dedicated practice - don't fret. Keep hustling and you'll get there. Keep building habits. That's the only step this time.

The Mission Statement of this Website

Rather than risk getting off-course or letting you bumble around to infer what my purpose here is, I've decided to establish my site's mission statement. Don't confuse this with my personal mission statement, which may include all sorts of selfishness and perversion.

This website's mission is a) to help readers (myself included) subjectively improve themselves--and their world; b) to teach readers to focus, reduce anxiety, find contentment, and succeed using evidence-based arguments and straightforward, detailed guides to action; and c) to maintain a courteous and optimistic tone throughout.

Damn. I was hoping to make that more succinct, but oh well. The important thing is that it properly defines the site's mission. Let's break it down in more detail.

a) to help readers...


The first clause states the intended audience: people looking for guidance on self-improvement, which includes myself. Not everything I write on this site is tried-and-tested, at least by me. A lot of it is me thinking through problems that I'm trying to solve also, but haven't yet. It is not the end-all and be-all guide for how to be the greatest person who ever lived and solve all the world's problems. Think of the content of the site as starting a dialogue about issues in modern life.

Let me also be clear that I don't believe the sole purpose of self-development is to develop the self. Instead, it's a starting point for people to get to a point of self-sufficiency where they can then go on to help others. If you manage to earn a lot of money because of what someone taught you about personal finance, I believe you should both share that knowledge with even more people and contribute some portion of it to charity. The world needs a lot of help and inspiration. Once you're on your feet and feeling good about yourself, you should share both with your family, community, and humanity at large whenever possible.

b) to teach readers...


The second clause states the intended content. Again, this is my attempt to differentiate myself from other self-help writers. The goal of life is not to earn a lot of money (in fact, I intend to die penniless), nor become famous (though I have no qualms about dying famous). Same goes for indulgence, power, and so on. These are the things we default to pursuing when we lose track of what really matters. I think the goal of life is merely to enjoy the time we have on this earth, the main obstacles of which are anxiety, depression, and an ultimate failure to climb Maslow's hierarchy. If money and fame help you do that, then so be it. But better paths, in my opinion, are inner peace, humility, love, and gratitude.

The second part of this clause defines my methods. As an INTJ (The Scientist), my life is a love-affair with evidence. I am simply incapable of believing something that doesn't have any supporting evidence discovered through legitimate science. Not all my actions are based on belief, but I'm not going to dedicate my life to building habits which I have no scientific reason to believe are positive. Furthermore, I hold my conclusions to high standards. Correlation does not imply causation, and almost any evidence not produced in a laboratory has confounding factors. Even psychological "science" gets it wrong half the time. Don't take anything on this site as gospel, but neither do I just make things up.

The third part of this clause is that my advice is action-oriented. Some of it will be theoretical, but if I say you should be doing something, I tell you how to do it. In detail. With steps. I try to make it as easy as possible, because if it's not easy, you're just not going to do it.

c) to maintain...


The third clause sets the tone. As much as possible in the context of an advice blog, I'll try to stay away from a didactic tone. I don't believe it's 'my way or the highway.' There are a million good ways to do anything. I agree with Steve Kamb (Nerd Fitness), who says, "The BEST workout and diet plan is the plan that you actually follow through with." If you disagree with me, I beg you to let me know. If you have a way to do something that works for you, don't change just because I hypothesized I might have a better way. If it works, it works. Don't let me discourage you.

Beyond that, if I come off as didactic, lecturing, snide, mean, arrogant, know-it-all, or asshole-ish, please let me know. You won't have been the first person to say that to me, and it's helpful to me to hear that. I can only improve with feedback.

A quick word on optimism. I know for a fact that we can affect the world through action. I am optimistic that we, as a species, will get better at making our world and ourselves better. I am not sure that will happen, but I hope it does and I feel we're capable of making the world better.

However, I don't think optimism is healthy when it's unfounded. If I'm optimistic that I'll win the lottery and I don't save for my retirement because of it, that's not a good thing. But I do think that we can afford to be optimistic about the things we control, and that optimism is helpful in empowering us to make difficult changes. Let's call my philosophy realistic optimism. Hope for the best, but expect the worst.

Last Word


I rail against goals and then I give my site a mission? What's the deal with that? If you read it closely, you'll notice that while I call it a mission, it's not really something I hope to accomplish-in-the-end so much as do-regularly. I'd like to think I've already done a good job of following through on this mission, but if you start to feel like I'm not following this path, I'm empowering you to hold me accountable for it. You know my mission. Let me know if I'm not doing it.

Don't Kill Time, Use It

I wrote a piece a couple months ago about cramming good habits into an already busy schedule. Sometimes we have the opposite problem, however. We've got enough time in the day to perform all our habits, and then some. You woke up early, meditated, exercised, prepared some healthy meals, showered, planned your day, took care of your most important task, did your daily writing, de-cluttered your desk, and even did a couple modules on Code Academy.

And it's 11:00 AM.

You've got over nine hours until screens-off time and no work to do. All your irons are in the fire and you're just waiting for them to be ready for the next step. Maybe you're waiting on others for all your projects. Maybe you kept your schedule clear so you could spend the day researching at the library, only to realize it's closed today because of budget cuts. All your efforts to regulate your sleep, diet, exercise, and will power have paid off - you're feeling energized and ready to buckle down...but you've got nothing to do. You're all revved up with no place to go.

Sometimes this happens for days on end, during vacations (if you're on an education schedule) or between jobs.

When Life Doesn't Give You Lemons or Anything Else


You don't realize how big a blessing this is. Whatever you do, don't spend the day surfing the internet, watching TV, or playing video games. Don't even spend it running errands or doing small chores. When you have a big block of time and the energy to use it properly, take advantage of that. Decide right now that you're going to use the time for a major project, one that will take all day. Do something you weren't planning on and that isn't connected to any of your major priorities in life, but which would make you feel amazing at the end of the day and bring you joy for months. Here are some ideas:
  • Home improvement: create a garden, repair a broken fence, install new furniture, paint a room that needs it.
  • Creative: create a short film, plan out a novel and write the first twenty pages, make a painting, make an abstract sculpture out of everyday refuse.
  • Organizing and simplifying: clean up the most cluttered room in your house, purging it of anything you haven't used in the last year.
  • Go from 0 to 60 on a longer term project: for example, if you're about to start a new diet, spend the day eliminating anything not on the diet from your kitchen, planning a month worth of meals (that you can eat on repeat), taking before pictures and measuring weight/body fat, and talking it up to your friends so they'll hold you accountable.
  • Personal finance: put together an investment plan and get all the paperwork over with today. Put a plan together to save up for retirement, a car, a house, and a major vacation.
  • Adventure: plan a fun-packed day trip for you and three of your friends in the nearest city or wilderness area. Or go on an adventure. Choose a nearby 10 mile hike, pack some water/snacks/sunscreen/hat and go do it that day.
We can accomplish things in 9 hours straight that it will take us years to do if we only do a little at time. Use it to hit the ground running on something awesome.

Dealing with Restrictions


Sometimes you're required to be at your desk for your job, but you don't have anything to do. Or maybe you're stranded at some airport between layovers. It happens a lot that you have the time to do a whole project, but you don't have the space or resources to do it.

So don't think about what you can't do. There are always infinitely more things that you can't do than that you can. Don't let that stop you. Be creative within your restrictions.

If you're really stumped for all-day projects that you can do where you are, try this divergent thinking exercise:
  1. Make a list of what you do have. How much time? What tools (computer, cell phone, office supplies, books, etc.)? 
  2. Set a timer for exactly two minutes.
  3. With a paper and pen, write down as many ideas as you can think of that can be accomplished with the time and resources you listed. You should be able to come up with 15-20 in that time if you write quickly.
  4. Eliminate any options that conflict with your restrictions.
  5. Follow through. Go do it. Spend the next few hours accomplishing greatness.
Enjoy the project you chose! You're about to have a very memorable day.

Identity

When one person is stranded on an island, there's no question as to whether he's an individual. It's a moot point--there's nobody else to make decisions for him.

Add a second person, however, and things get interesting. Now we have to give these people names, to distinguish them. Let's call our first guy Juan and his new companion Fiona. Juan and Fiona have different names, sure, but if Juan has no preferences or quirks of his own and lets Fiona make all his decisions for him, we don't really care what his name is. We could fully interact with him through Fiona. A person has to have personal agency to be an individual.

Fortunately, this never totally happens. While they may decide it's Fiona's job to decide what to eat for dinner for both herself and Juan, Juan probably makes decisions about other things, like what upgrades to make to their hut. Yet, with only one other randomly selected person on the island, it's unlikely they would find much in common. If Juan doesn't respect Fiona's culinary taste or Fiona doesn't think that a rec room is a pragmatic addition to their shared shelter, then they'll still have to make decisions for themselves. They mostly remain individuals.

Say Juan and Fiona are joined by a whole life raft full of survivors from a local cruise shipwreck. Now there are ten people on the island. Some of them want coconuts for dinner, some want mangoes. (Unfortunately, those are like the only foods readily available on the island.) Thus they separate out into a group of six, called the Coconuts, and a group of four, called the Mangoes. It only takes one member of the Coconuts to make decisions about dinner for the rest of that group, and if someone from the Mangoes is curious about what the Coconuts are thinking for dinner, she can interact with the whole group through any one of them. Groups are a kind of heuristic society uses to expedite the division of decision-making.

One's identity in a sufficiently complex society becomes just a list of groups determined by his preferences. Juan becomes an islander, because he prefers to live on an island (though not by choice), and a Mango, because he's sick of coconuts.

In my case, I'm an American, because I prefer to live in America, a Cornellian, because I prefer to go to school at Cornell, an AEPi Brother, because I prefer to belong to that fraternity, and so on and so forth. My "identity" is just a list of groups of people with whom I share preferences, and if you know my list, then you can know how I feel about everything by talking to people in my groups. That's why the Master of my fraternity can represent me to other fraternities, Cornell's President Skorton can represent me to other colleges, and President Barack Obama can represent me to other countries. I may not agree with any of those people about their preferences on many things, but I know I agree with them better than I would with someone who did not prefer to live in America, go to Cornell, or join AEPi. I'm only a 'unique' human being insofar as nobody else perfectly overlaps with all my preference-groups, though I'm not sure that's true.

Even when I'm not participating in groupthink, there's almost always at least one other person who agrees with me and who can therefore speak for me. I de facto engage in groupthink every second of my life by deferring decisions for almost everything to the leaders of the various groups to which I belong. What people call "Daniel Seth Lewis" is really just a list of other people to whom I defer responsibility for the various aspects of my life on earth.

Book Review: The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

As usual with my book reviews, I will examine the main arguments of the book and then try to apply its ideas to self-development and our own lives.

At some point in the pamphlet, Marx jumps off the deep end and demands that workers everywhere revolt and declares that such a revolution is inevitable. Either one would be fine - historians are allowed to make predictions and political thinkers are allowed to call for revolution. But if he indeed believes the revolution is inevitable, there would be no logical reason to call for it. It would happen anyways. One has to take the arguments in the pamphlet with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, the fact that Marx is illogical in one respect does not mean that he's wrong about everything else.

The cornerstone assumption of Marx philosophy is that the work we do changes us. Good work can change us for the better, bad work can change us for the worse, almost by definition. Then he extrapolates from there that when workers are forced, on threat of hunger or poverty, to do bad work--which is an inevitable consequence of their labor being commodified--they become terribly unhappy and seek a way out of the system that exploited them. The Luddites, Chartists, unionists, and communists were all trying out different ways of managing the exploitation of their labor.

Marx differed with the other counter-industrial movements by finding root causes for the ills of industrialism in capitalist theory. The Luddites were anti-industrial. Marx wasn't anti-industrial. He was anti-capitalist, fundamentally so.

Can we find any worthwhile lessons in the Manifesto if we are unwilling to denounce capitalism as a great evil? Maybe, though not without making Marx roll over in his grave.

For Marx, the sheer number of hours one works is not the problem. The very nature of being forced to do meaningless, uninteresting work is what corrupts man. No amount of money or vacation days could change that. I think he's right. For work to be good - that is, for it make its performer better, one has to choose it, be suited for it, and learn from it. There are all sorts of other ethical arguments that could invalidate working for Phillip Morris or Raytheon, but the actual work one does for them could still make one a better person. Thus, it would be good work.

Capitalism assumes that an individual can use any amount of capital combined with labor to create more capital. Marx counters that there's a threshold below which one does not have enough capital to get started, because machines are too expensive. Only a former landowner can afford to construct the machinery necessary to build a business. Whether or not he was right about the nature of capital in the mid-19th century, I don't think that's the case today. One needs only access to a computer to build a multi-billion dollar business -- if one already has the intellectual capital. Don't be discouraged by how little savings you have. Whatever it is, it's enough to get going.

I don't like Marx's fatalism. I don't believe capitalism is the source of our day-to-day problems, nor that overthrowing it would be a solution. There is not one course of action for workers who feel exploited by their companies, even if he's right that we're being sucked dry so that shareholders can amass even more capital and exploit even more people even more.

If you feel like you're being squeezed for your labor for someone else's benefit, what should you do about it?
  • Start your own company.
  • Negotiate a raise.
  • Find a way to do higher value work.
  • Buy some mutual funds so you're the one benefiting from others' getting squeezed.
I don't think overhauling the entire economic system is really a good option. When you try to do that, millions of people die.

Space

We know when we need space from others. Sometimes others are so talkative, we can't hear our own thoughts. Sometimes they make us so angry, frustrated, or disappointed that we just need to get away. Sometimes the presence of our former loved ones remind us of what we've lost and we need to leave to go grieve in private.

I really think we do a good job of being aware of those situations, possibly because they're so emotionally strong and socially salient, and dealing with them. There are other times, however, when we can become ambitious, overconfident, distracted, or rushed and we forget or refuse to give ourselves the space we need. Here are some of those things to be aware of, and how to deal with them. In general, build space through planning, awareness, and humility. Creating appropriate space is a tenet of both Zen and minimalism.

Physical Space at Work and Home


When putting together a workplace system on your desk or a living space at home, keep in mind the psychological importance of literal separation between areas and objects. Our brains sort our memories by location. They associate certain spaces with certain activities, objects, or events. These memories form better and sort better when there are clear distinctions between spaces. I can remember where my knives are (in a dedicated knife block) much better than I can remember where my peeler, ice cream scoop, or ladle are (jumbled together in a drawer). That's because the knife block forces me to keep space between the knives, while the drawer encourages me to just dump everything in there.

At work, I have a large desk, but for aesthetic reasons, I cram all my papers into the corner. I like the look of a superficially clean desk. But then when I actually need to use the papers, I need to go through them every time, looking for what I want. There's no space between them, so my brain can't remember where each document is.

Let's see how planning, awareness, and humility can deal with both the kitchen and the workstation problems.

Planning: Create a system that forces space between objects. Check out this awesome thing for a kitchen. For work, literally everyone who has a white collar job should have one of these.
Awareness: Pay attention when you do manage to find what you're looking for and when you put things away. Don't stack papers or jumble utensils. Give each item it's own area.
Humility: By definition, the more stuff you have, the less space there is between them (on average). So be humble when taking on projects or buying utensils. I probably use 5% of the utensils I own. I don't need a dedicated onion chopper, a dedicated garlic mincer, and a dedicated salad spinner. The list goes on and on of things one person in our house maybe uses once every other year. It's easy to be ambitious about what you can accomplish in the future when you're shopping. Past behavior is a better predictor of future behavior, however, than ambition.


Electronic Space on the Computer


When thinking about creating space on your computer, "space" can mean a couple different things. It can mean physical space on your Desktop or Documents folders as well as memory space on your hard drive.

There are two good philosophies when organizing files to maintain space: either don't put too many files in any given folder or don't even bother with folders and just use a good naming scheme that's easy to search. Our brains aren't really designed to keep track of electronic information and there's usually too much, anyways, to manage it. I went with the searchable naming scheme system. My system looks kind of like C:/Documents/Job/Year/Project/Name_and_Version.ext. That's a pretty complicated system for how few files I have. If you know you're going to have a lot of files for your work, home, or hobbies, consider investing in document management software. It may feel unnecessary in the short term, but don't underestimate the importance of a good system in giving you mental space.

As far as having enough space on your computer's hard drive, it really shouldn't be a problem if you have awareness and humility. What do you actually need to keep on your computer? Do you need five thousand photos of yourself fake-smiling at the camera from two hundred different parties you can't remember? Maybe print the best ten out, frame them, and archive the rest. Do you need those three hundred and fifty romantic comedies you torrented but never watched? What about the hundred thousand hours of music you've amassed? Who has time to listen to that? All this weighs on us and stresses us out. Consider doing away with the non-essentials. It will give you proper mental space so you can enjoy what pictures you do look at, the rom-coms you do watch, and the music you do like.

Space in the Calendar


Einstein taught us that space is time. And time in your day looks a lot like space on your calendar. We love to cram as many activities into our day and lives as possible, but it doesn't make us happier. And don't just "make time for the things and people that are important to you" as we're all told. Create space between that time. Give yourself time to clean up after yourself when you're done eating lunch. Give yourself time to walk leisurely between places, enjoying the sights as you go. Give yourself time to prepare for dates, to get cleaned up and excited. Give yourself time to contemplate what you accomplished during the day and to wind down for sleep. Give yourself time to stretch before and after working out, and then to shower and eat when you're all done. These are the things we sacrifice when we sign up for one more club, project, or outing.

Space in your Social Network


I'm not talking about Facebook. I'm talking about your actual, real life social network. The people you're friends with and the family you care for. We only have so much time for each person we love, and every additional person we befriend (or birth) takes away our time for those already in our lives. I spent all day yesterday with my parents and two of my best friends. And it was an amazing, wonderful day.

Beyond the time cost, I only have room in my heart for so many people. I can only keep track of so many others' lives and what they're up to. Friends are great, but there's such a thing as too much of a great thing.