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.


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.


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, 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.