This is the soundtrack to your new life

I hand-picked and actively curate every song on this 27-and-a-half hour playlist. But it's more than a playlist to me. It's one of the main tools in my belt as I fight distraction and complacency.

I listened to it as I trained from a back-injured scrawny weakling to deadlifting 200 lbs. I listened to it as I ran and biked my way to my first triathlon. I listened to it to get me pumped up to marathon a twenty-page research paper as I finally came out of the haze of an illness. It got me jazzed up to ace the interview for my last job.

And heck, it's awfully fun.

You can always find it in the footer of this site, but you can also follow it on Spotify by clicking here.

My Face Hurts: Experimenting with acne treatments is hard

"He who is brave is free." - Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Twelve days ago I began an experiment to discover what acne treatment regimen would work best. I was motivated by a jumble of reasons. I wanted to know what worked best for me, how I could improve my own compliance, and how bad my acne actually is without treatment. If I failed to discover any new information, at least I would get a break from a tiresome and time consuming daily regimen.

These twelve days have been a roller coaster.

At first I was elated to have one less thing to worry about in my day. I woke up, showered, brushed my teeth and that was it. I was done! No astringents, moisturizers, masks, spot treatment, pills, topical ointments, toners...nothing! At night I could just floss, brush my teeth and go to sleep. It really felt amazing.

Four days in, my acne had not gotten worse. It had maybe even gotten better. I thought, Maybe, just maybe, I've grown out of having acne. I'm 21 now. It's possible.

Even when I stopped the rest of my treatment, I kept washing my face with a non-comedogenic chemical soap once in the morning while in the shower. I had great compliance with that and it didn't make sense to me to abolish a good habit like that. Maybe, I thought, that's all I need.

I'm not sure I've ever been more wrong in my life.

Six days in, my acne started getting slightly worse. I got my first whitehead since stopping treatment, and a string of small red bumps had sprung up along my upper lip. More and more acne appeared on my neck, hairline, chin, and cheeks over the next two days, while the entire area around my mouth started to look leprous. Or at least how I imagine leprosy looks. I don't know. It looked really awful.

No longer elated to have stopped treatment, I couldn't wait to start cleaning my face up again. I couldn't leave the house without mild social anxiety. Will people be scared to look at me? Will my friends make excuses to not spend time with me? Will my coworkers avoid inviting me to meetings?

An ongoing argument began in my head, one side arguing that this was insane, that I would alienate everyone. The other argued that that was just the spotlight effect talking, that people might be a little grossed out for a second but that they're too busy worrying about themselves to spare any thought on my appearance. Whichever side is right, I have a hard time thinking of anything else in my life except my acne.

On day eight, as was the plan, I started reintroducing treatments one week at a time, starting with a moisturizer-sunscreen. It hasn't helped a bit.

On day 10 a giant whitehead popped up at the left corner of my mouth. It hasn't gone away and it's made it hard to smile. I've also stopped using chap stick because I read online it causes zits to show up at the corner of my mouth. So now my lips are extremely chapped and that makes it hard to smile, too. The total acne-caused inflammation of my upper lip and chin doesn't help either.

I've started to dream at night about beautiful people with clear skin. They tease me about being so self-conscious. I look forward to starting treatment with a sulfur mask on Friday the way Christian Bale looked forward to taking a whiff in The Fighter.

Why put myself through this, you ask? Surely the experiment isn't worth this? Surely not.

But I'll tell you this. I don't like being a slave to my acne, to a sense of self-worth apparently wholly based on physical attractiveness.

I want to be free. The way out of this fire is through.

DSLcast #3: Max Schechter

I'm excited about this episode. Max Schechter is a good friend of mine who is now working on a senate campaign. We talked about campaign life, moral indignation in high school, PE classes, and what Max does in his free time. You can find him on Twitter at @MaxSchechter.

As always, you can also subscribe on iTunes.

I'm now taking suggestions for what the podcast sign-off should be. I like Chris Hardwick's nonsensical "Enjoy your burrito" but I'm open to something totally different, too. Let me know at @dsethlewis.

Stay hydrated, y'all.

Allocating Resources Using the Health, Wealth, and Love Model

You have limited time, money, and energy. Of all the things to do in the world, you can do approximately none of them.

Most of the decisions we make on a regular basis are decisions on how to allocate our scarce time, money, and energy. That's why I think it's time to introduce a broad heuristic for making these decisions.

If you already have some goal for your life beyond "be happy," like "write a book" or "build a profitable company from scratch" then allocate as much of your resources toward that as you can.

If you just want to be happy, then ask yourself the following question:

"When it comes to my physical health, my financial independence, and the quality of my relationships, which is my weakest link?"

Then, whenever you're faced with a decision, answer it based on that one criterion.

(Another way of putting this is: don't just weigh the costs and benefits. Weigh them in perspective of your weakest links.)

Example: Once Upon a Cookie


I was in NYC a couple weeks ago to see friends and family. One of my closest friends had spent 5 months in Budapest and was moving to New York for the summer. She came down early to catch me and we had a day to spend together, our first time since December.

We got tickets to see Once, a play with fantastic music and a bland story, first thing in the morning. When we came back to the theater district in the evening, we found we had half-an-hour before the play began. Rachel had the idea to go to a cookie shop called Schmackary's two blocks away.

As now, I was in training for my first triathlon and was trying to eat clean. Cookies are not clean. So I had a choice. I could go on this half-hour adventure with Rachel to try a new cookie place or I could keep my sweets-free streak going, but not both. (Also note that the cookie would cost money.)

What to do? I broke out my heuristic and asked myself which I was lacking most:

Health, money, or quality relationships?

At the time, the answer was clear: quality relationships. I decided I was better off sharing the experience of running through midtown at night in the rain on a quest for cookies with my friend than to keep us in the theater, bored, waiting for the show to start just to avoid eating refined sugar and to save a couple bucks.

Don't agonize over this stuff. Just consider where you're lacking in Health, Wealth, and Love and try to compensate to fix the problem.

Set Expectations Low for Off-Days

At the risk of simplifying a large range of daily experiences into two simple categories...

There are two kinds of days: on days and off days.

On Days


When you're on, you feel like you have unlimited will power. You feel strong, clear-headed, and ambitious. You stare at a cookie, know that you should not eat it, and don't. You go for a run, push to break your season PR, and do. Reddit is about as much of a threat to your productivity as flying pigs.

My only advice for these days is to take advantage of them. When you feel all-powerful, it's tempting to think that your days of weakness are forever over and that you'll feel like this for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, the day will end and the next day may or may not be good.

OK, one more caution: don't stay up too late. You'll be tempted to ride the power out until late. Big mistake. Don't mess up your sleep schedule. If you're feeling wired, wind down slowly with a book or a bit of easy creative work like journalling or doodling.

Off Days


When you're off, you feel like you want to get into a snuggie and watch sitcoms all day long. That cookie you were staring at the day before is now in your mouth and god is it delicious, but how did it get there? You absolutely would go for a run, but having to put on shoes is an unreasonable prerequisite. Maybe Reddit has some good advice.

How did this happen?


Let me introduce you to a new unit of measurement: diesels. Diesels are a measure of will power. Like utiles, they are subjective and relative. While saying no to a cookie may cost me one diesel, it may cost someone else two diesels.

Actions either cost diesels or replenish your tank. Sleep is the biggest contributor to your tank. Work is the biggest cost. In general, rest and relaxation replenish the tank and making decisions drain it. As you may have figured out by now, off days occur when your tank of diesels is low.

What should I do when my tank is low?


First, recognize that you're going to have a hard time getting a lot done. Without diesels to spend, you will struggle to make any decisions. You will default to your habits, both bad and good, and follow the path of least resistance. You may be OK if your day doesn't require you being proactive, but if it does, set your expectations low.

Ride things as far as you can. If you've got good habits in place, stick to them. Do your best to do anything you can, but don't put difficult things on your plate and expect yourself to be able to accomplish them without diesels to spend. Don't waste diesels on small stuff. When you're running on empty, you simply cannot go as far.

Once you've done your good habits and you feel like you can't do anything else, just take a nap. Get out of work as early as you can and go sleep. If you can't sleep, just get into bed and read a magazine until you can.

Above all, don't feel bad and beat yourself up for being lazy. Normal people need a lot of rest to refill their tank and it gets empty when they don't balance properly. So go rest.

How can I avoid having off days?


You can't entirely. You'll have times in your life when you needed to burn your entire tank. But sometimes you might also burn the whole damn thing playing video games until 4am or agonizing over what pattern of dishes to buy from Sears.

Four simple rules can help you keep your diesel levels up:
  1. Sleep. If your body wants to sleep, let it! Go to sleep early and take naps as needed.
  2. Stay fed and hydrated. It's amazing how skipping a meal or not drinking enough water siphons off you diesels.
  3. Minimize decision making. Decisions are expensive, and agonizing over them makes them more expensive. Make decisions quickly and move on.
  4. Don't try to do too much in a day. Understand that will power, rather than time or money, may be your limiting factor. Running a deficit today means you'll pay the price tomorrow. Run a surplus today, however, and you'll be sure to be on tomorrow.
Get through it, learn your lesson, and rock it the next day!

###

I'm now working for a startup in San Mateo and it's my best gig yet. It's a nice feeling to be on the up-and-up.

You're Done With Finals: Now What?

"After victory, tighten the straps on your helmet." - Tokugawa Ieyasu
Sebastian Marshall wrote a while ago that when you have a victory, celebrate and quickly get ready for your next challenge. Victory can quickly turn to defeat if you allow it to lure you into a false sense of security. A string of big victories is even worse. We quickly forget that things were ever bad if they've been good for a while. "This time is different," we tell ourselves.

If you're a college student, you're either done or soon-to-be-done with finals. Once you're finished with them, celebrate and quickly get ready for your next challenge. This is a valuable time; use it!

Lessons from the Past


Make a note of the lessons you learned this semester, whether as part of your coursework or not. This is a great time for reflection.

My lessons:

  • Quickly enlist the help of your professors, advisors, club members, and doctor when you take ill. Being out of commission for even a short time can have huge negative impacts on your semester, so be proactive about minimizing the damage and setting expectations.
  • Coming in with a plan is invaluable. If you run a club, have a plan for the club for the whole semester before you begin. As a student, take note early of all important dates and plan paper writing and exam review as early as humanly possible.
  • Minimize distractions. Computers and cell phones are useful as tools, but they're also poisoned with tons of media distractions. It's OK to watch Game of Thrones with friends on Sundays and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. with friends on Tuesdays, but going to town on Netflix every other day you will regret.
  • Regularity is key. Make decisions early on in the semester about when you will go to sleep, when you will get up, what you will do when you get up, when and what you will eat, and so on. Then stick to those habits and don't waste energy re-deciding them every day.

Plans for the Future


Take stock of upcoming challenges: finding or starting summer work, preparing for next semester, or taking on pet projects that may turn into something bigger later on. Summer vacation is a resource uniquely held by students. Take advantage of the long blocks of unstructured time to do things you cannot normally do during the academic year.

My summer plans:

  • Work, obviously. I don't have a job lined up yet, but I have things in the works.
  • Take course in bartending. It looks interesting, it's cool to be able to make drinks for people, and apparently it's kind of lucrative for how easy it is. It's basically drug peddling, so that's not surprising.
  • Complete an Olympic triathlon. This will require a lot of training, but it's really fun. It will require lots of swimming practice since that's my weakest link.
  • Continue podcasting and writing. I'd like to put out one episode a month and about one article a week.
  • Practice stand-up. I've got a lot of material I want to workshop, so I'm going to try to get on stage every week at minimum.
  • Lift twice a week. I want to hit 150 lbs. on bench, squat, and deadlift by August.
That's some good stuff! Having such a clear plan in mind makes it much more likely that I won't just lay in bed re-watching Marvel movies all day.

Have you thought about what you want your summer to look like?

###

Will be in NYC on Thursday and doing hopefully 3 shows at different venues.

For the Love of All that is Good and Right in the World

When you're working, here's how you should work. It's so simple and yet so easy to screw up.
  • Focus: when you're working, work. Do not permit yourself any distractions from the task at hand. You will thank yourself for your Draconian discipline.
  • Break: take at least a 3 minute break every half hour. And get your ass up off that chair when you do. Walk around, have some water or a snack, and keep your body moving.
  • Pause: reaffirm your commitment to the task. Remind yourself that you are doing this because you want to do this.
  • Focus: when you're working, work.
Stick to this all day on interesting tasks at the edge of your ability and I guarantee you'll hit flow by lunch.

That's all. Go do it.

Updated: Literally within 15 seconds of posting this I opened Feedly and saw this post by Shane Parrish. He goes into more depth on why working in this manner is so damn effective.

Comedy is Not Art

Comedy is no more "art" than advertising, journalism, or taking a dump. Yes, all these things bear a resemblance to art. They may require imagination, creativity, or attention to detail.

Yet art must be art for its own sake. It can have no higher or lower purpose than to be art, than to be an expression of beauty, dreams, emotion. Comedy, though it may express these things, is concerned with producing something. The fact that it has the goal of making people laugh means that it is not art. Art has no goals.

Comedy is greedy. It can't stand on its own. It needs an audience to laugh at it. Art is giving. It merely shares a sense of wonder or regret and asks nothing in return. To give is enough for art. To have created art is enough for the artist.

Wouldn't it be great to be an artist and make your life your masterpiece? To give beauty, share your dreams, express your emotion. To let that be enough.

Sounds kickass, I guess. For my part, I'd rather just get those laughs.

Big List of Excuses is Up

I've started a Big List of Excuses. It helps me to see a list of all my dumb "reasons" for failing to get moving on what I want to do. In fact, I find it so helpful, I'm putting a link to it on the homepage of this website. I'll leave it in the footer under "About" so you can access it easily and mock your devil-brain whenever you're tempted to put off your dreams.

You can also see it by clicking here.

Grades in College Part 3: Fixing Grades

In Part 2 of this series, we saw that students learn that good grades are more important than learning well and that being graded constantly unduly stresses students out.

Now let's take an optimistic direction. How can we solve the problems with grades from Part 2 without damaging the good we saw in Part 1?

(Recap from Part 1. Many parties benefit by having professors grade students:
  • employers can evaluate candidates' work ethic and ability to follow instructions,
  • professors can get feedback on the efficacy of their teaching,
  • universities/parents/professors can incent students to work hard when students themselves want to do anything but,
  • and students can convey their willingness to work hard and follow instructions to employers.
Note that students perhaps benefit the least.)

How can we accurately express students' aptitude for employment and get them to value learning as highly as society does without causing them so much stress and teaching them to value correct answers on a test higher than leadership, creativity, skill-building, and critical thinking?

I don't have the answer to that, but I do have some ideas.

Some Ideas


Employers: Instead of requiring a transcript, cover letter, resume, and interview, maybe do what Google does: look for learning ability, humility, leadership, and ownership. Google may have more resources for HR to dispense, but this isn't rocket science. Explain what you need, ask candidates what they can do for your company, bring in the ones who give satisfying answers, and have them prove themselves on the relevant tasks. If they're going to be product managing, give them some product management work for an hour and see how they do.

Professors: How about asking? I'll be more than happy to tell you that I don't know how to solve induction problems and I'll be more than happy to listen as you explain. If you have a big class, send out a quick survey. StrawPoll.me takes about a minute.

Everyone-but-students: Fuck you. I know you want to extract as much productivity as possible from young men and women and that starts by educating them, but we're already a productive society so let's take it easy. Let's focus on providing opportunities, not enforcing their seizure. Grades stomp the curiosity out of the true learners in order to pull compliance from those who just want its rewards. I don't think that's a good idea.

Let me give you an example of how this plays out. I'm taking an amazing class called "Politics of '70s Film" where we watch the greatest films produced between 1967 and 1976 and discuss them as art in the political context of the 1970s. The professor is excellent, an enthusiastic lecturer and one of the true experts in both the fields of film studies and political science. We are graded, absurdly, on attendance/participation, two written tests, and two long critical analysis essays.

I say that's absurd, because I would gladly do all of that without a grade. I want to be a writer, and I am extremely grateful to have something to cut my teeth on as well as guidance on the process and feedback on the product. So those two essays are valuable to me. It benefits me to give the professor objective feedback on how well I'm learning what he's teaching, so I would happily take the tests (though not instead of hearing him lecture, which is how it is right now, since he is that good). And why coerce me into attending and participating? I'm watching movies and talking about interesting stuff! I don't know how valuable it is, but I sure love doing it! You don't need to incentivize me to watch goddamn movies! 

Or, imagine for a moment that I don't want to do all those things. Then I shouldn't be allowed to take the class. Students who do not want to study something should not study it. Instead we've got this insane system where we try to lure students into taking classes and then enjoining them to work hard or else be punished with a low grade.

University instructors should only take on students who want to learn what they're teaching. They should then teach, to the best of their ability what the students want to learn. And employers should check on their own to see if students and graduates can provide what they need. It's really that simple.

Like I said, these are more ideas than policy prescriptions and need to be refined further with empirical research before implemented. I also want to point out that they are directed at universities and graduate programs where students are not minors. I do believe minors could benefit from a more hands-on approach to learning, lacking the will or knowledge to educate themselves as they see fit. High school needs fixing, but the high school grades and university application process are a completely different beast than what I have discussed here.

###

Finishing up my third year of college. Will hopefully be working during the day and performing stand-up at night in New York City this summer.

Book Review: The Little Book of Contentment by Leo Babauta

This book is "Little," indeed, at just over 100 tiny pages. It's also free. And it's excellent. You can download it here. And you should.

I read it a couple pages at a time over the last year. It was a useful occasional reminder to get my head straight. Here is how to be content in one sentence: "Recognize that your ideals about yourself and others are fantasies that cause you pain, let go of them, and express your gratitude for what is good in your life."

That's all I'm going to say. Seriously go read the book.

Second Podcast Interview - David Fox

David Fox comes on the show this time. Get ready for a wild ride from high school clubs to the "prostitution pattern." It's a seriously good episode.



I got really good feedback on the David Streitman interview in November. If you haven't heard that yet, it's good. Check it out if you're looking for some more DSLcast content.

Yustufus and Optimus

Yustufus likes to say that a thousand donuts won’t make me fat, but that a donut a day will. He says this through a mouthful of chocolate cruller, and when I ask for one he asks if I’ve had one already in the last forty-eight hours. Yustufus takes things literally.

“I could die tomorrow,” I say each time. This whole disagreement has become routine. He says if I’m worried about that, I should see a doctor immediately, and anyways once I’m dead I won’t care if I had had that donut.

“I also won’t care if I didn’t have the donut. That’s the point.” He asks how I can enjoy it knowing how bad it is for me.

“It’s so crispy, sweet, rich, and chocolatey. How can I not enjoy it?” I ask rhetorically. Yustufus answers by licking the last flakes of glaze off his thumb and index finger and asking if it’s more delicious than it is poisonous.

“One, you know I can’t compare immediate subjective evaluations of quality with potential future subjective evaluations of objective health risks even if I knew the risks, which I do not. Two, fuck your slippery slope. Just because I have a donut today does not mean I will have one every day for the next three decades.” Finally Yustufus smiles, opens the muted-pink box on his lap, and displays the rows of pastries inside. I reach through the steel bars and pick a smooth-looking chocolate glazed yeast donut with green, pink, and white sprinkles covering the entire top surface.

As I take my first bite and feel my brain tingle delicately from the calorie rush, Yustufus stands up rigidly, scraping the metal folding chair back on the concrete floor with his calves. He nods at me, I nod at him, and he carries the box back up the stairs to the left of my cell. Licking the sugar off the back of my incisors, I read the word on the back of his shirt, printed in bold, fixed-pitch font, ‘GAOLER.’

We do this every morning.

---

Around noon, Gaoler Optimus steps lightly down the stairs and leans back on the bare concrete wall opposite my cell, sandwiching himself between the light switch and fire alarm lever so they don’t dig into his back. He stares at me for a moment, sizing me up and enjoying the silence of my dungeon. Then he bends down toward my cell and slides a tray of sweetened yogurt and dark bread through a slot under the door. On the tray, beneath the food, is a stack of reading material: a Wired magazine from 2009 about self-driving cars, the 2006 SI Swimsuit Edition, a book of Kipling short stories, an intermediate microeconomics textbook, and a Betty & Veronica Double Digest. I slide the food off the top and take a bite of bread while I wait for Optimus to ask me which I’m going to read.

“All of them, I guess, though I hardly call flipping through 60 pages of photoshopped women in wet underwear ‘reading,’” I say after he asks. He smiles grimly and tells me that I know the drill. He explains patiently that I have lights out at eight o’ clock and I need to push the books and magazines outside my cell before that time. I won’t have time to read all of them.

“Fine. Kipling.” Optimus shakes his head slowly and says that’s a bad choice; it’s dense and I’ll barely get through two stories before eight and I won’t understand either of them.

“It’s not about understanding it,” I say. “It’s art. And if I cared about finishing, I’d go right for SI.” That gets him to laugh. Then he hesitates for a second before asking how I know that the Gaolers are not just waiting to let me out until I finally finish a book. Maybe that’s all they want, he suggests. Surely testing that would be the most productive use of my time.

“I read books before I was locked away. So that doesn’t make sense. And nobody imprisons people for not finishing books. That’s stupid.” Optimus nods and agrees in his soft, gracious way. He asks if my time’s not better spent, anyways, trying to figure out how to find my freedom than trying to appreciate dense, confusing literature. I snort.

“Maybe putting on pseudo-intellectual airs will set me free. Who knows?” He leaves me to my reading. I finish eating, flip open the catalog of digitally enhanced supermodels, and touch myself.

###

Thought I would try my hand at a high concept short-short-story. I like these characters a lot. I might work with them in the future.