I don’t know shit about Adversity.

phpSkvibEAM

Adversity

What is adversity?

I thought I knew.

Getting crushed by an avalanche gained me a ticket into the Survivors Club. The snow broke my ribs, collapsed my lung, broke every bone in my face, including the ones I didn’t know existed behind my eyeballs, severed my ACL and left me spilling blood and gasping for air on the side of a mountain.

I thought I knew what adversity was because of the searing pain I experienced. It felt like someone was stabbing me in the back every time I hit a bump while being carried in the rescue sled down mountain.

I thought I knew about hard times because the ambulance ride took 3 ½ hours to get to the hospital. I was spitting blood all over the place, bitching, moaning, crying, and begging for random strangers to save my life.

I thought I knew about adversity because of waking up in the hospital on life support. I was unable to speak because I had a hole with a tube sticking down my throat and into my lung. My jaw was wired shut and I couldn’t scream out for help.

Three facial surgeries in seven days left eight titanium plates in my face.
Several months and several surgeries later I found myself battling depression, anger, and the worst of all—self pity.

All this led me to believe that I knew something about adversity. That I was something of an expert on the topic.

Now I don’t think I know shit about adversity.

I just got news that my friend (I’ll call him Jon) was admitted to Hospice care. Jon is transitioning to the next experience.

Jon has been battling brain cancer for 4 years. Jon knows about Adversity.

Jon is the most charismatic dude I’ve ever met. The guy had flair that came from a mixture of confidence, competence, and personality.

When I first met Jon he was a gourmet chef in Napa Valley. He was a showman. A food showman. I never gave a shit about food, but when Jon would talk, I found myself paying attention to every little detail about food that he rapped on about.

He had great showmanship with food, but one of the things that made him so interesting, is that he was also a great teacher. He made a subject I found boring, cooking, into something interesting. I loved hearing Jon talk about food (Use grapeseed oil, not olive oil! – when cooking steaks).

He taught a food and wine class every weekend.

I took my Mom to one of his classes for Mother’s Day one year. It was the best Mother’s Day gift I’ve ever gotten Mom. Maybe the best gift I ever got her. It was such a cool thing to see this guy so in his element.

I met Jon through work, we were employed at the same winery. Eventually Jon moved on to other employment. I expected to see him become a famous Chef, like the ones on the TV. I imagined he’d have his own restaurants and cookware and pots with his name on it.

Life had other plans.

Jon was diagnosed with brain cancer several months after my accident. One day my buddy showed me a picture on Facebook of this guy in a hospital bed with a horseshoe sized scar on top of his shaved head.

The guy in the picture looked lost. My buddy said, “That’s Jon.”

The look on Jon’s face reminded me of what I felt like when I was in the hospital. I visited him in the hospital the next day. He was surprised to see me. We hadn’t spoken since he left the winery. It had been two years.

I hung out with Jon and tried to listen as best I could. He was going through serious Adversity. The good news was, the doctors had caught the cancer early. They had successfully removed a golf ball sized tumor from his head. His future looked bright.

I attempted to impart some of the thoughts that had helped me during my struggle. I encouraged him to start writing. I dunno. Maybe I shouldn’t have said anything and just shut up and listened. I couldn’t fathom the battle that Jon was in.

I visited him a few days later and this time I brought him a box of See’s chocolate candies. He seemed to like them. Jon was stronger than when I’d seen him before. I could see Jon’s charisma attempting to burst through the trauma of the surgery.

Unfortunately I never spoke with Jon again. I meant to but I didn’t.

Time passed. Jon left the hospital, then eventually returned to work part time. I kept up with him through a few texts and word on the grapevine. He worked when his health would permit him to.

I’m sure his work provided a welcomed distraction.  He loved cooking.  I doubt he ever thought of it as work.

But the news always returned that Jon was back in the hospital having another surgery or round of cancer treatment. It was brutal just to get the news of his struggle. I couldn’t imagine being the guy going through it.

Everyone was pulling for Jon. I remember there was a charity dinner held at the winery he worked at when he got diagnosed with cancer. The winery was raising money to help pay for Jon’s medical expenses.

I didn’t want to go to the dinner because it was on the weekend and it was wintertime. I wanted to go skiing.

I called up the phone number where the tickets to the dinner were being sold and I asked if I could just give them some money instead of buying a ticket. The woman on the phone was relieved that I just wanted to send money. She said the dinner was sold out but people kept trying to buy tickets.

I heard later that the charity dinner was so over sold that they were worried about getting shut down by the fire department. Apparently the fire department let them slide because they knew purpose of the event.

That’s the kind of impact Jon had on anyone that met him. There weren’t a shit ton of people at the event because Jon had cancer. There were a shit ton of people at the event because Jon had this magnetic personality that people couldn’t help but be attracted to.

Jon battled cancer. He didn’t give up.

He married his long time girlfriend, which I know made him immensely happy.

And, he taught people. There isn’t anyone that knows him, that can’t use him as motivation. If anyone that knows Jon is battling Adversity, they can pause for a moment, think of Jon, and realize that their situation isn’t as bad as they think it is, and they must persevere.

I often think of Jon when I’m bitching and moaning and life is difficult. I think of Jon and I think that I need to shut up and stop complaining. I think of Jon and I am reminded of how grateful I am to take a simple walk with my dog and enjoy the breeze.

I think of Jon and I think about how I’ve got a lot of work to do to be a better human being.
I’m sad I won’t be able to visit Jon in Hospice. I moved away from Napa to the East Coast and cannot make the trip.

I love that dude. He’s an inspiration.

I will miss Jon. I know he is going to a good place.

Be well brother.

Advertisements

Today I lost a homie.

My homie and my hero.

My homie and my hero.

He was the first rescue personnel I saw after a wall of snow crashed on me. The first time I ever laid eyes on Chewy, I felt a burst of Hope. I thought I might actually survive. He was a good omen.

Two years passed from that day before I was formally introduced to Chewy. When I finally returned to the mountain I was asked if I’d like to meet the dog that rescued me.

OF COURSE!

We were introduced at the top of Chair 6 the “Cornice Express” chairlift at Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

It was an overcast February day. Chewy’s owner Fredrick and I were disembarking the chairlift and walking up the short hill to the Ski Patrol shack.

Lounging in the snow outside the shack was a Golden Retriever. He was a beautiful dog. He had that classic Golden look… the shaggy brownish goldish hair, the hairy paws, and the big dark nose.

“Do you remember this guy?” Fredrick asked Chewy.

Chewy sauntered over and sniffed me. He rubbed up against my leg, then looked around for someone to play with or a ski pole to chew on.

I kneeled down and started petting the guy. “Thanks Buddy.”

It was as if Chewy recognized me but was nonchalant about our initial introduction. It was as if he said, “It was no big deal. I was just doing my job.”

It was a big deal to me.

The trauma from the avalanche was so great that I began to question some of my memories of the experience. I thought I remembered seeing a dog, but I wasn’t sure. I thought it was a Golden Retriever, but I wasn’t sure. As time distanced me from the trauma I began to think that maybe I was dreaming and I’d fabricated seeing a dog come right up to my face. Maybe I had fabricated the wash of relief that came over me from seeing the rescue dog.

Now that I was finally there petting the guy that found me, I knew wasn’t making up memories. Chewy had charged into dangerous terrain that had just avalanched and could possibly slide again. He charged in with significant risk to himself.

He found me quickly and that is why I’m here today.  I was stoked to meet him.

I loved that dog that I’d just met.

Chewy was as cool as they come. His favorite chew toy was a ski pole.

How cool is that?

He loved to be outside in the snow. He loved to ride up the chairlift.

And he loved to shred! Chewy was a better skier than me. Chewy could handle the rowdiest terrain at Kirkwood, which has an abundance of.

And everyone on the mountain loved him.

I got to know Chewy and Fredrick over the next few seasons.

It was always a privilege to me to get to spend time on the mountain with the two guys. I learned a lot from them and gained a tremendous amount of respect for the way they handle themselves in such a wild environment like Kirkwood.

Last season I asked around to see where Chewy was. I was told that he hadn’t been on the mountain for a few weeks because he had surgery for cancer.

I was stunned. Cancer is always scary.

I was informed that Chewy was ok, that he’d visited the mountain to say hello and would be back to work in a week or so.

The next time I skied at Kirkwood, I met Fredrick and Chewy at the base of Chair 10 or “The Wall”. Chair 10 goes to the top of the mountain. Every way down from Chair 10 is steep. Very steep. I figured if Chewy was good to go up The Wall, then me must be ok.

Chewy loved to ride the chairlift.

Chewy loved to ride the chairlift.

It was always special getting to ride the chairlift up with Chewy. There is a special procedure. The chairlift slows down. Chewy walks under Fredrick’s legs that are spread wide for the pooch. Everyone must be extra careful, the sharp edges of skis would hurt Chewy’s feet if there was accidental contact. That’s why he stays under Fredrick.

When the empty chair arrives Chewy hops on, lays down on all fours with his head looking forward. Fredrick took the seat left of him and I sat to the right.

It was amazing how calm Chewy was on the chairlift. He’d done it so many times, it was no big deal to him. No fear of heights. He was in his element and he loved it.

Fredrick told me how Chewy had cancer in his jaw and part of his jaw had to be removed. It took Chewy some time to recover, but he healed well and the cancer was gone. His tongue would flop out of the side where he had surgery.

I was surprised to find that Kirkwood has good health insurance for the avalanche dogs. All Chewy’s operations were covered.

When we disembarked from the Chair 10 at the top of the mountain Chewy was playful. He seemed like his old self with plenty of energy. He wasn’t allowed to chew on ski poles anymore because of the surgery, but other than that he seemed normal. He was ready to charge the mountain.

The three of us started down the top of The Wall. The top was icy and I had a hard time getting through the beginning section. Chewy dropped in effortlessly. He stopped 100 yards down the mountain, followed closely by Fredrick and waited for me.

These two can shred.

These two can shred.

It looked like a good shot with the two of them next to each other on the steep slope. I asked them to wait while I took a picture of them.

When I caught up to Chewy and Fredrick we resumed a leisurely cruise down the mountain. Chewy would zig-zag across the slope letting lose the occasional bark of joy.

Kirkwood was his playground and he loved it. I’ve never met someone that loved their job as much as Chewy. And it was his job. He was an avalanche rescue dog. It was his job to go into dangerous areas and look for avalanche victims. It was his job to be out in the weather even when the weather got nasty as it often does on that untamed mountain. It was his job, he loved it, and it did it well.

That ride was the last time I saw Chewy. He seemed healthy and strong. I thought I had many more visits with that cool character. I thought I had more time with him.

Even though I didn’t get to spend much time with Chewy he will always have a special place in my heart. I can’t describe how bad I felt after the avalanche. When I saw Chewy I got a little bit of Hope. Like if someone had reached out and grabbed my hand at the last possible moment before I fell into the abyss.

I couldn’t thank that dog enough.

I won’t be able to tell Chewy “Thank You” again because the cancer returned and flooded Chewy’s body. He held on and endured an incredible amount of pain. Now he is in a place where there is no pain.

I’m sad that Chewy is gone but I am grateful for the opportunity to have met him and spent time with such a heroic figure.

Stumbling through life? Try this useful trick.

This was once the most powerful man in the world. He taught me this useful trick.

This was once the most powerful man in the world. He taught me this useful trick.

One of the most useful things that happened to me after the avalanche was the introspection.

I had to focus on my feelings and how I did or did not control them. I learned from Epictetus that I can control very little in life. These things I cannot control are the “externals”. Epictetus said what you can control is your thoughts, actions, and feelings, the “internals”.

Since getting crushed by a wall of snow I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on the “internals”.

I currently work in a smoky casino as a bartender.

I make drinks for gamblers that come up to the bar and cocktail waitresses that take the drinks I make from the bar to the gamblers on the casino floor. The cocktail waitresses and I spend our days surrounded by drunks, degenerates, liars, addicts, obese people, cigarette smokers… and other health enthusiasts.

We work for tips. Our income depends on these questionable characters to pay us for making or bringing them a drink. The job of a bartender and cocktail waitress will always involve getting stiffed. It is up to these customers of questionable character to make the decision to pay us for our services.

We get stiffed a lot.

The waitresses will get upset when they get stiffed over and over. They get pissed off. This anger is understandable, we work hard, but it’s not useful. Getting angry never made a customer decide to start tipping.

I try to help the cocktail waitresses using what I learned. I tell them about a quote from Marcus Aurelius’ The Meditations that I refer to often:

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine.

So often we let other people’s behavior dictate our own.

If a customer is shitty and doesn’t tip for service, then the waitresses get pissed off and unhappy. They are letting the customer’s character and actions dictate their own.
This is not a good way to be. Much better to focus on your own actions and character. Focus on the “internals”.

This is much easier said than done. Even though I know this lesson better than anyone, I still find myself falling into the trap of letting other people’s crappy actions dictate my own.

As a bartender at a casino, I have to split tips with other bartenders. It gets confusing.

Everyday you have to keep track of who owes you money and who you owe money to. It’s easy to cheat the system. Some bartenders will be less honest splitting the tips.

One bartender I work with reliably stiffs me or gives me a small percentage of the amount I’m due.

This guy has problems. He will get off work, sit at the bar gambling and drinking for hours, then tell me that he doesn’t have the money he owes me. Or he will ask to borrow some money from me. He will say this with a straight face when he knows I saw him drinking at the bar we work at, and losing money in the slot machines.

It is not a fun situation.

The other day I had money from the night before that I was supposed to split with this degenerate bartender. He owed me money. I figured I wouldn’t give him his cut until he paid me the money he owed me. If he didn’t pay me, then I’d just keep his cut, since he already owed me money.

On the drive into work I was thinking about the situation and became disappointed in my thought process.

I was being weak.

I screwed up on the “internals”. I was letting the degenerate bartender’s character and actions dictate my own. I was ashamed of myself. Because of all the crap I’ve been through, I should have known better.

Marcus’ quote popped in my head:

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine.

I cannot let other human’s bad actions dictate mine. That is the weakness that I must watch out for. I need to control the “internals”.

I walked into work and gave the guy his cut of the money. And it felt great because I realized my mistake and had the chance to change my actions.

I try to relate this idea to the cocktail waitresses when they get upset with customers. “So what?”, I tell them. Don’t let their shitty character affect your own.

They all agree with the idea in theory, but it is hard to implement in their actions.

This trick of controlling your “internals” has helped me greatly as I stumble through life. It has been like a handrail on a staircase steadying my travel.

You might want to try this trick yourself.

This trick might just save your life.

Adversity Is What Makes You.

Adversity made me a better human being.  I'm grateful for the lessons learned through Adversity.

Adversity made me a better human being. I’m grateful for the lessons learned through Adversity.

There is no great achievement without over coming great challenges. It sucks, but we need problems, difficulty, we need adversity.

What is adversity?

Adversity is Life. Adversity is nature. From the moment you are born, the universe is trying to tear you apart. This is adversity.

Adversity is overwhelming. Adversity is that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Adversity is self-doubt and self-pity. Adversity is immense pressure. Adversity is being stuck.

Adversity is losing a loved one, losing your health, your job, your freedom.

Or breaking a long established pattern of comfort.

Adversity is the gauntlet. It is the hot fire that is trying to steal your life. Adversity is inevitable.

Adversity is whatever you allow it to be. You can allow Adversity to overwhelm you and you can surrender.

Or you can get to work.

You can start taking small steps that will allow you to endure. The longer you can endure, the more small steps you can take, the better you can deal with adversity. The more you deal with adversity, the better your chances are of overcoming adversity.

Why Adversity is needed.

Adversity is what weeds out the weak.

Adversity causes you to examine your life in an honest manner. Adversity is the spotlight that enables you to see your weaknesses.

Once you know and understand your weaknesses you can begin to change.

Adversity is what forces change. Whatever parts of you that cannot make the change, your weaknesses, will be cut away. The you that endures the Adversity will be a stronger version than before.

Redwood forests need fire to open the pine cones to allow the seeds to spread. The fire also burns away any competing plants and enriches the soil.

Wolves and other wildlife thrive in the radioactive zone around Chernobyl.

The marine life surrounding Bikini Atoll (a small island the US vaporized testing a hydrogen bomb in the 1950’s) is again a thriving ecosystem.

The Everglades is a giant river of grass that needs hurricanes to balance the ecosystem and replenish the land with water.

The variability that visits these ecosystems is the Adversity these systems need to force change and adaptability. These systems would not be able to grow stronger without the

occasional stress tests of Adversity.

Adversity makes you stronger.

Adversity is the mountain you must climb, or the puzzle you must solve, or both, to achieve your goal.

You cannot have success without adversity. You cannot grow as a person without adversity. Think about it.

You can’t experience the gratitude of summiting a big mountain if big mountains weren’t really hard to climb. Sailing across the globe in a wooden ship in the 1700’s is an impressive feat only because the oceans are wild and unforgiving environments. Learning to walk again after a devastating injury is impressive because it takes a massive amount of work and effort.

The beautiful thing about Adversity is that it pushes you to try new things. If you are forced to change and adapt you will have to learn something new that you never thought you were capable of doing. You will have to dig deep. Once Adversity forces you to learn, your newly acquired skills can take you to places you never imagined.

Adversity is experience.

If these things were easy no one would care. You wouldn’t care that you climbed a mountain, sailed the ocean in a wooden ship, or overcame devastating injuries if these things were as easy as going to the grocery store.

No one remembers a trip to the grocery store. They’re easy and forgettable.
I remember every mountain I’ve climbed and every difficulty I’ve overcome. You need Adversity. Adversity burns memories into your brain.

There is no growth without adversity.

Adversity sucks. There is no fun when dealing with Adversity. And just because you are dealing with Adversity does not mean that you will reach your goal. In fact Adversity defeats most people. That is why it is so memorable and special when Adversity is faced, and overcome.

So how should we think about Adversity?

Maybe we should embrace it. Maybe, if we embrace Adversity, it will help us to survive it.

If Adversity is inevitable (it is), and Adversity is needed to reach success or a goal or to grow into a better human being, then maybe we should think of Adversity as a necessary evil.

—————

I look at my battles with Adversity and try to think how it helped me.

I was raised in the South. I was born in Atlanta, and grew up in Florida and the flat hot middle of North Carolina.

Dreams of skiing the big mountains shown in the pictures of Powder magazine would swirl through my head in the oppressive heat of the humid summer.

I picked up and moved to Lake Tahoe where I didn’t know anyone. I lived in disgusting apartments and had shitty jobs. But I learned to ski in the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was bigger and scarier than I ever imagined. The Adversity was intimidating… but it forced me to learn and to grow.

The same thing happened when I moved to Napa Valley to pursue a career in wine. Although this time I was older and wondering what the heck I was doing with my life. I didn’t know anyone. I had no job. At first I lived in some dirty house with a maniac I found through Craigslist. The Adversity was intimidating. I lived and breathed the wine business in Napa Valley. I worked with some great people and learned a lot.

Adversity visited me again when I was crushed by an avalanche. This was the greatest challenge of my life. To deal with that Adversity I needed a massive amount of help. I got the help and eventually recovered. I am better for the experience the Adversity brought. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When you deal with Adversity you learn and gain experience. You can use this knowledge to grow and help you the next time Adversity visits you. And you can take what you’ve learned and use this knowledge to help others that face Adversity.

These changes made under extreme pressure are how diamonds are made out of coal.

This is how Adversity makes you.

Utilize Difficulties in a Constuctive Fashion

phpK3SsPXPM

I take full responsibility for my lot in life.  It is what I have or have not made it.

I’m still trying.  Most of the time I’m just spinning my wheels in the mud, not getting anywhere.

Charlie Munger’s advice to become a Learning Machine resonated deeply with me. I thought, “Hey, even I can do that.”  That’s why I named this blog Adventures in Learning.

Recovering from the avalanche gave me a new way to look at things.  I hoped to use the lessons I learned from that experience to propel me in the direction I want to go.

I’m not there yet.  I get scared, depressed, and frustrated that I haven’t done more to create value for other people.

I’ve found that if I surround myself with great people, then I feel better about myself.  It’s a selfish act because I haven’t figured out how to return the favor.  When I have a conversation with a great friend or acquaintance, I am better for it.

I love a great pep talk.

It would be nice to have a conversation with an inspiring person everyday, but I haven’t been able to make that happen yet.  So I use books, the internet, and social media to increase my exposure to great people, that inspire me and encourage me to stay positive.

I came across this short video on twitter the other day.  It’s a cut from a Joe Rogan Experience podcast episode where Joe is going off on a deep, profound, and positive pep talk.

It’s good stuff.  I’ve listened to it several times.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Canned Foods and The Defense Industry—And Why You Should Choose Your Own Path

tree with halls

I went to one job fair my last year in college. The hope was to have a nice “real” job waiting for you once you graduated. The mythical smooth transition. I walked into a large room. Everyone, including me, was wearing a suit and tie and looking good and professional.

Every company had a table set up with their name on it, and a line of students building up waiting for their chance. The students were asking the companies for jobs. It looked like humans being rounded up like cattle.

I walked into the big room, saw the mass of eagerness and hope, and stood there shocked. I stood there for three minutes. Then I turned around and got the hell out of there.

With the graduation near and the real world fast approaching I went to the guidance counselor’s office. I think the school called it a career center or something like that. I met with a counselor who was supposed to guide me in the right direction. A person who would tell me what I could do for a job, for the ultimate in stability—a career.

She looked over my course of study. A major in business management, a concentration in human resources, lots of classes in mathematics and Excel. I had all the makings of America’s Next Great Business Leader. I was excited for my future.

“I think you should look for a job in the canned foods or the defense industries.”

What… The… F…?

I was stunned. Canned foods and the defense industry did not sound awesome. I thought she was joking until I saw her face. She was not joking.

In 2002 the economy was reeling from the dot com bubble and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. If you watched the news it sounded like the world was coming to an end. The counselor figured those were growth industries. She was looking out for my best interest.

I didn’t know what to do.

I moved back into my parent’s house and started working at a hotel. I had to wear a suit and a tie to work every day. And I got paid minimum wage.

I wanted to go snow skiing. I figured wherever there’s skiing there are hotels to lodge the visiting skiers. Best to get experience and save money before moving to far away mountains. So I wore a suit and tie to the hotel everyday and I hated it. At least I finally learned how to tie a tie.

With my hotel experience I easily got another minimum wage job at a hotel in Lake Tahoe. I was on a grand adventure. I moved to the other side of the continent to live the dream, to ski powder in the big mountains. I moved to the mecca of snow skiing in North America—Lake Tahoe.

Earning just enough money to buy a ski pass, beans, and ramen noodles, I lived a life I had dreamed about as a little kid. I went on new adventures. I skied deep powder and steep mountains. That life was bigger and scarier than I ever imagined.

After several seasons in the mountains I moved back to my hometown in North Carolina, broke, with no direction in life, no marketable skills, and trying to recover from injuries I sustained while skiing.

I caught the wine bug while living in Tahoe and I fell in love with wine, particularly Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. So I got a job buying and selling wine in a small wine shop in Durham.

One day I realized that wine is basically a food product. That darn guidance counselor was right after all. I figured I was pretty much working in the canned food industry.

After a couple of years I wanted to see where wine could take me so I moved to the capital of the wine business in North American—Napa Valley.

I was homeless for the first month I lived in California, staying at a rundown motel for a couple of nights and camping in parks other nights. I needed a job. The harvest was fast approaching. There are always lots of temporary jobs during the harvest working in the cellars cleaning barrels, crushing grapes, and making wine.

I took a temporary job working in the cellar for Pine Ridge Vineyards. It was an established winery with vineyards scattered across some of the best growing areas in the valley. It was hard work. I cleaned floors, barrels, and got inside the huge stainless steel fermenting tanks and cleaned those too. I crushed grapes, pumped wine from the bottom of the tank and sprayed it over the must, and transferred wine into the small oak barrels.

We worked with hoses to transfer wine and clean tanks. Removing the hose from a tank after a pumpover is an adventure. The hose has pressure and wine in it. Once the pressure is released the wine explodes out of the hose. I’ve taken more cabernet showers than I can count.

It was hard work. I went home every day soaked in wine and water. I’m glad I did it. It was something I never wanted or expected to do. I learned a lot. There is some beautiful magic that happens when you see a tank of red grapes turn from juice to fermenting juice. The young wine tastes wild.

When the harvest was over they moved me to the shipping department where I shipped wine all over the country. I worked in a beautiful winery, working with great people and the years flew by.

Living in Napa Valley is the good life, it’s easy to get complacent, and that’s what I did. During the warm months the weather is unbelievable, warm in the day and cool at night. During the cold months I drove to Tahoe every weekend to go on ski adventures with my old buddies from Tahoe. We climbed and skied many of the classic lines I’d been dreaming about for years.

Then I got run over by an avalanche and life was very painful. With a lot of help from family, friends, and doctors and nurses, I recovered and went back to work. It was a bookmark in the story of my life. Or maybe the end of a chapter. Whatever. I had to learn from it. I started searching.

After five years of working the same job I made a change. I quit and left the comforts of Napa Valley and moved back to the mountains. I had to jump. With no job and no ideas I hoped I’d figure it out quickly.

It is hard to be satisfied with what you have. It is easy to obsess over what others have or what you do not have. This seems to be a common human characteristic. I look at my friends back home that I grew up with and I still remain close to. Most of them have houses, jobs, wives, kids, dogs, and their friends and family close by. I catch myself being jealous. I find myself focusing on what I don’t have instead of being grateful for what I do.

Of all people I should know better. Not so long ago I wanted just to be able to breathe on my own. To be able to swallow. And then to be able to speak. When it was all taken away from me I longed for the simplest of life’s pleasures. It pains me when I forget that lesson.

It’s important to remember that we all have our own path to take in life or maybe our own path to make in life. If I had stayed at home and attained the joys of a house, wife, kids and a career, I would have been miserable. I would have always wondered what it would have been like to ramble on and seek out adventures.

There is no right way or wrong way, there just is. And that is ok. Accept things as they are. Go out and learn and then keep learning. Never stop learning. Try to create a lot of value for other people. If you have a want, a goal, or a dream, well, go out there and give it a hell of a shot.

In her commencement speech to Dartmouth College in 2014 Shonda Rhimes said, “But dreams do not come true just because you dream them – it’s hard work that makes things happen.”

When dreams come true they are no longer dreams. The dream becomes a truth or a reality. Reality can be taken for granted. As a kid my bedroom was plastered with posters of my hero’s climbing and skiing huge mountains. From my home in the flat hot middle of North Carolina, these pictures did not represent reality, they were not real, they were dreams. Before I knew what happened I had lived a version of these pictures I grew up staring and dreaming at. I had my own pictures now. Living the dream was better and worse than I’d ever imagined. It was not a fairy tale. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifice, and climbing mountains of self-doubt to achieve my dreams.

And then what happens once you achieve your dreams? Complacency, self-doubt, looking at what your friends have that you don’t. It’s a cycle. There is a price to pay for chasing your dreams, for choosing your own path. It’s worth it. For me it was the only way. I don’t wonder “what if”. I have the scars of experience.

So if you find yourself stuck in a bleak situation with no ideas, then step back for a moment. Don’t make a choice. Wait, observe, read, figure out a goal or maybe dream one up. Try many things. Stumble around and see what Life has to offer. If something doesn’t work, quit, and try something else. Never stop learning. There is no script you have to follow except the one in your head and you can change that if you want.

If that doesn’t work there is still plenty of opportunity in canned foods and the defense industries.

Saved By The Bell

RESTORE_000014185704Resized

I’ve struggled in life to find my niche, to find what I’m good at. I struggle in my working life to find work I can be fully engaged and super productive in. I’ve never had direction other than to go skiing. Lost and scared I turned to reading as a way to improve my personal and professional life and to get a little guidance to help me navigate this crazy world. I’m always looking for simple techniques I can use that can improve my life.

Through reading I came to learn more about the importance of sleep. Making sure you get 8-9 hours of restful sleep a night is as important as brushing and flossing your teeth. You have to stick to a routine in order to have healthy sleep.

In looking for ways to improve my sleep I stumbled across meditation. At first I dismissed the idea. It sounded like hocus-pocus spiritual stuff to me. Whenever I’d hear the word meditate, I’d think of someone sitting cross-legged on a hard wood floor trying to reach enlightenment inside their heads. I always thought that meditation was for lonely weirdos so I never wanted anything to do with it.

I was looking for real world techniques to make my life better.

Meditation kept coming up in my research. I’d read about famous and successful artists, entrepreneurs, and comedians and many of them would credit great improvements in their life to the practice of meditation.

Tim Ferriss the author and entrepreneur said he tries to meditate twice a day. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern both benefit from the practice of transcendental meditation. The hedge fund manager Ray Dalio has practiced transcendental meditation for 42 years.

I’m still not sure what transcendental meditation is. I’m not looking for a crazy spiritual experience. I’m looking for a simple technique that might make my sleep and life a little better. Through reading I think I have an idea of what general meditation is.

Meditation is defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary app that I have on my phone as: the act or process of spending time in quiet thought. The app defines meditating as: to engage in mental exercise (as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness. I don’t know if I like either of these definitions. The second one about concentrating on one’s breathing seems closer to what I use meditation for.

Complexity scares me. I like simple. My goal in meditating is to clear my mind, to have no thoughts at all, to simply let go and not think about the past or the future, to just be in the present. Scratch that. To “be in the present” sounds weird and I don’t even know what the means. The goal for me is simple. The goal is to not think.

This is my technique. I meditate first thing in the morning. I try to do this once a week. The alarm goes off, I roll out of bed. I bring my dining table chair into my bedroom where it is dark. I like the dining table chair because it is simple, wooden, and makes me sit upright, no slouching. I sit up straight on my chair in my bedroom with the lights off. I put my hands on my thighs, I look straight forward and I close my eyes. I stare at the darkness of my closed eyelids. Then I begin my yoga breathes.

The breathing technique I learned in yoga is to take a slow deep breath in through your nose. Fill your chest up with air, then exhale slowly through your mouth. When you exhale you want to slowly push the air out, the way you would if you were trying to fog up a mirror or window.

I set the alarm on my phone for 5 minutes. For those brief minutes I sit, breath slow and deep, and try not to think.

I’ve never succeeded in pulling this off!

At first I couldn’t even sit there in the dark for 5 minutes. At about three minutes in I’d give up and have to look at my alarm and check to see if it was broken. Why wasn’t the alarm going off yet?! It must’ve been at least 10 minutes! The time seemed to take sooooo long. My alarm was never broken. I just couldn’t bear sitting there in the dark with my thoughts.
At first I’d be waiting the entire time to hear the alarm bell. It was painful to sit in the dark trying not to think. I’d be thinking about how I wanted the alarm to go off right then so I could stop the meditating torture.

I’ve never been able to clear my mind and not think of anything. I’m always thinking of something. I’m always worrying about something. It wasn’t until I started meditating that I began to worry that I might actually be crazy. I can never sit still and have no thoughts. I’ve never been able to clear my mind, to turn my mind off. It sounds simple, but I’ve found it to be impossible. Or at least so difficult to achieve that I’ve never come close.

Instead of sitting in the dark not thinking of anything, I sit in the dark and think that I might be crazy because I can’t stop thinking. And focus on yoga breathing, wondering why my alarm isn’t sounding yet.

Focusing on breathing is what helps me the most. For brief moments I can clear my mind and think of nothing but the breathing. That is the best I can do. It took a lot of work to get to that point and I’m only able to get there for a moment.

Breathing is the trick that helped me the most meditating. Focusing on full deep breaths helps pass the time. At first all I could do was sit and eagerly await the alarm sounding, like a kid in high school waiting for the bell to ring so he can run out of there as fast as he can.
With much practice meditating has gotten easier. I focus on fogging up the entire mirror not just a small corner. Deep breathes. The time passes easier. Before I know it the alarm is sounding.

Has meditating made my sleep better? I don’t know. I think the answer is yes, but I could be full of it. It seems if I’m able to meditate once a week then my sleep that week is more restful and restorative. But it could be the placebo effect at work. I don’t know. If it is the placebo effect at work, then I’m all for it.

Any time there is a situation with little to no downside and a minimum to potentially great upside, then I go for it. This technique works in many situations in life. It works great in investing, relationships, and healthcare. If a placebo effect has no downside and potential upside, then I say give it a shot.

What’s the downside of meditating? Well, I found out that I might be crazy because I can’t stop thinking. Other than that the negative is that I waste 5-10 minutes in the morning sitting in a chair doing nothing. Even I can afford a mistake like that.

The potential benefit of a few minutes of focused breathing are: better sleep at night, a more relaxed lifestyle, and who knows maybe lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure (Warning: I am not a doctor, have no evidence to back up these claims, and could be full of it.).

Give meditation a shot! There’s nothing to lose, you might feel weird, you might feel nothing at all, you might sleep better at night and feel great, or you might reach enlightenment (if so, let me know what that’s like!).

You never know unless you try and since there is very little downside to trying… why not meditate for a few minutes tomorrow morning?

Be sure to set the alarm.

History doesn’t Repeat but it sure does Rhyme

phpWxTOliAM

We’re just a bunch of humans. All throughout time we deal with the same wants and needs, the same insecurities and battles with self-pity. We all have to start from scratch and learn. Learning is hard and most of us can’t or won’t do it. So we make the same mistakes over and over. We are much the same today as in the time of Cicero because the passions of man don’t change.

Speaking of Cicero, he once famously said in 55 BC,”The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced, the arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and the assistance to foreign lands should be curtailed lest Rome become bankrupt.”

Hmm… that sounds familiar. Was Cicero really speaking about Rome? Or did he have some crazy looking into the future machine and he was speaking about the empire of the U.S.A.? Or was he looking even farther into the future and speaking of the next great bureaucracy that will tangle up us forgetful humans?
Rinse, repeat. The cycle continues.

I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent book “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern.” It tells the story of Poggio Bracciolini, a scribe of the Papal Court in Rome (turns out there were 2 other competing papal courts at the time) and his discovery in the early 1400’s of an ancient poem that had been lost in the passing of centuries, Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura” (translated: On The Nature Of Things).

At the beginning of The Renaissance a work like On The Nature Of Things was highly disruptive. In it Lucretius suggests the universe functions without the need of instructions from the gods, and the world is made up of tiny particles we can’t see that collide at random and form larger particles. He figured out atoms before us modern humans figured out microscopes. Even during his day Lucretius’ thoughts went against the majority of thinking.

Lucretius was a man that leaned toward the Epicurean idea that the point of life was to seek out pleasure. This simple and harmless way of thinking was directly opposed to the Christian beliefs that all men are sinners and we must suffer for these sins. Christianity, especially the Papal court of Rome in the early 1400’s, insisted that mankind should suffer. The idea that life was meant for seeking pleasure was heresy and the Church stamped out every Epicurean thought they could find.

The Papal Court in Rome dictated how everyone should think and feel. It proclaimed it’s authority over every person on the planet. They claimed they got their authority from God, although it was best that you didn’t point out to the Court that the word “Pope” is not mentioned in the bible. You had to do what the rulers of the religion said or you were persecuted.

The Papal Court was of course, like all areas where power concentrates, a cesspool of corruption and broken morals. They extorted money from their followers. They forced their opinions on everyone. You were to live as the Court instructed you.

As Stephen Greenblatt tells it, the Papal Court sounds just like Washington D.C. now, or the British aristocracy in the 1700’s, or ancient Rome in the latter stages of its’ decline. These cycles keep happening in human history. A group (religious, or political, or both) gains power, then proclaims that the masses must do as they say (but not as they do). Then the corruption becomes so rampant the whole thing collapses on itself.

Rinse and repeat.

The players change, the location changes, the ideology changes, but the basic psychology of the process is the same. As I stumble through learning the histories of ancient cultures it’s amazing how similar they are. You basically read the same story over and over. We are doomed to repeat the same mistakes we’ve always made because the passions of man don’t change.

There have been great, learned, and reasonable people throughout history, like Lucretius, but they are in the vast minority. When the next great ideology comes along it usually does what it can to erase all traces of learned and reasonable thought. The cycle continues.

How to Really Screw Up: Getting Too Deep Into An Ideology

phpRz52XFPM

Us humans are really weak and fragile beings. We’re scared and we don’t want to be alone. We like to feel important and get attention. When I say We and I say Us, I mean me.

As I was progressing through life I would get these ideas and the ones I liked I would cling to. If I saw that other people liked my ideas or I got attention, good or bad, I would cling to them even more. I began to think that if I felt strongly about a subject and I repeated what I thought often enough and loud enough, then what I thought became a fact.

I would hide behind my made up facts. What would I hide behind my “facts”? My insecurities, manias, and failures. I would become an authority on my “facts”, these became my ideology. Being an authority figure made me feel good, it gave me a sense of feeling important.

It didn’t matter if I was actually correct in my ideology. I felt confident about it so I must be correct.
Definitions are important in the business of communication, so let’s make sure we define what we’re talking about so we’re all on the same page. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Ideology as:

• A systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
• A manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
• The integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

These are some fancy sounding concepts. They’re ok, but I tend to think of an ideology as “How you feel about a certain topic.” I like this definition because it gets at the heart of the matter; we get attached to the way we feel about things.

How do you feel OR What do you think about (same question, different wording) global warming, politics, religion, or… the price of oil? It doesn’t matter what the topic is, the topic doesn’t need to be controversial, it can be as simple as your favorite sports team or your opinion of your boss at work.

We tend to pick a side of an argument and stay on that side. We will look for any bit of information that confirms the view that we have already taken. In the process we get stuck. We get too deep into an ideology and our thoughts become closed to outside influences. We can’t learn because when we come across new facts or ideas that challenge our cherished ideologies, we toss them aside. We lose our objectivity. We cling, we cling to our beloved ideas! …And we get all cabbaged up. We get stuck.

I first began to realize the problems of getting too deep into an ideology when I first started investing my own money. It was just after the financial crises of 2008-2009. The government was bailing everybody out. The economy was in a panic. And the government was printing as much money as they could to calm everyone’s fears. Massive inflation must be right around the corner.

The only way to protect from massive inflation? Precious metals.

The price of gold was shooting higher. The price of silver had some catching up to do to the historical ratio of silver to gold, which is about 16:1. I bought stocks in silver companies thinking they were about to rocket higher. The silver investments I made rocketed… but they went in the wrong direction, they rocketed lower. My thesis was still intact. The economy was still in crises mode, the government was still printing money like crazy. If my thinking was correct, the price of silver should have gone straight up, yet the opposite happened. I lost a large percentage of money.

I got too deep into an ideology and it cost me. I was completely wrong. Because my wrongness affected my bank account and not just a favorite idea, I had to figure out where I screwed up because I couldn’t lose any more money. I began to understand the dangers of having a set opinion.

Then an avalanche beat the life out of me. All my ideas were vaporized. I was crying, just trying to hold on to life. Then I stumbled upon the teachings of Charlie Munger. Munger frequently warns of the dangers of ideology. At the very least ideology will prevent you from learning new ideas. Since I wanted to become a “learning machine”, I had to reexamine all my cherished beliefs.

I began to see that getting to deep into an ideology can affect all manner of important decisions from investing and business decisions, to decisions affecting our health, to our relationships with those we’re closest to. And politics? Politics is all about choosing an opinion and sticking with it no matter what. Politics is the definition of getting too deep into an ideology.

So, how do you NOT get too deep into an ideology? Objectivity maintenance will help. Always think that you could be wrong, not that you always are wrong, but that you could be wrong. Look for disconfirming evidence, the holes in your argument or idea. John Maynard Keynes is credited with saying “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Always examine, and re-examine the facts. Be open to change.

Life is crazy. Change is the only constant. You must be prepared to pivot your thinking.

Ideologies are easy to fall into. If you find yourself deep into an ideology, it’s not the end of the world. No one is immune from ideologies, not you, me, or Charlie Munger. Maintain your objectivity.

Be open to people who have the opposite idea.

2000 years later Epictetus is still teaching

Image

I got run over by an avalanche, I was in shock. I was surprised I didn’t remain dead, buried under the snow. Then the pain overwhelmed me and all I could see is red.

When I woke up in the hospital I was in shock again. My neck was in a brace. I was lying in a bed with an incredible amount of machines and pumps hooked up to me making weird beeping sounds. I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t open my mouth. I saw a tube running out from under my nose and figured that had something to do with my inability to talk. I remembered my jaw being smashed to pieces, not responding to my instructions, flapping in the wind on the side of the mountain the day before. And figured that had something to do with my inability to speak.

I couldn’t cry out for help to a nurse therefore I just laid in the bed confused with my morphine thoughts. I felt terrible. I didn’t know it at the time but I was drowning in self pity.

About a month later I stumbled upon Charlie Munger’s 2007 commencement speech to the USC Law School, while reading in bed with my jaw still wired shut. When Munger said to invert your situation and think like Epictetus and your duty was not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion, I was stunned. It was at that moment I realized self-pity had plagued me my whole life. Munger was telling me to change my thinking. The light was turned on for the first time.

I knew who Charlie Munger was but I’d never heard of Epictetus. I supposed he was a Greek or a Roman god or something. It didn’t matter to me at the time, the only thing that mattered was not to be submerged in self-pity but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion. I’ve read that paragraph hundreds of times. It’s helped me greatly.

I was way wrong about Epictetus. He wasn’t a god or an emperor, he was born a slave in ancient Rome. He was a cripple with a leg that may have been intentionally broken by his master. Though he became educated, he lived a simple life in poverty. Epictetus knew how vicious life could be. He figured the best way to deal with life was to focus on what he could control, the “internals”, which were his thoughts and actions. Epictetus realized he could not control the “externals” or what happens to you in life, this he figured was determined by fate. Since there was nothing he could do about it he did not waste time worrying about it.

Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet, so that when it breaks you will remember what it was like, and not be troubled.

So too in life; if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, never allow your fancy free rein, nor your exuberant spirits to go as far as they like, but hold them back, stop them, just like those who stand behind generals when they ride in triumph, and keep reminding them that they are mortal.

In such fashion do you too remind yourself that the object of your love is mortal; it is not one of your own possessions; it has been given you for the present, not inseparable nor for ever, but like a fig, or a cluster of grapes, at a fixed season of the year, and that if you hanker for it in the winter, you are a fool.

If in this way you long for your son, or your friend, at a time when he is not given to you, rest assured that you are hankering for a fig in wintertime. For as wintertime is to a fig, so is every state of affairs, which arises out of the universe, in relation to the things which are destroyed in accordance with that same state of affairs. – taken from Epictetus II as translated by W. A. Oldfather

I’d always figured that my health and my body were my possessions, and in my control, I grew attached to these things. I never figured they could be taken away. I let my fancy free rein and exuberant spirits go too far. I’d mask my failings and self pity with obnoxiousness and arrogance. I took everything for granted, I excelled at being a jackass. The avalanche hit the reset button on my life. Or it ended one life and started another. It forced me to change the “internals.”

This change of thinking is what has helped me so much. Focus on what you can control, which is only your thoughts and actions. After the avalanche, when I realized I’d been wallowing in self pity my whole life, Charlie Munger and Epictetus were giving me a way out.

Being depressed that I had gone through life broke and lonely or feeling sorry for myself from injuries from the avalanche, these were all my thoughts, the “internals.” These thoughts were all in my control, I could change them if I wanted to.

I couldn’t change the unfairness that had happened to me, injuries from an avalanche that occurred within the ski area boundaries on a slope that had been opened to the public, that was “external.” But I could change the way I thought about the event, not to be submerged in self-pity but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion, the “internals.”

This simple change in thinking was huge, it made life worth living. It was not, and still is not easy for me to think this way. Maybe it is for other people, I don’t know.

For me it takes work, it takes practice, but it is worth the effort.