How to Stay Sane & Smart in 2020

If you’re like me, you’ve found that the current state of the world is bringing up complex issues that are challenging your beliefs and pushing you to evolve your identity. The wildly varying ideas around how to deal with Covid-19, issues of social justice, especially racism and police violence, and the upcoming American presidential election have created a battleground of the mind. Everywhere you look people are angry and screaming for change. It’s not an exaggeration to say that lives and livelihoods are on the line.

These difficult topics are everywhere in social and traditional media, but are also present in charged, real-world conversations with family, friends and, more than I can ever remember, at work as well. While most people are well-intentioned, there are undoubtedly bad agendas being pushed by both well meaning people as well as by bad actors taking advantage of a historical moment. You don’t have to look far to see how dangerously divided we’re becoming.

If you’re unwilling to accept the herd mentality (as you should be) and to go along with the madness of the crowds, you’ll need a framework to help you avoid being converted to bad ideologies by their strong emotional appeals and instead, form your own opinions based on a deeper understanding of the world.

It’s no small task.

Proponents at every point in the spectrum of ideas are astute and come with polished presentations that appeal deeply to our desire for social acceptance. Their arguments are made on a primal, emotional level that can easily override calmer, rational thinking.

Deeply Understand

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

Charlie Munger

On the surface, Munger’s advice may seem obvious but, if you spend a few minutes listening to the news, podcasts, or reading opinion pieces online, you’ll see that it’s almost never followed.

It’s very easy to convince yourself that you already understand both sides or that you’re making a real effort to do so when, in fact, you’re just strengthening your own position by looking for obvious or surface-level weaknesses in views that challenge your own. For the sake of this article, we’ll assume that you’re dealing with a complex topic where there are rational and intelligent people on both sides.

“There is something wrong with everything (by which I mean there are few decisive or knockdown articles or arguments, and furthermore until you have found the major flaws in an argument, you do not understand it).”

Tyler Cowen’s First Law

You’re wasting your time re-enforcing your own pre-held ideas if you haven’t found the smartest person on the other side and spent significant time reading their work, listening to their lectures on YouTube, or otherwise deeply engaging with their ideas.

You’ll know you’re truly understanding when two things happen:

First, you will feel that there’s a possibility that you might become convinced by an idea you didn’t hold before. By definition, it will be an uncomfortable feeling. If you inspect it closer, you’ll find that it’s rooted in the threat of a mini-ego-dissolution. This is because you’ve made yourself vulnerable to persuasion. Being persuaded away from a strongly held belief threatens your status quo, which is the thing your ego is there to protect. This is the sign of true open-mindedness. It’s not an easy path, and it doesn’t come without risk, but if you really want to understand, it is the way.

Second, you will know you’ve understood when you no longer feel defensive when discussing an idea with someone who doesn’t share your views. Defensiveness arises when we sense a threat to our identity. If you’ve followed Munger’s advice above, you shouldn’t feel that threat anymore. You’ll have already done the hard work.

The loss of defensiveness is not to be confused with complacency. Strong opinions can, and should, cause us to feel passion that leads us to making change in our lives as well as giving us a desire to convince others to do the same. But right action doesn’t arise from defensiveness, it arises from wisdom.

A Note on Dangerous Ideas

There are, of course, certain ideas that are simply not worth understanding deeply, even given the points I just made above. Extremely charismatic people can, and often do, convince well intentioned truth-seekers of dangerous or harmful ideas. Use your judgement. The world is complex and we can’t hope to understand it without taking some risk, but discernment is still called for.

Don’t Understand

All that having been said, in order to stay sane, as my favorite Stoic Marcus Aurelius said:

“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and to not let it upset our state of mind—for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.

Meditations 6.52

Following the advice in the first part of this article is exhausting and time-consuming. So, unless it’s something that is within your circle of influence, that affects your every day life, or something you’re genuinely interested in, it’s probably not worth taking the time and effort to form an opinion about it.

It’s okay not to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t know yet, let me get back to you.” In fact, usually it’s better.


The world is changing fast. Bad ideas masquerading as good ones abound. In many cases, complacency is no longer an option. Even though sometimes it feels like you’re being left behind by the rapid changes around you, it’s worth taking the time to form good, strong opinions and, unless you’ve really felt that sense of threat to your ego when coming to an opinion, you probably still have work to do. When it’s necessary, do the work When it’s not, follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice–don’t get caught in the waves that would otherwise harmlessly pass you by.


Do stuff you won’t regret

A common theme that hospice workers write about is the regrets that dying people have in the final days of their lives. The point of these articles is to encourage people with time left to go out and do things while they still can to avoid having similar regrets.

What I want to focus on this year is similar to preparing to avoid deathbed regrets, but not quite the same. I want to figure out why I don’t do things that I know that I’d enjoy or, at least not regret, but that I still don’t do. Then, I if there’s no good reason not to do it, I want to do it.

For example, I’d almost certainly love scuba diving. I’d definitely benefit from doing yoga. If I got an online or real life French teacher, I’d improve much faster. If I started taking my kids to the rock climbing gym it’d almost certainly lead to lots of good times with them. There are several trips that I could plan that I haven’t.

Some people seem to get an idea for something, realize that they’d like it, then they do the logical thing and do it. Others, like me, sometimes stop short before actually taking the next step despite there being no good reason not to.

When I think about why I don’t do things I wouldn’t regret, it seems to come down to one or more of the following reasons:

  • Time. It’s the most limited resource.
  • Money. It’s is famously difficult to get and once you’ve spent it all, you have to spend time trying to get more of it.
  • Health. Some things are risky to do.
  • Energy. It’s also a limited resource and it’s a tough one to manage and predict.
  • Mood & optimism. If I can’t imagine my future state of enjoyment vividly enough to convince myself it will be real, I likely won’t be motivated enough to do the thing.
  • Comfort. It’s easy to get used to being comfortable and hard to get up the momentum to sacrifice comfort for some other good.
  • Embarrassment or humiliation. We’re social creatures and if there’s even a slight chance of looking bad in front of others, it can be a huge deterrent.
  • Fear of letting someone down. Sometimes I worry that someone I love will be hurt or disappointed by my choice. This fear can be something as simple as concern about leaving my family alone for a few days for a trip to worrying that someone with a different political/religious/moral view will be hurt if they find out I’m involved with something they disagree with. Obviously if I really would be hurting a loved one, I should take this thought seriously, but often it seems that the fear is irrational.
  • Fear of failure. Sometimes I fear failure just because it’s failure, other times it’s the fear that yet another failure will in some way break my spirit and I won’t want to try new things again.
  • Uncertainty. There is sometimes an aspect of the thing that I don’t know enough about and, rather than gathering more information or figuring out what I’m missing, I let the uncertainty be a mental blocker.

So, my plan for 2020 is to be more intentional about the things that I do and don’t do. If I have an idea of something I’d like to do, I’ll go down the list, try to figure out what it is that’s stopping me from doing the thing, and if there’s no rational reason not to do it, I’ll take action.


An Aspirational List on How to Live

This is an aspirational list of things I’d like to do or be but am not now. It’s heavily inspired by Derek Sivers and his idea of “directives,” short statements on how to live. I wrote this saying “I am” rather than “I’d like to be,”  so that by telling myself I’m this way, I’ll begin to act the part.

  • I associate with people I admire. The people in my life expand my horizons and open the world to me.
  • Love is the most important part of my life. My primary focus is on relationships.
  • I find ways to serve people and improve the world. I am generous with my time and money.
  • I have a bias for action. When I recognize something is good, I act on it immediately, or as soon as possible.
  • I embrace the strenuous life. I welcome challenges to my mental and physical endurance.
  • I take smart risks. If there’s a reasonable advantage, a smart angle or black swan-like ratio, I take the risk.
  • I project strength and warmth. I am someone people trust, follow, and want to be around.
  • Mastery is my way of life. I have a beginners mind that seeks perfection in everything I do.
  • I use writing, reading, storytelling, music, and art to understand and connect with humanity.
  • I am a spiritual person. I take time to meditate, reflect, feel gratitude, and to heal myself and others.
  • I am completely honest.
  • Now is the time that matters most to me. Life is short and precious so I seize the moment.
  • I bring solutions, not problems.

Chiffon Bridesmaid Dresses uk

books etc.

Musings on The Amazon Book Store

I recently visited the Amazon book store, currently the only one in existence. I came away with mixed feelings. The best part is that the prices are the same in the store as online. Other than that though, there’s not much good to say about it. It’s small, the shelves are much too close together making the entire store feel uncomfortably crowded. The worst part is that it’s stocked only with the best selling and highest rated books on Amazon. This results in a very shallow selection picked purely by popularity. Your chances of discovering a forgotten treasure are next to nothing. We left and went from there to Third Place Books. It was a breath of fresh air. As nice is it is to pay less, I’ll stick bookstores like Third Place or El Ateneo when I’m shopping IRL.


My experience with Lasik eye surgery

This post is probably only useful if you’re considering getting your eyes LASIK’ed, like I had been thinking about for quite awhile. I finally had it done yesterday, this is my experience.

I went in last Saturday for a 2 hour appointment consisting of a a preliminary exam to see if I’d be a good candidate then a longer, fully-dilated eye exam to determine my prescription and the type of surgery I’d need (LASIK or PRK).  The result was that I was a candidate for Lasik and didn’t need PRK which, as I understand, has a longer recovery time and is an altogether different procedure. After reading scary 6 page list of things that could possibly go wrong, I signed the form and scheduled the surgery to be done the next Saturday.

Marcus before LASIK
Before LASIK

The surgery itself was pretty straightforward. I got there Saturday morning at 8:30 and was out by 10:00. First I met with a doctor who inserted small plugs into my tear ducts presumably to keep my eyes from tearing up too much during the surgery. They weren’t removed at the end of the surgery, I was told they dissolve in a month which, to me, was the most disturbing part of the whole ordeal. A few minutes later I was taken to the surgery room, reclined on a table and given a teddy bear and a blanket to “give your hands something to do.” Nice.

The surgeon came in and my eyes were numbed with drops that worked very quickly – they dropped them in and pressed my eye with an instrument–I couldn’t feel it at all. Then they pressed down pretty hard on the first eye with something that felt like it had maybe the diameter of a penny. They pressed hard enough to completely dim my vision for about 5 seconds. I definitely felt this, but it didn’t really hurt, just felt like an unhealthy amount of pressure on the eye. As soon as my vision was restored (or maybe while it was still dim, I’m not sure) they sliced my cornea to make a flap, I was a little nervous about that part, but mostly just curious, it didn’t hurt at all. I could see it being pushed back and my vision immediately became really, really blurry for a few seconds. My thoughts were “cool, I’ll never see like this again!” A nurse began counting down the seconds as soon as the flap was made so I assume it can’t be safely pushed back for too long. Soon afterwards there was a series of maybe 7-10 clicks and with each one my vision noticably improved. It was pretty amazing. Once the clicks (which were made by the laser) stopped, the flap was pushed back over and I could see clearly from the first eye. They repeated it with the second eye, all of this totaling maybe 5 or 10 minutes and I was done.

Ten minutes later I was in the car and on the way home.

I was told to sleep for 6 hours afterwards, and the valium they gave me (just one) before the surgery was supposed to help with that. That worked great for about an hour, then the pain began. For the next 2 1/2 or 3 hours my eyes hurt bad. Sleep was about the last thing I felt like doing, opening my eyes was difficult and painful and while I wasn’t crying (of course!) there were plenty of tears. It felt like someone was poking me in the eyes repeatedly. I got pretty worried at this point that something had gone wrong. In retrospect, I think that pain is normal, though they conveinently failed to mention this and acted like I’d sleep for 6 peaceful hours. Maybe I’m immune to valium, I never felt it kick, I don’t know. After what felt like forever, I was finally able to sleep, with a pair of protective goggles taped to my head to keep me from inadvertently rubbing my eyes. I slept for 2 hours and woke up with my eyes feeling fine and super hungry. I could see though! Perfectly!

Today (one day afterwards) it feels like I have in contacts that are maybe a day or two overdue for a change. I ocassionally notice it but I can see perfectly. I went into for a checkup this morning and they pronounced my vision to be 20/15.

The final cost at LasikPlus was (since all the advertising is so misleading and it’s hard to find the information elsewhere) $3500 for both eyes. There was also a $3000 procedure available which wasn’t “custom.” I was told that the custom procedure was recommended if your eye has more aberrations as it is supposed to map the irregularities and give you finer tuned vision. Whether this is mostly marketing hype or it really makes a difference, I’m not sure, but in the end I decided to pay the extra $500 since they’re my eyes and I love my eyes 🙂 Was it all worth it? Definitely. If LASIK isn’t a miracle of science, I don’t know what is.

I highly recommed the Wikipedia article on LASIK if you’re interested in a much more detailed description of the process and want to have some of your doubts dispelled.

Entertainment etc.

Six Best Albums of 2006

Best Music Of 2006

For your listening enjoyment, the six albums that I enjoyed most from 2006. I’m not even going to try to put commentary on them since that’s just not my forté.

1. Love and Other Planets – Adem
2. La Revancha del Tango – Gotan Project. This is actually from 2003 but I didn’t discover it until last year. It’s definitely not in the same genre as the rest of the music on the list, but it’s good stuff.
3. World Waits – Jeremy Enigk
4. Veneer – José Gonzalez
5. Under the Iron Sea – Keane
6. Decended Like Vultures – Rogue Wave

You can listen to a Pandora station with a some of these artists (as well as a couple others) here. Finally, a 7th album for 2006 is The Format – Dog Problems.

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Business etc.

US Airways – How Not to Run a Business

US Airways

We recently flew US Airways for our holiday travels. I was unimpressed and thought I’d note a few of their shortcomings as examples of how not to run a business:

1. Not enough information. It was very rare to get any information on where we were in the flight, how far delayed we were, why there was a delay or any other information. I’ve flown on other airlines where they had a screen showing exactly where you were on a map of the world, with US Airways, we were in the dark.

2. Inconsistent. On the way to our destination they served pretzels and had a good drink selection on both flights. Both flights also had grouchy stewardesses. On the way home all the stewardesses were great but both the 5 hour flight and the 1 hour flight they didn’t serve even a light snack and there were only about 4 drinks available.

3. Uncomfortable. The airports didn’t have nearly enough seating for the amount of people on the flights–people ended up sitting on the floor and at other terminals. Once on the planes, the seats were much too close together, the fabric on the seats was old and obviously worn and there weren’t enough pillows or blankets for the passengers. The movies were bottom of the barrel as well.

4. Unconcerned. Two of our four bags were lost for more than 36 hours and finding out anything was almost impossible. From the moment they were lost we were constantly given the “I don’t have any information, try calling…” line. We had to make 2 trips back to the airport and about a dozen calls before we finally resolved the issue. No one we talked to was even remotely concerned about the situation.

These are only a few other examples from this flight. I could definitely add to this list.

It’s amazing that with airlines like Virgin, JetBlue and Southwest trying so hard to gain customers by taking care of them and making them comfortable that US Airways still hasn’t seen the light. I think this is a perfect example of a business that hasn’t caught up with the times and one that will suffer because of it.

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Getting Cringe Tasks Done

cringe chart png
Merlin Mann at 43Folders posted an article on how to get those persistent tasks that never disappear from your todo lists done and off your mind. Being guilty myself of having many such tasks, I decided to take his advice to heart. To help me remember to go through and get one “cringe” item off my list each day, I created a visual chart of the process. You can download a PDF version of the chart here.


Alternating Current, First Hand.

Jenny and Mark in Boston
I’m not much of a scientist, but I sometimes (like I imagine everyone does) I think about how amazing electricity is. One of the things that has always seemed strange to me is how the wall power is A/C and power from batteries is D/C. Alternating current vs. direct current. Yesterday I got to experience A/C first hand. It’s been a long time since I’ve been shocked–I remember pretty clearly the times I’ve felt the power of electricity, notably in elementary school where we all held hands and felt a little zap flow through the group. Later, and more memorably, at some type of fair or event at the Riverwalk in Jacksonville, Florida. There was a demonstration of the power of electricity that required holding two bars as the power was slowly turned up until you couldn’t take it any longer. That was enough for me to realize that I didn’t like being shocked. At all.

Yesterday that all came flooding back as I tried hooking up our new stove. The plastic cover where the giant three pronged stove plug is inserted came off. I noticed it had a bunch of wood dust from where I had to saw the counter to fit the stove in–we’re upgrading from an extremely old drop in stove to a regular, slide in stove. In all my wisdom, I decided that I had better clean the dust out, just to be safe. It never occurred to me to remove the fuse for circuit that powers the kitchen. Once it finally did, I had already experienced an alternating current first hand. It was as if time slowed down for that brief second. I almost saw, extracorporeally, my self jumping back and yelping like a kicked dog as I felt the strong pulses of energy flowing from my fingertips through my entire body.

The feeling is so foreign, so unnatural that nothing I can relate to compares to it. It’s as if you’re being shake violently, except you’re not moving, as if every muscle in your body was tensing and relaxing involuntarily. I can’t stand the feeling. I’ve talked to electricians who tell stories of being shocked and don’t seem to think much of it. For me, it’s on of the most repulsive things that can happen. It’s been years since it happened last, and now after a reminder of what it feels like again fresh in my memory, I hope it will be years, or never, until the next time.


Getting Things Done, One Thing at a Time

La Portada - Picture courtesy Seth DivineyOver the last few months, I’ve discovered several habits that have made me more effective, productive and happy. This is what I’ve found works best:

Write everything down. If I think of (or am assigned) something to do, I immediately get it out of my head and on paper. I break large tasks down into projects and list the next actionable item for that project. Maintaining a list of everything I need to do (no matter how small or large) keeps my mind clear and open to new ideas and allows me to concentrate on the task at hand without my mind nagging me about something else I should be doing instead. I maintain my lists in Tracks and OmniOutliner.

Take notes. I keep short notes on tricks, tips and any information that is useful, but that I might need to recall later. To do this, I use Notational Velocity on the Mac or ScrapBook on the PC. I chose these programs because they are lightweight, easily searchable and unobtrusive. I write down everything that I find useful and might need to recall in the future. For project based information I use a wiki–either PmWiki or Instiki. When I’m not around a computer, or want to be more creative and free with my ideas, I use a pocket sized Moleskine notebook and a Pilot Precise pen that I almost always carry with me.

Stay organized. I keep everything in a folder of its own–both on the computer as well as paper. For paper, I use one manilla file folder per hanging folder, the manilla file clearly labeled and alphabetized. On the computer I use distinct folders for related files, with all of the folders centrally organized in my home folder. Filing is fun. The only thing I keep on my physical desktop is my computer, pens and the materials I’m using to work at that very moment. The only icons that are on my computer desktop are for those files that I’m working on immediately (not sometime that day or week–at that instant) and those that the operating system won’t let me move (the recycle bin or hard disk icons for example). My email inbox is cleared–messages are acted upon as I receive them or soon afterwards, they are then added to a todo list and filed immediately. I have a physical inbox on my desk where things I need to act upon are placed until I can either take care of them or file them (and add an item to my todo list if necessary) for later use or reference.

Stay focused. I only work on one task at a time. I close browser windows, the feed reader, email client, instant messenger, I turn off the TV, phone and radio. Anything that could distract me or break my concentration that can be turned off is turned off while I’m working on a something important. I’ve found by reflecting on my life that the things I’m most proud of were done in an environment where I could concentrate on them completely.

Have a plan. I have a flexible daily schedule that reflects my short and long term goals. Time is alloted based on what I feel is important for bringing me closer to accomplishing my goals. I know what direction I want to go in and try to take steps each day that will get me closer to it. I get rid of excess where possible and try to minimize wasted time. Consistent positive reinforcement, at least once a day, is essential to staying motivated. I listen to inspirational, instructional and motivational books on tape in the car as well as surrounding myself with people, quotes, books and art that will inspire me to constantly seek to improve.

These ideas come from many places–discussions I’ve had with friends, things I’ve learned by trial and error, things my role models do, books I’ve read (notably Allen’s Getting Things Done) and advice from people I trust. I’ve found that when I am most diligent about implementing them my life goes much better–I’m more productive, happier and have a better relationship with my wife and family and a sense of fulfillment with myself. Hopefully after reading this you’ve found ideas that you can use to improve your life as well.