Have you ever noticed that adversity is often a good thing when spoken about in the past tense? I wrote a story a long time ago about how I got in way over my head exploring a cave in Austin. Being stuck in that cave was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do. When we reached the end of the cave after eight hours, our muscles were failing, we were out of water and food, and could barely move. And we had another eight hours to get back out. I assumed I'd make it back out-- I just couldn't imagine how.
From the bowels of the earth, it didn't feel glorious. I was in pain and mentally and physically exhausted. I didn't want to be there and would have done anything to magically be whisked back to the surface. But as soon as I got out, I was very glad that I had done it. Not just glad to be out, but glad that I was there in the first place, and glad that it was difficult. Triumph over adversity is intrinsically appealing. Without adversity, triumph doesn't really exist.
When you look at it critically, adversity is actually a good thing to have. It's a method to bring out your best. At the end of that cave, I remember thinking that I didn't have the strength to make it back to the mouth of the cave. But I did have that strength. Adversity gave me no choice but to find it. Even today, nearly ten years later, I draw upon that memory to remind myself that I'm capable of pushing myself farther than I know.
Things happen in our lives that we recognize as being good. When that happens, nothing is required on our part to benefit. Something happened, it was good, end of story. Bad things are different, though. A bad thing happens, and then it's up to us. We can use that adversity as an opportunity for triumph, or we can be passive and allow ourselves to be run over by it.
Before going to Romania, I decided I'd try to learn a bit of Romanian. By almost any measure it's sort of a pointless language to learn, but I figured I'd get a kick out of pretending to my I didn't speak any for a couple days, and then all of a sudden surprising my friends by speaking it.
My friend Brian did me a huge favor by going to the library, checking out the Pimsleur Romanian I series, ripping it, and then sending me the MP3s. After finishing the first lesson, I was struck by just how much I enjoyed doing it. I've used Pimsleur tapes to learn Chinese, Japanese, and French (which I never finished and consequently don't remember), but it had been six years since I'd started one.
The returns on learning the first bit of a language are huge. While I don't have nearly enough vocabulary to have an actual conversation in Romanian, doing one half-hour tape every day for a month left me with enough to be able to ask directions, order things at a restaurant, exchange pleasantries with strangers, and buy things. I think I successfully made a joke in Romanian, too.
So after all that, I decided that I'm just going to learn every language. Pimsleur has a list of over fifty that they support. I'm going to start with the ones I'm most interested in that have ninety tapes instead of the thirty that they had for Romanian. I did the full ninety in Japanese, and it got me to the point that I could have actual, if a bit kludgy, conversations.
Two months ago I was on a cruise ship making its way through the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic. My friend Brian and I sat down to dinner and were surprised when we were joined by two girls our age, Lucia and Andreea. Cruises aren't exactly known for hosting people under forty, let alone pretty Romanian girls.
Fast forward two weeks and we say our goodbyes without remembering to exchange contact information. There's a dreamlike atmosphere aboard a cruise ship that makes you forget about practical things like that.
I visit a friend for a few hours in Miami, and then he drops me off at the airport. I've got about ten minutes to kill before boarding, so I fire up my web browser and start digging through sites I'd been neglecting on the ship. TheFlightDeal is one of them, and there's a huge headline about an obscure European booking site charging about half what it should for all flights between the US and Europe.
I hate to see a good deal go to waste, and Romania is on the mind. There are questions that could be asked, like: will I be able to get in touch with the girls before I get there? Is Bucharest miserable in the winter? Will they even be in town? Will they want a visitor they've only known for a couple weeks?
When offering advice, I try really hard to actually give advice that's suited for the person I'm giving it to. I make an extra effort to do this, because I know that I have a tendency to think that my way is the best way for everyone, and to just advocate my way of doing things. But that effort to tailor advice goes out the window when I'm giving suggestions on where to travel to. My answer is almost always Japan.
I was thinking about this a couple days ago, as I found myself recommending Japan for the billionth time, and I realized that there are some interesting properties of Japan that make it a really ideal place to travel to, especially for people who want something more than a typical vacation, but don't know where to go.
1. It's Extraordinarily Interesting
Of all the places I've been, Japan is one of the most interesting. What makes Japan so interesting is that it's very different from anywhere else, mostly because it's so resistant to direct outside influence. If some external trend or business makes it to Japan, it doesn't arrive unscathed; it's first transformed into a thoroughly Japanese experience.
In 2009, probably within the first couple months of its existence, I downloaded the Bitcoin client and began mining bitcoins. Back then it was really easy-- you could get hundreds of Bitcoins per week for free, but they weren't worth anything. Not wanting to waste my time, I deleted the Bitcoin client, and any bitcoins I had mined went along with it.
Last March I thought about Bitcoins again and decided to check up on them. As I read about the progress that had taken place in the preceding years and learned more about the technical aspects of Bitcoin, I was blown away. This is going to change the world, I thought.
So I bought a few when they were around $30 a coin, a few more at $80, and then again at $110. I'm not a Bitcoin millionaire or anything awesome like that, but percentage-wise, it's the best return I've ever gotten on anything. In case you don't fanatically check the price like I do, it's at around $825 per coin as I write this.
I'm going to write the rest of this blog post to explain why I think it's important that you buy some Bitcoins, but take it all with a grain of salt. I do know a fair amount about Bitcoin, but I don't know much about investing or, more importantly, your financial situation.
A lot of life is about managing focus, the battle between breadth and depth. If we take every opportunity that comes our way, we're left with too little time and energy to make a meaningful impact on any of those opportunities, but if we put all of our eggs in one basket, we may be exposing ourselves to too much variance.
Another example of this balance is in making decisions. With too many options on the table, we can paralyze ourselves with choice. With too few options under active consideration, we may not even be considering our best ones. Too often, this is our problem.
Frequently you'll see someone deliberating as if he has only two choices. Go to this school, or go to that school. Stay at the job or quit the job. Move back home or stay in an expensive city. Vote republican or democrat.
For small decisions, considering just a few options is likely to be the best choice. You like chicken and you like beef, so you choose one from the menu rather than giving each menu item its own moment of silent contemplation. And even for big decisions, ending up with two choices to decide between makes a lot of sense. The problem is when big decisions start with only a few choices.
I was walking through the mall a couple days ago. My path took me past a bunch of stores and kiosks, including the Nike Store. I walked past it and looked at their window display. They had a really nicely photographed poster and some cool looking shoes in a bunch of different colors. The store was beautiful and looked like a fun place to be. At the same time, their shoes aren't particularly great, they aren't actually innovative, and they're made of cheap materials. There are many shoe companies that are way lower quality than Nike, but I don't know if there are any with such a disparity between their presentation and the actual product.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this isn't just nike or most of the clothes in the mall-- it's how our culture works now. Back in the day, if you wanted a pair of shoes you'd go to a cobbler. He would design a pair for you, or use one of his existing designs, pick out some nice leather, and make you a pair of shoes. His design work, his execution, and his materials could all be leveraged about equally, so I'd guess that you'd tend to have either poorly designed shoes that are poorly executed and made of poor materials, or well designed shoes that were well executed and used good materials.
These days, things have changed. Design can be leveraged almost infinitely, which has changed the whole equation. Mass manufacturing ensures decent execution, but supplying top quality materials is difficult. A cobbler who makes a hundred pairs of shoes a year can take the time to pick out the best hides to get the best leather. That doesn't scale to making thousands of shoes a day, so material quality drops. Execution has become more consistent, but the benefits of cutting corners is magnified. Saving a penny on making a pair of shoes didn't matter to the cobblers, but it matters to Nike.
So these days, most of what people buy is well designed, decently and consistently executed, and uses relatively poor quality materials. In the mall I walked past a kiosk of phone cases. There were some that were blinged out. Pretty good design in that they fit perfectly on the phone the're meant for, the rows of fake diamonds are all uniform, etc.. Each one looks the same and is okay quality. But the materials are crap-- cheap plastic painted to look like metal covered in lackluster plastic "gems".
One of the first presents I remember getting from my parents was a camera. I was about seven years old, and from the prints I still have, it seems that most of my photos were of my guineau pig, Muffin. There was a roll of film from my second grade class, and then there was a roll of film I took during a family gathering in the backyard. My dad was building a deck at the time, so amongst the photos of people eating food in the backyard, there are also a couple photos of him getting my uncle to help him with parts of the deck.
At the time, the fact that my father was building a giant deck didn't seem like a big deal. Just like making sandwiches or taking the kids to the museum, deck building was just one of those things that dads do sometimes. Looking back now, and doing the math, I realize that my father was around my current age when he built that deck. He had some kids by now, was married, had bought a house, and was now building a deck.
It occurs to me now that he probably had no clue about any of these things. What does a twenty five year old really know about marriage? Having kids is equal parts exciting and terrifying to me, and I'm five years older than my parents were when they had me. My father's father built things when he needed them, so I guess he taught my dad some things, but I also know that the giant deck in my photos was the first deck he'd ever built. How much did he know about deck building?
As I grew older and became more aware of what was going on around me, I realized that a lot of the time when my dad built something, he had no idea what he was doing. I don't mean that as an insult at all, though. Everything he built always came out great, and eventually, sick of an office job, he bulit things for other people as a profession. In fact, of all the great things I got from my dad, the willingness to tackle something without really knowing how to do it might be the most valuable.
I'm always amazed at just how much happens in a year. At the end of each year, grateful for a gimme topic to write about, I sit down to write this post. And each time my first thought is, "Yeah, but not that much happened this year." Then I go through my archive for the year and look at the titles of my posts, and I realize that the previous year's farewell post seems to have been forever ago, and that tons has happened since then.
Some quick highlights of the year:
1. I bought an island with nine great friends. I've already written about this ad naseum, but it's one of those ridiculous life goals that you hope might actually come true, worry that it might be too farfetched, and then is every bit as good as you had hoped when realized. I'm really grateful to all of the people bought in and trusted me to make it happen, and for the sellers who were great to work with. This upcoming year is going to be an exciting one for the island.
2. We made some huge progress on Sett. We opened it up to the public and now have over 4500 blogs hosted, growing at a steady 10% per week. We're still in our infancy, but I'm really proud of the platform we've built, and I'm humbled every day by the great blog posts people host with us. Even if your only interaction with Sett has been reading my blog, you've been a part of the process, and I'm grateful for that.
I think that we all know what works and what doesn't work, but in order to avoid doing the work, we come up with fake stories about what works. How do you make progress? You stick with it.
There are other things that matter, of course, but the big one is whether or not you stick with it. I read a blog post once where a trainer was talking about the two types of people that go to the gym. There are the types that go inconsistently, constantly trying to figure out a better way to train, and then there are the guys who just show up and keep trying to increase the weight they move.
Technique and strategy matter, of course, but not as much as sticking to it. After all, sticking to it will refine your technique. You learn what works and what doesn't, and you course correct. Starting with the best possible technique won't get you to persist, but persisting will get you to good technique. That's why it's the most important thing.
One of my favorite gems online is this forum thread. Jonathan Hardesty posted in 2002, saying that he would draw one sketch a day and post it online. He stuck with it for eight years. At first his drawings were terrible and inconsistent. Some would look halfway decent, but others were disasters. He drew whatever he felt like, almost at random. No person would look at his early work and say, "This guy has artistic talent".