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Elite Problem-Solving

(Chris Pine, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh!) Ryan, an analyst, uses his savvy to solve CIA-level geopolitical problems.

Good evening and welcome back to the blog. In a previous post I touched on and defined problem solving, how I see it. Today, we’re taking it up a notch.

As a brief refresher, I defined “problem solving” very specifically – dealing with ambiguous situations in which you don’t even know how you’d go about finding the answer.

I suggested viewing “problem solving” as its own meta-skill that can be improved.

Now, we’re going to practice improving it. (And actually enjoying solving problems.)

Why? Because various problems (or “challenges”), big or small – are bound to come up in life, and rather than wish they didn’t exist, I suggest aiming for being the type of person who can handle them with ease.

(That’s a wish that’s actually within your sphere of control, because it’s about you and how you respond.)

Instead of having a problem-free life, I want you to become an elite-level problem solver.

That’s a crucial distinction. At the end of the day, most of us don’t truly want a totally problem free life, where everything is delivered, solved, blended, and fed to us – like the lifestyles of the characters in Wall-E.

(Disney Pixar, Wall-E. Directed by Andrew Stanton.) A life where every problem is solved for you, just sit back and consume!

Instead, we want to be the type of people who can handle whatever comes up (like Ethan Hunt from Mission Impossible, or Jack Ryan or James Bond. One gets the sense that they could handle – or figure out how to handle – pretty much anything, right?)

(Tom Cruise, Mission Impossible III – one of the better Mission Impossible movies, in my opinion, and directed by J.J. Abrams!) Ethan Hunt solves “impossible” problems and so can you!

Even if you don’t actually want to work for the CIA or MI6 and fight bad guys like these fictional characters, wouldn’t you at least like to have their problem-solving acumen? Yeah.

So how do you get there?

There are some tips and tricks (“best practices,” if you will) for problem-solving, that are quite useful to keep in mind when tackling difficult, ambiguous situations.

I’ll summarize them neatly at the end of this post (but I already touched on most of them here, so I’ll be brief).

However, I’ve come to believe that truly becoming an elite-level problem solver ultimately boils down to one key, major shift in mindset.

I believe this one shift in mindset/ piece of advice – when followed diligently – has powerful recursive, compounding effects.

Here it is:

Practice using all problems as training grounds to enjoy problems.

Get that? Practice using all problems you face – every little challenge – as opportunities to ENJOY the process of facing and solving problems.

In other words, associate pleasure with the challenge of problem-solving itself, and use each new problem as an opportunity to reinforce that association.

(I hear this concept has a some overlap with Stoic philosophy, not that I’ve looked much into it. Anyway, I digress…)

If you actually ENJOY facing and solving ambiguous problems, you will do it more often, more effectively, and with a better attitude, and that will ultimately cause you to become better at it.

Yes, I get it – “problems” don’t initially present as “fun.” And most people, at first, don’t like the feeling of struggling with something they don’t have any answers for.

But by viewing problems as opportunities to become like _________* (*insert favorite fictional problem-solver here, such as Batman); by viewing problems as opportunities to strengthen your association between enjoyment and challenge, you’re setting yourself on a path to actually take some pleasure in the process, and become an elite problem-solver yourself.

And that may be worth your while.

Alright, quick sum-up:

As stated here, at the core of most every challenge lies “problem solving,” which is its own meta-skill that can be improved.

But at the core of improving problem solving lies linking enjoyment to the process itself, and using challenges as opportunities to strengthen that link.

(And a little inspiration from looking to movie characters can help with this association.)

Excellent.

Last, if you’re interested, I did promise a very quick summary of tips and tricks (or “best practices”/ “qualities to remember”) while solving difficult, ambiguous problems.

I’ve organized it into a nifty mnemonic, SPAR:

S Self-assurance in the face of ambiguity. Practice having self-assurance even when you don’t know what to do. This is one of the few places where the phrase “fake it till you make it” is actually quite helpful – at least try to act self-assured, because it’ll eventually help you feel self-assured when dealing with stressful ambiguity (a phenomenon I somewhat touch on when I discuss The As If Principle here).

P Pure – focus PURELY within your sphere of control going forward – don’t focus outside your sphere of control by casting blame or bemoaning what’s already happened; it’s wasted effort. Be warned, these behaviors are oddly quite tempting, so people tend to indulge in them a lot. Instead JUST focus purely on solving the problem.

A – Attitude, emotions, while in the thick of it. Practice actually enjoying the process, as we’ve discussed throughout this article. Eventually, you may find yourself with a calm smile and sense of humor even in the midst of “impossibly stressful” challenge.

R Risk tolerance. Practice gently expanding your risk tolerance over time, particularly by facing gradually increasing perceived risks that don’t actually pose a significant real risk (like public speaking, or making friends with someone new).

Congratulations – you’re now on the path to becoming an elite problem solver.

And next time you face some difficult challenge – say, missing your first of multiple connecting flights and having your bags get lost – you’ll think: “good.”

Good problem-solving practice.

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“Hygge” – The Danish Word for that Cozy Feeling

Have you heard about it yet?

“Hygge”?

It’s a Danish word to capture a certain special feeling – one that we don’t really have a good word for in English.

But we’re starting to catch on here and the States – and in the rest of the world – because boy is it nice.

For those not yet in the know, “hygge” is a word that captures a special, certain cozy feeling you may get, for example, when sitting by a fireplace or candles, with some tea or a hot drink, with loved ones or good friends around, just relaxing – perhaps reading a book.

(Not cozy enough an example for you?)

Imagine being in a cozy cabin, out in the wilderness, with some close friends – the forest outside is beautiful but cold and wet, yet you’re safe and warm, with people you like, protected from the outside world. That’s hygge.

Or imagine it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas and you’ve just eaten a big meal, and now you’re relaxing afterward with your favorite relatives or friends, sipping coffee, just feeling content, with soft warm lights around. That’s hygge.

The technical definition of the term – at least according to the most reliable source I can think of, Wikipedia, is – “coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment.” That’s pretty good – a lot better than the totally inaccurate google translation (which is “fun”).

But I’d suggest it’s only in thinking about times in your own life that you’ve personally really felt cozy and content – or imaging situations where you really would – when you truly understand the term. So see if right now, you can think of a cozy moment from your past, and remember how it felt. Or imagine your own special, ideal safe haven, and see how that feels. Take a moment.

Good:) I think you get it.

Now, I’ve read one entire book about the subject (Matt Weiking’s Little Book of Hygge), so I’m pretty much an expert by now…

But after spending some time reading about it, one thing really strikes me above all else:

How important and prioritized hygge is in Danish culture.

The entire culture – down to the government structure itself, a welfare state, with strong safety nets, free healthcare, generous family leave and unemployment – seems to prioritize hygge above all else.

While in America we’re focusing on personal accomplishment, GDP, career growth, money, buying things – which all sounds pretty nice, too, at least on the face of it – Danes seem to have universally agreed that there’s something more important.

That difference in priorities – that a whole country seems to agree on – is what really fascinates me.

And I think that’s where you can make the biggest difference in your own life as well. Not so much in the little tricks for creating hygge (which I will certainly give you in a moment!), but in a fundamental shift in priorities.

Because focusing on hygge really does seem to make people happier.

Danes are consistently some of the very happiest rated people in the WORLD. And while it’s hard to prove specific causal relationships, it certainly appears as though the fundamental priorities and attitudes of Danish people and government, including a healthy respect for hygge, may be a big contributing factor.

Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear that people in a certain place are really happy, I think “whoa, I gotta learn from that!”

I find it genuinely thrilling. I get intensely curious. It’s exciting. It makes me want to deconstruct what they’re doing, and do whatever’s within my sphere of control to see if I can incorporate any of it into my own life.

With that in mind, here are some things you can try, right now, to have more hygge in your life:

#1!!! PRIORITIZE hygge. I don’t know what is, but you’re consciously or subconsciously prioritizing something in your life right now. You have some root command in your operating system. It may be pursuit of money, prestige, popularity, good grades, career advancement, or even video game success. But what I’d suggest is experiment with de-prioritizing whatever that is, and shifting gears towards focusing on coziness and togetherness, and just see how it goes.

I think that’s the most important thing. But here are some more hygge tips, tricks, and ideas:

  • Spend time with people you care about; make time for loving relationships. Oxytocin, the love hormone that I touch upon within this article, is an enormous factor in hygge. While cozy hygge feelings can be achieved alone, togetherness (i.e, tribe, relationships) is so, sooo important to hygge. It really makes all the difference. Prioritize your relationships and spend time in small groups with people you really enjoy. (Also, most of the tips below can be done alongside others, to really make them hygge.)

  • Take time to just relax, enjoy, be “lazy,” even if it doesn’t accomplish anything. Hygge isn’t about success, money, accomplishment – it’s about enjoying the now.

  • Treat yourself. Chocolate, baked goods, a movie, a bath, whatever you personally consider to be a treat – indulge.

  • Spend time in nature.

  • Light a candle; maybe take a candle-lit shower.

  • Have a hot cocoa with whipped cream, or coffee, or tea, and – as Matt Weiking says – “give it the attention it deserves.”

  • Snuggle up with a good book, and plenty of blankets and cushions. A cozy reading hour with friends is very hygge.

  • Vote for more Danish-like hygge-prioriziting policies.

  • Incorporate warm, cozy 2700k color temperature lights in your life.

  • Last but not least, spend time by a crackling fire. (Again, preferably with others.)

Well there you have it:) Those are my top hygge tips.

Take a moment to de-prioritize accomplishment, and focus on cozy contentment with other people you love.

But really, this is a short list, so I have to ask – what are your best hygge ideas? What makes you feel cozy and content?

Really, I’m curious. Let me know! Let’s see if we can create more hygge-centric lives.

With warmth and coziness,

Dolan

Goldilocks Training

woman lacing up her gray and pink nike low top athletic shoe
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

Alright, I’ll just say it – when you exercise, you’re exercising too hard.

(Yes, you – even if you barely ever exercise.)

You are making life miserable for yourself.

And every time you exercise – while pushing too hard – you’re reinforcing to yourself that “exercise sucks.”

You’re too goal-oriented when exercising. Way back in school, you were told “run a mile,” and you had to go out at complete the whole mile, and it was awful.

Now, that’s what you think of whenever you think of exercise.

Every time you do get yourself out the door to exercise, that’s the only way you know how to go about doing it.

E.g., “Okay, I’m going out the door, and I’m going to run a mile.” (Or jog for a full ten minutes. Or whatever.)

And you either succeed and run the whole mile (or finish whatever goal), but it feels really hard. Or you quit, and feel like you failed.

Or, maybe, you go too easy, and all you ever do is nothing.

(Or something that is so slow and easy it doesn’t challenge you at all.)

Which means you’ll never really trigger those endorphins, or hit that “runner’s high,” that you’ve heard about but have never experienced, because “exercising is miserable.”

Right?

Right??

Okay, obviously, I don’t really know for sure if all of the above applies to you. Maybe I’m wrong, I’m just guessing.

But I’m willing to bet it does, because I think it applies to most people.

I have good news though: if any of that rings a bell – there is a way out.

There is another way to think about – and go about – exercising, which I call “Goldilocks Training.”

(Yes, it’s in reference to the proverbial “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” where our interloper protagonist trespasses into a house of three bears, steals porridge that is “not too hot, not too cold, but just right,” and then does some other burglar stuff. Anyway. It’s the “just right” part that matters.)

The “Goldilocks training” theory is simple:

There IS a level of intensity of training that feels maximally enjoyable, while still creating significant, often surprisingly rapid, improvement.

There IS a Goldilocks level of “not too hard, not too easy,” that’s just right, that actually feels good.

(Yes, it feels good.)

And you probably don’t believe me, because you probably always exercise too damn hard.

The idea that “exercise can feel good” is a really tough pill to swallow for people who have never experienced the phenomenon before.

Even now you’re probably shaking your head, going, “yeah, Dolan, I don’t know about that. I’ve exercised before and it’s always sucked. Every time. I’ve never experienced a ‘runner’s high’ or anything like that. What you’re saying doesn’t apply to me, to my body.

Okay, okay.

I absolutely believe you –

Exercise has always been unpleasant, every time you’ve ever done it.

Maybe you’ve tried some form of exercise 1000 times and none of them has ever been enjoyable.

But I’m here to tell you, the 1001st time can be different.

(Actually, it may take a little practice, so it might be more like 1002nd or 1003rd, but bear with me.)

Up until now, you’ve been distracted from the possibility of enjoying exercise.

By thinking you had to achieve a goal when training (e.g., “run a mile”, “run for an entire twenty minutes” “finish a workout class,” “finish this hike”), you’ve been missing out on something much more important.

So going forward, when it comes to exercise, I suggest experimenting with completely dropping that outcome-orientated attitude.

Instead, I suggest entirely focusing on something different – striving for the “Goldilocks level” of intensity (and time).

Be willing to shamelessly modify any goals you had coming into the workout – and instead, completely prioritize mindfully noticing your body, to try to hit your own personal Goldilocks level.

(It’s worth mentioning that in my experience, it seems like it’s always the smartest and most elite athletes who seem to happily and shamelessly modify workouts to make them easier, when needed. They listen to their bodies. While elite athletes are, admittedly, relentless about consistently getting out the door to train, the actual training itself is frequently modified, adjusted, to be the “just right” level of intensity. This prevents injury and allows for sustainable training over the long run. On the other hand, novice athletes tend to have it backward – they’re lackadaisical about actually getting out the door and being consistent, but once they are out, they feel they need to force themselves through a workout to the bitter end, even if their body is begging them to adjust it. Be smarter than that.)

So here’s what I suggest:

Go a bit easier.

Yes, get out the door, for sure. But then listen to your body, and tone it back.

Because I think most people (even if they barely ever exercise ever) actually overshoot their Goldilocks levels.

Your personal Goldilocks level of difficulty (at this moment) may just be a short walk.

It may be a medium-length walk. Or maybe a walk on a slight incline. Or a brisk walk.

Or it may be a walk-jog, or gentle run.

(You know that when you go on a run, you don’t have to run the whole time. You know that, right??)

Whatever your personal Goldilocks level of training is, at this moment, remember: it’s not static.

What may be the perfect level to train at today may not be the perfect level for you tomorrow.

And if you’re continuously training at just the right intensity, you’ll notice your own Goldilocks level will improve.

So, for right now, just try to exercise with the goal of enjoying exercise.

Have the intention of hitting your Goldilocks level.

JUST focus on finding the right zone of intensity.

Forget about everything else.

(And do that from now on.)

(Tip: to make sure you are hitting your Goldilocks level, you do want to feel at least a little challenge. So if you’re out there walking, and you feel no difference in your breathing, no challenge whatsoever, you may want to walk a little faster.)

But other than that, you now have permission to cut your hikes short (yeah, without getting to the top!). You have permission to take walk brakes. You have permission to slow down. You have permission to modify your workouts while your doing them, and deviate from the workout plan of the day.

Soon, you’ll get really good at tuning into your body to notice that golden zone of intensity. You’ll get so mindful, so dialed in to what your body needs, you’ll be able to increase the level of challenge a bit while still keeping it really enjoyable. You’ll start to improve surprisingly quickly.

And you’ll find yourself wanting to come back and exercise in that Goldilocks zone again and again, causing a pretty addictive virtuous cycle.

But it takes a very different mindset than the one you probably currently have.

So go try this new attitude out.

And stick with it for at least a few workouts in a row.

And if you’re having trouble getting out the door and starting, I highly recommend a little coffee (or caffeine in your favorite form) to get you started.

But let go of rigid exercise goals, ease up, and aim for some flexible Goldilocks training.

And let me know how it goes.

Paradoxical Intention – Do Worse.

What if you took all of the pressure off of yourself?

What if instead of trying to do well, you just lowered the bar and aimed for a “C-“?

What if instead of trying to be perfect, you aimed for mediocre?

Sure, it sounds weird enough, in our society driven by performance and personal success… but isn’t it kind of a relief to think about? Doesn’t it feel like a weight lifted off your shoulders?

“Paradoxical Intention” is a term I specifically picked up from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (at the end of the book, when he describes some of his therapeutic techniques).

In it, Frankl gives some examples of “paradoxical intention” at play.

For example, he retells the story of a certain man with a stutter that had been with him as long as he could remember – except, that is, for one time:

As a twelve year-old, this guy once tried to hitch a ride on a streetcar, but was eventually caught by the conductor.

In an attempt to “elicit sympathy,” he tried to “demonstrate that he was just a poor stuttering boy.”

And that was the one time in his life he couldn’t stutter.

Fascinating, right?

Or there’s another example, in the book, of a patient with a fear of excessive sweating around people – and, sure enough, his anticipatory anxiety caused him to sweat a lot.

Frankl advised him to “resolve deliberately to show people how much he could sweat.”

The man would say to himself something like, “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!”

That one tip relieved all the pressure he had put on himself. After a single session, his ten-year phobia was gone.

There’s even an a story of a man with “incurably” awful handwriting, advised to write with the “worst possible scrawl” – who suddenly found it difficult to write with messy handwriting.

So what’s paradoxical intention? In a nutshell, it’s Viktor Frankl’s psychiatric technique to invite the patient to “intend, even if only for a moment, precisely that which he fears.”

This creates a “reversal of the patient’s attitude” to “ridicule [those fears] by dealing with them in an ironical way.”

In that respect, and with a little bit of a sense of humor – the “wind is taken out of the sails of the anxiety.”

I personally have dealt with anxiety for the majority of my life – putting immense internal pressure on myself to achieve extremely well in school, and applying the same type of internal stress on myself regarding career success and achievement.

But, in an example of paradoxical intention, I noticed something not too long ago.

During the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, when people weren’t supposed to be achieving, you were supposed to just stay home – those particular anxieties were completely gone.

Sure, it was an enormously difficult time in many other ways – as a country, as a world, we were trying to survive, to look after loved ones, particularly those with compromised immunities. But it was collectively, socially, okay to experience negative emotions, to stay home, to just “survive” and not “accomplish.”

And because of that, my lifelong “high-achiever” anxieties — this particular brand of negative emotion — vanished.

You know, maybe we’re all putting too much pressure on ourselves – whether it’s to perform well (in any field), or to achieve amazing things in our careers, or get to sleep right now at night….or to not sweat so much in front of others, or to write perfectly….

Maybe we could all benefit from some paradoxical intention.

Perhaps instead of trying to do a perfect job, we should just try to do…I don’t know…worse. What a relief that might be to those of us with type-A personalities, to lower the bar a bit.

And who knows, maybe, with that stress off our backs, we might just accidentally end up doing a better job.

I think we’ll certainly be happier for it.

So usually I’d send you off by wishing you good luck and success, but maybe today I’ll just say:

Lower the bar on yourself, and have fun.

-Dolan

Problem Solving – The Ultimate Meta Skill

Good morning, and welcome back to the blog – if you can master today’s skill, I believe you can succeed in just about anything.

That’s because, unlike specific skills – such as knowing how to change a tire, or do a deadlift – this meta skill applies to just about everything.

The skill is “problem solving,” but I have a very specific type of “problem solving” in mind; a very specific definition of the term:

Overcoming challenges which you don’t even know how to go about approaching.

(In school you’re often taught exactly how to solve very specific types of problems, then given exercise sheets to practice it. You don’t know the answer, but you know the process you’re supposed to use; how to get to the answer.

That’s not the kind of “problem solving” I’m talking about. Life is often much more ambiguous.)

It was only recently that I really started to think about this phenomenon with any sort of self-awareness.

I was playing a video game with my brother (he was watching and helping), when I got to a point in the game which I had no idea what to do. No idea how to go forward.

I didn’t even know how to go about learning how to go forward.

(Also, I don’t really play video games very often, so I felt totally lost.)

I looked to my brother, the veteran gamer, for guidance, and he smiled just said,
“well, time to go about doing some problem solving, Dolan.”

Oh.

In other words:

“I’m gonna have to figure this out, even though I have no idea how to even go about figuring this out. That’s the point.”

And really, life is the same way.

Want to lose weight? Want to make more money? Have deeper relationships? Are you doing your taxes for the first time? Changing a tire? (Assuming you haven’t picked up that specific skill yet.)

You’re going to be faced with figuring it out, even if you may currently have no idea how to even go about figuring it out.

So how do you deal with this type of real-life ambiguous problem solving?

Well, I find it helps to think of “problem solving” or “ambiguous problem solving” as its own skill, that you can get better at as you do it more. And you can practice recognizing situations where you use this skill.

But I can also give you three tips when it comes to problem solving:

  • Practice being totally comfortable with not immediately knowing how you’re going to find the answer. Think “I’m going to do this, and I have no idea how I’m going to do this, but that’s okay.” Take a sip of tea. Relax and look at the ambiguity as if you’re viewing it from above, fascinated and amused. Might as well get comfortable.
  • Practice self-assurance. Realize that in the past, you’ve already done this over and over again with problems you had no idea how to solve. You’ve looked up at metaphorical mountains that, at the time, seemed impossibly tall. And yet, you’ve overcome them, and you’re still alive today. Sure, as you look back now, perspective might make your past accomplishments seem quite doable. Like learning subtraction. Or getting through high school. But at the time, looking forward, they seemed impossible. Remember? Be assured, any “impossible” tasks now are gonna appear just the same way when you look back later.
  • Focus purely within your sphere of control. What is within your sphere of control to do? Your sphere of control is actually probably much more limited and manageable than you might think. And to be honest, you’re likely wasting a lot of energy focusing on things outside your sphere of control. (Trying to change the past isn’t within your sphere of control, so while you can spend as long as you want wishing for things to be different, saying, “how I have not solved this already?! Who’s to blame for this?!”, none of that will actually help solve a problem.) Just focus on what you can do, going forward.

Okay – to summarize (and keep this short!), problem solving is its own meta-skill which you can improve, and self assurance, comfort with ambiguity, and – critically – focusing within your sphere of control are all trainable aspects which make for excellent problem solving.

Oh, and if you really want to train your problem solving skills, try an escape room – or maybe just sit down and play a good video game. 🙂

Success vs. Meaningfulness

“Success” – what comes to mind? Money? Fame? Prestige?

Today, when I use the word “success,” I mean it in the most stereotypical and superficial sense – achieving some external goal, particularly in regard to fame and fortune.

(I’m using “fame” broadly to refer any type of prestige or status – such as having a well-respected career title, or accolades within your company, or a lot of social media followers.)

(And by “fortune” I’m referring to any type of monetary achievement.)

In other words, for the purpose of this article, “success” means outer achievements; checking off boxes that most Americans would normally associate with the word.

Meaningfulness is anything that actually matters to you, makes you feel alive, gives you strong emotions.

Meaningfulness can be passion, thrill, it’s something that feels significant to you; it’s chills from excitement, it’s warmth from connection, it’s beautifully bright, it’s colorful, it’s musical and catchy.

When you wake up on a Saturday morning as a kid, thrilled to be alive, you’re not thinking about “success.”

You’re just doing what you love. Probably really excited to see people that you love.

Anyway, somewhere along the line we get scared.

And we get socially programmed; we start just doing what everyone else is doing.

Everyone seems to be trying to get money, and have the most prestigious job, and check all the right boxes in life – college, graduate school, secure respectable job, marriage, retirement.

And we figure we better do it too.

And maybe we’re just scared of what happens if we don’t. What if we don’t have enough money? What if we’re lonely?

Plus, success sounds so appealing. We start to get sold on all these things we could buy if only we could have enough money. Fancy cars. A fancy house – or three or four. A boat. Expensive clothes. And how cool is fame and prestige?? People will know and respect us.

And so, perhaps for a lot of us, we start to focus less on what really makes us feel alive – what’s really and truly meaningful and magical – and a lot more on “success.”

(It takes work to do this, and work to keep up the shift of focus. And you can stop any time you like. It’s just that everyone else seems to be doing it, and fear is a strong motivator, so we keep it up.)

But if you could just set down any fear you have for two minutes

Maybe shake loose any preconceived notions we have for just a second or two…

What’s meaningful to you?

What makes you feel alive?

(Not as a way of finding some job, to help you make more money and get more success. Step outside of the whole capitalist lens with which we have all come to view the world.)

What if we genuinely focused on what we love, and what if that were the end goal, instead of money? Instead of harnessing our passions to ultimately make money, maybe we’d harness jobs – when helpful – to ultimately live our passions? (I.e., “I’m not doing this for the money, but because being here gives me an excuse to do ____”)

So, just genuinely, what makes you feel alive?

What feels magical and colorful to you when you focus on it?

What = chills of excitement to you?

What would you really, deeply, rather be doing right now?

Can you dare to step outside of the world of “success” and live in the world of meaningfulness for a little bit?

I propose we can live our lives prioritizing meaningfulness over success. And I think it’ll make us much happier (and might even still lead to all the basic success we need).

Oh, and another thing – while “success” necessitates outer accomplishment in the future, meaningfulness can be practiced right now – for example, in terms of how you treat others.

You can have meaningful interactions with people – like people you love, for example – right now, by treating them well. You don’t have to wait for financial success to do that.

(Extreme, but powerful, example: Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, describes his time in Nazi concentration camps – an experience utterly incompatible with our traditional notions of the word “success” – but one in which Frankl still manages to find meaning even in the midst of the camps, in how he helps and treats others. Ultimately, it gives him the will to live; it keeps him alive.)

There’s a powerful lesson to be learned there.

We’re only here on this planet for a little bit.

Let’s try focusing on meaning first, and success second.

Blue Zone Diet: Live To Be a Youthful 100+

Okinawa, Japan

***A note before we begin – this dietary approach is designed to optimize for really only one thing: to help you live for a really long time. But it does that by keeping you very healthy, so don’t be surprised if you start to feel a lot of positive downstream effects, like gaining more energy, or even losing quite a bit of body fatperhaps even more than you’d expect – by following it.***

Alright, let’s get into it:

This post is primarily based primarily on Dan Buettner’s book Blue Zones.

In it, Buettner visits four “blue zones” – areas with percentages of “centenarians” (people aged 100+) and “supercentenarians” (people aged 110+) that are extremely high compared to average. Like WAYYY higher.

People just seemed to live a LOT longer in these places. And we didn’t know why.

So the natural question was: HOW are these people living so long?

The answer – to give away the book – is that as best as we can tell, it’s actually not genetic.

It’s what blue zone inhabitants do and eat – their lifestyles and diet – that make such a huge difference.

Lifestyle-wise, commonalities across ALL blue zones included:

  1. Frequent daily exercise and walking, simply as part of the way of life, and
  2. Strong familial ties and multi-generational living, or otherwise strong interpersonal connections

(If you want to live a long, youthful, healthy life, do those things.)

But what were these people eating?

And what were they not eating?

This post will show you what and how to eat so that you can follow a diet that is as close as possible, in my opinion, to the ones found in these blue zones.

First, lets introduce you to the key players, the blue zones in question:

Blue Zone 1: Sardinia.

Financially poor (but perhaps much richer in other ways), the blue zone towns in Sardinia were rural, undeveloped farming villages with not only plenty of centenarians, but inhabitants well into their 70s that retained incredible amounts of youthful vigor – walking five to ten hilly miles a day to tend to their sheep. Sardinians grew their own food and ate extremely lean diets of locally grown vegetables (tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, etc.), fava beans, homemade bread, pecorino cheese, potatoes, sheep & goat’s milk, and occasionally, meat. They drank a cup of flavanoid-rich red wine a day.

Blue Zone 2: Okinawa.

Financially poor as well, but rich in familial ties and close bonds with lifelong village friends, the blue zone village in Okinawa featured year-round gardens that supplied most of the food. Inhabitants ate vegetables, soups, rice, tofu, occasional pork, and drank tea (e.g., Jasmine tea) throughout the day. The herbs mugwort, ginger, garlic, and turmeric were common. Locals prized their moai (or tight group of friends for mutual support, word of mouth job-postings, and more) above all else, and saw them every day. They had a habit of saying hara hachi bu before each meal – which roughly translates to “eat until you are 80% full.”

Blue Zone 3: Loma Linda, CA.

This one American blue zone consisted of devout Seventh-Day Adventists that followed a strict diet rich in nuts, very low in meat, and with a huge focus on drinking lots of water. Many of the locals were vegetarians, or lacto-ovo vegetarians (they ate eggs, and dairy). Walking, and power-walking, were prevalent, as were health stores stocked with organic foods and nuts.

Blue Zone 4: Costa Rica.

The blue zone village of Nicoya in Costa Rica was yet another location that was not financially wealthy but had inhabitants that lived long, healthy lives. Locals farmed and ate their own food, particularly beans, eggs, homemade corn tortillas, fruit, and pork. While it’s true that usually women live longer than men, the men in Nicoya, Costa Rica seemed to live particularly long lives. The men here also tended to have very liberal attitudes toward sex, and multiple sexual partners throughout life. Other cornerstones of the Nicoyan lifestyle included hard work in the fields, plenty of sun, and excellent sleep come nightfall.

So how do you eat like a blue zone local?

To give the shortest answer possible:

Pretend like you’re a farmer in, say, Sardinia or Nicoya, and eat only what that person would eat.

To help with that, I’ve noticed four principles common to the inhabitants of every blue zone:

1) They eat plant-based diets.

While each blue zone has its own local diet, and they all differ somewhat, one common theme is that most of the food comes from home-grown vegetables, and fruit. Therefore, getting as much of your food as possible from veggies is probably the single most important thing you can do to to eat in a blue-zone style. Think of veggies, and fruits, as your go-to foods; as the backbone or cornerstone of your diet.

2) They eat NO refined food.

These people haven’t had a Big Mac or a Coke in their entire lives. They eat simple diets, and could tell you the ingredient of every single thing they put in their body (they’ve mostly grown it all themselves!). On the other hand, even if I tried, I couldn’t tell you all of the ingredients, chemicals, additives, stabilizers, dyes, etc., in a box of Cap’n Crunch cereal. I’d have to look it up. But these people eat things where knowing every ingredient is easy (e.g., “A potato.” “An onion.” “Pork.” Simple, healthy, unrefined, whole foods.)

3) Everything they eat is what we could call “Organic.”

By nature of the fact that they’re growing it themselves, their foods are not laden with the pesticides found in American Big-Agriculture mass-farming methods. The best way to recreate this, short of growing your own food, is buying as much of your food as possible “organic” or “pesticide free.” Either one is fine. Keep in mind that EVERYTHING these guys in Sardinia or Okinawa or Nicaragua eat is essentially organic. So to follow this diet as closely as possible, make sure just about everything you put in your body is specifically labeled as organic or pesticide-free. (This is difficult, but I try to tell myself, “If these very financially poor guys in rural farming towns can do it, then so can you!”)

4) They eat in moderation.

These guys don’t glut themselves on food. They don’t keep eating until their stomachs are stuffed full – instead, they eat until they’re not hungry. Some cultures (like in Okinawa) even specifically praise and ritualize moderation as a healthful practice (as in the saying “hara hachi bu” or “eat until you’re 80% full”). To practice this moderation yourself, simply try being mindful of everything that you eat – simply be aware of the taste, feeling, and level of fullness you experience during every single bite. To really understand mindful eating, it helps to explain its opposite – e.g., mindlessly downing a bunch of chips while watching TV, without even realize it, because you’re so distracted. Another example of mindless eating would be just shoving down the remaining food on your plate, even though you’re not hungry, to sort of “get it over with” and “get your money’s worth” (something I’m guilty of). Don’t do that – instead, be mindful and aware of each bite, enjoy your food, and only eat when you’re hungry.

IN SUMMARY:

Plant based, unrefined, organic, and mindful (or “in moderation”).

(But I think I have to elaborate a little bit on 2 and 3, and clear up ONE thing really quick.)

Locals in these blue zones do eat bread.

But it is NOTHING like the bread we eat here in the United States.

(If you want to understand why, read the quick aside below. If not, just skip it.)

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Blue zone locals grow their own wheat or other grains, and then use it to make bread. Simple.

In America, you can be fairly confident, with just about any bread you eat, that is was created with wheat genetically engineered by American Agro-Chemical company Monsanto (the poster child for unethical farming practices, harmful environmental procedures, genetically modified food, and heavy pesticide use.)

What Monsanto has done is genetically engineer a strain of wheat that is incredibly difficult to kill (I’ve heard it described as “virtually indestructible” by Haylie Pomroy). This allows the crops to withstand being doused with glyphosate, the active chemical found in RoundUp. (Their genetically modified strains are literally called “RoundUp-Ready Crops” – TM). The GMOs, combined with heavy RoundUp use, make it easy to inexpensively grow and desiccate a lot of crops, but the health effects are questionable.

Then, this glyphosate-coated Monsanto-GMO-wheat is refined into flour, a process in which the healthiest two thirds of the grain – the “bran” and “germ” – are removed.

Then, refined sugar is added (because Americans are used to everything tasting so sweet), to make what we in the U.S. know as bread.

**********

SO, if you want to follow the blue zone diet – even though blue-zone locals eat bread – you can’t just go to any supermarket and buy “bread” and think that it is similar in any way.

Instead, you have to specifically find Organic, Whole Wheat bread, with no sugar added.

(The good news is I’ve already done this: just buy Ezekial Bread. It’s a bit more expensive, and due to lack of preservatives doesn’t last too long in a pantry, but is well priced at Trader Joe’s and can be stored in the fridge or freezer.)

So what else can you eat on a general blue zone diet? Well, keeping in mind that it should all (or as much as possible) be organic, and that basically everything should be eaten mindfully:

  • Any type of vegetables (carrots, zucchini, squash, lettuce, kale, onions, etc.)
  • Beans (black beans, pinto beans, fava beans, etc.)
  • Fruits (ORGANIC strawberries, blueberries, apples, etc. Bananas, or any fruits with a peel, don’t need to be organic due to the thick peel protecting the inner edible portion from pesticides.)
  • Nuts, seeds
  • Eggs
  • Organic peanut butter
  • Oats (again, get organic so they’re not covered with glyphosate)
  • Fruit Juice (in moderation)
  • Lean meats like pork and chicken
  • Ezekial bread
  • Organic whole wheat or organic corn tortillas
  • Organic honey or agave nectar (in moderation; it’s basically sugar)
  • Organic hummus
  • Coffee
  • Tea
  • Red wine
  • Dark chocolate, cacao
  • Organic potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Healthy cheeses (e.g., goat cheese, feta)
  • Lots and lots of water

It’s worth noting that a few things that many diets disallow are actually totally fine – or fine in moderation – as part of a blue zone diet.

For example, on a blue zone diet:

  • Drinking a glass or two of red wine a day is totally okay. Many diets strictly forbid alcohol, but the flavanoids in red wine have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects. (Note, though, that moderation is required; because beyond 1-2 glasses, wine can quickly become much more harmful than it is beneficial.)
  • Drinking coffee is also totally fine. Locals throughout Nicaragua and Sardinia seemed to drink tons of coffee, and it didn’t seem to stop them from living past 100. In fact, coffee may have some health benefits itself: studies show coffee consumption seems to be correlated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, lower risk of certain cancers, and much lower risk of Alzheimer’s & dementia. (To be clear, I’m talking about black coffee. A highly sweetened pumpkin spice latte doesn’t count.)
  • Legumes/beans (which are not allowed on a Paleo diet, or Whole30) are totally acceptable. Beans have a ton of fiber and nutrients; they’re a super healthy.
  • Fruit, which isn’t allowed in a Slow-Carb diet, is a staple. Fruits have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and tend to protect against cancer.
  • Organic whole wheat/grains/rice (which aren’t allowed in either Slow-Carb, Paleo, Keto, OR Whole 30) are all totally fine. (Just, of course, everything has to be eaten mindfully and in moderation.)

On the other hand, a blue zone diet is more restrictive in other regards:

  • Meat, which is a critical and encouraged part of Paleo, Whole 30, Slow Carb, and Keto, is allowed, but cautioned to be eaten in moderation, and high-saturated-fat meats – e.g., red meats like steaks and hamburger patties, or salami or pepperoni, etc. – are totally avoided. (To follow the general blue zone approach, stick to pork, turkey, or chicken – or, I suppose elk, deer, or bison. These lean meats tend to be very filling, good for maintaining muscle, and excellent for general fat loss.)
  • Artificial-chemical-laden drinks and foods, even if they have no calories or sugar (like my beloved Diet Coke!) are totally forbidden. Dang it.

Wow, that just about sums it up.

I know we covered a lot, but just think: organic, unrefined, simple whole foods. And remember, eating like a true blue zone local is way more restrictive in some ways, but much more forgiving in others. If you want to follow this diet, but have trouble keeping to it, try just getting one or two habits to stick at first. For example, just switch out all the bread you eat for Ezekial bread. Or have rice, potatoes, and veggies instead. Or, decide to at least just buy a few affordable options – such as carrots and sweet potatoes – organic from now on. That’s an excellent start.

All in all, I suggest these blue zone locals can give us somewhat of a “north star” to follow in terms of health. Whatever they’re eating and doing, it seems to be helping them be healthy, enough to live a long time. And even if we can’t follow their example perfectly, we can strive to eat like they do as much as possible.

So good luck, be healthy, and stay youthful.

-Dolan

The Magic of Giving a Smile

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In our last article we discussed incredible power of emotional contagion, and how – due to our tendency to subconsciously mirror others – emotions are extremely contagious. Because of this, with a little self-awareness, you can guide your emotions to positively influence others.

One specific, actionable, and incredibly powerful way to go about doing this is simple: smile at someone.

Or, as I prefer to say, give them a smile.

This simple act may be a bit more powerful than you realize.

What can smiling at someone do?

Well, if you’ve read this post, you probably already realize that it has the power to influence someone else’s mood for the better – actually changing the chemicals in their brain a little bit, to help them be a little bit happier.

But in addition to that, smiling can also make you happier.

According to The As If Principle, a research-backed book about how our outer actions affect our moods and thoughts, simply acting as if you are feeling a certain way tends to make you actually feel that way.

Let’s pause and talk about this for a second:

According to The As If Principle, if you can get someone to act as if they feel a certain way, then they will tend to actually start to feel that way.

  • For example, have you ever heard stories of actors who have played love interests, who have gone on to develop feelings for each other? That’s the “as if” principle at work.
  • Another example mentioned in the book was a sneaky experiment designed to get people to effectively “play footsie” with each other. This was covertly accomplished by having the subjects play poker, but allowing certain pairs to cheat by tapping signals to each other’s feet under the table. (Thus, the cheating pairs more or less went through the physical motions of “playing footsie” – and afterward, they rated their partner as more attractive.)

WHAT’S THAT ALL MEAN?

Basically, even just going through the motions of feeling a certain way – even if it’s for a different *apparent* purpose – (i.e., “to make a movie,” “to cheat at cards”) – causes people to actually feel the related feelings.

In other words, you can basically trick yourself to do something that will, as a side effect, conjure certain emotions.

So, back to smiling:

Do you want to be happier?

Well, you could go through the motions of smiling. According to The As If Principle, simply the act of smiling (ideally for at least 20 seconds) will improve your mood.

But guess what? Just forcing yourself to smile is really weird and hard.

It’s…like…oddly hard to do. Go ahead, try it right now, maybe you’ll have some success:

Relax your face, pull the corners of your lips to the side, squint the edges of your eyes. (People’s eyes crinkle at the corners in genuine smiles). Smile wider. …Wider. Show teeth! Hold it for 20 seconds.

If you can pull it off, it’ll actually make you feel a bit better. (Practicing helps.)

But if this is uncomfortable for you, there’s another option. Sort of like the psychologists did in the sneaky “poker game/footsie” experiment, you may have to “trick” yourself into smiling – and provide yourself a different reason to act the intended way.

And guess what?

It’s actually much eaiser to “give” someone else a smile, to help them feel good, than it is to just smile for yourself.

So try giving someone else a smile. Try using the concept of “emotional contagion” to help improve someone else’s mood.

Instead of focusing on yourself, focus on the other person, on helping them. Really try to “give” good vibes to that person, to wish them well, with a smile.

…And as a pleasant side effect, just the act of smiling at them will make you feel much happier.

And hey, they might just actually catch your good mood.

In fact, who knows, you might just end up making their day.

That’s pretty magical.

Offensive vs. Defensive Thinking

Can you focus on what you’re truly passionate about instead of what scares you?

Here’s a simple mental framework that I find to be incredibly useful:

Offensive vs. Defensive Thinking.

In general, “Offensive Thinking” is thinking about what you want, or things you like, and how to move toward that.

“Defensive Thinking” is considering what you don’t want want, and planning ways to avoid it.

For example, taking some time to go on a vacation, think about what you really want, and set some goals – that’s offensive thinking. Pursuing a passion, trying out learning a new skill, making a commitment to seeing friends you love – all offensive thinking. It’s pleasure-seeking, positive, and not fearful.

If you are thinking about a problem that might occur and trying to keep it from happening, that’s defensive thinking. A reasonable example might be considering how a boss or supervisor might react to an email you’re about to send, and taking some time to craft your phrasing to avoid possible problems. Defensive thinking is pain-avoiding. It’s often fearful.

I propose both types of thinking can be useful, at certain times.

Sometimes, it makes sense to think about what you want, and to go after your passions, and to take time away from worries to actually do what you love.

Sometimes, it makes sense to think and take steps to protect yourself from a negative outcome you wish to avoid.

However, much like with problem anticipation, we all tend to get stuck in “Defensive Thinking Mode” almost all the time.

I think if you take some time to consider it, you’ll agree:

We are CONSTANTLY thinking DEFENSIVELY.

Here’s the thing:

A little defensive thinking goes a long way. We don’t really need much of it.

And there are fundamental limits to what you can achieve via defensive thinking.

Defensive thinking – even at its very best – can still only help you try to minimize a potential downside to something. It won’t really help you grow, and it won’t really help you achieve anything you want.

Defensive thinking, alone, never produces insane success or deep happiness. All it can lead to is: “well at least that didn’t happen quite as badly as it could’ve.”

Further, defensive thinking begets more, fearful, defensive thinking. If you’re wondering about things that could go wrong and how to stop them, your brain will start to come up with more things that could go wrong – and how to stop them. It’s easy to fall in a defensive thinking trap where you’re just scrambling to protect the status quo, and not actually growing. You’re afraid, protective, and playing defense.

So, I believe it’s important to time constrain defensive thinking. It’s important to be aware and notice when you’re in this mode and ask yourself:

“Is it really that important to be thinking these thoughts right now?”

You may be surprised to find that you can significantly cut down on your own “defensive thinking” with ZERO downside.

So what, do I propose, should you focus on?

OFFENSIVE THINKING.

In its simplest, and broadest form, offensive thinking is really any type of thought that seems to move toward what you want. It feels good.

(While the most obvious example of offensive thinking is daydreaming about things you desire, setting goals, and going after them, I think the definition can be even broader than that.)

I propose: anytime you “set down” your current thinking patterns – taking a break from all the defensive thoughts you’ve been ruminating on – you’re actually thinking offensively.

Anytime you get away from your normal routine – whether it’s a new environment, or a road trip, or a vacation, or a flight – you’re thinking offensively. You’re opening yourself up to new possibilities. Even mentally “setting down” your current goals – to see if you’re actually going after what you truly want – is a form of offensive thinking.

Anytime you ask yourself what you really desire, anytime you listen to your gut – your emotions – and do what feels right and feels good ANYTIME YOU’RE DOING ANYTHING THAT RESONATES WITH THE WORD “PASSION” – you’re thinking offensively.

So do whatever you have to do to get the hell out of “defensive thinking mode.”

Even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Stop thinking about what might go wrong, and how to protect yourself. Stop thinking about all the downsides, problems, risks. Just for a few minutes.

And instead, focus on what you love. Focus on what excites you. Think about what sounds enjoyable, and make that happen. Go towards pleasure, rather than just away from pain.

(What you’ll find is, not only does your life become more enjoyable when you do this, but you’ll realize that often, offense really is the best defense.)

(Sometimes, the best way to protect yourself from all those anticipated downsides, instead of worrying about them, is in fact to simply go after what you ACTUALLY want.)

Focus on what resonates with you, and feels good. Focus on that.

To paraphrase the words of Tim Ferris –

Whatever you think failure is, whatever you’re afraid of – that’s not failure.

True failure is the boredom from not even trying anything that actually excites you.

And true success is the excitement that comes from going after what you love.

So ask yourself – “what excites me?”

That’s offensive thinking.

The Superpower of Emotional Contagion

You have an incredible, awesome power to influence the moods of those around you.

If you wish, you can hurt, upset, anger, or scare others. You can also help others feel peaceful, happy, excited, humorous, loved, or any other emotion you can think of.

And I don’t just mean through your words.

In fact, your most powerful tool for influencing the emotions of those around you is not what you say – it’s what you feel.

That’s because emotional contagion is a real phenomenon. (Yes, I’ve read the scientific book by that same title. Feel free to google around for scholarly articles with the same key-phrase.)

Emotions are incredibly contagious.

In the same way that someone yawning next to you might cause you to yawn – in fact, even thinking about the idea of yawning might cause you to want to yawn right now – the emotions others feel have the habit of creeping up on us as well.

When someone is angry at you, tense, aggressive, and flips you off, in a second you feel your own blood boil as you “catch” their tension.

When you’re around friends who are relaxed, and in a humorous mood – sharing a knowing smile that holds in laughter – you may find yourself unconsciously smiling as well.

By and large, our brains are incredibly adept at noticing the emotions in others faces (or deciphering what others would be feeling given their situation), and subconsciously mirroring them, triggering the same emotions in ourselves.

This “emotional contagion” is at the core of just about every interpersonal interaction. People like watching sports because they feel the same thrill that the winning players do; people like watching romance movies to feel the same rush as the principle characters. And every single interpersonal interaction, every conversation, is – at its core – an exchange of emotions.

You see, you can affect others’ emotions, but they can also affect yours. True, some people are less affected by others, while some are more affected. Similarly, some people’s emotions are more contagious, while some people’s are less. (Perhaps you know someone whose tension and irritability can darken a whole room, but whose smile and ease can immediately brighten it back up?)

But the thing is, whether we recognize it or not, we are all, to at least some degree, directly influencing the emotions of others around us, just by osmosis – just by feeling what we’re feeling. We have an incredible power to affect the moods of others. It’s almost like a genuine superpower.

Except, as the saying of course goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

-Uncle Ben, Spiderman

Once you recognize that you – yes, YOU have great power over the emotions of those around you, you start to think about the kinds of emotions you want to share.

It’s worth asking yourself:

How do you want people to feel?

Really, if you could make people feel however you wanted, how would you want them to feel?

Do you want people around you to feel scared, angry, tense? Because you really do have the power to make that happen if you wish.

But I suspect you don’t truly want that. I suspect you may want the people around you to feel peaceful, loved, humorous, excited, happy. And you have the power to make this happen as well.

Of course, in order to do so, you have to cultivate those emotions in yourself. This can take a little work, especially with the outside world flinging so many contagious emotions at you. But with a little help from physiological emotion hacking, a little mindfulness, and a little directed positive focus, I suspect you could – if you really wanted to – nudge your mood at least somewhat in a positive direction. If not for yourself, then for others, to help those around you feel better.

Because you really do have the power to brighten someone’s day.

You have the power to help someone feel peaceful when they’re scared, or loved when they’re lonely.

You have the power to subtly lift the mood of a room, if you really want to, when people seem upset and angry.

You have the power to help others smile, laugh, and feel good about being alive.

(Along the way, you may find that a simple genuine smile goes a very, very long way.)

Now does it work perfectly and instantaneously? Can you just pick however you want to feel, immediately feel that way, and immediately make everyone else feel that way, all the time, starting now? Maybe not quite.

But with a little self awareness, practice, patience, and persistence (definitely patience and persistence, sometimes it takes a while to calm someone down who’s in a bad mood), you may find that you surprise yourself with your ability to affect others for the better.

And damned if there isn’t a cooler superpower than that.