Mindfulness without the Woo Woo

How to survive Ubud, Bali as a skeptical empiricist.

I recently spent 6 weeks in Bali, most of them living and working in Ubud. Ubud is in the middle of Bali. There’s no beach. En route towards Bali’s highest mountains, the elevation is higher. The air is a bit cooler. Everything is lush rice terraces and

It has also been made famous by the book Eat, Pray Love (EPL). I’ve been there three times but only ever seen it post-EPL. Thousands of spiritual tourists head there every year to immerse themselves in breathwork, yoga, meditation, reiki healing and chakra balancing. You can get vegan food and coconut water on every corner and a coffee colonic any time of the day.

I haven’t spent a lot of time defining my epistemological views, but words like skeptic and empiricist would likely be included. No one would ever refer to me as spiritual. And yet, among all that “woo woo” hippie stuff I still manage to thoroughly enjoy Ubud. But I can see how someone, with views similar to mine might hate the place and the people in the place and groan-worthy stuff they sometimes talk about.

So I thought I would write a little empirical survival guide to enjoying yourself in a place like Ubud or generally any place filled with lots of spiritual stuff that you think is a bunch of hokum.

Just repeat the following mantras to yourself.

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Thought Experiment: Revealed Passions

Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt often references his mentor, E.O. Wilson, the best ant scientist in the world.

He argues on several occasions that being passionate about your work is an immense competitive advantage. His mentor is the best ant scientist in the world because he absolutely freaking loves ants. He loves studying them, and he thus studies them more intently and more often that someone who’s just in the ant science game for the paycheck and the glamor.

Sounds pretty plausible to me.

Let’s leave aside for a minute the debate about whether “doing what you love” or earning a good paycheck so you can do what you love is more likely to make you happy. Being passionate about your job almost certainly will make you better at it. And finding work that you are uniquely more passionate about that anybody else is probably a good way to find work that you have an unbeatable competitive advantage in.

Here’s another little economics gem: Revealed vs stated preferences. Experiments have shown again and again that humans terrible forecasters of what makes them happy. When asked to state their preferences — purchases now or savings later, a new TV or a weekend in Paris, and so on — the choices they tell rarely match up to their actual decisions. Economics use the concept of revealed preferences, those trade-offs people express through their actual decisions, to determine what truly makes people happy… or if you prefer econonomist-speak: what maximizes their utility.

I think it’s not too far to stretch to say that humans probably are not great at forecasting what they are actually passionate about. So maybe we should use the same toolkit of revealed preferences to think about revealed passions.

So I’ve been doing this thought experiment over the last few years. What do my actions actually reveal about what I am passionate about? What do I consistently spend my idle time thinking about, tinkering with and improving without any obvious economic benefit?

The thought experiment is to think about this first as objectively as possible, then if you strike something interesting, contemplate how you could work or get paid from it.

Here’s an example for me. I freaking love travel bags. I’ve lived a large portion of my adult life out of a single carry on suitcase or backpack. I currently live out of one. I don’t have a home, just some flexible storage space with Makespace and I still personally own eight or nine different variations of backpacks and luggage. I’m constantly upgrading, constantly looking at reviews of new gear and constantly checking out other people’s bags in airports — taking notes, evaluating features and generally spending way too much time thinking about travel bags.

Maybe I should start a travel bag design company. Why not?

I don’t think this is some secret formula and I’m not dropping everything to start a travel bag company. But I never even considered it until I did this revealed passions thought experiment. So it was a useful 30 seconds of brain work.

And now I’m thinking about it! Maybe it is a good idea. That thought prompted me to start researching, learning about manufacturing and design. If anything it spurred me to learn a bit more about something I’ve never dug into before.

What are your revealed passions? Give it a shot.

The Best Networking is Not Networking

My first job was at a research consultancy. I was learning and writing about the booming wind energy industry. A big part of my job, and that of and many of my colleagues, was to attend an ever increasing number of industry conferences. The goal was to be part salesperson, convincing potential customers that the analysts at our firm were smart people with interesting things to say, and to play journalist, getting nuggets of data and an informal consensus on topics for which we lacked data. The fact that I reverse-engineered the financial model for a complicated financing structure1 almost entirely from buying beers for CFOs at conferences was probably the only reason anyone in the industry thought I had anything valuable to say, for the first few years at least.

These conferences were like any other — people milling around in uncomfortable suits at random convention centers, and sometimes fancy resorts. The startup I worked for was still young so my business card carried little cachet, that meant I would have to do some networking… ugh.

I’m a slim 5’6” so nearly everybody, already packed into tight circles, was physically either taller or wider than me. Wind energy was already an old energy industry so nearly everybody was two decades or more my senior. The battlefield was intimidating to say the least.

As a natural introvert I hate this stuff. I don’t mind talking to people, but walking into a crowded room and trying to spark up conversations with strangers. Makes my palms sweat as much as anybody else. Except for extroverts who actually like that stuff, those people are lunatics.

At first I was very analytical about figuring out how to network in the least painful way possible. I observed my colleagues who were good at it, read Dale Carnegie books and that awful Never Eat Alone book, read some blogs and experimented continuously. I learned some stuff that does in fact work.

I learned if you are young you need to dress very sharply to be taken seriously. If you manage a billion dollar private equity fund, everybody takes you seriously even if you’re in an oversized mustard yellow three-piece suit, a bolo tie and cowboy hat with an eagle feather in it. If you’re in your early twenties with nothing to trade but your wit and charm, you need a dark well-tailored suit, pocket square, some strikingly neon dress socks in polished kicks.

I learned about a “whatzit” or a conversation piece. Sometimes the tiniest ice-breaker can kick off a great conversation so it’s good to dangle something, anything really, that someone can make an off-hand comment about to break the silence. In my case it was a metal and tortoise-shell business card holder that I deftly whipped out to distribute cards while everybody fumbled in their wallets for crinkled pieces of paper. “Oh nice card holder,” they’d say. I’d respond, “Thanks, what are you investing in these days?” I’m aware of the American Pyscho business card analog here but you gotta admit, Bateman was a smooth operator.

I learned to get to the conference really early because everybody is off their guard and bleary-eyed at the coffee line. I learned later to spend hours before the conference emailing attendees because hard to reach people were 10x more likely to agree to a 15 minute side meeting at a conference than a 30 minute phone call on their normal calendar.

These are just a few snippets, there’s mountains of advice out there on how to network better. And a lot of this stuff does technically work, it will improve what you get out of a networking event and it totally worked in some ways for me.

But then I discovered a networking tactic that worked 100x better. All the other marginal improvements I’d made were worthless by comparison.

The secret to power networking is: Make something awesome and tell people about it.

The way to crush a conference is to give a compelling, data-rich, slightly funny and slightly controversial talk. It’s as simple as that.

I learned this when the CEO of our company was supposed to give a presentation at a reasonably important conference and couldn’t make it at the last second. So my boss thought, “Tyler’s been working for us for like six months now, why not have him do it instead?” (Yea, everybody there was awesome like that).

So I worked my ass off, put together a really interesting deck, nervously told a joke or two and pulled it off. I made something and told people about it. And then an amazing thing happened, everybody wanted to network with me! My talk was on the second day, so people who had actively ignored me the first day were now introducing themselves, or sending their lackeys to arrange a meeting. I got invited to the cool nerdy after parties where everyone gets too drunk and tells you all the juicy data.

This isn’t even an 80/20 effort. Just giving a 15 minute presentation yielded 99% of the value of the conference with 1% of the effort. Unless you have a deathly fear of public speaking, sitting on stage and saying “look at this cool thing I have” is a lot less scary than walking up to a stranger and saying “Hi I’m Tyler.” At least to me.

After that my conference trips were both more effective and much more pleasant. I focused almost all my efforts on getting a good speaking slot and giving a kick ass talk and mostly didn’t worry about the rest.

The general pattern holds well too. Since I put my suits in storage and quit my conference jockey gig, I’ve spent the last four years making stuff and blogging about it. Blog posts have been by far the best source of any kind of networking for me.

Inbound requests from folks who want to partner or help with my businesses all come from blog posts. Interesting people who just want to have a chat, come from blog posts. Fellow entrepreneurs who want to swap stories, find me through my blog posts. The blog-first startup is getting a lot of traction as a business tactic because it allows you to cheaply make something useful and show it to people before you ever pitch an investor. If done well, investors read what you’re putting out there and reach out to you!

I’m sure I’ll think of other good distribution methods for the make and tell people about it but for now it’s all about the blog game for me. Or rather the full pattern is: make something awesome, blog about it and then Buffer it, and then later repost it to Medium.

People always think the end-game to actually get value out of your blog is to monetize it with ads or something. But I think the biggest benefit by far is it allows you to do “pull networking.” You write down “these are the things I’m thinking about and like talking about” and others can read them and reach out to you if they like thinking and talking about those things too. That is infinitely more valuable than the $0.00005 per page view for one weird trick ads in your sidebar.

Making things, by the way, is also the only way to network upwards. What do I mean by that? Well let’s say you want to meet someone you look up to and admire: a writer, film star or entrepreneur. If you deploy all the traditional networking tactics incredibly well, they might be impressed and maybe you would get to meet them and gram a selfie with them. But let’s say you actually want to become friends, confidants and colleagues with these people. No amount of cold-calling, leveraging alumni networks or stunts can get you there. But write a best-selling novel, Kickstart a film in Sundance, or build a fast-growing startup and now you get invited over for drinks and conversation. The only way to build a real relationship with someone who has hugely asymmetric demands on their time is to make something they admire.

Sadly there’s no one weird trick here. The making of awesome things is massively harder than becoming a LinkedIn Group power-user, but it’s massively more rewarding too.

  1. “tax equity” for the energy geeks

Terrifying Freedom

It can be comforting to have something keeping you down.

A shitty boss or a dead end job, the Gub’ment or the Man. Patriarchy or racism. All of these things conspire to block you from being happy, successful and fulfilled. And that’s comforting for a lot of people because it gives you something to blame. Something to rail against and to grumble about on the commute home each day.

I’m pretty sure my best thinking is behind me. I did it all during my four years of high school debate team. But during that time the one idea that we studied that continues to fascinate me the most is threat construction. Threat construction is a fairly formalized sociological and psychological tendency for us to construct external threats. Psychologically this manifests in our desire to constantly create a bogeyman that’s the root cause of the problems in our life. The effect becomes even more powerful when groups of people circle the wagons and rally together to blame some “other” for their misfortunes. People are constantly creating, or at least vastly exaggerating, external threats.

And we really enjoy this. Coworkers love to kibitz about the bosses. Crazy uncles love to prognosticate on the impending threat of sharia law. I do it too. When my startup was failing I used to love to bitch about the stupid VCs who wouldn’t invest in us. Once you start thinking about threat construction, you see it everywhere, including in your own thinking all the time. We are constantly manufacturing and exaggerating layers upon layers of external threats.

Because the alternative can be terrifying.

When you start to really examine these threats or forces one by one and deconstruct them, what you probably find is that 99% of what’s keeping you down is made up of two things. The first thing is the shear randomness of the universe. You’re not cursed, you don’t have consistently bad luck, it’s just that the universe, the distribution of positive events, gene allocation are all profoundly random. Nothing is conspiring against you there and they only thing you can do is act like a professional poker player. You make good bets with your time, energy, decisions and resources and you let the chips fall. The second thing is You. And that’s the terrifying part. It’s comforting to think that you’re doing all you can and some force, human or otherwise is just blocking your path. But we when you really examine those thoughts it turns out that you have the ultimate control over the vast majority of those things.

Those layers of external threats and forces act as comfort blanket, shielding us from the ultimate responsibility for our own lives. My Dad used to always have a saying about his martial arts teacher who would say that “if someone punches you, it’s your fault for not getting out of the way.” It sounds a bit crazy at first glance, but it’s pretty liberating. It’s a way of thinking that you have the capacity to affect every part of your life and nothing is really out of your control to influence or improve.

Now I’m not saying that shitty bosses or government intrusion or sexism or racism are not real things. I’m not saying they’re made up. Some threats are made up, but some of them are very real. But I do think that in most cases they simply tilt the already uncertain and difficult terrain of life further against you. The lion’s share of the blame for the status of your life is probably still on you.

Complaining to your friend about something that’s keeping you from your dreams gives you a short, quick hit of good chemicals in your brain. Deeply examine the issue and you realize that 1) ultimately the onus is on you to act and 2) acting probably involves taking some risk, and the randomness of the universe ensures you don’t know it the risk will pay off. That does not give you a spurt of good chemicals, but something more akin to a punch in the gut.

But it’s the truth. We all have a terrifying freedom.

Struggling

I’ve been struggling lately with what to do next in 2015. In 2014 I had mostly to choose from a limited selection of hard choices. We had to make the decision to shut down SolarList. I then had to find a way to get back some of the enormous amount of money I lost on the project. I spent a good chunk of the year turning my side project into a full time income and building an ecommerce/startup consulting practice. In 2015 I’m very slightly moving up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. My safety and (largely financial) security are in a decent place. My attention is shifting (back) to things that maximize my ability to do something that matters in the world. Systematizing the things that make money is increasingly freeing up more and more of my time, leaving me to figure out what exactly to do with it.

At the same time I’m in Chiang Mai. A digital nomad nexus filled with people doing unconventional things with their lives. Everyone you meet just slightly amplifies the feeling that literally everything you can do with your life is on the table or at least worth considering.

I found myself pretty scatter-brained. I’ve been generating ideas faster than I can evaluate them, but I have also been evaluating them — testing them out, throwing me out to smart people for a valued opinion. Thanks folks for bearing with me. As I tried evaluate ideas, some of them seemed to be not totally stupid. So the next question is, well I can’t do ALL of these, so I should start trying to compare them.

And this is where things just get weird. Every time I compared ideas, either in conversation or in my own head, I found the line of thinking started as a neat little two-column list of pros and cons, and rapidly devolved to a very existential discussion of what did I truly value in life.

Literally, I start off talking about two types of web apps and end up in a deep discussion of human fear of our own mortality. I’m talking about converting travel guides from PDF to HTML and end up debating, intensely, whether giving 1,000 people a moment of joy they will remember their whole life is ethically more worthwhile than materially improving 1,000 people’s standard of living in some useful but ultimately boring way. What the hell! How can I possibly make a simple decision when everything devolves to an insoluble philosophical question.

So I sat down today and I started writing, and talking to myself, and talking to my computer and listening to it back. Trying to dig deeply into the different distilled conflicts all these options kept circling back to. And all of the sudden I was like:

Oh.

There’s absolutely nothing unique here at all.

All of these conflicts distilled to some very fundamental dilemmas that probably every human faces on some level. You only have so many units of time and energy in your life and you constantly have to distribute how much you dedicate toward trying to fulfill each of these categories. All of these are hard too. They’re all a gamble. You can put all your time and energy into one and still not get the desired effect, on top of having neglected the others. Life is hard that way.

So what am I thinking about and what are these categories, you might ask. You might already think I’m full of crap and have closed this tab. But for those of you still with me, read on.

Making more money

Why would I want to make more money? I guess some people might find this question silly but I think it’s an important question to ask. I hate thinking about money. I get a visceral reaction in the pit of my stomach to thinking about budgets and accounting and taxes. In my personal life I only want to make money for the purpose of thinking less about money. And I think there is hopefully an achievable crossover point where I have enough money that I don’t really have to think about money at all.

But moreover it seems like it really does take money to do something interesting with one’s life. Money is influence. Money is optionality. Money can give you back 100% of your time and energy to focus on things other than paying the rent.

One of the biggest mistakes I made with SolarList was increasing my expenses too quickly without the ability to cover them. As a result we couldn’t take a long view on the business, we didn’t have time to experiment and basically it was a total crisis just to pay the rent. I never want to go through that again, so building up financial security has a lot of value for me.

So I’m looking at some options. One avenue is to take the lessons learned from SolarList: digging deep into the customer education and sales process of solar energy, building software and doing dozens of user interface experiments. To take that and do enterprise consulting with big companies. Another is to continue to build out my ecommerce and consulting business. And another is to build another product like Storemapper. With so much experience in building a micro-SaaS product I feel confident I could churn out another few simple products and catch a small winner pretty shortly. Two profitable micro-SaaS business would almost certainly throw off enough cash that I could basically spend 100% of my time not making any money for the foreseeable future, at least until/unless I needed to support a family.

All decent. I’m lucky to even have them as viable options.

But they also don’t feel very meaningful. At the end of it I’ll just have the money and have spent the time. Who really gives a shit about money. Right now I’m in Thailand where it costs about $1,000/month to live really really well. I’ve just spent the last year thinking, involuntarily, a lot about money and I fucking hate thinking about money.

Do meaningful things, make a dent, etc

This is the big one. Basically I just want to be in perfect health, full of energy, have all my finances taken care of and spend all of my time trying to solve important problems that will matter 200 years from now.

Elderly heiresses take note: If any wealthy aristocrats would like to sponsor me in that endeavor, I’m certainly open to arrangements.

When I quit my job I had a vision for my startup. There was this massive energy transition that needed (needs) to happen to save the freaking world. In my job I had learned that I was particularly good at buildings tools that accurately described big parts of this transition and could make them concrete and quantifiable. I learned that I could be at times particularly compelling at dispelling inaccurate beliefs about this energy transition, using that data and those models. So I wanted to scale up what I felt I could do on a person to person basis. Massively scalable, personalized education that would change the minds of millions of people and meaningfully accelerate an energy transformation that could save the world!

Fuck that’s meaningful, right!?

So why do I spend my days working on an ecommerce widget!?

Well, see above, it creates a degree of financial freedom for me. I work on it because it has high leverage of time, it can pay the bills and give me more time in return to work on big projects.

So, I should be working on big meaningful projects right?

Yes, I should.

But, honestly I’m hesitant and yea, a little bit afraid. I have only just barely scraped my way to avoiding personal bankruptcy. My first startup basically failed, had to have shitty conversations with investors — friends, mind you, who put their hard earned money behind me, and lost it. I invested three years of my 20s with very little meaning to show for it. I’m still psyching myself up to get back in the ring.

But this is crap and excuses. What big things am I thinking about:

1) I’m still not over the original vision behind SolarList. I think about giving it another go in solar. I think about trying the same angle — software superpowered personalized education — in different markets like LED lighting. I’m still aggressively poking around looking for an idea that really punches me in the gut and forces me to commit.

2) On some level I worry that I’ve missed the opportunity a little bit. That big companies and marketing budgets are ultimately going to solve #1 in the developed world because the major technologies have reached a threshold where they make sense for a very large number of consumers. I’m super curious about what’s going at the edge of the grid with distributed renewable technologies. In mobile much of the innovation happened at the edges, like mobile money, and percolated back through to the broader network. I think the next big phase of this energy transition may look like that, where innovations happen at the edge in unexpected ways. I would love to start exploring that and documenting that. And exploring it, at least at first, in a totally non-commercial way. Just learning and showing other people what’s going on. This intersects with something else that I think about the next phase of the energy transition is that business models become less important for moving things forward and something that looks more like “art” becomes radically more important. Things that serve no purpose other than to make the observer feel something. And that feeling starts to change the way they perceive the world and that seeps into their decision making so that they simply decide they want to participate in taking better care of the climate, whatever the return on investment may be.

3) Outside of few individual people, nothing has had a larger and more positive impact on my life than travel. I don’t remember where I read this, but someone suggested a thought experiment: What job would you be doing if you woke up every morning and thought to yourself, “Wow, I can’t fucking believe I get to do this for work!”? For me I think that would be running company where the product helped more people travel for their first time, helped more people afford to travel more often and helped people have spontaneous adventures that they treasured their whole lives. That would be awesome. Also, I’m a traveler so I can just scratch my own itch and build products I like. But as I dig deeper I’m discovering that, well, a lot people think the same way and it’s a super complicated, super crowded market with a ton of very smart people who know a lot more than me already working in it.

Take care of self and do fun things

In 2013 I took very bad care of myself. I raced my mind at full-throttle. I drank too much coffee and booze. Stressed myself out severely and got in pretty bad shape. Since early 2014 I reverse that to some extent, mainly emergency maintenance. But I haven’t really invested in rejuvenating myself.

The conundrum is always that maybe you’re just too burnt out to do the ambitious stuff you want to do. Maybe I’ll do better at all of these other things if I take a few months to focus on traveling, re-investing in my education, learn a language, do more rock climbing, yoga and skiing. Maybe I’ll come out of that with 10x the energy and everything else will be better for it.

But wow is it hard to turn off that ambition. I probably would need someone to force me to do this as I can’t imagine convincing myself to do anything more than the minimum. But Southeast Asia is a lovely place to just relax and have fun for a little while. It’s cheap, the weather is nice and the food is good.

Probably not going to happen.

Giving to family and loved ones

This is a short one because there’s not a lot of nuance to it. Pretty straightforward. I don’t give nearly enough of my time and energy to my family and loved ones. I’ve lived a lot of my life on the opposite end of that spectrum. Mostly because I saw too many of my friends and peers sacrifice too much of their lives and opportunities for rote familial obligations. I always thought people spent too much of their time and money flying home for every holiday and doing stuff just because it’s what you do. They missed out on too many opportunities and experiences for it. I love my family, but I always felt a little comfortable passing certain obligations that society and tradition place on the eldest son.

But the fact remains that my family, extended family and loved ones could do with more from me. There’s help for the older folks and mentorship for the younger ones that I could and should give. As I get older, and more importantly as they all do, this gnaws at me more and more. Gotta do better.

So that’s what is on my mind. I’m going to, perhaps too rashly, post this unedited and then go for a digital detox for a few days. Maybe I’ll come back with a clearer head. Thanks for reading.