at home in... w| Gerald Zhang-Schmidt

Look Closer, Learn More, #GetAtHome In This World

Tag: life hacking

The N=1 of Life Advice

In the many, many ideas for everything from very simple life hacking to outright radical lifestyle design, it’s all about the individual.

Implicitly or explicitly, someone is presented or outright proclaims himself (more rarely, herself) *the* example of success.

“I did it, he/she did it – so definitely, so can you! Everyone can do it if they just want it enough!”

Realize it or not, it’s a lot like that strain of positive thinking where you’re responsible for everything that happens in your life. Which, unfortunately, ends up meaning that if you get cancer, for example, you’re being blamed for it all yourself (as Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out so well).

Success, just like cancer, is related to your own doing, but pure (good or bad) luck also plays a big part in it.

Special Snowflakes

So, no, just like not everybody gets, or can prevent themselves getting, cancer, not everyone can “do it.”

One person having managed to make him-/herself successful in a certain way can, in fact, mean that it gets all the more difficult for anybody else to achieve a similar kind of success.

One person’s success is an example, and perhaps an inspirational one, but it may also just be a fluke.

This is a major issue that plagued Tim Ferriss’ “The Four-Hour Body”, where the success is merely physical.

In the book, Tim looks to outliers (and his guinea-pig self) to find how things could possibly be done differently and more quickly, to even greater results. Whenever he can, he tries out things himself – and then suggests that everyone should do them for the same great results.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way.

As one could see in his ultramarathon career (What ultramarathon career? What single ultramarathon, in fact? Exactly.), the outlier he looked to may have been just that, an outlier.

HIIT training, for example, is not necessarily the path to endurance success – just as common knowledge would have it.

And that’s the thing.

What works for most people is not the peculiar thing that worked for some outlier, it is probably that which has been working for most people.

After all, you are most likely not some special outlier, but just another part of that average.

The Experiment of You

The other side of this issue, where a sample size of just one person, i.e. an N=1, is not exactly a great basis on which to make suggestions, however, is that you yourself are only one individual person.

You are an N of 1.

As such, what works for you doesn’t have to work for other people, what works for you may just have happened to work for you and you can’t rewind your life and do a re-test trying out another approach.

And in the same vein, but on the other side of that equation, what works for the average may not work so well for you.

So, you may want to try out where on the spectrum between outliers and average you do fall in matters that are important to you.

(Medicine, in fact, may have to focus more specifically on the individual response to a treatment.)

Maybe the long slow runs are not as good for you as HIIT training.
Maybe a diet with fewer carbohydrates will be good for you; or maybe focusing on fat and protein does not do you good.

Possibly, if you keep up good-enough work on the side, you can turn it into a successful side biz. Or maybe even your main source of income.

Or maybe not. Most startups still fail, most world-traveling vagabonds still settle down at some point.

You’ll have to try out things and find what is good for you.

Just don’t think that something feeling good has to mean it’s the truth for you (until you’ve sensibly tested it out – and even then, don’t tell others this is *the* way to do it, it’s just a suggestion).

Especially, don’t do that when there’s actual science and facts – beyond the most recent case of “a new study says” – involved, not just holy books or personal opinions…

(On that point of science, watch John Oliver’s video, which I’ve also just linked to)

Still, what is likely to be good for everyone, average and outliers alike, is just that trying out of things.

Even if all you find out in the end is that you don’t actually want to try out new things, you’ll still have learned something on the way there…

5k to 50k in 12 weeks ... unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

Lessons from the Ultra(Running) Fail of Tim Ferriss

Being interested in personal development and the creation of better lives, Tim Ferriss is someone to watch.

Between the surprise success of “The 4-Hour Work-Week” and his third and latest (and highly recommendable) “The 4-Hour Chef,” in the course of which he’s been shifting towards a somewhat better understanding of life not being just about brag-worthy experiences and records, he had collected fitness/health/body advice into “The 4-Hour Body.”

The most interesting part of it to me, understandably, was the little “last-minute addition” about ultramarathon running.

4HB Cliffhanger

The 4HB-Ultramarathon-Cliffhanger. Try getting something like this published if you’re not Tim Ferriss…

Sure, it is not the most important part of the book.

However, it has turned out to be the part that most clearly shows the psychological dynamics through which this “hacker” approach to living goes astray.

One of the grand notions of the 4-hour empire is the idea that one needs to look at the outliers and deconstruct skills to find the faster, more direct – more intelligent? – ways to a goal.

Want to pleasure women? Forget about romanticism and an atmosphere of trust and warmth, try these tried-and-tested techniques!
Want six-pack abs? Go for the “minimum effective dose” of this strange trick…. oh, wait, wrong sort of text…

Now, things like the minimum effective dose, the focus on the elements of a skill that will give the greatest result for the time invested, the search for life hacks that will give early wins and, therefore, the impetus to go on, are not bad at all.

However, those outliers might not have anything much to teach, but be “freaks” for whom things really are different, without much of any import to the majority.
The vast majority of people may not find a shortcut for going from 5k to 50k by way of high-intensity training, but does rather need to go for long and slow training runs, just as common wisdom has it.

Why? Simply because there’s still a difference between improving blood levels and fitness indicators – for which HIT (high-intensity training) can do a lot – and running for hours on end. Both physically, and psychologically – and this is where it gets really interesting.

“[A]n ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything. Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility.” (Scott Jurek, “Eat & Run” 2012)

5k to 50k in 12 weeks ... unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

5k to 50k in 12 weeks … unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

Could Ferriss participate in and finish a 50k ultra?

Certainly, as long as both determination and humility are there. – But would a person who wanted to go from 5k to 50k within 12 weeks, something like 100 weeks ago, who has made a name for himself through relentless self-promotion and the collection of strange records (and looking at the “Chinese national kickboxing champion” title, winning “the wrong way”) be content with walking for quite a bit of the distance and finishing somewhere at the back of the pack?

This, to me, is the driving issue: Approaching a problem intelligently is highly recommendable, of course.

When that supposed intelligence becomes all about the quick wins – quick ways to only four hours of work a week (because everything that’s fun is defined as something other than work), quick fluency in a language (because fluency is defined as the ability to participate in an everyday conversation without too many misunderstandings or embarrassing pauses and nothing more) – however, then it becomes dangerous.

Rather than being a highly recommendable experimentation with life, driven and driving at understanding and learning, it comes to support the quickly achieved successes that are nothing more than a little gaming of the usual system.

In words from “The 4-Hour Chef,”


In the first 24 hours, I’ll take you from burning scrambled eggs to osso buco, one of the most expensive menu items in the world. If 28% of Americans can’t cook at all,‡ and if another third are on some variation of mac and cheese, having even one seemingly difficult meal up your sleeve puts you in rare company. [my emphasis]

Compare that to the world of something like ultrarunning:

According to Outside Online, “a record 36,000 people participated in [ultra-distance events] in the U.S. last year.
Given a U.S. population of 313,914,040, that means that those who participated in an ultra-distance event were 0.0115% (rounded up) of the total population… or, in the terms of getting to greatness used by Tim Ferriss, mere participation makes you a part of the Top 0.0115% of Americans when it comes to ultramarathon running…

Move over, “the 1%.” Register for the next ultra, et voila, you’re “in rare company.

Superficial symptoms of success, however, are the exact opposite to the command over and separateness from the usual ways of doing things and the usual, pedestrian, values, leading forward to something better, that intelligent hacks are meant to show.

A better life that remembers what virtues are (and actually, any kind of good life that goes beyond superficialities), is rather like an ultramarathon: It is not achievable through quick hacks, but only by slouching on even when it’s hard, taking pleasure in the grand views as well as the exhilarating descents – and the pain and doubt, as well – taking one step after another whether it is fast or slow, easy or painful.

Will you come along with me?


The Other 80/20 of Success

Or, How You Did (Not) Build That

Lots and lots of advice on how to achieve goals, be successful, get whatever it is you think you want, has been put out there. So much, in fact, that it may seem as if the only thing standing between you and your better life is nothing but your own damn laziness. You mustn’t be wanting it enough.

For actually living better, though, facing reality is good advice.
And the reality of it is that there is only so much of life that you could actually control.

So, it is all the more important to do what you can, but also to face up to the fact that things may still not work out the way you wanted – and there’s both problems and potential in that.

80-20One of the prominent guidelines for working towards success has been the 80/20 rule, suggesting that 80% of the results come from 20% of the work – or some such. Therefore, it should be those especially effective 20% you focus on, cutting out the comparatively inconsequential clutter that are the other 80%.

So, learning a language, don’t focus on any and all of the finer points of grammar and exotic items of vocabulary, concentrate on the high-frequency words and the much-used forms.

Working towards a goal, then, avoid the unnecessary detours and get right to the essentials… but there’s the problem:

When it comes to personal learning goals (which are self-controlled), this rule may work out to be a sensible guideline for quick success (though even then, it may come with problematic side effects). In working towards success in the world, in the form of money or impact made, however, it applies rather differently.

The real 80/20 of success may well be that 20% of it are what you yourself do, the other 80% are factors such as timing, perception of your person and product, economic conditions, and similar elements of context.

That does not, typically, mean that you can just give up trying. Without the 20% that is actually doing the work, getting a product out there (whether it’s a gadget, food, or a work of art or, for that matter, of philosophy), there is zero chance of success.

Only because we admire the successful and otherwise great people we hear of, and only because they – and we – like to explain success strictly by great products and, perhaps, great marketing, however, success cannot be built in quite as straightforward a way as marketing gurus and coaches for entrepreneurial success like to make it.

You can tweak a lot, test quite a bit, come upon such convincing marketing for an inferior product or happen to jump onto a trend at just the right time for it to carry you to rarefied heights, build such a great product and manage to get it in front of just the right people so that you don’t have to be the great marketer… There are lots of possibilities, none of them achievable if you don’t “build it.”

Only because you built it and “never gave up” does not mean that you, too, must be met with success, though. Sure, that’s what we always hear from the successful ones – but we never ask those who tried and failed, and they probably put in the same, perhaps even more, time and effort (and intelligent tweaks, and great marketing… even blood, sweat, and tears).

Most products fail. Many a great philosopher or artist achieved only posthumous fame.

That never kept the good and ambitious (or simply stubborn, or passionate and convinced) ones from trying, from having something they had to work on and towards, with determination – but often enough, they also went onto detours, looked left and right, for that may lead to new ideas and insights, new paths that turn out to be better than what was originally imagined.

More and more, this is getting considerably more necessary than the success that is so often imagined.

Dreams are of getting rich and famous, but reality is that fame and fortune are increasingly problematic goals, thanks to all their side effects (on personal life and happiness as well as on the world).

As David Orr stated in a quote that’s making its rounds through the social networks a lot (and is often attributed to the Dalai Lama or otherwise connected with East Asia, in another version of virtualism…), “the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” (“What Is Education For?” 1991)

It’s time for better goals, for a life that is more concerned about living well in many a respect rather than about achieving one thing imagined to be the be-all, end-all … but also, yes, for getting to work intelligently, with an understanding of the reality of probable failure, and the tenacity and drive to aim higher anyways.

Dishes in the Sink

Thoughts Around the Kitchen Sink

Dishes in the SinkEven with Tim Ferriss teaching everything and the good life in a pan – his next book will be The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life, after all [Amazon affiliate link] – I wonder if he actually ever cooks, let alone does the dishes.
After all, why cook when you can let someone else do it, why clean the house when you’ll be moving, why fold your clothes when you’re just going to have to do it all over again. Don’t you have better things to do?

Not to forget, you may be bad at it. Personal confessions have been all the rage on personal growth / lifestyle design / etc. blogs, so let me confess something, too: I’m terrible at doing the dishes.
Cleaning up is a problem, anyways. I love not having my place cluttered, but I always work on so many things, the tumult just grows. And while I try and focus on those important things, I don’t want to think of the dirty dishes. So, they are left sitting in the sink, or even on the table.

There is something to be said for this unpopular maintenance work of life, though.

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