Drop Your Center of Gravity

Years ago — too many years — my friend Mike showed me a T’ai Chi practice called Push Hands. It’s a mix of dance, practice, and sparring. You and your opponent (or partner) face each other with one foot forward, your front feet touching.

You put your hands up, palms open, pressed against those of your opponent, and without striking you seek to shift your opponent such that they lose their balance and lose their footing. What follows turns into a sort of dance with circular motions, swaying back-and-forth, pushing, yielding, redirecting. It’s much less about strength and more about balance, anticipation, reading, and flexibility.

I don’t remember where we were, but I know it was a warm and sunny afternoon somewhere in suburban Wisconsin. I felt lucky to have a friend like Mike, an accomplished martial artist, who could casually offer me a glimpse into his learnings from years of study and practice.

Of course he could beat me pretty handily. It was no contest. But it was fun.

He told me to drop my center of gravity. I bent my knees and waist a bit more, dropping my center of gravity. I had studied physics in college. I understood the concepts of leverage and center of gravity well. This immediately helped me to better hold my footing. I understood this intellectually and it made perfect sense.

Then he told me to drop my center of gravity even further — to drop it “into the earth.” Find a point twenty feet below us, fixed in granite, and fasten myself to it.

I imagined that point. And I imagined some filament, some unbreakable cable, fixing me to it. I imagined the strength of it, the solidity.

We sparred again. And the difference was palpable. The strength and stability I drew from rooting myself into the earth helped me to hold my ground.

This didn’t make sense on an intellectual basis. Of course my center of gravity wasn’t really deep underground. But my belief — my willingness to be open — had an undeniable effect.

You can call this whatever you want. A placebo effect. The power of positive thinking. Self-delusion. It doesn’t matter to me and it won’t change my experience.

I felt myself tapping into something greater, whether it was within myself or without. I don’t feel the need to define it.

Today we are feeling off-kilter. We are getting pushed around by social media, by our politics, by our biases, our outrage. Many people are losing jobs. We are losing loved ones.

The future is uncertain in a way that I have never experienced in my lifetime. I don’t know what will happen a week from now. I don’t know what the world will look like a year from now.

In order to hold our footing, we must learn to respond to the forces around us. We must learn to yield and bend. Push where we can, but not too hard, lest we lose our balance and overstep. Take the forces against us and redirect them.

But we are not just our response to the chaos around us. That is not our identity and that is not our strength. Yes, we must be aware. But we must not invest too deeply in the forces pushing us or our response to them, or we may lose our footing.

We draw our strength from our very core, connected to something deeper — more solid. Whatever that is for you. Find your center and drive it into the earth. Make that your identity, that unbreakable connection to something greater.

This is a difficult time for so many people. I don’t know when, but this too shall pass.

Seeing the Whole Picture

I wrote and published this internally at my company, Automattic (we’re hiring!). Some of it is specific to us, a distributed technology company, but I suspect some pieces may resonate with others, so I’m sharing more broadly.


We often have a sort of narrow-mindedness where we focus on our own tasks or our own areas of code to the exclusion of the greater whole. And we play a game of hot potato where we do our thing and then throw it over the fence. We think of our job as working on the narrow piece that is our expertise — an API endpoint, a page in an app, some section of code. But we don’t work to understand the other parts of the system.

I think this comes from a mindset of fear. Fear of something bad happening on our watch, in our area. So we race to get our piece done and throw the responsibility to someone else. This leads to things like code reviews where people list objections without solutions. Where people point out why we cannot do something without offering ideas moving us forward. It leads to slow exchanges in conversations where we waste days due to timezone overlaps, narrowly answering questions but not digging further. Where we don’t coordinate or ask people about their side of a project because “that’s not my job.”

It also leads to solving problems at the wrong layer. Addressing API problems with front-end workarounds. Writing “fixers” that address the symptoms of problems after they occur rather than addressing the root cause. It leads to missing things like planning for analytics or ab-testing or launch plans, because we’re focusing on building code… because we think that’s the job. “I did my piece, so if anything goes wrong it’s not my fault.”

But doing our one piece is not the job. Our job is to get the thing done, make good products, and get them in the hands of our customers, however that has to happen. That doesn’t mean we have to do everything. But it does mean that rather than throwing things over the fence, we need to purposefully hand-off and confirm with others. Take the extra step and think “What can we do to solve the real underlying problem?” or “How can we get this new awesome thing improving our customer’s lives as soon as possible?”

We need to think about and understand how our projects are going to help people. And we need to better understand how our work fits in with everyone else’s work to get in the hands of our customers. Take time to learn how the other systems work, how components interact with each other. Plan ahead to make sure the whole project lifecycle is being considered, and to make sure other teams are ready and available to help. Consider our job complete, not when it’s built, but rather when it’s helping a customer.

This comes from a mindset of eagerness and opportunity. It comes from leaning in, understanding the customer journey and having empathy. We should be excited about what we are building and want to get it out there to see what it does. Feel proud about what we’re doing for people, because we can see and understand how it makes their lives better. We should feel that we can explain in a very simple way — in an elevator conversation with a customer — how what we are building is going to make things better for them.

This shifts us from focusing on tactics to focusing on strategy and narrative. It gets us thinking about the value we are creating… thinking about the opportunity in front of us. It gets us thinking in new ways… maybe there’s an easier way to build this. Maybe there’s a better idea that solves the underlying need we are trying to address. We build smarter, faster, and better when our motivation comes from the good things in front of us.

It’s also just a lot more fun.

COVID-19: April 2

I’m not gonna lie. Today felt really hard. The hardest day yet. Yesterday I started a conversation at work that I knew would be difficult, it would mean disappointing people, arguing, debating. Leaving people unhappy, disappointed.

That’s the job. It just feels harder in the current environment. But I think it sapped all my energy from today.

I can’t seem to figure out a health regimen. Yesterday we ordered dominoes, but I made a low-carb pizza for myself and Jill. And then we followed that with a bottle of wine.

Today I woke up hungry and feeling a little sick and gave up on the low-carb intermittent fasting that has been my mantra for the past two years or so. I had a couple bowls of cereal to try to feel “right.”

I recognize that so many people have it harder than me. Whether it’s people in healthcare working round the clock or people who have lost their jobs because of the shut-down. I 100% get that I am a privileged jerk. No question. If this post feels like a cry for sympathy… it’s not. I’m just trying to capture my thoughts.

It’s honestly hard to work with the personal existential crises this environment provokes. I’m not curing cancer. I’m sure as hell not curing coronavirus.

But I am responsible for making sure that my company does well. And in that respect I am responsible for the salaries of about 1,300 people. And without hubris, if I do a bad job in my position, it will have a real impact on those 1,300 people. So honestly, it doesn’t matter how I feel. My responsibility is to ensure that we can continue to pay these people. That our company continues to make sense and provide value to people.

I have no wrapup to end this. Today was Thursday. It’s gonna get worse over the next couple weeks. But we need to keep doing what we do. Keep serving the needs of the people who rely on us.

COVID-19: March 29

More notes and thoughts…

We walked into the cul-de-sac today, joining our neighbors singing happy birthday to a neighbor boy turning 18. Later, we took some family portraits as a photographer drove past people’s houses taking “porch portraits” for donations.

This weekend (Saturday) was Max’s birthday. He got a decent haul of gifts that he enjoyed. We sang happy birthday via videoconference on zoom between grandparents and cousins. His local cousins drove by and did a dance-a-thon in the street. At his request we made spaghetti and cookie-dough balls for dessert.

Stores are still experiencing shortages, but it’s targeted and somewhat random. Some days the entire cheese section is bare. Some days there’s no eggs. But there’s never been a day without some sort of decent food. You may have to settle for different brands or skip something you can’t find. But food isn’t a problem if you’re flexible.

I took our van through a drive through car wash today. We did this for the photo, which I’ll post when we get it. For some reason it was only $5 when it’s normally $20. I took Violet and the dogs as a treat to get out of the house. Somehow I managed to put it in drive when I thought I had it in neutral and took my foot off the brake. The car lurched and the guys started hollering. I fixed it right away of course, but I felt like an idiot and felt very jittery after that. I suppose it’s just general distraction.

My careful eating and workout schedule has gone right out the window. I really need to get that under control. I came into this pandemic in the best shape of my life, and that seems like a pretty good thing. But I find it hard to maintain a Keto diet when the stores are inconsistent. And my regimen of going to the gym every other day is right out the door. I have some weights at home, but they can’t make up for the loss of the barbell equipment at the gym.

We’re pretty well stocked for food, but I don’t want to be complacent about it. I’m frankly worried this pandemic is going to hit the US harder than it hit Italy. Scratch that. I believe it will, and by the numbers that’s what is happening so far. I don’t want to let our food dwindle down only to find that we’re low when stores become really bare or both Jill and I get sick.

I’m not sure when this pandemic will hit its peak in the US or locally here in Central Texas. It’s hard to know, because we can hardly trust the numbers we have, given the lack of testing capability. I’m sure the number of actual infected people in the US is multiples of the 146k or so confirmed cases that are reported. But I expect it to get much, much worse over the next few weeks.

COVID-19: March 22

I started writing this post over a week ago, but never finished. I’m going to post it as-is to keep track of what was going on at the time.

The world feels very surreal right now.

In less than a week we went from being excited about our spring break trip to Disney World to being locked in self-quarantine along with the rest of the world.

That’s how quickly things have changed. We were excited about our trip, then we were wondering whether we should cancel, then Disney World canceled, then we considered what to do instead, then we learned more about “social distancing” and the need to limit our interactions with others for the good of everyone, and then our city basically shut down for non-essential travel.

School is canceled for the next several months and we are limiting our trips and interactions with others as much as possible. We go to the store to get food or staples and that’s about it. And the stores have serious shortages. It’s impossible to get disinfectant of course, but there are also regular runs on bread, rice, pasta, cheese, etc.

Jill and I feel like we’re walking through a daze. We’re watching a lot of TV and movies, playing a lot of games, watching the news, and drinking more than our fair share of beer and wine.

A Sabbatical, Some Learnings, and a Mantra

I work at Automattic, and one of the incredible perks we get is a three-month, paid sabbatical after five years (we’re hiring). This is as awesome as it sounds. And it was a personal turning point for me.

Here’s the interesting thing though. It wasn’t the sabbatical itself, it was the leadup to the sabbatical.

It’s such an amazing, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that I started researching and planning a year ahead of time to make sure I didn’t waste it. I read posts from other people who had sabbaticals about what they did, what they learned.

Lots of people traveled around the world, took a long break from the digital world at a remote cabin, or rented an RV and drove across the country. With a family of five, and without having saved for this ahead of time (whoops), we just didn’t have the finances for any of these.

Others focused their time on learning, building new skills, trying new things. This I could do. If we couldn’t afford an extravagant journey through the world, I could start an inner journey.

I also noticed a pattern to these posts. There was a common realization for those choosing the inner journey. Like Dorothy with her ruby slippers, invariably the posts ended with “I realize now I could have been doing these things all along. I didn’t need a sabbatical to do this.”

Call to Adventure

What we really need is an inciting incident, a call to adventure. Like the hero’s journey, we need something that breaks us out of the ordinary world and motivates us to change. This doesn’t need to be a crisis. It can just be an idea. It can be a point of realization. And this was mine.

I decided not to wait for my sabbatical.

I set goals for myself. Be a better father. Write. Perform music. Get in shape. Manage stress. Be more patient. More confident. More forgiving. More helpful.

I read a ton. I practiced meditation. I changed my diet. I started regularly exercising.

In my reading I found commonalities in different religions, philosophies, and books on self-improvement. And I realized something… I realized it not just intellectually, but on a deep, emotional level.

We Are Our Choices

We are not our achievements. We are not our circumstances. We are not our limitations. We are the choices that we make and the values that we serve. I believe this is ultimately what makes us a good or bad person. What informs our value.

And this is what we control. It is in fact the only thing we control. But it is something completely in our control and can never be taken from us. I cover this more in my post Stoicism and Control.

No, you can’t just choose to be an astronaut. You can’t choose to be an NBA star. Those are outcomes. Outcomes are never guaranteed, and they can be taken away.

But you can make the same choices, honor the same values as people you admire, whether that’s astronauts, NBA stars, or anyone else. You can learn about their struggles, their paths, follow in their footsteps. Like these people, you can choose to be the person who puts in the hard work to make an outcome likely.

You choose who you are every day. Every moment.

Letting Go of Self-Punishment

Embracing these ideas was transformational to me and helped me let go of a lot of negativity.

You don’t need to feel crippled by self-doubt, regret, shame, embarrassment, or anxiety. You don’t need to lie awake hating yourself for your mistakes, your poor choices.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t feel regret or empathy. You will make mistakes. You will let people down. You will hurt people. I have, and I’m sure I will in the future. We all do.

But you don’t need to let it define you or to cripple you.

This is when you choose to be better. Look at the choices you’ve made. Are you living by the right principles? Did you make the best choice you could at the time? If yes, then you did your best and you can take comfort in that. If no, then choose to do better, be better. Learn from your mistakes.

You don’t have to be the same person who made poor choices. You can become a better person. And if you really do this, if you commit to new choices and new values, you become a different person. You don’t need to punish yourself for the person you used to be.

There is in fact no utility, for you or anyone else, to punish yourself for the person you used to be. That path leads to a sense of helplessness and futility and self-reinforcing belief that you cannot change. It will keep you in the same rut, unchanged, un-evolved.

Instead, let your mistakes motivate you to be a better person. There is no perfection here. There is only a journey, the progress, and motivation to evolve… to embrace a constant evolution.

Use your mistakes to motive you, to learn. But let go of who you were, and you can let go of the urge to punish yourself for your mistakes.

Be the Person

If you can be anyone, then why not be the best person you can possibly be?

Imagine someone who exhibits all of the qualities you most admire. Again I’m talking choices and principles, not outcomes or achievements. How does this person treat others? How does this person handle tasks? What habits does this person cultivate? What is important to them? What behavior do they avoid? How does it feel when they walk into a room? How do they make you feel?

Now… be that person.

This simple idea, more than anything, has helped me to create positive habits, forgive myself for stupid mistakes, and motivate myself. Figure out what kind of person you most admire, then be the person.

I admire people who are positive, make others smile, take accountability, make hard decisions, admit mistakes, allow themselves to be vulnerable, work hard, maintain their health, and treat people fairly. That’s the person I choose to be. I will fall short at times. But that’s my mantra. Be the person.

#philosophy


This wasn’t easy to write. Lots of ideas are self-referencing, so it’s hard to find a coherent path. It feels rambling, grandiose, self-congratulating, and a bit preachy. But somewhere in here is a lesson that has helped me, and I think it can help others if I can figure out how to say it. Gonna call this a work-in-progress and hit publish. 🙂

Mindfulness and Self-Reflection

The other day I wrote about stoicism and control. While I was reading about stoicism I was also learning about mindfulness, and I found some really interesting overlapping ideas. In that post I had written;

We control our reaction to others. We control how we feel about the world around us. We control whether we allow others to hurt us. We control how we let everything outside of us change us.

One obvious counter to this would be “I don’t control how I feel about something. I can’t make something not hurt me.”

Actually, you’re right. Good point!

I can’t control how I feel about something. Not exactly. I can’t make myself love something. I can’t wave my hands and make sadness go away. But I can control how I let my feelings affect me and my own decisions.

This is exactly what mindfulness trains us to do.

The mind is an incredible thing. It can look at something, analyze it, and decide how to improve it. Even more amazing is that the mind can reflect on itself and its own processes and work to improve them. We can literally think about and analyze our own thoughts and feelings.

Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of our own thought, our own feelings. Pay attention to what is happening in our minds.

For example, one of the practices in mindfulness is learning to notice our own emotions. And if we are feeling stress, we just acknowledge it and say to ourselves “This is stress. This is what stress feels like.” Or “This is anger.” Or “This is frustration.”

I recognize that this sounds new-age-y, hokey, and stupid. I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. I get it.

But it works.

I’ve really found that acknowledging “this is stress” has helped me to put my current feelings in context with the rest of my life. This is a thing I am feeling now. It’s understandable. I won’t always feel this. And I don’t need to let it drive me.

In effect, we are creating a separate identity within our own mind. The observer, which can contemplate and consider ideas separately from the part of our minds that responds with emotion.

It requires some vulnerability and openness, but with practice this observer can critique our own thoughts and feelings, find flaws, see our own oversights and biases.

By recognizing these emotions, recognizing how they make us feel, how they make us think, we shift our point of view to the rational observer. And it gives us a greater level of control over ourselves.

So, no, I can’t exactly drive how I feel about something. But I can take more control over how my emotions drive me. And this is a powerful tool to take control of my own life.

#philosophy #simpleideas


Disclaimer: I am not an expert in mindfulness meditation. I’ve just read some books and have used some apps. I’ve found calm.com to be a really good mindfulness app if you’re interested.

Stoicism and Control

In one sense, we are powerless. We cannot control anything external to us.

Oh sure, we can take our little brother’s hand and smack him in the face, saying “stop hitting yourself.” This is nothing.

We cannot control who our brother is. We cannot make a person evolve. We cannot make them love us. We cannot change others. We cannot save others from themselves. We can’t stop people from trying to hurt us. And we cannot stop people from hurting themselves.

We are powerless.

We cannot force the world around us to change.

The only thing we truly control is ourselves.

But this is everything.

We control our reaction to others. We control how we feel about the world around us. We control whether we allow others to hurt us. We control how we let everything outside of us change us.

We control who we are. I am in control of the person I am. I am in control of the choices I make and the principles by which I live.

The ability to control who you are is the most powerful ability you could ever possess. And it’s yours. This is your miracle. This is your philosopher’s stone. This is your gift. And everyone has it. Everyone.

You choose the principles by which you live. You choose who you are. Every day. You are in control. You are powerful. And nobody can ever take this from you.

#philosophy #simpleideas


Disclaimer: I am not an expert in Stoicism. I am just a person who read most of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. This is my takeaway.

Perfect Keto Pizza Crust

After much experimentation I think I’ve gotten the perfect low-carb pizza recipe down. The dough isn’t too sticky to handle. It’s thin, but still holds its shape and have a little crispness. It’s super-easy, and it’s really tasty.

Other “fathead dough” recipes have the same basic ingredients. I think the key is the proportions… these are the proportions I’ve found to work best.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1 cup almond flour
  • 2 tbsp cream cheese
  • A few shakes of Oregano? Some other Italian seasoning? Whatevs
  • 1 tsp Psyllium husk powder if you have it
  • 1 egg

Steps

  1. Put a pizza stone in the oven and set it to 420.
  2. In a large (giant) microwaveable bowl mix the mozzarella, almond flour, cream cheese, spices, and psyllium husk powder together.
  3. Put it in the microwave for 30 seconds, then take it out and stir.
  4. Do this microwave/stir step 3 more times for 2 minutes total microwave time.
  5. Crack a whole egg into the bowl and mix it completely into the dough.
  6. Lay out a sheet of parchment paper and spray it with nonstick spray.
  7. Spread the crust into a pizza-like shape on the parchment paper and poke the top with a fork a few times.
  8. Put the crust (parchment paper and all) directly onto the heated pizza stone and put the whole thing in the oven.
  9. Set a timer for 10-12 minutes.
  10. Pour yourself a glass of red wine.
    1. Try it. It’s nice isn’t it?
  11. Check the crust when the timer goes off… if it’s golden brown, take out the crust and flip it upside down.
  12. Now add your toppings… sauce, mozzarella, toppings. You know what you like.
  13. Put the whole thing back in the oven for a few minutes.
  14. Check it every few minutes and take it out when the cheese is melted and browned to your liking.

Tips

  • Other recipes tell you to microwave the cheeses together first before adding the other stuff. That’s just extra work for no reason.
  • Other recipes don’t have enough almond flour — making their dough too sticky and the crust too flimsy. Trust my proportions.
  • If you really want to go low-carb, make your own tomato sauce to avoid the added sugar from store-bought. I can make a heck of a sauce with roasted tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and spices. No sugar needed.
  • Because the toppings are only in the oven for a few minutes, you may find it necessary to precook them. Really thin onions are fine. I suggest precooking mushrooms.
  • Add a little olive oil to the other toppings and pretend you’re a real cook.
  • The green from spinach and/or basil helps to mask the fact that you’re eating a pound of cheese.
  • I ruined this once by adding garlic salt here and then too much salt to homemade pizza sauce. So don’t.
  • The parchment paper goes directly on the pizza stone. It can take the heat. And you don’t want to try moving the dough from the paper to the hot pizza stone.
  • I only ever buy two red wines anymore. They’re inexpensive and delicious. And you won’t feel like you’re wasting them when you pair them with this fake pizza.
    • Famille Perrin Reserve (ooh la la, it’s French)
    • Irony Cabernet
  • You probably don’t have psyllium husk powder. Don’t worry, it probably isn’t doing much anyway.
  • We get fancy eggs from pampered chickens. It’s more expensive, but eggs are hella cheap anyway. It makes a difference. Cheapo eggs smell like farts.
  • If you add basil and that fancy ball mozzarella for the toppings it looks like you know what you’re doing.

Decisions I’ve Made

I just started reading Ray Dalio’s Principles. I’m really just at the beginning, but so far the way he’s talking about principles is different from what I was expecting. It’s less about moral ideals (like “honesty” or “humility”), and more about creating shortcuts in decision-making frameworks. It’s about creating a set of guidelines to any given situation to help make a decision. And then reviewing those shortcuts for their effectiveness over time to adjust them as necessary.

I realized there are some decisions I’ve made that fall into this idea of “decision shortcuts.” They’re not really profound or revolutionary, but they do help me make decisions so I thought I’d share them;

  • When planning something, bias towards “sooner.”
    • Put simply, “waiting” is just a process of letting your life slip away. This helps me more than you’d think. When scheduling meetings I opt for the first available opening. I don’t even think about it. I think I picked this up from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, where the first habit is Be Proactive.
  • Health is more important than work.
    • At times I’ve been upset and stressed enough about my work to feel it in my body. We probably all have. But I’m realizing that’s the path to an early grave. And that’s not the right path to support my family. So I need to remind myself to fight for a good balance that includes taking care of my physical and mental health.
  • Spend money freely on books.
    • Honestly I’m pretty cheap, and I wear that badge with some pride. But I’ve realized that books are just a really great value all around. They help you learn new ideas, question your assumptions, broaden your creativity, they entertain you for hours and hours. I don’t buy books I won’t have time to read. But I no longer question spending money on books I’ll enjoy.
  • Spend money freely on health.
    • This is a corollary to my earlier point, but health is no place to cheap out. I don’t mean I think it’s ok to pour money into wackadoodle supplements and procedures. But I would have normally felt guilty about spending $80/month on a health club. I’ve decided that guilt is stupid. I’ve been going three times a week for a year and I’m about a million times healthier now. That’s a bargain.
  • Sleep is necessary.
    • In my startup days I would put in two shifts of work; a day shift, then spend time with the family, and then a night shift. I would get four or five hours of sleep per night on average. I don’t know if it’s age or wisdom, but I’m realizing I’m a better person when I get sleep. I’m smarter, more patient, and I have more energy for the people and things I care about. If I’m trying to plan so much in my day that it requires me to go without sleep, I need to plan better. Sleep can help with that. 🙂 Get sleep, do it in the morning, and stop overcommitting.
  • Maybe I don’t need to be such a hard-ass dad.
    • I realized the worst interactions I had with my kids were because they weren’t listening, because they were being disrespectful, because I would be embarrassed at their behavior if anyone else saw how we raise our children. But you know what? Hell, nobody’s perfect. Maybe I should be as patient with their screwups as I hope they will someday be with my screwups as a dad.
  • “Outrage” is a choice, and you can opt out.
    • This really deserves its own post… or a series of posts. But I realized that most of our online interactions are powered by outrage. This mechanism makes us feels like we are rattling the cage against oppressors and are fighting the good fight. But ultimately we are deepening divides, and we are changing nobody’s minds. From CNN to Fox News to Twitter to Facebook. I’m opting out. I’ve deleted the apps and I’m trying to wean myself from the habits. I’ll re-enter the fray when I can speak my mind with empathy and compassion and logic and reason.

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