My blood draw took a total of about 5 minutes. 5 long minutes in a downtown Seattle lab… looking out the window, focused on the “Go Seahawks” and “12th Man” signs on nearby buildings so I didn’t pass out. Something like 12 or 13 vials of blood were taken from my right arm and confirmed, one by one, that they were labeled correctly. I thought I would be lying down in a spinning haze after the 6th vial but I breathed through it like a ninja warrior would.
One could say that the lengths I go to learn more about my mind and body are a tad bit excessive. And expensive. But you can’t manage what you can’t measure, and in this case what I’m measuring include some of the most important indicators available today for overall health, well being, and spiritual, mental, and physical performance. If there’s something I could be doing to feel better, think better, or move better that I’m not already doing, I want to know immediately. Am I overtraining? Am I more stressed than I thought I was? Are my hormones getting in the way of my training progress or ability to solve problems at work? Is chronic inflammation an issue and if so, why? Do I need to scale back on my creatine or fish oil supplementation? Is lack of vitamin D holding me back during the winter months? What about the summer? Is my Primal/Paleo lifestyle actually improving my health as promised or making it worse? And so on.
Enter WellnessFX. WellnessFX is a relatively young service with a pretty straightforward outward mission: to improve the health and performance of its clients through data. And that data comes from the ultimate source: your blood. A quick trip to a lab and a couple weeks later you have a complete analysis of the primary blood markers you should care about.
Why does this matter?
“The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.” – John Connor
What we eat and what we do in our everyday lives have major impacts on our body and mind. The field of epigenetics explains how controllable environment factors like your diet, your training, your friends and family, your job and stress levels, and the sunlight or toxins you’re exposed to can trigger gene expression. So while we may be pre-coded for certain outcomes, we aren’t prisoners to those outcomes. We have a lot more control over how our body ages and adapts to external stimuli. So if we care enough about living better, there’s frankly a lot we can do.
I do believe that taking your health into your own hands is an important skill to hone. I’ve found that far too few doctors keep up on the latest research, so their recommendations are typically outdated (“eat a low-fat diet and lose weight”). And the lack of true personal connection with patients means their advice is almost always based on limited information about you. So it’s best to arm yourself with the same data they have – and then some – since only you know how you actually feel at any given time. In other words, a medical doctor has a role in your overall wellness, but so do you.
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For as long as I can remember, I haven’t been a morning person, preferring to stay up late over prying my heavy head off the pillow in the cold morning. I’ve been a night owl most of my life, with some of my best work and inspired thought happening after 10pm. Throughout the years, I’ve been following the growing body of research that points to night owlish (or ‘larkish’) as a genetic trait: there’s apparently a specific genetic variant that can indicate whether someone is a night owl, a lark, or somewhere in between the two. Unfortunately this indicator wasn’t included in my 23andMe genetic profile a few years ago so I’m not sure where I fall on the continuum.
But even if I knew where my genes wanted me to be, there isn’t much I (or most of us) can do about societal, professional, or family pressure to wake up early. Every single day, one of our kids wakes up at or before 6:30am. At least 3 or 4 mornings per week I need to be out the door by 7:20am for school drop-off prior to a can’t-miss 8am meeting. And when I get home at night, by the time I’ve eaten dinner, cleaned up afterwards, spent time with my family, and put the kids to bed, it’s already after 9pm. So in order to do anything beyond “the basics” in life – including strength training, meditation, writing, extra work, or anything else – I have a simple choice: I either do it late at night and suffer the next morning, or I get up 30-60 minutes earlier. I choose not to suffer.
Now, for a night owl, the thought of waking up earlier than 6:30am is anathema. But for the last several months I’ve been doing it, and not only has it gotten easier, but I’ve ‘dialed it in’ to be a habit that I feel has dramatically improved my overall well-being, productivity at work, and presence at home. These days I’m up at 5:45am to drink a cup of loose-leaf green tea and get a focused kettlebell or bodyweight workout in – or some dedicated writing – before my kids wake up and the house starts buzzing.
I’d be lying if I said the transition was all kittens and rainbows. It was actually quite hard, and is still not without its challenges occasionally. But I’m consistent about it and am determined to make it work. Oddly, on the days I “sleep in” until 7 or 7:30am I don’t feel quite as right compared to those when I’ve gotten up and have broken a sweat before the sun rises.
Here are the ways I became a morning person and how you can too.
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One of the strangest things about human beings is that we seem to be wired to believe that where we are in life, that the people and things all around us, are somehow their final versions… that everything is how it will always be. That our homes, our families, our likes and dislikes, our daily routines… they’re all carved in stone and won’t really change much if at all.
Intellectually we know things will change, of course. No one really thinks they’re still going to be doing the same things with the same people at 78 as they were at 18. But most aren’t emotionally aware enough to let themselves think about just how things will change over time. To welcome the vulnerability.
We even think our tastes in music won’t change and yet looking back, we know they already have. Psychologists have taken to calling this the “end of history illusion” – our inability to foresee change in our lives despite knowing how much change we’ve already experienced. We believe to the core that we are who we are, who we’ve always been, and who we will always be… and we’re so incredibly sure of it. That even though we talk about ourselves as ‘growing’ and ‘changing’, that we’re really the same person despite this, and that everyone and everything around us is as well.
The older you get the more you realize that the passage of time isn’t a linear path either; that time speeds up each year, and this perceived reality contributes to this generally vague awareness that things are more constant than they actually are. The first time you realize that an experience you can remember so well that it’s so a part of your being was, in fact, 20 years ago, you realize that time has sped up beyond your ability to catch up to it. Most everything in your life has changed since then. Read the rest of this entry »
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Last year I wrote The Unconventional Gym Bag: 5 Cool Things You Don’t Use and a few months prior, I wrote about Building the Perfect Home Gym. As expected, my training has evolved over the past year – and will continue to evolve – and the contents of my actual gym bag (and home gym) have also been upgraded. I take my training seriously – more seriously every year – and making sure I’m up-to-date on the latest and greatest is part of the fun.
While I’m a strong believer in self-experimentation, I also “keep it real” with basics in every training session. Loads of bodyweight workouts for general physical preparedness, and of course moving big iron for strength skill work. My strength & conditioning sessions (the primary choice for my entire adult life) consist primarily of the basics: kettlebells, deadlift, squat, bench press, and military press variations. Depending on my goals at the time, I vary the sets, reps, tempo, rest periods, and “supplementary” work. Sometimes the goal is to get stronger or bigger, sometimes it’s to get faster, and sometimes it’s to get leaner. I enlist the help of an awesome, experienced strength coach every few weeks or months to make sure my form is spot-on, and that I’m constantly improving (something I shouldn’t have waited so long to do).
I’ve also evolved my programming and have found a pretty good rhythm. After tearing my right medial meniscus after a July 4th Crossfit workout last year, I realized the hard way that there is a big difference between exercising and training. As much as I loved Crossfit workouts, anyone will sweat and feel spent if pushed to the breaking point. Training is different. Training is personal. Training is about goals. Now, every time I enter the gym, I have a goal to hit. That’s what training is all about. No more random daily workouts with no structure or sound programming behind them.
So what’s new in my gym bag? Let’s get to it.
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Some days you feel like absolutely nothing can go wrong. You’re on fire, unstoppable. Ideas are flowing, confidence is high, and you’re walking around with your chin up and your back straight. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re at the top of your game. The world is your oyster. Everything you touch seems to turn to gold and you wonder how you were ever stagnant before.
Until the past few years, I had really only been able to identify these times when looking back. Now I’m acutely aware of them when I’m in them and I grab onto them and try not to let go when that train is rolling.
But these feelings never last long. Maybe a day or two, maybe a little more. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a full week of this superhuman ability to create things out of nothing without obstruction. Sooner or later things will return to normal and there’s no explanation why this happens. You just can’t self-motivate like you were able to the day before. Ideas are at a distance, just out of reach. You aren’t feeling flow and a day’s worth of work is taking two full days instead of just three hours.
It’s crazy frustrating when this happens. You try and recreate the environment, the feeling you had, and you just can’t. Your mind has moved on, your thoughts are elsewhere, and your current experience has been altered in some inexplicable way. And you don’t like it at all.
What happened? Well, nothing at all. It’s perfectly normal for creativity to ebb and flow like this. It happens to every single creative person dozens – even hundreds – of times throughout a year. It’s just not possible to keep anything running at its highest capacity all the time.
But are there ways to keep it running for as long as you can? Maybe. There are things you can do that will help but only in the sense that they may be able to prolong that window. There’s no guarantee that these things will work every time, but if they buy you an extra few days or a shorter period in the downswing, it could be worth it.
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As long-time readers know, each year I write down goals for the next twelve months, something I’ve been doing for about twelve years now. This year one of my goals was to “dramatically improve” my presentation skills. In truth, this is a goal every single year but this year I made sure to put it to paper and then I proceeded to read a bunch of books and blogs on the subject. I’ve also spent a lot of time analyzing the presentation styles of those around me, since I have ample opportunities to do that at work.
Why the push? See, about halfway through last year I found myself presenting to medium-sized groups of people (from fifty to a few hundred people) bi-weekly instead of, at best, quarterly. That was clear motivation to get better. No one likes to completely suck at something you have to do all the time. Plus, if you’re not a halfway decent communicator, you’re probably not a halfway decent leader either.
Of course, I’m still far from good at it. This stuff, like most anything else, takes a ton of dedicated practice and attention to really nail it. The difference between star performers and everyone else is that the people who care to get better use deliberate and corrective practice. They set specific goals, respond to feedback, and look at the process of improvement as a long-term thing. Others don’t, they just go through the motions. This isn’t just me speaking, by the way, it’s been exhibited in research by Psychology professor Dr. K. Anders Ericsson.
Now, before getting into the tips & tricks, remember that there’s always room for improvement, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever be perfect. Perfection is a pipe dream. But you can absolutely make your presentations better, in some cases much better, and you can always become better at public speaking. So make sure to have the right expectations going in and then just commit to the process fully.
Look, presenting is hard. Putting together presentations is hard too. It’s all quite scary, especially if it’s not something you do often. I remember a few years ago when I wasn’t doing this regularly, the nerves prior to presenting were so intense that I could barely sleep the night before. If this describes you, then maybe one of these tips will help you get over the proverbial hump. Look at this as just the beginning of a lifelong journey. Here we go.
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A few months ago I came to a long overdue conclusion about myself: I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as an athlete even though I haven’t played an organized sport for more than half my life.
This is a short story of why I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve been pretty busy reorganizing some aspects of my life around this mini-epiphany.
When I was a kid I played baseball, football, practiced martial arts, and would beg anyone around me to catch whatever I was going to throw at them… for hours. The notion of treating my mind, body, and emotions as seriously as an athlete would has stuck with me since those days.
When I was in school, being a “student athlete” was an achievement worth recognizing. Kids who would do well in school and sport were somewhat rare and it was obvious they had mastered a life skill so many others hadn’t.
Yet as an adult, it seems all we’re trying to do is survive. Somewhere along the lines, people give up on being extraordinary – to be that “student athlete” in life. They’re just trying to get through to tomorrow.
Through years of business, marriage, kids… ups and downs… my system is still running that base ‘student athlete operating system’. It forms the foundation of who I am despite the fact that I’ve never been very good at any sport!
Shortly after realizing this, I started embracing it more as a part of who I am. This meant thinking about myself as an athlete “in training” instead of as someone who “stays in shape”.
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After more than 16 years in the gym, I’m finally starting to train smart. Quality over quantity, strength over mass, and health over ego. Fitness is a lifelong journey, something I fully expect to be doing until the day I’m no longer around these parts.
I’ve learned a lot of great things through training, been (mostly) able to keep exercise as a habit over the years, finally created my ideal home gym, and even branched out and tried all sorts of new stuff like running, swimming, kettlebells, and different martial arts. It’s been a fun ride to-date.
So what prompted the recent change in intensity? I don’t really know. But it’s been building for some time and, starting with the birth of my son last year, everything about my training got more… well, focused. Could it have something to do with the fact that I’m now a role model for a little boy who looks kind of like me? Maybe. Probably. I really don’t know.
One thing that’s clear is that my gym bag these days looks quite different from years prior. My training itself has gone back to the roots. I don’t use any sort of machines at this point; I stick to dumbbells, kettlebells, and fixed bars. Yet I’ve become more interested in using toys like the ones below to help me progress, and I like to have them with me all the time at the gym. It’s the geek in me.
In order to benefit from any of these items, you need to already have a base of both knowledge and fitness. Don’t jump right into any fitness program without doing the obvious stuff first like talking to your doctor and ramping your training up over a period of months.
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I’m writing this overlooking the Pacific Ocean with an iced coffee by my side, and a gentle breeze on my face. I’ve spent the last week in Maui with my family, so please excuse the obligatory photos of paradise!
While on the island, I’ve been doing everything I can to unwind. I’ve been devouring scones, French fries, margaritas, Oreos, bacon, Frosted Mini Wheats and other junk I don’t allow myself to even consider eating most of the time. I’ve stopped tracking my habits. I’ve exercised just once if you don’t count swimming and chasing my kids; a short run near the beach on our first day here. I haven’t spent any time checking tasks off of my lists; in fact I had moved them all over to a "Post Vacation" category before we left the mainland so I wouldn’t even stumble upon them accidentally. I haven’t done much writing, stretching, or flossing, and I’ve had a metric ton of Maui Coffee. It’s been great!
Yet I’m not too concerned about slacking off, or at least not as much as my Type A personality would suggest. Though I’m itching to get back into my routine, I’m not worried about what would normally be viewed as a setback.
Planned breaks like these are required to reset my passion meter from time to time. I try and force myself to "unplug" from my (somewhat) normal intensity to help me remember why I do what I do to begin with. It’s hard to hit the ‘off’ switch… it’s frankly just as hard as turning it back on again, but I try and view it as sort of like stopping at a gas station before a long road trip; breaks like this fuel me for at least a few months, and after six days of gluttony and objective laziness, I always realize that it’s not the permanent life for me.
But what you do for a few weeks out of the year doesn’t define the year, and it doesn’t define you. It’s what you do most of the time, not just some of the time, that makes the difference over the long haul. Have consistency in the fundamentals (modulo a week here and there) and personal growth is inevitable.
If you don’t know what I mean by shipping, you might want to read Real Artists (Plan to) Ship first.
Shipping is hard. It’s especially hard if you’ve never done it, or simply haven’t done it often enough to know what it feels like. You suspect that ‘inspiration’ will pull you through it, yet in reality inspiration usually doesn’t last more than a day or two.
Inspiration is an ephemeral feeling that tricks you into thinking it will always be there. Of course, it can’t be… and won’t be.
Inspiration has never shipped anything. Grit is how you ship. If you think you’re always going to be inspired and that you can just “lean on” that feeling everyday to power you, you’re going to fail. It doesn’t work. Inspiration will disappear as soon as the caffeine leaves your blood stream, you get distracted, or you wake up with a headache. You need a model for shipping, something that helps get you through the emotional dips you’re bound to experience.
When you’re inspired, you don’t expect to have dips in your motivation. You’re above that. You’re made of steel. The feeling will last forever. People who ship know better.
The art of shipping is the same the world over, no matter what the subject is. Paint, code, words, chords, clay, whatever. If you’re creating anything from nothing and expect it to see the light of day, you’re looking to ship something. Creating something without delivering it may still be considered art by some, but it’s not shipping.
When we hire new program managers at Microsoft, one of the most important things we look for is people who are good at all phases of the product cycle. We expect people to be strong at the beginning, coming up with creative ideas and unique approaches to solving tough problems. We look for strength in the middle, people who are able to execute and get the team through the grind without giving up. And we want people who can pull the team all the way through to the finish line, dealing with the (very hard) act of pushing something real out the door to a few hundred million users.
This means that the best people are the ones who can decide what to do, figure out how to do it with the team, and then start it, drive it, and ship it.
Anyone can have an idea. And just about anyone can write a strongly worded email or document about how “obvious” that idea is and how everyone who doesn’t “get it” is an “idiot”. But the people who are able to sell the idea, line the people up, and bring it all the way to the finish line, imperfections and all, and then do it over and over again are the real stars.
The funny thing is how these people usually aren’t the same people who think they’re superstars just because they have some ideas. The best people are too busy shipping to care what you think.