Don’t Start Sentences with “Soooo” and Other Things I Learned at Toastmasters

Jason Shen Smithsonian Toastmasters 2013

I always thought Toastmasters was like one of those quaint support-group esque membership organizations, in the same category as  Boy Scouts, Rotary clubs, and Alcoholics Anonymous. And indeed, some quick Googling reveals they were all founded in the early 1900’s.

I like public speaking, having done an Ignite talk and spoken at my high school graduation, but I think I could get a lot better. I’m particularly bad at off-the-cuff speaking – I tend to freeze up and sound neither natural nor professional. I remember once looking around for Toastmasters clubs when I lived in the Bay Area, but they were never very convenient to get to and it seemed like a big commitment.

In our Smithsonian new employee orientation they had a packet with all kinds of things, including an invitation to join the Smithsonian’s Toastmasters club. It happened to meet 2x a week right in my building on another floor during lunch so it would be super easy to get to. Given I’m only going to be around for six months, I figure I gotta make the most of all these “corporate perks” so I decided to join up.

Structure

I’ve been to four meetings and it’s been a great experience. The structure is pretty straight forward:

  • The meeting starts at 12:05pm.
  • The Sergeant in Arms calls the meeting to order.
  • The Toastmaster of the Day introduces each of the three speakers to the podium.
  • There’s a “table topics” session for impromptu statements (kind of like a Miss America on-the-spot Q&A)
  • The General Evaluator introduces each of the three speech evaluators,
  • There’s the report from the Time Keeper and the Ah/Um Grammarian
  • Any final house keeping announcements are made.
  • The meeting is adjourned at around 12:55. Continue reading…

Why Go Above the Bare Minimum?

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Most people do the bare minimum and no more.

The term paper requires 5 pages. The new job requires you to be in at 8am. The exercise routine calls for three rounds of 12 reps.

Why do more? Save your energy, save your time, save your money.

The problem is, if you apply this approach to everything, you'll only ever get opportunities that are "the bare minimum".

To land that amazing new position working on special projects that just opened up, or that spacious, below-market room in a great neighborhood, or that smart, funny and gorgeous guy/gal, you've got to be willing to go above and beyond.

Investing an unusual amount of creativity, dedication, spunk or just plain hustle can often pay huge dividends.

But if that’s too hard, you could always just do the bare minimum and hope for the best…

If You Don’t Have Time for a Side Project, You Are Probably Just Lying to Yourself

 

side projectsHaving a side project to work on is a tremendously powerful way to develop new skills, improve your career capital and recharge from the repetitive tasks you do at work. In a couple of months (or less) you could learn how to code, or train to run a marathon, improve your social skills or write a novel.

Despite these advantages, most people never even get started with their side projects.

They make excuses, saying how they don’t have time, how next month will be less busy or how they’re more dedicated to their job or their families to embark on such extracurriculars. Look, I know it can be tough to find the energy to embark on a side project. But unless you are working 100 hours a week (and you’re probably exaggerating) or the parent of a newborn child, you are probably just lying to yourself.

Stop Watching So Much TV

Most Americans watch around THREE HOURS of television per day. Sure, there are probably a few people watching like 10 hours a day, but that’s still a lot of people vegging out for over an hour a day. For a lot of folks, TV can be swapped with social media or video games to the same effect.

You really only need average 35 mins a day on your side project to net 4 hours a week on your side project. That’s 200+ hours over a year – which would allow you to do a tremendous number of things.

 

The Mayor of Newark Has a Side Project

Cory Booker is the well-known mayor of Newark, NJ and unofficial Senatorial candidate, has also co-founded a video sharing startup called Waywire. Now, I don’t care what your political stance is, being the mayor is a lot of work. And if you believe even half the stories that make him one of the “hardest working mayors in America” you’ll understand that Booker is not just punching the clock on his public service duties.

Yet that has NOT stopped him from creating something new from scratch – on the side.

Paul Graham Spends 3-4 Hours a Day on Hacker News

Paul Graham is the cofounder of Y Combinator, which funded my startup Ridejoy and other, far more successful startups like Airbnb, Heroku and Dropbox. In addition to running Y Combinator as a partner and being a husband and father, he also spends a lot of time working on Hacker News, the Reddit-like community he created that gets 1.6M pageviews daily.

How much time? Three to four hours per day, according to a recent article on TechCrunch. Sure, Hacker News is tangentially related to his job running Y Combinator, but most side projects do provide real tangible benefits to your main work responsibilities.

Start Slow

Swayed? Thinking about buckling down to really take on that side project? Cool. But don’t start too hard.

From my research on human behavior change, I think one of the big missteps of human psychology is that we’re overly optimistic about our own abilities to change. We bite off more than we can chew.

Instead of diving in for hours one day, try spending 10 minutes a day on the project for a week. Consistency is great than intensity. You’ll make more progress in the long run if you keep at it a little bit each day, than if you immerse yourself once every few weeks.

I estimate it took me about 100 hours over many months to learn enough programing to build the first version of RewardBox, but there’s no way I would been able to do it over 50 hrs/wk for 2 weeks.

What’s a side project you’ve wanted to start? Let me know what’s holding you back in the comments.

How to Avoid the Emptiness of Delayed Gratification

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Photo Credit: papalars via Compfight cc

As a Chinese-American immigrant, my parents ingrained upon me the idea of sacrifice. They sacrificed so much to uproot their lives and raise me in a foreign country where they knew no one. They both worked two jobs for a long time so we could live in a town that had great public schools. If I forgot my lunch, my mom would literally drive my lunch to school to make sure I ate, so I wouldn’t be tired and starving at gymnastics practice.

I appreciated my parent’s dedication, but at times it wore on me. Because their sacrifice meant I, too, had to make sacrifices. There was a path I had to follow and it went something like this:

  • Because my parents sacrificed for me, I would bust my ass to get good grades and get into a good college.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in college to get a good job.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would bust my ass in my job to rise through the ranks and increase my salary.
  • Then I could enjoy life. Then I would have children and bust my ass so they could have a better and brighter future than I did.

At some point I realized there didn’t seem to be a real payoff. It was some living version of MC Escher’s eternal stairs — always climbing and never reaching the top. I knew I had to get off the staircase.

Beware of the eternal staircase of delayed gratification

The ability to delay gratification is an essential willpower skill, and children who are better able to delay gratification score higher on their SATs and are more socially well adjusted as teens.

But delayed gratification can go too far. Here’s a refrain that many-an-entrepreneur has said:

“Once we launch our product, I’ll be able to rest and appreciate the success I’ve achieved  Until then, I’m basically failing and need to bust my ass like mad.”

Once the product launches, the goal posts get moved to hiring an important team member, raising another round of financing, getting profitable, getting acquired, etc. I fell into this trap and I often see a lot of other founders do the same. And of course, this mindset applies to not just entrepreneurs but ambitious people of all stripes.

The game never ends

When discussing this topic with a friend, (specifically in regards to personal growth), he asked: “When is enough, enough?”

I’m not sure this is the right question.  There will always be more work ahead. There will always be more challenges to overcome. You will never be completely satisfied (for more than a very brief period).

Living is about growing, conquering, stumbling, recovering, reflecting, learning and so on. Delayed gratification is important because most big projects require sustained commitment over a long period. But you have to learn to appreciate each and every day too.

Maybe a better question to ask would be: “How can I work towards the future while enjoying what I have?”

Moment-to-moment Happiness

It’s definitely possible to be busting your butt for a big future win, and appreciating and enjoying your life on a moment-to-moment basis. It may not be easy, but it’s possible.

Partly inspired by my friend Kevin Gao, I started jotting down little score cards for each day. Over time, I’ve figured out that my daily happiness is more or less governed by four things:

  • How healthy I felt (eating well, working out, feeling energized)
  • How productive I felt (getting worthwhile things done)
  • How much I got to socialize (hang out with cool people, talk to friends over Skype, spend time with my girlfriend)
  • How excited I am for tomorrow (Life is good if you’re looking forward to the next day)

Just tracking these stats makes me more cognizant of opportunities to eat healthier or see someone I like. Trends have emerged: I should to plan fun activities so I can look forward to them. These things help me be happy.

Happiness Makes You More Productive

I think that ultimately, giving yourself the space to enjoy the day to day actually allows you to work harder. I’ve sometimes seen my work as a burden —  something I’m resentful of, because it’s the ugly crap I have to overcome to get to the perceived gratification that lies on the other side. Thinking of work that way doesn’t make me want to keep trying harder.

But alternatively, if I give myself a little room to read a book, work on a side project, exercise, and see friends, then I feel fresh and alive and ready to drive harder on that long-term challenge that will bring the big, distant payoff.

That’s my take — I’d love to hear your thoughts. How do you deal with delayed gratification?

The Six Fundamental Elements of Effective Behavior Change

Six Fundamentals of Effective Behavior Change

I’ve read a ton of material about creating positive behavior change — but the “curse of knowledge” means that sometimes it’s harder to impart that knowledge to others. I often get caught up in describing a specific paper or study, when you really need is just a tactic that really works.

Well I’ve boiled that down for you today – with this presentation based on my Skillshare class. These are the six fundamental elements of effective behavior change and if you follow them, I know you’ll see a lot more success in your efforts to work out more, eat healthier, be more mindful, wake up earlier or whatever it is you’re trying to do.

And if you’re interested in learning more, or you missed out on my Skillshare class, then check out this GiveGetWin partnership I’m doing with Sebastian Marshall. You get 60 minutes with me and help support a great cause.

The presentation and more info on GGW after the jump. Continue reading…