How to Avoid the Emptiness of Delayed Gratification

avoid-emptiness-delayed-gratification-stairs

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?

Why I Started Using Tumblr Again

Between 2007 and 2010, I was an avid user of Tumblr. I saved snippets of articles, links, videos and images I liked. When I started this blog, I imported all my old posts so if you dig into the archives in, say, May 2008, you’ll see the kinds of stuff I was saving.

When I started this blog in fall of 2010, all my creative writing and posting focus went to content for the main blog. I stopped doing anything with the Tumblr. Over time, I’ve been thinking more about why I used Tumblr in the first place – to save inspiration and collect cool things across the web.

Recent things I’ve saved in my Tumblr:

This is stuff I want to hold onto. I already tweet stuff like this, but Twitter is so ephemeral and hard to review (infinite scroll is a poor way to look at old tweeets). I’m not alone in this need to categorize and archive.

Human culture reveals a deep seated interest in collecting, saving and sharing things they care about. This is why Pinterest is so freaking popular – it’s collections of stuff people love. I think Pinterest is great, but I don’t always want to save images and I prefer having a semi-private page all to myself rather than living in an ocean of pins.

This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop blogging here – not at all. I just needed another outlet to save and share all the interesting things I find across the web – and it’d be far too much to dump in this site. My tumbling actually means I’ll be even more focused on making every single post on The Art of Ass-Kicking count.

Curation and production are two nearby trees in the forest of creativity. I know that by water one, I’ll be fostering the other as well. If you don’t use Tumblr or Pinterest, considering checking them out as a way to save and share awesome stuff.

Saving Inspiration – Jason’s Tumblr

 

Twelve Life Lessons Learned from Burning Man

12 Life Lessons Learned at Burning Man

I recently went to Burning Man for the second time this August – it was a great experience, though very different from the first time I went in 2011. I’ve heard from veteran Burners that your first time at Black Rock City will always be your best.

I’m not sure that’s true yet. It’s definitely less mind-blowing when you know what to expect, but on the other hand, this second experienced allowed me to think more about what we all can take from the values, culture and experience of Burning Man.

1) Listen to your body

One of the 10 principles of Burning Man is “radical self-reliance” and it’s a critical one when you’re trying to survive out in the middle of nowhere. The 100+ degree heat, chalky alkaline dust, reduced sleep schedule and new diet of dried fruit, beef jerky and water forces you to really be mindful of your body. If you’re not careful, you can be hit with heat exhaustion, super chapped hands and feet, or a GI issue.

But why leave that mindfulness out in the playa? Back in the “default world” there are plenty of opportunities to be more aware of what you’re eating, how well you’re sleeping and how stress is affecting your body.

2) Be more open to new opportunities

There are so many things to do out at Burning Man – send post cards, connect with camp mates, volunteer to light lamps, dance on art cars or run 5k’s. I heard someone call it “Disneyland for adults” at one point this year.

But in most cities and of course with the internet, opportunities are everywhere. You can volunteer at a local homeless shelter or take up a new yoga class or study to become a bartender or just say hi to your neighbors. If you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, just look around and find something that catches your eye. Opportunities to do interesting things are all around us.

3) Focus on the now

There’s a joke at Burning Man that everything runs on “playa time”. Meaning scheduled events often start late or perhaps not at all and coordinating anything is tricky (in part because of all those shiny opportunities we talked about).

In some ways that’s a hassle, but in other ways, it’s very freeing. People aren’t operating on schedules and tight timelines – instead they live in the moment. They’re not thinking about what they have to do next but focus on what they’re experiencing right now.

Obviously, we can’t all be like Arnold Schwarzenegger and work without a schedule, but if we can remember to catch our breath in a busy work day and realize that we’ll do our best work when we focus on the now, we’ll all be better off.

Continue reading…

A Request (and Giveaway!) for My Twenty-Sixth Birthday

Best. Cake. Ever. | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

Photo credit by Solo

People fall into two camps about birthdays – either a socially-acceptable time to feel entitled to special things because you were born a certain number of earth rotations ago, or it’s just another arbitrary day and nothing to get worked up about.

I generally side more with the latter – but this year I’m giving my birthday a little more ballyhoo. I think its a good time to reflect on things because similar to New Years, our birthdays remind us that death is coming)

My birthday wish comes in the form of a question:

What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you were 26?

(or, if you are not yet 26, what’s the one thing you hope to know, be or do by the time you turn 26?)

Leave your thought in the comments below.

The sweet, sweet prize

I’ll be selecting one lucky winner to get a free Impossible T-shirt from Joel Ruyon’s Blog of Impossible Things – you can see me rocking one out here.

So wish me a happy birthday by sharing your wisdom (or aspirations) with me. Thanks!

Out of My Element: Notes by a Former Gymnast-turned-Runner in His First Triathlon


photo credit: Manuls via photopin cc

I’m always evolving and experimenting with my writing style here. On this post, I tried to write in the style of a magazine article, like something out of the Atlantic or Esquire. Not too pretentious, but a bit more literary than my standard ass-kicking fare. Let me know what you think in the comments!

I’m standing in a crowd of people covered in spandex and neoprene.

As a former gymnast, this is nothing new. Seeing muscled adult males squeezed in tight, form-fitting material was once a commonplace occurrence for me. What is novel, however, is that instead of being in a heated, insulated gymnasium, I’m standing in front of a dock, overlooking a small harbor on a chilly morning in early spring.

I’m here to compete in my first sprint triathlon.

For a long time, my only knowledge of triathlons was the Ironman ― the grueling 140.6 mile race that is one of the greatest endurance challenges in the world. It’s a 2.4 mile swim followed by a 112 mile bike ride, followed by a marathon (26.2 miles). As the story goes, the competition combined several long standing distance races to settle a debate between several military officers about which sport ― cycling, swimming or running ― was the “greatest”. The first Ironman Triathlon was held in Hawaii in 1978 and has since grown considerably in both participation and renown.

I found out about more manageable triathlons for mere mortals after following a blogger named Joel Runyon, who writes about triathlons [1], adventure travel and doing impossible things. More personally, I’ve been in touch with a college friend – a former swimmer who, in a renewed focus on exercise and weight loss, found a passion for running and decided to compete in a sprint triathlon.

The buzzer goes off and away we go, paddling through the water. I am surprised and pleased by the ability of my rented wet suit to keep the chilly 55 degree harbor water at a distance. The wet suit does not, however, do anything to prevent the salty sea water from entering my mouth every time I take a breath. Even after a month of swim practice at the YMCA, I find myself struggling to keep a good stroke rhythm going.

Halfway through swim I begin to feel my arms lock up as the coldness starts to affect their ability to move. I try to push onward, hoping that I won’t have to cry out for one of the lifeguards mounted on kayaks to save me from drowning pathetically 20 feet from dry land.

“What was I thinking”, I ask myself “when I decided to sign up for this?”

Triathlons come in four flavors: Sprint, Olympic, Half-Ironman and Ironman, each featuring longer and longer distances. For beginners, a “sprint tri” is relatively doable – with swim distances of 400-800 meters, bike rides of 10-12 miles and run distances of 3 miles or perhaps a 5k. While I personally find the term “Sprint” a bit puzzling as the descriptor for this distance, I can definitely see how it is a faster paced race than any of the longer distances.

How I found myself participating in a sprint tri has been a bit of a surprise and mystery to my friends and family. How does a gymnast of 16 years, used to meets where total time on equipment over six events adds up to less than 10 min of actual exercise decide he wants to race in hour-plus long triathlons?

It all started with a life-long shame in my ability to run.

Running has always been one of my weaknesses. I distinctly remember struggling to run a mile in gym class in middle school one year (the 27 laps around our gym’s hardwood floor feeling like an eternity) and my father chiding me for “losing to girls” with an 11 minute something mile. I was able to write it during my years as a competitive a gymnast, since one’s ability to run a mile has little to do with one’s ability to do a two and a half twisting somersault.

About a decade after that middle school mile, I was lost in the psychological wasteland of a former collegiate athlete. Going to the gym and working out felt empty and pointless. It was then that I tried running again. The first “real” mile I ran after college took 11 minutes and 47 seconds, which translates to 5 MPH, a speed reserved for driving in parking lots.

I am finally catching my breath.

I made it out of the water unassisted (2nd to last of the men in my batch) and am now riding the commuter/road bike hybrid I was borrowing from my roommate along the first of three flat lollipop loops that was the bike course. It’s a joy to inhale fresh air without a mixture of salt and the constriction of a suit.

I have, however, entered a new realm of hazards because while the swim portion was relatively contained with just a dozen or so men in my age group in the water, the bike route has men and women of all categories, including the highly competitive collegiate athletes. Sweaty bikers whizz by in gleaming blurs of carbon fiber and aero bars with a distinct zoom that sound more automotive in nature than pedal-powered.

I actually have to pull over to the curb as one fierce biker shouts for me to get out of her away. Did she say “on your left” or “move to the left”? I’ll never know.

Jason holding bike triathlon

A post-race shot of me and my borrowed commuter/road bike hybrid

Undeterred by my slow first run, and fueled by the keen desire to challenge and redeem myself, I began to put more miles on the road. My passion came not just from a need to conquer this weakness of my athletic ability, but of my skelo-muscular abilities as well.

I dislocated my left knee in my junior year of college in a disastrous vaulting accident and have undergone over five reconstructive surgeries to rebuild or trim my ACL, PCL and surrounding ligaments and tissues. Yet somehow running, especially in minimal footwear with a forefoot strike, has not given my knee issues and even my surgeon ― after examining my knee in an annual checkup ― grudgingly allowed me to continue running.

I was determined to turn running into a strength. And in the proceeding months, I did just that ― increasing my speed and distances from 5ks to 10ks to half marathons.

But after training for and competing in my first half marathon, I found myself suffering overuse issues in my feet that were frustrating and kept me off the road. And so looking around Active.com ― a website that lists sporting events and various types of races in one’s local area ― I found a sprint triathlon nearby held by my own alma mater.

I decided to enroll in the “Stanford Treeathlon“.

After getting passed endlessly for miles, I finally settle into a good pace and even catch myself passing a few people. I rip into an energy gel and drink a few gulps of water while trading “leads” with a boy who couldn’t have been older than 15. He’s even gracious enough to give me a “Good Job!” when I passed him. What a sport.

I try to kick it up a notch and attempt to chase down a girl in a white tank top. While I do pass her once, she catches back up and leaves me in the dust. Pulling in after my third loop I’m a little winded and my quads a bit sore, but otherwise feeling pretty good. I’m excited for “my” part of the tri ― the run.

The bike route gives a great view onto the sidewalk where I see triathletes stumbling away with terrible form, more shuffle than stride. I am excited to knock this leg out of the park.

It turned out training for a triathlon wasn’t very easy. The running was straightforward, but I don’t own a nice road bike, nor did my normal gym have pool access. I found a nearby YMCA and squeezed into lanes alongside senior and adult swimmers just looking to get in their morning dip. I suspect the lifeguards had a good laugh as I splashed away like a maniac, panting and half drowning as I put in my laps.

After swimming I’d get one of the spinning bikes and go for 20 or 30 minutes. Of course while those bikes are better at mimicking a real road bike, they don’t give you any digital feedback on distance or difficulty so I wasn’t sure how close this was to race conditions or even how hard I could push myself on the bike. My one cycling foray on actual road was a 12 mile round-trip ride across San Francisco out to the ocean that, with hills and traffic lights, took nearly 45 minutes each way.

I realized I did not really know how the race would go or how much it would tax me.

I struggle a bit to put on my Vibrams Five Fingers (my minimal running shoes that resemble “foot gloves”), my toes uncooperative and unwilling to slide into their proper spots. Eventually they’re wrestle them into position and I’m off.

Really off.

Everything feels wrong. My legs feel like they’re made out of lead. Shock from each footstrike resonate directly into my chest cavity and my heart feels like the clapper inside a church bell. Suddenly I realize why so many of those runners looked awful ― because they felt awful. I urge myself onward, slowing down my pace a little while I try to get my legs under me.

They come back about a mile in. Finally, I feel like I’m in my element. Foot in front of foot ― I’m moving. It’s pure sport, uncluttered by the brand of my suit, or the material of my frame. I hold an 8 minute a mile pace until I can almost see the finish line, then throw in my final kick, flying through the blue rubber mats that cover the timing machinery.

My total time clocks in a 1:29:40, putting me 2nd to last in the 25-29 year old male age group, and 154 overall, in perhaps 200 something competitors. My splits are 16:08 mins on swim, 43:20 on the bike and 23:28 mins on the run with 3+ minute transition times.

Jason racing sprint triathlon

The final sprint home!

Overall, I am happy with the outcome of my first sprint tri. In retrospect, I think I could have pushed myself a little harder on both the bike and run, though I definitely maxed out my swim. Some smarter racing tactics could have further shaved a few minutes off my time ― for instance my transitions could have been much faster.

There was definitely something exhilarating about running into the transition area, shucking a wetsuit or helmet and switching into new equipment. It felt like a being a Transformer (the phrase “activate running mode” seems like a catch phrase that could go on an ironic triathlete t-shirt).

I can also see the advantages of racing tri’s ― more variety in training and more room for optimization in a variety of area. Beyond just swimming, cycling and running more, improvements can come from learning a skill or technique (for instance, I could really benefit from swimming lessons) and simply buying just better gear. It almost reminds me of those casual Facebook-connected games where you can either earn your currency from in-game activities, or shortcut to them by converting your real money.

I personally don’t find all these areas of optimization very appealing. One of the few ways that gymnastics is similar to running is that the equipment is relatively standardized. While your home gym may differ from other gyms, at the competition, you are all wearing the same kind of spandex, the same wrist supports, hand grips and other attire and none of it guarantees a significant improvement in performance.

Similarly, in a running race, all that really matters is that you’ve got a decent pair of running shoes. Races feel more level and running feels more primal. Distance running feels like the ultimate competition, especially if you believe the claims by Christopher McDougall in his best-selling book Born to Run [2].

I’ll probably race another tri someday. Maybe I’ll even do the Treeathlon again, next year. I’m proud to have completed my first race and have a new level of respect for those Ironmen. But for now I think I’m going to stick with running. I’ve got a full marathon coming up in July and perhaps some fun races in between.

For once, I’m shying away from the shiny new thing, and pushing farther down simple, (but not easy!) road. I’d like to believe I’m doing things the way a real runner would.


FOOTNOTES

[1] In fact, he actually recently wrote an entire guide on sprint triathlons that you can check out here. [2] In the book, McDougall argues that the ability to run long distances is one of the distinguishing features of modern human beings and may have lead to hunting advantages over Neanderthals.