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Not Running A Marathon

2013/11/07 5 comments

Fortunately, life really is all about the journey. Now that I’ve had the experience of spending 6 months training for a marathon only to get injured 3 days before the race, I am finally able to grok this. While running a marathon had been one of my life-long goals, I earned something more valuable from the half-year of consistent training than I could possibly have gotten from demonstrating my progress in a 1-day event. Popular culture does a great job of emphasizing the impact of singular, heroic events. From an observer’s perspective, I don’t disagree. It’s exciting to watch Rocky Balboa, beaten close to death, find the inner courage to overcome a daunting opponent. That’s truly inspiring! But Rocky’s real battle was fought during his months of training prior to the event, a struggle that we only get to observe in the form of a joyfully-soundtracked montage.

For my birthday in March, I got a new pair of running shoes (thanks, Mom and Dad). I haven’t had a decent pair of running shoes…ever. I ran a half-marathon in 2011 with a pair of old, thin-soled crosstrainers that I convinced myself would qualify as “minimalist” shoes. In reality, they provided neither cushioning nor a consistent footbed, likely leading to the pains I felt after running back in 2011. So, after a year-long hiatus, I set a goal: run a marathon in 2013. I was by no means starting from couch-potato status (I play in an Ultimate Frisbee league and do some recreational road cycling / mountain biking with friends), but running was a unique challenge for me. I saw the value in the end goal, but the training process seemed…boring. My friends at Johns Run/Walk Shop had slipped me a 9-week training plan to go from scratch to 5k-ready, so I started with this smaller goal. It incorporated a very important step for me: walking. In my previous attempts to become a consistent runner, I always began my workouts with static stretches (apparently, that’s now considered a bad idea) and immediately after that I began to run. Walking always seemed like the 2nd-class motor skill for “those who cannot run.” Yet, placing my trust in a well-loved local running shop, I swallowed my pride and began my first few runs with the prescribed 5-minute walk. And it was incredible.

While walking got me started, it was a spreadsheet that kept me going. I learned a bit about reward loops from Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit. In this book, Duhigg discusses the challenge of turning Febreze from a novel chemical composition into a $1B+ brand for Proctor & Gamble. Initially, the product was targeted as a cleaning aid: when your stuff smells, use Febreze to fix it. Unfortunately, people whose stuff smelled didn’t actually notice that their stuff smelled, and sales were much slower than expected. However, many people have home cleaning routines: pick up stuff, make beds, dust, vacuum. P&G found out that if they inserted Febreze at the end of that routine as a celebration of a house-well-cleaned (not in the middle as a cleaning step), then people would buy and use Febreze more. While I probably smelled somewhat ripe after my morning runs, the reward that helped secure my habit was tracking a simple number that I invented: Workout Efficiency. When I run (or bike), I wear a Garmin GPS watch with heart rate monitor. This helps me to easily track two key stats: average speed and average heart rate. I then use these as the output and input values for my calculation of Workout Efficiency. As I progressed in my training, this efficiency number would consistently increase. If I took a week off, didn’t sleep enough, didn’t eat well, when it was particularly hot outside (or when I was injured), it would drop. The motivation of wanting to go to my spreadsheet to calculate this number after every run was a surprisingly large part of what kept me going. It turned out that seeing my efficiency number increase wasn’t even the most important part. It was just getting to enter the stats from a new run into the sheet. Creating this small reward was a key motivating factor in the success of my training.

It’s quite possible that I will never run a marathon, but setting that race as a goal engaged me in a worthwhile journey. I learned three lessons that will carry over to future journeys on which I embark: set a meaningful goal, start small, and keep track of your progress. If I had not chosen the significant challenge of running a marathon, I would have lacked the motivation to keep running when the training got boring or my life got busy. My mission kept me focused. Walking, as awkward as it felt, was the small step that helped me form and maintain my habit of running. And without the feedback loop (and reward mechanism) of tracking my pace and heart rate, I would have had no idea if I was getting closer to my goal or not. And these lessons are why I don’t feel bad about not running a marathon.

Tactics for reducing decision fatigue

2013/01/19 6 comments

I’m starting an experiment in restructuring my life to reduce decision fatigue.

If you’re like me, and not very familiar with the concept of decision fatigue, it is well-outlined in a 2011 New York Times article. At its core, decision fatigue is the assumption that we possess a finite amount of willpower, and that we expend this willpower as we make decisions throughout a day. This can lead to unintended (and often undesirable) psychological effects, such as a selection bias towards leniency after lunch, suffered by judges and even greats like Paul Graham. Fortunately, there are factors that can abate this fatigue. As the lunchtime anecdote alludes to, one of these is glucose levels, which this study from the University of Kentucky shows even happens in animals. The factor on which I would like to focus, as part of my desire to design a simpler life, is reducing the number of decisions that I need to make each day.

After a very brief analysis of my daily routine, there are several obvious areas in which I expend my decision-making energy unnecessarily. These wastes include:

  • clothing
  • meals
  • meeting schedule
  • exercise routine
  • content consumption (reading books, watching movies)

With the goal of minimizing waste in decision-making energy throughout a day, one approach is to cluster all of these low-value, low-risk decisions into a particular time of my day, such the night before. I’ve experimented with this for a few days with my eating habits, by using MyFitnessPal not as a post-consumption recording device, but as a meal-planning tool. I have notice the following benefits:

  1. I feel less decision stress just before mealtimes because I’m just executing on an existing plan
  2. I’ve been able to better avoid temptations to stray from my intended diet, because I’m not making decisions in-the-moment (a low-glucose moment, at that)

While the are only preliminary observations, they’re sufficient to convince me to continue this experiment. A few ways to expand this include planning my wardrobe in weekly batches (perhaps, on Sunday evenings), or selecting in one session all the books I’m going to read throughout the year. I’d really like to experiment with ways to make this easier with retail shopping, but that topic is deserving of its own post.

What are some ways in which you can reduce decision fatigue in your life? I’m really curious to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

Hat tip to @MarkWittman for sharing this concept with me.

Give Blood, Save Lives (I’ve saved 24)

2012/07/13 Leave a comment

Blood donation sticker and pin

As of today, I have donated 3 gallons of blood. If every pint of blood saves 1 life, then I have saved 24 lives. As a 26-year-old, I hope I can keep up this pace.

As a technology guy, I’m anxiously awaiting the day when we develop a suitable synthetic blood substitute…but we haven’t yet. Blood donation is our only option. Demand for blood always exceeds supply, so we always need your help. Giving blood is safe, fast, easy, and you get free Little Debbie snacks.

If you already give blood, keep up the good work. If you’ve never donated before, consider it. If you’re in Central Kentucky, check out http://kybloodcenter.org

Categories: Personal Development

My sleep journey, year 1

2012/05/24 Leave a comment

alarm clockI have a love-hate relationship with sleep. I acknowledge that there are likely benefits of an 8-hour night of sleep, but there are so many exciting things to do while I’m awake! I spent most of my K-12/college years sleeping just enough to stay awake during (most of) class, which turned out to be roughly 6 hours per night. A few years ago, I tried an experiment with polyphasic sleeping, but it proved to be a tough adjustment to fit into my unpredictable schedule. I might revisit polyphasic at some point (I like the everyman 3-nap), but for now what should I do? If sleep affects my overall health, as well as athletic performance and creative productivity, how can I optimize my sleep habits to maximize those outputs, while maintaining the smallest possible input?

About a year ago, I decided to start collecting some real data on my sleep habits. I found an app that provided some basic sleep data (for the curious, Zeo is a much better option). Once I started collecting data, I found out that my average night of sleep lasted about 6.5 hours. With this baseline, I set a new goal: 7 hours. As of yesterday, 373 days into the experiment, I achieved my goal of averaging 7 hours of sleep per night! You can see some of this presented on my personal dashboard, or check out the full source data.

So, how did this data collection help me increase my sleep average? For starters, “what gets measured gets done“. Simply keeping track, actively paying attention, helped me increase my amount of sleep. An even more effective tool (and you’ll see this if you look at my source data) was providing myself with timely feedback on fluctuations in my sleep time. I chose a basic analysis: a running weekly average for my sleep. I decided to alert myself whenever this weekly average fell below 7 hours. Typically, I have greater control over when I go to sleep than when I wake up, so my countermeasure was to “go to sleep before midnight”. Since I implemented this countermeasure, I’ve found it easier to maintain a consistent sleep pattern.

A missing piece of data in this process is a performance-related dependent variable. While I’m excited that I was able to increase my amount of sleep, I haven’t found a good means of measuring long-term health or professional performance improvements. Anecdotally, I do feel more alert throughout the day, I don’t fall asleep during meetings/lectures/etc, and I have been reasonably healthy over the past year. For the next phase of this process, I would like to find a means of correlating changes in my sleep to quantifiable life-performance data.

By the way, if you like this kind of stuff, you should check out the Quantified Self event happening during this Fall’s IdeaFestival in Louisville. I’ve been working with Chris Hall to bring together some of the leaders in quantified self from this region, as well as a few special guests, to share stories of personal experiments and insight on the latest tools.

What it means to be a fan

2012/03/26 1 comment

What does it mean to be a fan? I’m asking because I’m not sure that I’ve ever truly been a fan of anything. By virtue of living in Kentucky in March, I’ve had the opportunity to observe large communities of people who consider themselves to be college basketball fans. I have friends who avidly follow TV series, rock bands, comic book series, politicians, and even startup companies. They know every statistic, the histories of every character/player/musician, and they commit themselves to staying up with the latest news.

The closest I’ve ever come is being a fan is for science fiction author Michael Crichton. I read half a dozen of his (rather lengthy) books while in middle school, and continued through high school and college. However, I doubt that a true fan would fail to notice when the object of his fan-ness faded into the past-tense, as I did by failing to discover Crichton’s early death until six months after his passing.

Being a fan, a true fan, is indeed a commitment, one that often requires a good deal of time and money. One reason that I’m not a “fan” of being a fan is that I’d rather commit my time and money to activities in which I can actually make a difference. Since I was young, rather than watching sports, I preferred to be playing. Sure, it was cool watching the College World Series when I was growing up in Omaha, but every clink of the aluminum bat just made me want to leave the game and spend the rest of the afternoon in a batting cage, honing my own skills. That’s where I see myself now: rather than exerting my time and effort keeping up with someone else’s story, I’d rather be writing my own. Maybe this is a core difference between producers (ie makers) and consumers.

But we need fans. Kevin Kelly discusses how artists often sustain themselves by attracting 1000 True Fans. And art, music, theatre, and sports. These have been hallmarks of our society for millennia, and hopefully won’t disappear soon. And these institutions haven’t found a business model that allows them to survive without fans.

So, what does it mean to be a fan? If you are one, why?

What matters to you most, and why?

2011/08/16 16 comments

The title of this post is also the first question posed to students applying to the Stanford Graduate School of Business. This question almost seems almost too personal for an MBA program, but then again, the GSB isn’t any ordinary MBA program. I was one of the lucky students who made it through that rigorous application process, and even survived 96% of my 2-year deferral period. But last week, I decided to decline Stanford’s offer of admission for the MBA class of 2013 in order to keep leading my startup company, AwesomeTouch. For those of you who I haven’t already talked with in person, I’d like to explain why.

If you’re looking for the short version, here it is:

  1. I discovered that I don’t need an MBA to run a company.
  2. I love what I’m doing right now, and who I’m working with.

OK, now for the longer version. If you don’t know the full story of why I was going to Stanford in the first place, I’ll start with a recap. I spent most of my life wanting to be an engineer, which led me to engineering school. While I was there, I lead a student team where we designed and raced solar-powered cars. While doing that, I realized that I just liked being around engineers, not necessarily being one. I had heard that combining an engineering degree with an MBA was a good way to do this, and my dad has an MBA, so I applied to the program at my university.

This was when my friend Luke told me that an MBA wasn’t really about the classes, it was about meeting people, and that staying at my alma mater wouldn’t get me that many new connections. He suggested I try some top-tier schools, like Harvard or Stanford. Since I hadn’t heard of any others (yeah, I was that naive), I applied to both. I’m really good at standardized tests (which would be a useless skill if our educational system wasn’t so messed up), so I rocked the GMAT. With a few awesome letters of recommendation from peers, bosses, and professors, I got into both. I visited Harvard, but ruled it out. Ivy League seemed too stuffy for me. So, Stanford, here I come.

But not so fast. Wanting some business context before I started the MBA program, I checked the little box on the application that said “2-year deferral”. This meant I was accepted as of May 2009, but I wouldn’t start the program until September of 2011. During those 2 years, I was expected to “work full-time to gain relevant experience.” I had heard about a thing called “entrepreneurship”, but didn’t know what it was. So, I asked Lee Todd, the president of my university and an engineer-turned-entrepreneur, and he suggested I check out the Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation. I spent my first 6 months as an intern doing due diligence for KSTC’s venture finance group. It was like candy for my brain. I got to meet a dozen new entrepreneurs every week, and spent my time researching the technology and market factors that they claimed would make their business successful. I was learning so much! But after a few months, I realized that I was sitting on the wrong side of the table. I didn’t want to watch entrepreneurs, I wanted to be one.

My same friend Luke who introduced me to Stanford’s MBA program also introduced me to his business incubator program, called Awesome Inc. Luke, my friend Brian, and a few others were entrepreneurs who liked helping other entrepreneurs get started. They recruited me to run this part of Awesome Inc they called Labs. It sounded really cool, but I didn’t really know what it was (and neither did they). Eventually, we found out that Labs could work as a conduit between the business world and the engineering school I had just graduated from. Lots of smart kids do amazing projects, but they get shoved in a drawer at the end of the semester. We started off by working with the senior design programs, and helping students to turn their projects into products. AwesomeTouch was our first success. It was actually born out of 3 projects, one of which was the mapping technology we use today. In the beginning, we had no idea whether it would survive or not. But for the past year, it has been a little flame that we just can’t snuff out. It keeps finding new fuel and growing larger.

Through this process, I realized that I didn’t need an MBA to start a company. It felt like it just kind of happened. Well, in reality, I had a lot of mentors. In the business world, mentors are like professors, except we don’t even pretend that we can repay them for all the value they provide to us. Some of my mentors were personal acquaintances, while others were just random startup veterans sharing their thoughts on their blogs. But all combined to deliver a very clear message: if you want to learn how to run a business, the best way to do so is to run a business.

Even with this well-supported conclusion, my heart was set on Stanford. If the picturesque campus hadn’t sold me at first glance, I would have been hooked by the location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the amazing peers I met during admit weekend, and the incredible allure for a competitive type-A like me to get to introduce myself as a graduate of the most selective MBA program in the world. However, after 2 years of planning my life around Stanford, I decided to walk away. But, most importantly, I wasn’t parting on some idle whim. I had found a more attractive direction, and this one had a shelf life.

In the spring, AwesomeTouch applied to a startup accelerator program called Betaspring. After a few rounds of interviews, and rejections from other programs, we got in. Huge honor, huge surprise. I had been reading for 2 years that these “startup bootcamps” were the new alternative to MBA programs for entrepreneurs. Here was my chance to have my cake and eat it too. I planned to attend Betaspring with our team, but use it to transition myself out and head for the MBA program at the end of the summer. The problem was, I fell in love. Our enterprise touchscreen software company became an indoor wayfinding company. This all of a sudden was Human Transportation, my passion (you can read about it here). After seeing that a startup accelerator program could deliver on its promise of awesome mentors (like Ben, Sean, Brad, Angus, Josh, Charlie, and Jonathan) as well as connections to investors and customers, I realized that I had found a shortcut to all the connections that I wanted to make through the MBA program. So, if my primary reasons to go to Stanford were (1) learn how to start a business and (2) make the connections necessary for it to be successful, then I no longer had a reason to go.

The first week of August, I began throwing this idea around with Brian. I had convinced him to be my replacement as CEO of AwesomeTouch, and the transition had already begun (per our website and LinkedIn profiles). I sought some advice from other entrepreneurs, admits and GSB alumni, and they suggested I try to defer one more year. In the early stage, startups are crazy. Maybe it would be more stable in a year. I emailed the GSB’s admissions staff to explain my story, and got a call back from Derrick Bolton, the admissions director. While Derrick is sometimes portrayed as the GSB’s gatekeeper, my experience lends to a different theory: he’s the designer. When going through the admissions process, I never felt like I was a faceless number, or a hacker trying to crack the code and break through the door. I felt like I was selected, like the missing piece of some unfinished puzzle. When Derrick called me, I asked about extending my deferral. Wisely, he suggested that I reflect not on when I wanted to go to business school, but if I really wanted to go. The extended deferral was not an option. I reflected some more, and concluded that for my prescribed reasons, it was no longer a logical decision. In spite of how amazing the opportunity was, I knew that I must I turn down my offer of admission to the GSB.

Since it prompted me to turn down Stanford, somewhere in here I should tell you about the crazy awesome stuff we’re doing with AwesomeTouch. Here’s the short of it: we’ve found a way make giant touchscreens affordable, so more places will have our maps, and you’ll never have to get lost inside an airport, hospital, shopping mall or college campus ever again. That’s pretty cool. But what’s more important is that we’ve found a scalable way to create maps for inside buildings. This may seem like a small step, but if you look at Google Maps, you’ll notice that for all the outdoor roads they’ve collected, they don’t have any maps of indoor hallways. We humans spend 80% of our time indoors, so there’s a lot that Google is missing. We’re calling this project BuildingLayer, and someday it’s going to power the world’s best indoor location-based services.

So, you might be wondering what my Stanford application essay claimed “matters to me most”. My answer was my family. They have been the only constant in my nomadic life, and are consistently a source of inspiration. Both my grandfathers are entrepreneurs, and I recently learned the full story of my grandfather Jim’s career choice. You see, he was a smart kid, too. He spent his whole live preparing to go to a prestigious engineering school. Just before he was to start, he realized that this degree path would train him to sit at a desk and make calculations all day long. He instead opted for the hands-on approach and became a plumber’s apprentice. I, too, have chosen the hands-on approach, and I’m excited to see where it takes the family we’ve formed at AwesomeTouch.

PS: If you’re in a similar situation (startup or b-school?), and need some additional reading, start with these:

Steve Blank – Entrepreneurial Finishing School
Vivek Wadhwa – Is an MBA a Plus or a Minus in the Startup World?
Charles Huang – The blue pill or red pill: Start-up life or an MBA?
Brian Scordato – Don’t be a hippo (be yourself)
And for kicks, help Mike Moradian decide if he should go to HBS or work on CampusBuddy

Why I Hate Cars #2: Wasted time

2010/06/21 2 comments

Automobiles in a traffic jam on a highway

Life is not static, it is in motion. That is why I chose to become a mechanical engineer. I really like stuff that moves. I am going to ride my mechanical bicycle home shortly. While doing so, my lungs will exchange oxygen with the atmosphere and my heart will move blood throughout my body through pressure differentials. My great mission in life is to improve the way people move about the world. Just like horses, carriages, and steam engines, cars have seen their time come, and now it is quickly departing. With the advent of ‘internet everywhere‘, my commute is no longer about getting to where I am going so that I can start work. I can start work on the way. Heck, for must stuff I don’t even need to be in a communal, or even static, location. The downfall of the reliance on personal automobiles in suburban America, however, is that I cannot safely and legally do my work (or have my fun, for that matter) while transporting myself. My time in the car is lost time, and soon others will realize that their commutes are nothing but a frustrating waste of their most valuable resource.

My friend and roommate Phillip realizes how valuable his time is. But he is stuck in a rut when it comes to finding a good alternative to his commute. In July, Phillip will marry his high-school sweetheart and move to Louisville, where his fiancée has a nice job as an actuary. The problem, however, is that Phildo is just starting the second year of his PhD program in Materials Science and Engineering…in Lexington. Each day, he will give up three hours of his productive time in order to move his body from Louisville to Lexington and back. While PhD’s are sometimes mocked for viewing their bodies solely as transport mechanisms for their brains, these intellectuals are a vital part of our society. Without people like Phillip who push the boundaries of modern science and technology, America would not be the country that it is today. This is why I am so bothered that Phillip’s only viable option to commute between Kentucky’s two largest cities is to drive his personal automobile. How will America reclaim its title as the world’s economic superpower when our brightest citizens must trade several hours each day of productive life for a monotonous stint behind a steering wheel?

This is a the problem I want to solve in my lifetime.