A Destroyed Polyclinic in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Before the first missile struck, I was speaking to our construction-site engineer, a small smile beginning to creep across my face. We’d toiled for months in bureaucratic processes, and I’d been on the verge of giving up hope on numerous occasions, but after all the struggle, I could finally see the fruits of our labors with my own two eyes. There in front of me was one of the projects we’d spent so much time thinking about: a multimillion-dollar mobile healthcare facility that would replace a destroyed polyclinic in Kharkiv. 

When the sound wave from the distant explosion hit my ear, I stopped mid-sentence and looked in the direction of the noise, thinking back to the details of the security briefing I’d received earlier that day, “the attacks tend to come in volleys of three.” 

I felt my attention ratchet up but returned to my conversation. We were talking about the last step in the construction—a ten-foot tall wall filled with sandbags that would protect the building from shrapnel in the event of a nearby explosion. 

As I extended my arm to give our lead engineer a celebratory pat on the shoulder, a second explosion ripped through the foggy air, this time much closer. In a millisecond, the collective adrenaline of our group went from zero to one hundred, and we ran to take the only cover we could find. 

We huddled close together and positioned ourselves so there was a building between us and the direction of the explosions. We tried to stay calm as we waited for the inevitable third missile to fall. 

Where would it strike? When would it hit? The anticipation was unbearable as I wondered if each second would be my last. My mind began to twirl out of control with all of the possibilities. 

Maybe it would be a direct hit, in which case, it would be over so quickly that there’d be no pain and no suffering. Or maybe it would be my worst nightmare: a nearby strike that sprays thousands of pieces of shrapnel—razor-sharp chunks of flaming hot metal—at speeds fast enough to penetrate walls and pass through vehicles as if they were made of paper. 

What could I do in this situation? If one of us were hit by shrapnel in an arm or a leg, the military-grade tourniquet in my backpack could save a life. We’d follow our training and tighten the tourniquet as much as possible to stop the bleeding. But if someone were hit in the torso, head or neck, we’d be helpless.

As my mind went round and round about the possibilities, my boss finally broke the silence, “we’ve had closer strikes before.” 

“Wait till the next one,” I blurted out without thinking.

Another colleague wheeled around in a furry, yelling, “don’t say that!” 

I looked into her eyes and saw that she was fully intoxicated by adrenaline. So was I. 

I apologized, shut my mouth, and tried to breathe slowly, but there was no hope of taking control of what was going on in my body. This was fight or flight in a way I’ve never felt before.

We stood in silence until all of our phones buzzed at the same time. ALL CLEAR. 

Just like that, it was over. 

A few minutes later, we piled into a car, laughing and smiling, unaware of the multiple people who’d been killed in the strikes. We stopped by a grocery store that was packed to the brim, everyone acting like this was an ordinary Monday. The threat had passed for now, and everything was back to normal.

But as I lie in bed six hours later, remembering the explosions over and over, it’s clear that things are not back to normal, at least not for me. 

Since I’ve been to Ukraine, I’ve been near a handful of explosions and close calls, but this time it feels different. A few months ago, missiles flew directly over my hotel, but I slept through it. Another time, in Bucha, I’d been close enough to an explosion to feel the shock wave, but I was put at ease when I found out it was an intentional detonation of mines and other munitions. Then there was the incident just a few weeks ago when a kid got ahold of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and pulled the trigger. The explosions sent me and many others running through the streets with car alarms going off all around us. It was terrifying, but there was relief when I found out it was an accident. 

What happened today was different; this was no accident, and there was no doubt as to the intent of these missiles. They were meant to kill, destroy and intimidate. And they’d achieved all of those objectives. 

But worse than the memories of today is the knowledge of what’s to come in the next few hours. Everyone in Ukraine knows that Kharkiv—a frontline Eastern Ukrainian city—gets bombed every single night. Perhaps the intention behind the bombings is to ensure that no one sleeps, and if so, it’s working. 

After a few hours, I finally dose off, but immediately my phone begins screaming—an air raid alert. Here we go. I breathe slowly, trying to go back to sleep, telling myself that it won’t matter if I’m awake or asleep when the artillery hits. I lay there for hours in that terrible purgatory of half-sleep.  

The next day, I crawl out of bed to find that there’s no electricity or cell service. The power grid was targeted two nights before, and the service has been in and out since. 

We drink coffee and eat breakfast at the hotel restaurant before going from one dire meeting to the next. The first stop is a hospital, where we enter a secret meeting room through what looks like a full-length cabinet. The windows are covered to protect against explosions, and the generator that powers the facility shuts down five minutes into the meeting. We continue our discussion in darkness, with only the lights from our phones used to read documents. 

We go to the basement to see their operations, with patients, doctors and nurses all packed underground. They moved everything into the cellar in the first days of the war after shelling killed a handful of patients who were waiting to be seen. Since then, more than six months ago, fifty staff have been living and working underground every day. We’re planning to renovate the basement and build a functioning heating and ventilation system so they can live and work in safety. 

At one point, the hospital director gestures for me to look at her phone and shows me a pile of ashes that used to be her home. I try to offer my condolences, but she shushes me with a motion of her hand before smiling and saying, “It’s nothing at all,” through my translator.

From there, we pass to a hospital for newborn babies that took a direct rocket hit. The top floor is completely destroyed, but they still use the remaining four floors. If we don’t seal up the fifth floor, the building will become unusable in the winter months, and these babies will have nowhere to go to get the care they need.

Next, we scurry across town to another meeting, driving by countless destroyed and damaged buildings on our way. We park the car, step into a building, walk down four flights of stairs and into a soviet-age nuclear bunker. It’s being used as a shelter for people who lost their homes, but there’s no running water, toilets or a permanent electrical system—they rely on an exceptionally long extension chord running down the stairs. But today, even the extension chord can’t help since the city has no power. People are lying in pitch black in the middle of the day in a damp basement. My colleagues and I are assessing the feasibility of renovating this bunker, and many other similar ones, so that the people living here can have heat, water, and electricity.

A nuclear bunker being used as a shelter in Kharkiv, Ukraine

As I walk back up the stairs and into the sunlight, I’m struck anew by the suffering all around us. After only a few days in the city, I can see that with all I’ve experienced over the last four months, I’ve only had a small taste of war, but these 800,000 people living in Kharkiv have had a full serving, and somehow they’re still standing. 

I can’t help but be in awe of how they survive in these circumstances. How do you smile when you’ve lost everything? How do you go to work every day under a barrage of missiles and artillery? How do you adjust to living in a pitch-black basement? I don’t know, but I’m witnessing it before my eyes.   

As challenging as it is, I’m thankful to be here. Being in Kharkiv gives me a newfound sense of energy and urgency for the work we do every day. I’m still discouraged with the pace of our progress, but I feel something switch inside of me. The exhaustion, frustration and cynicism are still there, but the feeling of gratitude is slowly replacing them. I’m grateful for all the people I’ve met here and the work they’re doing, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to do my tiny part to support them. Things certainly aren’t easy right now, but they’re meaningful.


A monument to world war II in Chernihiv, Ukraine

I’m walking down a brick sidewalk in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, which only a few months ago was surrounded and bombarded by Russian troops. As I make my way down the street, my eyes fall on a wad of multi-colored paper that, at first glance, looks like monopoly money—Ukrainian Hryvnias, the local currency. 

As I realize what I’m looking at, my nerves fire, initiating an automatic response from my muscles. I’m going to pick up the money, just like I’d do at any other point in my life. But as I begin to reach toward the ground, I freeze. Something isn’t right.

My head turns to see a woman walking up behind me. She wears a traditional dress and headscarf, and to my western eyes, she appears to have stepped out of a time capsule. She says something in Ukrainian that seems to affirm my good luck at finding the money and watches with a confused look on her face as I stand motionless, hovering over the small pile of cash. My body stays still, but a montage begins playing in my mind.

In my imagination, I see the person who dropped the money and my stomach sinks as they reach into their now empty pocket and realize what they’ve lost. I hope they’ll come running back to find the cash, but I know they won’t. Next, my thoughts turn to the woman standing near me. In my mind’s eye, I see her working the days away and laboring to provide for her children. Somehow my brain connects this back to my own life, and a pang of sadness strikes me as I’m reminded of my own mother’s struggle to provide for me and my siblings. Then my mind goes to all those nameless people in this country who’ve lost their homes, jobs or loved ones to this war.

Clearly, this money isn’t for me.

I want to tell the headscarved woman to take the cash, but I know she won’t understand my words. With no ability to communicate, I can only act. I look once more at the money, then at the woman before turning and making my way down the street as quickly as possible. The woman screams out something in Ukrainian and pounces on the cash. 

As I hurry back to my office, my head’s still swirling with the stories and faces of all those in need. I’m gripped by the moment, but more so by whatever chemical is streaming through my brain. I feel my emotions build, and tears well up in my eyes. For a moment, I wonder, “what’s wrong with me”? Why am I crying? But lately, this happens often. My eyes fill with tears whenever I’m overwhelmed by any emotion. It isn’t as unpleasant as it sounds. Instead, it’s in these moments—when my emotional cup is overflowing—that I feel the beauty of life more than ever.

As I walk, my neurochemical captor takes me on a mental journey through the trauma, fear and mourning I’ve been surrounded by since I came here. 

My memory takes me to a colleague who tries to make small talk with me, but I have no time for it. I’m far too busy for meaningless chit-chat. The next day someone sends me a video of that same colleague. She talks about hiding in her basement for days under constant artillery fire and evacuating her home to discover that every building in her city was destroyed. She lost everything. As I think back to her, I can see the pain in her eyes when she speaks with me, but in my rushed state, it doesn’t register. I’m ashamed of myself, but I’m also determined to be better. I have to slow down and acknowledge the humanity of those around me.

Next, my mental journey takes me to another Ukrainian woman I met. She was so afraid of being buried alive in a bombed building that she consulted a doctor on the most painless way to end her own life. The small blade she now carries serves as an escape hatch if things ever get bad enough. “One little cut right here,” she says as she gestures to a place on her neck near her collar bone. “It will feel like I’m falling asleep as I bleed out.” We commiserate as I tell her about my similar fears and thoughts when I arrived in Ukraine. I wonder how many others have feared this same outcome and reached a similar conclusion. Maybe our crazy thoughts aren’t so crazy after all? 

Now my memory goes to the very recent past. I’m having a meal with colleagues, and we’re complaining about some work issues. We’re talking about repairing bombed hospitals in the same way a mechanic talks about replacing an alternator; there’s no emotion in what we say; it’s just business. Then, suddenly, I hear hysterical crying behind me, and I see a young woman who was serving me coffee only a few minutes before. She’s running out the door with her hands over her face, saying something in her mother tongue. My Ukrainian colleagues tell me that she just received word that her uncle died in the war. I go silent and look around the room, wondering how many others are in mourning for their loved ones, for their previous life, or for their country? 

As I near my office, I know it’s time to gather myself and get back to work. Still, I can’t help but think that I’ve experienced something important, even profound. It sounds crazy, but before this moment, I didn’t perceive how much the war had affected every Ukrainian I’ve met. Now I see that I’m surrounded by pain, grief and suffering in every moment. But I’m also surrounded with opportunities to lend an ear, be a good friend and be a small source of healing to those around me. 

I have to find a way to stay in touch with this empathy I’ve experienced. I have to move slower, be more patient, and ultimately be more human. I know I’ll fail often—the situation is too much for me—but I must improve. And I think I will.


Ukraine—Days 2-18

A burned out Russian Army vehicle on display in Kyiv

I sit at my desk, head swirling and bubbling like a pot of water on the flame that’s just started to simmer. What should I do first? Order the bone screws, drills and other orthopedic surgery equipment that reads like a Home Depot shopping list? Write the “urgent” donor update about our activities that I keep getting emails about? Finish writing the itinerary for the upcoming visit from the ambassador? I’m stressed, distracted, and not thinking well.

I have to remove the pot from the fire before it boils over. I step outside on the triangular-shaped 4th-floor balcony that is just big enough for one person. I close the door behind me, sit down, set a timer for ten minutes and close my eyes, hoping that no one will find me here and give me something else to work on. I try to stop the conveyer belt of activity in my mind, but it’s no use. Instead, I release control and begin observing my thoughts instead of trying to wrangle them. 

After a few minutes, my internal state is beginning to stabilize. No longer shallow and short, my breaths are now slower, with much longer exhales. My stress is dissipating, but I know it’s temporary. The moment I step back into that office, the cortisol will return. I’m learning to identify the feelings of the stress chemical in my body, and I feel it a lot lately. But I’m proud of what I’m doing here, so I accept the physical toll it puts on my body and try to manage it as best I can.

The timer begins to buzz. Ten minutes of meditation has temporarily done the trick, and I feel much better. With my newfound calm, I look down at the ground four floors below and see an old Ukrainian woman attempting to cross the street. I observe in silence as each premeditated step takes her no more than six inches. Finally, she reaches the curb, stares at it, and makes some mental calculations before attempting to lift her right foot up to the sidewalk.

I wonder why she has no one to help her? Why doesn’t she have a cane?  A walker? Should I run down the stairs and help her? Even if I do, how many more streets does she need to cross today? And how many more tomorrow? This struggle I’m witnessing is one upon thousands that she has endured and will continue to endure. I’m anguished as I realize this, and then, suddenly,  I’m flooded with admiration. How determined must she be to survive under circumstances where walking to the market is an exercise in courage? I’m astounded by what people can adapt to. 

I begin to wonder what I can learn from this woman? What wisdom have I witnessed with a simple journey across a small street? Can I learn to be as brave as she is?

I think back to my first night in Ukraine when my own courage had left me for a moment. Just two weeks ago, hearing the air raid siren for the first time had frozen me with fear. Looking back, I realize that I had been afraid of the unknown, the idea of what I thought Ukraine was like, but now I know what I’m actually dealing with. It’s like I’ve been birthed into a new world; the journey was frightening for a moment, but now that I’m here, I actually quite like it. 

I’ve been here more than two weeks now, and I’ve seen a good portion of the country—Lviv in the west, Kyiv in the north-central, Chernihiv on the northern border with Russia and Belarus, and Odesa in the far south. Ukraine is green, lush and rather pretty. By most people’s standards, it’s a somewhat large country—roughly the size of Texas but with about 50% more people. The capital city of Kyiv—where I’ve spent most of my time so far— was surrounded by Russian troops not long ago. The inner city survived mostly unscathed, but the suburbs were severely damaged—with some areas completely destroyed. 

A few communities I’ve visited near Kyiv—Irpin, Bucha, Chernihiv—are devastated. Homes, apartment buildings, hospitals and stores were ripped apart by missiles, artillery and high-caliber machine gun rounds. By now, the government has removed most of the burned-out tanks, but occasionally you can still spot one by the road. The people have suffered greatly but are trying to return to their lives. The adaptability of humans once again leaves me in awe. 

If you stay in Kyiv, the war seems distant, almost like something of the past. There was a time when the capital appeared ready to fall, but now, the fighting has shifted to the far east and the south—at least 300 miles from the city. We seem to be in an odd bubble of near-normalcy here. 

There are air raid sirens nearly every day—which everyone ignores, a strict curfew at 11 pm, a significant presence of armed men dressed in military uniforms, and lots of steel and concrete road blocks piled on the sides of roads and sidewalks—a memento of when the Russians were only a few miles away. It sounds weird, but other than these oddities, life is pretty nice here. I stay in a decent hotel, frequent quality coffee shops and restaurants, and play tennis on the weekends. 

Yes, there was a missile attack in the east of the city last weekend, but I slept through it. I woke up after the explosion, grabbed breakfast, walked to a store to buy a few T-shirts and socks, and went to a pub to watch the Ukrainian national soccer team play a match. To the people living here, it’s as if the bombing didn’t happen. They have adjusted to their reality.

As I think about this, I realize the little old lady crossing the street is not so different than the nation she lives in. Both are courageously taking one tiny, pained step at a time toward where they need to go. I hope they make it.

Ukraine—Day One

The blaring air raid siren startles me awake. I’ve never heard one before, and it has its intended effect. As I lay in bed, terror grips me. 

It’s not the fear of death that’s bothering me; it’s the fear of living. What if a missile strikes my building, and I’m trapped in the rubble? Could there be anything worse than being injured, thirsty, hungry, and entombed in concrete until my body gives out?

My mind teleports me back to one of my earliest memories. I’m four years old, watching the news of emergency workers desperately trying to save a man trapped under a collapsed bridge after the Loma Prieta earthquake. After 90 hours, the man is finally rescued but later dies in the hospital. 

My mind fast-forwards four years to 4:30 am on January 17th, 1994, when my whole world turned upside down during the Northridge earthquake. As I listen to all of my family’s belongings smash to the floor in seconds, I’m sure I’ll be trapped under the remains of our house. I sleep in the hallway—which my parents tell me is the sturdiest part of our home—until we move away from Los Angeles six months later. 

I return to my body in Ukraine, and my frightened mind begins to problem solve, thinking of what I would do if my worst fears came true. When you’re in a warzone, you have to acknowledge that this is a possibility. 

Thoughts and solutions fly through my half-awake brain at lightning speed. I quickly settle on the idea that I could try to find a way to kill myself under the rubble. Perhaps I could carry a cyanide pill, but where do people find cyanide? I’ve heard of soldiers and spies carrying poison for this purpose, and it makes sense for the first time in my life. Sometimes it’s better to choose your way out. 

Other thoughts push to the forefront. For the first time, I wonder if I made a mistake by agreeing to come to Ukraine. Perhaps I have finally bitten off too much. 

I ponder my situation in a state of anxiety until one last thought settles over me. This situation doesn’t call for cyanide but courage. Perhaps there is no more meaningful test I can go through than to have to face what I fear the most. 

Even in Ukraine, I know I’m unlikely to have to face my ultimate fear head-on. Instead, I focus on facing it in small, almost imperceptible ways. Maybe all the courage I need is to relax and sleep well instead of lying awake and worrying. Perhaps it’s courageous enough to take a deep breath when the air raid siren goes off and trust that I can handle whatever fate has in store. And possibly all the courage I need to muster is to walk forward instead of running home.

On nights like these, my courage is found in the tiniest of actions.

How Learning To Hit a Baseball Taught Me The Equation For Making Efficient Progress

Long ago, I was a struggling college baseball player. I had shown up to practice every day for two and a half years, but progress in my game was coming at a snail’s pace. My confidence, especially around hitting, was below zero, and every time I touched the field, I felt as though I didn’t belong. 

Then, one day, I chanced upon a conversation with a former baseball player that changed my swing, but more importantly, it also changed my life. I asked him how he had done it. What did he do to get drafted by the Dodgers? How did he manage to start in front of MLB legend Joe Carter in college? His answer seemed too simple: he said he took 300 swings every day, no matter what. 

I dug deeper, and he provided some valuable details. He took these 300 swings on a baseball tee, and 150 swings were on outside pitches—the hardest pitch to hit for most hitters. The following 100 swings were for balls that were right down the middle, and he set the last 50 swings for inside pitches. That was it. He went on to explain the magic behind his method of hitting. He focused 50% of his swings on the outside pitch because all other pitches become easier to hit when you learn to hit the outside pitch. [I could dive into the fundamentals of hitting to explain why hitting the outside pitch makes all other pitches easier to hit, but it would be a distraction from the broader purpose of this post. So you will have to take my word for it.]

I’ll be honest that I initially thought his daily routine of hitting off of a tee sounded mind-numbing, and I also knew it would be more challenging than it sounds. When thinking about his strategy, visions of children playing tee-ball may come into your head, but in reality, hitting a line drive off a tee is relatively tricky. But even with my apprehension, I decided to try it. 

The first week was humbling. I often hit more of the tee than the ball, and I’d watch the ball dribble away from me. That familiar feeling of humiliation crept in, but no matter what, I kept swinging till I reached 300.  

After about a week, I began to see a consistent change. More and more balls were coming off the tee as hard line drives. I also noticed that, just as the old player had said, the middle and inside pitches became easier to hit as I got better at hitting the outside pitch. It was happening. I was turning into a hitter. I felt like a different player, and I was hitting the ball with authority for the first time. In just one month, I had successfully overhauled my swing. I was on cloud nine.

Now, I wish this story ended like a Hollywood movie, where I went back to school as a transformed player and went on to play in the MLB, but that wasn’t my destiny. The truth is that one month after beginning my routine of  300 swings per day, I tore a tendon in my leg that required surgery. Unfortunately, that injury cascaded into many more injuries, and before I knew it, my baseball career was over. It was humbling and slightly troubling that I never got to show my teammates the progress I made, but what I gained was far more important than baseball. 

I began to experiment with designing new strategies based on what I had learned from “300 swings per day” in different areas of my life. I changed how I studied in college, and immediately I began getting straight A’s for the first time since fifth grade. I designed a strategy to improve my math skills before taking the graduate school entrance exam (known as the GRE). I developed protocols to learn to ski, surf, and speak new languages. Each time I implemented the process, I refined it a bit and learned more about the individual ingredients in the recipe.

Progress Vs. Efficient Progress

Through all my experimentation, I learned that there is progress, and then there is efficient progress. We should accept progress in whatever form it comes, but we should choose the efficient path when possible. Why? Because efficiency means less energy used, fewer resources invested, and less time wasted. 

In the diagram above, you see a looping solid red line that signifies progress, and you also see a straight, dotted yellow line that represents Efficient Progress. The solid red line and the dotted yellow line both start at the beginning and end at the goal. The lines share the same outcome, but the red line is roughly four times longer. That means that compared to the yellow line, the red line used four times as much energy, time and resources to get to the goal. Both are good, but we should strive to get as close to the dotted yellow line as possible. 

So how can we tell the difference between progress and efficient progress? Well, progress can be had by any haphazard means of practice. For example, if you are looking to progress as a basketball player, just play pickup basketball games once or twice a week. With this method, you will see progress over time, but you will be taking the red, looping, long path to your goal.  

If you want to make efficient progress, you might need to step back from playing pickup games for a little while. Instead, you would be better off scheduling a few days per week where you do focused drills around the micro-skills that make up the macro-skill of basketball: dribbling, shooting, defense, and other skills. 

Let’s look at the essential ingredients to Efficient Progress:

Efficient Progress = Consistency + Humble Approach + Deliberate Practice 

(EP = c + h + dp)

Let’s break it down a bit:


For any type of progress, this is the essential step. Even a terrible plan that’s executed consistently will show results, and even the best practice plan will lead to subpar results if you don’t show up damn near every day. So make a schedule for your practice and stick with it no matter what. If you want to improve quickly, I suggest setting aside at least 30 minutes per day, 3-6 times per week, for deliberate practice (more on this below). 

Humble Approach:

The humble approach is all about staying in the beginner’s mindset and letting go of the worries of how others perceive you. We tend to avoid the things we need to work on most, especially when others might see us flailing in our attempts. Instead, embrace your current skill level and welcome a little healthy embarrassment. If you can’t keep a humble approach, you are likely to miss fundamental steps in whatever skill you hope to acquire, and in some cases, this could lead to severe consequences, such as injury. 

I have personally struggled with this step a lot in my life. I tend to get overly embarrassed and try to progress past the beginning stages of any given skill too quickly. I find it helpful to remind myself that everyone was a beginner at one point, and anyone who judges you for being a beginner is forgetting their own path to skill acquisition. They once floundered just like you, but they aren’t self-aware enough to remember it.

Deliberate Practice: 

Deliberate practice breaks down a macro-skill (i.e., basketball) into micro-skills (e.g., dribbling, free throw shooting, defense) and designs drills to improve at these specific micro-skills. So, first, you need to break the skill down into micro-skills. It might be helpful to research or ask a coach/expert what the most pertinent micro-skills in your macro-skill are. For example, there are five types of hits in tennis: forehand, backhand, volley, smash and serve. There are also five “tools” in baseball: hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding, and throwing. In surfing, there are numerous skills that a beginner needs to learn: paddling, balancing on the board, body position, wave selection, catching a wave, popping up, and riding a wave. 

Once you’ve broken your macro-skill down into micro-skills, you can design drills to work on each one. For example, you might create exercises that focus on practicing guitar scales. Or you could use flashcard software (I recommend Anki) to study the 500 most commonly used words in the language you are learning. Or maybe you could hit 50 backhands swings in a row in tennis. If paired with consistency and a humble approach, deliberate practice leads to mastery of any given skill.

Some Examples Of Using The Equation for Efficient Progress In Real Life

Here are a few examples of how I’ve utilized this in my current life/recent past to design drills and programs to acquire new skills:

Learning Turkish:

  • Consistency: I practice for 30 minutes every day in addition to regular interactions around Istanbul (where I currently live), where I am forced to stretch my language skills. 
  • Humble Approach: this one is easy. I currently live in Turkey, and it is impossible not to be humble when you have the vocabulary of a two-year-old in a foreign country.
  • Deliberate Practice: I use two software programs to learn grammar and vocabulary. First, I do fifteen minutes of Duolingo Plus on the computer (not the phone) to learn basic grammar and some vocab. Duolingo is a much more powerful learning tool on the computer since you can turn off the word bank on the desktop version, which forces you to recall and type the words with no prompts (there are no word banks to rely on in real-world interactions). Then, for the next fifteen minutes, I use Anki (a powerful and free flashcard software that uses algorithms to decide what words you need to review) to learn vocabulary. I am currently focusing on a flashcard deck of the 500 most commonly used words in the Turkish language (hat tip to Tim Ferriss). Why try to learn the whole dictionary instead of focusing on the most frequently used words in written and spoken language?

Learning to ski:

  • Consistency: unless you live on the mountain, you can’t go skiing every day. But I went as much as possible. In my first two years of skiing, I went nearly 20 times (this was my go-to activity during two COVID-19 winters). 
  • Humble approach: No matter how many times people told me I could go faster or go down a more difficult slope, I didn’t listen. My goal was to keep my knees intact and not severely injure myself while still having a good time. I stayed on the bunny slopes with the toddlers for my first few days on the mountain, and I never touched an intermediate hill until I had spent five full days on my skis. When I first went on an intermediate slope, I did my research and found the easiest “blue” hill on the mountain, which began to build my confidence. 
  • Deliberate Practice: I didn’t try to carve or do anything fancy when learning to ski. I focused on going down the mountain as slowly as I could. I exaggerated every turn and practiced a mini-hockey stop on each turn down the hill until I had confidence that I could always stop if I needed to. Remember, going fast is easy when you have gravity on your side; going slow is what is hard when going down a mountain. 

Learning to surf:

  • Consistency: Whenever I am near the ocean, I plan to surf every single day, no matter what. Since I can’t control the size of the waves or the conditions, I make significant adjustments to my deliberate practice routine depending on the conditions (more on this below). 
  • Humble approach: My first foray into surfing was admittedly not humble, and I paid the price. As a beginner, I went into the water when the waves were far too big for me, and I got a very nasty concussion. After that experience, I didn’t surf for years and had to overcome some mental trauma when I reentered the water. I restarted at square one as a humble newbie, and I doubled down on embracing my beginner status. 
  • Deliberate Practice: I always have something to work on when I go in the water. When the conditions are good for me (clean small/medium-sized waves), I focus on wave selection, turning on the wave and riding them for as long as possible. Some days the waves are too big for me, so I stay in the shallows, practicing my turtle rolls, paddling, and popups while being battered by the white water. I’m sure I look crazy to people on the shore when I do this, but I am gaining confidence, skills and strength that I can use when the conditions are better. 

I hope these examples are helpful for you as you begin to implement the equation for efficient progress in your life. If you combine consistency, a humble approach, and deliberate practice, you will certainly see improvement in just about any area of your life. So pick the thing you want to work on, design a practice schedule, decide what staying humble means to you, and work out a plan for deliberate practice.  Remember, you can constantly adjust all of the variables as you learn more about the skill you are trying to acquire. 

Good luck, and feel free to reach out to me if I can help you as you roll out the equation for deliberate practice in your life.

— Andrew

P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.

Gold From Lead

If you dig deep enough, there’s always a story. Think of a truly remarkable person—the rare type with uncompromising character, compassion, conviction, novel insights, and courage. If you look hard enough at their life, there are sure to be unthinkable struggles in their past. To be clear, I’m not saying that all who suffer are transformed to greatness, but all who are great are transformed by suffering. 

This transformation is the alchemy of life, reshaping our greatest pains into the foundation on which a hero can be built. As Joseph Campbell showed in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, all heroes—whether in fiction or real-life—are tested and pushed beyond their limits. The future hero must face their greatest fears and “slay the dragon” in what Campbell called “the abyss.” Only after this does the hero rise like the phoenix. 

We can look at some real-world heroes as examples. Would Nelson Mandela have succeeded at his life’s mission to end Apartheid if he hadn’t first been imprisoned for 27 years? Would Viktor Frankl have created a new school of psychology and written a book that changed countless lives if he hadn’t endured unthinkable suffering in the Auschwitz death camp? Would Harriet Tubman have risked life and limb to free as many enslaved people as possible if she hadn’t first lived the horrors of slavery for thirty years? I think the answer is an unequivocal “no.” Each of them had to pass through the abyss before rising as a hero.

The suffering of Tubman, Frankl and Mandela was more than I would wish on my enemies, but the power they derived from it leaves history in awe. They took their suffering and used it to become exceptional, just as the alchemist turns lead into gold.  

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” 

– Ernest Hemingway

In comparison, any suffering we go through is likely to be minute, but it still has the power to transform us into elevated versions of ourselves. And there is nothing more honorable or respectable than to have endured, to have been transfigured and improved through hardship. 

The problem is that many of us want to be a hero, but we don’t want to go through the hero’s journey, and we certainly don’t want to pass through the abyss. So we run from suffering, and we hide from our fears. We push our worst pains deep inside, suffocating their innate power to transform us into what we yearn to become.

Instead of running from struggle, we should rather face our pains and heartaches with courage, viewing them as an asset. What can we learn from this pain? How will this heartache make us better people moving forward? Is there any wisdom to be gleaned from this experience?

There are many names for this kind of thinking. You can call it resilience or stoicism, but I call it alchemy. And I know each of us can become an alchemist in our own life, with the ability to take the lead that life gives us in the form of hardship and turn it into the gold of wisdom.

— Andrew

P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.

Seeking 99 Percent Disapproval

As I move the mouse pointer across the screen, I feel apprehension seep from my core and out into my extremities. I take a deep breath, press my finger down, hear the dull “click,” and see the words “post published” appear at the bottom left of the screen. I close the computer’s lid, hiding from the results, or more likely, the lack of results, and think to myself, “one percent…one percent.” I exhale as a bit of cortisol exits my bloodstream.

Many people don’t know this, but I’ve always been wildly self-conscious, very easily embarrassed, and tend to shrink under the spotlight. I’m proud of how far I’ve progressed on this issue, but I still have a lot of work to do. 

Even now, I can easily open up to individuals or small groups, but every now and then, when I get in front of larger groups, something changes. I feel their judgment—real or imagined—like a black veil that slowly envelopes me and constricts me from being my whole, genuine self. Then, the “benign” tremor that I was diagnosed with as a teenager suddenly isn’t so benign, as it quadruples in intensity until I’m visibly shaking. It’s humbling.    

It’s irrational, but for me, the feeling I get when I hit the publish button on these blog posts is no different than when I’m standing on stage.

In many ways, my life is a contradiction. I feel the need to create and share ideas, but I’m terrified to do it. I know my words will be imperfect, and even if they were perfect, many people would still dislike or disapprove of them. 

Of course, I would prefer to have a message that is wholly acceptable to humanity, but I know it isn’t possible. The idiosyncrasies of human taste, preferences and beliefs are too broad and varying for one message to reach all people. And even if one message could reach all of humanity, it would be diluted, having to kowtow to the extremes of ignorance while also providing something of value to those at the pinnacle of wisdom. Impossible.

Knowing this, I have to accept that everything I write is guaranteed to have a sizable group of people who dislike, disapprove, or possibly even hate it. Obviously, this is troubling for someone like me, with a propensity to be embarrassed and shrink under the judgments of others. 

So, is there any hope for those like me? Or are we doomed to keep our creations hidden away like a hoarder, our minds overflowing with ideas that will never be useful to others? 

Luckily, I believe there’s a way forward. One helpful trick is to reframe the whole situation. I like to ask myself the question, “What would happen if 99% of people hated what I wrote and 1% loved it?”. Well, if somehow I reached the entire globe, that would mean that 79 million people loved my work. That’s a hell of a lot of people, and I think 1 out of 100 people liking my work is an achievable target.

With this framing, the shy artist can change the rules of the game. Instead of focusing on the 99%, we emphasize reaching more and more of the 1% that will be positively affected by our creations. And if we could wave a magic wand and actually connect with 1% of the entire globe, can you imagine what that like-minded group could achieve together? I think it’s fair to say that they could change the world.

 When you think about things this way, 99% disapproval sounds pretty good.

So, are you one of the 99%? I appreciate your time; I know it’s scarce. Or maybe you are part of the 1%? If so, and you think you may know another person in the 1% who would benefit from this post, please pass it along to them.  

As always, thank you so much.

– Andrew

P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.

The Waves Are Better Here Than in Colorado

The Sunset Over Sayulita Mexico

I stood alone on the Mexican beach, looking out over the horizon. Under my feet and surrounding me were hundreds of thousands of tiny black rocks, perfectly rounded and smoothed by the friction of countless saltwater waves that had crashed onto them. The sun was already beginning to hide behind the mountain to the south, casting a beautiful orange light over everything in sight. 

I fidgeted as I focused on the tiny waves, struggling to decide if I should go rent a surfboard and get out in the water. These were terrible conditions, and there was just about no chance that I would have a memorable surf session. But when would I have the opportunity to go again? I was scheduled to return home to my landlocked home in Colorado the next day, so it was now or never.

That’s when the thought popped into my head. The waves weren’t great, but they were waves, and where I was going, there would be none. So I could sit here analyzing the swell and waste what little time I had, or I could go grab a surfboard. 

I looked at the shoreline one last time, said to myself, “The waves are better here than in Colorado,” and I walked to the board rental. A few minutes later, I jumped into the water and struggled to catch wave after wave with no success. The swell was slow, sluggish and provided little power. 

After about 20 minutes or so, I essentially gave up on the session, and I floated just beyond the break. A school of tiny fish swam all around me, churning up the water and attracting pelicans that dove into the water at top speed to catch a mouthful of these unlucky sea creatures. As I stared out into the ocean, I found myself in a state of pure gratitude for the natural beauty that surrounded me, for my health that allowed me to engage in such a stimulating activity, and for all the unique and interesting people I had met on my journey.

In this state of internal peace, I began to see the waves in a new way, and I started to approach them differently. I began to dance with the water a bit more, bouncing in and out and meeting the waves where they were instead of waiting for them to come to me. Before I knew it, I was riding a little wave and gliding in towards shore. I then paddled back out and caught another wave and then another. 

None of the waves I rode were impressive in the least. Still, something about the whole experience created a source of light deep within me that permeated my entire being. As the sun faded and the darkness took hold, I walked out of the water with a feeling of pure joy pouring through my veins.

Thoughts flooded forth about all the times I had decided not to do something because the circumstances weren’t perfect. I thought of times when I hadn’t surfed or gone skiing because the conditions weren’t ideal. Or times when I hadn’t started a creative project that I had been dreaming about because the moment wasn’t quite right. And other times when I hadn’t reached out to my loved ones because I assumed they were busy. I always had a reason why I couldn’t live my fullest life today, because tomorrow might have slightly better conditions.

So what could I do about this in the future?

I decided to stop trying to have the perfect experience and instead see what surprises the imperfect experiences had for me. And instead of constantly analyzing everything, I could simply jump into life, take the plunge, take risks and adjust to the environment around me. 

Next time I find myself debating whether now is the right time to do something, I’m going to think to myself, “the waves are better here than in Colorado.”

Much love.

— Andrew

P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.

A video of me surfing the morning after the experience in this post. Note the size and unimpressive nature of the wave and rider :).

Breaking Steel and Shattering Glass

I once read a theory that humans are nothing more than a conglomeration of countless habits. This is likely an oversimplification, but the power of habit is undeniable. Each tiny little habit steers us to a destination, our good habits bringing us closer to the person we want to be in life, and our bad habits veering us off course. 

The tricky thing is that comparing one habit to another can sometimes be like comparing apples and oranges. For me, breaking bad habits can be incredibly challenging, but good habits disintegrate with the slightest amount of neglect. These two classes of habits seem to be fundamentally different in some way.

For me, bad habits are often effortless to form. They come about mindlessly, simply popping up out of nowhere. If I lose focus for even a few weeks, I automatically start eating poorly, increase my screen time, or begin staying up too late at night. And once a bad habit is formed, watch out. My bad habits are made of steel, and I have to put all my energy into melting and pounding them down. I feel like a workman who labors away at dismantling my negative habits. Then, when I finish the job, I immediately find another piece of steel that I need to meltdown. It seems as though it never ends.

On the other hand, forming good habits requires my focused energy, effort and mindfulness. And once I’ve put all that energy into creating a good habit, they’re still exceptionally fragile. Unlike my bad habits, my positive habits are made of glass. I have to handle them with care and nurture them, or they’ll end up as a pile of shards on the floor. I can’t count how many times my positive habits have disintegrated under the weight of an unexpected life event or even something as small as a week’s vacation. 

If you are anything like me, this presents some big challenges. So what can we do about it? 

We can accept that anything worth having takes hard work and dedication. There is no easy path to fulfillment and purpose. And we can realize that the ultimate measure of a person is who we become in this indescribable journey called life. 

So we grab our proverbial hammer and blow torch and get to work with the never ending task of dealing with our bad habits. And we put on our cotton gloves to delicately handle and nurture our good habits, slowly acquiring more and more beautiful pieces of glassware. And if we do the hard work every day of building a better version of ourselves, we will constantly move just a tiny bit closer to the person we want to be. It isn’t easy, but there is nothing more important or rewarding. 

Now let’s get to work…

– Andrew

P.S. — I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am for every person who reads this. I would really love to hear if this triggered any thoughts for you, whether good or bad. Did I swing and miss on this post? Let me know. Did this post make you think about some aspect of life differently? I’d love to hear it. I am on a journey of self-improvement, so your feedback is priceless. Also, if you know anyone who may enjoy this, please feel free to send it along to them. Lastly, you can subscribe to get notified whenever I publish something new by clicking here. Many thanks for your time and attention, and best wishes on your life’s journey.

Venturing Into the Fog

I stepped out of the hotel’s door and into the parking lot, the wind and snow whipping around me like a miniature frozen tornado. I thought back to the previous day when I had stood in the same exact location on a crisp, sunny morning. I had watched the gondolas go up and down the mountain and seen the skiers as they traversed the powdery snow to the mountains’ base. The ski hill was no more than a thousand yards away from where I was standing, but today there was no mountain to be seen. 

We were in full-on whiteout conditions, with a snowy fog that made it impossible to see even the length of a football field. If I hadn’t seen the view of the mountain 24 hours earlier, I would have never known that there was anything special about this location. I certainly wouldn’t have known that one of my greatest pleasures, an activity that often makes me feel like I’m in heaven—skiing—was only a short walk away. In the midst of this storm, the parking lot where I stood was just a tiny, lifeless world of white and grey with no defining features, curtained off from the rest of the world.

As I pondered this strange weather pattern, I realized that sometimes our emotions have a similar effect on our ability to see things clearly. But instead of limiting our visual sight, it alters our ability to see reality as it truly is, temporarily robbing our inner world of wonder, joy and awe. I began to wonder how many times an emotional fog had blinded me from seeing something beautiful, remarkable or exciting. How many opportunities, insights or experiences had I missed out on? How many times had I been brooding or sulking right next to my proverbial heaven? Probably more times than I care to know about.

But negative emotions are a fact of life that we will all have to contend with for the rest of our lives. So what can we do about it?

Probably the most helpful thing is to simply identify that we are in a fog and that things are probably not as they seem. And after this identification, we likely need to do something. 

Sometimes it may be best to wait out the emotional storm before taking drastic action or passing judgment. Other times (in my opinion, most of the time), it is appropriate to actively work to clear the fog through physical exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, reading a good book (not reading something on your phone) or another activity that calms or resets the mind. But other times, it may be appropriate to take courageous action. In these situations, we have to strike out into the fog, ask for directions from others who might have a better vantage point, and we have to explore beyond our current field of vision. Who knows, we might just find our personal little heaven sitting just beyond the fog.