Archived entries for personal development

What Selling Toilet Paper Taught Me About Success

Several months ago I was asked by David Gillespie and the Collector’s Edition crew to build a site to sell toilet paper. I thought the idea was brilliant and funny. I went to work during my free evenings and weekends to building the web application.

Shortly after, Shitter goes live and as far as we could tell, took hold of a small corner of the interwebs. We got coverage in Forbes (twice), Mashable, Business Week, Huffington Post, Perez Hilton (!) and reached #3 on Hacker News. We received coverage as far as China, Germany and Spain. Exciting stuff.

But something unexpected (and depressing) happened. The feeling of success and accomplishement I thought would be prolonged lasted all of one hour and was soon replaced by anxiety about our servers going down under the weight of coverage.

I spent the following days backing up data, fixing bugs, monitoring server logs and being more or less in a state of apprehension, hoping to avoid a crash. Thankfully, things held together.

As things died down I gathered my thoughts. What was I really in this for? It put into sharp focus something I know but don’t always articulate: “success” (whatever that means) is short lived. Realy, really short lived. That is, if you think of “success” as a form of public triumph; if you think of it as a moment instead of it as an opportunity to create. And in a certain way I thought that. We all do things hoping in the end it makes people feel a certain way about us. I’m no different.

So I had to go back and reflect where the good moments were to, in a way, affirm my effort. Yes, putting product out into the world is great fun, one of the most ecstatic feelings you can have. But for me, the joy was building something. The knowledge that you are involved in creating something instead of consuming something.

In the last half-decade of the Ruby community (Ruby is a computer programming language), there was an influential programmer who called himself “Why The Lucky Stiff” or just _why. He was irreverant, funny and put a mirror to ourselves and questioned the value of our work. Then, suddenly, he left.

_why left behind several nuggets of wisdom, but the following quote speaks most deeply. It reminds me to be proactive, to improve by producing and to see things out. It reminded me again what I strive to do everyday in my work.

when you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability. your tastes only narrow & exclude people. so create.

Beginner’s Mind: My First Months Meditating

For the longest time I associated meditation with hippies and strange “spiritualists” and all that, and if you asked me two years ago about meditation I would have dismissed it immediately.

But like all things in life, if you dig deep enough you’ll discover a richness not visible from the surface. Meditation is no different.

“Beginner’s Mind” refers to the state of mind when, starting something new, you see everything for the first time, fresh. Over time you lose this freshness as new models occupy your mind as you evolve your understanding about a discipline. So for posterity’s sake and my own dismal memory, I’ve collected my first impressions here before I forget.

How I Started Meditating

I started meditation on a regular basis in October 2011. I tried meditation in early 2011, but it was a complete failure. I hated it. I quit after a week. My restlesness got the better of me and I found it almost impossible to concentrate.

But like a good restaurant, I kept hearing good things about it. By chance in July of 2011 I moved into an awesome house in Kensington Market. One of my roomates, Jeff Warren, had the idea to turn our house into a kind of community salon, with movie nights, special events and kick-ass parties. Out of this came the Conciousness Explorers Club, a Monday group meditation in our living room.

We’ve been lucky enough to have as many as 30 people in our house and have such masters as Shinzen Young give a guided meditation. We even had a giant 40-inch gong as part of a sound meditation one time (thanks Adam!). That was pretty cool.

Things just kind of snowballed with the house and soon enough I was meditating regularly and with a new purpose.

What is Meditation?

At its lowest level, meditation is taking the skill of concentration and applying it inward. That’s what people do when they meditate. The object of concentration may vary between sounds, visuals, emotions, physical body-sensations or other things, but the basic premise is unchanged.

What is so amazing is that this simple insight can lead you down a path of infinite exploration. You can take it as a way to improve concentration power–but also as a way to springboard yourself into the very nature of the universe. If you’re really ambitious, as a way to reach Enlightenment itself. This sounds nebulous, I know, but I’ll explain below.

My Practice

I average four to five 20 to 30 minute meditation sessions a week. They’re done in the mornings when I wake up. I use Insight Timer on my iPhone for timing and note taking.

My training is in a tradition called “Vipasana” as taught by Shinzen Young or “mindfulness” to use a laymen’s term. Shinzen’s practice appeals to me because it’s direct, clear and mixes science into a framework I can understand. I love frameworks and systems. (I’m a computer programmer by profession.)

Currently all my techniques are “noting” techniques: focussed concentration on visual, auditory or bodily/emotional sensations. The goal of these techniques is to raise my baseline competence in three areas: concentration power, sensory clarity and equanimity.

As an example, I might practice “See In.” This involves closing my eyes and noting images that I “see” inside my head. I will mentally say to myself “see in” every time I see an image. In the absense of images I say “see rest.” I also try to note the vanishing of an image by saying “gone.” The noting improves concentration. Sensory clarity is boosted by practicing the very act of “seeing.” The more I practice seeing, the clearer the mental images become. You can see how this technique can be applied to other sensory experiences.

The equanimity part is the hardest for me. Equanimity is practiced by using a calm, leveled voice when I say “see in.” More importantly, it’s done by slowly and calmy bringing my attention back to the noting whenever a “random” image or thought suddently enters my mind. This is where it gets challenging because this happens a lot. More than you think. In fact, my mind is constantly being pulled away from my meditation to mundane thinks like work, groceries, pain, hunger, why I’m feeling sad or tired, movie times, sports scores, how I am doing in my fantasy pool, etc. Pretty chaotic!

What I’ve Learned

The first thing I’ve learned is how much I’m not in control. I’m amazed how my mind veers from random thought to random thought. Or how easily bored it becomes.

My mind, I discovered, is obsessed with the future. I don’t think much of the past but I do agonize about things I “need” to do. Or things I’m not doing enough of. Almost always about work or personal projects. Interestingly enough, my “feel in” technique helped me link the emotion of anxiety with this preoccupation. This is something I’ll be working on.

For a long time I saw the world in one way: A world broken up as processes that just needed to be identified to be understood. Analytical. Like sticking a pin in a butterfly.

I really didn’t have any experience to think otherwise. It served me, and continues to serve me, well. I love systems. But…there’s another way of seeing. Another way of knowing.

And that is there’s a whole swash of human experience that’s not based on any system but rather is a kind of patient waiting. You have to believe, somehow, somewhere, in your gut, that it’s all going to come together for you. ¬†Waiting in grace.

Love, compassion…these things don’t have roadmaps. You just have to have faith that if you water the lawn some flowers will grow. Meditation is a kind of watering of the lawn, so to speak.

Why I Do It

My original intent was to improve my concentration so I could be better at my job. It was becoming harder to concentrate at work so I hoped meditation would help.

The overarching reason, however, is that I hate the idea of my mind settling into any kind of pattern that doesn’t serve me. I like the challenge of blowing away something I might have believed to be true. If you can let go of old habits and make way for better ones, why wouldn’t you? I never want to stop learning. Consistency is the most overrated virtue.



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