“Tribe of Mentors” Review

First time trying this book review business out.

I have become a rather big fan of Tim Ferriss, his books and podcast. Naturally, his new book “Tribe of Mentors” was right at the top of my holiday list and is my first book 2018.

In the intro, Tim writes about finding himself in a bit of a life crisis turning 40. The questions he was asking himself certainly hit home for me as I have been experiencing a quarter-life crisis of my own this past year. He talks about questioning his goals and motivations, how he can be kinder to himself, and what he may have missed out on due to underplanning or overplanning. Thinking about his goals and desires, he decides to email out a list of 11 questions to his “tribe of mentors.” When I first read that the whole book was a variety of people answering the same questions, I was a little turned off. I am glad I got over that brief hesitation, because the rest of the pages were filled with so many ideas, tactics, books, quotes, and mental exercises that I made a note or highlight on most of them.

Ferriss describes the book as a “create your own adventure” book. Many of the profiles and answers were impressive, some did not resonate, but at least 20% really hit home for me. At the onset, I thought I would skip some of the profiles if the person did not pique my interest. After reading the first 10 or so profiles, I realized I was definitely going to be reading every page. I thought I wouldn’t be interested in some of them, but a couple mentors really surprised me and I was hooked.

While there are so many highlights, I want to sum up my main takeaways.

1) “Life is 25% finding yourself and 75% creating yourself” – Time and time again, the reader is reminded that you have the power to control the story of your life. So many of the limits put on us by others and by ourselves are made up. So many of the mentors in this book made drastic changes in their lives, professionally and personally. It is a nice reminder that we are the authors of our lives. At the same time, we can’t sit idly by and wait for life to happen to us, we have to make life happen. This can be a tad intimidating, but leads right into the next lesson…

2) “Focus on the next 5 minutes.” –  Over the last year, I have made a lot of changes in my life and I have put a lot of pressure on myself to “figure everything out.” The idea of “figuring everything out” is wildly overwhelming and often leads to frustration and inertia. Tim encourages all of us to plan, but focus on what is right in front of us. We can’t think our way out of a situation. The only way out is to take one step at a time. We can’t change the past, however, we can control how we approach any situation in the next 5 minutes, we can choose to be happy in the next 5 minutes. When we have this perspective, it is comforting that we can recover from any misstep. I am already reflecting on times that I didn’t “get what I want” that led to a far better opportunity down the road. Comedian Patton Oswalt wrote, “my favorite failure is every time I ever ate it onstage as a comedian. Because I woke up the next day and the world hadn’t ended.” Amen.

3) “Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.” – Oh man, this one punched me in the face. Tim writes this in the introduction, but I am reminded of it constantly throughout the book. Often, “What should I do with my life?” is an awful question (and one I have said to myself, and others, many times… admit it, we all have). It is way too broad and gets you out of that “focus on the next 5 minutes” mindset. It is massively overwhelming to consider how you are going to lay the building blocks that make up your lifetime. In addition, we all know those blocks are going to move, disappear, slide, and more blocks will show up when you least need more blocks. This may appear at odds with creating the life you want to lead and not letting life happen to you. However, if you do you best to focus on making the next 5 minutes the best you can, and you are actively taking steps to create the life you want to live right now, then you will be better prepared to go with the flow when the building blocks of life don’t line up exactly according to plan (which they certainly will).

I am confident someone else will have a different take than me, and I think that is the beauty of a book like this (and any book in general for that matter). After reading 140 different takes on the same high level questions, I am reminded that there is no “right way” to go through life. Success means different things to different folks. While this is a liberating notion, I feel like it lights a little fire under my butt to do the things I want to accomplish, be the person I want to be, and live the life I want to live. We all have the power to write the next chapter of our lives even if it seems out of context with the rest of the story so far.

Dream big and start small.

Final Take: 4/5 Stars. If you have not dabbled in the Tim Ferriss collection, I would recommend starting with last years book, “Tools of Titans.”

Turning 28 and Looking Back

Yesterday, there was another candle added to the birthday cake and another year in the books. This past year has been a whirlwind for me. In the last 365 days, I quit my job where I had a successful career going, flew to the other side of the world 3 times, and visited 7 countries.

I am not much for New Year’s resolutions, but, as I turn 28, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on what I’ve done, what I have learned, and what I am still learning after a big year in my life.

Do what you want to do: When I quit my job to go traveling, I heard a lot of people say, “I wish I could do something like that.” You can. There are a lot of places in life where there are gatekeepers. Traveling proved not to be one of them. I was the biggest gatekeeper between me and my dreams. Quitting your job and traveling may not be what you want to do, but I encourage you to think about what you really want and do it.

Know your limits: If I had waited to have all the money I thought I would want to take my leave and travel, I wouldn’t have done it. Whether it is money, a promotion, or whatever other accomplishment you are waiting for, know what is important to you and don’t make compromises that put your well-being in jeopardy. If you don’t like the menu, leave the restaurant.

Spend time with family: My previous job kept me from a lot of family functions. Check out this article titled, “The Tail End.” Tim Urban explains how when we leave home after high school, we have spent 93% of the time we will ever spend with our parents. It is a sobering, yet helpful reminder to cherish the time we are able to spend with those closest to us, and I am grateful to have been able to spend a lot of time with family this past year.

I like bidets: The worst adjustment to life in the U.S. is the lack of bidets. They are on every toilet in Japan. A year ago, I wouldn’t have believed I liked having water shot where the sun don’t shine. But, now I want to buy a bidet attachment for my toilet. We are way behind the times in the States. The point of this one is, you never know what you might end up liking or what will have a positive impact on your life until you try.

Stop comparing yourself to others: This is increasingly hard while we are all drinking out of the fire hose of social media. Promotions, marriage, kids, vacations. Who cares? Everything happens in due time and everyone’s path is not the same.

Read: “Formal education will make you a living,” Jim Rohn writes, “self-education will make you a fortune.”

Be nice: I can’t underscore this one enough. Once you interact with people who can’t afford shoes, but make an effort to be kind and helpful to you as a stranger visiting their country, you realize that getting pissed off in traffic or because there is a long line at Starbucks is a waste of energy and mental sanity. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be nice.

Do something that scares the shit out of you: To become more confident, you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. For example, flying to Southeast Asia with a peanut allergy (Spoiler Alert: I survived, and it wasn’t that big a deal). “Do the thing you fear most,” wrote Mark Twain, “and the death of fear is certain.”

It’s not supposed to be easy: While a lot of this journey has been fun, there have definitely been struggles. Adjusting to life away from the routine of going to work everyday. Filling the void when the excitement of travel comes to an end. There has been a lot of inertia and mental hurdles to overcome in an effort to have a different life than I was living. The rest of the list are some things that I am continuing to learn and work on.

Set goals: If you asked me what my goals in life were a year ago, they were probably fairly short-term and generic. It was not until this year that I really spent time thinking about what I wanted my life to look like (and maybe more importantly, what I DIDN’T want my life to look like). To be honest, I struggled, and continue to struggle, with defining what I want to do. I have found some clarity by asking myself, “what would I do if I couldn’t fail?” Kind of reminds me of the scene in Office Space where they ask each other, “what would you do if you had a million dollars?” But, I felt like this went deeper. Not just having the financial security, but what would you do if you couldn’t fail. No disappointed family. No embarrassment. No feelings of wasted time.

Pursue those goals: Author Matthew Kelly writes, “People overestimate what they can accomplish in a day and underestimate what they can accomplish in a month.” Do something every day. This is something I struggled with when I found myself without the comfortable structure of the work day and going into the office every day. However, any goal worth spending time on requires hard work and the only way I have experienced success in any endeavor is through constant practice.

Write it down: One of the best things I did in my travels was keep notes and write on this blog about what I was doing and what was on my mind. It has been harder to continue upon returning stateside, but it is a joy to look back at my notes or the online journal I kept for myself while traveling.

It’s going to be okay: Over the past year, this lesson has proven itself out time and time again. A few times, I thought I was in an “end of the world,” catastrophe like situation. I never was. Keep your head on a swivel. I comforted myself by asking, “what is the worst thing that could happen?” Usually the answer is not that intimidating. Mark Twain wrote, “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

So that’s it for this year. It’s fun taking the trip down the memory lane of this past year, and thinking about the year to come. Maybe a little wiser? Maybe a little better? Maybe another country or two? We will see.

Eat Shit, then Eat Sushi

When I left my job 5 months ago to go traveling in Japan, I didn’t know – or even want to know – what I was going to do when I returned.  I remember writing that I was ready to jump and learn to fly on the way down.

This is a nice image: 27-year-old guy, burned out from his job, quits and 2 days later is on a plane to the other side of the world.

I enjoyed that trip so much.  I felt free and unencumbered by the stresses of my previous job.  I was ready to carve out a new path for my life and I enjoyed taking the time to unplug.

Don’t I look relaxed?

Coming back from that trip was an eye opener.  I returned to my same apartment, had lunch at my favorite bagel place and was ready to get back on with “real life.”

Something was different.  It took a few days, but I realized that I was struggling to adjust to my life without the structure of my job or the freedom of being abroad traveling.

Now, if you are saying, “cry me a river, Jeff!  You went to Japan and don’t have a job, get over it!”  I get it.  But, while I had grandiose plans to search for my dream job and start a new professional life, I was stumped.  I didn’t know where to start.

I had just accomplished my goal of being overseas for 6 weeks.  While I was in Japan and South Korea, I never thought that I would return to the States and struggle with what to do next.

It is a weird feeling to come to grips with and something I am continuing to focus on and learn from.

I wasn’t motivated to write, I was in a bit of a funk.  I knew I needed a new goal.

I was home for the holidays, and some family members were more interested in hearing about my professional aspirations than about my trip.  At first, I was taken aback, but upon some reflection, it makes sense. 

We live in a world that revolves around our work.  It is one of the first things you ask someone when you meet them (especially in D.C.).  So, it was natural for everyone to be interested in what I was going to do next.

I was still not sure what that next step or job looked like.  I had stumbled into my previous job and climbed the ladder.  I had not encountered a job search in a really long time.

I thought about it, a lot.  I knew I was getting close to the point of needing to make some money as my sabbatical fund was running low.

I was still not sure where I wanted to go professionally, but I itched to travel again.

I knew I had to make a decision.  I asked myself, “Will the 40-year old Jeff regret having spent a few more months traveling before getting back to work?”

My answer was no.

And that was it, I had a new goal and it was time to figure out how I could finance it.

My next decision was not glamorous, and was not something that comes to mind when I envision a person who quit their job to travel and explore themselves; I moved back home with my parents.

Yes, it was weird going back home after not spending more than a few days at a time there in almost 10 years.

Yes, it was weird actually living with my parents and not having my own place and privacy.

Yes, I was a little scared that I was taking a major step back.

And yes, I was a little embarrassed about it.

All that aside, it was the best decision I could have made to accomplish my goal.  I got a job during the day, I found a job bartending and waiting tables at night, and I prepared to work my ass off to be able to afford this new adventure.

You are probably thinking that this is not the usual way a story about a young guy traveling the world goes.  To be honest, neither did I.

I quickly learned that I was wrong, maybe this wasn’t what everyone else would want, but it was what I needed to do to accomplish the goals I had right then.  In my first post, I wrote about being afraid of what others would think about my decision to quit my job.  I learned then and had to remind myself now, that what other people think doesn’t matter. 

Was I happy with what I was doing?  Yup.

Was I hurting anyone by doing this?  Nope.

I have learned that it is so easy to worry about what others think of us.  I know I am not alone in this struggle.  But, we only have one life to live, and we can’t spend it trying to live up to the expectations we think others have for us.

It would be easy to call this 2 months of saving and living back home as a “pause” in my life, but I decided to embrace it as part of the journey.  I embraced the opportunity to spend some time with my folks, catch up with friends from back home, and save some money on rent and other expenses.

No, this isn’t how I envisioned my life at age 27.  But, by eating shit (not literally, and I love you Mom) and sacrificing some independence and free time for 2 months, I am writing this post from Tokyo and I have flights booked for Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia and Vietnam (If anyone has been, let me know about any must-sees!).

During this part of my journey, I have learned a lot, but one thing really stood out: If you really want to accomplish something big, you need to be willing to make a sacrifice as well.  Whether it is a new job, starting a business, taking a trip or just learning a new skill, if you aren’t willing to eat shit and make some sacrifices, you may find yourself stuck like I was.

I have never heard of a great accomplishment that didn’t require such a price.  Yet, we live in a world of get rich quick schemes, life hacking, job hacking and an obsession with overnight success.  A lot of us are all looking for shortcuts to achieve our goals.

Success – however you define it – requires patience, a little stubbornness and belief in yourself and what you are doing.

So, for now, I am going to eat some sushi and relish the opportunity I have created for myself.  Sure, I will think about creating new goals for when I return to “the real world,” but, from where I am sitting right now, the world looks pretty real to me.

Japan in Review: Different Ain’t So Bad

Imagine walking around Times Square in New York City.  A family of Japanese tourists approaches and asks you for the name of the block you’re standing on.

You explain that you are on 47th, between Broadway and 8th.

The Japanese family looks at you with bewilderment and repeats the question, “what is the name of the block?”

A little confused, you clarify, “we are on 47th Street, between Broadway and 8th Avenue.”

Street map of Times Sqaure.
Street map of Times Square.

Unfortunately, you have not helped the Japanese family and they move on in search of Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. still lost and confused.

Now, imagine you are in Tokyo.  You are a bit lost and ask someone, “what street are we on?”

The person looks a little confused, points across the street and says, “that is block 24 and we are on block 25.”

You probably hang your head to the side as you try to make sense of this answer.  Going for it one more time, you ask, “what is the name of this street?”

The Japanese local responds, “that is block 24 and we are on block 25.  Streets do not have names, blocks have names.  Streets are the empty spaces between the blocks.”

Street map of the ward Shibuya in Tokyo.
Street map of the ward Shibuya in Tokyo.

All of a sudden, that run in with the Japanese family in Times Square starts to make sense.

The Japanese not only label their blocks as opposed to streets (some major streets have names, but not most), the house numbers do not go in order based on location, they are numbered based on when they were built.

When I was in Japan, I couldn’t wrap my head around how they managed to navigate with such a backwards address system.  I couldn’t understand how anyone knew where they were going.  Yet, this system works just fine in Japan.

Addresses were not the only thing that appear backwards and upside down in Japan to a foreigner (or Gaijin in Japanese).  When I told my friends and family I was traveling to Japan, they all said I was in for a major culture shock. 

After spending 6 weeks in Japan, with a trip to South Korea mixed in, I realize my friends and family were right.  However, the differences are not as extreme as you may think; a little weird for sure, but sometimes things that are different and a little weird aren’t necessarily so bad.

When I arrived, I felt like a child.  I pointed at menus to order food.  I relied on seven words of Japanese and Tarzan-like English to communicate.  I smiled and nodded a lot in an attempt to not offend anyone (I probably offended some people anyway, but at least I tried).

I’d have a rush of excitement when I got the hang of something or learned a new word.  The same type of excitement you experienced when you were able to ride your bike down the street without training wheels and not fall off.  I wasn’t accomplishing anything spectacular.  I was getting used to walking on the left side of the sidewalk, receiving change with two hands or walking up the right side of an escalator as opposed to the left.  It was all about the little victories.

There is a lot to get used to. 

Everything in Japan opens late.  There are a few exceptions, but most stores and restaurants don’t open until 10-11AM, even on the weekends!  Imagine if we did that in the States.  There would be a mass hysteria if us millennials couldn’t roll out of bed and get a bottomless Bloody Mary with our Eggs Benedict for brunch.

Once things are open, Tokyo is an amazing city.  Having spent most of my life in New York and Washington D.C., one of the most glaring differences is the quality of public transportation.

Being better than the Washington D.C. Metro is not much of an accomplishment.  However, in Japan, trains are always on time, run every 5 minutes, connect to every corner of the city, are wonderfully air-conditioned and are – drum roll please – clean.

When I say clean, I do not mean simply free of visible debris, I mean spic and span.  In contrast, when I hopped on the D.C. metro upon arriving back in the States, I had to avoid an empty “Big Bite” 7-11 container, covered in mustard, on the only open seat.

During my first few trips to the train station in Japan, I noticed there were all these yellow paths with little ridges leading everywhere.  Given how concerned the Japanese are about safety, I was shocked they would have such a blatant tripping hazard all over the place.  I felt like skipping along and singing “follow the yellow brick road,” until I was informed that they are there to help blind people navigate the train station safely.

Guides for the blind. Luckily they are used to walking on the left side of the walkways.
Guides for the blind. Luckily they are used to walking on the left side of the walkways.

The subway system is not the only place that is clean, the whole city is pristine!  It is common to see city workers and store owners, cleaning the sidewalks and the exteriors of buildings every day.

There is virtually no trash on the ground, not even cigarette butts.  On it’s own, this is not groundbreaking, but it is impressive when you realize there are virtually no public trash cans on the street.  I am not exaggerating, you would often walk blocks and blocks before running into some small receptacles outside a convenience store.  Each bin is labeled for burnables, glass or plastic. 

Furthermore, these few trash cans are never overflowing like you would see at a park or neighborhood with a vibrant nightlife on the weekends in the U.S..  The Japanese are very careful with their trash situation and you don’t see many people carrying Orange Mocha Frappaccino to-go cups on the street.  Japan puts even the most progressive college campuses to shame that think they are reducing their carbon footprint.

This is not to say everything is perfect.  Most public restrooms are often not equipped with soap or paper towels.  You know you are in a fancy shmancy area when the bathroom has paper towels.  Most locals carry lots of hand sanitizer and follow the BYOT rule (Bring Your Own Towel).

Once you get past those short comings, the bathroom situation is actually quite lovely.  Unless you find yourself stuck with a squatty potty, every toilet is complete with a bidet and heated seat.  Talk about a big variation, either a hole in the ground to squat over, or a luxury spa for your bottom.  I was skeptical of the bidet at first, but once I got used to it, a little rinse before reaching for the toilet paper is a massive upgrade.  Japan is the land of the cleanest streets and the cleanest buttholes, just bring your own soap.

The dreaded squatty potty.
The dreaded squatty potty.

The bathroom feature that blew me away had nothing to do with cleanliness.  Toilets in restaurants and nice areas have noise makers that produce the sounds of a toilet flushing or birds chirping.  Imagine, you never have to be embarrassed about the plippity ploppity and splashy noises you make when nature calls.

Another big difference in Japan is related to crime: there is none!  Every English-speaking bartender and local says that if you miss the last train home, you could pass out on the street with your wallet in your hand and wake up with it in your pocket.

I did not test this theory out myself, however, the way people behaved made you feel like crime is less of an issue as it is in major cities in the States.  It was common to see people asleep outside the train station after a night of drinking.  People did not lock up their bikes.  Business folks would go to the bathroom at coffee shops and leave their laptops on the table.  Stores had large displays of goods outside without anyone making sure anything walked away.

I realized how conditioned I am to think that some degree of crime is normal.  When I first arrived, I thought these store owners were crazy and these people were stupid to leave their bikes and belongings unattended.  By the end of my trip, I realized they weren’t the silly ones for being so trustworthy, I was for being so speculative.

I am sure you have seen the ads on trains in the U.S. that warn you to keep your phone and bags close by so they are not easily grabbed by thieves leaving the train.  There are no such ads to be found in Tokyo.  There are, however, signs reminding you to give up your seat for the elderly, a pregnant woman or someone with a disability.  Different for sure, but that really highlights the priorities and concerns of the community in Japan.

Not all signs or ads are quite so noble.  A few examples include: cautioning drunk people to be careful by the tracks, warning you not to use a selfie stick near the tracks to avoid being electrocuted, and my favorite, a sign by the escalator warning men not to take pictures up women’s skirts (for real).

Anti-Pervert Warnings.
Anti-Pervert Warnings.

Maybe some folks are a tad perverted in Japan, but at least they are taking measures to curb such behavior.  This sign is not the only precaution for creepers.  All Japanese cell phones have a security feature that ensures the phone makes the “click” noise when you take a picture.  This way, no one can take a picture of you without everyone around knowing.  Luckily, phones in the States can be set to silent, which helped me take this picture of some dude passed out on the train one morning…

Catching a snooze on the morning train.
Catching a snooze on the morning train.

Moving on to food.  There are definitely some interesting features and practices in the world of Japanese food.

First, the Japanese love vending machines.  They are everywhere.  You can’t walk more than a block without running into a machine selling water, soda, alcohol (yes alcohol, no open container law!) or hot coffee.  The hot coffee brand “Premium Boss,” oddly uses Tommy Lee Jones and a stoic Japanese dude in sunglasses as their spokesmen.

Tommy Lee Jones: The Premium Boss
Tommy Lee Jones: The Premium Boss

Vending machines are not limited to soft drinks and Tommy Lee Jones sponsored caffeinated beverages.  A lot of restaurants use vending machines for you to place your order.  You put in your money, pick your meal, a ticket prints and you hand it over as you walk in.

Ramen vending machine.
Ramen vending machine.

With my experience in the restaurant business, I am skeptical about how this would fly in the States.  The Japanese are not big on substitutions, while most Americans read a menu as a list of suggested ingredients that can be interchanged at will.

The Japanese don’t allow such requests just to be a pain.  They want you to order items as is to ensure a quality product.  There is nothing more frustrating in the restaurant business, than a person who would create their own dish only to be disappointed that it isn’t as good as they expected (that’s why it isn’t on the menu!).  I actually respect the Japanese for sticking to their product and not allowing for variation they do not control.

A lot of friends asked me if I ate sushi for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Surprisingly, I ate less sushi than I would have expected.  The sushi I did partake in is leaps and bounds better, fresher and cut in vastly larger pieces than any sushi spot in the US.  If your idea of sushi is the roll variety, covered in spicy mayo and crunchy toppings (sorry Dad), you are in for disappointment.  I do not believe there is any spicy mayo in the entire country.  This was exclusively sashimi and nigiri land, and it was glorious.

The one time I did have sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was as good as it looks.
The one time I did have sushi for breakfast at the Tsukiji Fish Market. It was as good as it looks.

There are a lot of great things to eat away from raw fish.  Yakitori, grilled meat on a stick, was very popular and a delicious meal or snack.  Dumplings were pervasive and amazing.  The Japanese take their noodles very seriously; udon (thick noodles), soba (buckwheat noodles) and my favorite, ramen (not instant), is available on every block.  Ramen also doubles as a late night snack spot.  I am fairly certain ramen is some type of ancient hang over remedy.

My favorite ramen spot. This style is called Tongotsu (Pork Bone) ramen.
My favorite ramen spot. This style is called Tonkotsu (Pork Bone) ramen.

Most restaurants in Japan encourage reservations and are skeptical of accepting walk-ins.  There were several instances when a restaurant would be reluctant to seat a party of 2 at 6:00PM because they were holding that specific table for an 8:30PM reservation.  The restaurant manager in me wanted to shake them by the collar and explain to them how much money they were losing with this practice.  Upon reflection, I began to respect these establishments for running their businesses the way they want to and avoiding anything that might diminish the experience for their customers.

The music played in restaurants and bars is pretty spectacular.  One afternoon, I went to a restaurant that did not have an English menu.  After a five-minute ordering process with the one lady who kinda spoke English, I sat down and took in my surroundings.  I realized they were playing “Endless Love” on the radio.  Don’t get me wrong, this soulful ballad by Lionel Richie and Diana Ross should be appreciated by different cultures, but I was definitely the only customer who understood the words.

One night at a bar, there was an eclectic Funk band performing.  Until you see a Japanese man sing “She’s a Brick House,” you simply have not lived.

Besides all the institutional and cultural differences, I had some experiences during my time in Japan (and South Korea) that I would never have done in the States. 

I rode a go-cart, dressed as Luigi from Mario Kart, in the streets of Tokyo. 

Classic Asian tourist picture driving a go cart.
Classic Asian tourist picture driving a go-cart.

I went to a baseball game where the there is no middle-aged man screaming, “ICE COLD BEER HERE!”  Instead, there are petite Japanese women running around with back packs filled with kegs.  Oh, and the team’s name is the Tokyo Yakult “Swallows” (referring to the bird, get your head out of the gutter). 

Draught beer on the go!
Draught beer on the go!

I went to a Robot Show, which consisted of four acts that can only be described as some sort of live anime with monsters, robots and people.  They were playing drums, and then fighting, and then dancing to Michael Jackson music, and then fighting some more.  I am pretty sure there was supposed to be a story line, but the volume of neon lights, smoke and debauchery made it hard to follow.  Luckily, they serve beer.  If given the opportunity, go to the Robot Show and prepare to get weird, really weird.

One of the music scene's from the Robot Show.
One of the music scene’s from the Robot Show.

I bathed naked at a natural hot spring spa called an Onsen. (For obvious reasons, there are no pictures to accompany this experience)

I went to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea.  I was close enough that I could hear the propaganda North Korea blasts through speakers to entice the South Korean’s to defect over the border.  In retaliation, the South Korean’s play Korean Pop music back at North Korea (can’t say they don’t have a sense of humor).

Spying on Kim Jung Un.
Spying on Kim Jong-Un.

I went to the official “Cup O’ Noodles” museum and made my own “Cup O’ Noodle.”

I have the artistic skill and sense of humor of a 10 year old.
I have the artistic skill and sense of humor of a 10-year-old.

I went to an Owl Cafe, which did not live up to the Harry Potter like expectations I had.  PETA would have disapproved, but how often do you get to hold an owl?!

We are ready for our close up!
We are ready for our close up!

While there was plenty of weird by American standards, there was also plenty of normal.  Lots of beautiful parks, fascinating museums, cultural festivals, delicious food and impressive temples, shrines and architecture.

At the end of the day, I have learned from the people in Japan that the world is a lot less daunting than we often make it out to be.  Yes, things are different.  Yes, things can be a little weird, but my experience in Japan has led me to believe that weird and different isn’t necessarily as bad as we anticipate.  Often, our fears and lack of understanding paralyze us from doing something that can turn out to be amazing and unforgettable. 

It is easy to watch the news these days and think that the world is a dangerous and scary place.  However, walking the streets of Tokyo felt just as safe, if not safer, than the streets of D.C. or New York.  Do you need to use some common sense and avoid some sketchy areas?  Of course you do.  Are there still some bad people out there?  Absolutely.  But, it seems like the world is generally filled with a lot of good, decent, friendly and hospitable people.

One of many that wanted to take pictures with me while riding go carts.
One of many that wanted to take pictures with me while riding go carts.

This extended time out of the country has been one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.  I always dreamed of having an experience like this and until now, I had always had an excuse to avoid taking the plunge.  If I learned nothing else, I learned this: If you want to take a trip or experience something new, don’t wait for all the traffic lights of life to turn green (because they won’t) and don’t let fear get in your way.  Be like Nike and “Just Do It.”

Now that I am back in the States, I am not thinking about if I will take another trip like this, I am thinking about when and where.

Yeah, I Went to Japan and Meditated

Several months ago, a friend from work started practicing transcendental meditation.  He told me he was relaxed, less stressed, more in tune with his thoughts and even cursed less.

I thought to myself, “fuck that.”

To be honest, I thought the idea of meditation was a bit of a quack.  Who needs to sit quietly, focusing on their breath or a sound to relax?  I kept thinking about the scenes in Bad Boys II where Martin Lawrence and Joe Pantoliano rub their ear lobes and say “woo-sah” when they begin to lose their temper.

This summer, I began listening to “The Tim Ferriss Show” podcast.  Tim Ferriss, author of “The Four Hour Workweek (Chef & Body),” does long form interviews with world-class performers in various fields: acting, music, investing, athletics, writing, medicine, start-ups, technology, academia, military, and more.  Besides finding these interviews very inspirational and educational, I realized almost every one of these “world-class” performers had some kind of meditative practice.

I finally heard enough about meditation and decided I would give it a try while I am in Japan.  Now, there are many different types of meditation, and if any of this interests you, there are lots of resources online for beginners.  I tried two apps that provide guided meditation to get started.  I have done the free trials for Headspace and Calm, I will give my opinion of the different approaches at the end of the blog if you want to get into the weeds.

When I began, I really didn’t know squat about meditation.  I envisioned sitting with my legs crossed on the floor and like Peter Gibbons in Office Space, “just you know, space out for a while.”

I quickly realized that meditation is just the opposite of spacing out.  It is much more about finding space for clarity while your mind has the urge to jump around and worry about anything and everything.

Both apps walk you through 10 minute sessions, you focus on breathing, noises around you and how your body feels.  It was quite shocking to realize how infrequently I ever just sat still and focused on such simple things.  My “unwind time” usually involved tv, music, movies, Facebook, surfing the internet, and beer.  While relaxing, those activities made me feel mindless, not mindful.

Quite often in these 10 minute sessions, my mind wandered all over the place, from memories of the past to worries or excitement about the future.

Luckily, these guided meditation apps know this whole “mindfulness” business is not easy at first.  Both apps frequently reminded me to bring my focus back to my breathing or body or whatever part of the session I was on.  It is amazing how much my mind gravitates towards “autopilot.”  It reminded me of how many things I do on “autopilot” in my daily life.

I don’t know about you, but when I learn something new, I get immersed in the task or topic and think about every aspect.  However, once I get comfortable, it becomes easy to go through that same task without thinking about all the details I focused on when I was a novice.

Remember when you learned to drive?   You had to think about how much to press on the gas, how much to turn the steering wheel and how hard to hit the breaks.  After you got the hang of it, how often do you really think about the finer details when you get behind the wheel?  It comes naturally, you just drive, right?

Life is complicated, and it is normal to learn to automate tasks so we can focus on all the complexities the world throws at us as we grow.  This ability to drive and do various mechanical tasks without thinking too hard is a good thing for the most part.  But, how many times have you been in a meeting or a conversation and realize that you completely zoned out and have no idea what was just said to you? 

The mind likes to wander and jump around.  If we never practice being mindful and being present, we often miss out on the beauty of what is around us.

This is where I have found meditation to be the most helpful.  I have learned that the idea is not so much to control my thoughts, but to feel comfortable letting thoughts come and go, not allowing them to control me and create undue stress in my life.  We don’t need to judge what we are thinking.  How often do you look back on something you did and think, “seemed like a good idea at the time.”  Sometimes ideas and thoughts come to us when we least expect them.

It is important to be aware of how we feel and not be afraid to ask why.  The key is awareness.  Awareness of what makes me feel good.  Awareness of why I feel good.  If I am in touch with that awareness, I can try and create more of that good in my life.  On the flip side, if I allow myself to obsess over negative thoughts, or to let them stress me out, not only am I dealing with the negative thoughts, but the added stress of worrying about those thoughts.  It can feel like an endless cycle, a cycle that inhibits the action I need to take to deal with those negative thoughts. 

The more I dig, the more I realize these negative thoughts are a product of what I am afraid of.  I am not pretending dealing with my fears is easy, but wallowing in the quicksand of negative thoughts won’t get me anywhere either.  Tim Ferriss writes, “what we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

Now, with a bunch of meditation sessions under my belt, I am not going to shave my head, sport a robe, and move into a monastery with some monks.  We usually feel like we need to make BIG changes in our lives to improve ourselves.  Sometimes, all we need is a small change to produce large and impactful results.  Merely taking 10 minutes in the morning has really helped me focus on how I am feeling that day and not let the stress of having quit my job and other stresses we all face control my thoughts and life.

They use this metaphor in Headspace about a clear, blue sky.  That blue sky represents the clarity of mind I have been talking about.  It is often easy to forget that the blue sky is present when the clouds, storms and distractions of life get in the way.  The goal of meditation is not to create clarity, but remember that the blue sky is always there above the clouds.  We should not aim to have everyday be beautiful and sunny because we have as little control of the weather as we do our thoughts.  We should practice cutting through the clouds in our lives and remember that clarity is always there for us, no matter how hard it is to remember when times are gloomy and tough.

If you have read this far and still think meditating is not for you, I get it.  It took me a long time and I had to hear about it from a lot of sources before giving it a shot myself.  Even if you don’t want to just sit down and meditate, I would encourage you to try and create some space in your day to get in touch with your thoughts. 

Next time you go for a walk, take off the headphones and just appreciate the world around you.  Instead of ordering pizza, go to the grocery store and cook yourself a meal.  I never realized before, but cooking puts me in a similar mental space as meditation.  You have to focus on what you are doing since there are sharp objects and repetitive tasks.  Try and find something that lets you get in that zone, I am sure it is different for everyone.  If you have a tactic or activity for creating mindful moments in your life, I would love to hear about them in the comments section below.

If you have read this far and think you want to give this a try, you may feel that you don’t have the time.  But, as Russell Simmons says, “if you don’t have 20 minutes to delve into your self through meditation, then that really means you need 2 hours.”

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Looking meditative.

Headspace VS Calm:  Both apps cover a lot of the same practices.  They are both focused on mindfulness and do emphasize focus on your breath and body.  This is different from transcendental meditation, which focuses on a sound or repeated mantra.

Headspace has a free 10 day program to teach you the basics.  The sessions are led by the founder, Andy.  Andy does a great job of going through a similar routine everyday (focus on breathing, scan of the body, let the mind be free and back to the breathing), but gets you to focus deeper each day.  I liked Headspace because Andy really does not let you stray too much, and for a beginner like me, I needed a lot of reminding to stay present. 

Calm has a 7 day free trial that takes a stepby step approach to the the same style of meditation.  The lady who leads the meditation starts day 1 by only focusing on the breath and adds steps as the days go on.  I did Headspace first, so I found this style to be refreshing since each day focused on one task at a time and put the pieces together into a seamless routine by the end.  If I could go back in time, I would have done Calm first.  The only thing I did not like about Calm was that they would go longer periods of time without refocusing your attention on the task at hand.  As I mentioned, as a beginner, I really appreciated the reminders Headspace provided in these early stages.

I recommend committing to the trial program and really try to practice every day, around the same time.  The first couple days might not feel like much, but after doing it almost everyday for a week or so, I really began to feel a level of natural relaxation and calmness I had not felt in a while.