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.

My Trip to Cambodia and a Lesson in Gratitude

While traveling through Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia, I read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Holiday discusses principles of stoic philosophy through the writing and behavior of Marcus Aurelius, Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Phil Jackson, George Washington and Ulysses Grant, to name a few.

These iconic figures, and many others, turn seemingly impassable obstacles into opportunities for success and growth. Holiday reminds us to focus on the things we have control over in our lives rather than obsess over the inevitable setbacks and roadblocks life sends our way. We choose our attitude, not what gets thrown at us.

“The things that hurt,” Benjamin Franklin said, “instruct.

I’ll return to the book later.

I want to focus on Cambodia.

Cambodia has been my best travel experience yet. You could spend days exploring the Temples of Angkor alone. I was under the impression that there was just one big temple worth the visit: Angkor Wat. However, there are several temples, some just as impressive as Angkor Wat that I would encourage anyone traveling to Cambodia to check out.

Angkor Wat is massive upon approach and even more impressive up close. The detailed carvings on the walls and pillars are breathtaking. I was amazed that such feats were accomplished starting in the 12th Century.

Hanging out at Angkor Wat.
The entire outer wall was covered in these bas-reliefs (raised carvings that give that cool 3D look).

Apart from Angkor Wat, a few temples are worth mention. Ta Prohm had trees growing through and atop parts of the temple. There was also a scene from Tomb Raider filmed there.

Tree growing out of the temple at Ta Prohm.

Bayon is a three-tiered temple adorned with approximately 216 smiling faces that scholars believe to be the face of Jayavarman VII (I referred to him as J the Seventh for simplicity, judge if you like, but there are a lot of names!). Did I mention J the Seventh was the creator of Bayon? And they say Millennials are vain.

Bayon upon approach.
Full blown tourists with the faces of J the 7th.

Many of the temples were surrounded by amazing amounts of ruins, a result of the constant violence that has dominated Cambodia for decades. Japan, Germany, Italy, China and India have assisted in rebuilding and preserving these historic temples. Pictures really do not do these places justice, but it is mind-boggling to see how they have rebuilt parts of these temples from rubble.

Getting around the area was a breeze with our personal tuk tuk driver, Yin, who would wait for us outside each temple and take us to the next one. A tuk tuk, is a motorcycle with a little four seat trailer latched on. Yin’s services for the day, $15.

Money Side Bar: Everywhere in Cambodia takes US Dollars. Haven’t run into that on any other travels so far. Kind of strange, however, no need to exchange money at the airport, you just end up losing out on the exchange rate. On that note, the dollar goes a long way in Cambodia. Lunches ranged from $2-5, dinners from $4-10 and beer was never more than $2.50 if you wanted to spring for a Corona (gross), the local brew, “Angkor,” was $0.50-1. Cheers!

Besides temple hunting like Indiana Jones, the street markets of Siem Reap are a lot of fun. Prepare to haggle with the women who run the shops to get a good price on a t-shirt, knock off pair of Ray-Bans, or pants with elephants on them (yes, I bought the elephant pants). My Jewish Grandmother, who bargains at department stores, would have cleaned up at these markets.

The food was fantastic. For lunch, our driver Yin, took us to local spots around the temples where the fried rice and beef loc lac (beef cooked in red wine and oyster sauce) were substantial and delicious. The dinner highlight was a Cambodian BBQ joint that provided 7 types of meat, including crocodile, frog and shark, to grill at your table alongside a plethora of vegetables, noodles and rice.

Beef Loc Lac dinner.

The nightlife area, aptly named “Pub Street,” was quite a sight to behold. Each bar was crowded with backpackers and tourists. There were little bar carts on the street that sold Martini’s for $1. There was a cart that sold BBQ bugs, snakes and spiders; they charged $0.50 just to take a picture of the bugs if you did not have the chutzpa to give it a try (I did not have the chutzpa and out of principle did not pay to take a picture, sorry).

Pub Street!

We took a private Quad Tour through the back roads of Siem Reap, where little kids playing along the road waved at us, and by sprawling fields and rice paddies. The tour concluded watching the sunset over a beautiful lotus flower field, while we got to chat with our guide about life in Cambodia.

Sunset after the Quad tour.

The Cambodian people were some of the nicest and most accommodating I have encountered in my travels. Everyone seemed genuinely happy to help you out and did so with a smile.

At first, I thought Cambodia must be a great place to live in the world since everyone is so pleasant. Unfortunately, I was reminded that while Cambodia is a great place to travel to, it is a tough place to live.

According to our quad tour guide, corruption is pervasive at all levels of government, including the police force. For many, an annual salary is in the $100’s.

Cambodia has been strife with Civil War predating the Vietnam War, and continued until 1999. Sadly, I vaguely remember a very small part of my World History classes covering the Khmer Rouge and the constant tragedy that has plagued the people of this country. This is not a history lesson, but if you are interested in learning more about this not too distant history, there are worse places to start than a quick Google search.

This was the first time I have ever been in a country that had been so recently impacted by such atrocities. It is estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 million people were executed or died of starvation or disease under the rule of the Khmer Rouge and resulting struggles.

Today, Cambodia is a country of 15 million people, 50% of which are under 22 years or age! Their economy is growing thanks to a boom in tourism, but their environmental, corruption and education rankings are some of the worst in the world.

I really had an exceptional time in Cambodia, everything from the temples to the food to the quad tour to the night life was a unique and memorable experience. Having said that, on our last night, we talked a lot about the people of Cambodia and I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for my own life.


Disadvantages and obstacles, that I have been lucky enough to avoid were all around me and, inadvertently, the topic of the book I brought with me on the trip.

Returning to The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains that the secret of “turning trials into triumphs” involves three parts:

Part one, “perspective.” Holiday writes:

“We choose how we’ll look at things. We retain the ability to inject perspective into a situation. We can’t change the obstacles themselves- that part of the equation is set- but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome.”

Part two, “action.” “We all either wear out or rust out, every one of us,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “my choice is to wear out.”

The Stoic Philosopher Seneca wrote:

“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.”

Part three, “will.” Holiday writes:

“After you’ve distinguished between the things that are up to you and the things that aren’t, and the break comes down to something you don’t control… you’ve got only one option: acceptance.”

“Let’s be clear, this is not the same thing as giving up. This has nothing to do with action- this is for the things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.”

Think about it for a second, imagine you are one of those 50% of the Cambodian population under the age of 22. Imagine the unfair challenges and disadvantages you had to face growing up in the aftermath of civil war and genocide. Imagine living in a world dominated by corruption, where it is really a privilege to go to school and learn to read. I think it would be really easy to crumble in the face of such adversity.

The people of Cambodia, just like any of us, cannot control the circumstances to which they were born. However, as far as I could tell, they choose to make the best of it, take advantage of what they can, earn a living, and care for their families. To be honest, I wouldn’t blame anyone there for looking at tourists like myself with disgust. And yet, they were some of the happiest, nicest, and most hospitable people I have come across so far, and that is including countries in East and Southeast Asia which are far more prosperous and advantaged.

I know America has its own issues these days. I also realize that there are atrocities in the world being carried out right now. I am not trying to make a point about who suffered more. But, it takes some incredible strength to endure what the people of this country have endured, and continue to endure, and carry themselves in such a positive manner.

It is certainly a reminder for me to be grateful for the advantages I have had, grateful for the people in my life and those who paved the way for me. It is a reminder to put obstacles and unfortunate situations in their proper place. Things happen that we have no control over, what we can control is how we react to them and what we are going to do moving forward.

Alter your perspective; remain objective, tame your emotions and focus on what can be controlled. Action; will you wear out or rust out? Will you meet adversity with energy and an eye for opportunity? Will; manage expectations, accept what we cannot change and persevere in the face of inevitable adversity.

Thank you Cambodia for the unforgettable experience and the lesson in perspective and gratitude.

What are you grateful for?

Kuala Lumpur: Land of Zoolander Jokes, Political Uber Drivers, Monkeys and Amazing Views

The first leg of my recent trip was to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about Malaysia. I may, or may not, have made a few jokes from Zoolander about the Prime Minister to highlight my lack of knowledge.

Thanks Ben Stiller.

Perhaps it was best to go in with limited preconceptions, because the city and surrounding areas really blew me away. The first day, I walked out of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur into a busy throng of corporate high rises, ritzy hotels, and shopping malls that dwarfed the one I was used to going to on Long Island.

View of the city from the Kuala Lumpur City Center Park.

I spent that first day wandering the streets and taking in my new surroundings. I was approached by school children to participate in the Mannequin Challenge with them, they said they needed to find an American tourist to join them (I guess I stood out more than I thought).

As I continued to walk, I found myself slightly outside the main hub of the city and there was a sudden change: chunks of pavement missing from the sidewalk, women trying to convince me to get a massage in shady looking spas, street vendors with food that ranged from Thai to Middle Eastern to Malay, and little shops that seemed to exclusively sell knock off sneakers and the widest array of selfie sticks on the planet.

It was quite a change from metropolitan Tokyo, which I have gotten used to, and even a shift from the city I started my day in the middle of.

God bless TripAdvisor, because after a nice long walk, I found the 3rd rated massage parlor in Kuala Lumpur: Chaang (not a spelling error). For a budget friendly US $25, I got an hour and a half Thai Massage. Now, I had never had a Thai Massage before, but it was the best experience you could ask for after a 7 hour flight and an afternoon walking around the hot and humid streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Thai Massage is a combination of deep tissue and intense stretching. There were a few instances when I almost told the therapist that I didn’t think my body was meant to go that way, and then she would push/twist my leg, arm or back in a manner that completely loosened muscles I didn’t know existed.

My only complaint was that the rooms were not totally private, there were curtains dividing each “room” and the guy next to me was snoring so loudly, I thought a wildebeest was being tranquilized. I don’t know how one even falls asleep during such an intense massage but, to each his own.

I emerged from the massage a new man, ready to see what else Malaysia had in store.

The next day, I took an Uber, yes an Uber in Malaysia, to the Batu Caves. While I had some desires to check out places and neighborhoods off the beaten path, the Batu Caves were one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Kuala Lumpur area. I soon learned that sometimes the road most traveled, is most traveled for a reason.

On the trip to the caves, my Uber driver says, “Oh you’re from the USA? You’re President isn’t doing too well, eh?” I guess I had a pretty well-informed Uber driver.

After getting the political small talk out-of-the-way, I got to see a different side of Malaysia. There were far fewer businessmen and women, virtually no hotels or nice looking restaurants. Instead, there was intense poverty. People working on construction sites in sandals. Kids running around yards of dirt and rocks in front of shacks with no shoes or shirt.

Sadly, this was more of what I expected out of Malaysia.

Upon arriving at the caves, I bought a Gatorade that looked like it was packaged in 1997 from a convenience store that was light on the convenience, and products for that matter.

Beyond that, my eyes were drawn towards a giant (Worlds Largest) Murugan Statue standing in front of a steep staircase that leads into the mountainside.

World’s Tallest Marugan Statue guarding the staircase to the Batu Caves.

At the base, each man was handed a bucket of dirt, seriously a bucket of dirt, to carry to the top of the stairs (I assume for construction purposes). The rest of the journey up saw more monkeys than people. These monkeys were savages, waiting for unsuspecting tourists to drop their guard or snacks, for them to scoop up and run off with.

The top of staircase opened up to this beautiful cave where I dropped off my bucket of dirt and went into full-tourist mode, taking pictures of all the beauty these limestone caves had to offer. There were many more monkeys, birds, and even a random rooster, roaming the cave. It was nothing short of breathtaking.

The pictures really don’t do this place justice.
“But why male models?” – Derek Zoolander

After wandering around the expansive cave area, I was about to make my way out when I noticed a sign for “The Dark Cave.” I went and checked it out, and it was a tour of this beautiful preserved (for the most part, it was briefly opened to the public in the 70’s and some of the walls had graffiti on them) limestone cave that went deep into the mountain.

The cost of the tour, 35 Ringits (~$8.50) which went entirely to the organization responsible for maintaining the cave and conducting research, was well worth it. Our tour guide, Zhu, was amazing, very considerate of the wildlife and preservation of the cave.

Zhu warned us that there were poisonous snakes and spiders, among a variety of bats and other insects inside the cave. However, she reminded us that the most dangerous species alive were us, Homo Sapiens, and should we run into any of those in the cave, we should run away (Zhu had a sense of humor).

End of the Dark Cave tour. Happy to have avoided snake and spider bites.

I have a confession to make; I am pretty afraid of snakes and spiders. So, it was slightly unsettling to see a poisonous snake a few feet away but, Zhu reminded us that we are not their prey and that unless bothered, they would not bother us.

At one point, deep into the cave, Zhu instructed us all to turn off our little flashlights and to be silent, taking in the silence and darkness of the cave. Once those lights went out, you realize why they call it the Dark Cave. It was pitch black, and besides the woman breathing heavily next to me, all I could hear was the dripping of water off the stalactites and bats fluttering above our heads.

In that moment of silence and darkness, I had a very cool realization that I am on the other side of the world, the only American on my tour, in a cave surrounded by creatures that usually scare the crap out of me, and I could not have been having a better time. Getting out of your comfort zone is quite a thrill.

That night, after dinner, we went to a bar called Sky Bar in the Traders Hotel. The view of the city skyline was spectacular, while sipping on a refreshing Selangor Sling (gin, 68% absinthe, hibiscus syrup, elderflower syrup and pineapple juice). The bar had a swimming pool that I desperately wanted to see a drunk person fall into (unfortunately didn’t happen).

The following day, we went to the KL Tower tower which gave a stunning view of the city on a clear and sunny day. Followed that up with a walk around the KL Eco Park which had these suspended walkways up around the tree tops.

View from 350 Meters up in the KL Tower! (Petronas Towers on the left)

The night wrapped up with dinner at this delicious ribs joint, a tour of the Petronas Twin Towers and drinks at a bar called “Heli Bar.”

Heli Bar was located in a very ordinary office building with no distinguishing signs. Beyond that, it is exactly what is sounds like: a bar that they set up every night atop a helicopter pad. A definite theme of these Southeastern Asian countries is certainly a lack of safety equipment, indicated by the lack of barriers between the people drinking booze and the end of the heli pad. Having said that, the minute risk was well worth the view.

View of Petronas Towers from the Heli Bar.
View of the KL Tower from Heli Bar.

The next morning was a flight to the next country, Singapore.

In a previous post, I talked about Japan being very different from what I expected it to be, and how those differences were not as intimidating or scary as you might expect. I left Malaysia thinking the same thing. Was there poverty, and some areas of sub par cleanliness and safety-precautions? Absolutely. But, like anywhere else I have been in the world and United States (so far), there were places that looked incredibly wealthy and devastatingly poor.

My expectation of Malaysia to be more of a third world country turned out not to be the case. I never felt unsafe or scared (except of the snakes at first). I am sure it’s different the further outside of Kuala Lumpur you go, but it turned out to be an international, diverse, mostly English-speaking, hospitable, and all around fascinating place to visit and a place I would love to see more of.

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.

Are you listening?

“You know, in marriage, the most important thing is you’ve got to listen.  A lot of wives complain their husbands don’t listen.  I’ve never heard my wife say this.  She may have.”

That is one of my favorite jokes by Jerry Seinfeld.  While that bit makes me laugh every time I hear it, the message really isn’t funny.

Whether talking to my boss, brother, father or friends, I hate the feeling of having what I say fall on deaf ears.  I know my girlfriend loves it when I don’t remember a detail from our conversation the previous day.

Now, you are probably thinking, “I don’t need to read this, I am a great listener!”

You are not alone.  Accenture published a study in 2014 of 3,600 business professionals worldwide.  The subjects were evenly distributed by age, gender and salary. 

Guess what percent of those subjects said they were “good listeners?”

Seriously, stop reading for a second and take a guess.  I’ll wait…

Okay, ready?

96 percent claimed to be good listeners.  96 percent!!!!!

Did you hear that?

Of course you did, 96 percent of you are such great listeners.

I don’t know about you, but far more than 4 percent of the people I know could use some work on their listening skills (myself included).

It’s important to examine why we are not as good listeners as we think, and develop skills and tools to improve.

Let’s begin with the why.

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, sheds light on this problem in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.  Kahneman explains that our brain has two modes of thinking: “System 1” thinking is instant, unconscious, emotional and intuitive, while “System 2” thinking is slower, rational and more deliberate.

We face so many situations throughout our day and make judgments constantly.  We rely on System 1 to make up our mind on things like, not even thinking to order tuna for lunch because you hate tuna, or not walking down a poorly lit alleyway at night while you are alone because it doesn’t feel safe, or thinking the new guy at the office, Sam, is mean because he was not friendly when you were introduced.

Wait a second. System 1 leads us to believe that Sam is a dick because of one bad interaction?

Maybe Sam was having an off moment, maybe Sam was overwhelmed with his new surrounding, maybe Sam is under the weather.  The possibilities are endless.

System 1 is capable of betraying us if we are not careful.  System 1 wants to make quick decisions, often without complete information, and can lead us to conclusions that are unsubstantiated.

What does this have to do with listening?

In conversation, System 1 does a great job of making us think we have everything figured out.  This is illustrated by the fact that we are rarely stumped.  System 1 allows us to have intuitive knee-jerk reactions to everything.  When was the last time you or someone you know said, “I really don’t know enough about this topic to have an opinion.”

Not often, right?

This can be very dangerous when it comes to conversation and reaching any kind of understanding with people who don’t share the same feelings we do.

What can we do about this?

We can start by not immediately judging what someone says to us.  This is not easy.  Kahneman goes to great lengths to explain how powerful System 1 is in our lives.  It is often difficult to see how irrationally we react to things without a complete set of information.

Imagine someone asking you, “Do you know everything there is to know about everything?”  You would probably laugh in their face.  Of course you don’t know everything, none of us do.

“The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” 

That was Einstein, by most accounts, a pretty smart dude.

Keep your ears and eyes open. Every moment is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.
Keep your ears and eyes open. Every moment is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective.

If it is so obvious that there is so much we don’t know or understand, why do we frequently act like we do in day-to-day conversation (or online banter)?

This is where System 2 comes in handy.  System 2, the analytical part of our mind, needs time to process information to reach a conclusion.  We can practice paying attention to situations where System 1 is jumping to irrational conclusions, exercise restraint, and allow System 2 do it’s thing.

Truly hearing someone through is becoming harder and harder in our world of bite sized information, tweets, headlines and Facebook arguments.  With such limited information, all of our System 1’s are racing to judgment and making assumptions left and right, while our analytical System 2’s are getting lazy.

It is easy, and even feels good, to follow your intuitions as opposed to confronting them.

Don’t get me wrong, System 1’s intuition can be valuable and makes navigating this ever more complex world of ours a whole lot more manageable.  However, if we blindly trust our intuition without ever questioning our own assumptions (or of those around us), we miss out on the opportunity to learn and find common ground.

How can we help ourselves accomplish this?

Shut up.  Seriously, shut up and listen.  Stop interrupting and try to withhold judgement until you have heard someone through.  They may be completely wrong, but more often than not, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

When I say “listen,” I do not mean simply wait your turn while you are formulating your response.  Really hear what the person is telling you and respond to what they are saying.

Make eye-contact.  Besides helping you focus on the person you are interacting with, this is a simple sign of respect.  We have all been there, talking to someone while their eyes wander all over.  It is frustrating to be on the receiving end, and quite frankly, it’s pretty rude.

Maintaining eye-contact can be a bit awkward at first.  However, it is amazing how much more you retain and how improved the connection between the person you are talking to is when you look them in the eye. 

If you struggle with this, try focusing on one of the person’s eye at a time.  Sounds a little weird, but it has worked for me and is a good trick.

Ask a question.  Sounds obvious, but asking a follow-up question about what the other person just said is a great way to retain information and show you are paying attention.

Summarize.  This is similar to asking a follow-up question.  As we have established, our System 1 (quick, reactionary part of our brain) likes to jump to conclusions.  It is so easy to misunderstand someone and miss their message.

To avoid this mental landmine, summarize what you have taken away from the conversation and let the person confirm.

“So, you are saying….?”


“Would I be right to say your point is….?”

Being an active listener and being open-minded are skills that require practice.  Our brains like to play tricks on us and love when we stick to our guns.  Luckily, we have opportunities all around us to practice.

There is a consistent message that our society has never been more divided and stratified.  Regardless of your point of view, becoming a better listener can make you more approachable, likable, connected and most importantly informed.  Really hearing and understanding each other can begin to bridge this societal divide.  Better listening can help us be a better friends, mothers, bosses, sons, employees and better people in general.  And that is something worth striving for.

So, just one more question.  Are you listening?