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Religious Practices as a Private or Public Good

My girlfriend and I recently had a discussion with Rabbi Irwin Kula where he voiced his concern that many establishment Jewish religious organizations were too entrenched in keeping their core religious practices private. His overarching point was that keeping traditions insular prevents their wisdom from spreading beyond a small group. Second and maybe just as important, imposing any barriers to spiritual innovation also needlessly risks the obsolescence of a religion’s practices within the practicing group itself.

This dynamic isn’t limited to the Jewish faith.

The idea of a more open, public usage and reinvention of religious practices is at odds with many of the ways traditional standard bearers of organized religion conceptualize and market their practices.  It feels as if this is a sharp, immutable line drawn between religious groups on the one hand and  a more secularized world on the other.

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The Victor Method (for getting sh*t done)

The Victor method, for lack of a more creative description, is what I call my process for getting shit done. It’s a system that I’ve built to both try and welcome in a state of flow while also building in the right constraints and channels to enable me to produce even when that flow doesn’t come and putting out anything is just a tedious, painful grind.

The Victor method has served me really well. From graduating summa cum laude with honors in two majors, to passing the CFA Exam, to creating a business while working a more than full time job, the key disciplines of the system have created periods of intense productivity in my life. I’ve often gotten more done in four hours or four days using this system than in weeks of effort when I’ve ignored it and tried to approach tasks in a different way.

Outside of accelerating output, this method has also helped me stay on track by heading off long periods of stagnation. That’s probably just as key as momentum is really important: once you’re moving you can ride that train for a long time. Stagnation on the other hand is accretive. So if you can just keep the wheels turning—by habit, trick, or whatever—the rest often follows.

At its core, the Victor method is a pretty simple set of prescriptive steps. It can be universally applied by anyone. Hell, it is so straightforward that it wasn’t even until a few days ago when my brother asked me to “teach” or show him how I got all this work done that I even thought about this as a system at all.

But even though I’d never reflected on it, that’s exactly what the Victor method is–a designed system.

The simple rules I’ve built for myself are all triggers to set off a series of reactions and habits. Some of these habits are proactive measures designed to optimize my ability to start (and continue) to work. Others are precautionary habits designed to fend off the habitual blockers I encounter (including not getting started at all).

Yet the most powerful parts of the method are the ones least directly tied to working at all. You see my method has outwardly useless steps built into it which are all just guideposts to direct me back into the channels I want to go into. These are the anchors that let me slip back into a state of acceptance where no matter how I feel, no matter what I “want,” no matter what excuses I try to rationalize the next thing I’m going to do will involve a set period of productivity. Radical acceptance of this fact alone is often enough to trick myself into a more optimal frame of mind.

As with any channel we dig, the more you use it the deeper it gets, and the easier it is to follow the path of least resistance back to familiar ground. The key is to make sure the habits and rituals you build are pointing you to where you want to go.

So with the hope that what works for me might work for you, let’s go through how my system for getting shit done.

The Victor Method

  1. Set your length of time – For me I tend to work in 4 hour sprints, although sometimes I go longer. Four hours is long enough to get focused, become immersed, and produce a significant chunk of output. Also, four hours of total focus always manages to feel like a stretch goal while rarely leaving me completely exhausted. While you should play with this length of time it isn’t entirely random. It actually parallels how “makers” such as computer programmers often work most effectively. I don’t recommend going to less than 3 hours if you want to get the most out of this system.
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  3. Decide on your goal – You should have one goal, maybe two and they should be all about output. A narrow focus is key since what we’re talking about here is execution not creativity. So if you’re working on a paper, the goal is to write not to do research. You may need to do research in order to put words down, but that research is just a means to an end. At the end of the time the only thing that matters is what you’ve written, the output towards your desired goal. In fact I’ll usually make sure I’m maximizing my “method” time by doing the prep work ahead of time.
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  5. Lock in your work zone – This one’s obvious. Set up your space. Do you have your computer, charger, cup of tea, pen and paper? Are you reasonably assured you won’t have to move? Do any cleaning or removing of distractions before you get going. If you clean your entire apartment over the next four hours but your goal was to finish a paper then you’ve failed. I used to have to leave my house because this was a constant distraction. Now I just have to mentally accept imperfections  of the space I’m in (mental or physical) before I start. Locking in your zone also involves making sure you’re not going to get distracted by people. For me I either need to be completely anti-social or be with others committed to producing their own output. There is no middle ground here.
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  7. Create a Starting Ritual– These rituals are anchors or habits—mental or physical—that make it easier to get into a flow state. These are inherently idiosyncratic, the only thing important is that they remain consistent. I only have two ironclad anchors that I use to start:
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    • I need to be seated in a chair at a desk or table, and I need to start with my feet rooted to the ground and good posture. You see I do a LOT of work on couches or lying down and a lot of work at the office slouched at my desk. But when I sit at a desk or table and I consciously root myself down through my feet I’m embracing a power posture to take on whatever is next. Aside from the energy of the posture itself I think what really matters here is that this is a consciously different approach from my norm.
    • I play loud techno music through headphones. My brother says it’s the Dutch side of us, but melodic techno or house, with no lyrics, is the most critical part of this entire process for me. Not only is this part of the ritual and a sign for anyone nearby not to talk to me, but I actively seek to up-tempo my rate of output when the rhythm of the music accelerates. It’s a very active relationship, which is weird because normally I never listen to music.

     
    That’s it. Other people I know use other anchors—the same location, the same time of day, the same cup of coffee beforehand, wearing the same hat or T-shirt. The type of anchor you choose is probably irrelevant, it’s the consistent application of the anchor followed by successful adherence to your intention that builds the right muscle memory.
     

    1. Start – It usually takes me 20 minutes of uninterrupted work to hit stride. This is the period of maximum distraction (for me at least). You’ll want to check Facebook or Sportscenter and you’ll suddenly remember an email you need to send. Honor your intention and respect your practice and don’t fuck up before you even get started. It helps to understand this is the hardest part and requires the most mental energy.
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    3. Work – Sometimes there are no shortcuts. The whole point of this system though is that this part becomes habitual.
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    5. Use Reset Anchors – If you’re going for a four hour period of productivity there will be ebbs and flows of energy and concentration. You can fight through some of this but it’s also natural. I’ve found the best approach is to actively embrace built-in methods of clearing your head so you can acknowledge the change in mental state without losing momentum. I like doing a few things—pushups, brewing tea, and when I’m nearing the end or really starting to flag I put in a load of laundry. Why laundry? Doesn’t that go against having only one goal? Yes it does, but I do laundry because it’s quick and because by doing so I’ve just created a 90 minute window that time boxes the pain and lets me push through my internal hurdles. Plus its nice to have clean clothes. Remember that whatever your reset anchors are, they should probably be the same every time you employ the method as that just makes it easier to pick back up where you left off.
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    7. Either end at a great stopping place or end by setting up the next sprint. A great stopping place is when you’ve finished an entire concrete chunk of work. It’s not mid-paragraph or mid-chapter. At this point, even if you’re tired, you’re holding hours of total immersion and subtle connections in your head. You have a good model of what you’re trying to build. So get through the last little piece because if you don’t you’ll dread picking it up later and you’ll stifle the catapulting possibilities of starting on something totally fresh the next time you employ the Victor method. But if you’ve finished a section and you have a little gas left in the tank, it can be helpful to sketch out the next series of steps and goals.
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    9. Enjoy the secondary effects – One of the weirdest benefits I get from this method is that the more I’m productive, the more energy I get. I’ve honored my intention and that’s empowering. So while I may have drained myself on being able to write anymore, I’m now super motivated to go running. Then when I get back, I find that I’m still engaged, sort of in hyper-on mode. Maybe now’s the time to clean your apartment.
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    11. Turn off – Good job. Celebrate. Shake it out.
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      Stupid simple right? Set an intention to focus for a set amount of time, build the rituals that allow you to slip into a mental state of either flow or acceptance, force yourself to honor your time and output goals, and build the habit so it gets easier to resign yourself to the inevitable. You know the pattern is benefiting you when the hardest part is starting on Step 1, not actually doing the work in Step 5 and 6.

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Before the Startup – Lecture Notes 3

This is a continuation of my notes covering Sam Altman’s startup class. You can also check out the intro notes (part 1 and part 2) and lecture 2 which is about building a great team.

Lecture 3 is given by Paul Graham, one of the most experienced voices in the startup world and an eloquent writer on the topic He’s also an entertaining speaker. I recommend listening to his actual video presentation.

The core of this lecture is about all of the stuff that comes before actually starting a startup. This encompasses things like how to get or recognize a great idea as well as a litany of generally useful but often counter-intuitive bits of knowledge about startups. In fact, the entire lecture is structured around understanding that startups are often very counter-intuitive.

One caveat to Paul’s lecture is in order. It often feels that one of his main goals is to issue a stark warning about the failure rates and opportunity costs of entering the startup world for the wrong reasons. As he says, “starting a startup is really hard.”

Paul wants us all to understand that startups are risky, that they have costs, and that if you’re an awestruck student buying into the entrepreneurial lifestyle because it seems sexy don’t do it. Caution is well warranted before venturing in this space.

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Cosmic Manifest Destiny

I read a very provocative interview of Elon Musk in Aeon Magazine in which he argues that we must put a million people on Mars if we were to ensure that humanity has a future. Whether you agree or disagree with that particular vision, it made me start to think about how powerful we are collectively when united to pursue something bigger than ourselves.

In an American context, this was most evident as a country in our period of Westward expansion and encapsulated by our sense of “manifest destiny.” This period of expansion was when the seeds of American hegemony were planted.

Most modern historians look at the US notion of manifest destiny with a very critical eye. After all, it is widely accepted that the concept is at the core of our imperialistic tendencies. It seems to justify a voracious need to expand, to dominate, to subjugate. It played a part in going to war with Mexico and it justified our treatment of the Native American population. Manifest destiny was about our right to control.

To some extent (even a large extent) they’re probably right. When applied in the context of imperialism, manifest destiny comes across as a terrible ideology. That only gets worse when notions of divine right or ideas of cultural or racial superiority are introduced to it. Manifest destiny is a dangerous tool.

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Is Privacy Dead?

Is privacy dead? Do we still maintain the desire to safeguard our habits and thoughts? Or does our recent disregard for privacy show that we have really lost this primal need?

In my opinion, our startling lack of concern for safeguarding our personal lives stems more from a lack of understanding about how much of our personal data is stored and analyzed in today’s digital world than from any fundamental disregard for our privacy.

Whatever the reason, we all seem increasingly oblivious to how much of our information we allow to be shared. If I wanted to, I could easily tell you where most of my friends are right now. With a little more effort I could put together what they’ve been up to every week for the last five years. Eating sushi at that restaurant? Traveling with HIM where!? The world probably knows it all.

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Building a Great Team & Executing Well – Startup Class Lecture 2 Notes

These are my notes for Lecture 2 of Sam Altman’s Startup class. The course, organized by Sam Altman, the President of YCombinator, has the express goal of teaching “everything we know about how to start a startup, for free, from some of the world experts.” You can also see my notes for the intro and Lecture 1.

OK. So whereas Lecture 1 focused on the five key attributes of a great startup and zeroed in on what makes for a good startup idea, Lecture 2 is focused on how to build a great team. The second half of the lecture then shifts away from one’s team and instead talks about your responsibilities as a Founder in terms of what you need to execute well on in order to succeed.

The team part of the lecture follows the following outline:

  1. CoFounders: Why they’re important, what to look for, and how to find them
  2. Why to NOT Hire: Burn rate, speed of execution, delicacy of the beginning
  3. Recruiting the best talent: What it takes to get the best
  4. Talent Retention: or, Don’t F*ck it Up
  5. Firing Fast:: or, Don’t let others F*ck it Up