Friday, April 29, 2011

How to Lose Weight, Feel Better, and Get in the Best Shape of Your Life

A while ago, I let you all know that I was on P90X, a workout program that you can do via DVDs in the comfort and privacy of your own home.  Before I could start P90X, though, I had a long, arduous, uphill climb to reach a basic level of physical fitness.  When I started, I had put on about 45 pounds (!) from my college weight, and wasn’t feeling too great about myself.  I had several “low points” before I decided to get my shit together, one of which was stepping on a body-fat scale and having it tell me I was 35% body-fat (!!).  Another happened when I tried out Wii Fit—they make your little avatar fat or thin based on the height you put in and the weight the scale detects.  The Wii made me “Obese,” and made my little avatar blow up like Fat Albert in front of my eyes.  When my video game system told me what a fat fuck I was, as part of my overall plan for self-improvement, I thought it was necessary to put down the spoon and get in shape.

Unfortunately, losing weight is a lot harder than putting it on.  It’s not really as simple as, “DURRRR, EAT LESS EXERCISE MOAR!”  That’s certainly part of the equation, but if you eat 1500 calories worth of muffins and bagels every day, you still may end up feeling shitty and putting on the pounds.  I figured my diet and exercise plan may be of use to some people, so I wrote a post about it.

I started off by exercising religiously pretty much five days a week.  My building had a gym, so I joined it and started working through lunch and working out in the afternoon when it wasn’t as crowded.  I could plow through a workout in about an hour.  The exercises I did were pretty tough at first.  I lifted maybe half of what I could at my peak.  I could barely put in ten minutes on an elliptical.  This is coming from a guy who used to run two miles of intervals every day in college. 

On exercise alone, I only lost five pounds, and though I exchanged some fat for muscle, I still wasn’t seeing the results that I wanted, so I figured more drastic changes were in order.  Here are some of the things that worked for me.

A Hybrid Primal/”Slow Carb” diet: I had been neglecting the “diet” portion of “Diet and Exercise,” so I started researching various diets online.  What I settled on was a hybrid of the “Primal” diet advocated by Mark Sisson and the “Slow Carb” diet proposed by Tim Ferriss in his book, The Four Hour Body.  For those of you that don’t know, the primal diet is part of a lifestyle that is based upon a simple idea: what did cavemen eat and do?  They lacked the tools and know-how to process grains, sugars, and preservatives, so looking at what they ate should give us an idea of how our bodies are evolutionarily wired to digest food.  The diet is big on eating lots of animal parts, vegetables, and things like nuts and berries, and cutting out pretty much anything processed, including almost anything with sugar or grain.  After trying it for a while, I think that I had a mild intolerance to gluten that was making me feel like shit most days, so though it was painful at first, after a while I felt much, much better on a day-to-day basis.

The “Slow Carb” diet similarly rules out sugar, flour, and other sources of carbs.  As Ferriss puts it, you can’t eat anything white except egg whites, beans, and cauliflower.  This includes pasta and potatoes, a tough pill for me to swallow, as those are two of my favorites.  The wrinkle with Slow Carb is that you get one “cheat day” per week to eat literally whatever you want.  This has the twin benefits of keeping your metabolism boosted for the other days of your diet and preventing cravings from getting the better of you, as you can always tell yourself “wait ‘til cheat day.”  Combining the two was the foundation for my overall fitness plan.

Interval Training: As mentioned above, I used to run two miles of intervals per day in college.  “What the hell are intervals?”  Intervals are long periods of low-intensity exercise, followed by short bursts of higher-intensity exercise.  I figured since it worked for me in college, it might work again now.  For me, this means two minutes of jogging followed by forty-five seconds of sprinting.  On most days, I did this on the beautiful streets of downtown St. Louis, armed only with the timer on my MP3 player.  If it was too cold or bad weather, I used a treadmill instead, set at 4 mph for the slow periods, and 8.6 mph for the fast.  I generally did 5-6 of these, depending on how I felt in a given day.  Combined with the diets above, I finally started to see results.  With these two methods alone, I got down to about 205—a loss of 20 pounds from my peak.

Body Weight Exercises: I previously had been focused on so-called isolation exercises, where you use machines or weights and isolate a certain muscle group.  Curls, for example, isolate the biceps.  After reading a number of online resources, though, I determined that body-weight exercises (pull-ups, push-ups, squats) were a far superior option. They work many, many more muscles than isolation exercises, and force you to work on balance and agility as well as strength.  Though these didn’t help me lose any more weight necessarily, they did help me in terms of speed and agility.  I basically did pull-ups and dips one day, squats and push-ups on day two, and did each “day” twice per week. 

P90X: After a year of the above, I had reached a plateau.  I hovered around 200 pounds, and though I felt much better than I had previously, I still felt like I could do even better.  Whenever I’d wake up early on a Saturday, I caught the P90X infomercials because the Tivo was still on CNBC from whatever it had been recording the night before (60 Minutes on CNBC, I think).  I was always intrigued, but I thought I’d never do it if I got it, it was silly, and it cost too much.  Then, one day, I was talking to my brother and the topic came up.  He’s an actor/model, and though he also runs to stay in shape, he mentioned that I should take a look at P90X for the discipline it instills and the results it provides.  I figured it was worth a shot and ordered it. 

The P90X system consists of the DVDs and a diet/nutrition guide.  Since I was basically already on the diet it advocates, I started doing the DVDs.  It kicked my ass.  Even after training for a year, I felt out of shape and lumpy.  It generally focuses on body weight exercises, though you do need a few weights for a lot of the discs.  After a while, though, I started noticing those odd fatty deposits going away, replaced with…well…usually “nothing,” but that’s a good thing.  My arms started filling out more, and I started feeling better.  And the added bonus is the high comedy that Tony Horton brings to the table—largely unintentional, but still, it’s good times.  I’d highly recommend it for those of you looking to take “the next step.”

The Future: Insanity.  I’m leaving today for my big whirlwind trip to Australia.  I wanted to bring P90X with me, but since it requires weights, it’s not ideal for travel.  That’s when, on another groggy Saturday morning, I discovered Insanity.  Led by “Shaun T,” who to me seems like a skinnier, more effeminate Albert Pujols, it’s a more cardio-based program that claims to burn up to 1000 calories in 45 minutes (!), without using any weights.  I’ve started doing it in lieu of the P90X cardio days, and it’s kicking my ass even more.  I guess this brings up a good point: it’s good to have variety in your workouts.  No matter what you’re doing, if you do the same thing over and over again, it can easily get boring or become a chore.  Running outside helps with this, as you constantly can see new scenery and people if you so choose, but even running can get boring after a while (“Really?”  I know, right?).  If you continually mix things up, you’ll find that you’re willing to stick with a program much longer.

Anyway, Insanity is…well…insane.  Also, since there’s no delicate way to put this, the ladies on the DVDs are smoking hot.  Though it’s not that big of a deal, it can help motivate you through some of the tougher segments.  I end every workout just covered in sweat, and though I feel bad for about five minutes, I feel great for the rest of the day after that.

So that’s pretty much it.  I plan on keeping up with Insanity during my trip, and complementing it with healthy doses of surfing.  I’m between 190-195 right now, and I hope to be back down to 180 by the time I get back in three weeks—I’ll let you know if I reach my goal.

Any other workout tips or tricks?  Leave them in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow him on twitter @djgelner.  Friend him on facebook here.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Green Paper, or "It's Just Fucking Money"

When I first started at my old firm, they encouraged me to take the Illinois bar in addition to the Missouri bar, largely so that I could work on matters in the judicial hellhole that Madison County, Illinois has become.  Armed with my $50 outlines from barexamoutlines.com and a day of cramming, I made my way up to Chicago to hand-write the single-day, Illinois-only test.

At some point during the festivities, I looked around the room of 100 or so people and came to a profound realization:

We’re all glorified monkeys, writing arcane symbols on processed trees, answering questions that have little-to-no practical application in our day-to-day existences.

The ridiculousness of the entire enterprise sort of hit me all at once.  I started thinking about crazy shit like, “What makes a letter mean something?” and “If dogs had opposable thumbs, would they be doing the same thing?” (yes, that’s how fucked-up I am), but through it all, one overarching question really stood out in my mind.

“How the fuck did my life get here?” In a word, money.

We’re told from an early age that we need a “good” job.  When most people talk about “good” jobs, they aren’t talking about jobs that are particularly fulfilling, or that are the most useful to society.  They’re really only talking about two things: money and security.

I’ve talked about money in a previous post, but I thought I’d expand on it since a lot of people have been asking me about it since I quit my high-paying, secure, yet dreadfully boring job (I'll get to security in a future post).  “How are you going to make money?”  “Aren’t you going to miss the money?” “You aren’t going to be able to do what you want to do because you just won’t have the money!”

Money is just a means to an end.  As many in the “lifestyle design” movement have deduced, there are other ways to get what you want outside of money.  The “Travel Hackers” out there know how to rack up a bunch of frequent flier miles cheaply, and redeem them at discounted rates to get pretty much anywhere in the world.  Also,  consider bartering your services for goods or other services—take out the middle man.  There are tons of possibilities out there to get what you want without going through green pieces of paper that happen to contain pictures of dead patriots. 

Unfortunately, people's views on money tend to color their views on life.  Some think that life is meant to be difficult and laborious.  These people try to accumulate as much green paper as possible while trading at least 5/7 of their time for the other 2/7, plus the outside possibility that they will be able to enjoy 10-20 years doing “whatever they want” (or at least what they still can do) on the back end. 

Another group of people think that life just is: they go through the same song-and-dance as the group above, enjoying their time off but secretly wishing that there was something more to life.  They get “okay” jobs that give them enough green paper to be content, and spend their weekends contently enough.  Maybe they start a family, in the hopes that their offspring will discover the secret to life that breaks this cycle, and makes them truly happy.

Others just blindly accumulate green paper at all costs, thinking that by getting as much as possible as quickly as possible, they will be able to “opt out” of the lives above more quickly, and have more time to enjoy whatever they want to do.  Some people are able to do this and maintain their perspective on life so that they are able to get in, get out, and never look back.  This is certainly laudable.  I have a number of friends who are planning to follow this path of semi-delayed gratification, with fine results (so far).  They enjoy what they’re doing enough to be “content,” and are saving for their next move.

But others that were far more altruistic going in get caught in the trap: after all, none other than Monty Burns once remarked, “I’d give it all up for just a little bit more.”  Maybe they want a bigger house, or for their kids to go to better schools.  Maybe they buy nice things for their families in the hope that these things will make up for all of the late nights and weekends at the office.  Regardless of the cause, these people just chase the green paper without any idea what they’re going to use it for, or the faint hope that they’ll get to enjoy it someday. 

Then fear and doubt creeps in.  “What if it’s not enough?”  “We’ve become accustomed to a certain lifestyle—what if something catastrophic happens?”  These people continue to toil and hoard well beyond the point where they could be enjoying their lives, hoping that at some point the pile will be “big enough.”  The cycle continues—bigger house, again.  Nicer car, again.  Lifestyle inflation makes it very difficult to define what exactly is “enough.”  That’s why the road to “more, more, more,” is such a dangerous path.  Some can navigate it well, others can’t.

The final group of people recognize that green paper is just green paper.  It’s essentially Monopoly money, with countless ways to make money that people haven’t thought about for even half a second.  They recognize that working for someone else isn’t necessarily the path they want to follow.  Others still decide that they’d rather let someone else worry about actually “running the business,” so they negotiate part-time arrangements with employers or set firm boundaries between work and life so that they have time to do what they want.  Still others, the “Free Agents” as defined by Daniel Pink, focus on building transferrable skills that can be taken with them from project-to-project, with as much or as little time between projects as they possibly could want.  In short, this group of people gets it because they are living the lives that they want.  Sure, making money is great, and a lot of them make a lot more green paper than others because they recognize the nature of the game on a very fundamental level, but at the end of the day, they know what’s truly important in life: family, friends, experiences, love, happiness.  Green pieces of paper certainly aren’t, especially when those green pieces of paper might be worthless compared to tan or blue pieces of paper down the road, but that’s a column for another day.

Prioritize, live the life you want to live, and find a way to get enough green paper to make it happen.

Think I’m oversimplifying?  Think I’ll “come around” somewhere down the road?  Leave something in the comments.

D.J. Gelner is a writer, entrepreneur, and recovering attorney in St. Louis, Missouri. You can e-mail him at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow him on twitter @djgelner.  Friend him on facebook here.

Monday, April 25, 2011

There's No Such Thing as Free Time

Since I made the decision to strike out on my own, with only my writing and projects to support myself, people always seem to assume that I have tons and tons of “free time.”  “Must be nice to have so much free time.” “Man, I wish I had as much free time as you.”  “Can’t you do ________?  You have plenty of time.”


Uh…what?


People just assume that I’m lounging around, sipping drinks with umbrellas in them, watching TV and having a good laugh about it all.  That couldn’t be further from the truth. I still have to have time to write and get some of these projects in motion, as well as eat, sleep, and work out.  There’s little “free” time built into my schedule!  


At the end of the day, time is the only finite resource we have.  You can “spend” time, just like money.  But like money, it’s also easy to “waste” time.  You can also “invest” time and money, with the implied result that you’re creating something of greater value.  At the end of the day, though, you can always make more money.  You can’t make more time.  When your number’s up, it’s over.  At least until we all become cyborgs, but that’s a topic for another day. 


From now on, I’m trying to waste as little time as possible.  This doesn’t mean having a regimented, minute-by-minute schedule for every single day planned out ahead of time.  Such a system is pointless, as a lot of good can come from spontaneity and living in the moment.  What it does mean, though, is ensuring that I’m doing something that has the potential to be productive or lead to greater productivity down the road.  


I still watch TV and movies, and even play video games (occasionally).  I don’t consider this “free” time.  I’m borrowing against time somewhere else in my life. It can be considered “recreational” time, used to help me restore my creativity and drive, but it’s certainly not free.  Everything has its price, including that hour of TV you watch every night that could be used to work out, or that hour of video games that could be better spent reading to come up with new ideas, like Mark Cuban does.  It even includes spending unproductive time at work surfing the internet when you’ve already finished up work for the day.  “Face time” at work is hardly free.  In fact, it can be the most expensive of all, as you’re stuck somewhere doing nothing, hating it, wishing you were free to do something else.  Not a great investment of your time, is it?  Spending time with family, friends, and loved ones?  Sounds like a pretty damned good investment to me.  Same with volunteering for a cause that you believe in.  Those are things that I will always say yes to, even if I'm a bit too busy?  Why?  Because if I don't what's the point of trying to live the life I want, anyway?


There is a common thread to investing time wisely: spend it doing things that you enjoy, but that also have the potential to create something or better yourself or those around you.  For some people, this is writing.  For others, it’s working on cars or making movies.  For others still, it’s volunteering at a homeless shelter or building houses for Habitat for Humanity.  I guess you can make a strained case for “playing video games” as a “wise investment of time” if it helps you not be an unbearable dick to everyone else, but this is a slippery slope into measured mediocrity.  Much like with money, if you invest your time wisely, the returns will start compounding, and before you know it, each moment will seem to be more valuable than the last.  At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want, anyway?    


How do you invest your time?  Let me know in the comments.


Questions?  Comments?  Wondering when this turned into a personal finance blog?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on Facebook here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

What the Fuck?

There was an article yesterday in the Post-Dispatch about some piece of shit and his buddies that beat an old man to death in an alley as part of a “game.”  The guy was a gang member, and after he got picked up, he went into horrific detail about how the “knockout game” worked.  These assholes targeted the weak and elderly, ganging up on them in alleys, jumping them so that they had no chance to fight back.

Obviously, I was really pissed off after reading this article.  There’s so much involved in this, it’s tough to get it all down on paper.  First of all, how can somebody actually do something like this?  No matter how shitty someone’s life is, this shouldn’t be a solution to anything.  I’ve played my fair share of Grand Theft Auto, and committed senseless acts of violence in the game.  But I realize it’s just a game, an escape from day-to-day life.  Are there seriously people out there that think that because it’s “good fun” in a game, it would even be more fun in real life?  I guess so. 

I’m not going to blame video games for this, though.  There are millions of people out there that play GTA without turning to a dickhead game like this.  No, rather it’s a problem with the individual.  For whatever reason, these pieces of shit don’t value human life.  Maybe it’s because their own lives are so shitty.  This is no excuse.  

There’s a hypothesis out there that as lifespans increase, people are generally more reluctant to fight in wars.  The thought is that if you’re going to die at thirty anyway, why not do it fighting for your country?  But if you’re going to live to 80, you’re giving up more than half your life.  The “preciousness” of life is in some ways correlated to the quality of life that a person experiences.  Similarly, if you live in some shithole with no good family base, no cash, and people getting gunned down around you all of the time, life becomes devalued.

This is an important lesson—nobody cares about your life as much as you do.  You could be the next victim in the “knockout game.”  Instead of locking the door and cowering in fear, though, what can we do as a society to fix some of these problems?  Is it a simple matter of raising the standard of living for these people, so that they will have more to lose?  I don’t think so.  Even the poorest gang member lives better than a 19th century king.  They have running water, plumbing, electricity, and access to all of the world’s information on a screen.  In some respects, the problem is comparative wealth.  There are always people in any society that think they should get theirs.  A lot of times, though, these people aren’t willing to put in the work to actually “earn” something.  They keep looking for ways to “game” the system, without any worry for the consequences.

Fuck these people.  They can be rich or poor, old or young, any race or religion.  They still exist.  The guy that is happy about a lawsuit so that he can get a fat settlement.  The countless people that play the lottery every day.  The con artist.  The grifter.  The gang member that beats up people for fun.  Fuck all of them.

If we don’t take steps as a society to cure these problems, they’re going to continue to fester.  Many people note that crime is down overall, and that these kind of things happened more frequently in the past.  They claim that now, access to media has improved, and thus awareness of the more isolated incidents has increased.  So the fuck what?  That somehow makes this not a problem?  If we set an acceptable level of this kind of shit, we’re imposing artificial barriers on our society.  None of this kind of thing should be acceptable.

I don’t think the answer is necessarily equalizing the standard of living, because I still think these shitheads would exist.  I think in any population of people, some are just broken.  We’re just animals when it comes down to it, and like any group of animals, you’re going to have a wide range of personalities.  Can we fix it with meds?  I doubt it.  Though medication has done wonders for a lot of people, there’s still going to be a guy that is non-responsive.
 
I think the key is education, both inside and outside of the school.  A good education should teach you how to think.  When you learn how to think properly, things like “beating the shit out of old people for fun” just don’t register in your mind.  Even the best teacher, though, only has kids for an hour a day, tops.  Our educational system is outdated and broken.  In this TED lecture, Ken Robinson argues that very thing.

 I’ll have more in an upcoming post, but right now, I’m still searching for answers.  Something has to be done.  If you’re a regular reader, you know that I’m a big proponent of finding solutions to problems, and doing something instead of just bitching about it.  But with something like this, a problem that is so large in scope, how do we get there?  Like anything else, one step at a time.

If you’re concerned about the educational system, start tutoring kids in your spare time.  Become a big brother.  Even if you make a difference in the life of one kid, it might be that kid that would otherwise play the knockout game.  If you don’t want to volunteer your time, that’s fine.  I’m not asking you to volunteer money or skills, either.  But on some level, if you don't act, you have to be willing to live with the threat of this kind of shit.  And to be honest, I don’t think I'm willing to put up with that any more.

Any other solutions?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

Questions?  Comments?  As fired up as I am?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on facebook here.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

4 Questions to Determine What You Should Be Doing With Your Life

A lot of people either don’t want to determine what they should be doing with their lives or think they already have the answer.  That’s fine—if they aren’t ready to take a good, long, hard look in the mirror, that’s their own prerogative. 

But for the rest of us, it’s imperative that you figure out the answer as soon as possible.

Too many people are living life on somebody else’s terms, be it a spouse, parents, friends, or even bosses and co-workers.  Like I did for so long, they don’t question whether or not the ultimate end game is something that they actually want in life.  So I wanted to make this post about some really tough questions that you should ask yourself to determine whether you’re on the right track or not.

Would I be content if today was the last day of my life? I know for a lot of people, the answer is an unqualified “no.”  The biggest problem with this question is the implication that we’re all going to die.  A lot of people aren’t comfortable with that thought, so they either deny that it’s the case, or self-medicate with booze or drugs until it’s put out of mind.  It’s always good to remember that you are going to die.  It’s a troubling thought, but once you move past the built-in morbidity, you realize that shit, if I’m going to die, I better make the most out of my time left.  Look at Steve Jobs.  His Stanford Commencement Address is incredibly inspiring, and one of his main motivators is the fact that he knows he will die some day.  And we’re not talking too far out here, either—the man has had a couple of bouts with pancreatic cancer, which is usually a death sentence, so he knows that his number could be up any minute.  But he doesn’t let that get to him—he accepts it, and tries to make the most of his time left after looking himself in the mirror and asking himself this very question every day.

If everyone that I loved or cared about died in a plane crash, what would I do?  This is the ultimate “am I living my own life?” question, but, again, it’s horribly troubling to think about.  Nobody wants to imagine a world where everyone they care about is dead.  Quite frankly, it would fucking suck.  But the point of the exercise isn’t to get tangled up in knots of fear and anxiousness, but rather to determine if you are foreclosing any opportunities due to someone else’s preconceived notion as to how you should run your life.  This was a hard question for me, especially, because a number of people very close to me were unsupportive of my decisions, and tried to throw up roadblocks to prevent me from making the right decision for me.  At the end of the day, though, no matter the decision you make, these people will always support you and care for you.  If not, then they obviously aren’t true friends or family members.  It’s a tough pill to swallow, but absolutely true.

Ask other people, “what am I really like?”  Does your estimation of what you are “like” align with that of your colleagues, friends, and family?  Does one of those groups see an ugly side of you that the others don’t?  Too often, people put on “masks” at work or with their friends or family to hide what they’re really like.  The upshot of this is that a lot of times, often unfairly, their family bears the brunt of all of the shit that person has to deal with on a daily basis.  I know that’s the case with me: for too long I tried to be all sunshine and roses to the outside world, and whenever I would talk with family members (the people I truly care about), I would get crabby and short with them.  This is not healthy.  If it means being more of yourself at work, even if you’re a dick, then isn’t that a good thing?  I know several of my friends that don’t give a fuck about who they “should” be at work (Staff, Jet, I’m looking at you), and they’re probably a few of the most “successful” (as they and many others would define it) people out there.  The point is, don’t hide who you truly are at the expense of the people that you care about.  By asking people how you come off, you’ll be able to better balance who you really are throughout your life.  Be warned, though—people are generally reluctant to give others criticism.  Tell them to be brutally honest.  You can’t fix what you don’t know.  Also, don’t get pissed off when you hear something awful that you don’t want to hear.  Instead, make it a special point to work on whatever it is, and follow-up with whomever it is a few months later to see if you’re improving.  It’s all a process, just like life, and a step on the path to self-actualization.

If you had $100 million, what would you do?  This question is a bit more fun than the others, and, admittedly, I can’t take credit for it, as it’s Tim Ferriss’ idea, but it gets to the heart of what you really want to do.  Would you give a good amount to charity?  Would you retire to a beach filled with beautiful women (or men)?  Or would you still want more money, in the hopes of buying a sports team, or something similarly extravagant?  The main point of the “$100 million” mark is that even after you bought every possible luxury for everyone that wanted it in your life, you’d likely still have a shitload of money left over, unless everyone you know has an unhealthy obsession with Faberge eggs.  Write out a list of five things that you would do if you had this kind of cash—and “nothing” is an acceptable answer, too.  It’s your life.  Live it however you want.  I just wouldn’t want to go out knowing I could’ve done more.

Any additions or answers?  Leave them in the comments.

Questions?  Comments?  Ready to punch me in the face after a long session of soul-searching?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on facebook here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Clutch Exists

One of my biggest pet peeves concerns all of the idiots out there that blindly follow the “nerd” version of baseball, and question whether or not “clutch” exists.  Their point is that over time, many hitters’ “clutch” statistics closely mirror their average stat lines—any change from season-to-season is an aberration attributable to “small sample size.”

The only problem with this view is that it’s total bullshit.  Anyone who’s ever taken an at-bat above Little League knows this.  So does the guy that makes a big-time presentation to potential investors.  These guys aren’t robots…yet.  Though it would be pretty awesome if a couple of guys started going at it with lasers.

Some people rise to the occasion.  Others are paralyzed by it.

In high school, our cleanup hitter set a school record for homeruns in a season.  In the state playoffs, we had a man on third with two outs and he watched three fastballs go right past him, right down the middle.  I had a great view—I was on-deck at the time.  It was the biggest display of anti-clutchness I’ve ever seen.

To understate clutch is to understate the nature of pressure.  Pressure reveals character.  More importantly, it reveals preparation.  Pressure makes you understand whether you want something badly enough or not.  Maybe that’s why over the course of a season, a lot of hitters regress toward the mean in terms of their clutch numbers—a lot of baseball players just don’t give a shit on a day-to-day basis.  But when the pressure and the bright lights are on in the postseason or championship, you better fucking believe everyone gives a shit.  Clutch guys are winners.  No one wants to be labeled as a loser choke artist.

“How do I become more clutch?” you may ask.  A lot of times, preparation.  Preparation takes care of a lot of nerves when giving a presentation or speaking to a big group.  It also can help you crank something out (so to speak) in a short amount of time, as you’re better able to use the resources at your disposal.

If you’re just one of those people that gets nervous when crunch time comes around and can’t ever get shit done in the clutch, you have to learn how to relax.  One of my “strengths” in this regard is my laid back, calm personality.  But there are plenty of things that still make me nervous as hell.  The best way I’ve found to cope with this (aside from a shot of tequila) is to take a deep breath and allow the fear to get to you for a minute or two.  Then, tell your fear to “fuck off.”  On some level, it’s about manning up and conquering your nerves.  No one else is going to help you in this regard unless you’re really, really lucky (i.e. the merciful guy that throws the obviously nervous guy a bone during a presentation). 

Another helpful tactic is to think what is the absolute worst thing that can happen if I fuck this up?  And I mean worst.  A lot of times, it’s not that bad.  Even if it is literally life-and-death, appreciate the gravity of that fact. It should give you all the more urgency to make sure that you succeed.

If it’s a longer-term anxiety issue, try meditation or keeping a daily journal.  I’m man enough to admit that I’ve tried both of these at various times, and it helps to work through some of these feelings in your mind or on paper. 

If that doesn’t work, maybe you need meds.  Or a few more drinks. 

The bottom line is that there are ways to become more clutch over time.  Dan Jansen finally broke through and won a speed skating gold medal in the final event of his final Olympics in 1994 after being a heavy favorite and coming up empty-handed in 1988 and 1992.  The Red Sox, aided by powerful performance-enhancing dr…err…”teamwork,” finally broke the “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004.  The Cubs…well…maybe that’s a bad example.  But if you have a mindset that you’ll never become more clutch, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something to fix it.  Nobody else will.

Ever had a “clutch” moment?  Or a spectacular failure?  Leave it in the comments.

Questions?  Comments?  Wondering why I’m yelling at people more lately?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner. Friend me on facebook here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Be Like This Guy: Mark Cuban

I’m not sure the wine posts are really right for this blog, so I think I’m going to (mostly) relegate them to my upcoming wine blog.  I’ll be sure to announce that site here as soon as it’s launched—needless to say, I’m excited about it!

I decided to try to do a regular feature in its place.  For now, every Friday, I’m going to do a case study of someone that I admire, or who is at least doing something extraordinarily well.  These case studies will be punctuated with lessons that can be learned from their life.  I call it “Be Like This Guy (or Girl).” 

I thought that a natural first profile would be a guy that I’ve admired for a long time for numerous reasons: Mark Cuban.

Mark Cuban started his first business (selling plastic bags) when he was 12 years old.  As a student at Indiana University, he bought a bar in Bloomington his senior year, which was shut down after the cops discovered that a sixteen-year-old won a wet t-shirt contest one night.  Cuban claims to have reviewed the girl’s ID personally ahead of time, but whatever the case, Cuban was left without a job, in the eyes of many a failure at the ripe old age of 20.

After graduating from IU, Cuban moved to Dallas, where he lived on the couch in a small hovel of an apartment with five other guys.  He finally was able to convince a local business, Your Business Software, to give him a job after he answered one owner’s question, “What would you do if a customer comes in and you don’t know the answer to his question?” with “I’d look up the answer in the manual and tell him.”  

The job entailed selling computer software that Cuban had never used before; he didn’t even own a computer.  What he did have was access to all of the software manuals, so he started reading all of them in his spare time.  In this series of posts on his blog, blogmaverick, Cuban notes that he still partied hard with his buddies, but because he generally drank tons of cheap champagne, his devastating hangovers the day after kept him confined to his room, going through these manuals.  After a while, he began to develop an expertise with the software that he sold that even experienced users couldn’t match—after all, who reads the manual, anyway?  Cuban began to collect regular clients, and became a trusted salesman.

As his career began to take off, Cuban moved to a three-bedroom apartment with two other guys.  He was pumped that he had a room to call his own.  Cuban continued to increase his client list, until one day he was faced with a decision: be at a potential client’s office at 9:00 am to close a huge deal, or open up the storefront.  Obviously, Cuban called another employee to open the store and went to close the deal.  The next day, he approached the owner with the big check from the deal (not one of those big novelty checks from a golf tournament…you know what I mean!).  The owner told him he was fired.

Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Cuban packed up his car with a couple of buddies and went on a road trip to Galveston to party for a few days.  When he returned home, Cuban decided to go into the software business on his own.  He called every client in his rolodex.  Most just wished him well; there were only two serious leads.  One of these leads was Hytec Data, a company run by his future business partner, Martin Woodall.  Cuban not only got Hytec’s business, but he also got space in their office and his own phone.  He still didn’t have a computer, but Cuban didn’t let that stop him from growing MicroSolutions, Inc. into a company that was eventually sold to Compuserve in 1990 for $6 million.  He continued to read as much as he could.  Cuban famously wrote that even though he was poor, $20 for a book was a small price to pay if he even got one good idea out of it.  Most people, Cuban said, didn’t take the time to read all of the information out there on a topic and truly develop an expertise.  Those that are willing can usually find something that has been overlooked by other people—an opportunity to create real value.

The big sale to Compuserve is usually where the “and he lived happily ever after” moment kicks in, but Cuban wasn’t done yet.  His old college buddy, Todd Wagner, and he were fascinated by the burgeoning potential of the internet, and specifically how they could translate that potential into being able to listen to basketball games online.  After starting with a single server and an ISDN line in 1995 as Audionet, the company became Broadcast.com and by 1998 it had grown to 330 employees and $13.5 million in revenue.  In 1999, at the height of the dot com boom, Cuban and Wagner sold Broadcast.com for $5.9 billion in Yahoo! Stock.

And Cuban still wasn’t done!  He had loved basketball from a very young age, and decided to purchase the perennial doormat Dallas Mavericks.  Cuban’s passion for the game shone through, as he frequently came to the defense of his players in interviews and on the sidelines, usually racking up a hefty fine from the NBA.  This passion alone couldn’t transform the moribund franchise into a perennial contender.  Cuban commissioned special, high thread count towels that were the envy of all of the players in the league.  He refitted the team jet to something more luxurious than any other team at that time. He changed a lot of little things that added up over time to create an atmosphere that players enjoyed, and attracted free agents to his once-horrific squad.  Now, the Mavericks, led by Dirk Nowitzki, are a perennial playoff team. 

Cuban has since gone on to start or buy numerous other businesses, including HDNet, Landmark Theaters, and RedSwoosh, an internet media delivery company.  He continues to own the Mavs, and lives with his wife, Tiffany, and three children in his palatial (22,000 sq. ft.) Dallas estate.

Lessons

Because this isn’t just intended to be another Mark Cuban biography, what are some of the lessons you can take away from Cuban’s story? 

-He always knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and took affirmative steps to make it happen. 

Whether it was plastic bags, the short-lived bar, or his various computer ventures, Cuban knew that he wanted to be his own boss from an early age.  He wrote in an interview on his blog, “To retire by the age of 35 was my goal. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there though. I knew I would end up owning my own business someday, so I figured my challenge was to learn as much as anyone about every and all businesses.”  That takes us to point number two:

-He viewed whatever job he had as valuable experience.  He knew he wanted to start a business, but didn’t know what business he wanted to be in.  Even when he got a random job, he did his best to learn the business and try to understand how it worked, and how it could be improved.  I certainly value my time in the law, but I think this is one big reason why I got out when I did: I didn’t necessarily want to be in the law business for the rest of my life, so I wanted the opportunity to learn another industry by working in it before I became just “a lawyer” for the rest of my life.  We’ll see how it goes.

-He wasn’t afraid to fail, learned from failure, and moved on.  Cuban’s club was shut down.  He was fired from the software store and other regular jobs he held.  His first employee at MicroSolutions stole over $80,000 from the company. Each time, though, instead of wallowing in self-pity with a “woe-is-me” victim, bitcher mentality, Cuban went out and did something about it.  Namely, he went to Galveston and got wasted.  Well, that too, I suppose, which actually is important.  Even when he was partying with his buddies, though, it was an important way for him to relax and keep things in perspective.  After blowing off some steam, he went on to start two wildly successful companies.

-He learned as much as he possibly could about his industry.  Then he learned more.  I can’t imagine anything more boring than reading computer software manuals in your spare time, but I’ll be goddamned if Cuban didn’t sit down and read every one of those fucking things.  He even went so far as to read the instruction manual for DOS.  Read that sentence again.  Cuban thought it was great—he viewed that as time spent acquiring a skill, gaining knowledge that he could eventually put into practice.  Seems to have worked out okay for him.  Even when you have to put in time to do something unpleasant for whatever business you’re in, view it as doing something that the vast majority of people are too lazy to do.  You’d be amazed how quickly these “legs up” add up.

-He provided value in his successful ventures.  Whether it was being the most honest, knowledgeable software vendor in Dallas, or creating the technology to be able to stream audio of basketball games online, Cuban identified products or services that people wanted and needed, and brought those products and services to the public.  It’s easy to get caught up in the idea phase of being an entrepreneur without giving much thought to how this product or service is going to actually help people.  Will it save them time?  Will it save them money?  Will it provide information they don’t have?  What product are you selling?  Will people pay for it?  These are the questions you should be asking yourself before starting any entrepreneurial venture.

-When he became hugely successful, he had some fun.  Cuban worked extremely hard.  At one point, he didn’t take a vacation for 7 ½ years.  But once he made his billions, he diversified his holdings and followed through on a dream of his.  Similarly, one of my dreams is to own an NFL franchise.  I don’t know if I’ll ever be as successful as Mark Cuban, but seeing a guy like him succeed at least gives me hope for the future.  And even if I don’t achieve that level of success, even if I only get 1% of the way there, that’s still a very, very comfortable lifestyle that would be envied by billions of people on this planet.  Besides, who needs $2.8 billion, anyway?  $1 billion would be just fine.

Thoughts about Mark Cuban?  Leave them in the comments section.

Questions?  Comments? Wondering why I didn’t mention the NBA Finals that were curiously stolen from the Mavs by Tim Donaghy?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on facebook here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Am I Still Here?

Why am I still here?

There are so many ways that I could just not exist in an instant.  I could have a massive aneurysm.  I could be shot randomly by some asshole trying to rob me.  I could be hit by the proverbial bus.
 
So why hasn’t any of that happened to me?

I found myself thinking about this as I was trying to fall asleep one night.  “There’s a possibility I won’t wake up tomorrow.”  We all just take it for granted that we’ll wake up the next day.

Wake up.  Go to work at a comfortable, yet unfulfilling job.  Come home to far too little time with your family.  Watch some TV.  Maybe get laid.  Wake up and repeat it.

Two days out of the week, you get to do “what you want to do.”  Except you don’t.  Saturday’s for errands.  Sunday is for enjoyment, but with the specter of the workweek looming over every precious moment.  You can never truly enjoy your time off.

After about thirty or forty years, if you save and deny and everything goes right, you finally get to sit back, relax, and retire.  But to what?  Golf?  Travelling places you can’t enjoy anymore?  What happened to that surfing trip you were going to take to Brazil?  Artificial hip?  Sorry, you’re fucked.  Settle into a nice retirement community in Florida? I guess, but not really for me. And that’s if you’re lucky. 

Fuck that.

Why am I lucky enough to still be here?

Once you recognize that you could be gone at any given minute, your search for what it all means ramps up.  No more putting things off. The lights could go off for good any minute.  There’s your fucking urgency.  Was yesterday the best day of your life? No?  What will you do better tomorrow to make your life the best you have to offer?  Go in to work, check out, wait for everything to improve?  Another raise?  Another promotion?  Not fucking good enough!  Get your shit together.  Today could be the last day of your life.  Make it worth something.  Act accordingly.

Do what has meaning for you.  Help people.  Influence others for the better.  Start that project that you’ll get around to “some day,” today.   One way to think about it is, if you had one day to clear out all of the bullshit, where you knew you’d die at the end of the day, what would you do?  It’s tough—I’d desperately try to balance writing shit down on paper with spending time with family and friends and eating one final fantastic meal. Obviously it varies from person to person, but that shouldn’t prevent you from thinking about what you’d do.

If you dread the day you are about to live, something needs to change.  No more putting things off.  No more “if I only finish this project; if I only save up $X more; if I only get up to that next promotion…”  Fuck that.  Those are weak excuses.  Try harder.  What really is preventing you from leading the life you want to live?  Other people’s opinions?  Fear of failure?  Fuck that.  Still just excuses.  There are very few absolute barriers in life.  If you want to be a power forward for the Bulls and you’re 5’ 6”, I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably not going to make it.  But you could still try to be a point guard, or do something else basketball-related--coach, be in the front office, that sort of thing.  You should have other dreams—other stuff you could do, too.  Focus is great until it limits what you’re capable of.  There are already plenty of other people trying to impose artificial limits on your life—don’t make things harder by imposing your own bullshit hurdles.

What would you do to make a substantial, meaningful change in your life?  What do you think your purpose on this rock is?  Even if you don’t know, can you appreciate how fragile this whole existence is?  Let me know in the comments.

Questions?  Comments?  Think I’ve totally fallen off the deep end?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on facebook here.

Monday, April 11, 2011

D.J.’s Wine Tip #2: The Four Things That Will Make You Better at Wine Tasting

As you may recall in the first installment in this series, I urged you to drink the wine that you like, no matter what people think about it.  In this installment, I’m going to teach you a brand-new paradigm for being able to describe wine.

In the previous article, I told you why wine snobs are full of shit when they question the flavors people taste in wine.  This is because every person’s palate is different, and it’s unlikely that any two people in a group of people would taste the same flavors in any given wine.  I urged you to try to describe flavors that you taste, without paying heed to the wine snob who will berate and belittle you.

The problem with this is that a lot of people won’t be able to identify ANY flavors in wine, and will grow frustrated.  A lot of people have trouble distinguishing oak.  I went to a grade school that had wood chips out on the playground, so I…err…ate a lot of wood growing up (NOT a Catholic school!), and happen to be able to taste it in wine.  But there are plenty of other flavors that I can’t either describe readily or pick up on. The simple reason is that different people have different taste memories that correlate different adjectives with different tastes.  The language isn’t common enough for people to compare wines with any real merit, aside from “that one tastes good” and “that one tastes bad.”

When I went to my first real wine-tasting, there was a short teaching segment ahead of time that introduced the four real meaty, sink-your-teeth-into elements that are common for pretty much all wines.  We had four glasses in front of us representing these four elements.  They are:

Sweetness: This was basically sugar water.  Pretty self-explanatory.

Acidity: Sort of a citrusy, not-quite ripe flavor.  I think they used diluted lemon juice.  Acidity tastes kind of sour, and an either be refreshing (generally in white wines) or devastating (generally in reds).

Alcohol: A glass full of vodka.  Tastes pretty much like you imagine, though I asked for seconds to…err…”confirm my impressions.”

Tannins: These are the components of grape skins that red wines have that make them dark—generally only the faintest tannins can be tasted in white wines.  Too much of it tastes like leather or astringent—too much in the way of tannins will your mouth puckered and dry by the end.  If you don’t know what leather tastes like, well, go bite a belt.  Go on, I won’t tell anyone.  This stuff was basically dissolved tannin powder, which was awful.  I think the instructor basically held me in a choke-hold and forced me to drink it.

The best part of this is you can kind of replicate the experience at home.  Sure, you may have to go to a specialty shop to find the tannin powder, but everything else should be readily available to you.  For the acid, use some lemon juice diluted in water.  Put each component in a separate glass and taste each.  Then, open a bottle of wine and try to grade each component on a scale of 1-4, using half or quarter-points if you want.  See if you can discern these four basic flavors in wine.  Note your scores for the wines you “like,” and see if you can come to some conclusions about varieties and regions that you might generally like.

It might take a while to get good at this exercise, so feel free to “try it out” with a bunch of different bottles.  I didn’t invent these terms by any means, but I do think they are incredibly useful to the average wine drinker.  Even if you don’t go through the exercise, start to try to taste these four basic components of wine in your day-to-day drinking so that you know which cheapo is the best (my money is on Barefoot Pinot Noir, or Yellow Tail Shiraz).  The point is, if you can describe wine in these four simple terms, wine snobs shouldn’t have shit on you.  Any “licorice” or “daffodils” that they detect are just needless showboating.  These four factors are far more useful, and easier to remember when trying to find a wine that you like.
Any thoughts on your favorite types of wines or whether you have any preference for one of these four components?  Leave them in the comments.

Questions?  Comments?  Already think I’m a closet wine snob?  E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com.  Follow me on twitter @djgelner.  Friend me on facebook here.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Tame Fear, Mold Your Life, Evolve

I took a pretty big risk this week, leaving my safe, secure, six-figure job for the uncertain waters of entrepreneurship and writing. I'm not gonna lie, It was fucking scary. No matter how much I researched the decision, I couldn't shake those nagging fears. I had plenty of reasons to make the switch, and plenty of "signs" that it was time to leave, if you believe in that sort of thing, but I still was scared on a very primal level to actually make the leap. I mean, I have a good amount of money saved up, but who knows what the fuck is waiting around the next corner, right?

I was paralyzed by fear for two whole hours on Monday before I worked up the courage to walk in and give my notice. Here's a short timeline of events:

9:10 am: Arrive in my office. Plan to turn in my notice by 10:00.

9:30 am: Start reading inspirational blogs to help psych me up. Like this one. And this one. And especially this one.

9:40 am: Ex-girlfriend starts gchatting me to help with moral support/see what's shaking. I tell her I'm fucking terrified. Also tell her that the deadline is 10:00.

9:59 am: The deadline is now 10:30.

10:29 am: Still reading blogs, thinking of the enormity of the decision. Trying to pick out a casket for myself when I die homeless on the street. I inform the ex that the new deadline is 11:00.

10:59 am: Decide to take a two mile walk to "clear my head." Perfectly comfortable without a jacket in the beautiful 40 degree, rainy St. Louis weather.

11:25 am: Return from walk, straight to the elevators, straight to the managing partner's office. One of my buddies from softball sees me on the way. "You lost?" he asks as I round the corner to the managing partner's office. "Uh…[nervous laughter]…uh…yeah…you know it!"

11:30 am: I AM FUCKING DOING THIS!!!

The conversation with the managing partner actually wasn't bad at all—I told him my plans, and he agreed the time to do this sort of thing was before I was tied down with a family and whatnot. I thanked him for everything and moved on. I ended up taking the rest of the day to tell people face-to-face, because, let's face it, it's the honorable thing to do. Pretty much everyone was cool with it. You know, "sorry to see you go, but if this is what you want to do, then you should do it, excited for you but sad,"

The funny thing is, it turned out I didn't need that casket after all. At the end of the day, not only did I feel fine, but I had an odd sense of peace with my decision, like I was making the right move. This feeling carried over into the next day, where (and this is where I might lose some people), the sky seemed bluer (that's a word, right?). I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I was finally taking steps toward living the life I want to live, and it felt fucking wonderful. Monday, I told people I was feeling anxious, excited, scared, and relieved simultaneously, which was absolutely true at the time. But the day after, the only feeling that truly came to mind was "at peace." I mean, sure, there were mental outbursts that wondered where the hell I'm going to get money in the near-term, but I believe in my ideas long-term, and I know that this decision will make me want to succeed even more than I wanted to before.

There were three steps in this process. I tamed my fear. I looked the ugly monster right in the face, cowered before it for a while, and finally decided to pick up the whip and force it into a part of my mind where it was a sideshow, not the main attraction. In short, I became Indiana Jones. The fear wasn't gone, but it was no longer ruling my decisions. I could disarm it with a pithy one-liner ("And I thought they smelled bad on the outside!"). It wasn't the terrifying monster I imagined it to be, just the bearded lady. Enough to keep me on edge, but not something with the power to control me.

Second, I molded my life. I finally took control of a major decision I wanted to make. I asked others for input, including family members, friends, and colleagues. But in the end, I made this decision, knowing fully that I would suffer the consequences of my actions, for good or ill. I know I preach about taking small steps toward concrete goals, but at some point, you have to make the giant leaps, too. It's like the original Mario Bros.—you can hold down the B button to sprint over a lot of the smaller pits, but at some point, Mario has to make a running jump to make it over a large chasm. Well, I made the leap, and I have to live with the consequences—and I am completely fine with that.

Third, I evolved. I've had some tough conversations with family members, colleagues, bosses, and management. I was terrified going into those conversations, but now that I've had them, I feel a new sense of peace about my life. I don't know if this is my new normal or just a "honeymoon" phase, but whatever it is, it feels fucking fantastic. Even if the feeling eventually goes away, I've done something that my friends and I thought I would never have the nuts to do. I know I have that capability in the future. After taking this big step, I feel like I can do anything. The confidence boost is unreal. We'll see how long it lasts and whether or not it carries over into other aspects of life, but I do think that I've been changed on some fundamental level.

Anyway, enough of my rambling. Have any of you had similar experiences? Leave them in the comments.

Questions? Comments? Wondering why there are so many circus references in this post? E-mail me at djssuperblog@gmail.com. Follow me on twitter @djgelner. Friend me on facebook here.