Update and reboot: Some discussion on happiness research

I know I haven’t posted in a while, but I’m going to resist the temptation to update you on all the developments of the last two years. Instead, I’m going to focus on the findings of my research.

As most of you know, my main drive in life is happiness, and I’ve spent the last decade on a quest to discover the keys to a happy life. I started by figuring out what happiness isn’t – and I think most of us who’ve put serious thought into it already know that. Happiness isn’t simply “the American dream” of a great career, material wealth and possessions, and an impressive spouse and family. All of those things are nice, yet we all know plenty of people who’ve checked all those boxes and are still miserable. Hell, people have been writing songs and novels on that very thesis for decades, maybe even centuries. For some reason, all the trappings of conventional success are not a guarantee of happiness. Now to be clear, they aren’t likely to necessarily hurt your chances of being happy; many happy people live very conventional lives with fulfilling careers, significant wealth, and conventionally impressive families. But we all know that won’t make you happy. 

So what does? My serious question for happiness began in earnest at a precise moment, essentially during my winter job during my second year of law school at the end of 2011 and beginning of 2012. That’s when I realized my attempts to live the life I imagined others wanted me to live were a failure on all fronts; not only wasn’t I achieving it, it was a bad goal in the first place. At that time I came out to my family and my few friends about my mental illness, set boundaries with my family I’d never set before, and adopted a “yes man” mentality with a decision to start affirmatively doing things that I wanted to do and not let anyone tell me what I couldn’t do. And honestly, it worked pretty well for a while. I learned a lot about happiness and I definitely became much happier. But I didn’t get all the way there. I can say now that my decision to prioritize recreation over work in an extreme way was not a winning strategy for happiness. In the end I ended up failing at both; I didn’t become a world-class kayaker or even really a respectable athlete, I didn’t find a way to make a living kayaking or life coaching, and along the way I neglected my career and worsened my long-term financial standing. So my new thing is recognizing that path as a well-intended failure. Happiness, it turns out, is not as simple as just doing what you want to do all the time. So what now? What is the next evolution in my pursuit of happiness?

I’m writing this from my rental car outside my workplace in West Palm Beach, enjoying a nice break from Buffalo’s bleak weather, and engaged in one of the practices I think I have kind of figured out: optimizing my work situations to allow me satisfaction and productivity in my work while simultaneously and consequently creating enjoyable life opportunities. What exactly am I doing right now, and how does it fit in on the path to happiness? Well, for one thing, I’m fulfilling multiple “values” at once. I’m helping people, I’m making money, I’ll be getting some exercise shortly, and I’m having fun. I’m living the dream of doing what I love vocationally and having fun along the way. One happiness theorist I’ve spoken with privately would say I’m creating a mutually beneficial experience to satisfy several of my priorities at once. 

I just read a book called “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F-k.” I’ve actually read a lot of self-help books on happiness, including some that weren’t even published that I came across in my research. I’ve found a lot of common themes in them, and let’s distill it a bit. What themes do most “happiness experts” agree on? We could maybe think of these as tried and true rules to happiness, but I hate the idea of setting up rules, so let’s just call them guidelines or principles. 

So the first principle that most happiness experts seem to agree on is intentionality. Regardless of their personal frameworks, happiness experts all agree that a happy life is derived from intentional choices. We could also call this volition. The dictionary calls that just “the faculty or power of using one’s will.” I most concede that there are some, particularly in the religious frameworks, who claim to reject the idea of self-direction and personal choice, but I don’t think they’re even being internally honest with that. 

You have to make a lot of intentional choices to be happy. You have to choose your metrics. You have to choose your priorities. You have to choose what matters and what does not, and who you will try to satisfy and who you will ignore. Some theorists seem to believe that the very act of making a choice is the critical element, but most agree that choices matter because of how happiness is personal. 

And that’s the second principle: happiness is personal. My advice is limited in value because what works for me may not working for you, in several ways. For example, if I told you the key to my happiness was creating a work situation that created recreational opportunities and facilitated travel and hobbies, it would be bad advice in two key ways. First, and most gurus miss this, this particular pathway simply isn’t an option for many people. I’m extremely fortunate, and a common mistake among gurus (lookin at you Tim Ferris) is assuming that everyone has the same resources and opportunities. We don’t. The universe gifted me with a string intellect and a demographic background that allowed me to get a great education, and dumb luck landed me a flexible career. But I could just as easily have been stuck in unskilled work, or even disabled like the people I usually work for. For those people, advice derived from my career would be worthless. No, your path is going to be different from mine in many ways. We have to distill the fundamentals that can be translated, and honestly that’s the hardest part of happiness coaching. I can give you broad principles, as can a lot of authors, but we simply cannot come up with a plan for you. It’s got to be personal. 

What else? The third commonly held principle in happiness research is priorities. You simply have to decide what does and does not matter to you. This is really just a fusion of the first two principles, so maybe I’m wrong to call it a third. The beauty is there are no strict rules, and there’s no authority on this either; I’m merely trying to help you find some principles. 

I’ve got to level with you on my results. As I said, I’ve been working on happiness for a decade, and part of that for me has been managing clinical depression. A big mission for me has been to prove that you can be happy even with mental illness or disability, and yeah, honestly, it’s hard sometimes. So maybe another principle we could add about happiness is that it’s hard. I know that sucks. I know you want an easy way. I can’t offer you one. If it exists, I haven’t found it. Anyone who tries to sell you an easy path to happiness is lying to you, they’re manipulating your desires for personal gain. And I don’t know, maybe they really think it is easy, because it was for them, because they got lucky. I’m probably the least successful person you’ll encounter in the happiness world, and yet here I am, broke and struggling in my businesses, slipping into crippling depression from time to time, and making a literal career of complaining about stuff not working out for people. That’s all true. And yet… I don’t think I’m failing in my quest for happiness.

That’s my final revelation: that it’s a process, not a destination, and yes it’s entirely possible to be happy through suffering and failure. So that’s principle four: it’s a continual process.  It’s not about arriving somewhere.  It’s about how you live day to day.

I’ve written or said quite a bit there so I’m going to cut it off now and call that today’s overview. Tell me in the comments section where you think I should go with the next post. Tell me if there’s a point I should elaborate on, or I guess you could also tell me if you think I’m wasting my time here. The bottom line is that you’re going to have to figure out your own ultimate answers and your own process, but I want to help you however I can. 

Update: Who’s Ready and other happenings

Every time I come to update this site I’m disappointed in myself for how far behind I’ve fallen.  So this post might be a bit of a belated catch-up.

Who’s Ready

My major new project for 2019 is a new social networking app called Who’s Ready.  I’ve got a whole web site set up about the app, at www.whosready.app, along with a facebook page at facebook.com/whosreadyapp, and some other social media as well.  So I don’t have to tell you everything about it right here, but maybe I should tell the story of how it came to me.

If you’ve been following this page or the other places where I narrate my life, you know that I travel a lot and that my main passion in life is outdoor activities – mostly whitewater kayaking, but a few other activities as well.  Whenever I find myself in a new place I want to get out and explore, at least go for a hike, and I often wish I had company to do it with.  I struggled for a while using Facebook groups to find activity partners, but I find the solution woefully inadequate for many reasons.  I wanted a way to just push a button and find nearby like-minded adventurers, and didn’t understand why in 2018 there isn’t an app for that.  So, I decided to build it.  My financial situation improved somewhat in 2018 and I finally had the ability to start financing other projects beyond my law process, albeit just barely.  So I wrote up a complete design spec for the app, worked on finding a name (a more difficult process than you might imagine), went looking for a programmer, and formed a corporation.  I found a programmer who could build the MVP version of the app for a price I could afford, and set up a contract.  At this point we’re behind schedule but hopefully within a week or two of having a product in the Google Play Store, and within a few months we’ll be on the iPhone as well and charging forward with more features and a viable business model.

I’m excited and terrified about this new venture.  Once again, I find myself in a role I’d fantasized about but had never visualized actually achieving – first that happened with my career as a lawyer, and now with the role of “software CEO.”  Wow.  Of course any fool with a checkbook and a pen can become a CEO by starting his or her own company, it’s meaningless until it translates to actual success, and we just aren’t there yet.  There’s a lot I’m going to have to do to get this thing off the ground.  Building it is just step 1.  I also have to market it and get people to use it.  Because it’s a social app, its success and utility are 100% dependent on how many people decide to download and use it.  It will be more fun and more useful with a million users than with a hundred users.  So my job, and it’s a big job, is to accelerate the growth of the user base as quickly as I can, to create a great experience for users.  That means advertising, attending events, and talking to people.  It’ll be fun, but it’ll still be hard work, and there will be a lot of disappointment and frustration along the way.

I’m super stoked about it.  Check out the web site and Facebook page today, and hopefully by the time you’re reading this you’ll also be able to download it on the App Store of your preferred platform.

Birthday in Yosemite

What a long strange trip it’s been!

Some of you may have heard of GoRuck. They make backpacks, and to sell more backpacks they invented the sport of “rucking” and started hosting “GoRuck challenge” events in various cities. So they’re known among the adventure/obstacle racing circles and have been on my radar for years. Their bags are highly optimized for air travel, sized well to serve as carryons, particularly for “one bag” travel.

Considering how much I fly, I’ve wanted one for a while. So when a little bit of unexpected money came in a few weeks ago, I decided to indulge. With free shipping and the military discount, their flagship GR1 bag came to about $225, a sum I could reasonably manage out of my recent “found money” pool. I received the bag and excitedly packed for my first travel ordeal with it, a series of single overnights back and forth between Western NY and the south.

Sadly, the bag underperformed, although by only a little. It turned out that an overnight business trip with my recreational items added (suit, dress shoes and hiking boots, dress shirt, change of base layer, toiletries, laptop, chargers and cables, other electronics,bathing suit, towel) just barely fit in the bag, not leaving room for food, and with some access and organizational problems.

Of course the solution was obvious: upgrade to the slightly larger GR2 bag, which has the same height and width but is much deeper, yet still supposedly sized to fit under an A321 seat. I decided to upgrade my bag, but since I got such a great deal on it, it made more sense to resell than return. I listed it on Reddit, priced modestly at $15 more than I paid for it, plus shipping. I got a few replies but one intrigued me: would you trade for a 34l GR2? Since that was my exact ultimate goal, it was a resounding “hell yes.” So we started planning the exchange. But how do two adventurers swap gear without meeting?

A few ideas were floated but none that solved the trust problem. I could cover shipping, that’s fair since I’m getting the better deal, but that means I’m shipping my $300 bag to a stranger in the blind hope that he ships it back, with no real recourse if he doesn’t.

He texted me from a number that my phone identified as “San Francisco.” That was a little intriguing if unsurprising; seems like half of Reddit is from the Bay Area. But so are a few of my friends. Real friends I haven’t seen in years. And I was just sitting around wishing I was on a trip in my RV, but stymied by a waiting period on a loan. So I posted to Facebook and messaged people, checked JetBlue, and sure enough I could throw together a trip on miles. So I headed to San Francisco to trade backpacks.

The trip was not without snags. Delays stacked on delays and eventually I arrived at SFO around midnight – apparently after my rental car agency closed for the night. There was one agency left open, and by my math the line would be going a good three hours, assuming they really had a dozen cars. Dan messaged me on Facebook. “You okay? Need rescue?” Yes. So I took a $35 uber to his place, listening to Muslim propaganda along the way in a car with disturbingly detuned headlights.

And Dan and I talked well into the night about all the things we needed to talk about, and it was good, and then I left for three hours on a quest for a rental car that involved some walking, some Starbucks budgeting, a train, a good deal of hiking, and finally a “fuck it, I’ll get an uber” for the last four miles. Then a hell of a shuttle, then another line, then a Jeep, and then hauling ass to the drop point.

Louis was waiting for me at the mall. I don’t know Louis, but we’re social media friends now. He wears scrubs so he must do something medical. Maybe he’s a doctor but I didn’t ask. The exchange now included a second bag, a GoRuck Bullet, and cash. We swapped, played with Venmo on our phones, and parted ways.

I had a few small missions planned in San Francisco proper. First lunch, at a little Mexican place Louis recommended. Good burrito. Next REI to exchange Christmas socks (wrong size) and top up camping gear – a way to secure my sleeping bag to the GoRuck and some camp fuel. Then Safeway for groceries- apples, granola, beef jerky, and of course water and beer. Then the road to Yosemite, showing… 6 hours? How did it go from 3 to 6? I underestimated traffic it seems.

So instead I decided to meet Gabe last night and embark to Yosemite during daylight the next day. Gabe told me about a place for a little hike along the way where I could try out my Bullet Ruck and not skip leg day. I logged just two miles but caught a beautiful sunset in a surreal pasture of hills adjacent to affluent suburbs. Feasted on In-n-Out burgers, then sleep.

Work woke me this morning as usual. I spent some time on various obligations and felt productive. I’m not really on vacation after all; I worked in the airport and on the plane and wherever else I get the chance. After all the nominal purpose of this mission is to make future business trips more efficient. After work and another gratuitous shower I got an indulgent California breakfast ?$15 pancakes) and headed east.

I finally arrived at the park gates at 4 pm, and received my coveted lifetime pass instead of paying. And was told that my plans were all wrong. I would need to head to the valley campsites and hope there was a spot left. There was, and I walked in the door for it at 4:58, the nick of time. I found the spot and quickly took off in search of a trailhead. Hiked through the sunset and got some mediocre pictures, then to camp to set up.

It’s funny how sometimes the best parts just don’t translate well to writing. That short hike was powerful. And yet it was private. It was my own experience, shared perhaps with millions judging by the well-worn rocks. I came back rejuvenated. What have I been missing? This is something I needed. I am glad I came.

So I came back to the campsite and set up my hammock. Had some challenges with equipment failing but in the end it worked out. I crashed a campfire and chatted with a couple from Berkeley who come here often; they gave me a drink. I needed sleep and took it, and I am now recovering from my second wind with the help of Ambien. Goodnight.

Business travel essentials, part one: Packing

The frequent flyer’s handbook part one: The business trip packing list.

One part of my work that I really enjoy is traveling to cover cases all over the country. This is usually a service I perform as a contractor for other attorneys when their clients move to a different area, but I sometimes encounter the same need for my own clients and do it myself. That means I go on a lot of very short business trips, as little as 24 hours, and I fly a lot more than most people, often twice a month or more.

So let me share some tips from a frequent flyer. Note that your needs may be different from mine, but for the attorney on business travel, this should be a helpful guide.


Most airlines allow travelers to carry two bags on board the plane, and require additional bags to be checked to the baggage compartment, usually for a fee. Checking baggage is a hassle and a risk, so I try to avoid it except in special circumstances like a long trip or if I’m bringing bulky gear like kayaking or skiing equipment.

Most frequent flyers use rolling luggage as a carry on, and if that’s what you want to do it’s not hard to find good luggage suited for the purpose. However, I have found rolling luggage to come with a lot of downsides, and after years of trial and error I’ve switched to using a backpack instead. Why a backpack? The main reason is that it’s much easier to carry around the airport, especially if you need to run which is inevitable once in a while to make a short connection in a large airport. The next advantage of a backpack is that it more easily fits into the smaller overhead bins common to the smaller airplanes that fly into more remote airports. Finally, since backpacks are less common on planes than rolling luggage, it’s much less likely that someone else will accidentally take your bag.

Now, backpacks vary a lot, and it’s easy to spend a fortune on a good travel backpack such as the GoRuck GR1 or GR2, but I haven’t found that necessary. What’s nice about the GoRucks is that they are shaped like conventional rolling bags, which makes them easy to pack and they hold a lot, but I’ve found that a simple student-type backpack is more than sufficient for most trips. I use a low-end North Face bag that I bought for $30 at a climbing festival. Before that, I was pretty happy with the Eastpack school bag I bought for college in 1999. A large backpack holds more than the largest rolling bag that would fit in the same space, but can be stuffed into a slightly smaller space, so you can freely use a relatively large day pack. I don’t recommend larger “backpacking” backpacks, but they may be acceptable for longer trips.

The second bag should be some variation of a laptop bag. I use a courier bag from REI that provides good storage for a laptop and basic business needs and then some. Check with your preferred airline for recommended dimensions and ideally get something that fits your volume needs but still fits under the seat.  I don’t personally recommend spending a lot on this bag, but to some professionals image matters, so buy whatever you like.

What to bring

Again this is assuming a short overnight business trip of just a day or two.

In the backpack or rolling bag:

  • Change of clothes (base layer) and work shoes
  • Hygiene supplies – some like to rely on what hotels provide, but I prefer my own shower supplies so I bring that in a ziplock bag, along with toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clippers (you never know), a small bottle of mouthwash, and optionally a small “sample” bottle of cologne. Personally I don’t shave, but if you do, bring just a razor; most hotels have shaving cream available for free. Oh, bring deodorant; hotels rarely have any to give you. I get my toothpaste from the hotel front desk periodically; I have never bought a travel tube of toothpaste.
  • Recreational clothing – most trips include at least a few hours of downtime and I prefer not to spend that wearing a suit, so I tend to bring comfortable clothes if I don’t wear them to the airport (see below). I usually bring a bathing suit as there’s usually a hotel at the pool even if it’s not a beach destination, and I’m often traveling from Buffalo in the winter. Bring your own towel if you’re planning a beach trip; you may not be able to use one from the hotel depending on your checkout time.
  • Sandals – flip flops are great to wear in hotel showers and to the pool or beach.
  • Medication – if you are reliant on any kind of medication, I recommend keeping a few days supply in each of your bags.

And that’s it for the backpack, unless you have a special need or desire; there are no set rules here.

The smaller courier/laptop bag

The second bag that shows under the seat in front of you is more critical, and I try to fit as many of my essentials in it as possible.

Your mobile office – for me, this consists of quite a few items:

  • Laptop (in a neoprene sleeve)
  • Laptop power adapter and cord
  • Portable scanner – less essential now that phones can scan but still nice if you expect to receive documents
  • Power cords and adapters for phone and headphones, and for your smart watch if you have one
  • Flash drive (several in my case)
  • Any adapters you might need (especially if you have one of the newer USB-C laptops)
  • Any paperwork you will need for the trip – best to print it in advance as hotel facilities are unreliable

Other electronics:

  • Bluetooth or wired headphones- these are really essential for longer flights
  • Portable power pack – every frequent traveler should own one of these. You’ll use and rely on your phone more while traveling, and if you use Bluetooth headphones they could die over the course of several flights. If you don’t have one, grab a cheap small one on Amazon, but get one big enough to charge your phone a few times.
  • Car charger – I use a dual USB lighter jack adapter to plug my phone in to the rental car. It’s less essential now that most cars have a USB port, but you can’t rely on that as you never know when you’ll be stuck in a 2013 Elantra.
  • Aux cord – in case you get stuck in a car without Bluetooth. Most of them at least have an aux port.
  • Vent clip phone holder – to hold your phone in view in the rental car for navigation

Optional electronics:

  • Kindle or tablet- I used to carry these to use in flights, but I don’t anymore. I now consider it dead weight but if it’s worth it to you, bring it.
  • GPS unit – I use my phone, but if you prefer a stand-alone unit it may be worth the space and weight to you.
  • Ezpass – it’s not a bad idea to get a spare to keep in your travel bag. In certain areas this will save you on tolls versus renting one from the rental car agency. On the other hand it really sucks if you forget it in the rental, and the more you have in the car the more you can forget.

I don’t carry these last few items, because for my needs it’s better to keep it simple, but do what works for you and you decide what’s worth carrying.

Clothes: I pack my work clothes in my work bag for a few reasons. They’re less likely to get wrinkled there than in your backpack, and this bag is less likely than the bin bag to get lost or stolen. If you lose a bag, you want to minimize what you need to buy on site, and the last thing you want is to be scrambling for a replacement suit at 8 AM before work.

So my suit pants and dress shirt get folded and go in my courier bag. I put them in a plastic grocery bag for more protection. My tie also goes in this bag. Socks and base layer go in the other bag; in an emergency I can just keep on what I’m already wearing.

Medication: you should have a few days supply of any essential medications in each bag, including “PRN” medications, and OTC essentials like Advil or Aleve and motion sickness pills if that’s your thing. Imodium and antacid are a good idea too.

Secondary ID and form of payment – Losing your wallet on the road is a nightmare, and in some cities and airports business travelers are targeted by pickpockets and muggers. I keep my passport and a backup credit card in my courier bag.

On your person:

Clothing- I dress oddly for transit. I wear my sneakers, comfortable casual pants, a t-shirt, my smartwatch, sunglasses, and my suit jacket.

Why the suit jacket? It’s almost impossible to stuff it in a bag without wrinkling it, short of using an absurdly bulky and expensive garment bag. Plus it has pockets and comes off easily, so it spares me from having to unload pockets at airport security. Trust me, this will save your time. And it’s a cool look.

In my wallet I have the two most essential “optional” items: my Nexus card for the TSA Precheck security line, and my American Express card.

I can’t sing the praises of TSA Precheck enough. You can buy into it as a stand-alone product for $25 a year if you have an enhanced driver’s license, but you get it for free with a NEXUS or Global Entry card, which is just $50 every five years and also speeds you through the US ground border crossings.

Similarly, I can’t get over American Express for business travel. Which Amex is right for you is a whole other article, but I am not aware of any card that beats them for transaction tracking, fraud protection, travel perks, and loss protection. My favorite feature for business travel is how easy the web site makes it to generate expense reports for client billing. If someone else is paying your bills, there’s no other card that comes close. And if you get one of their premium cards a lot of other perks kick in, like free rental car insurance, life and injury insurance, travel bookings, and of course reward points.

I don’t travel with much cash at all if I can avoid it, but if it makes you feel safer stuff a few 20 dollar bills in a hidden spot in each of your bags. A little cash is nice to enable things like eating at street vendors, but I seldom need it, and for tracking purposes I prefer to spend every dollar of a trip on the Amex anyway. However it’s a great idea to have a few dollars in quarters in your bag for city parking.

And that’s about it. If you use this as your packing list for business travel, you’ll be lean and fast at the airport while having everything you are ever likely to need.

Lifestyle design

So I’ve dropped this phrase “lifestyle design” on this site a few times and it’s been a while since I explained it, at least concisely, if at all.

Lifestyle design is a phrase I stole from Timothy Ferriss’s book “The Four-hour Work Week.” It refers to the idea of taking charge of your complete life and living a lifestyle that you’ve actively designed rather than simply following along with what society or your family dictated for you.

I’d actually been working on lifestyle design for a while, but I was drifting aimlessly until encountering a few key events and people. I began thinking of lifestyle design around Christmas of 2011 when I realized that my life at the time was a joke. I was a second year law student with no real hobbies, no close friends, and seriously troubled relationships within my family. I was also morbidly obese and in denial of some slowly deteriorating health conditions as a result.

The first encounter that started moving me toward lifestyle design at that point was a legal colleague at the firm I was working with at the time, a fashionable and motivated young lawyer named Will. Will was doing ordinary work at a mediocre firm, but he was clearly very good at it, and he loved what he did. It was clear that he loved his life. He was always well-dressed and had a great attitude. I learned a little from him about the law, but really his main influence was to make me envious of his personal fashion. I realized that certain factors were holding me back from dressing like he did and carrying myself with confidence.  Will was also a model of lifestyle design in other ways; he created his own employment terms at the firm, working from home more often than not and setting his own hours, and I would later learn that the firm was a deliberate step in a planned career that would take him to running his own business on his own terms.

The second encounter was with my own father. Some details are personal, but a family crisis made me realize how much of my life I’d been basing on what I perceived as my family’s expectations of me. Christmas 2011 was a minor family crisis that forced me to reevaluate some of those relationships, and somehow it was enough for me to realize that passively accepting these relationships without personally dictating terms was holding me back. So I made a minor adjustment and started including my own interests in the terms of my personal relationships. That is to say, I started setting boundaries and asking that my needs be met.

The third encounter was with a law school classmate. When I returned to school for the spring semester, I took some small steps myself toward developing a healthier lifestyle, like buying a new bike and starting to ride it in the snow. I’d been thinking for years about getting back into skiing and kayaking, since I lived close to places to do those things, but I hadn’t done them for some reason. A few weeks into the semester I met a girl who casually mentioned that she did these things, so I jumped on the opportunity and started doing them with her. In the long run that friendship didn’t work out, but I will never forget the role that she had as a catalyst of lifestyle change.

At that point the pattern of meaningful encounters was set. There were more, many more. The guy who got me into adventure racing. The people who taught me the basics of whitewater. A few lawyers, a few women, a financial guru, and a number of people living lives I found enviable.

When I met Eric Jackson, I was primed and hungry for more information on lifestyle design. That’s why I asked him for his book – and why he shared it with me. I started with that manuscript and then started doing what all competent writers must do: reading. I devoured every lifestyle-related “self help” book I could find. I also focused my podcast habit more specifically on “life hack” topics.

Some of the books that I read and at least somewhat recommend included:

  • Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David and Goliath
  • Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe
  • Timothy Ferriss’s The Four Hour Work Week
  • Steves Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics (and the podcast)

And a few others. I also added a few podcasts such as Hidden Brain and How I Built This, and started watching and listening to TED talks. Recently I’ve also been reading and listening to some financial people who talk about early retirement and moving to a “work optional” lifestyle, mainly Mr. Money Mustache.

All of these sources can be distilled to one sentence: To live the life that you want, you need to zealously focus on what you really want, and be willing to sacrifice everything else to get it.

You don’t need to read or listen to anything on this list if you have it in you to do that.

So that’s lifestyle design in a nutshell. I talk about it a lot. I scare women away in bars bringing it up. I sometimes inspire and sometimes annoy by obsessing about it. But it colors my choices and why and how I do the things I do. It is simply about designing the life that you want to live, and then committing to live that life.

And on that note, it’s time for me to take a break from writing, do an hour of real work, and go to the beach.

Called myself out in a bar

2017 10 10

I’m sitting in a bar in Palm Beach where I just had a conversation with a lovely young woman who claimed to be a writer but admitted she had no real reason not to be committing to her writing except she’s afraid to take the plunge.

I told her about what I’d been doing. I told her about meeting EJ and embarking on a voyage toward life without compromise. And in doing so I inadvertently insulted her, but I also condemned myself. Why am I still compromising so much?

I know the answer. It’s economic necessity. It’s temporary. I know my priorities, and I know that what I need to do to serve them is pay off my debts by practicing law, and that means doubling down on the current path for a known portion of the future.

Close your eyes and envision your fantasy life, the life motivated by happiness and not the life motivated by economic necessity. What does that life look like? I know the answer for me. I’m living on the road, with a partner, raising a child, practicing law winning cases and helping poor people while kayaking several days a week. What’s your answer?

Thing is, there are parts of my vision that are out of my control, but only parts. There’s nothing that I could do to forcibly find a partner, but the rest of the vision is firmly in my control. And I know exactly what I need to do to get there. I need to start marketing in places I want to go. I need to obtain a suitable van. And I need to pay off my debts, or at least enough of them to drop my monthly cost of living.

The path is clear. It’s simple. To get from here to there, I need to earn about $400,000 beyond my basic living expenses. That means that I need to win 100 full-fee cases if I’m still with Ramos, or 67 full fee cases on my own, or 200 with outside firms. I know my approximate win rate without screening – better than 50% on average, higher if I’m picky about cases, lower if I keep choosing to take tough case.

So I need to handle 140 cases on my own, or up to 400 with fee splits. Along the way, little things like per diems can help or they can waste time, depending on where the workload falls.

Interestingly, I believe that at “full capacity” I could reach this goal in as little as a year at an insane pace, five years at a diligent pace. There’s no reason it needs to take longer than that.

So this barside conversation reminded me of what I need to be doing. I need to be doing everything in my power to maximize my case load while making subtle changes to edge toward the ideal vision along the way. I need to start getting cases near rivers. And more of them. I need to detour some money into buying the RV. These are all simple things.

So what’s step one?


My Last Swim

It’s been one week since my last swim.  

One of my favorite podcasts is In Between Swims. If you read this blog, you should subscribe to that podcast. The host, Jeff McIntyre, interviews boaters and asks them to tell about their last swim. If he ever asks me, this is the story I want to tell him. 

I am a beater. In 2015 alone, I swam in at least 6 states. I’m no stranger to the siren call of the handle on the front of my skirt. Perhaps I know as well as anyone that swimming isn’t really that big a deal. It happens to everyone- after all, we are all between swims. 

A few weeks ago, I took a trip through Tennessee and among other stops I had the opportunity to stop by Rock Island, home of Jackson Kayak and some of the superstars of kayaking. I took a tour of the factory where I got to see the newest Jackson kayak, the Traverse, go from rotomold through assembly and inspection all the way to shipping. At the end of that visit, I asked Eric Jackson if he was planning to kayak later that day. He told me to meet him at his house at 3:00 PM. So I did. 

Rock Island is not a large park, as whitewater locales go. The park surrounds a short natural flow section of the Caney Fork river, between several dams that form lakes above and below but preserving a low-volume, wide curtain waterfall emerging from a high cliff wall, with rapids including 20 foot waterfalls, a feature EJ called “sieve city,” and a few large wave trains. American Whitewater lists a play hole downstream of the powerhouse, but little else, and says that the hole becomes too intimidating for most at 7000 CFS. When I arrived at the park to wait out my meeting time with EJ, Stephen Wright was doing loops in the hole at 12,000 CFS.  

When I arrived at the Jackson household, I saw Dane’s black Sprinter RV parked with a stack of Karma creekers loaded on the trailer behind.  “How do you feel about waterfalls?” EJ asked me.  “If we do waterfalls, maybe we can get Dane to come too.”  Dane was upstairs in his bedroom editing videos when EJ asked him if he’d like to come with.  But while setting shuttle, we stopped to scout the waterfalls, which was when I learned that EJ and Dane were operating on old numbers – the waterfalls, he explained, are runnable at this level, but not a comfortable first run for someone new to the river.  So we would just do the wavetrains downstream of the powerhouse, but Dane might not be interested anymore.  

Thankfully, when we got back to the house, Dane had already switched from PJs to a union suit and had his drysuit ready to go.  The three of us hopped in Dane’s RV and headed down the road to the park.  

“Got your GoPro?”  EJ was nonchalant about these rapids.  Earlier, he’d explained the section as “just a class 3 with some big waves.  You’ll be fine as long as you have your roll.”  What I’d held back on mentioning was that I’d only paddled my Karma one day before this, and only once had I even tried to roll it.  So I was a bit fearful getting on to that river, but when EJ asked if I was ready, I said yes.  Before we peeled out into the current, Dane was already surfing his second lap through the first wavetrain.  EJ peeled out first and signaled for me to follow.  At the top of the third eight-foot wave, my GoPro smashed into the bottom of his boat, and he laughed; we were all having a great time.  Well, casual play to them, molar-grinding adrenaline to me.  I was off line a moment after that, with EJ yelling toward me from the other side of the river.  I was intimidated by the size of the waves and rushed to the nearest eddy, on river left, but it was a bad eddy, with the confluence to the powerhouse outflow adding turbulence.  I had to ferry across the wavetrain again to get back into the river right eddy, where Dane did laps around us as EJ explained my error to me and offered his second bit of paddling advice.  “Your goal in kayaking is to learn to paddle with a broad external focus.”  

I was suffering from tunnel vision, and my lines were suffering as a result.  New boat, new river, good company, but I’d been feeling shaky lately; just a few weeks ago, I took a long swim at the takeout to the Yough Loop, and the memory of that failed roll was fresh in my mind.  Rolling the Karma had been a challenge when I’d tried others’ boats in pools; in fact, on my very first attempt, I swam in the pond at the National Whitewater Center in Charlotte.  I’d learned to roll it in the pool, and I’d righted it in a few deep braces and a single roll on the Holly a few days earlier, but I still felt off.  

For the next section of the river, my guide offered me a choice between two lines.  I thought it over and answered, “I’ll go with the big waves.”  He explained the line, and ended with, “If you flip over, roll up.  If you flip over again, roll up again.  That cool?”  Seconds later, we were in the next wave train, perhaps a bit smaller than the first but this one had some holes too, one nearly riverwide.  I dodged the first big hole, struggling to keep the boat pointed downstream and upright in the funny boogie water, which though it had been described as class 3 was some of the most turbulent water I’d ever encountered.  It reminded me of the Gauley, more in terms of volume and turbulence than any other aspect.  Moments later, my GoPro video records my famous last words – “Oh shit.”  The wave I am entering is at least a boatlength high, cresting into froth at the top, well above my head.  I go over.  I set up for a roll, but can’t find the surface with my paddle.  I wait a moment hoping to flush into calmer water.  But the calmer water never comes, and after two tries I consciously reasoned that it would be worse to run out of air in my boat upside down than outside of it.  I pulled my skirt.  

It’s very rare to pull your skirt and not feel a pang of regret along the way.  I usually feel it the moment I let my right hand off my paddle, before I’ve even fully committed to the swim, but seldom do I act on that hesitation.  As I tumbled out of the boat, still in the mank of the wave train, I realized this would not be an easy or short swim.  EJ yelled, first cheerfully then sternly, “Grab your boat!  Grab your boat!”  But I was somehow drifting away from it even as I tried to paddle upstream, and I made no progress.  60 seconds later, EJ had my boat, I had EJ’s paddle, and Dane had me dangling from the rear grab handle of his pink Zen, helping me toward the second or third addy after the worst of the waves.  No matter how many times I view the video, I can’t figure out how EJ managed to get himself and my flooded Karma into the eddy and to the rocky shore without a paddle, but I suppose that’s part of what makes him EJ.  

Standing on the bedrock of the shore, I hauled my 103 gallon creek boat up and began to empty it.  I took off my helmet and set it down, noticing the flashing red light on my camera.  I laughed and quipped to the two world-champion paddlers who’d rescued me that there was no way I could live down this swim: everyone would have to see the video, after all, of my day paddling with Eric and Dane Jackson. “Far more embarrassing things have happened to all of us.” He gestured to my helmet, and I handed it to him.  He swiped his finger over the lens and stared into it.  “And that concludes James’s Brave Wave rapid run, but now we’re going to run one more rapid, it’s going to be amazing – he’s going to do the entire thing in his kayak.” Prompted, I promised the camera that I’d style the last rapid.  

And I did.  Clean line, over or through the biggest waves, careful but comfortable, and made the required ferries.  We made it to the boat ramp at the top of the lake below, where Dane helped me load the boats and called a friend over to take our picture.  

Jeff McIntyre asks boaters to tell the story of their last swim.  When he asked EJ a few years ago, the story that was told was from “back in the nineties.”  When I am asked, I hope that this is still the story I get to tell.


About to get real.
About to get real.

2015 and 2016

In 2015 I had 20 personal first descents including a dozen new class 4 rivers or discrete sections and eight or nine proper waterfalls, depending on what you count. It’s been a phenomenal year for my whitewater life. It’s also the first year in which I had a solid and consistent roll. My paddling has come further in 2015 than any prior year.

In work, I went from struggling on my own, to struggling with a firm, to my dream job, although now I’m struggling with my old lack of discipline.

2016 has clear goals. One, achieve a consistent and balanced work routine and meet certain financial benchmarks. Two, focus less on the raw number of PFDs and instead work on becoming a confident class 5 boater, and learn some freestyle moves. Some of the steps required to achieve these goals resemble traditional New Years resolutions: eat better, exercise more consistently, pay down debt, save money, cut out distractions. All of this is within my power to achieve.

2015 was fantastic. 2016 will be even better. 

LWC prototype trip, day 2

Okay, so it looks like I’m going to need an alarm clock after all. The car sleeping setup is a success in that it’s super comfy, but a fail in that it made it a little too easy to sleep in. Today hasn’t exemplified productivity; finding good work environments remains a work in progress. Really, it’s going to just come down to the Starbucks routine most of the time, and here I am now at Books A Million in Morgantown, WV where I found a table to sit at for a few hours in return for a cup of coffee.  

Speaking of coffee, today’s photo for sharing is this mind numbingly boring snap of my breakfast setup. I’ve been starting my days simple with two packets of instant oatmeal and a cup of instant coffee. The oatmeal (Aldi) is great, but the coffee (Dollar General I think, maybe Walmart) could easily be better. Still, breakfast costs me roughly 40 cents, so that makes it hard to beat. Now if only I could get myself to eat that cheaply for every meal. 

Camp cookware
Camp cookware

Actually, more on that breakfast setup. What you see in this picture isn’t really a lot of money at all. The costliest item is the stove which I think was about $40. It burns isobutane, essentially lighter fuel, and one of those canisters costs about $5 and seems to last forever- I’m on probably my third canister in the last three years, although that’s really only about two months of camping; maybe soon I’ll have a better idea how long they actually last.

Lets see… stove $40, pot $20 (most critical), bowl $5, cup $5,  $1.69 can opener, garage sale silverware ($0.50?), $10-ish coffee mug, and of course maybe $5 in consumables… I do think this kit is overkill as it’s redundant to have both a steel cup and a mug, but the cup is great for soups and chili and stuff. So the camp kitchen is maybe $86 with fuel and I think that’s kinda on the spendy side for me. Yet plenty of people have spent more than that on just the stove, and I’ve got to admit that I’ve left off the photo the extras that almost never get used like the frying pan. 

Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to get a photo of the sleep setup. 

Life without Compromise: Day 1


Today has been Day 1 of my “life without compromise prototype trip.”

Let me go back a step.  I’ve been reshaping my life in accordance with a principle called “Life Without Compromise,” which I’ve been learning from Eric Jackson.  I could go on about LWC for a while, but suffice for now to say that more will come on the topic.  EJ is a well-known whitewater kayaker whose current claim to fame is Jackson Kayak, arguably the dominant manufacturer in whitewater kayaking, but if you ask him he’ll tell you that his life is about his priorities, and that business only makes it to number four on the list, after his wife, his kids, and kayaking.  Anyway, LWC is a fairly straightforward plan that I’ve decided to get wholly on board with.  I quit my day job and replaced it with one with flexible hours and without a fixed office location so that I could get my priorities in order.  I’ve evaluated my life and concluded that I have four priorities right now:


    Practicing law



A month ago, my life was dominated by compromise.  If you looked at how I spent my time, you’d see:

    Helping someone else practice law

    Kayaking (on weekends)

    Trying to catch up on everything else

    Actually practicing law for my clients

    Writing stuff I didn’t enjoy or care about

    Feeling bad about not doing what I really cared about

I’m sorry if that list isn’t very articulate, but frankly it’s a good representation of how I felt.  My life actually looked fairly ordered: I was in a predictable place for 40 hours a week, doing nominally productive stuff that someone claimed to care about, and I was spending a solid two days a week doing the things I cared about.  But on slight examination, it wasn’t really like that.  My 40 hours at work weren’t spent meeting my goals or fulfilling my values.  More than half of that time was spent on tasks that didn’t relate to my primary practice area at all, and because of how my pay scale was written, that time actually took away from my income potential too, so I wasn’t even proceeding toward my financial goals.  My weekends “spent kayaking” were really mostly spent driving and setting up logistics, although indeed I did get in a lot of great runs; in fact 2015 has been a simply fantastic paddling year for me so far.  But I wasn’t getting any writing done at all, other than what looked like writing but didn’t really advance my priorities.  

Worse still, I was drowning financially.  I was stuck in a low salary with no real hope of bringing my income up – the structure at that firm left me powerless to raise my income in the immediate future, and the busywork thrown in (often as “punishment” for making my own time-management choices) took away time that I could have spent boosting my income.  It was a stifling environment for me.

So I decided that a change was in order.  I left that firm, and kept theoutside firm relationships that provided me with stable and immediate revenue, with one primary role providing me with more than enough work to make up for the lost salary and giving me back control of both my income and my time. Now, I have enough work to meet my financial goals, but I’m not stuck working on someone else’s terms, and I can see how my work translates directly into meeting my goals and satisfying my priorities.  So the “work” aspect of my Life Without Compromise may be covered.  But I’ll have to see if it works.  

There’s one major downside to leaving a salaried office position in favor of my new arrangement.  No longer do I have a guarantee of a certain income – I only get paid for the work that I actually complete and bill.  Nor do I have someone else helping me to stay organized – I have to discipline and schedule my own time.  But the only way to see if it works is to try it.  

In my first two weeks away from my salaried job, I learned that home isn’t a very productive environment for me. It’s loaded with distractions and derailments. I guess that’s not surprising; all the way back to first grade I’ve always had problems getting things done at home. Some things never really change.  And worse, I wasn’t fulfilling my priorities; I still only kayaked on the weekends, for whatever reason.  Could be that Buffalo just doesn’t have daily flow.  

This plan is about life without compromise. I’m choosing to focus on four priorities: kayaking, practicing law, writing, and friends. Buffalo is great for friends and not so bad for practicing law, but less ideal for kayaking. So here I am in Ohiopyle, PA, where there’s great kayaking and easy access. The plan is to kayak a bit every day, and work 5-6 hours in the other part of the day.  This is my “prototype trip” and my main goal of this week is to just see if it works.  I need to engage each of my priorities, but also work enough to pay my bills.  If I don’t learn how to be productive, I may have to go back to the drawing board.   

Today isn’t yet a big success. I only got through about five hours of work, and a lot of that wasn’t billable stuff.  But actually, that’s not a bad start either. 

I may or may not be more productive on the road. Currently, I’m still struggling to work out the logistics because sitting in my car itself isn’t the most productive environment. But it’s a learning process, and I’ll see how it goes.