Get ready, be ready, stay ready

During the most recent market correction in early Feb 2018, I spoke with my father on what stocks or ETFs to invest in.  The market was in its first day of correction and I was frantically searching for opportunities.  I was speaking with my Dad and reading stock research papers at the same time.

“There’s so much here”, I sighed, looking at the dozens of research reports I had tabbed open on Chrome.

“You should have been doing your research months ago.” my ever-encouraging dad replied. “Do your research ahead of time so when it’s time to strike, you’re ready.”

In the end, being semi-risk adverse (I used to think I was risk-tolerant but have come to realize I am not the cowboy risk-taker I thought I was), I stuck with what I knew and re-upped on the stocks I had already looked into and understood.

But oh, the missed opportunities. Who knows how many good deals were out there, how many green gains sat just out of reach.  If only I had continued to research.  A few years ago I had gotten in the habit of reading a report every few days.  Didn’t seem like much at the time and eventually I trailed off.  If I had stuck with that habit, I would have read hundreds of reports by now and would likely have a book of picks to roll out when the iron got hot.  But I didn’t, I wasn’t ready, and I let opportunities slip through my fingers.  I don’t even want to do the compound interest calculation on potential value lost.

I can see a clear parallel of this to entrepreneurship.  I may not know the next big opportunity, emerging technology, or hot product that lies around the corner, but I have to be ready when it gets here.  I can’t wait for it to be making headlines to start readying myself.  The preparation begins now, in the quiet hours before the wave hits.  Now is the time to read, to practice, to forge skills, to develop insight — to build all the tools necessary.  So that when the times comes, all the pieces will be in place to act fast, act first, and come out on top.  Feeling unprepared when you know you could’ve been is one of the worst feelings in the world.  Learn from the market correction of February 2018…

Get ready, be ready, stay ready.


Expanding Space

There are two ways to gain space: clearing it and expanding it. The main tool will be meditation. The goal is to gain mental space, grasp control of the space I have, and maximize what I can do with it.

Ever since I was in high school, dead set on getting into a good university, I have trained myself to always be doing something “productive”: reading an educational article, practicing my sport, planning for the future. After a decade of constantly thinking “productive”, I could feel the stress building. High expectations coupled with a demanding job eventually wear at the mind. I turned to ways to destress. Exercise, eating better (sometimes worse), and relaxation (vacation, massages, etc) all provided short-term relief. But inevitably the stress would creep back in. I had to find a more permanent, sustainable solution.

I recently learned from a guided meditation that you must allow yourself time to think about nothing. The time spent quieting your thoughts benefit your mind’s active hours. Just 10 minutes a day can supercharge those remaining 15 hrs and 50 minutes (note the healthy 8 hrs of sleep!), turning them into the equivalent of 17+ hrs.

The immediate feeling after coming out of a meditation speaks for itself. It’s like you’ve washed your mind in cold water. The constant static buzz of thoughts bouncing around in your skull has faded. Behind your main line thought, there is a refreshing quiet. It’s like you’ve hard reset your RAM and you’re only running core functions. Nothing like a clean Task Manager. CPU at 15%.

The long-term benefits of meditation remain to be seen. For one reason or another I have not stuck with meditation for more than two weeks at a time. I’ve heard the true benefits come after 3-4. That seems to be the tipping point between short-term clarity and long-term space. Therefore I am committing to three weeks of continuous meditation. For this habit to be achievable, I need a block of time each day picked out to meditate and a three-week, 10-minute meditation program to follow. Since my after-work schedule is erratic, regular meditation in the morning seems much more achievable. Wake up 10 minutes earlier. It also means going to sleep 10 minutes earlier. So wake up at 6:30 and sleep at 22:30. Not too hard right? I’ve picked out the 21 Days of Calm meditation program from the Calm app to follow.

So three commitments:

  1. Wake up at 6:30, sleep at 22:30 (set the Bedtime range in my phone)
  2. Meditate 10 minutes every day in the morning before work (set a daily Calm reminder)
  3. Follow the 21 Days of Calm program until the end

By the end, my hope is that I will have achieved this next level of mental quiet and serenity that many have talked about. I don’t expect to be a shaolin monk on the edge of enlightenment but I hope to feel not just mental but physical improvements. Increased clarity at work, ability to maintain focus, lower stress levels. Not just in my work but also in my relationships, I expect to see improvements in my mood, temperament, and optimism. I’m talking about meditation like it’s some miracle pill; but if I define lofty expectations – it might be exactly that.

Clearing Space

My mind is a messy place. I am curious about so many things. I want to learn so many skills. But I split my time between too many investments. There are so many distractions to indulge in that finding the time or energy to focus on the few essential tasks can be difficult. Like all humans, I want to enjoy myself. But unfortunately there are too many things I enjoy.

Some hard decisions need to be made to clear the necessary space. Space for development of what’s important.

Let’s start with the physical world. I read that a cluttered space clutters the mind. So perhaps the easiest way to clear space is to do it physically first. My office desk was an organized mess. I use “organized” lightly but it had some semblance of order. But paper clips and sticky notes can only go so far when you’re working with 18 ft2 of tabletop. There were bundles of paper, representing my many rolling mini projects and investigations, everywhere. Open binders and technical books stacked on one another. The complexity grows and grows until it is unmanageable. On the bright side, I think I improved my working memory by trying to keep track of all the different documents. (Developing a different work habit so I don’t have so many running projects is another topic altogether. Soon.)

The solution is a better filing system to reduce clutter and cut down on the mental RAM used to keep track of it all. The majority of my work can be organized into seven buckets:

  1. Unit operation changes (“can we do this?”)
  2. Incident root cause investigations
  3. Unit optimization opportunities
  4. Unit and product monitoring and adjustment
  5. Procedural reviews
  6. Process condition reviews
  7. Special projects

If I have more than five of any of these going at one time, I think I’ve got bigger problems on my hands. I should learn to finish something before starting another. So let’s start with space for five each. I’m not a fan of trays because you have to pull the whole pile every time you try to find a file. That’s a lot of wasted energy. I’ve seen those vertical dividers that can sit on your desk and you can slot bundles into. Kind of like an exposed file cabinet, rotated 90o on your desk. Let’s start with that.

And of course, get in the habit of filing files away when you’re done with them. Leave them in an organized way so you can come back to them in years and remember quickly what you’ve done. Don’t trust memory for small details over that timespan – it’s not going to work.

Let’s move now to the mental world. To clear mental space, space must be cleared from what is occupying your focus. For me, the digital realm is a huge time sink. Some of it totally useless which can be cut easily without remorse; but most of it is semi-useful. To me, semi-useful is the biggest trap. It makes you feel like you’re being productive: learning something “interesting”, loosely developing some skill, getting better at that unique app that doesn’t translate to anything else. It’s fun to feel like you’re getting better at something but ultimately it distracts from what you really want to focus on. I spend the majority of digital time on my phone. I would say text takes up 25% of my time on it, apps 75%. I’m not cutting my friends out of my life (though delaying responses by a few more minutes is worth some discussion) so it’s time to give my apps an audit.

Here are the four apps I am committing to curtail from my phone:

  1. Youtube – it’s great learning about philosophy and from TED-Ed but limit them to one or two a day. Too many leads to little retention anyway.
  2. Instagram – memes are great but I can probably cut these down by 75%
  3. Facebook – keep updated with group posts but don’t go down the continuous rabit hole of posts
  4. Supercell games (Clash Royale, Brawl Stars) – these guys know how to make a good game. They’ve got the recipe down and the games are fun. But now isn’t the time to get good at them.

Take these steps and see how much space you get back. Maybe it’s not as much as you thought or perhaps it’s more. But either way there will be space to do what you will. Keep some for decompression and mental health. But devote most to focusing on the few important things.

Want to figure it out?

At the end of Stranger Things 2, Eleven and Mike meet at the Snow Ball, the middle school dance. Looking around at the other middle schoolers swaying back and forth, Mike asks Eleven if she wants to dance. Eleven responds hesitantly, “I don’t know how.” And Mike simply replies, “I don’t either… want to figure it out?” Eleven nods, extends her arm and Mike leads her onto the dance floor.

That was the sweetest moment of the whole season to me. Not the moments between Jonathan and Nancy or Max and Lucas or even Bob and Joyce. Because that’s what finding your person is all about. Not knowing what the future holds or how to conquer it, but knowing you want to figure it out with them. Finding someone that you’re comfortable being vulnerable around – showing your weaknesses and hesitancies.

Your person not only learns with you but teaches you in their process of learning. They can look at the same information as you, and see something completely different. Their experiences inform their interpretation. If it’s the right person, their interpretation will  add another dimension to yours.

That’s what I’ve always looked for.  Not someone who knows what I know but more so can teach me.  Not someone that knows what I know but less who I can teach.  Someone who’s mind works differently than mine.  Who’s interests I wouldn’t dream of pursuing myself – but I can appreciate none the less.  Someone who exposes you to a side you may not have known you had – or lost along the way.  Someone you can do the same for.

That’s a key pillar of a lasting relationship: facing the world together and tackling what it throws at you. Find your person, figure it out, and dance.

Cultivating Focus

What is the key to focus?

Focus is in short supply these days. I think this is especially true with my generation. My generation was the first exposed to the world of possibilities; the Internet and all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Unfortunately, this also came with all the world’s distractions. And distractions are designed to command your microfocus – tiny bites of focus that are insignificant individually but colossal grouped together. It is no surprise that the world’s highest-grossing mobile games take 2 minutes, Instagram videos are 1 minute, and Snapchat stories are 10 seconds. String a few games together or hit autoplay on your friends’ IG stories and 10 minutes have gone by. Meanwhile you completely forgot what you were doing. What was I studying? What was I reading? What was I working on? It may feel like a harmless break, but in reality, it is exactly that but much more serious – a break. You’ve broken the thread of mental focus that could’ve led you down the path to your answer but now you must find it again. This will take more time and probably lead to a worse result since you’ve lost some of those mental connections that were just beginning to flicker in your mind before they were extinguished by distraction.

I saw the beginnings of it in myself before I began to correct it. Solving problems at work often requires solving many small things first that eventually piece together to form the whole. An answer to one of these small things offers a checkpoint to reward oneself. For me that reward was checking my phone. It became a reflex. I had the brain to muscle link: complete something small, small ping of dopamine, reach out to grab my phone, unlock my phone with my thumb print, scroll to the second page, and click on the bottom left icon to bring up IG. I could probably do it with my eyes closed. Scroll down a few posts and get back to work. Only a minute or two right. But wait, what was I doing again? It would take a minute to reorient myself back on task. I wasn’t lost but undoubtedly one of the threads mapping my initial thoughts to my goal would be gone. Perhaps I would regain it in a few minutes or perhaps not. In most cases, either the quality or the completion time suffers. This is not good when you have an operational job that demands answers as soon as possible. I needed to make a change. I felt like I was addicted to becoming distracted.

For me the solution for work was two-fold, a physical change and a mental change.

Sometimes the simplest fix is the easiest. Instead of leaving my phone on my desk where the slightest glance would kneejerk me into picking it up, by putting it in my drawer, it was out of sight, out of mind. When I want to look at my phone, I have to make the extra step of opening the drawer. This gives me a moment to consider if I really need to look at my phone and remember my goal to cut down on distraction. It worked. I would estimate this simple solution cut down distraction by 50%.

The second, more impactful, and much more difficult to cultivate solution came from a mindset change. I recognized that I was micro-rewarding myself for micro-successes. I had to convince myself that I didn’t need these micro-rewards and realize the true prize was worth waiting for. I had to actively acknowledge that the frequent small pings of satisfaction I got were really counterproductive. When I recognized the larger goal of a well-executed total project was worth so much more than the sum of these little pings, it made it easier to postpone temporary gain for long term gain. It reminded me of that Stanford marshmallow experiment.

I had experimented with apps like Pomodoro in university. They “force” you to block out 20 minutes of focus time followed by 5 minutes of break. It worked for a bit but in my opinion seemed artificial. I began to bide my time waiting for the 20 minutes to be up. The much better solution is to change your motivation to solving the issue at hand and getting the answer. Focusing becomes natural because you’re driving at your goal vs listening to a self-imposed rule. It feels good to accomplish something rather than disobey yourself. One is positive reinforcement and the other is negative.

In the spirit of self-development, I will strive to make my changes be as unassisted as possible. I will lean on my willpower rather than an app to regulate me. I am trying to shake dependency on anything external to my own mind – at least when it comes to self-improvement. There is plenty I will happily lean on others for (that first ‘good morning’ in the elevator, letting me pet their dog, a home-cooked meal). So in that spirit, here are three commitments I am making to cultivate focus:

  1. Keep my phone in my desk throughout the work day. Only take it out max once per hour for 5 minutes.
  2. Only take breaks after completing a significant milestone. (Significant milestone = finishing a major section of a engineering document, completing a technical email, answering a complicated question, planning out and allocating tasks to move to the next stage of a project)
    But make sure to reward yourself for such significant milestones by taking a walk and resetting your mind. Don’t be kooked up in your cubicle all day!
  3. Actively motivate yourself to reach that significant milestone. All else is fluff until that milestone is reached. When you sense yourself wanting to take a break after a subtask – stop, remember this commitment, and remember your ultimate goal of improving your focus. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

In a more general application, focus requires a goal. Without a goal, focus is meaningless. Just as important, one must define their goal and be aware of it. You may be interested in a topic and want to read up on it, but be aware of your goal. It adds meaning to your focus and motivates to continue. It works the other way that if you realize the subjects of your focus have no goal then the motivation to continue should fade. At a certain point, one cannot have goals of pure fun that satisfy no other goals. That sounds like a ticket to an unsatisfactory life. The key becomes finding goals that are both productive and fun (or at least you find a way to make them fun). Cooking could be considered a chore but I choose to think about it as a way to create and share good food with friends. Exercise could be painful and tedious but I think about as a way to a healthy life, energy throughout the day, and a necessary tool to be competitive. Learning Chinese could be difficult and monotonous but I try hard to remember the benefits of being able to understand and share ideas with one billion people.

I read somewhere that focus is like a muscle. It needs to be trained over and over. In time it will get stronger. My method will be to train my focus by reorienting my motivations and mindset. My intermediate step will be to make it physically harder to become distracted. My goal is to be focusing on the things that will help me in life. Thinking about them deeply and ultimately contributing something back to the world.

Ultimate reflection p.3

Score: 13-2

Got outplayed, fair and square.

Us soon:

Good game yesterday, team.  Sometimes you give it your all but the other team just outplays you.  What I was impressed with was our effort until the end.  We didn’t give up and we didn’t let them have anything.  We also spent good time after the game thinking about how to improve; and to me, that’s the biggest sign of a team on its way up.  In that spirit, let’s switch it up a little this week and also analyze what they did well against us:

What they did well:

  • Communication: their teammates were shouting shorthand reminders from the sidelines (e.g. “stack”, “inside cut”, etc.) – made possible by their good rest area position along the sideline, close to the action.  If possible, let’s rest along the sideline next time so we can communicate with our teammates.  Along the sideline we’ll have a better vantage point of the field.  Michelle was doing a good job of this yesterday.
  • Fake one way, hard plant, cut the other way: they were experts at getting open.  I was watching their best guy at getting open – he moves slowly in one direction, as soon as he sees his defender start to move in that direction with him, he plants his foot and explodes off in the other direction.  It’s a simple, effective move that conserves energy and almost impossible to defend.
  • Quick, short, decisive passes: they rarely killed us with the long bomb.  They quickly advanced up the field with quick, short passes.  Quick passes keeps the defense out of position, snowballing momentum until a score.

Things to work on:

  • Passing while defended: Let’s revisit that passer-defender-receiver drill.  I think that if we focus on this one thing, all else will follow.

Things we did well:

  • Catching:  Each game we improve our % of caught passes.  We are catching more difficult ones too.
  • Endzone patience: Our pre-game drill paid off – I noticed much better patience and decision-making with the disc.  We must now balance this with making quick, decisive passes.

An advantage of playing one of the best teams is that you can learn from them.  Let’s take what they did well and apply it to our games!

Ultimate reflections p.2

Result: Tie 8-8

Trending in the right direction!  Saw really good improvements from last week.

Things we did well:

  • catching % – saw some tough catches made!
  • man coverage
  • cutting to open space
  • smarter passing decisions
  • patience when in scoring range
  • transition defense – good communication yelling ‘turnover’ lead to us getting back on defense faster
  • picking good matchups – know the strengths of your opponent and matchup according to your strengths (i.e. fast covers fast, tall covers tall, etc.)

Things to work on for next week:

  • using a fake + lunge to create an easier throw for yourself (let’s practice this)
  • passing backwards to get a better angle and disorient defense
  • know your teammates (e.g. I am not good at long bombs so stay closer for a short pass when I have the disc)
  • observe your coverage’s weaknesses (i.e. most people have a dominant throwing side so force them throw on their weak side)

Ultimate reflections p.1

Things we did well:

  • man coverage – kept our hands active trying to swat the disc, leaving no openings for easy throws
  • running/cutting – good field awareness; good timing when to run to the open space
  • communication – calling out teammate’s name that we’re passing to; when on defense, yelling “up” when the disc is thrown so teammates know to be alert
  • athleticism – tire out opponent with constant movement and activity

Things we can improve:

  • telegraphing passes – making our intended target clear so defender knows to hustle to intercept it
  • throwing on first opening rather than after fake – fake 1st then pass when defender out of position
  • patience near endzone – when within the 10 m of the endzone, remember to breathe and evaluate options, we still have 8 seconds
  • transitioning from offense to defense – as soon as possession switches, be aware and quickly find your man to prevent counter scores

How to change a habit: phone-checking

I think it developed over university.  I have this habit of checking my phone compulsively.  Whenever I am thinking about something for too long; whenever I complete a task; whenever I’m not doing anything… I check my phone.  I want to fix this.  It affects my work rhythm, my focus, my train of thought, and my enjoyment of the moment.

It’s like my brain craves the microinjections of seretonin I get from constantly checking the group chat or seeing what’s new on instagram.  I must learn that those things can wait.  None of it is urgent.  What does matter is thinking deeply on a problem to be solved.  What does matter is reflecting on your actions and learning from them.  What does matter is being present with the people around you and giving them your full attention.

Let’s experiment on how to change a habit — a big one at that.

Methods tried:

  1. Turning phone upside-down while charging
  2. Leaving a sticky note on my phone saying “DO NOT TOUCH”
  3. Putting the phone in my bag
  4. Airplane Mode
  5. Stopping cellular data allowances for certain apps
  6. Switching the phone display to grayscale colours
  7. Deleting frequently used time-wasting apps

Digging for gold

The market is in a correction. Nobody can really explain it. Nobody knows what’s going on. Is it oil weighing down on the economy, threatening to cause oil & gas companies to default? Is it China’s slower-than-expected growth impacting the rest of the world? Has the US overreached its value and investors are finally cashing out? Who knows. I certainly don’t and I’m willing to bet not many people do. Nobody knows what the future holds. When everyone’s fleeing a burning building, there are always some valuables left inside for anyone foolish enough to charge into the fire. You can get burned, walk away with gold, or maybe both.

I’m definitely no expert stockpicker. In fact I hardly know anything about picking stocks. I just know which companies have good products and that I can see making money in the future. I know about companies I believe in. Keeping very much in line with Warren Buffet’s investing philosophy of ‘investing in what you know’, I look at companies I personally use.  This almost always means that the company will be either food- or technology-related (draw your own conclusions from that).  I’ll look at its key financials, sure, but I’m very interested in recent news and products.  The number can only say so much about future performance.  At the end of the day it comes down to ‘will people pay money for this company’s product’ — and that, I can evaluate (or at least try). This series will document my thoughts on some companies I’m interested in.  First up…

Facebook – FB has seen an accelerated growth in earnings per share over the past 5 quarters. This good earnings momentum should hopefully hold for the next few quarters. Analysts’ predictions have also been increasing and FB has consistently beaten even these predictions — all good signs. 44/53 analysts have FB as a buy and the average stock price target is $130 vs current $105. Barron’s MarketGrader algorithm ranks FB in the 96th percentile of all companies. Most of all though, I believe in FB’s products. It owns Whatsapp, Instagram, and Oculus, two products I use frequently and one that I hope to in the future. Whatsapp has a massive user base that use it religiously and Instagram’s ads are non-invasive. The ads on IG are only increasing but they are being presented in ways that aren’t pushing me away from the site. And I’m the type to pull the quick trigger on that – if something irritates me – goodbye. Let’s not forget FB; everyone uses FB. Apart from Google, FB is the only place I would ever consider advertising for a small business – and it seems to work. I don’t see anything coming close to supplanting FB as humanity’s go-to social network (sorry Google+, you tried your best). Add to that FB’s goal to bring internet to the world and Zuck’s personal resolution to create a virtual personal assistant… FB has plenty of room to grow. FB is a buy for me.