Back in January of 2016, I began a series of monthly blog posts cataloging self-experimentation and meditations that I had experienced over the course of the month. I was capping a three-month binge on Tim Ferriss’s podcasts followed by a thorough reading of The Four-Hour Workweek and a stack of Tim’s blog posts. Something deep in my brain told me that I should begin a similar series of experiments along with associated documentation, and I jumped in. I gave up coffee for the first time. I started waking up at 5:30 for workouts. In my final post (January 2017), I just straight ditched food for a bit, inspired by the work of Dom D’Agostino.
Then, as many of my friends have repeatedly reminded me, I went radio silent.
Oh, sure, I wrote plenty of blog posts, but then I’d scrap them all as being mostly garbage. Nothing seemed to really resonate with me like the monthly posts of that year did. And it’s not like nothing happened, either! Major developments at work, changes in my physical fitness - hell, I even got engaged! Yet the words refused to come in a way that resonated with me. So I kept taking notes, and I waited.
This is a post about self-mastery.
This is not a post about self-determination, or self-experimentation. It is also not a post about skill-mastery.
When I was twenty-one years old, I wanted to control computers. I was unhappy about a lot of stuff - my long-distance relationship, my total lack of a job, the fact that my college and grad school programs weren’t really what I wanted but I was too chicken to take bold steps, you name it, I could find a way to gripe about it. So I got into MIT’s Intro to Computer Science course and I started learning how to control computers. I read TechCrunch diligently and was convinced that if I could just get a job as a developer, I could turn my whole life around. That would fix all of my problems.
Fast-forward to age twenty-five, and someone actually gave me a job as a developer. This is one of the worst things that can happen to you if you started learning how to program in order to change your life. Suddenly, you realize that actual software development can be sometimes really terrible. There is nothing about a career in software development that is actually designed to fix your life. You still have the same problems. This was the start of a pretty nasty downward spiral for me.
Somewhere in this mental morass, I stumbled upon a book list from Jack Dorsey, founder of both Twitter and Square. One of his top four books was The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a collection of proverbs on the classical philosophy of yoga. There is no discussion of stretching or postures - this book is about mental state and the philosophy of the self. It’s a religious text (and the translation I got had all the commentary), but it shook me up enough times that I returned to re-read it over and over. The first sutra: “Yoga is the stilling of the mind.” My mind was nowhere near “still”, but Patanjali was at least offering the idea that stillness was something attainable, and you had to practice to get there. It sounded better than the utter hellscape that was my then-current mental state of ambition in six different directions combined with second-guessing and a total inability to focus.
I tried everything. I diligently practiced meditation using whatever app I could get my hands on. I thought that some of Patanjali’s ideas on mindfulness might be easier to use if I saw them in a western Christian context that was similar to how I grew up, so I read Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God. I would try to intensely focus while lifting weights, something that had previously helped focus me in the past. I tried to find focus in code. I got a new engineering job, one that made me feel more “developer-like.” It all culminated in a series of fairly epic panic attacks, and then I discovered Tim Ferriss. (I wrote about all of that here)
Now we’re all caught up to the start of those monthly blog posts, so I can start talking about self-mastery.
Tim Ferriss’s interviewees are experts in their respective fields. They might be major celebrities, or they might be total unknowns, but they are unquestionably experts in something. I hoped to one day be an expert in something, though I didn’t know what. I thought that maybe if I copied what they did, I could be like them. My initial model was Tim himself, who is basically an expert in relentless self-experimentation and writing it all down. Anyone can do that, so I tried it out. Then I took Jocko Willink as inspiration too, so I started waking up super-early. I liked Jamie Foxx’s workout plan, so I started doing lots push-ups and pull-ups. I relentlessly copied EVERYONE.
When you’re trying to learn a skill, you can pretty much take whatever route works best for you to get there. I know that I learn computer science concepts most effectively if I read and take notes as opposed to watching videos. The reverse is true for weightlifting, where I’m better if I just watch a video and emulate it in the mirror than if I read about it. When you’re trying to emulate a person, though, you have to do what they do. “How hard could that be?” I thought. All of the steps are laid out in front of me, I just have to go do them.
Jocko Willink wakes up at 4:30 every day and posts a photo of his watch to Instagram. Jocko sells t-shirts that say “Discipline equals freedom.” Jocko was once asked how to be tougher, and his answer was “if you want to be tougher mentally, it is simple: be tougher. Don’t meditate on it. Just be tougher.” Jocko was asked how to avoid injury during BUDS training and his response was “be tougher.”
I tried and failed to emulate Jocko’s level of discipline. I like drinking beer and playing video games and sleeping in. Jocko does none of these things, because Jocko is constantly preparing and training himself. I said I wanted to act like Jocko, but I didn’t want to give any of those things up.
It’s not just Jocko who constantly reminds me of my total lack of self-mastery, though. My roommate Lauren wakes up every morning to hit the gym before 6:00AM and has typically logged a workout by the time I’m pouring my first cup of coffee. My friend and coworker Brian regularly puts his daughter to bed and then goes into his basement lab to take a Coursera course so he can keep learning, while I am figuring out which new game on Steam I want to buy. My fiancée Linda is able to totally forget about Internet distractions and actually enjoy the world around her, while I can’t stop fidgeting with my phone and regularly have to delete social media apps just to stop playing with them.
I am writing a post about self-mastery because I am not yet a master of myself.
I think I can get there. I think I had to first recognize that there were examples out there and I needed to try to copy them. I needed to fail first to recognize what self-mastery really looked like. And then, after I failed, I needed some processing time to recognize that the strides I took to actually get to failure had put me not too far off from a place I wanted to get to anyway! My relationships are in a happier place. I’m in a much more enjoyable career.
My first steps in processing that failure was to simply wave my hands and say that it was all fine. I would look at my successes, say “can’t be good at everything” and move on. But it didn’t stop the gnawing feeling that I could do better. I’m still frustrated when I lose mastery over myself and sleep in past when I told myself I’d wake up for yoga, or when I grumpily snap at my fiancée because I do not have mastery over which words come out reflexively. Shrugging those types of things off is not acceptable to me, and they are regular reminders of my own lack of mastery.
This is where my head is now, pondering on how to better master myself. I welcome advice and wisdom.