SURG.up Day 1: What is This All About?

So, surgery soon. Its major surgery and will take a lot of hard work to recover from. Friends, social networks, and the like seem to be one of the biggest contributing factors for recovering from surgeries like this. Click here to read a short summary about what the surgeons will be doing---it involves my surgeon opening my ribs and looking into/working in my chest.

I'm still working through the idea of video updates because I really have no way of knowing how aware I'll be on such heavy pain medication. It's likely that after the initial pre-op video, I may not be able to really talk or function for a week or two, but it would be awesome to interact with you guys as much as possible during the whole ~2 month process. Let me know! Leave comments and suggestions below. I can set up an email update list if that would be helpful so you get an email when I post a new video.

Posted by Nathan Schmitt

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My Upcoming Lung Surgery

[Photo: A birthday x-ray: shows my left lung with a ~15% Pneumothorax visible below the metal plate and six screws--the latter, courtesy of my longboard, 18th Street, and stupidity.]

On February 2, 2010 I'll be having lung surgery because of  multiple recurrences of a collapsed left lung (Recurrent Primary Spontaneous Pneumothorax). There doesn't seem to be a definite cause of these kinds of collapses, but they happen when a thin spot on the lung ruptures for some reason and leaks air into the chest cavity.

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Life's Tough, But That Doesn't Have Anything to do With Happiness

[Video: speaker Nick Vujicic]

Next time you catch yourself complaining, remind yourself of the video above. Instead of trying to convince yourself in vain that "I really don't have it so bad compared to [whoever]," try something else. As much as you'd rather have an easier time of it, you don't have that luxury--and be thankful for it.

Not everyone is given the opportunity to grow in a profound, meaningful way and hardly any take advantage of it given the opportunity. I'm not talking about being forced to learning a language in high school or even suffering through a gnarly breakup. I'm talking about long-term, serious, often life-threatening crises that take far more than you can give to get through.

I'm talking about the kind that smacks you in the face with reality, and  hearing your friends gossip about people you don't even like makes you sick. The kind that makes you not only realize, but actually appreciate that everyone has problems and goes through hard times, but most hide it like their life depended on it.

And the kind that makes you feel ashamed for not getting back up when you were down because you thought you had it so bad---for wasting the opportunity to grow when someone else was more deserving of it.

So don't waste your efforts trying to motivate yourself by pitying people who you think are worse off---if they're growing from their hardships and you're not, you're more deserving of their pity than they are of yours. Happy people aren't happy because they have 8 out of 10 stars, they're happy because they earned the stars despite adversity, no matter how few they can claim as their own.

"As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves." ~Gandhi

Posted by Nathan Schmitt

When Success Can be a Mistake and Why Failure is Like Gold

[Read Time (Total): 5 minutes]

The response I tend to get from people when I tell them I messed up is, "Well, we learn from our mistakes." Whenever someone says that I give it about a second of thought and put it back in my vault of cliche-but-true remarks.

I've taken on a lot in the last three months--more than anyone really should. Click the link to see my average week, for the last three months of this year. I fill in activities retroactively to track time-usage but I have a fair amount of it planned before hand--if something comes up, Outlook allows me to move things around very easily.

It wasn't an issue of "spreading myself too thin." This is a very carefully crafted schedule optimized over the course of four weeks to assure the highest quality work I could produce in each area. But there was still a problem... I've done very high quality work that I'm proud of in five completely different areas: school, my internship with Conflict Resolution Services, exercise/fitness, research in lifestyle design and professional development, and here on this blog (not to mention being tied up in an incredibly stressful and difficult situation for a couple of months). I'll spare you the bore of lists and details, but my productivity skyrocketed to say the least.

This term was the first full-scale application of Perato's Principle and Parkinson's Law to my life as a whole, and this enabled me to get more done in a fraction of the time with higher quality results than before. Instead of spending 70% of my waking hours with academia, I cut it down to an average 30-35% (these are calculated percentages, not estimates) while learning more, producing my highest quality work yet, and consequently getting awesome grades. To make a long story short, I then filled the time I had just cleared up with work that was just as demanding.

I can actually count the number of times I've hung out with friends in the last two months: three. I've also been sick on and off for about three weeks so I haven't been able to exercise.  Looking back, I can pinpoint exactly why I got here: I failed to clearly define the goal of my productivity experiment.

So, my experiment was a success in that I still can't believe how productive I've been, but it was a mistake because there was really no point to it: there was no "result" that I identified, before getting started, against which I could measure the experiment's success or failure. Like I said before, people often say "we learn from our mistakes" and I definitely learned from mine. I learned that productivity isn't a goal: a goal is a strictly defined, measurable outcome that you can objectively say has been met successfully (or unsuccessfully as the case may be). For example, "Run a mile in 6 minutes" is a goal. "Run a really fast mile" is not.

"Find a way to read more productively by Friday" is not a goal. "Double my reading speed from 250 wpm to 500 wpm by Friday" is a goal. But it's not just a matter of defining what "productive" means--it's more than that. By defining exactly what my goal is, I'm also defining a stopping point. Failing to define a stopping point creates hidden anxiety because it essentially creates a goal that's, by definition, impossible to meet.

The ironic part about all of this is that in all of my smaller-scale experiments, my first priority is to define my desired outcome in a measurable way.

I think what it all gets down to is this: the value to base achievement on is not absolute maximum productivity, it's absolute, healthy sustainability in everything you do. These are the kinds of realizations are the ones that people tend to respond to with a sarcastic, "Well duh..." but while it's pretty intuitively obvious, it's much harder to actually emotionally appreciate if you're a "Type A."

The drive to succeed is a strong local anesthetic for stress. The problem is, after a while the anesthetic wears off and you're operating way above your pain threshold.

If you're a very driven person like myself and you have experienced this, or do in the future, learn from it. Don't become one of those overworked "successful" people who hate their life. But even more importantly, don't become a "successful" person who loves what they do but crashes at regular intervals.

So by any normal standard, my experiment was a failure. Sure it turned out that there was no real goal to begin with, but I crashed and that's not OK. Failure is like gold: it's meaningless in itself, but if we are determined to give it value, it can help to create heights of success that are otherwise unimaginable. I try not to make universal claims but I really think this is true: no one reaches greatness without failing far more than they succeed. 

The fear of failure isn't a problem just because it holds us back from learning, it's a problem because it strangles creativity. And I'm not talking about "artistic-ness," I mean that the fear of failure prevents us from being original in our work, no matter what we do. Creativity and originality are one of the the world's biggest producers of failure, but also essentially the only producer of high-value, meaningful creation.

So if you're passionate about your work, please do it the best you can and embrace your many failures.

Posted by Nathan Schmitt

Your To-Do List: Five Things That Can Change Your Life

Credit Notsogoodphotography

[Read Time (Total): 5 minutes]

It's pretty much programed in the human race that we usually don't fix the things that are bothering us until we've been overwhelmed by them. Problem is, by the time it comes, we've put up with the stress of the thing for so long that by the time we can't stand it anymore, it's usually too late and something bad has happened. The hard part, it often seems, is telling the difference between what needs to be dealt with now and what just isn't going to cause a problem. This post will help you stay on track without having to re-examine your entire life.

Here are my top five things you can do to stop yourself from being overrun by forces that feel like they're out of your control. They relate to life in general and might seem random, but they will strengthen your immunity against stress and help prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.

5. Create a Ritual

Most people like having a daily routine to follow to give their life structure but for many people, a full on routine doesn't allow the freedom they enjoy. A ritual is something you do in the exact same way everyday and that serves some constructive purpose-- unlike some routines, however, it still lets you have that freedom you enjoy throughout the dayI recommend rituals because they help you get in the mindset you need to be in for whatever it is you need to do and it works every time.

One ritual I have, since I exercise everyday, is to walk to the gym the same way every time, rent a lock and towel, and do the exact same stretching warm up every time. There is about a 2 week conditioning period during which your ritual gradually becomes second nature. After that, you'll start doing it automatically and it becomes a time when you zone out while the actions you've trained yourself to do get you in the mindset for whatever's next.

4. De-Stress

As I've mentioned, I have a whole post on dealing with stress in the works, but it needs to be mentioned here. Performing a ritual is actually a great way to de-stress because you can just zone out and not think about anything.

ExerciseThe absolute best thing you can do to reduce stress--nothing else even comes close. Exercise has pulled me through the hardest and most stressful times in my life and I really don't know what would have happened if I hadn't made it a top priority. If you're skeptical, try it for just a week or two. Give it a fair chance, really do it with a positive and hopeful attitude, and I promise that both your energy level and general happiness will significantly increase--yes, somehow using more energy by working out actually increases the amount of energy you have overall.  Another plus is that after you work out you get to (and should) eat a bunch of carbs...

Music: Take 10 minutes and put together a playlist or two of music that lifts your mood. Play it during breaks from studying, when getting ready in the morning, or when you're eating. Music has an amazing ability to make you happier without you even doing anything, even if it's just playing in the background. Make a new playlist after you get tired of that one--I've found that a pretty big playlist will last me at least a few months on shuffle.

3. Take a Break

Breaks are very important. As a general rule, don't study for more than 45 minutes without at least a 5 minute break. I'll often extend this to 10 minutes or study for an hour then mess around for half an hour. Just because you're doing what you feel like doing doesn't mean you're wasting time. The quality of your work and your mental efficiency decrease the longer you concentrate, so taking breaks to reset your mind increase your overall quality of work and productivity. (Exceptions include large projects that involve very complex mental tasks over longer periods of time)

2. Sleep Optimization

There's a reason this is number two: it's extremely, extremely important that you get enough sleep every single night. I've experimented with all kinds of sleep habits from sleeping 4-5 hours per night to sleeping 10-12 hours per night.

The problem with too little sleep is that although you can go through the motions of the tasks you need to do (with or without caffeine) it is impossible to do quality work in a sleep-deprived state. It feels like you're getting a lot done despite your lack of sleep but when you go back and look once you've rested, the results are almost always very disappointing.

The problem with too much sleep is that it makes it difficult for you to motivate yourself and you end up getting very little done. Your body just wants to keep resting even though it's already over-rested and lying down just feels good.  Sleep for 7-8 hours per night and if you have to go as low as 6 hours one night, make up for it immediately and avoid repeating. This is a rule I don't break even if I have a big test I'm not ready for or an important task I didn't get done--I have yet to regret it and I don't think I ever will. If you have one rule for yourself that you refuse to ever violate, it should be to get 7-8 hours of sleep per night.

1. Prioritize Your Day

Prioritization is the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions.Though I would highly recommend creating a productivity system for yourself, the benefits you receive from minimal-effort prioritization willchange your life in a relatively short amount of time. Chose only one thing each day as the priority for that day--it should be the one thing you absolutely need to get done no matter what, period. Write it on something and keep it in your pocket until it's done.

Now obviously you can get more than one thing done in a day, and you almost always need to--and of course I would strongly suggest doing more than one thing in a day. But this method is helpful because it will help you show yourself what's most important to you. This is especially helpful if you're trying to figure out a sense of direction for your life. You'll start to see patterns in what you pick as the one most important thing and you'll begin to realize why that kind of thing is most important. Also, I don't want to understate that you really do get so much more done by doing this. It helps you make sure you get at least one meaningful thing done each day. After just a week and a half, you've completed 10 meaningful tasks and that's more than a lot of people do in a month--and there's no reason not to.

If getting that one thing done means you sacrifice a few less important tasks that day, it's well worth it and is a great exercise in not sweating the small stuff. It's not the end of the world if you're late in emailing someone back or running to the store if it means you finally get around to organizing your workspace like you've been meaning to for ages. A small apology to someone else for an unimportant task doesn't really compare to keeping a promise to yourself to better your life, even if it seems as small as one simple task.

If there are some things you do to keep your life together, I'd like to hear about them in the comments--it doesn't matter how trite or weird they seems. If it works, it's worth talking about.

Written by Nathan Schmitt