Sunday, November 30, 2008

Being a Social Coordinator

In the lifelong quest of working on social interactions and developing a high quality and dynamic social network, there are certain actions one can take to put them on the best path to success. Over the past few months, my friends and I have been leaders in making social events happen, that is, coordinating BBQ's and other social outings. In this process, our social network has slowly grown, and often, we are the "go-to" people for our friends who are looking to have some fun.

I propose that being a social coordinator is an important step to developing a quality social life for a couple of reasons. The first is the obvious one of having social proof. If you are the one bringing everyone together and introducing people, they will all see how many friends you have and how you know how to bring the right type of people together. This will lead to more contacts as they want to bring their other friends into the world you have helped create with them. A second reason is having flexibility with people you do not know very well. If you run into a cute acquaintance on campus or at the grocery store, it is a lot easier to say something like, "Hey, a bunch of my friends and I are having a BBQ tomorrow night and you should come. Bring your friends!" as opposed to "Hey, it was nice seeing you. We should hang out sometime." Perhaps both are ok, but it is a lot easier for people to meet up with you if it is not a 1-on-1 interaction. Additionally, you are even encouraging them to bring their own friends (guys or girls of course). Now you have people who would typically not be comfortable coming to your house because it would seem "weird", who are now comfortable with the idea. The quicker you make them comfortable with you and your surroundings, the more likely the person, especially a girl, will be comfortable enough to do other things as well.

Another important part of this idea is that you are always designing your social life yourself. You are not relying on other people to make it happen. For example, I love having BBQ's, as opposed to going to a club and spending a ton of money. It is extremely cheap to fund even for a bunch of people (and people are usually willing to bring beer and other stuff). I can have steaks, corn, and potatoes for 6 people for around $20, which is a small price to pay for an ever expanding social network, as well as a good time and good food. By designing your own events, this gives you power to show people new types of things. For example, we have our BBQ's in the back of my friend's parent's house. It is not the coolest place in the world to go to...until people actually come and have a great time. I am pretty sure every one who has ever been to one of our BBQ's has come at least twice.

This process of being the social coordinator has an upward spiral effect. By showing you are someone who can take action and be a leader, you are portraying yourself as strong person, which will only make people want to be with you more. The only downside of being a social coordinator as it is simply not possible to start at zero. You need to have a least one or two other really good friends to be your partners. If you have one or two fun guys around and you start inviting a bunch of people, eventually people will starting taking a bite, and they will likely want to keep biting.

Sunday, November 16, 2008


People often talk about finding the right balance in life between work, socializing, romance, and other aspects of life. In practice, however, this can be very difficult to achieve. I tend to be an extremely focused person, and I find it very difficult to switch modes from working to socializing.

Lately, I have been in an extreme work mode. I have done nothing but research, programming, and other studies. Nonetheless, in an effort to strike a balance, I started making some more efforts to hang out with friends. This has quickly caused a change in my interests and priorities. I find it very difficult to have the psychological strength to focus on studying and programming while wanting to be social or interact with girls. For this reason, I find a proper balance very hard to achieve.

There may be hope however. To get things done and achieve, it has been shown that extreme focus is very valuable. Trying to incorporate some studying AND socializing into every day of the week will likely cause too much distraction for one or the other. So perhaps, it is best to entirely focus on studying and other intellectual pursuits during the week, and ONLY focus on socializing and fun stuff like watching movies or playing games during the weekend. If you have the strength, the commitment to this type of schedule may allow you to be extremely productive during the week while maximizing your social interactions on the weekend.

This schedule is in an effort to minimize the effects of a cyclic psychology. While it may seem tough to batch your time in such a way, it is important to remember that working for a whole week will likely increase the chances of obtaining flow in your work which will make you not care as much about socializing anyway. Also, knowing that you are committed to a schedule will make you feel pressure to capitalize on your time. The important thing is not to see the week as a sacrifice, with the reward of the weekend. As your work becomes a flow experience, your week should be just as rewarding as your weekend. It will be interesting to see if one can successfully implement this and find themselves enjoying and being more successful in both their work and social life.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Motivation

Motivation to do all the things we want to do in life is often very hard to obtain. Sometimes external factors help us obtain the motivation, but it would be much more convenient if the motivation came purely from within. Doing research and not having many external factors like tests or homework assignments can vastly slow down progress and significantly reduce effort. Ultimately, if you are doing the things you really want to do, motivation should not be too hard, but even then, it can be.

As an example, I am taking a programming class and learning many things I legitimately really want to learn. Yet, every time we have an assignment I dread starting on it. However, the fact that I am getting a grade and have due dates for the assignments forces me to start. Once started, I usually thoroughly enjoy the assignments. However, the external motivation of the class is essential to make me work on the project and ultimately obtain flow from the challenge of the assignment. I surely would not have learned as much as I have in such a quick time without the course.

It is easy to be motivated to work when external factors are involved and the work is consistent with your overall goals. However, when there are no external factors it becomes much tougher. For example, I told myself I would finish writing a paper on my research by the end of the week and gave myself two weeks to accomplish it. I actually finished it in just over one week, which helps to explain part of the problem. It is extremely difficult to assess the challenge and time frame associated with self-imposed goals. Therefore, you really have no idea when to set the deadline. I finished my paper in about 10 days but actually could have easily finished it within 7. However, if I had vastly underestimated the difficulty of my task, I would not have met my goal. But what would have been the consequence? Nothing. I think this is why a lot of people recommend people make their goals public so that if they do not complete them, they suffer the embarrassment, but I do not think I am too affected by embarrassment.

I am really not sure what the solution is to keep one motivated. It certainly helps to be working on things you care about, but even then, I find myself working at a prodding pace without the external motivation factors. Certainly a coherent incentive environment would be valuable for this situation but this type of environment will not always be available.

Another thing I have noticed about motivation, at least for me personally, is the motivation to do something physical like exercising is much easier to do than something mental like programming or something social like going to a bar. Perhaps this is something I have just trained my body to crave. Nonetheless, I can always make it to the gym to exercise. It is obviously much more mindless than doing mental work or being social and perhaps this is the draw of it. I am curious to see if any studies have been done to see how people's motivation change to do physical or mental work as well as the motivation to be social. The explanation may just be that I really have trained myself and have forgotten the pain period when I was first getting started. Maybe it really is possible to make a schedule for doing intense work, exercise, and socializing. However, it is just too easy to ignore any of these things. There has to be a way to make it easier. Any ideas?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Imposter Syndrome

I went to a seminar today which was for grad students who felt inadequate academically. Either they did not feel as smart as their peers, felt like they could not contribute to their research, or just generally felt uncomfortable as a grad student. I have felt these feelings before and was curious to get a sense of what other graduate students felt. This is what I learned about the "Imposter Syndrome."

There were essentially two types of grad students in the seminar, those who were doing research and those who did not. Those who did not complained about how their professors were mean and how they often felt embarrassed due to a lack of knowledge. People doing research felt similar concerns, but in a different way. Either their research was too open ended, or they felt like they were not contributing something important to it. While listening to the other graduate students, it made me think how essentially all of these problems related to the fundamental lack of flow in graduate school.

One girl doing research said that she barely sees her adviser and feels like her work is unimportant. She mentioned how she has no feedback and no clear goals. This is certainly not a conducive situation for a flow experience, but this is, however, often the nature of research. In my own research, I have often wasted weeks and even months on problems which end up not having a real solution or some inconclusive results. This leads to long periods of uncertainty and frustration, often with feelings that I am wasting my life or not doing anything important. I actually suggested to this girl to consider writing pedagogical papers on the topics she is studying. While these may not be productive in the dog-eat-dog research world, by having produced something, it would likely help her cope with her lack of feedback and well defined goals. In general, if you can small chunk a big project into pieces, it is much better than always obsessing over the end result.

Many people commented on feel the lack of a sense of belonging or community. Grad school and especially research can be an incredibly lonely and isolating experience. This can lead to even more intense feelings of inadequacy due to the natural tendency of people thinking everyone else is doing well while they are doing poorly. One graduate student expressed how he simply could not do the homework for one class. However, he had not even tried to work with other students. While I barely talk to the people in my study group from my first year from grad school anymore, I fondly look back on it as a fight we went through together and succeeded in. However, once people stop taking classes and go their separate ways, it is hard to find a good grup of people who you can relate with.

The counselors at the meeting encouraged people to try to maintain a good balance between work and social. I challenged this and said that because graduate students are usually extremely focused people, it is often not really possible to switch from one mode to the other, that is, to go from working hard on extremely analytical problems (many of the students were scientists and engineers), to going in to a "normal" social mode. It is not surprising that many scientists are not extremely social. What they do does not access the same parts of the brain that helps in social situations. Therefore, it is really challenging to maintain a real balance. It is easy to write down on a planner time for work and time for play, but it is a much greater challenge to be mindful of both.

So what did I learn from this seminar? There are a lot of grad students who identified a lot of problems similar to what I and my friends have felt. Many of these are related to the lack of flow in grad school. Especially while doing research, there is generally little to no feedback and the challenge is often unknown or too great. There is also the problem with upward comparison, in the sense that many are surrounded by brilliant people all the time who are experts in the field. In fact, as soon as I left the seminar, I went to a meeting with my adviser and a postdoc, where they essentially talked about something for two hours which I understood very little about. I do not even have any real direction to obtain that understanding. It can be very tough psychologically to ignore these types of things. I think grad school can potentially be a very rewarding experience, but it will take some fundamental changes in the way professors view their students, in both classes and research, as well as many personal changes with the grad student himself.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Powering a Tech Startup: Part 1

Starting a business can be one of the most exciting undertakings, but also one of the most treacherous. There are so many challenges requiring incredible psychological strength to conquer. There may be a great cost in terms of time and money, but potentially a great reward in the form of a successful business and financial freedom. With this said, it is probably not worth it to spend 20 years working on a business before it becomes successful. This would likely be way too emotionally and physically taxing, and it would most probably not maximize life quality. Trying to decide what is the best path to starting a business while maintaining your motivation and psychology is tough in and of itself. This is the focus of this article.

Most successful companies do not start out with the exact idea which ultimately makes them successful. With that said, it is important to work on projects which lead you on the path to coming up with these sort of ideas. It is extremely important to not be too idealistic when coming up with short term business goals and projects. The process of staying on the right path to success is made much easier with a coherent incentive environment, where you are living with your friends and business partners. This is almost like a support network to keep each other motivated and focused on the business's goals. It is probably good to have a mix of 2 to 4 individuals with varying degrees of practicality and idealism. If everyone is too idealistic, the chances of success are very small as you try to take on the biggest, most interesting projects. Save those for later. If the group is too practical, the group will fall into the trap of only looking for projects which will bring money and will potentially end up not even enjoying the process as well as not being successful. Certainly, there will always be problems which everyone will not always want to work on all the time. This brings me to the next point.

I believe it is very important to maintain at least a part time job throughout the beginnings of the startup. Most likely, it is best to have a full-time job in the initial brainstorming stages. This will ensure that you are bringing in capital which will be necessary to fund the startup as well as providing a coherent incentive environment for keeping up with working on projects, even if they are externally motivated. I think it would be extremely difficult to just jump right in to making your startup a full time job for a few reasons. There WILL be periods where you have no ideas and are unsure of what to study or work on. This can easily cause severe motivation problems and as you see you are accomplishing nothing, will severely hurt your morale. However, with the external motivation imposed on you while having a job, this will provide some structure for being somewhat productive at least. As long as your job is some sort of tech job, you will always be learning something which may be useful in the long run. Without a job, it might be much more difficult to convince yourself to keep learning if it does not seem immediately useful.

It is probably best to maintain a full-time job at first and have regular discussions with your business partners. This is the brainstorming stage, and it may take a while. Once a reasonable plan for action is decided upon, it might be good to scale back your work to part time. I definitely do not think this is the stage to quit though. Having a tech job really does help to provide a coherent incentive environment for furthering your education and abilities. At this stage, it really needs to start becoming something you are actively working on though. Paul Graham, founder of Viaweb, a piece of software which allowed users to found their own Internet stores, wrote an article about startups found here. Here are the main points:
  • three most important components of a tech startup are good people, making something people want, and spending as little money as possible
  • look at something people are trying to do, and figure out how to do it in a way that doesn't suck
  • try to work with "animals", say to yourself "so-and-so is an animal", if it doesn't make you laugh, then they might be good people to work with
  • work with smart people who still know how to say "i don't know"
  • 2 to 4 founders is the best
  • get version 1 out ASAP (as my friend Chris from home said "don't focus on getting the Pulitzer prize right away!" while working on a writing project)
  • worth trying very very hard to make technology easy to use
  • go to trade shows
  • ask "what do people who are not like you want from technology?" (not everyone knows computers and technology like us!)
  • think in terms of niche markets (at least initially)
  • one of the most valuable things you can do is find a middle-sized non-technology company and spend a couple weeks just watching what they do with computers (you can make it easier)
  • focus on smaller markets and companies initially
  • If you build the simple, inexpensive option, you'll not only find it easier to sell at first, but you'll also be in the best position to conquer the rest of the market.
  • consulting companies can be self funded, but it may be hard to switch to a product company
  • most angel investors just expect a brief description of what you plan to do and how you're going to make money from it, and the resumes of the founders
  • when you set up the company, as well as as apportioning the stock, you should get all the founders to sign something agreeing that everyone's ideas belong to this company, and that this company is going to be everyone's only job (once you get to this stage). While you're at it, you should ask what else they've signed. One of the worst things that can happen to a startup is to run into intellectual property problems.
  • focus on being good at what you do (dollars follow value principle), advertising the brand relentlessly means your product may be lacking (word of mouth is always the best advertising)
  • listen to users, smart users will tell you exactly how to make a winning product, focus on users and not advertisers
  • be as cheap as possible, work in apartment
  • don't hire anyone
Paul Graham's article contains a lot of practical advice, but it only touches on the psychological aspects of starting a business. I think a cyclic psychology is one of the biggest roadblocks to staying focused on your goals. In my own experience, there is a constant oscillation between wanting to be social and wanting to work. Unfortunately, my line of work is not really consistent with the type of mindset I need to be social, so they are almost mutually exclusive. When by yourself, it is extremely easy to feel beaten down by problems which are difficult, which in my experience, can lead to feelings of frustration and loneliness. By having your friends and business partners near, this can provide a stable feedback loop to dampen the oscillations in your psychology. This would have tremendous practical benefits. For example, if one of the business members has a really good weekend with a woman, he may lose focus and want to start being too social. The other members, however, can help him to stay focused on the goals and stabilize his psychology.

To summarize, I think a coherent incentive environment with your friends and business partners as well as a part-time tech job are important practical measures on the road to success. It is important to focus on short term realistic goals and to have positive feedback loops within the coherent incentive environment to maintain a reasonable psychological state.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Drug

Human connection and interaction are fundamental needs for the average person, but when do these interactions become addictions? The "drug" is the approval that one feels from the opposite sex. The reason why this is called the "drug" is because it has many of the same addictive traits and short term benefits of drug usage.

It is a natural human desire to want affection, but it is not desirable to be in a position where you mood is extremely dependent on the way others react to you. I often find that my mood is like a roller coaster, high when a girl is giving me attention, and low when I seem to have none or one flakes on me. After a tough break up, people always say to go out and meet people or find a rebound, but this is just feeding the addiction. This may cause severe psychological disruption and can lead to periods of sadness and lessened productivity, especially if you fail. The goal is to obtain as stable of a psychology as possible, and one that is most consistent with your long term goals. This is simply not achievable when your mood is too attached to the approval of the opposite sex or other people in general. So how do we deal with the "drug"?

Probably the best way to deal with it is to dry out from it once you sense your addiction, especially if what is causing the addiction is an unstable situation such as a series of short term relationships with girls. It is certainly not advisable to avoid women for too long. I believe that sharing your life and spending time with the opposite sex is a good thing. However, when you realize you are going from one "druggy" interaction to another, this might be the time to stop yourself and focus on your own life more. This means focusing on your work or on a business or on your personal health. The approval of the opposite sex can be indeed like a drug, and it is important to be aware of this and focus on making yourself happy and content from things YOU have control over. I think this will ultimately lead to a happier life, and you'll be better prepared to effectively handle yourself when you really do meet someone who you'll care about.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Living in the Moment

John Lennon said that "life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." How often in the past few years have you felt as if you were living in the moment? By this, I mean that you were acutely aware of what you were experiencing from your senses and your mind's interpretation at that exact moment, not even partially thinking at all about the past or the future. If you were working on a project, were you thinking about the end result, or were you absorbed into the actual work you were doing? If you were spending time with a beautiful woman, were you actually engaged into the experiences of being with her, or were you absorbed into thinking about what might happen in the future, whether it be sex or even marriage. I often find that it is hard to live in the moment, and be absorbed into every moment as if it was your last. I think that figuring out how to live in the moment is possibly the key to long term happiness and fulfillment.

With this said, it would probably not be smart to be totally spontaneous all the time and have no long term goals. Most people's goals and motivations fluctuate all the time, and it would become very tough to just act on any emotion you are feeling at the moment. What I mean by living in the moment is that, coupled with a general long term plan for fulfillment, you put yourself in a position to achieve your general goals, and then absorb yourself in the steps to get there. If your goal is to start a business, do not think about the riches you will potentially make, first find a project you love and would want to do even if you made no money, and money will likely follow. I find that often people work so hard to achieve some goal in a sacrificial manner, that is by not living in the moment, and then when they achieve their goals, there is no satisfaction, just the desire to develop newer goals so they might one day be happy. Certainly many people have become successful financially this way, but how many of them are truly happy?

Living in the moment is related to the concept of flow, which is a state of "optimal experience" characterized by a task or experience being possible, having clear goals and immediate feedback. People describe these experience as ones in which they lose a sense of time and are extremely focused. Ideally, every experience I partake in would have this type of feeling associated with it. There are a few things to do to make flow experiences in your everyday life more possible. Probably one of the main ways to achieve flow, at least in activities done by yourself, is to eliminate unnecessary distractions such as cell phones, email, online news websites, and other pesky people. If you are devoting any mental effort to thinking about these things, it will be very easy to fall out of a state of flow. All of these distractions are related to the actions of others. We only have control over ourselves. It is easier said than done to remove your expectations and thoughts of others, and this is related to the idea of result detachment. Another way to develop a state of flow is to go a little bit deeper into things. Sometimes topics seem so boring until you give it a chance. With a little bit of extra concentration, it is probably possible to make almost anything interesting and be on your way to achieving a true state of flow.

Living in the moment is appreciating what you have right now, not thinking about what you wish you had or what made you happy in the past. With this said, how often is it that you remember a time in the past and look back on it with a new found affection that you did not feel while actually going through the experience? Nostalgia will do this. Any time you wish you had more or think about the future, think about what you already have; your friends, your family, your work, but most importantly yourself. It really is wonderful to be alive. In today's modern society, we can fulfill our basic needs with very little money and effort. Simplifying your life is another step to living in the moment. Once you realize that you can have everything you need with so little effort, any other prizes we might get in the future are just a bonus. Because we have to worry so little about those needs for the future, we really can live much more in the moment.

Much of the world lately has seemed to become obsessed with ruthless efficiency, trying to figure out how to optimize every aspect of life. I recently had lunch with a friend, and I felt the only reason she was having lunch with me was simply to keep up with me just enough so that we would not totally drift away. Rather than enjoying her time and being more in the moment, it was just a plan for the future. Sometimes it is good to take on less so you can focus more. Why spend time with a million people who may matter to you in the future, rather than spending time with a few who matter to you now. Tell these people how much they mean to you. Let them know you care. With that said, I really do believe nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell. Seek these stories out when you are interacting with others. Some people are good story tellers and others are not. Keep the ones you can really be in the moment with, and do not worry about the people you meet who are negative or do not know how to tell their story.

Living in the moment is sometimes slowing down your life. Why rush through the morning walk to work thinking about how much you wish it was over and you were already at your desk? It is incredible what you can observe every day if you really look. Become someone who really has a passion for life. Change your routine. Seek adventure sometimes even if it means a loss in efficiency. Conquer the things you always wanted to take on, but be careful to not take them all on at the same time! I recently started really teaching myself how to swim. What have you always wanted to learn how to do? Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the process of learning is the part to enjoy, not just thinking about the end result. What would we be the point of becoming a world class swimmer like Michael Phelps if you did not enjoy the process each and every step of the way? Most big achievements do not happen overnight.

I believe that living in the moment is one of the most important concepts on the road to long term life quality maximization. It is the definition of the spicy lifestyle. Next time you find yourself rushing through something, slow down, close your eyes, take a long, deep breath, and appreciate what you are experiencing right there and at that very moment. Hopefully you will find that you are beginning to appreciate the true spiciness of life.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


I have noticed that many articles online on various news websites and blogs contain lists, whether it is the 5 steps to take to simplify your life or the 15 ways to get motivated. These are appealing to people for a couple of reasons. They are sort of like a Cliff's Notes version of the relevant content of the article, thus one can read it more quickly. More importantly however, I think lists are a way for the reader to turn their mind off. If some authority (whether that person is really an authority or just someone who has is popular) gives you the steps you need to take, it is appealing to think about how if you take those steps, you will achieve whatever the goal is. This is easier said than done.

Why is it that so many lists and books which contain algorithms are so popular, but rarely change people's lives? For example, many of the "get rich" books are top sellers and readers praise them. I bet that most of them are not millionaires, and I bet nearly all of them have really applied anything in the book to their lives. There is some psychological appeal to having the nice pretty little list so that when you get around to it eventually, you'll have all the info you need. The important thing is to actually think about the list, and if it is worthwhile, apply it. Again, this is easier said than done, but I am sure there is list somewhere on how to get motivated...

Monday, September 1, 2008

Different Standards for Different People

It seems that a spicy lifestyler would ideally surround him or herself with other spicy lifestylers. Obviously, this is not always possible, and indeed, many non spicy-lifestylers are certainly worth getting to know, like many attractive women, for example. Certainly it is reasonable to maintain cordial and friendly relationships with religious people and liberals and other non spicy-lifestylers but how reasonable is it to have a long term, perhaps even romantic, relationship with someone who is so different?

Most of the women I have encountered are religious, liberal in some way, and have other inconsistent beliefs and value systems. They want expensive clothes to impress their friends, and likely want to have a big car and house shortly after getting married. It is hard for me to decide if I should accept this for what it is and even play along to some extent or if I should completely try to change their philosophy. This has been a constant debate among spicy lifestylers. Should we expose everyone we meet to the idea of the spicy lifestyle, which says that "the fundamental goal in life is to maximize expected subjective life quality, in a system that permits freedom by minimizing the initiation of force, and without the burden of religious dogmatism?"

I would tend to think that the answer to this question is "yes" but only for people who you have already established some rapport and social consequences with. For the average person, it is probably best to hide some of the aspects of it as many people just are not ready for it. It is especially important to not talk too much about religion as this is one of the most irrational and emotional subjects which will likely make the other person uncomfortable. It is not always clear how open we can be with a new person, and this skill requires calibration of the individual, which can sometimes be very tough.

Let's move on to the next question. Assuming that we have become romantic or very close with a non-spicy lifestyler, should we make compromises to our principles for their own good? For example, if your siginificant other is religious and they really want you to go to church with them, should you? This is a really tough question. It seems so hypocritical to condone something such as religion, and, in fact, it may even be unlikely to get close enough to someone who is so religious, but is it worth hurting their feelings or causing them emotional distress becuase you are not supporting them? This is once again something that is vey tough to decide on. All in all, it is probably best to be as tolerant as possible to the differences of others. If you value the person enough for their other qualities, it may even be in your best interest to go along with some of their irrational behavior. It is good to use your mind on most things, but when dealing with other people, our genetic programming and emotions have some value as well.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Living Below Your Means

Graduate students do not get paid very much. However, a grad student's stipend is more than enough money to go out all the time and buy a lot of nice stuff. My friend argues that there is no reason to save any money during grad school because once we have "real" jobs, the money we have in grad school will be a trivial amount. While this may be true, the psychological consequences of spending every cent available to you may severe. Many people seem to spend all of their money (and maybe even more) no matter how much money they make. If your goal is to start a business after school, you may want to get a job first to get some start up capital. If you are someone who will end up spending all of your money, then you won't have any start up capital and you will likely not have enough guts to quit your job. Your place in the rat race will now be secure.

Let's consider the grad student who lives below his means on purpose. It really is possible to live, even in an expensive place like Southern California, on less than $15000 a year. This gives the average graduate student perhaps $5000 per year to spend on whatever they want, whether it is good food or lots of alcohol or lots of electronics. Now, $5000 likely will be trivial if you get a job making say $80000 a year, but figuring out how to live and enjoy your life on less than 1/5 of that amount is extremely valuable life experience. Let's think amount the minimal subset of luxury items that a spicy lifestyler would want to have a fulfilling life. My list would probably look something like this:

1. Computer
2. Camera Equipment
3. Cell Phone
4. Book or two to read

These items are in addition to standard things such as a bed, desk, clothes, food, internet access, etc. Think carefully about what your minimal subset of items is and if it has more than 5 or 10 items, it is likely too big. While it may not be entirely necessary to make your possessions as small as your minimal subset list, it is worth knowing how much you require to maintain or have an awesome lifestyle. Try to convince yourself that no matter what happens, you will never starve, and you will have an awesome life no matter what. Internalizing this notion will probably make you feel more free than you have ever felt before.

I think the benefits of living a simple lifestyle far outweigh the cost of living slightly less comfortably and having fewer possessions to show off. Having fewer possessions will allow you to be more mobile should you choose to move to a different location, will provide less stress because more possessions usually just make people worry more, and also will give you more money for doing things which will really lead to long term life quality maximization.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Coping with Choice

I was recently in the market for a new computer. During this process, I was faced with a lot of choices. Should I buy a laptop or a desktop? If I buy a laptop, should I get a small one or a big one? For my laptop, which screen resolution should I choose? Additionally, should I search around and wait until I find a really good deal, or should I just try to buy something quickly that meets my needs? These choices caused a lot of anxiety and indecision for me. If I bought the wrong thing, I could experience buyer's remorse and feel as if I should take it back or sell it and search for something new. This is not a desirable situation.

The potential regret is not the only problem however. With all the choices and options, I end up wasting a lot of time searching online forums seeing if others could offer further information, as well as sitting at my desk thinking about what I should choose. If one values their time at all, certainly the price of many purchases is upped by this factor. Why is it that I and many others get so stressed in making decisions? Perhaps this video on can offer some incite on this issue.

This video touches on some of the interesting psychological aspects of having many options and the speaker tells of things we have probably all felt before and can relate with. Being indecisive can cause one to have very slow progress in any type of endeavor, whether it is learning a new topic or maybe even starting a business. It is important that one learns how to act with resolve and confidence, and not have regrets and worry about something they cannot control or something which is in the past. On the other hand, it is certainly important to not be entirely impulsive all time time either. Nonetheless, the more time you spend trying to decide what to study, what to buy, what to do lessens the time you have to actually do something productive and enjoy your life. It is important to quickly assess the situation and make a decision that is consistent enough with your value system. Notice that I do not say it is perfectly consistent, just consistent enough. So next time you need to buy something online, spend a little time researching the product, find a reasonable deal, and make the purchase and forget about it. You might have saved a few dollars if you search harder or waited longer, but be happy in knowing that you are not wasting your time for money that you will likely never need or care about.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Psychological Consequences of Alcohol

Consuming alcohol is something so engrained in American culture and many other cultures that it is almost synonymous with hanging out with friends, watching sports, or enjoying an evening. It is the default decision for what to do on a Friday night for millions of people. Let's examine why this is, and more importantly, why does it seem so impossible for people to do without something which is known to be so harmful to one's health.

Alcohol has been called "liquid courage"; it is a substance which can make people more relaxed, more social, and more outgoing. What is the psychological block though that does not allow people to be this way without it? Perhaps it is a result of the link between fear and maturity. This basically says that as people become older, they lose their hopes and dreams as hundreds of factors such as making money, becoming popular, finding mates, and simply wanting to fit in become important. As a little kid, we all thought we could do anything and be anyone. Little kids talk to everyone they meet and seem to be the most social creatures on the planet. We smile and enjoy this behavior from children but why not from the adult who likes to interact with everyone. Why is it that so many times I interact with someone I have never met, they seem to, at least initially, wonder why the hell I would be talking to them? Surely, they must have lost something from when they were a child. Alcohol is the "cure" for this behavior. When people are drinking, they seem to be more social, more outgoing, and more accepting of new people. Alcohol is a lot of fun, right? So what is wrong with this?

Alcohol is often used as a crutch for someone to be social. It can be an excuse for lacking real personality and real social skills. It can be very fun with friends, making your emotions more intense, for the better or for the worse, but the long term effects of this may be that you desire alcohol more often and lose the ability to have fun sober. I am speculating that while the short term effects of drinking alcohol may be great in terms of the fun you had with friends or random strangers, the long term costs of losing the ability to have sober fun may not be worth it. Alcohol is a way to escape reality, a way to make almost any situation fun, but shouldn't we have the ability to do this through the power of our own mind and personality? In fact, why would we want to escape reality to begin with? Life is so interesting; there is always more to learn and new people to meet. If our normal life is something we need to escape, well then shouldn't we change our normal life? So next time you are faced with the decision of whether to drink, examine your motivations, recognize the psychological consequences, and then decide on whether it is worth it or not. You may find that it is worth it less than you think, which will put you on the road to have a more powerful and engaging personality.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Discovering Independence

I just got off the phone with my long-distance girlfriend and I realized something- I am not Howard Roark. Howard Roark is a character in Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead". He is an architect, who above all else, is an independent entity. His emotions are not tied to anyone or anything, only himself and his work. Being a graduate student is a potentially incredibly lonely and isolating experience. It is important to discover the ability to be alone.

Despite all the people I have met and all the people I know, I am often alone, and now, more than ever since my girlfriend has moved away. Realizing tonight that my mood is partly a function of her mood made me realize as I said before, I am not Howard Roark. Is being completely independent a totally desirable mode? It is hard to identify this because we are certainly not programmed to be this way by our genes. Being independent has it costs and benefits. It is good to know how to take care of oneself, but at the same time, we can learn from others and share with others for mutual benefit. My genes tell me one thing but my mind tells me another. Which do I listen to?

In this case, it is important to listen to both. It is essentially super human to be completely void of any emotion associated with anyone else. We must accept this and move on and not strive to be Ayn Rand's ideal that is Howard Roark. However, at the same time, it is important to use our rational mind to identify why one is feeling the way he or she is and to understand it. In the case of being alone, it can be distracting and depressing, causing one to feel self-loathing and lack of motivation. A simple call from a friend may completely turn you around. Knowing that another person in the world is thinking about you may make you feel temporary happiness. The medical term for extreme cases of this is bipolar disorder. It is important to try to figure out how to make these emotions as moderate as possible since we are not interested simply in temporary happiness, but long term fulfillment. Something that helps me, for example, is doing what I am doing right now, which is writing about it.

It is hard offer a prescription or a method on how to deal with being alone. This is not my intention. Nonetheless, learning to be alone is something which is crucial if you are a graduate student. A person who is mostly independent will likely find that more people want to be around him or her, and he or she will quickly appreciate so much the thing that they were trying to originally escape: being alone.

Friday, June 13, 2008

What Every Grad Student Needs to Study

Graduate school can be a very trying time, emotionally and physically. There are often extended bouts of work with long hours as well as bouts of loneliness and trying to understand ones motivations. The emotional stress can be the most difficult to push through. It is essential for every graduate student to understand exactly why he or she is doing what they are doing, as well as to understand how what they are doing will ultimately lead to enhanced life quality.

In addition to whatever the graduate student researches, he or she must study evolutionary psychology and philosophy. These topics are very important to having a truth based understanding of the world, and ultimately lead to a more fulfilling existence. Anyone who bases their morality, philosophy, or thoughts on concepts like religion and mysticism will likely end up having some sort of psychological damage. Religion is full of contradictions, and trying to cope with these and their impact on your life while trying to be a productive graduate student will be very difficult. If you are religious, try this prescription for freeing yourself from religion (credit goes to cspice):

Have a conversation with "god". Tell him that you have never seen proof or felt any aspect of his existence (as no one ever has; there are always scientific applications for the feelings that people get when they pray, or near death experiences, etc). Additionally, since he "made" you as the logical, rational person you are, he knows that you could never believe in anything without objective proof. Therefore, it is actually impossible for you to believe in anything supernatural, i.e. god, Jesus as the son of God, etc. So, tell god that unless he gives you objective proof of his existence in the next month, you will stop going to church and being religious in any way, and, additionally, god cannot punish you for this because you are just acting in your nature.

Hopefully, you are on your way to being free from religion now. It is important, and indeed, right, to be a logical, rational person. But anyway, why should we study these things?

I would recommend starting by studying evolution. Science is important for the logical thinking person to study in general, but studying evolution has a special purpose. It helps us to understand people. No matter what anyone will say, no one in this world is completely autonomous. We must deal with people. My recommendation to start on evolution would be to read Richard Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene". While this book can sometimes be somewhat tedious and boring, it is very useful for providing a working model of evolution to the average person. The basic idea of the book is that a gene which is ruthlessly selfish will propagate. This is almost self-evident, but the implications can be very interesting. Understanding evolution will help you to understand yourself and why you feel certain ways. Additionally, it will give you a working model for understanding the actions of other people. This leads to studying psychology. Psychology, in its proper form, is the practical application of evolution to the human species, in addition to cultural, non-evolutionary effects. As a graduate student who interacts with a lot of people, you will face many who are irrational and chaotic. You may, at times, blame their behavior on yourself, and sometimes it is your fault, but if you know anything about psychology, particularly evolutionary psychology, you might understand their actions a little better. By studying evolution and psychology, you are going to have a leg up on the average person in understanding your own motivations and actions as well as those of others. My book recommendation here is "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley. It is actually not really necessary to study empircal models for psychology or any non-evolutionary approach as this does not lead to greatly enhanced understanding, and is much less unified and objective than the evolutionary approach.

Finally, we need to tie all of this together into forming your own personal philosophy. It is important to be exposed to the concepts of objectivism. I would recommend, above all other books, to read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged". This book has changed my life and helped me to understand my motivations more than anything else. The way I describe the philosophy is that it is a prescription "to love your own life". There are many resources online to read about objectivism, but I recommend reading the book above all else. As an example, I used to be someone who was afraid to "take up space in the world." I saw myself as someone who was weak, and felt grateful if anyone spent time with me. As a graduate student, we are particularly prone to this feeling because we are in a totally different situation than so many of the other people in the world. However, after understanding the value of my own life, I no longer feel this in any way. My confidence has increased 10-fold, and I now have strong convictions and goals rather than just floating through my life and taking what table scraps I can find. If I see anyone who is depressed or lonely, I recommend for them to read "Atlas Shrugged".

I cannot fully explain why it is so important to study these things, but hopefully I have convinced you that these three books are worthwhile. We face a lot of challenges as graduate students but questioning ourselves and subjecting ourselves to the whims of others should not be one of them. By studying evolutionary psychology and philosophy, the graduate student will have a better understanding of the world, feel more motivated than ever, and have a more fulfilling lifestyle.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Eating Really Does Cost About $100/month

In response to the skepticism associated with my claim that it is possible to eat for less than $100/month, I have done some further research. Cspice said that I would to get about 400 calories per dollar. Consider the following 5-day food list:

  1. $2 Yogurt - 960 calories
  2. $2.50 Milk - 1440 calories
  3. $2.50 Cereal (Honey Bunches of Oats) - 2210 calories
Lunch and Mini Meals
  1. $1 Spaghetti (Barilla) - 1600 calories
  2. $1.50 Spaghetti Sauce - 420 calories
  3. $2.50 Bananas (10) - 1000 calories
  4. $0.50 Carrots (5) - 150 Calories
  1. $3.50 Hamburgers 1/2 lb. (6) - 1500 calories
  2. $2.00 Chicken Thighs (2) - 240
  3. $0.32 Brown Rice (4 cups) - 800
This gives 10320 calories spread over 5 days to give 2064 calories a day. The total cost for all of this food is $18.32. Multiply this times 6 to fill up a 30 day month and our total cost for food is $109.90. This is really close to the $100 I claimed previously. It is important to note a few things about this list. The prices given are the best sale prices seen at my local grocery store (which come to find out is pretty over priced for my area) in the past month. Also, a few of the items like milk and yogurt last for longer than 5 days, typically around 7 days. Regardless, our monthly total is right around $100. Nonetheless, this is a theoretical minimum, and even though I do, and have been eating like this for the past year while maintaining my body weight and health, it is probably not recommended for everyone. Also, this does not consider any dining out costs that a spicy lifestyler will probably do with friends every once in a while. Eat out once by yourself though, and you are going to be way over $100/month. In the past year or so, I have trained myself to enjoy the foods listed on a regular basis. My diet and health are better than ever. I trimmed the fat on my body while fattening up my wallet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Living Well with Less Money than a Prisoner

On the bus this morning, I was reading the book "Freakonomics" by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, and took notice to a part of the book that said that each prisoner in the United States costs $25,000 a year for living expenses, etc. Consider now that the average graduate student makes less than $20,000 a year. Does this mean that the only way a graduate student can survive is to live like a prisoner or take out huge loans to supplement their stipend? Absolutely not. For me, not only does my stipend provide enough for my living costs, but also allows me to fund expensive hobbies like photography and world travel. I assure you that $20,000 is more than enough to live on, no matter where you live.

Let's consider the basic costs of a graduate student.
  1. Shelter
  2. Bills
  3. Food
The cost of shelter will depend highly on the area in which you live. However, I will say that there are always deals to be had. I live in a townhouse with 4 other people. It can be crowded and somewhat noisy sometimes, but what grad student really spends very much time in his or her house? We want to seek adventure and that often is not found at home. Find the cheapest place you can in a safe neighborhood close to your school so you can use public transportation or a bike. Driving a car to school and paying for parking should only be a last resort. This is a BIG time and money sink. And besides, riding on the bus is a great place to read books and meet people.

Bills are often pretty unavoidable, but identify which ones you can eliminate. How often do you really watch cable? We can't avoid electricity bills, but you can always save by not using the air or heat unless you have to, turning off the computer at night, and generally being conservative. We live in a time of environmentalism, but the best thing to cause people to conserve has and always will be pure economics. Using electricity costs me money, therefore, I will ration appropriately. The cell phone is pretty important to keep up with your soon to be very active and rewarding social life, so we probably don't want to eliminate that. Keep the Internet too so you can read my blog!

Food is really the way to save money. When is the last time you ate out by yourself or bought food at the lunch court at your school? For most of you, probably very recently. This is a totally unnecessary cost and if you think about it, probably provides little or no value to your life. I am probably an extreme example, but trust me when I say that lunch can be had for an entire week for less than $5. That is much less than the $7 or so many spend per day on lunch to eat alone and waste time waiting for people to prepare it. Consider spending $35 a week on food at school. Multiply that times 50 and that is $1750 a year for just lunch. We can easily make your lunch bill 1/4 of that number. Here is what I do.

A pound of spaghetti costs about $1 at the store and the sauce costs about $1.50. Cook the spaghetti and put it in Tupperware without the sauce on it. Now everyday at lunch you can just microwave some spaghetti and pour some sauce on it. It is easy and delicious. I have been eating like this for lunch for the past 6 months and still look forward to it. This can be supplemented with eating fruits and vegetables throughout the day. I prefer bananas, oranges, and whole carrots. It may sound crazy to eat the same thing for 6 months straight but you can get used to it really quickly. I am sure there are plenty of other cheap alternatives too. Also, do not worry about getting enough food. I am over 6 feet tall and nearly 200 lbs so you will probably eat less. Either way though, it is important to bring your lunch rather than waste time and money going to the cafeteria. I love my cheap efficient diet, but it is also important to know when you can cheat. Having dinner or lunch with a friend every once in a while is a great way to network and develop important relationships with people. Interacting with interesting people is one the most important aspects of a spicy lifestyle. Again, the important thing here is to identify what you really value. Food to me, most of the time, is simply a way to sustain my healthy life. However, when I am enjoying a meal with a friend or group of friends I can really appreciate food so much more. Identify the money leaks in your food budget and eliminate them.

Here is an approximate sample budget for me for a single month:
  1. Rent - $475
  2. Electricty and Internet - $50
  3. Food -$100
  4. Car Insurance and Phone - $125
  5. Gas - $75
My nominal expenses for a month are around $825. I could probably figure out how to make this even less, but regardless, this leave me around $1000 every month to spend or save as I please. How else could I buy thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment or spends thousands a year travelling. These are the things that cost lots of money but greatly enhance my life quality. However, many aspects of a spicy lifestyle are free or much cheaper.

Life is not all about penny pinching and worrying about money. However, it is important to eliminate inefficiencies so you can spend money on things you really value. Having more money is just one part of the equation though. Having more time and using your time efficiently is just as important.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Spicy Lifestyle

I am starting this blog because I believe I have figured out how to have an awesome, efficient, and fulfilling life as a grad student living on a pathetic stipend and with the social stigma of being a grad student. While a grad student, I have been a world traveler, model, Latin and ballroom dancer, dated all kinds of women, from freshman to seniors, other grad students, girls from other schools, models, and even a local stripper, and have had enough money to purchase almost anything I want, all while passing my qualifying examination and successfully doing research in theoretical physics! My story beings 3 years ago. I moved from a small town in the Midwest to the heart of southern California. I knew no one here and had to do everything myself. To get to this point took a lot of time. I spent nearly a year, lonely, disheartened, and unfocused on my true goals. But I was not willing to give up. In this blog, I will be disseminating all of the secrets and insights I have gained over the past 3 years as a grad student. I decided to write this blog when I heard one of my peers say "you are a grad student, you can't do that!". Speak for yourself my friend. I can, and you can too.