Ambition On Steroids

This guy is an animal. That was my first thought as I finished reading Stephen Schwarzman‘s new book titled What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence. Steve is an ambitious guy. I’m not even sure if I’ve ever read another life story about someone as ambitious. We like ambition. Our society likes ambitious people. We are attracted to them in many ways. I liken reading his memoir to reading the story of Genghis Khan’s conquests, written by Genghis Khan (if there was such a book). Not that Stephen is going around and putting people’s heads on pikes, well I guess you could say in some ways he did do that, figuratively speaking, of course. Stephen is arguably one of the greatest investors and businessmen of all time, and he has the investment returns, net worth, and philanthropic gifts to prove it. Stephen’s story is fascinating to say the least, and kept me interested from beginning to end. It was inspiring as well, and throughout this book I kept thinking what can’t this guy do? His life is a portrait to the possibilities of the human spirit and seeking excellence in every decision and in every action.

Now I’m not going to repeat to you all the details and chronology of his life. If you want to know that, read the book, which I highly recommend. Here are just a few highlights. He did his undergrad at Yale, and studied at Harvard Business School where he earned his MBA. Stephen worked at Lehman then later founded The Blackstone Group, which is now the world’s largest alternative investment firm in the world. By alternative investment it means that they basically focus on private companies, hedge funds, credit investments, mostly the types of investments you won’t find trading on a public exchange. Stephen is also very active politically, advising U.S. and foreign presidents/leaders, and a tremendous donor to educational institutions and public causes.

Usually when I read a book like this I’m looking for golden nuggets, or what I also refer to as wisdom nuggets. Basically they’re quotes from books that speak to me or that I can apply in my life, but more importantly they are quotes that speak universal truths. This book was chock full of these types of quotes. Stephen is great at getting to the root of complex problems and restating them as simple truths.

Here are several that I really enjoyed and resonated with. These are the types of ideas that anyone can apply in their own lives to improve their current situation:

Hard Problems

“We have a project,” Watkins said. “We’re just starting on it. We thought maybe you could work on it.” Maybe we could work on it? We were sitting around worrying about going broke. But I knew that he wouldn’t have come to us if the situation were simple. There were lots of advisers who could help. Watkins had a difficult problem, and he wanted an inventive solution. As an investment banker and later as an investor, I found that the harder the problem, the more limited the competition. If something’s easy, there will always be plenty of people willing to help solve it. But find a real mess, and there is no one around. If you can clean it up, you will find yourself in rare company. People with tough problems will seek you out and pay you handsomely to solve them. You will earn a reputation for doing what others cannot. For a pair of entrepreneurs trying to break through, solving hard problems was going to be the best way of proving ourselves.”

Success

“When I began my career, I was like most other ambitious young people: I believed success was achieved in a straight line. As a baby boomer, I had grown up seeing only growth and opportunity. Success seemed a given. But working through the economic ups and downs of the 1970s and early 1980s, I had come to understand that success is about taking advantage of those rare moments of opportunity that you can’t predict but come to you provided you’re alert and open to major changes.”

Sales

“As a salesman, I’d learned you can’t just pitch once and be done. Just because you believe in something doesn’t guarantee anyone else will. You’ve got to sell your vision over and over again. Most people don’t like change, and you have to overwhelm them with your argument, and some charm. If you believe in what you’re selling and they say no, you have to presume that they don’t fully understand, so you give them another opportunity.”

Rejection

“The rejections were horrible and humbling. The setbacks seemed endless. We met people who lied to us or never showed up for appointments even after we had traveled across the country. People we knew well in positions of authority rejected us. Pete and I talked throughout these struggles. He was not someone who failed. He hated failure. But at the same time, he was sixty years old. He was at a different place than I was, with a different mentality. If I had the drive, he had the patience and equanimity. He picked me up and kept me going. He assured me that when you believe in what you’re doing, overwhelmed or not, you have to keep moving forward, even when the quest feels hopeless. Which it did.”

Real Value

“You often find this difference between different types of investors. Some will tell you that all the value is in driving down the price you pay as low as possible. These investors revel in the transaction itself, in playing with the deal terms, in beating up their opponent at the negotiating table. That has always seemed short term to me. What that thinking ignores is all the value you can realize once you own an asset: the improvements you can make, the refinancing you can do to improve your returns, the timing of your sale to make the most of a rising market. If you waste all your energy and goodwill in pursuit of the lowest possible purchase price and end up losing the asset to a higher bidder, all that future value goes away. Sometimes it’s best to pay what you have to pay and focus on what you can then do as an owner. The returns to successful ownership will often be much higher than the returns on winning a one-off battle over price.”

Excellence and Integrity

“We formulated a clear set of expectations, which I laid out in a welcome speech to our new analysts. It boiled down to two words: excellence and integrity. If we delivered excellent performance for our investors and maintained a pristine reputation, we would have the opportunity to grow and pursue ever more interesting and rewarding work. If we invested poorly or compromised our integrity, we would fail.”

Energy

“I don’t feel a day over thirty-eight, the age I was when I started Blackstone and a year before my first trip to MIT. I sleep the same five hours I always have and am blessed with the same endless energy and unabated drive to engage in new experiences and tackle new challenges that I had when I was younger.”

Growth

“The 10s we hired have hired other 10s, and our meritocracy has created one of the most famous and admired financial companies in the world. We have been able to turn $400,000 of start-up capital in 1985 into over $500 billion of assets under management in 2019—a growth rate of about 50 percent a year since we started.”

Culture

“But beyond our size, our growth, and even the external accolades, I see a firm that reflects the core values I have worked so hard to instill. Establishing and imparting a strong company culture is perhaps one of the greatest challenges any entrepreneur and founder is tasked with, but it is also one of the most gratifying if you get it right.”

Failure

“Regardless of how you begin your careers, it is important to realize that your life will not necessarily move in a straight line. You have to recognize that the world is an unpredictable place. Sometimes even gifted people such as yourselves will get knocked back on their heels. It is inevitable that you will confront many difficulties and hardships during your lives. When you face setbacks, you have to dig down and move yourself forward. The resilience you exhibit in the face of adversity—rather than the adversity itself—will be what defines you as a person.” Failures, I want them to know, can teach us more than any success.”

At the end of the book Stephen’s lists 25 principles for work and life which if you applied in your life to any degree, would make you a better and more productive person. Here they are:

25 RULES FOR WORK AND LIFE

1. It’s as easy to do something big as it is to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate to your effort.

2. The best executives are made, not born. They never stop learning. Study the people and organizations in your life that have had enormous success. They offer a free course from the real world to help you improve.

3. Write or call the people you admire, and ask for advice or a meeting. You never know who will be willing to meet with you. You may end up learning something important or form a connection you can leverage for the rest of your life. Meeting people early in life creates an unusual bond.

4. There is nothing more interesting to people than their own problems. Think about what others are dealing with, and try to come up with ideas to help them. Almost anyone, however senior or important, is receptive to new ideas provided they are thoughtful.

5. Every business is a closed, integrated system with a set of distinct but interrelated parts. Great managers understand how each part works on its own and in relation to all the others.

6. Information is the most important asset in business. The more you know, the more perspectives you have, and the more likely you are to spot patterns and anomalies before your competition. So always be open to new inputs, whether they are people, experiences, or knowledge.

7. When you’re young, only take a job that provides you with a steep learning curve and strong training. First jobs are foundational. Don’t take a job just because it seems prestigious.

8. When presenting yourself, remember that impressions matter. The whole picture has to be right. Others will be watching for all sorts of clues and cues that tell who you are. Be on time. Be authentic. Be prepared.

9. No one person, however smart, can solve every problem. But an army of smart people talking openly with one another will.

10. People in a tough spot often focus on their own problems, when the answer usually lies in fixing someone else’s.

11. Believe in something greater than yourself and your personal needs. It can be your company, your country, or a duty for service. Any challenge you tackle that is inspired by your beliefs and core values will be worth it, regardless of whether you succeed or fail.

12. Never deviate from your sense of right and wrong. Your integrity must be unquestionable. It is easy to do what’s right when you don’t have to write a check or suffer any consequences. It’s harder when you have to give something up. Always do what you say you will, and never mislead anyone for your own advantage.

13. Be bold. Successful entrepreneurs, managers, and individuals have the confidence and courage to act when the moment seems right. They accept risk when others are cautious and take action when everyone else is frozen, but they do so smartly. This trait is the mark of a leader.

14. Never get complacent. Nothing is forever. Whether it is an individual or a business, your competition will defeat you if you are not constantly seeking ways to reinvent and improve yourself. Organizations, especially, are more fragile than you think.

15. Sales rarely get made on the first pitch. Just because you believe in something doesn’t mean everyone else will. You need to be able to sell your vision with conviction over and over again. Most people don’t like change, so you need to be able to convince them why they should accept it. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

16. If you see a huge, transformative opportunity, don’t worry that no one else is pursuing it. You might be seeing something others don’t. The harder the problem is, the more limited the competition, and the greater the reward for whomever can solve it.

17. Success comes down to rare moments of opportunity. Be open, alert, and ready to seize them. Gather the right people and resources; then commit. If you’re not prepared to apply that kind of effort, either the opportunity isn’t as compelling as you think or you are not the right person to pursue it.

18. Time wounds all deals, sometimes even fatally. Often the longer you wait, the more surprises await you. In tough negotiations especially, keep everyone at the table long enough to reach an agreement.

19. Don’t lose money!!! Objectively assess the risks of every opportunity.

20. Make decisions when you are ready, not under pressure. Others will always push you to make a decision for their own purposes, internal politics, or some other external need. But you can almost always say, “I need a little more time to think about this. I’ll get back to you.” This tactic is very effective at defusing even the most difficult and uncomfortable situations.

21. Worrying is an active, liberating activity. If channeled appropriately, it allows you to articulate the downside in any situation and drives you to take action to avoid it.

22. Failure is the best teacher in an organization. Talk about failures openly and objectively. Analyze what went wrong. You will learn new rules for decision making and organizational behavior. If evaluated well, failures have the potential to change the course of any organization and make it more successful in the future.

23. Hire 10s whenever you can. They are proactive about sensing problems, designing solutions, and taking a business in new directions. They also attract and hire other 10s. You can always build something around a 10.

24. Be there for the people you know to be good, even when everyone else is walking away. Anyone can end up in a tough situation. A random act of kindness in someone’s time of need can change the course of a life and create an unexpected friendship or loyalty.

25. Everyone has dreams. Do what you can to help others achieve theirs.

All in all, if you’re looking to read about the inspiring life of someone who has reached the pinnacle of success in their field, I would highly recommend this book. It paints a clear picture of the ups and downs that it takes to reach this level of success and also the many sacrifices that have to be made along the way. Stephen definitely has his fair share of sacrifices. As with anything in life, if you want to something deeply enough, you can achieve it. Make sure that you know in advance why you want it and what you are willing to give up to get there.

Can fear be a good thing?

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. – Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” – Yoda

“The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.” – Gandhi

“Fear is an illusion.” – Everyone on the internet

I like quotes. I like pithy quotes. The pithier the better. I like the aforementioned quotes. Fear is an illusion. That is the title of every TED talk and every entrepreneur’s book. I still like the quote. These quotes are great reminders of what fear really is. It’s this abstract thing in our heads. Try saying that to someone in the middle of a panic attack. Let me give you some of my actual panic attack responses, “shut up, you’re making it worse”, “you’re not helping me at all”, and my favorite, “I think I’m dying, I am like literally dying”. My wife can attest to them all.

Anxiety

I’m an anxious person by nature. Let me paint a picture. I’m six years old, sitting on a plane that’s at the gate. I’m praying to God that we don’t all go down in a blaze of fire while sweating profusely. The plane hasn’t even taxied out of the gate yet. We haven’t even moved an inch. The plane eventually takes off, and my little six year old heart beat is beating like the Energizer bunny being chased by an eagle. Did I mention my dad was a commercial airline pilot, and my mom worked in the travel industry all her life? So I’m flying all the time. Always on a plane since I was a few months old. You would think at some point, on the umteenth flight, the fear would’ve left. Here I am now in full blown middle-aged adulthood, and Mr. “I meditate and visualize everyday”, and yet still can’t keep his childhood fears in check. I can be sitting in a casual meeting and all of a sudden I get an abnormally high rush of adrenaline. My initial thought is always to get up and run out of the room, not a good look. I’ve gotten to the point where I can mentally talk myself back to some semblance of normalcy. It’s kind of embarrassing. Which brings me to the next point.

Fear of Embarrassment

In several articles I’ve read that the fear of public speaking is one of the worst fears. I’ve never looked into this in detail but I would imagine the underlying fear isn’t just a fear of public speaking. I think the real fear when it involves other people is usually just the fear of looking like a fool and being embarrassed. A fear of saying or doing something in front of others that will embarrass you. I think that this fear of embarrassment also ties into a fear of failing, or a fear of starting a long held dream. We are worried what others will say or think if things don’t work out. We will be so embarrassed. That reminds me of another pithy quote. This is from Eleanor Roosevelt. She once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I think that applies perfectly to embarrassment, or even harmful guilt and shame. No one can make you feel anything. We do it to ourselves. Want to know a cool thing about that quote that has helped me for years? You can use it for almost anything.

Just change for the word “inferior” with any other word like this:

No one can make you feel embarrassed without your consent.

No one can make you ashamed without your consent.

No one can make you sad without your consent.

Fear of embarrassment or the way others perceive us is usually the root of any fear of interacting with others. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to just let go in many cases, not all. It’s just too exhausting to put up a facade and to be everything to everyone, or worry how people view me.

This is a problem I’ve seen described in scriptures. The circumstance is usually someone disobeys God because they fear more what others will think of them (don’t want to be embarrassed), as opposed to God’s consequences. In Latter Day Saint scripture, known as the Doctrine & Covenants, there is a verse that reads, “For, behold, you should not have feared man more than God.” Believe it or not, those few words compiled in that verse have gotten me over a number of fears, and over the worrying of what others will think of me. But as I already explained, sometimes, I still get embarrassed. Learn to do what is important to your own values regardless of what others think. You don’t want to compromise your values to fit in with others. You’ll regret it.

It’s Okay to Feel Fear.

It’s okay to feel fear. It’s built into our DNA. It’s our mechanism for sensing and avoiding danger. According to Wikipedia, citing this article, Fear and anxiety: Evolutionary, cognitive, and clinical perspectives, “Fear is closely related to the emotion anxiety, which occurs as the result of threats that are perceived to be uncontrollable or unavoidable.” It also states that “The fear response serves survival by engendering appropriate behavioral responses, so it has been preserved throughout evolution.”

Fear has its place. It engenders appropriate behavioral responses. Could you imagine if you had no physical fears? You’d be dead in a day. No emotional fears? You might ruin every relationship. No financial fear, you might go bankrupt quickly.

Look, I get it. In our current culture if you feel fear or let it influence you, you perceived as weak. I get it. It doesn’t look great to say fear is okay. It doesn’t sound like a great inspirational book or an Instagram post. But the reality is fear is a part of our mind and bodies. It’s part of our evolution and natural selection. That fear has allowed our species to outlive and outwit far physically stronger species. That fear even helped your ancestors outlive the more adventurous guy who got sliced up like chicken nuggets by a hungry bear.

From what I can tell, it seems like what we really have a problem with is people limiting their lives because of unwarranted or low probability fears. We might even scoff at someone who has let their fears impede their everyday life. The reality is that we all have fears. Even the bravest among us, and some of us are really good at overcoming our fears.

I would say that most highly successful people I know are regular everyday people who battle the same fears as you and I. They just don’t let those fears consume them, or get in the way of action. Look, I still love the no fear quotes. They sound great. The reality though is that you can’t live life without some fear. It’s okay to acknowledge when you’re afraid and when fear has a hold of you. Then you find a way, little by little, or maybe all at once, to get over that roadblock, that nagging fear.

Fear gets a bad rap. But it’s not all that bad. It has its place. Next time someone tells you that it’s all in your head and you need to get over it, let them know that it’s okay to feel fear. Remember the only reason you’re even here on this earth today is because your ancient ancestor listened to their instincts, trusted their internal feeling of fear, and avoided being a tiger appetizer.

The Beauty of Diversity

My mother is black. My father is white. My mother is a from a small caribbean island. My father is from Switzerland. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, raised as a devout Latter Day Saint (Mormon), in a Jewish neighborhood, while I went to Catholic school. It was an interesting childhood to say the least. I love diversity in all its forms. There is a beauty to this melting pot we call the human race.

Homogeneity is a bore. Believe me, I’ve lived in some very homogenous places and it is tough to endure. Homogeneity of appearance, speech, religion, and thought is not a good thing. It encourages fear and hatred of anything or anyone that is different.

Diversity of Race.

I love the variation of skin colors and faces in the world. I love the fact that no two people are exactly the same. What’s even better is that our world is becoming even smaller day by day, providing more opportunities to interact with each other. Sure we are all on lockdown for the next few months. This too shall pass. In the history of our human experience this will be a minor setback. Eventually we’ll get back to traveling to see each other, and we will continue the blending of cultures, languages, and our differing experiences.

What makes cultures like America so great is that it is a hodgepodge of people from all over the world. The vast majority of Americans are not native to this land. We all came from somewhere else, except for the Native Americans of course. That is heartbreaking story to discuss for another day. Our country is one big social and racial experiment. Sure it’s been turbulent, slavery, social injustice, prejudice, and continued discrimination. That being said, things are getting better all the time. Is it perfect? Of course not. But the times they are changing. Little by little.

For as long as I can remember I’ve felt that the differences in our racial and ethnic backgrounds are what make this country so strong and innovative. We’re not a feudal nation, we are a meritocracy, where it really doesn’t matter the color of your skin, or where you come from. As long as you’ve got something the market wants or needs, there is an opportunity.

Diversity of Religion.

I love the Bible. I love the Quran. I love the Book of Mormon. I love the Vedas. I love the Talmud. There are many other modern and ancient texts that I love as well, too many to write. The point is I love all people of faith, and I am genuinely fascinated by how people practice their faith. I even love the faithless, because although they might not understand or know it, they too have a faith in something, beit science, technology, or even the unknown.

Is it just coincidence that people have an innate sense of something higher or greater? It’s in our DNA. It’s something that we were given from before we came to this earth. This longing to believe in something more. We are something more than just an evolved organism spinning extremely fast on a rock hurtling through nothingness.

I think the fact that we all have these various beliefs, even though we are separated by time and place, point to deity, and is a testament to me that we are all one. We are all the children of a loving Creator and our minor differences are insignificant.

Diversity of Ideas.

One of my favorite things to do is to sit with someone I don’t know very well and hear their life’s story. I love to hear their ideas, their background, their experiences. The way they string thoughts and sentences together, and the lens through which they view the world. Everyone has ideas and they are worth learning.

No one has a monopoly on all of the ideas that are out there and there is something to be learned from everyone. We can learn how to succeed, how to fail, what to do, and what not to do. We can learn from the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the wise and the foolish. We can learn from the faithful and the non-believers, from the loving and the hateful, from the prideful and the humble.

It’s a beautiful thing to be surrounded by people that don’t think like you and to learn from them. It is human nature to want to hang out and be friends with those who agree with your worldview. It makes for a peaceful and uncontentious life. We don’t need to contend with those who see things differently. There is no need to resort to tribalism. We should extend an olive branch of understanding and seek to see from their view of the world. If we are seekers of truth we need to seek it in all its forms, and accept it from whoever it may come from. We must also be willing to accept that we are often wrong.

We live in a beautiful world of many different races, beliefs, and ideas. May we accept these differences and the people they come from. Not only do they make the world a better and more interesting place, but they help us to become more loving and compassionate beings.

Top 10 Coronavirus Myths and Truths

First, before we start, my disclaimer. I am not a medical/healthcare professional or an infectious disease expert. I have compiled information for you from leading experts and credible organizations, and their websites. Please use this information at your own risk and as with anything in life, be prudent, and apply your own common sense. Do not use this information as a recommendation or advice to your particular health or medical situation. When in doubt, seek the advice of your trusted medical or healthcare professional. Said otherwise, don’t be an idiot. Be safe. Protect yourself and others around you.

All information below is from the following sources: https://www.cdc.gov/ https://www.who.int/ and https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/. Each fact is a link that you can click on to take you to more information from these three websites.

Myth # 1 – Exposing yourself to higher temperatures prevents the COVID-19 disease.

FACT: Exposing yourself to higher temperatures DOES NOT prevent the disease.

Myth # 2 – The coronavirus only affects older people.

FACT: Everyone is susceptible, both the old and the young. Those who are older and/or have pre-existing conditions are at higher risk of severe complications or death. Young people with pre-existing conditions have died from this disease.

Myth #3 – There are treatments for the COVID-19 disease.

FACT: As of now there is not a treatment or medicine that can prevent coronavirus.

Myth #4 – There are antibiotics that can treat and prevent Coronavirus.

FACT: Antibiotics are used for treating bacteria, not viruses.

Myth # 5 – The coronavirus is only spread through the air.

FACT: According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can live in the air and on surfaces between several hours and several days. The study found that the virus is viable for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard, and 4 hours on copper. It is also detectable in the air for three hours.

 What’s getting a lot of press and is presented out of context is that the virus can last on plastic for 72 hours—which sounds really scary. But what’s more important is the amount of the virus that remains. It’s less than 0.1% of the starting virus material. Infection is theoretically possible but unlikely at the levels remaining after a few days. People need to know this.

Myth # 6 – The coronavirus was man made.

FACT: Viruses can change over time. Occasionally, a disease outbreak happens when a virus that is common in an animal such as a pig, bat or bird undergoes changes and passes to humans. This is likely how the new coronavirus came to be.

Myth # 7 – Any face mask will protect you from COVID-19.

FACT: Certain models of professional, tight-fitting respirators (such as the N95) can protect health care workers as they care for infected patients. For the general public without respiratory illness, wearing lightweight disposable surgical masks is not recommended. Because they don’t fit tightly, they may allow tiny infected droplets to get into the nose, mouth or eyes. Also, people with the virus on their hands who touch their face under a mask might become infected. People with a respiratory illness can wear these masks to lessen their chance of infecting others. Bear in mind that stocking up on masks makes fewer available for sick patients and health care workers who need them.

Myth # 8 – Ordering or buying products shipped from overseas will make a person sick.

FACT: Researchers are studying the new coronavirus to learn more about how it infects people. As of this writing, the World Health Organization (WHO) says that the likelihood of becoming infected with COVID-19 from a commercial package is low since it has likely traveled over several days and been exposed to different temperatures and conditions during transit.

Myth # 9 – You can protect yourself from COVID-19 by swallowing or gargling with bleach, taking acetic acid or steroids, or using essential oils, salt water, ethanol or other substances.

FACT: None of these recommendations protects you from getting COVID-19, and some of these practices may be dangerous. The best ways to protect yourself from this coronavirus (and other viruses) include:Washing your hands frequently and thoroughly, using soap and hot water.Avoiding close contact with people who are sick, sneezing or coughing.In addition, you can avoid spreading your own germs by coughing into the crook of your elbow and staying home when you are sick.

Myth # 10 – I don’t need to practice Social Distancing or Stay at Home.

FACT: Everyone should be practicing safe measures to prevent the spread of the disease. According to the CDC, here is a list of the most at risk. Please prevent the spread to yourself and those around you, especially the high risk loved ones in your life.

My Experiments with Fasting

From a young age I have been consistently fasting. There is no boasting in that. It is simply the way I was raised by my angel mother who fasted frequently herself. I believe in and was raised in a faith that encourages its members to fast once a month with a purpose. That monthly fast has always been understood as abstaining from food and drink for 24 hours. We are encouraged to donate what we would have spent on our meals to a fast offering fund which is used to help the less fortunate or those in need.

Our Prophet asked us to fast this past Sunday for those suffering with the effects of COVID-19. It was a wonderful feeling to fast and let go of worldly desires for food, but also to cleanse my mind and my focus.

The term and concept of fasting has become trendy as of late, especially intermittent fasting. From what I can tell most of the benefits being touted are for health and aesthetics, not necessarily always increased spirituality or to seek divine guidance. There are definitely many healthy benefits to fasting that also help increase longevity.

For as long as I can remember I’ve always enjoyed fasting and the spiritual as well as the mental benefits that come with it. For me, I have particularly enjoyed praying and reading scriptures while fasting. Recently I’ve been reading about the Desert Fathers in Egypt who fasted for extraordinary periods of time. Something about their ascetic desert rituals really calls to me. These were men that devoted their lives to monastic service to God. What discipline! What focus! And what devotion! These were men of truth and character.

So that being said, I’m looking forward to using my Coronavirus isolation time to increase the frequency of my fasts. What comes with that is also an increase in prayer, meditation, and scripture study. There is something peaceful and cleansing about fasting. It brings me closer to God, and gives me greater compassion towards my fellow brothers and sisters.

In my recent thoughts about improving my fasts I’ve felt that I should take detailed notes about how I feel, inspiration I receive, and the purpose of my fasts. I’m looking forward to using this time away from the world to draw closer to God and to serve his children. One additional thing I plan on doing this evening, after I start my fast, is writing handwritten letters to my family, friends, and neighbors, to let them know how much I love them, and how much they mean to me. My hope is that we can all find some time to draw closer to God, and each other, through this time of trial. May we each do so in our own way, and in our own truth.

3 Lessons on Success from a Billionaire and an Ascetic Leader

Some might think that Stephen A. Schwarzman and Mahatma Gandhi couldn’t be any further apart from one another. As different as they may seem these two extraordinary men both came from humble beginnings to become world renowned. I just started reading Stephen’s new book and Gandhi’s autobiography at the same time. Even in their early years you can see similarities in their trajectories. In Stephen you have an overly ambitious founder of one of the world’s leading asset managers, and one of the richest men in the world. In Monhandas Karamchand Gandhi, you have an ascetic seeker of truth, political and civil rights activist, and a staunch opponent of colonial rule.

Below are three main similarities that I found in common between the two.

  1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.
  2. Challenge accepted practices
  3. Seek your own truth

1. If you have to be thinking, you might as well think big.

In Stephen’s book What It Takes: Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence, Stephen is undeniably a big picture thinker and yet he also delves into the details. Let me give you an incredible example. While he was a young boy working for his dad’s window drapery business in Pittsburgh he tries to convince his father to expand. He first starts off with the idea of going nationwide. His dad shoots him down but Stephen attempts again by asking what about multiple locations all over the region, or even just multiple stores? He quickly realizes that his dad has no ambitions outside of just running his store. At that young age Stephen comes to the conclusion that some are just managers and others are entrepreneurs. He was already thinking really big as a kid. In his book he explains, “it’s as hard to start and run a small business as it is to start a big one. You will suffer the same toll financially and psychologically as you bludgeon it into existence. It’s hard to raise the money and to find the right people. So if you’re going to dedicate your life to a business, which is the only way it will ever work, you should choose one with the potential to be huge.”

Gandhi in his own right was also a big thinker. You don’t free an entire colonized country like India from Imperial Britain without some outsized ideas and aspirations. That being said, even early on, before he was the great social reformer that we now know, he had big plans. He came from a working class family in India. His father died while he was young. Gandhi left his single mother, his young wife (they were married at 13), and his newborn child to go study in England in hopes of becoming a barrister. He left everything he knew at great expense to his family and started a life that was so foreign from what he knew, all because he dared to dream. He was bold and audacious even while having a shy personality. He took a large risk and it was much larger than most around him were willing to take. Both he and Steven started in small humble places, but thought about getting to bigger and better.

2. Challenge accepted practices

The best example of this is how Stephen managed to change the rules at Yale for visitations from members of the opposite sex. In his book he states, “In my final year [at Yale], I decided to take on the biggest issue of all for Yale’s men: the 268-year old parietal rules that forbade women staying overnight in a dorm room. ” Now I’m not saying he used his abilities for all the right reasons but he managed to change these rules by outsmarting the school administrators. He knew he couldn’t discuss changing the rules with them so he decided to do a survey of students, who majoritively supported abolishing the old rules. Steven then published the results in the student paper with supporting reasons. The Yale administrators folded. What most people would just accept as the way things were, Stephen sought to change. He challenged conventionally accepted practices over and over again with astonishing results.

Gandhi didn’t fully accept the traditional practices of his day despite what some may think of him. He was definitely a non-conformist and that is obvious from the beginning of his autobiography. He came from a vegetarian and deeply religious family and yet in his youth he had secretly been eating meat, smoking cigarettes, and even ended up in a brothel. Fortunately for him and future admirers of the leader, nothing happened in the brothel. To be clear he had firm values and felt much guilt because of his wayward ways, and mostly for disobeying his parents. What really shows Gandhi’s grit early in his life is a prime example of his disregard for the way things are just accepted by everyone else. In Gandhi’s quest to leave India for England he was confronted by people of his caste who forbade him to leave to England. Gandhi was reprimanded, looked down upon by others around him, and the leaders of his group. They told him that people of his caste don’t leave India to study abroad. Gandhi explains in the book how he just didn’t care what they thought. It is interesting to see how even in his youth he didn’t accept what everyone told him was the way things were done. He simply left. He didn’t care about their antiquated rules. He never looked back.

3. Seek your own truth

Stephen created his success by seeking for opportunities that were different than people around him. He took his own path which was really unique at the time. From his average high school and town he managed to get into a premier Ivy league school on his own. While a college student at Yale he found grueling work on cargo ships in the summer that traveled the world. He joined the army reserves during Vietnam and turned in leaders who were stealing food and selling it, which earned him recognition from a colonel. He went on to Harvard Business School but was so disappointed by the curriculum, the teachers, and the administration, that he complained about it to the Dean of Harvard Business School who flat out asked him, “Mr. Schwarzman, have you always been a misfit?” No matter where he went Steven was trying to get to the truth of things in his own unique way. He was forging his path of truth.

Gandhi was also seeking for his own truth. The subtitle of his book is, The Story of My Experiments with Truth. Gandhi displayed an ability as mentioned previously to look outside of himself and what others thought to be the conventional way of life. His leaving his homeland, mother, wife and young child to go study was very unconventional for someone of his background. This is further evidenced by the resistance of others in his caste. He mentions though how he was interested and influenced by three “moderns” as he calls them. He was influenced by a young man named Raychandbhai who was a savant and also a wise spiritual man that he knew. The other two were “Tolstoy by his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You; and Ruskin by his Unto the Last.” For an Indian man such as Gandhi to be reading and influenced by these men says something. It shows that we was seeking for truth well beyond the world his neighbors and friends were confined to. He even later named one of his South African farms after Tolstoy. He was seeking not just in Hindu texts from his background but in the Qur’an and the Bible as well.

These two men although worlds apart had many similar characteristics that helped them in their early years in life. So we find that principles of truth and character are not limited to race, gender, nationality, geography, or wealth. They transcend space and time and are available to all. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Jewish-American billionaire or an Ascetic spiritual leader, these principles can be applied by all who are willing.

Faith and Remembrance

In the trying times that our world is under it is common and healthy to ask for a why. What is the purpose and what is the meaning to all of the fear, and suffering we are witnessing and some of us experiencing? We anguish at those we love who are worried and we see the news of hopelessness as many have lost jobs and are trying to figure out their next steps.

No one on this earth has a true grasp of the why. That is for our Creator to know and for us to maneuver through with faith. If we had a deep knowledge and fundamental understanding of the why it would impede our ability to place faith in him who is our Father.

In the same way that my young children put all of their trust and faith in me because they recognize subconsciously what they don’t know, and I am a source of wisdom and understanding, so it is with our Heavenly Father to us. But as children get older, usually in their teenage years, they come to the realization that they know everything about life and don’t need an old man’s wisdom. In fact they believe they know more than their Father.

Our Heavenly Father reminds who has all knowledge and power. It is important for us to remember. Remembrance is a part of faith. Remember the times when we felt the hand of the Divine intervening in our lives. Through this remembrance we can build our faith. Sometimes we forget God in the hustle and bustle of our daily grind.

God has a way of slowing things down and helping us to remember. He does it many ways but sometimes he can do it to everyone all at once and remind us who is in control, and in who we need to place our faith.

Simeon Stylites

A man lived on top of a pillar for 37 years. You read that right. He lived 50 feet in the air on top of a 10 foot square pillar. Not only did he live there, he was exposed to the elements. He was exposed to the winter and summer near Aleppo, in what is now modern day Syria. Thirty six degree Fahrenheit average lows in the winter and 98 degree average highs in the summer. Sometimes it snows and sometimes it’s over 100 degrees in the summer. Rain or shine, he stayed on his pillar.

He was born Simeon around the year 390 A.D. in Sis, found in modern day Turkey. The picture above is what is left of the pillar he stood on. After a bombing by Russian military forces in 2016 during the ongoing Syrian war the pillar has been destroyed.

Christianity was growing rapidly in Simeon’s lifetime and was becoming openly accepted by rulers and leaders. Simeon, at a young age was so moved by reading the Beatitudes that it sparked his lifelong quest for truth. This small event in his life is an extraordinary example of the power of scripture. The word of God in written form has the power to change the trajectory of lives in sometimes rather spectacular ways. Who would’ve thought that a young boy influenced by the beatitudes would go on to influence the world in such a profound way? This is very similar to the experience of Joseph Smith, the latter day prophet, after reading a passage in the book of James.

Simeon tried to join a monastery in Egypt but was rejected because of the extremeness of his asceticism. That is really saying something about Simeon’s level of devotion to his cause if Monk’s were thinking he was taking things too far. He later fasted during the entire period of lent, nearly died, and because of this immortal feat became a fairly popular guy. He fled the fame for isolation and prayer to God and had followers that wouldn’t leave him alone. He eventually retreated to a pillar in an old city but when followers still came to him, he retreated to an even higher pillar about 50 feet high. Atop the pillar Simeon would pray and give sermons to the crowds that came to hear from him. These followers included Roman emperors and other leaders that sought his counsel. So revered to believers in Christ that Simeon today is venerated as a Saint in the Oriental Orthodox Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Church.

I’m not one to judge and I believe there is truth to be had from everyone. I like to learn from other people and I genuinely want to know their perspectives. Where they come from? How they were raised? Why they think the way they do? Why they do the things they do? It is no different with Simeon Stylites. By the way, stylites is derived from the ecclesiastical Greek term for pillar, hence the appellation.

When I first heard of Simeon’s story my first impression was how is this even possible? After further research my thoughts shifted to this is an impressive man with complete control of his mind and body. As I read further I wanted to understand the why. After more reading I’ve come to the conclusion that his reason was tied to his search for God, truth, and meaning. This was Simeon’s quest for learning and divine guidance. He shunned the throngs of followers not because he was mean. He was seeking for God and truth and not fame or money. He wanted to hear the inspiration of the divine or as modern Christians know, the influence of the Holy Ghost. I’m sure some were attracted to him because of his extreme asceticism and the novelty of what he was doing. That is human nature. There were probably others who wanted to be close to learn from him. He had many imitators. So many that people were imitating him for centuries. Yes, for hundreds of years there were stylites. Yet through the fame Simeon found truth in isolation and in constant prayer and meditation.

What is the lesson to be learned from Simeon? What is the application to our modern day? After all, this is why we read and study. It is for learning, yes, but more importantly to change our behavior and for application. For me there are several great lessons to learn from Simeon.

First, the human spirit is something that we don’t really understand. Simeon proves that there is no limit to what the mind and body can overcome and achieve when they are working towards a goal.

Second, it is incredible to see a Christian who can be in the world yet also be so separate from it in his living and devotion. Again, is this the approach that I would take? No, but that doesn’t matter, and I have a different world view, different experiences, and different beliefs. Also I believe periods of isolation are healthy, but then I also enjoy periods of being surrounded by family, friends, and neighbors. I am a social being for sure. Before anyone confuses or misinterprets what I am writing, Simeon did perform daily sermons from his pillar and he also converted many Arabs to Christianity. He was also a social, loving person.

In a day where I hear people bemoaning the Coronavirus isolation, and having to be inside all day, I wonder how Simeon would view our modern culture and our application of Christianity. I imagine that he would first recognize that we are weak in many ways and highly distracted by fleeting materialism. Could we look at his example and extract some of the devotional habits to apply into our lives? Could we be more willing to pray and meditate and focus less on the external and more on the internal?

Could we overcome our worldly habits and lust for sex, food, and comforts? I certainly don’t think that I could have the devotion, fortitude and discipline of a Simeon, not by any means am I even close. But I would like to be more disciplined in my devotion. So in my life, I think I can fast more. Fast earnestly and try not to focus so much on my hunger, but on my prayers for others and for those suffering in this pandemic.

I can dim my lustful and materialistic thoughts, and focus my thoughts on serving my fellow brothers and sisters in their time of need. I could do as Simeon and focus on studying and teaching those around me what I know. Most importantly I could deepen my devotion to God and his children by seeking ways to inspire and uplift others.

If you think about it, all of his followers looked up to Simeon. They looked up to his example in a figurative way, but even emperors had to physically look up to him. He was a light set on a hill that brought more people closer to Jesus Christ by just living on pillar. May we all reach upward and lift others eyes upward as well.

Deep Work

About a week ago I finished a book that caused me to have a paradigm shift. That’s saying something considering how much I read. I like to read. That’s a lie. I love to read. I’m an unapologetic bibliophile. My wife thinks it’s disease. I think it’s a gift. I digress.

Back to the point of this post. The book I finished that caused a change in my worldview is Cal NewPort’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. As you can tell by the first paragraph I’m not a distracted person. That is probably why I so greatly enjoyed this book, I needed it. Like a moth to a flame I read through this book and enjoyed every morsel of research and devoured each chapter.

Cal is unique individual. He seems to have a predisposition to cut through the noise and get to the meat of things. From the descriptions he gave about how many research papers he publishes each year to his tenured track at Georgetown University, this guy means business. His style is easy to read and his thoughts are so clear that I sometimes had to pause and appreciate their profound importance.

What was it about this book that changed my thinking? Cal makes the point early on that we live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with useless information, phone notifications, banner ads, and trivial alerts. Our brains are addicted to social media code that is written to lure us into a time suck vortex. We clicked on Facebook and Instagram to quickly check in only to later realize we’ve spent several hours down a digital rabbit hole and forgot to work on that project.

Now, that was all stuff I had heard before. Social media is bad and a waste of time, blah, blah, blah. I knew that, that’s why I spend so little time on it. At least that’s what I tell myself. Where the book and his ideas really shine is when Cal explains that the ability to do deep, meaningful, distraction-free work is a special ability. An ability that will be highly sought after and will be something akin to a superhero power. Cal goes on and on about various tools, tips, and methods to deep work but the concept of deep work being unique and sought after is what made it interesting to me.

I became even more intrigued when Cal started explaining the difference between what he calls shallow work and deep work. This explanation hit me so hard that I came to the realization that most of what I do is shallow work. What? I do shallow work? Yes, and so do you. Yes you. You’re doing shallow work.

So what is the difference between deep and shallow work? I thought you’d never ask. Shallow work is defined by its ability to be easily replicated. Or said otherwise by Cal, the ability for you to train a recent college grad to do the same work. In essence, the quicker the recent college grad can be trained to do your work, the shallower it is. The more difficult it is for your work to be replicated, the deeper the work you are doing. If you can train Parker to do you your job as effectively as you can in a week or two, your job security might be in trouble. If it will take years of training to get Parker to where you are and there is a chance he may never get there, then you my friend are doing work that is both deep and providing you some job security. Well this is assuming your job is necessary and/or in demand in the marketplace.

I’m oversimplifying what is a well thought out book to give you some of the broader points. Deep work is meaningful work. It is greatly satisfying work. It usually doesn’t involve filing papers or filling out generic forms. There is nothing wrong with doing those things as a job, but it is not deep work. Deep work usually involves several layers of critical thinking, creativity, and imagination. It is the kind of work that if done consistently could change your life. It’s obvious you don’t want to waste your life just merely being entertained. That’s not being productive. But we also fool ourselves into thinking that we are being productive when in reality we are not really working, or worse, we are bogged down in shallow unimportant work.

So what is the solution? The solution is to be brutally honest with ourselves and ask hard questions. How much time am I really working in an 8 hour day? How much of the time when I am supposedly working am I doing deep work as opposed to shallow work? If I’m wasting time with shallow work is there anyway that I can minimize it or find a way to delegate it?

The other thing that is great about this concept is that it trickles down to every other aspect in your life. If you can be brutally honest about how you are spending your time and whether or not you are doing the most important thing, you will start to ask yourself questions like I did. Is this the best time of day for me to focus on this? Turns out it’s better for me to focus on the really hard things earlier in the day. Is this work really something that I need to or should I delegate this? What is the most important work that I could be doing right now?

It’s hard enough to face the hard truth of how little we actually work and how much time we waste with things that are not important. It’s taking you to a whole other level to analyze your “work” and see whether it is deep meaningful work or frivolous shallow work. This is something that is varied from occupation to occupation, but most people when honest with themselves know the difference.

Reading this book has changed the way I perceive and analyze the work I am doing. It has also helped me to be more honest with myself and has helped me to realize how much of my life is skewed by my own perception of what I think I am doing, and not necessarily what my time and results actually show.

What I have also found is that when I do deep work, work that challenges me in many ways, it is then that I am happiest. When I meet resistance with focus and get lost or entranced in what I am doing, that is when joy melds with productivity. May we all find more moments of blissful deep work.