Push Yourself to Achieve: An Emerging Secret to a Sharp Mind


When we think of achieving more in our lives, we often think of burning the midnight oil, skipping out on sleep, working through the weekends, and generally pushing our limits. This image is strongly at odds with the low stress lifestyle – chock full of yoga, green smoothies, farmers markets, and meditation – that we often think of when we picture healthy living.

But what if I told you that there’s promising research demonstrating that the stress associated with pushing ourselves is beneficial to our health, especially as we age?

In a recent article New York Times article, Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of the forthcoming book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, writes:

Which activities, if any, will increase your chances of remaining mentally sharp into old age? We’re still studying this question, but our best answer at the moment is: work hard at something. Many labs have observed that [critical brain regions] increase in activity when people perform difficult tasks, whether the effort is physical or mental. You can therefore help keep these regions thick and healthy through vigorous exercise and bouts of strenuous mental effort. My father-in-law, for example, swims every day and plays tournament bridge.

The road to superaging is difficult, though, because these brain regions have another intriguing property: When they increase in activity, you tend to feel pretty bad — tired, stymied, frustrated. Think about the last time you grappled with a math problem or pushed yourself to your physical limits. Hard work makes you feel bad in the moment.

Long-term health often requires us to be uncomfortable in the short term. Less cake now for a healthy body later. Pushing ourselves now for a sharper mind into our later years. Goals often operate this way: short term discomfort for long term comfort.

It’s important to note that not all kinds of stress are beneficial in this way. A common way to divide stress is by eustress, moderate or normal psychological stress interpreted as being beneficial for the experiencer, and distress, extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain.

If you’re in a toxic work environment, that’s distress. But if you’re pushing yourself to learn a new skill, and feel stressed out as a result, that’s eustress. When it comes to healthy aging, you’re looking to add eustress into your life.

Ambitious Living = Healthy Living

Perhaps it’s time we start thinking of healthy living as compatible with ambitious living? Examples are easy to find:

  • Optimizing your sleeping habits helps you perform better at work. (This idea that has gained mainstream attention in the last decade.)
  • Eating healthier meals avoids the dreaded food coma that keeps you glued to the couch for hours after dinner.
  • And as we just learned, pushing yourself past your comfort zone, physically and mentally, can keep your brain sharp and healthy as you age.

It’s possible some caveats will emerge regarding how different ways we push ourselves affect our brain health, but for now, the best research available tells us that a healthy brain requires us to strive, set goals, push ourselves to achieve them, and repeat.

Keep on pushing.

Image credit romankphoto

The Best Advice I Know for Creative Success: Put in the Work


Lately, I’ve been bombarded with ads on YouTube featuring people who want to sell me the secret to wealth and success.

A great example is Tai Lopez, who puts on a facade of a modest, yet uber-successful entrepreneur who possesses the secret to becoming wealthy. (His latest sales tactic: humblebragging about his supposed million-dollar home as he gives you a tour.)

Tai Lopez in front of a mansion

His successful marketing tactics have inspired both satire and copy-cat marketers (like the guy below):


Who are these marketers targeting? People who want to be more successful, live a better lifestyle, go viral online, and/or build a business around their passions. People who want to be in the middle of this diagram:


Image credit: Eskimon

Finding this intersection between a lucrative career and doing what you love is difficult and unpredictable, so these marketers do their best to convince you that a) success is completely formulaic and reproducible, and b) they are the ones who know the formula better than anyone else. In other words, these people are getting rich by selling you the secret to getting rich.

Thankfully, the internet is also packed with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative professionals who publish their work without trying to sell you a magic formula. They focus on perfecting their craft and adding value to the world through their hard work. If you pay attention to the advice they give out, you hear a different story about success.

One such artist is Darius Kazemi. Having published over one hundred creative projects on the web since 2013, Kazemi has seen many of his most ambitious projects stay in obscurity and many of his silly projects go viral quickly. From this experience, Kazemi believes that internet success is a lot like winning the lottery.

“I believe that beyond a certain level of work you put into your project, success is entirely out of your hands,” he says on stage during his 2014 talk at XOXO Festival in Portland, Oregon. “Conceiving of a creative project and building it, that’s buying a lottery ticket.”

In other words, hard work, perseverance, and the right kind of promotion all improve your chances (i.e. earn you more lottery tickets), but there’s no guaranteed formula for success.


Some people may find this advice fatalist and demotivating, but I disagree. Ignoring fame and financial success in favor of execution and skill in the short run may actually improve your chance of success in the long run.

For example, Rick Rubin, the former co-president of Columbia Records, has said that when an artist is first starting out, “any commercial considerations usually get in the way.” In other words, a premature focus on money and fame can distract and misguide.

Kazemi concludes his talk by advising us to ignore those who claim to have the secret to winning the lottery, i.e. the magic formula to go viral or make more money online:

“There are two kinds of creative advice that I think you can get from creative people. The first is how to buy more lottery tickets and the second is how to win the lottery. I think the former can be extremely useful and I think the latter is nonsense.”

Since snake oil salesmen aren’t going anywhere any time soon, it’s up to us to choose who we pay attention to. My personal rule of thumb: the more confident someone is that they have an ironclad formula for success, the less likely they’re worth paying attention to.

“If there was a secret formula for becoming known, I would give it to you,” writes Austin Kleon, artist and author of Steal Like an Artist, “But there’s only one not-so-secret formula that I know: Do good work and share it with people.”


Recommended reading:

Six Lessons About Success I Learned in 2015

As the year comes to an end, I find myself reflecting more than usual. It’s during these times that I like to report on the challenges I’ve faced and the goals I’ve hit (not unlike James Clear’s yearly integrity report).


I started this year in a health crisis, fighting as hard as I could to resolve stubborn issues that I had downplayed for almost a decade. Looking at my Key Lifestyle Indicators for the beginning of 2015 makes this painfully clear; I wasn’t prioritizing my health the way I should’ve been.

Jon's 2015 KLI data

To meet the demands of this health crisis, I begrudgingly gave up all of my favorite foods and adopted a strict healing diet, which required me to start cooking all of my meals. It was a painful transition, but I understood it was for the best.

Thankfully, after a few months, my cooking went from mediocre to fairly tasty. I learned more about my body and how it responds to the stressors of daily life. I studied how diet and lifestyle affect the immune system. I had out-of-pocket lab work done to give me medical data I could act on. I remain optimistic that this knowledge will continue to improve my life for decades to come.

I’m very glad to have significantly invested in my health, but it came at a cost. As Alain de Botton says in his TED talk:

Here’s an insight that I’ve had about success: You can’t be successful at everything … any vision of success has to admit what it’s losing out on, where the element of loss is. And I think any wise life will accept, as I say, that there is going to be an element where we’re not succeeding.

Indeed, there were elements of this year that did not succeed as a result of spending most of my resources on my health. This blog saw traffic drop as it became neglected for a large portion of the year. My engineering career slowed down as skill development got deprioritized. I avoided countless social events because I couldn’t eat anything at the restaurant and couldn’t bear feeling any more deprived of delicious food than I already felt. The sacrifices were unpleasant, but I’m glad I tackled this now rather than risk my health spiraling out of control further down the road.

Thankfully, I’ve experienced some success towards the end of the year, which I’ll discuss in the next section.

Successes and Failures

Let’s talk about failure first. Health can be a very difficult area, especially if you’re struggling with an illness or disease. Health often feels like a moving target. Sometimes you get inaccurate data, or the wrong data. Sometimes a medical professional makes a poor recommendation. Sometimes a brief lapse in willpower sets you back weeks or months. Needless to say, I experienced failure this year — lots of it. But, as I’m fond of saying, you need to fail to succeed.

Here’s how my health journey progressed over the year. (Yes, it’s on a scale of 0% – 200%, which looks weird — assume anything above 100% is good).

Jon's 2015 Health trend

As you can see, shortly after the beginning of the year, I started investing in health more substantially. Progress held steady for a few months. But what the hell happened in the middle of the year? Travel.

While travel is an amazing way to acquire new experiences, it’s tough on your body. I didn’t have my kitchen available to cook foods I knew I could tolerate. Sitting in airports, attending festivals (with supremely unhealthy food options), and exploring new cities lead to poor diet and lifestyle choices. My health came crashing down again.

For the last six months, I’ve doubled down on my efforts, prioritizing diet and stress management above all, and the data above shows those efforts in August. This is where I began to experience some success.

The graph above reflects time invested in health-promoting activities, but what about how I actually felt? It’s been a rocky road, but there’s definite improvement in my day-to-day health, as reflected in the graph below.

Jon's 2015 recovery trend

On this graph, Recovery is a percentage of symptoms that are not present. So the fewer symptoms present, the stronger the recovery for that day. As you can see, the trend line is slowly crawling upward, which is the most progress I’ve made in my health in over four years. I’d consider that a big win.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience success in other areas of my life as well. In February, I officially transitioned from advertising to software development, and I’ve been enjoying that career move ever since.

I’ve had the opportunity to improve a few skills throughout the year, including cooking, coding, writing, and meetup organizing. I even took a few dance lessons (I was pretty terrible). These are all skills I’m glad to have developed, and I’ll most certainly be employing them in 2016.

As the year came to a close, my diet and lifestyle were better than ever, which freed up some time to start writing again. You’ll notice that I’ve been more active on the blog lately; expect to see more from me as we welcome in 2016.

Key Lessons From 2015

Difficult goals yield great learning opportunities. Here are 2015’s key lessons:

1. What gets measured gets managed. Measuring how I feel each day keeps my number one priority (health) top of mind for me. Additionally, the long term trends in my data can be reassuring during awful weeks. Notice how my recovery graph (shown above) shows many ups and downs; it’s crucial on those down weeks to remind myself of the long term progress I’m making. To give you a sense of what I was measuring each day, here’s a peek:

Jon's 2015 recovery data

2. Goals inherently require sacrifice. As we discussed above, the pursuit of one goal comes at the cost of another (think back to opportunity cost from economics class). I’ve found that it’s important to acknowledge this sacrifice explicitly. Otherwise, I attempt to juggle all of my goals at once, which results in nothing but anxiety and a series of uncompleted goals. Prioritization and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin.

3. Tackle goals at the root by looking for lead dominoes. Although there was a high cost to putting some of my goals on hold, it was necessary, as health has a domino effect — if health falls down, all of my other goals fall down with it — so it needs to be tackled first. Thankfully, the domino effect works in a positive direction as well; if I can improve my health, other goals became easier to hit through improved energy, thinking, and mood. Look for these lead dominoes in your life and tackle them first for maximum effectiveness.

4. Stop obsessing over problems that simply need time. While daily measurement is helpful, what’s not helpful is obsessing over your progress and worrying when things seem to be on the decline. In my case, almost without fail, the solution was to simply continue doing what I was already doing. Sure enough, things started to improve without any further intervention.

This urge to obsess and over-optimize can be strong in areas like health where ups and downs are common and it may take months to show any meaningful improvement. I was able to stop obsessing using three strategies:

  • I would periodically look at my health data to remind myself that the ups and downs are normal, and that the long-term trend was still improving.
  • I turned cooking — my primary health-building activity — into a hobby, rather than only a means to an end. This way, I could focus on recipes and entertaining friends, rather than only focusing on the end goal of improved health.
  • I started meditating every morning to train my mind to spend more time in the present, rather than obsessing over the future.

5. Set up systems to prevent self sabotage. Once you start realizing all of the subtle ways you self-sabotage, you’ll never be able to unsee it. I used to use phrases like these on a regular basis:

  • “I’m sure I won’t overindulge on this dessert item if I buy a lot of it while it’s on sale… “
  • “Oh, I’m not supposed to eat that, but it’s only a small amount…”
  • “I’m too busy to meditate this morning, I’ll just do it later today…”

All self sabotage. Unfortunately, advice to simply try harder doesn’t work out very well. Willpower isn’t guaranteed to be there when you need it, so it’s smarter to build systems around your weak points to support you in moments like these.

In my case, I focused on the self sabotage around my diet. I found one healthy “fallback” recipe that’s so easy to prepare (less than five minutes), there’s no excuse not to make it. I also have canned food, food bars, and frozen goods that are helpful when I’ve unexpectedly run out of food in my fridge.

Additionally, by setting up a proper morning routine, I’ve also reduced a lot of the “I’ll do this later…” sabotaging that I used to do regularly.

6. Even when you fail, you succeed. I planned for my health goal to be complete after six or seven months. It’s been over a year now, and it still requires a major time investment. Although I technically failed to hit my goal deadline, the amount of personal growth I’ve undergone to meet the demands of this challenge is a success in it’s own right.

Too often, people discount the discipline, skills, and knowledge they acquire during the pursuit of a goal, and only focus on the result of the goal. By embracing the pursuit itself, I find myself less stressed about obstacles and roadblocks. Stated another way, instead of focusing solely on the pursuit of happiness, I now also focus on the happiness of pursuit (credit to Chris Guillebeau for that phrase).

Where do I hope to improve next year?

I’ve learned a lot, but there’s also much more to improve on. To meet the challenges of 2016, here are three areas where I believe I need work.

1. Actually prioritizing health as #1. Unfortunately, it’s too easy to subtly put health in second place when an exciting opportunity pops up. Like any goal, prioritizing health means sacrificing other goals. In 2015, I failed to prioritize health as #1 and it cost me many months of progress. In the words of Tim Ferriss, who has also been struggling with a health issue as of this writing:

“In practice, strictly making health #1 has real social and business ramifications. That’s a price I’ve realized I MUST be fine paying, or I could lose weeks or months to sickness or fatigue. Making health #1 50% of the time doesn’t work. It’s absolute — all or nothing. If it’s #1 50% of the time, you’ll compromise precisely when it’s most important.”

2. Leaving my comfort zone more often. When I first joined the world of software development after teaching myself to code, I was overwhelmed in a good way. So much to learn, so many opportunities for growth. Unfortunately, now that I’ve settled down into a small niche of software development, I’ve started to stagnate a bit. In 2016, I hope to explore new areas that are both scary and exciting. More on that coming soon.

3. Be more proactive with friendships. I’ve watched a lot of friendships fade away in 2015, and in 2016 I’d like to be more proactive with keeping in touch with the people that matter to me. Success isn’t as sweet when you don’t have people to celebrate it with.

4. Spend more time in a state of non-striving. Goals are helpful for choosing your direction, but once that direction is chosen, obsessing about the goal is counterproductive. Life is too short to spend most of your day worrying about future outcomes. Instead, I want to spend more time in the here and now, working on things I find interesting. I plan to do this through meditation and focusing on systems rather than goals.

All in all, this was a wonderful year. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met, the places I’ve visited, the personal growth I’ve undergone. Let’s hope next year has plenty more of that in store.

If you’ve been reflecting as well, I’d love to hear your 2016 plans in the comments below.

Giving Up What You Love: A Guide to Breaking Through Plateaus


It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.

My friends like to joke that I have a second home at Philz Coffee in San Francisco. Three or four days a week, they would see an automated social media check-in at Philz as a result of me connecting to their wi-fi.

There’s a reason I go there so often: I’m happiest when lounging in coffee shops. A quote from my post on tracking my happiness for 30 days says it all:

The top three activities that make me happy: conversation, listening to music, and working on passion projects … considering that people typically do these activities in coffee shops, this may help explain [why I’m at my happiest there].

As you can see, coffee shops are a winner in my book.

Unfortunately, drinking coffee was also sabotaging me. I’ve been struggling with certain health-related goals for years, and deep down I knew coffee was to blame (more on this shortly). But like so many others, the thought of giving up coffee horrified me.

How I thought every morning would be if I gave up coffee.

Three months ago, I put my foot down and finally took coffee out of my life. It sucked, big time, but it was absolutely worth it. And that’s what this post is about: giving up things you really enjoy because they’re holding you back.

Is it painful to give up things you love? Yes. Is it worth the struggle in order to continue growing as a person? Hell yes. And the rest of this post explains why. Continue Reading…