Long ago, I was pretty adherent to the writings of Tim Ferriss. One of the first life hackers (before that was a term, really), Ferriss wrote the very-good-if-overrated 4-Hour Workweek. A treatise on joining the ‘New Rich’, a lot of the techniques described are problematic and the assumptions it makes about the world are equally troublesome, but it does have some good advice on goal-setting and even goal-defining (do you really want a motorcycle, or do you just want to feel cool? Do you really want to speak Japanese or do you just want an Asian girlfriend?).
Ferriss would follow that up with the masterful 4-Hour Body, which is a treatise on self-reinvention. Some of the techniques and topics discussed within are, at this point, a bit dated (some of the supplements he advises have largely been established to be bogus). But the training programs and the seminal diet – the Slow-Carb Diet – still hold up and I suspect will for some time to come.
I followed the Slow-Carb Diet for years and really enjoyed it. In the last couple of years, I’ve gone on and off it periodically, but I find my way back to it because it works fairly well for me and I actually enjoy it. It makes eating pretty simple and it keeps me at a comfortable weight (though a bit too much body fat for my ego, but my genetics aren’t doing me any favors there).
A recurring theme in Ferriss’ work is the idea of the minimum effective dose: what is the least one can do to achieve the desired effect? What do you want to do, and what is the absolute minimum you would have to do to get to it?
It seems like a strangely straightforward question but it’s surprising how much of our society is geared towards the exact opposite approach. If you want to lose weight, all modalities seem to be built around losing as much as possible as quickly as possible. If you want to make money, the only objective seems to be to make ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.
When you consider your goals – your honest and truly-evaluated goals – and then start trying to figure out the minimum effective dose, life gets a lot easier. Let’s say your goal is to learn a new language. Cool, great, good goal for any person.
First off, we have to ask, why do you want to learn this language? As mentioned above, do you want to learn Japanese because of a deep-seated love of Japan and its cultural? Or do you just have a latent fetish? Are you a martial artist who wants to dig deeper into the traditions of your style? Or are you an anime fan who wants to be able to watch anime without translations?
This is important because why we wish to do a thing will define our idea of success. If we want to learn Japanese because we want to date a Japanese person, then our definition of success will be determined by our ability to meet people, get them to like us, go on dates, and have those dates go well. Alternatively, if we want to understand anime, a lot more of our time may be spent on learning minutia about the topics of our preferred genres.
Let’s follow on the dating thing because fetishism is alive and well. If you want to learn Japanese to ask people out, then the vocabulary you want to learn becomes a bit specific. You want to learn some business-casual speech, but also some modern vernacular. You will want to learn about cultural touchstones of the modern era and not worry too much about nuanced business and political terms. You’ll want to spend a bit more time focusing on present-tense conjugation of verbs rather than formal past-tense verbs. You’ll probably want to spend a bit more time focusing on adjectives rather than proper-nouns. Above all, you’ll want to practice conversational skills, more than things like spelling and writing.
This is helpful because it will help you determine your approach. If you want to speak Japanese to get dates, you don’t need to worry too much about learning kanji, or really even that much about Hiragana and Katakana. Studying writing and reading is beneficial, sure, but your main focus will be on speaking and listening. Bookwork won’t be nearly as important as Youtube videos and, you know, going out and talking to people. The definition of success will guide your progress. As Charles Kettering said, “a problem well-stated is half-solved”.
What is the minimum effective dose for your life?
With the quarantine still in full effect here in the United States (and the world at large, really), it’s given many of us the chance to reflect on just what kind of a life we really want. Not the life we think we want, not the life we feel like we should have, or we’ve been told we should want. What do we really want.
A lot of people have discovered that when they finally got the time to watch those TV shows, read those books, get into shape…they didn’t. And we have to be clear: these aren’t failures. Learning honestly about yourself is never a failure, especially if you can use and utilize that new understanding. Why aren’t you watching those shows? Why aren’t you reading those books? Why aren’t you doing those exercises?
If the answer is ‘because they’re not as interesting as I thought they’d be’, then we’ve got serious progress right there. They aren’t interesting. Okay, cool. What is? Although there are exceptions, rarely is it worth doing something that isn’t fun. Either find a way to realize the fun in it, or find something else to do.
And I repeat that you may have to find the fun in something, because there’s a lot more fun than people realize. Math is insanely fun…in the right light. If you have the disposition and can see what the formulas are trying to accomplish, math is exceptionally engrossing. But you need to understand the formulas, and that can be a bit tricky. At the very least, it will often require a good teacher.
As we sit in our apartments and homes, it’s worth spending this time thinking about what we really want. Failing to meet goals isn’t failure in and of itself. Failing to do anything with that failure, is failure. Falling short and figuring out why you fell short is a form of success all its own. Define the life you want and you’ll be moving in the right direction. And as many of us are stuck inside, staring at the walls, now’s the time to do it.
But the minimum effective dose is waiting there to be discovered. Want to exercise? Three sets of ten push-ups done every day will do wonders. Want to learn to speak a language? Hello, goodbye, please, thank you, and the first ten numbers will take you a lot further than you realize.
With honesty comes truth.
With truth comes clarity.
With clarity comes obviousness.
With obviousness, comes a plan.
Be honest with yourself and follow the path towards your plan to become the you that you’ve always wanted to be.