On Soylent

Soylent

As most of you know, I love to eat, and I also love to take my time when I do it. My ideal meal is reasonably good for me, takes 30 minutes or so to cook, and is enjoyed at my leisure over the course of an hour or more, depending on how much time I have. Because I don’t always have time to eat good food on my own timeframe and I don’t derive much satisfaction from eating while rushed, I’ve often looked for ways to maximize both my calorie-to-dollar ratio and my time-to-calorie ratio. During my extensive college road-tripping days I developed a system of trail mix, tuna snacks, and SlimFast (don’t worry, just for the extra calories—I would drink it instead of water) that I could eat quickly and easily while I was on the road. Protein shakes and quick & simple staple meals have long been part of my core diet, and my last year in the Mayor’s Office I started packing trail mix for lunch to save time and money. In the last 2 ½ months, though, real estate (which has been going incredibly well; I’ve already sold three houses, two of which have already closed and the third of which is on track to close in mid-January) has been keeping me even busier than I was when I was working at City Hall, which has really tested the limits of my ability to feed myself good food while also doing what I need to do.

As luck would have it, the first Kickstarter batches of an ambitious little “powdered food” product called Soylent started shipping towards the end of October, just as I started getting really busy with real estate. I wasn’t one of the first backers, but a friend of mine, who was, offered to gift me his first batch based on my having expressed interest in it last summer. Given my life philosophy of always saying “yes!” to new experiences that aren’t obviously going to be catastrophically detrimental to my health, I took him up on the offer without a moment’s hesitation. At the time I still viewed it more as a curiosity than anything else, though, and my assumption was that it would taste terrible and that would be the end of it.

The origin story of Soylent is pretty straightforward—and also, given life’s tendency to imitate art, probably inevitable. At some point in the recent past, a programmer in San Francisco named Rob Rhinehart decided that eating was taking up too much time that he could be spending coding instead, so he set out to come up with a solution—as expressed in the company’s motto, “maximum nutrition with minimum effort.” What he came up with is a food replacement powder that’s designed to provide 100% of an adult’s nutritional requirements in less than 5 minutes per day. He’s been living on a diet of 90% Soylent (he still enjoys some “recreational eating” with friends) for over a year now, and there’s a great Reddit AMA with him here that’ll give you a better idea of where he’s coming from with the whole thing. As the idea got publicity, gained traction, and generated some actual data as well as a lot of iterations on the original formula, he eventually decided to start selling it to other people. The Kickstarter was a huge success, and you can now buy Soylent directly through the website, with a 2-3 month waiting period for new customers or a shorter turnaround time for existing customers who sign up for monthly resupplies.

I knew most of this by the time I opened up the shipping box I picked up from my friend’s porch in late October and followed the instructions for the first time, but I was still skeptical. Using the 2-liter polypropylene iced tea pitcher that’s included with one’s first order and represents a 1-day, 2000-calorie supply, I mixed together a big packet of what looked and smelled a lot like cake mix, a pitcherful of water, and a little plastic bottle of fish oil, and then put it in the fridge to cool off. The instructions clearly state not to drink warm Soylent because it tastes terrible; it was somewhat heartening, though, to read that it only lasts about 48 hours in the fridge. It might have been constructed in a lab from molecular raw materials hailing from all corners of the globe, but at least the Frankensteinian smoothie that they combined to create had a shelf life that somewhat resembled that of an avocado.

A few hours later, after posting the requisite picture of the box on Facebook (see above) and promising in the comment thread to eventually write a blog post about my experience, I poured my first rich, frothy glass of the future, contemplated it briefly…and then took a sip. The future, it turns out, tastes kind of like watered down pancake batter. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s just barely good enough that drinking it is neither a chore nor something to look forward to in and of itself. The instructions recommend starting off slow and then building from there, so that’s what I did.

Breakfast is the meal that I skip most often, so that seemed like the best place to start if I was going to start slow. A 21 oz serving of Soylent contains 670 calories, 38 grams of protein, and 33% of pretty much everything the USDA says that a healthy American is supposed to consume in a day, so nutritionally speaking it’s kind of like a protein shake on steroids, and I’ve used protein shakes off and on as dietary supplements at various times in my life, so it was a pretty easy transition. I started drinking my breakfast every day and loved it; as a result I went from actually sitting down and eating breakfast maybe once or twice a week to never missing it, regardless of how busy my day was. It took me about a month to get through my initial two-week supply, and by the time I did I was chugging a serving in the morning every day, taking along a 20-oz refrigerated tumbler for my travels on the busy days, and getting my full 2000 calories per day out of a plastic iced tea pitcher on the days when I was too busy to cook (there was a full week in November during which I made precisely one actual meal for myself). I transferred my friend’s “early backer” account over into my name and re-upped at the $3/serving, 84-meals-per-month plan, totally sold. I’m not planning on going back anytime soon.

I drink Soylent because of the convenience, first and foremost—it’s a good price point, it’s nutritionally complete and environmentally sustainable (they even switched to an algae-generated oil blend in the most recent version, so it’s now entirely vegetarian), and it’s super quick. After living with it for a couple of months now, though, I’ve also come to enjoy the less tangible aspects of my new relationship with food.

I’ve always enjoyed fasting as an occasional exercise because it eliminates the considerable amount of time and mindshare that I spend each day thinking about, procuring/preparing, and eating food. Soylent is like fasting in food form: it keeps me focused, it frees up a surprisingly large amount of productive time in my day, and it changes my relationship to my diet in a way that, for me at least, has been largely positive. Not only do I virtually never skip meals now or just eat junk food regardless of how busy I am; using a lab-generated food powder to meet most of my nutritional needs, it turns out, has also increased the sacredness of food in my daily life and made me appreciate it that much more. There’s nothing more relaxing at the end of a long day than walking to the co-op grocery store at the end of my block, buying some local organic vegetables & meat, and cooking myself a nice steak or a good stir-fry and then sitting down and taking as much time as I want to enjoy my food.

My days now are usually too busy to allow me that luxury for more than one meal per day, though, and I’ve had days in the last two months that have kept me running around for 15 straight hours without a break. Soylent is by far the most elegant solution (except for the terrible gas in the beginning) that I’ve found to the problem of how to feed myself well regardless of what my schedule is like; it’s already become a sustainable part of both my budget and my diet. If you want to give it a try yourself, just let me know and I’ll send you a packet.

Some thoughts about the moment

The Moment figures prominently in a lot of the stories we tell ourselves and each other about how to live a good life—we always seem to be at our best when we’re seizing the moment, living in the moment, appreciating the moment, or some other variation on the theme. “Be more present in the moment” has been permanently etched on my mental to-do list since at least college some time, but it’s only very recently that I’ve begun to fully come to terms with what that means.

I was first introduced to the concept of “choice points” at a statewide organizer training on the Obama campaign in 2008, when I wrote my Story of Self for the first time. I went on to design and teach a workshop on Marshall Ganz’s public narrative framework to members of the general public when I worked for the Mayor’s Office, but until last week sometime I’d never really moved beyond a fairly traditional way of thinking about them. Where I used to see choice points as the major decisions I’ve made in my live that have gotten me to where I am today, I’ve very recently come to realize that when I made them, many of the most significant choices of my life were indistinguishable from all of the little choices I make every day. That realization reminded me of a great blog post by a friend earlier this year about the importance of “staying in choice,” recognizing the omnipresence of choice in our lives and owning the heightened sense of personal agency that comes with that.

The realization came to me in a very specific moment, as epiphanes often do. The specifics don’t really matter; the important part is that I was faced with a clear but seemingly minor choice, I thought about it and—logically, I thought—decided on a course of action in the moment that I immediately regretted as soon as the moment was over. In going back and thinking about it afterwards and discussing the matter with a couple of good friends, it became clear to me that I’d fallen victim to fear masquerading as logic.

I’m generally pretty good about moving towards my fears whenever I can see them—my mental image is of me walking up with a big smile on my face and introducing myself to someone I don’t know at a party—but this was a new line of thought for me. In this particular case I realized after the fact that my underlying fear was of the social consequences of my actions, but it made me stop and think about all of the other subconscious decisions I make every day without even recognizing that they’re choices, and all of the conscious decisions I make without realizing that I’m making them out of fear.

And it’s not always fear of doing something. If I had to guess, I would say that there have been more things in my life in the last five years that I’ve done because I’m afraid of not doing them than there have been that I haven’t done because I’m afraid of doing them. There are still plenty of both, don’t get me wrong, but it’s just starting to dawn on me that fear of missing out (FOMO) is more prevalent in my life than I’d thought.

I’ve always thought of FOMO as being specifically tied to events and activities, and in that area I think I’ve actually reached a pretty good equilibrium. Where I have a long way to go is in reacting to the moment in front of me as it actually exists, rather than to the path that I think might exist at some point in the future based on my reaction to whatever I’m faced with. I’m often so afraid of missing out on the different imaginary versions of the future I paint for myself in my head that I allow that fear to impact the way I live my life in the present.

I’ve gotten really good at moment-washing—telling myself I’m doing all those things with The Moment that we all know we’re supposed to do when in reality I’m reacting to what might end up happening at some point in the future rather than what’s right in front of me. To put it in improv terms (and it’s amazing how directly life correlates to improv), I still spend a lot of time trying to steer the scene where I think it should go instead of truly “yes—and!” ing my scene partners…which any improviser will tell you just doesn’t work.

When I’m not doing that, though—when I’m truly present and fully engaged and not worried about anything beyond what’s immediately in front of me—those always have been and always will be the best moments of my life. In my mid-twenties I associated them with the freedom of the open road; now they’re associated with work (real estate’s been amazing so far, but that’s a topic for another post) and writing and performing and all sorts of other things, but above all with spending time with the people in my life who are most important to me. Having that feeling more often is about as close to the meaning of life as I can imagine—it’s what’s at the heart of falling in love and being in flow and so many of the other experiences that we spend our lives chasing.

So what’s the solution? For starters, accepting that I don’t know what the solution is, and that that’s OK. Two things I’m going to start with, though, are greater awareness of all the different choices I make in my daily life and more frequent gut checks to ensure that I’m reacting to the world as it actually is, rather than as I want it to be.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Seattle to Jackson the Long Way

Seattle to Jackson the Long Way 3

This time yesterday morning found me on a densely forested trail in southeastern Wyoming, locking eyes with a mother moose out foraging with her baby about 50 yards away from me and armed only with a good pair of running shoes and a healthy sense of wonder. It was the beginning of the last day of a 7-day road trip over the course of which a good friend from Seattle moved to Jackson for a new job via New Mexico with me and another good friend for company. This was to be our last run together for a long time, and it was off to a great start. We’d caught a glimpse of the two moose through the trees towards the beginning of our run, and over the course of 15 minutes or so we’d tracked them here, to the other side of a clearing, ready to cut and run for cover at a moment’s notice if things went south. But things didn’t go south. We sat there with them for what was probably only a minute or two (although it felt much longer), relatively small animals silently observing and being observed by a much larger one, and then they went their way and we went ours, out to Turtle Rock and the best scrambling I’ve ever done before completing the loop trail back to our campsite at Vedauwoo, packing up the car, and heading for the tiny Jackson Hole Airport so I could catch my flight back here to Seattle.

I’ve done a lot of road trips in my life—the solo west-coast-bound road trip was an art form that I perfected in college, and all told I’ve logged well over 300,000 miles on the Interstates and highways of the lower 48, including 15,000 miles steering an S2000 around all the best driving roads in America—but the one that just ended, Seattle to Jackson the Long Way as I’ve taken to calling it, is tied with 2005’s seminal The Outer Loop for the best road trip I’ve ever taken. First and foremost it served as the liminal space between my friend’s time in Seattle and his time in Jackson, built around a tour of some of the most important wild places of his youth; but the trip also represented a merging of the road trip tradition of my early adulthood with the backpacking and trail running traditions that have become increasingly important parts of the way that I experience the world more recently, thanks largely to the same friend who just moved to Jackson. It was an honor to be able to share that whole experience with my two traveling companions, and to get to spend so much quality time with both of them.

And it was a fantastic trip. We covered more than 2500 miles over the course of 7 days; we car camped every night except one; we ran high-altitude trails in the mornings and climbed the tallest peak in New Mexico; we had long, multi-state discussions about religion and politics and love and money and all of the other important things in life; in addition to moose we saw or heard elk and deer and owls and hawks and eagles and marmots and coyotes and perhaps even a mountain lion; and it all happened in the American West, rolling hills and huge forests and wide open plains and long, winding rivers and epic mountain ranges that were alternately our backdrops and our playgrounds. It felt like joining my experience of Seattle to my experience of the rest of the country, connecting them physically in a way that they hadn’t been connected before, and mixing in my friends’ experiences of the same places to create a richer, deeper understanding not only of the two of them but also of the physical geography of our shared country.

The experience of seeing different places through the eyes of these specific friends, both of whom are not only seekers in the true sense of the word and important people in my life but also at different life stages from me, was very powerful. The fact that I’m much more attuned to the natural world and my relationship to it now than I have been at any other point in my life also meant that this trip was much more about communion than escape, which if I’m being honest was probably the most common theme of the travels of my college years.

Communion means different things in different contexts, but I use it here to incorporate elements of community, personal growth, meaning, and adventure and exploration, the sum of which is the same kind of interface with the divine that a lot of people find in a formal place of worship. That definition was perfectly expressed in the entirety of the run yesterday, which was a microcosm of the trip as a whole. When I finally said good-bye at the tiny little Jackson Hole Airport at the end of the day, in the shadow of the Teton Range at the end of a particularly scenic day, it served not only as the official end to my summer of 2014 but also as a send-off to a friend I’m really going to miss. I can’t imagine any better way to have said good-bye.

What’s next for me

I’ve spent the last seven months doing a lot—traveling a ton, finishing the full catalog of improv classes at Unexpected Productions, writing my first play, hiking and backpacking, going on my first-ever bike tour, falling in love with running and completing my first half-marathon, doing SIFF right for the first time in four years, co-founding Organizing for Seattle, reading books again, having more fun dating than I ever have before in my life, giving my third Ignite talk, pitching an idea at Crosscut’s inaugural Community Idea Lab, telling a live story at The Moth’s Story Slam in Fremont, taking a 15-day break from modern technology, finding my voice as a private citizen in local politics, playing chess again for the first time in years, facilitating and helping put together the Hack to End Homelessness, learning to salsa, driving Ferrarris and Lamborghinis, watching a pair of baby hummingbirds gestate, hatch, and then grow up and eventually fly away right outside my kitchen window, helping friends buy cars, serving on the board of the co-op I live in, watching live theater and dance again in earnest, learning AdWords and the basics of SEM over the course of self-publishing my first book, spending a huge amount of quality time with friends…and, for the last couple of months, taking the online courses that are required to become a real estate agent in Washington State. I passed the state exam two days ago, and about an hour ago I became an officially licensed agent with Windermere Eastlake!

Windermere logo

I did a lot of soul-searching immediately after the Mayor’s Office, and I explored a lot of different options for my next career move. I looked into everything from advocacy work to getting a master’s degree to starting my own business, but none of them felt quite right. After sitting with it long enough, I realized that the one thing I’ve been missing in my life since the day I stopped selling cars at Millennium Ford over 10 years ago is the feeling of “eating what I kill,” as my used car manager put it. It’s a phrase that encompasses both being paid precisely what I’m worth and being forced to stay hungry and lean in order to succeed, not being allowed to get complacent and soft. In other words, I realized that I’ve really been missing working on commission.

When I thought about commission-based jobs that I would actually want to do right now, real estate was the first thing that came to mind—I had a great experience buying my apartment 4 ½ years ago, and the idea of helping other people have a similarly great experience navigating one of the biggest, most complex, and most stressful transactions of their lives really appealed to me. So did the prospects of essentially running my own business, having to master a wide variety of marketing techniques, being able to spend more time in strangers’ homes in a socially acceptable way (since I’m being honest—one of my favorite things about selling Cutco back in college was getting to sit down in peoples’ living rooms while I was selling them knives)…and, of course, being able to pay off my own mortgage much sooner than I would otherwise be able to. I do my best work when I’m strongly motivated, and aside from elections, becoming debt-free has historically been my best source of motivation where work is concerned. It’s why I was willing to put so many hours in as a car salesman immediately after college, and also why I was debt-free at 23 and able to travel for nearly a year and a half on the money I saved up 10 years ago.

The more I thought about becoming a real estate agent, the more I realized it was what I needed to do. All real estate agents in Washington are required to take a 90-hour course (I did mine online), pass the state exam, and operate under the umbrella of an established brokerage. While I was getting the coursework out of the way I did some research, set up several interviews, and ultimately decided to hang my license with Windermere’s Eastlake office. Windermere has by far the biggest share of the real estate market in Seattle at around 42% (John L Scott is next in line with around 16%), and they also have a strong culture around new agent training and support ; I’m really glad to have ended up with them.

As I’ve talked to people informally over the course of the last couple of months, one of the most common questions I’ve gotten has been what my focus or specialty will be. The answer is twofold: I’m most passionate about helping first-time homebuyers find homes, especially now in a red-hot seller’s market where there’s significant competition for every available property (I’ve always liked going to bat for the underdog); but in the early stages, realistically my real estate practice is going to depend on how many of you either choose me as your agent when it comes time for you to buy or sell your home or recommend me to your friends and acquaintances when they’re going through that process themselves.

So if you don’t already have someone in the “my real estate agent” slot in your mind, please consider me your agent on call and let your friends know that they can do the same. Whether you want to email me with questions, get coffee and discuss the market and your options, dip your toe in the water by going out and looking at homes, or go all in and either look for a new home in earnest or sell your current one, I’d love to talk to you.

Thanks for helping to make the last 7 months so much fun, and please don’t hesitate to let me know if I can be of service, in real estate or otherwise!

Re-wilding

Narvaez bivy

People have asked me my whole life if I’m a runner just based on the way I’m built, and I’ve always said no. It’s not that I don’t run; a morning 5k has been a semi-regular part of my exercise regime since college. It’s always been something that I’ve had to force myself to do, though, and as soon as I fall off the bandwagon it always takes me a long time to get back into the habit—there have been whole years that have passed without my ever putting on a pair of running shoes. That’s been changing recently, though.

It all began four months ago when I started linking up with a friend on his weekly morning run-commutes—he’d run down from Wallingford, I’d run up from Capitol Hill, and we’d run over into the Arboretum and up through Interlaken Park to Volunteer Park before we split off at Madison, he going downtown and I stopping at my place. I’d never run more than 4 miles at a time in my life before this, but we started out at 5 miles and kept building from there. I broke 10 miles for the first time on a trail run at Cougar Mountain a couple of months later, and shortly thereafter he invited me to join him and a bunch of friends on an 8-day bike tour from Vancouver BC to Seattle via the Gulf Islands in Canada, the San Juans, and the Olympic Peninsula.

I was thoroughly unprepared for such an aggressive trip—it ended up being 332 miles and 21,285 feet of elevation gain all told—but that’s never stopped me from saying yes in the past, and it didn’t in this case either. I did a 30-mile, 1900-foot practice ride around Seattle the day before we left, just to be sure that I wouldn’t be holding the rest of the group back, and the next morning I boarded a Bolt Bus bound for Vancouver. The experience that unfolded over the course of the next 8 days can really only be described as life-changing—the nine of us on the tour got along amazingly well and had a ton of fun, we slept under the stars and explored all sorts of amazing little out-of-the-way island spots, and, perhaps most importantly, I was forced to discover new capacities for physical exertion that I hadn’t realized I possessed.

A few weeks earlier I’d had a great dinner conversation about the difference between pain and suffering—the basic theme being that pain is the body’s response to a certain set of circumstances, but suffering is the mind’s response to the body’s input—and I thought about it a lot as I was grinding my way up hills and wanting nothing more than to be fast asleep at the end of the day. I have pretty good climbing gears on my bike, so it took awhile for me to really hit the wall, but somewhere on day 6 I hit it, and I hit it hard. Continuing on went from being difficult to being downright painful, but I had no choice; I had to keep going, and I did it by telling myself over and over that the pain was making me stronger (a mantra I borrowed from my one of my tourmates) until I really and truly started to look forward to the hills instead of secretly dreading each one. The input hadn’t changed at all, but by changing my response to it I had given myself the will to keep going and actually enjoy it instead of just counting the miles until the end of the day.

All of this was swirling around inside my head immediately after the tour ended, but without much form—I knew I’d just had an amazing experience, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the core of it had been. That night was my monthly book club meeting, and the book we chose for this month was Go Wild: Free Your Body and Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization. Once I picked it up the next day I could barely put it down—the basic premise is that human beings evolved to live in a world that’s very different from the one we live in now, and because evolution is such a slow process we really haven’t had much time to catch up and adapt to our current circumstances. Go Wild is the authors’ manifesto on how to better align a modern lifestyle with our ancient genes, and it really resonated with me.

Some aspects of the book are more controversial than others—they argue for a diet that’s very Paleo-like (although not quite as strict), but they also spend a lot of time talking about the holistic physical and mental health benefits of varied forms of outdoor exercise and generally spending more time in nature. Over and over again I recognized things from the book that echoed my experiences on the tour and a lot of my experiences over the course of my life, and I resolved to make some changes accordingly.

My running friend recently quit his job to move to another state, and to commemorate his last day in the office we did an epic run-commute finale five days after the end of the bike tour that involved climbing at the outdoor climbing wall at the UW, swimming across the Montlake Cut, and running a total of just over 9 miles. I was beat-up and sore by the end of it, but I also felt like a million bucks, in stark contrast to the first 7-mile-plus run that I ever did a few months ago, after which I think I may have declared that I was never going to run again.

The authors talk a lot about trail running and ultrarunning, and they reference Born to Run several times (and it had also been recommended to me many times independently), so the next day when I finished Go Wild I bought a copy of Born to Run and similarly couldn’t put it down. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it—it’s a fantastic story even if you have no interest in running, but for a budding runner like myself it was like lighter fluid on charcoal. I finished the book on a Sunday night, and the next day on a whim I laced up my running shoes, plotted out a course online, and ran my first-ever half marathon, up to Green Lake, around the lake once, and then back to my apartment. I hit a point maybe halfway through where I was running solely for the sake of running, appreciating the feeling of the muscles in my legs being torn down so that they could come back stronger and reveling in the freedom of running somewhere that I would normally drive or maybe bike if I was feeling really adventurous, and very much not just looking forward to the run being over. I made it back in one piece without any issues, gave myself a couple of days to recover, and then started my morning runs in earnest again. The half-marathon marked the beginning of a new chapter for me; it gave me a glimpse of just how deep my own untapped physical potential is when I’m operating in harmony with my body.

“Re-wilding” is a concept from Go Wild that I really like that more or less describes that feeling of getting back into a state of harmony with one’s essential nature, and it reminds me of a thought that I had as I was drifting off to sleep in my bivy sack on Saturna Island, gazing out across the water at the San Juans in the distance with the faint lights of humanity twinkling underneath the stars and a huge cargo freighter chugging along a shipping lane between us as quietly as it could: there’s a balance between the demands of civilization and our true nature as wild humans (I’ve started using myself as a three-year-old for my model) that each of us is capable of achieving in our daily lives but that definitely doesn’t happen by default. I’m still working on achieving that balance, but now at least I feel like I’ve learned to notice when I chance across it, and I’m starting to understand how to get there more often.

One change I’ve made recently is fairly standard—as a general rule, I’ve stopped eating processed food and sugar, started eating fewer of the super-dense carbohydrates like pasta and corn tortillas that used to make up the bulk of my daily calories, and started eating a lot more fruit and vegetables of all kinds, beans, meat, fish, and healthy fats like nuts and avocados. This represents a huge shift from the way I’ve traditionally thought about nutrition; I’ve already noticed a positive difference in my energy level, but I’ve also been forced to spend a lot more time thinking about, choosing, and preparing the food that I eat, which has been great in and of itself. My standard for food used to be all about avoiding effort: how easily can I get as many calories as possible without eating outright junk food? Now my goal is just to eat good food, which feels like a better way to think about it.

The other life change is a small thing, but one that I’ve come to really enjoy. It’s based on the observation from one of the two books that our feet are incredibly sensitive and packed with neuroreceptors, but we keep them cooped up in shoes and sandals almost our entire lives once we reach adulthood. On a whim one day about a week and a half ago I woke up and decided that before I did anything else I was going to go walk around outside barefoot, just for the sheer sensory activation of it. I put on some clothes, grabbed my keys, and stepped outside with nothing on my feet for perhaps the first time in the 4 ½ years that I’ve lived in my apartment—and it was fantastic. I ended up walking about a block and a half to my little neighborhood pocket park, luxuriating in the feel of thick grass on bare feet, and then walking back to my apartment and resuming my normal morning routine…and it was such a great way to wake up that I’ve been doing it ever since. Coffee isn’t part of my daily ritual, but if it were I would experiment with giving up my morning coffee in exchange for a 5-minute barefoot walk; I think the walk would probably win.

So the long and the short of it is that I realize now that I am a runner, and that’s something that I’m continuing to grow into, but running is only the beginning; I’m also a singer, an artist, an explorer, and a bunch of other aspects of myself as a little kid that have gotten buried to varying degrees over the years. I’m very much looking forward to continuing to dig in the dirt and see what I find.

What #YesAllWomen means to me as a man

Like many men, I initially saw the shootings at UCSB last week as just another in a long string of incidents of gun violence perpetrated by another in a long string of lonely, mentally unstable men who were as far removed from me as it’s possible for two people to be. I braced myself for the usual cycle of mourning mixed with outrage, scattered calls for gun control legislation, inaction on the part of legislators and politicians in the face of one of the best-organized grassroots organizations in the country (the NRA), followed by a fading from the public consciousness after a set number of media cycles. What happened instead, though—the evolving conversation best encapsulated under the #YesAllWomen hashtag—blew a hole in the way that I, as a man, see the world and the other half of its inhabitants. It also made me realize that I have a lot more in common with this particular shooter than I would ever have been comfortable admitting at first glance.

Like most men probably do, I consider myself to be “one of the good guys,” so what’s been most eye-opening about this whole unfolding discussion is not only realizing that there’s a huge gap between the way that I see the world when I walk down the street and the way that a woman sees it, but also that it was possible for me to have and to have had so many close relationships with women over the course of my life and yet still be so ignorant of some of some of the most fundamental realities that half of the world’s population encounters on a daily basis. It felt like peeking through a doorway into a hidden world that was much more twisted and sinister than the one I’m used to seeing every day; I found that I couldn’t just ignore what I’d seen and go back to living my life without in some way reassessing my relationships to all of the women in my life, including the vast majority that I’ll only ever interact with tangentially.

If you’re a man reading this and you’re not already familiar with the hashtag, go spend a few minutes browsing around. The reason the thread is so powerful is that it reads like a support group for women to bare their souls about a small handful of the physical and psychological transgressions, large and small, that they suffer on a daily basis at the hands of men. Reading the stories and articles that started pouring out from every corner of the Internet made me begin to realize just how big a deal this is for all women—how essential harassment by men is to the basic experience of being a woman. It was a realization that, as a man, I’d been able to go 34 years of my life without ever being smacked in the face by. “I had no idea it was this bad” sounds like a weak excuse, but it’s the truth.

Like all of us do, I grew up in a world where women are highly sexualized in virtually all aspects of society, from advertising to movie plots to actual pornography. I became aware of the detrimental effect of all of that on myself and my relationships to women at some point early on, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that I started really thinking about its impact on the women in my life. The biggest turning point for me was starting to work with the Youth Commission during my time in the Mayor’s Office.

The Youth Commission is a group of teenagers who advise the Mayor and the City Council on policy issues. I became their staff liaison/program manager in June of 2010, and over the course of the years that followed I got to know a lot of extraordinary young people who served as commissioners. One of my main goals with the Youth Commission was to get the students to realize their own ability to influence the political systems in which they live, and in order to do that I had to open my eyes to what the world looks like from the perspective of a teenager. As part of that process, for the first time in my life I started to think about what the world looks like to a teenage girl, what messages society has for her that are different than the ones they had for me when I was a teenage boy. I started paying more attention to reasons why girls decide not to run for political office thanks to organizations like the Washington Bus and the Women’s Funding Alliance, processing negative portrayals of women in the media thanks to organizations like Reel Grrls and Powerful Voices, and thinking about the world in which my friends’ infant daughters would be growing up whenever I would spend time with them. As my awareness grew I thought I was doing my part by fighting against the anonymized “other men” who were conspiring to keep women and girls down; I knew that I still objectified women more than I wanted to, but I saw that as something that really only affected me.

While I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I like to think that I’m a much better male ally to the women and girls in my life now than I was four years ago…but until last week I’d still always thought of misogyny and violence against women as problems for other men but not for me. I would previously never have thought of checking out an attractive woman walking down the street as existing on the same spectrum as Elliott Rogers opening fire on a college campus. What I’ve realized they have in common, though, is that they’re both fundamentally rooted in a system in which women are viewed first and foremost as sex objects, which is what makes possible all of the objectification, infantilization, and abuse that #YesAllWomen is a testament to and a reaction against. Do I fight against that system and try to treat all women in my life with respect? Yes. But do I also contribute to it myself? Absolutely. And that, I think, has been the biggest takeaway for me from all of this: it’s all too easy to say that I belong in one bucket or another—good or bad, ally or enemy—but the truth is that both sides are a part of me. I’m used to focusing on the good, but it’s useful to shine a spotlight on the bad from time to time, too; as Justice Brandeis once said, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Even though I’m part of what I assume is the vast majority of men who’s never going to commit an act of abuse—sexual or otherwise—against a woman, that doesn’t mean that I’m not part of the problem. For the first time in my life I feel, viscerally, my own culpability in the perpetuation of a system in which not only are women made to feel uncomfortable and afraid solely because of who they are, but also one in which the emotion that’s been tapped by #YesAllWomen is such a universal but unspoken truth for women that learning about it, as a man, feels somewhat akin to a fish learning that water exists.

I’m not going to try to forecast what the long-term impact of this conversation is going to be in my life—I imagine it’ll be something I’ll look back on as a moment of awakening, but at the very least it’s highlighted the connection between my internal world and the world that women have to navigate on a daily basis, which is huge in and of itself. Going forward I’m going to have to hold myself to a higher standard of personal conduct in order to still be able to think of myself as one of the good guys.

Lessons from self-publishing my first book

Lessons from self-publishing my first book

As some of you may have noticed, I published a book last month—it’s called Thirty-Three: My Jesus Year in Blog Posts, and it’s available in both Kindle and print versions. As the name implies, it’s a collection of posts from this blog between February of 2013 and February of this year that, taken collectively, serve as a memoir of the personal journey that I embarked on over the course of that period of time. I didn’t publish it to make money off of it or to reach a wider audience or any of that, though; I did it for two reasons: 1) those posts are pretty long, and I think they lend themselves well to a longer format for any of you who are interested in reading them that way, and 2) I wanted to see for myself precisely what’s involved in self-publishing a book these days, including having an excuse to play around with some online marketing tools.

This post is going to be entirely about #2—and yes, I am enjoying the irony of writing a blog post about a book of blog posts from this very blog :) Note that I focused exclusively on Amazon, so I can’t speak to the other self-publishing platforms out there.

The basics

There are two roughly similar processes you’ll need to go through on two different platforms to publish your book, one for the Kindle version and the other for the print version. The Kindle platform is called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP (kdp.amazon.com), and the print platform is called CreateSpace (the website is createspace.com, but it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon now). I published the Kindle version of my book first and then did the CreateSpace version afterwards, but if you want to save time and you’re OK with the inferior CreateSpace cover creator program—or you create or pay someone to create your own high-quality cover image, which I’d recommend if your goal is actually to sell copies—you can skip KDP and just click a button during the CreateSpace process to cross-publish it as a Kindle e-book too.

The major pieces of content that you need in order to publish on either platform are a manuscript (any MS Word document will do), a cover file, and a handful of metadata (a synopsis, your author bio & headshot if desired, and your list of keywords for on-site search purposes). The entire publishing process took me about 5 or 6 hours, the vast majority of which went to creating the two cover files and proofing my manuscript once it was online.

The manuscript

CreateSpace has a very specific template you’ll need to use that conforms to whatever printed dimensions you choose for your book; for KDP the only piece of special formatting I did to my existing document was to add an automated table of contents using MS Word’s Heading 1 and Heading 2 tags so that readers can skip between chapters on the e-book (see here for full instructions). If you’re looking to save time, do the entire thing in CreateSpace and then just push it to KDP; I can’t speak from experience, but I would imagine that as long as you include an automated table of contents in your CreateSpace file it should transfer to KDP, too.

Both platforms have an online proofreading tool that you can use to go through your book page by page to make sure everything lines up properly after it’s been uploaded (the KDP version lets you simulate different reading devices, too, which is nice); you can also order a hardcopy proof from CreateSpace, or just approve it based on the digital version.

If you go through KDP you’ll encounter a blank for your ISBN—the short answer is that you don’t need one for an e-book, but they can be useful for certain purposes. I stopped researching it pretty quickly after I established that you don’t need one for an e-book :) Print books, as far as I know, do require an ISBN, but CreateSpace makes it easy to either buy one or get one for free as part of their process—I paid $10 for one to avoid listing CreateSpace as the publisher for one of their free ISBNs. 

The cover

KDP and CreateSpace both have their own automated cover creators that let you design your own cover if you want to. KDP’s gives you a lot more flexibility, but you’ll only be able to use what you design for the Kindle version of your book; CreateSpace’s automated tool frankly kind of sucks, but if you manage to make something you like with it you can download the file for future use and, as with the manuscript, automatically push the whole package to a Kindle e-book. I didn’t do this, so I can’t speak to it directly; I designed my Kindle cover using the KDP tool and my CreateSpace cover using their tool.

If your goal is to sell as many copies of your book as possible (mine wasn’t, in this case), I’d recommend paying a professional to design your cover for you—CreateSpace offers $400 and $600 cover design packages, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other places out there that’ll gladly make you a professional-looking cover in exchange for a little cash. If you have your own cover file, you can upload it directly to either platform.

Royalties, KDP Select, etc

On KDP, the basic decision you have to make when you decide how much to charge for your book is whether you want to charge $2.99 or more and get 70% of the proceeds of everything you sell (less a very small per-megabyte charge to cover distribution costs) or charge less than that and get a straight 35% royalty (with no additional per-megabyte charge). I started mine off at $2.99 thinking I would keep it there, but once I started playing around with AdWords in earnest I dropped the price to $0.99, just to eliminate the variable of cost from the equation. You also have the option to enroll your book in KDP Select, which entails agreeing to distribute the e-book version of your work exclusively through the Kindle store (i.e., not simultaneously in Nook, ePub, iTunes, etc versions) for the first 90 days after which it’s published in exchange for making your book part of the Kindle lending library, which lets Amazon Prime members borrow it for free and gives you a portion of a $6 million pot of money that Amazon’s set aside to compensate lending library authors based on—as far as I could tell—the percentage of overall lending library downloads of your book vs all other books in the program.

On CreateSpace it’s much simpler—they’re an on-demand printer, so there are no order minimums or anything like that, but as a result the per-unit price is much higher than it would be otherwise. The minimum list price for my book was $7.28, which would have yielded royalties of $1.45 per sale; I went with an even $9.99, which works out to $3.08 in royalties per Amazon order according to their calculator. As a point of comparison, the Kindle price point that gets you to $3.08 in royalties is $4.44 (at the 70% royalty level).

Online marketing

One of the biggest reasons I was excited about publishing the book was having an excuse to play around with Facebook ads and AdWords (Google’s paid ad platform—those little text ads you see to the right of your search results)—and it didn’t disappoint :) The short version, for me at least, was that Facebook ads were a complete waste of money, whereas AdWords worked well in the beginning and then fantastically well once I tweaked my ad copy a bit.

The copy that I used in my Facebook ad and my first AdWords ad were identical; they both linked directly to the Kindle product page, but the Facebook ad included a thumbnail image of the book cover, whereas the AdWords one was just text (headline underlined):

My “Jesus Year” in essays 33 was a tough year…but also one of my best. $0.99, or free with Prime.

Not the greatest copy, as I would learn, but the numbers were still very eye-opening: between April 22nd and April 27th I got 36,055 impressions and 18 clicks from my Facebook ad, for a click-through rate of 0.049%. My average cost per click was $0.62, so I paid a total of $11.16 for those 18 clicks.  Over the same period of time, my AdWords campaign generated 25,342 impressions and 124 clicks, for a click-through rate of 0.49%–which I’d never noticed until just now was exactly 10 times my Facebook click-through rate—and my average cost per click was only $0.04. So not only were the AdWords clicks 15.5x cheaper than Facebook’s, I was also getting them 10x faster. I canceled my Facebook campaign on the spot and left the AdWords one running at the rate of $1/day to get more data and then largely forgot about it.

When I checked back in on May 10th, the numbers were pretty similar—398 clicks from 92,005 impressions, for a click-through rate of 0.43% with an average cost per click of $0.03—and I decided to see what I could do increase my click-through rate, with 1% as my initial goal. I looked at the AdWords data to see what organic search terms had driven most of those 398 clicks, and I rewrote my ad to cater more explicitly to them, which resulted in the following (headline underlined):

A cheap Kindle ebook :) Self-published personal essays on loss, redemption, and joy. $0.99

The self-consciously super-SEO headline clearly worked—over the course of the past 10 days that the new ad has been running, it’s had 22,251 impressions and  3,503 clicks at $0.01 per click, for an almost unbelievable average click-through rate of 15.74%. That’s 32x higher than the click-through rate for my original AdWords ad, and 320x higher than for my original Facebook ad. I turned off the campaign earlier today, because a) I already had the data I wanted, and b) I’m really and truly not making any money off of this book—my purchase conversion rate from all those clicks was pretty much zero, so it didn’t make sense to keep paying for it. I knew that would most likely be the case going in, though; the market for Thirty-Three is people who know me and want to read a bunch of my unfocused, loosely structured personal essays, and that market is almost completely a subset of my friends, family, and followers on social media.

I approached this as an exercise in how to publish and drive clicks to a book online, and in that sense it was a smashing success. My next time around I’ll try to tackle the question of how you actually get people to buy what you’re selling—the next book I write will be written with a much larger audience in mind and with an explicit goal of selling copies, so sales conversion rates will be the main metric I’ll be looking to.

Conclusion

Looking back on this little experiment, I can honestly say that I got everything I wanted from it and more—I’m comfortable with online marketing now, and any mental roadblock I once had about the difficulty of self-publishing is gone, leaving me that much freer to focus on what really counts when it comes to online publishing: what I want to write next :)

If you’re considering going the self-publishing route yourself and you want the quick and easy takeaways from my experience without reading the whole post, here you go:

  1. If you’re going to publish both a print and an e-book version of your work, start with CreateSpace and use it to quickly and easily transfer your print content to an e-book. There’s virtually no additional cost to offering a print version (I paid $10 for an ISBN and another $15 or so including shipping to have a proof mailed to me, but you can skip the physical proof and even get a free ISBN if you’re willing to let CreateSpace list themselves as the publisher), and it increases your potential market beyond people with e-readers, so it’s worth considering.
  2. You’ll make a lot more money at a lower price point on e-books than printed ones (assuming you’re charging at least $2.99 for your work and going with Amazon’s 70% royalty option), so an e-book should definitely be part of your strategy.
  3. Use Microsoft Word’s automated table of contents feature (see instructions here) to create a table of contents that you can use for the print version of your book but that will also enable Kindle hyperlinks for your e-book readers.
  4. For online marketing, forget about Facebook and focus on AdWords—set a small daily budget, let it run for a while to get some good data on how people who click on your ad are coming to it based on their search terms, and then adjust your ad copy and tweak as necessary to increase your traffic.

That’s it! Let me know if you have any other questions about my experience, and good luck if you’re embarking on the self-publishing route yourself :)

 

Southern food & supercars

Southern food and supercars 3

The Ferrari & Maserati dealership on Capitol Hill has been an oblique part of my community the entire time that I’ve lived in Seattle: always there in the background but entirely out of reach, something I interact with only through longing glances and idle daydreams. I’d wanted to make the experience that they sell a concrete part of my world for a long time—“drive a Ferrari” seems like too pedestrian a term to really do the concept justice—but supercars, as $200,000-plus exotic sports cars are known, are generally inaccessible to anyone but the ultra-wealthy. I’ve owned an S2000, which is among the best real-world driving cars ever built, but Ferraris and Lamborghinis specifically had always been my Platonic conception of automotive perfection. They functioned, for me, as little more than blank canvasses on which to paint all of my hopes and desires about what an automobile could be. In my dreams I’ve tricked salesmen in that little showroom into letting me go on test drives and then proceeded to lead police on beautiful cross-country manhunts into Mexico and beyond, but in the real world I’d only stopped to stare as they passed me on the street or admired them through the glass windows of a showroom…until this past Saturday.

The trend of drawing comparisons between supercars and supermodels is wildly off-base for a number of reasons, but one thing it does speak to is the fetishization of an unrealistic version of perfection and happiness. “If only I had a supermodel girlfriend/wife and a couple of supercars, then I’d be really happy” is the hyperbolic form of a consistent message that’s delivered to little boys starting at a very young age—my favorite Hot Wheels car when I was in third grade was a little yellow Lamborghini with working gull-wing doors, and I don’t think I have to convince anyone of the unrealistic body standards that dominate depictions of women in global media. I set up my life in opposition to perfection and exoticism immediately after college, which for me has meant experiencing as much as possible of the world around me for myself and learning to see things for what they really are rather than for what I want them to be. My relationships to women have improved dramatically since my younger days, but I’d never really stopped carrying around that little yellow Lamborghini inside my head and waiting for the opportunity to experience the real thing for myself.

I’m not alone in my fanatic “brand identification,” as a marketer would put it, and there’s a whole cottage industry that’s sprung up around slaking the desire to experience the pinnacle of automotive perfection for oneself. My point of entry was a LivingSocial deal that popped up a few months back, offering three autocross laps in a Ferrari or a Lamborghini—your choice—for just $150. I jumped on it immediately, not because I wanted to take the exoticism off of the experience but because I hadn’t yet realized my own lack of self-awareness around the issue. Should I have known going in that the experience was bound to disappoint me? Should I have seen it for what it really was instead of for what I wanted it to be? Probably—but hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.

Tacoma, in addition to being the location of the apartment I lived in for the first 7 months that I lived in the northwest, is home to Southern Kitchen, a little hole in the wall that serves the best southern food I’ve found in this part of the world. It’s one of my favorite restaurants, but it also functions as a kind of liminal space—between the cultural traditions of my old life in Texas and my new life in Seattle, between the two locuses of my personal history in the Pacific Northwest, and, since going there for breakfast has generally become a birthday tradition since I moved back to Seattle in 2009, between one year of my life and the next. I stopped there Saturday morning en route to the peninsula for catfish with fried okra, collard greens, sweet tea, and a corn cake to start my day off right—solely because of the food, if I’m being honest, but in hindsight I like to think of it as an ontological checkpoint on my way to debunking one of the Platonic forms that I’ve lived with since I was a kid.

That debunking happened in Shelton, Washington, at the southeastern part of the Olympic Peninsula in a huge parking lot on a small airfield that seemed to be used primarily as a base for several skydiving operations, one of which was practicing jumps while I was there. I showed up not really knowing what to expect but excited at the idea of F1-style paddle shifting, 500+ horsepower and ungodly amounts of torque, the most precise handling and most responsive brakes imaginable, seats that would conform perfectly to my body, cockpit ergonomics that would feel like an extension of my soul…a holistic experience, in other words, that would perfectly match the dazzling visuals, impressive powertrain stats, and astronomical price tags that were heretofore my only window into this world.

I wasn’t alone, either. The faithful had come from all over the region, including one family I met who had driven up from southern Oregon just for the occasion and another guy who owned a vintage Dodge Viper but still couldn’t resist the call—tales were swapped of the best on-track driving experiences in the country (the  Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando and the Poconos Raceway in Pennsylvania both got high marks), we were upsold extra laps and ride-alongs with professional drivers as we were waiting in line with our helmets on and our adrenaline starting to kick in, and permeating it all was the sound of 560 horsepower in second gear accelerating down straightaways and swerving around turns. Lamborghinis became “Lambos,” a steady procession of skydivers circling down into the field beyond the track served as an interesting backdrop to the main action, and the GoPro on the right side of my helmet pulled my head ever so slightly to the right as I stood under a canopy waiting my turn and not even trying to wipe the smile from my face.

The rules were simple: three laps around a makeshift track made out of plastic traffic cones in the car of your choice, with a professional driver in the passenger seat. When I checked in they offered me an extra three laps for half what my Living Social deal had cost me (which itself was 70% off the general rate), so being an easy mark I went for it, and got to drive the course first in a Ferrari, then in a Lamborghini…and then, when the video from the Ferrari didn’t come through, once more in another Ferrari :)

It was surprising to me how spartan the interiors of both cars were—much more S2000 than Model S, which I suppose makes sense given the focus on performance over creature comforts—but my heart was beating so fast when I sank into the driver’s seat that I really didn’t notice much aside from the steering wheel and the pedals. That first time around in the Ferrari was fantastic, mostly for the sheer amount of power that I suddenly had at my command; it’s really too bad that was the video that didn’t take (I’ve embedded the Lamborghini video below, but it was already old hat by then). The most interesting thing about the whole experience, though, and something that I never stopped to even consider as a possibility until I was right in the middle of it, was that it wouldn’t live up to my outrageously high expectations. When all was said and done I couldn’t help but think that for all practical intents and purposes there wasn’t all that much to separate my little S2000, which I bought for $14,000 when it was 7 years old, from one of these $200,000 lifestyle accessories.

Was it fun? Absolutely. But more importantly, driving 9 laps in a couple of Ferraris and a Lamborghini served to de-exoticize exotic cars for me, something that will be much more valuable in the long run. In the same way that I discovered a while ago that I’m more holistically attracted to a lot of different types of women than I am to supermodels and others who fit the general cultural norms of physical “perfection,” last Saturday I was forced to accept that in the great wide world of cars there’s no such thing as perfection, just different types of cars for different types of people…and I’m not really a supercar kind of guy.

After my last lap I returned my helmet, checked in my GoPro, and smiled as I got back in the driver’s seat of my little Fit, happy to be back home where I belonged. If I had to guess, I don’t think I’ll be dreaming about driving Ferraris to Mexico again anytime soon.

Funemployment

I’m been unemployed since January 1st…and I’m OK with that. Not because I’m lazy or entitled, but because I’ve spent the last 2 ½ months reveling in the feeling that my life is really and truly my own, traveling and experimenting and tidying up my daily routines and exploring seldom-visited parts of myself and generally re-thinking what it means for me to live my life in a way that’s true both to my own needs and to the relationship I want to have to the rest of the world. “Funemployment,” for me, has been about starting with a blank slate, only giving my time to people and pursuits that actively contribute to the life I want to be living right now, and not worrying about the life I might be living at some theoretical point in the future with some theoretical other person or people. Rediscovering my agency, in other words—shaping my world around me instead of trying to shape myself to be more like what I think the world wants me to be, and recognizing that the future is nothing more than a never-ending string of presents/presence.

The defining quote of this period, which I’ve encountered several times in the last couple of months, comes from David Foster Wallace: “You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.” This is something that I got intuitively when I was younger, but I’d somehow forgotten it over the course of the last four years as I started thinking more about getting married and potentially starting a family. In adjusting my future plans to accommodate those changes, I’d lost sight of the animating vision for my own life. When I rediscovered my spark last year and started giving it a little bit of kindling to get it going again, it felt absolutely fantastic.

There’s another great quote, by Viktor Frankl, that I’ve thought a lot about recently: “What is to give light must endure burning.” My challenge since the beginning of January has been to structure my life in such a way that I can simultaneously be consumed by my passions and replenished by those around me while offering my light and heat to others in a way that helps me see my world more clearly at the same time that they help make it a better place.

Concretely, that’s meant realizing that writing and performing are both things that are very important to me and that need to be core parts either of how I make a living, what I do in my free time, or both; recognizing the absolutely essential role that my “Seattle family” plays in my life; focusing in specifically on the parts of local government and political activism that really get me excited (primarily urbanist issues related to improving quality of life for all Seattleites, current and future, while also accommodating growth; and getting new people, especially members of underrepresented communities, involved in the democratic process at all levels); thinking very deeply about the way that I structure my time on a daily basis; and recognizing that I’ve always been at my best when I’m confronting things head-on that frighten me, and letting that lead me to the conclusion that if I don’t end up working at an organization I’m passionate about, the logical next step will be to strike out on my own and prove to myself that I can meet all of my needs without having to work for anyone else.

I’ve noticed the benefits almost immediately—somewhat ironically, my dating life now is better than it ever has been (I’d been worried about dating while unemployed, but like so many things in life, answering the question “what do you do?” is 90% storytelling…and I have a pretty good story to tell); I’ve started rediscovering, as I put it, what’s left of Christianity once you remove God from the equation, a process that received a big boost at a recent Cornel West talk that a good friend invited me to (sample quotes, about 50/50 secondary vs primary: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”; “Indifference to evil is more evil than evil itself”; “When I walked with Martin Luther King Jr, my legs were praying”; “Hitler didn’t rise to power through guns, he rose to power through words”; “Heschel wasn’t an optimist; he was a prisoner of hope”); after practicing for a year I’m finally starting to get truly comfortable doing improv onstage in front of an audience, and I’m finding that I’m hungry for other ways to break out of my comfort zone when it comes to trying to connect with an audience (stand-up, slam poetry, and sketch comedy are all on my radar); I’m working on compiling my blog posts from my Jesus Year into an e-book to learn the ins and outs of Kindle self-publishing; I’m in the midst of going after two different jobs I would love that fall firmly in my areas of interest and would also provide outlets for my creative/expressive side; I gave the best public talk of my life at Ignite Seattle 23, about the life lessons I learned as a car salesman after college; I got involved as a citizen activist at the City level for the first time, around the issue of new regulations for ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft (check out my two-minute testimony to City Council at their committee meeting on February 27th here from a desktop browser, or fast forward to 201:56 from a mobile device); I’ve established a great daily rhythm that involves waking up early, exercising regularly, going on long walks, spending a lot of time with friends, and prioritizing reading novels and books the same way I used to prioritize reading the Internet…and that’s just in the last 5 weeks! Including the month of January I also wrote my first play, saw the Aurora Borealis in Alaska, visited a close friend in New York for the first time in entirely too long, and took a 15-day break from electronic communication as a way to honor one of the great trips of my past and start to re-think the role of information consumption in my daily life.

So if you happen to ask me what I do, or what I’ve been doing recently, and I say “I’m unemployed—and loving it!”, please know that it’s not a misdirection to hide the fact that I’m spending all of my time playing Xbox, watching Netflix, and panicking about how I’m going to pay my bills. I feel like I’m really firing on all cylinders right now, more than I have been in a long time—once I add some income to the equation I’ll be all set :)

All I Really Need to Know I Learned as a Car Salesman

As many of you know, I gave my third Ignite talk Wednesday night at Ignite Seattle 23 at Town Hall, in front of roughly 800 people. I’d been collecting ideas for it for the last few months, and it really was a group effort. I turned to Facebook to get the idea for the talk to begin with; you helped me narrow down my list of bullet points from well over 20 to just 4 and even pick which t-shirt to wear night-of (Lemur Che won by a wide margin); and two of you in particular—you know who you are—gave me some great on-point feedback on the presentation itself that really helped make it stronger. The overall effect was that the 5 minutes I spent onstage giving the talk two nights ago was some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time; the talk went better than I could have imagined, and it reminded me of how incredible it feels to connect with an audience in that way. Thank you for helping make the experience possible for me :)

The video hasn’t been posted yet (I’ll embed at the top of this post once it’s online [update: posted & embedded on 5/21/14]), but in the meantime I wanted to share the presentation with you. The format of Ignite is 20 slides over the course of 5 minutes, with the slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds; you can click on the picture above to see my HaikuDeck in its native format—without the auto-advancing, though—or I’ve posted the slides along with my script below so you can read it as a more traditional blog post if you prefer.

Slide01

Good evening, Seattle! My name is Sol—like the sun or the beer, depending on what you prefer—and tonight I’m going to share with you some timeless lessons I learned in my early 20’s and that I’ve used almost every day of my life since then.

Slide02

For tonight, all you need to know about me is that from August of 2002 to December of 2003, in addition to still having hair, I sold cars at a Ford dealership in Burien. I was pretty good, too—as I used to say, you can’t spell “Sold” without the “Sol” :)

Slide03

And have I got a deal for you :) Tonight only, the most important lessons I learned as a car salesman, which have been instrumental to my life for the last 11 years, can be yours for the low, low price of only 5 minutes of your precious time.

Slide04

Now I’m not going to try to convince you that most car salespeople are good people—even though they are—but I am going to try to convince you that what they do has some relevance to your life. And that’s because, as Forrest Gump here would say, life is a lot like a car deal.

Slide05

It’s all about getting what you want by helping other people get what they want. That’s what life is really all about, regardless of who you are or what you do for a living; selling cars just makes it explicit and puts it right on the surface…which is why it was such a great learning experience for me.

Slide06

So I think that’s enough by way of setup and introduction. Now…without further ado…I present to you…1.5 years of wisdom…in 4 easy lessons. Thanks to everyone on Facebook who helped me narrow these down.

Slide07

Lesson #1: Listen more than you talk. That doesn’t mean “take some time to think about what you’re going to say next while the other person is talking”; it means really and truly listening to what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. I guarantee you the smoothest talkers you know are also the best listeners.

Slide08

Now most people aren’t as straightforward as this baby when it comes to telling other people what they want, but 9 times out of 10—99 times out of a hundred, probably—someone will tell you what they really want if you pay attention to what they’re saying and ask the right questions.

Slide09

In order for this to work, though, you have to be as excited about listening as she is. Active listening is really important—reflecting back what someone’s said to you so they know you’ve been paying attention. If you don’t know what someone wants, it’s impossible to help them get what they want. But you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it…

Slide10

In order for this to work, though, you have to be as excited about listening as she is. Active listening is really important—reflecting back what someone’s said to you so they know you’ve been paying attention. If you don’t know what someone wants, it’s impossible to help them get what they want. But you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it…

Slide11

And we love saying yes! Wasn’t that #HowSeattleRiots hashtag awesome? Doesn’t it feel great to be a Seattleite? I want you to stand up, right now, and give the person next to you a big hug!

Slide12

[lots of people actually do it!] I wasn’t sure if that was going to work! Like my dad always said, though, it never hurts to ask–the worst someone can do is say no. And if they do say, no, of course, that’s rejection.

Slide13

And rejection sucks, right? One of the great things about being a car salesman is that you can’t do the job without getting really comfortable with being rejected, which is great preparation for life. This is the most effective mantra that I’ve found for dealing with rejection.

Slide14

All it takes is one. Don’t think about the person who just rejected you; think about the one who’s going to say yes instead. Our natural tendency is to take each rejection personally, but everyone doesn’t have to say yes to you for you to get what you want.

Slide15

We have a certain degree of control over what happens to us, but we have near-absolute control over what we choose to focus on, and there are few things more powerful than the stories you tell yourself. When it comes to rejection, focus on the “yes” in your future, not the “no” in your past.

Slide16

This last one is one of my favorite quotes of all time, let alone sales quotes. It comes from a trainer named Grant Cardone, and if I had to condense the entire discipline of sales down into 14 words, these next 14 words are the ones that I would choose.

Slide17

#4. When you meet someone who has more conviction than you do, you get sold. You say “yes” to them instead of getting them to say “yes” to you. The reason that’s so important is that conviction is at the heart not only of sales, but of life.

Slide18

If you’re not convinced, to your core, of whatever it is that you’re trying to share with the world, you’re not going to convince anyone else, either. When someone says to “fake it ‘til you make it”, the “it” they’re talking about is conviction. So always have more conviction.

Slide19

To recap: Listen more than you talk. [and really mean it] Ask for the close. [you’re not going to get it otherwise] All it takes is one. [don’t worry about the rest] When you meet someone who has more conviction than you do, you get sold…so always be the one with more conviction.

Slide20

That’s it—as you can see, all I really need to know I learned as a car salesman :) My name is Sol; I’m on Twitter at @solv17. Thank you very much, come talk to me at the break…and enjoy the rest of the show in the meantime.