Blogging Health Life Music

Habits, Not Goals

Part of this site used to be public, but is now hidden; it’s a list of goals that I have for myself over the long term.

I went and looked at it recently and realized I have achieved 3 out of 5 in one manner or another, but probably not to the extent that I initially imagined achieving the goal. For example, one goal was “have a music studio in my house”. Recording equipment is super easy and cheap these days and I have it for all my music instruments…does that count? I dunno. I say yes.

But in thinking about revising those goals, I realized there was no way to know if I would ever reach them. More importantly, there’s no way to know if I would want to reach them by the time I actually did. That’s what’s crazy to me. I can set a goal to become an astronaut now (hard pass), but on the path towards becoming an astronaut it’s very possible that I could find out I want to be terrestrial biologist or a children’s author or something I’ve not even heard of yet. You just never know where your path will take you. I got to see a talk on this very subject at XOXO last September and I go back to watch it often. Nicky Case is a wonderful speaker and this was exactly what I needed to see at that point in my life:

So instead, I’m focusing on habits. Really, that’s why a lot of goals exist in the first place. It’s focusing on something far in the future so you can figure out the steps required in the near term. Instead, I’m going to try and change some daily habits to see how that moves me towards a better tomorrow, especially since I have no idea what that will eventually look like.

This actually all started with an app install. I saw a list of “must have apps” and tried installing one called Habit Bull. It’s really quite simple. You input the habit you want to build and every day you track either how much you did of that thing (ie. how many minutes did I read) or whether or not you did it at all (ie. Did I read today?). I normally choose the latter as it makes it a very simple exercise. I also started very slowly. I started with a singular goal,

“Did I walk the dog today?”

Obviously that has benefit for the dog, but also for me. It means my head is in the right place. It means I’m not putting my work above all else. It means I’m getting a little bit of exercise for myself. But that simple question allows me to stay focused. I’ve gradually added other things that seem to indicate daily success.

My most recent one was, “Am I working at my bench by noon?” I have worked from home since I quit my full time engineering job 2 years ago (wowsa, that long ago?). While that sounds like an easy goal (it is), it focuses me on not just reading and responding to emails all day upstairs on the couch and instead being near my electronics. The environment helps me focus even if I’m not working on electronics directly. It also makes me do a little bit of work to go upstairs and grab yet another cup of coffee, which means I might get to sleep at a decent hour later that night.

This all hinges on using the app daily, which I’ve been doing pretty consistently. Even if I miss a day, the “yes or no” nature of these habits makes it pretty easy to remember and back fill from memory. Over time, I hope these habits will become permanent, but my priorities may also change. For instance, right now I’m learning my third instrument (piano) but who knows what I’ll want to learn in the future (tuba?). Also, I should mention that the app is not the real thing that’s driving me to do these things, so much as the idea behind them. Had I been a pen and paper person, a simple log book could have driven me to similar levels of success.

Obviously, writing has not been on my list for a long time. I’m not sure it will be any time soon, either. I like the idea of writing and I think it helps my career, but I’m not sure it’s as much of a priority for me. Another on my list is trying to make a video each day for Contextual Electronics, and that would take priority as that’s my main communication medium these days. Regardless, I like the flexibility and the focusing on things I can get done in the short term. It has helped me focus what I want in my life with regards to health, relationships, career and personal fulfillment on a daily basis.

If you see more articles from me though, perhaps blogging made it onto my list.

Image via the YouTube video of Nicky’s talk.

Health Learning Life Music Work

Generation “Why Aren’t I Better?”

I am not a perfectionist. I think of myself as too practical to be a perfectionist.

However, I find myself setting very high expectations for myself and I don’t feel I am alone. Generation Y has always been encouraged by parents and others every step of the way. We have been told we can do anything and more drastically, we can do everything. We have been multitasking since kindergarten and over-scheduled ever since. We played the most little-league sports, we took the private music lessons, we had the private language tutors, we were boy scouts. We had the most extra-curriculars on our college applications, we had the best grades we could, we took all of the AP classes and we applied to more colleges than we’d ever need to. We took the most engineering credits, studied as many hours as we could stand, we drank during the remaining hours and we graduated with as many minors as they let us. We had the most interviews as our schedules would allow, we got the most job offers, we had the biggest signing bonuses and we got the fanciest job. We expect the biggest promotions at work, the biggest pay raises, the best benefit packages and the best of everything.

Now what?

OK, I’m not saying I did all those things above, but some of them rang true. I’d be willing to guess there are a few readers out there in the same boat. And now that I’ve exited the goal driven world of school and extracurriculars, I still have the drive and I have the spirit, but there isn’t as much need for it. Yes, I try as hard as I can at work and that continues to be a focus of my efforts. But in the rest of my life there’s really no pressure to do anything if I don’t place it on myself. Some would say that this is a great thing! “You can relax now!”, they say. But it is more of a mindset that we place upon ourselves naturally. A few examples:

  1. I have recently started playing music again since fixing my Wurlitzer 200. I immediately expected to excel at playing once again with much less practice than I had during other times I was playing.
  2. When starting this and other blogs I immediately expected people to flock to my site to read what I had to say. I did not understand at first that the content that I write must be good enough for people to want to read it and that others must link to it for it to really be found.
  3. When I began investing some of my income a few years back I instantly expected the stocks and funds I picked to begin beating the S&P500, even though I had no experience. I mean, hey, I read some books!
  4. Every single time I (re)start weight training I end up hurting myself because I try to do the same amount I remember doing the last time or expect to be able to do even more.
  5. I expect to have great relationships with people I am close to, even though I spend time doing more frivolous things like checking Facebook or Twitter instead of being in the moment with those next to me. I expect to be connected with everyone and know what’s going one with everyone all the time.

I point out my flaws because I think they are natural reactions to some of these situations, if not unrealistic. Perhaps the same is true for the general population or perhaps they are more specific to the high-expectation crowd of Generation Y. The truth is that in all things, there are averages. In music and in new media and in investing and everything else, there is always an average, always a mediocre player. However, Generation Y was consistently exposed to the top .1% by parents and the media. We have always been told not only can we do anything and everything but that we will also be THE best at it. Am I being clear how this doesn’t make sense that so many people believe they can be so good at everything? No? Let me be clearer, using one of my favorite uses of (overly) simple statistics:

Think of how bad the average driver is on any given day. Half are worse than that.

It’s such simple terms to think in, but really MOST people are going to be average, right? Do you really think that you are as bad a driver as most people out there? I know most people I talk to think they are top notch.

The point here is that these skills and talents do not come without practice. You can’t just step in and become an expert at anything and everything just by starting to do something. But people in Gen Y continue to expect to do so. We have been told and we continue to hear stories of Wunderkinds, but we never stop to question the work those people had to do to get where they are. Think about it: how often does the nightly news report on the 4 year old that can play Mozart? And how many times does the same news show highlight the parent forcing the child to hold a violin at 6 in the morning and practicing 8 hours a day? I don’t mean to demonize the media because I understand they are just trying to get the story; but it only adds to the mystique of the no-work success.

So what happens when you tell an entire generation that they will be THE best (at everything) and they figure out that it might not happen? I think we haven’t even begun to see the beginning of how these attitudes manifest themselves in the public and online. Let’s list off some of the more obvious ways:

  • Twitter — It can be used for good and for evil but I believe at least some of the popularity of the site stems from being able to show off how you are the “best” at whatever you’re doing. By showing your “uniqueness” on Twitter it allows people to believe they are different from the masses. Instead of taking time to concentrate on one subject and become better at it, our attention is again fragmented by constant updates and updates about minutiae.
  • Facebook and all the rest of social media — I think one of the ways that Gen Y shields themselves from the realities of the world is by surrounding themselves by friends or “friends” in the case of people you connect with online but don’t really know that well. I think of if I ever formed a new band. If I got all of my friends to come out to a show,  it’s likely they would say nice things after the show to me, even if I stunk up the house. I have nice friends. But really that’s shielding me from the reality that if I played the same music for a group of strangers, I’d get rotten tomatoes and zucchini thrown at me (do people ever really do that?).  As a generation we surround ourselves with friends, quasi friends and complete strangers online in order to share our successes and get positive feedback. But doing that with everything in our lives can mask areas where we really need improvement.
  • Social Isolationism — One major downside is that in expecting the best from ourselves we automatically become critical of others. This hinders our ability to go out and meet new people. The best way to connect with a person is to enter the new relationship with a sense of wonder…what does this person know, what can they teach me, etc. If we aren’t entering new social situations this way and instead we automatically instead begin looking for faults, then new relationships are doomed to fail. And then people go back to the social media tools listed above and end up isolating themselves more.
  • Higher Quit Rates — Penelope Trunk often cites the fact that Gen Y changes jobs on average every 18 months; she also loves what this adds to the workplace dynamic. And while I don’t disagree that changing jobs more often can advance your career in certain ways (compensation, respect at a new job), I think that it is a trend that is likely to go down after a time (meaning people quitting after even less than 18 months). Even at a year and a half in a technical position, I am not sure that enough depth of knowledge is gained to really move on to another job. So people in Gen Y will start to move on to the next job quicker and quicker, expecting to excel at each without ever learning the system and without ever putting the time in to gain useful knowledge for themselves or their next position.
  • Forgotten Blogs — You can find a lot of interesting things on the final pages of a Google search; most notable is the web garbage from those that had the same high expectations for a blog as I mentioned above. Pages upon pages of half-finished thoughts will sit there untouched until accounts go obsolete or the person gives it another shot. It’s natural for people to quit doing things; in fact doing it at the right time is a skill. But quitting simply because you are not instantly the best at something is not right, doubly so when you forget to remove your online record of it.

It will be interesting to see how these things will change over time. More than likely, new online services and activities will pop up that exacerbate the problems in Gen Y. Eventually I’m sure people will begin to see the virtue of putting the time in learning depth of a subject and not just breadth. Then expectations about being considered an “expert” will be more realistic.

It’s not hard to see this is a self-deprecating post. I do it as a slap to my own face and because I have found myself getting increasingly stressed over things in my life that aren’t all that important; the stress is derived from unrealistic expectations and not properly prioritizing the things I do on a daily basis. And I’m not saying that you shouldn’t strive to be the best in everything that you do, because in reality someone always does have to be in that top .1%. I just think more people should think about expectations they set for themselves and the time they allocate to activities in which they expect to be experts. Slowing myself down and re-evaluating how I set goals and expectations for myself is a healthy process and one I need to do to keep self-induced stress low.

What about you? Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself? Do you fall into the category of “Generation Y” or are you from a different generation? If so, how do you set expectations for yourself?

Engineering Health Life Work

Standing up while working

I had an opportunity to go to a conference last week where I stood in front of a booth for 4+ hours. By the end I was chugging coffee to stay awake and my lower back hurt so bad that I had to lean on the table in order to appear that I was still functional as a presenter and engaged with people that came up to talk to us. I really couldn’t believe how much things have changed. When I was working night shift in the fab, there would be nights where I would stand for 8+ hours of a 12 hour shift, oftentimes standing in front of a machine, modifying something on a touchscreen. I know this could have been even worse and that many people deal with even longer and more strenuous hours, but the difference between my old work environment and my current one is pretty glaring to me.

So once I was back in my comfortable office chair in my cube, kicking back, staring at my computer monitor and once again chugging coffee to stay awake, I realized I have to change something. Even though I enjoy many parts of my job, the computer is a necessity and I have to deal with working on one, sometimes for hours at a time. Like any brash young man, I decided to act first, ask questions later: I hoisted my monitor up on a shelf above my desk, placed my keyboard on top of an unused garbage can turned over and put my computer mouse up on a couple boxes, all roughly at my eye or arm level. I now had a makeshift standing workstation and looked like a certifiable geek. Now that the action was complete, I ask: why would someone want to stand while working? A little Googling resulted in a fine piece of supporting information on why someone might want to stand while working. Allow me to summarize and expand upon these ideas:

  1. It’s healthy — Intuitively, standing makes more sense than sitting at a desk. Evolution has shaped humans so they can hunt, gather, assemble, reproduce, eat, sleep, etc. There wasn’t too much time spent developing as creatures that push buttons while hunched over in front of little screens (obviously this will be the future of the human race). Standing makes sense from many health perspectives, so let’s dive even deeper into this concept.
    1. Bloodflow — Similar to the point above, the human body wants to exist in a straight line, where the heart does not have to pump blood around 90 degree angles (your knees, etc). There are also less places for blood to pool when you are standing (your feet, perhaps) and less chances of circulation being cut off to extremeties (fingers, toes). The tradeoff between potential pooling of blood in the feet (which can be walked off) versus better overall circulation is definitely worth it.
    2. Posture — Slouching is SO easy when you are sitting in a comfy office chair, even one of the posture enhancing chairs that go for $800+. I happen to be an expert at slouching in my seat so I don’t need any help from a chair.
    3. Alertness — If you invent a time machine and go back a few hundred thousand years and I bet you won’t see a caveman rolling around in a desk chair, hunting his prey. Sitting makes me sleepy and I hope to eventually wean myself off of coffee as a result of standing up while working.
    4. Concentration — This has been the most surprising side effect for me thus far. I can basically see everyone who walks by, as opposed to hearing them before. One might think this would distract me from my work, but either I am becoming indifferent to seeing people pass me or the increased bloodflow and endorphins reaching my brain are telling me that it’s ok to keep reading a paper on an op-amp or whatever I happen to be perusing.
    5. You won’t get sick — Seth Roberts is a professor emeritus from UC Berkeley who has been doing self-experimentation for 12 years for self gain and in conjunction with his research. Along the way he some how correlated standing while working to a marked reduction in the number of colds per year. This alone is enough reason for me to try it.
  2. Visibility — I am 6 feet tall, exactly. Standing does two things for me. First, it allows me to see out the windows that would usually be blocked by my cube wall. This may come back to bite me on a dreary winter day in the Great North, but I’m willing to risk it. Second, the unintended consequence of being noticed by others, including management. This is not a concern of mine either way, but I think it’s interesting nonetheless.
  3. Accountability — Again, the height of my monitor is enough that it just shows over the top of the cube walls. I’m not saying I’ve ever been a devious employee, but allowing others see what I am doing on your computer definitely has me checking CNN and Reddit less frequently (wasn’t much to begin with). If I do decide to take a break, I look at what I want to see (headlines) and get back to my work. With a tightening of belts throughout the industry and the looming possibility of recession, now is a great time to work extra hard and show your company just how valuable you are.

To be honest, I haven’t been standing while working for very long nor do I know if it will last. If even half the benefits listed above are true, then it will be worth looking silly at work until my co-workers get used to me standing while working. Have you ever considered doing something like this? If so, please let me know in the comments.

Analog Electronics Blogging Health Learning Life Music Politics

Why start a namesake site?

Tonight, I’m using every bit of my being not to post something political (watching the VP debate). The tension in this country is so thick you can cut it up and serve it. Anyway, instead I will post a question (to myself).

Why did I start

I’ve written before about why I started a blog, but never why I decided to make it a namesake site (using my real name, all over the place). The main reason is branding. Pure, simple and maybe a little bit selfish. It’s actually a lot of work to get people to know your name. It’d be much easier to start a blog titled “” or something like that. That would be great for the average Analog Electrical Engineer, but not so much for Chris Gammell. In that case, I would have to work extra hard to let people know who I am and what I do. So why else? I like trying to be an individual (even if it complete individuality may not be possible). I love the idea that people are reading my ideas. I like the attention, sure, but moreso, I like contributing to society, even a little bit. Perhaps it’s a characteristic of Generation Y, but I enjoy it and I’ll spend some late nights to help out if I can. Yet another reason is that I enjoy challenging myself to learn knew things. True, I feel a little guilty blogging about things I’m not a master of, but if I spend some time researching, I can usually point readers in the right direction, even if I’m not completely sure. The best point is where I define a problem for myself online and then figure it out and get to post it later.

It’s a risk, for sure. First off, if I publish some bogus articles, people will know it. Moderators, readers, editors, professionals, everyone is really a critic on the internet. But I’m ok with that because when someone corrects me (hopefully in a civil manner) it’s an opportunity to learn. Plus my ego isn’t so big that I think I know everything (or anything). Beyond the simple idea of being wrong, I’m also giving direct access to a lot of information about myself and my life, even if it is my professional life. I justify the lack of anonymity by thinking about having people coming back and reading my ideas because they recognize my name. If I can inspire some confidence in my ideas, then I’m doing alright. Finally, I take great care to not reflect badly upon those that know me, nor those that are associated with me. In my thus-far short career as an analog engineer, I’ve found that referring other people is a power that should be respected. Not only should you be careful who you refer to others but also how you interact with others so they will someday refer you.

Short and simple, I started a namesake site because of my ego. I keep it going because I love the direction it’s taken me in. I love that blogging is helping me define myself outside of my job, even if it is similar to my job (which I also love).

Why do you blog (or not blog)? Respond in the comments, please!

Health Learning

The Brain

My friend Trevor has an intriguing post about methods of mapping the brain. This is of interest to me because of how I have been reading “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil. Trevor talks about research into “seeing” water flow in the brain, as opposed to glucose or electrical signals or bloodflow. It’s a really cool idea to help understand how the brain works and how it could help humans relate to the world around them.

So why am I interested in the brain? Well, as Ray says, mapping the brain will result in technology beyond anything we could ever imagine for future technology. Using the biologically evolved model of the brain will allow us to leap past prior research in digital and analog technologies to create more advanced computers sooner. This will eventually allow for humans to choose to either become hybrid (biological/machine) beings or even completely machine beings, with transferred knowledge from the biological counterparts. This is also the idea he refers to as “The Singularity”…when human intelligence is surpassed by machine intelligence and machines begin to evolve on their own. Not to worry, he also claims that the machines will consider us “their biological forebears” and they will respect us (and not dominate us and turn us into batteries).

For more reading on/by Kurzweil, be sure to check out The Law of Accelerating Returns, upon which he bases many of his arguments. Some of the ideas he has are pretty radical and optimistic, but they are definitely possible in this lifetime. If you’re not interested in that, make sure you read Trevor’s post (or an part of his blog), it’s quite intriguing.


Another goal: Muscle!

I hadn’t lifted free weights in about 1.5 years.


However, I’ve done this before. As a full disclosure, I once almost hit 180 pounds. I wasn’t exactly rippling, and beer had given me that inertial advantage, but still I almost hit 180. Now the story is a little different. Due to working night shift at my last job, stress in my personal life and other factors (mostly lack of grocery shopping), I dropped to under 150 for the first time since high school. It wasn’t pretty and I’m not too proud of myself for letting it happen. However, all of that has changed, hopefully for good. I’m back up to a healthy weight at least (well, for my body type and historical weight).

Anyway, Jess and I joined the JCC back in March. And since today is May 1st, I thought it was a good time to talk about my goal of gaining 10 pounds of muscle by April. Basically, yeah, I’ve failed. But really that goal wasn’t practical. I once read that a guy can expect about 2 pounds of muscle a month with consistent lifting and a high protein diet. Since we only really started working out again in March, I really should have only gained 4 pounds of muscle. And I think I have! Really, I stopped weighing myself, and that’s the really important thing. Now it’s more of a subjective gaging (how I feel right after working out and the next two days) and objective gaging (did I go to the gym). So here are my new goals for my personal health, which expand beyond just the gym:

  1. Work out 3 times a week. This is also tied into a workout competition at work. If we don’t do our workouts, we have to give money to charity each time we miss. My goal is to do two or more of the following per workout:
    1. 20 minutes running
    2. 20 minutes swimming
    3. 100 pushups/250 situps
    4. 30 minutes lifting free weights
  2. Eat a low fat, high protein diet. Also try to maintain some semblance of a budget while doing so.
  3. Drink in moderation and be sure to workout the next day after having a drink.

Also as a long term goal, I’d like to run another 10k, bench press my own weight and be able to swim 1000m without stopping (swimming is really hard). As a really long term goal I’d also like to run a half marathon and a full marathon.

So that’s my story for working out. I think about my blogging and am interested to think about who might be reading it, but really this post is for me. I sometimes need reminders and I figure I read this site more than most.