The Underappreciated Magic of a Cold Shower

I’m growing up. Maturing. Definitely considered an adult now at 26.

As I grow a little older each day, I can feel myself grasping life a little better. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, even though there’s probably a kernel of truth in it.

What I dare say is this: with each passing day as an adult, I’m becoming more attuned to the pace of my daily life.

At 26, I’m finally able to appreciate the weather every day in ways other than “Oh man, now we won’t get to play ultimate.”

I’m able to tell the difference between today’s weather and yesterday’s. (Today’s was definitely much more comfortable than yesterday’s, with cooler temperatures but also an overcast sky that breeds melancholy.)

Little things like that.

Just as cool air brushing against my skin makes me smile (which didn’t happen much at all when I was pre-26 – then it would be a game of ultimate or Runescape), I’ve just started noticing how much I enjoy taking cold showers. Ahh, blissful cold showers…

Since coming home to Singapore from a month-long trip to the US, I’ve grown used to the cold, dry weather there. It was spring-but-kind-of-wintery when we visited. In Singapore it’s always (and forever will be) sunny and moist.

And even though I can live with the weather here (like I have for 26 years – I wonder how many times I’m going to say my age), I hate it. Can you blame a guy for not enjoying being sticky and smelling like armpits?

Cold showers are a godsend here. I take 3 short showers everyday now (since I’m home most of the time on my laptop). Sometimes I’ll take four. And I look forward to it every single time.

As I got out of the shower just now it hit me that taking cold showers might not actually be that commonplace a practice, even among my countryfolks. (The likelihood of a random man on the street who regularly takes cold showers is probably higher than that of a random woman because of our Army days, but very few people I know, even guys, take cold showers regularly.)

For one, my wife can’t do cold showers. Cold water–that is, water that is not heated but is also not deliberately cooled–is unbearably cold for her. She’d just stare at the water rushing down from our rainshower head and not dare to walk into it. For her, it’s the heater, every time.

I can imagine most people don’t take unheated showers either. I mean, nobody really goes “Ahh, all I want right now is a nice, cold shower.” Warmth has somehow become associated with niceness when it comes to bathing.

Perhaps it’s weird that I love cold showers, then. But I wish more people would realise how amazing it feels to cool the f* off with cold running water all over the body. Also, a big plus with cold showers is that it’s supposedly incredible for the body and mind. (I tried looking for scientific articles to back me up, but apparently a lot of it isn’t conclusive yet. That’s however not to say that the amazing feeling post-cold-shower should be passed off.)

We like air-conditioning here, but we don’t take cold showers. It’s just one of those things. Like sunglasses. When I was in the US, for every 5 people I’d see 1 in a pair of shades. In Singapore it’s more like 1 in 20. That’s irrational.

I mean, think about it.

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| * United States

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|———–* Singapore ———— (equator)

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The horizontal line is the equator. That’s the imaginary line that demarcates the circumference of the Earth that is closest to the sun. In other words, it’s where everything is hotter and more humid than almost any other place on Earth (except in a volcano).

The US is closer to the north pole than the equator. Singapore is pretty much right smack on the equator.

Why aren’t more of us wearing shades in Singapore? I don’t get it.

But yeah, I enjoy cold showers and wear shades in Singapore. I like to think that that’s me appreciating the power of the little things.

Meta Work Talk

man working with his hands
Image: Eddie Klaus

I’ve been thinking lately about talking about work. It’s something young people fresh out of college naturally pick up, but it can be kind of problematic.

While it’s ok (and natural) to be inclined towards topics on productivity and case studies of successful people, I find that it’s a distraction 95 percent of the time.

The remaining 5 percent are moments when a video, article or podcast is in perfect alignment with one’s current situation. If you’re just starting out building a blog, then the “Start a blog” resources on ProBlogger are gold. They belong to the 5 percent.

The rest, like podcasts on finding readers, building a community or making money blogging belong to the 95 percent for you. If you’re just setting up your blog, anything aside from Getting Started guides are a distraction. Even the third Getting Started guide may be a distraction.

Most dangerous of all is when we don’t see the line separating the 95-5. That’s when we waste an unspeakable amount of time not focusing on what matters at that moment for our business or career.

That said, I’m often guilty for consuming ‘content’ broadly related to my topics of interest (blogging, writing in general, nonfiction, filmmaking, technology in general, coding, making tech hardware). I guess this is my note to self?

I have to say, though – I’ve observed many friends who are guilty of the same. At least I’m becoming aware of the problem. I hope for the same for them. Every solution begins with awareness of the problem. That’s why meditation is now making waves all over the world.

If it’s problematic, why do so many people continue to watch videos that are purportedly going to help them in their careers (but probably aren’t actually going to help because there’s poor alignment between the topic and their work situation at the moment)?

I can think of three main reasons:

  1. I need inspiration!
  2. It’s satisyfing to learn new things.
  3. It’s easier than actually doing the work.

I think everyone understands the first two, but few at all realise that the third is even a part of their motivation to watch, read and listen to all that material on the internet.

Casey Neistat produces interesting films, and in his extremely popular vlogs (he just hit 3 million subscribers) he occasionally talks about his work. His videos on How to make films and another by Gizmodo on ‘Casey Neistat’s Wildly Functional Studio‘ have millions of views each. Why?

Because watching other people doing work you want to do is so much easier than doing the work itself.

Notice that Casey Neistat hardly ever goes into meta work talk. He talks about work, but he doesn’t talk about how he goes about his work. There’s a difference.

Lately I’ve come to notice that some people are above meta work talk. They don’t feel inclined to join the rough and talk about how to maximise productivity in a day. They just focus on doing the work.

Some of them, like Gary Vaynerchuk and Casey Neistat, are getting behind the call to stay focused and put in the hours to create something meaningful. Do the work first. There are no shortcuts.

(A side note: American soft power seems to be slowly shifting from primetime TV shows to independent personal brands like Casey Neistat, Gary Vaynerchuk, Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, etc. on YouTube and Medium and blogs. Since they have their personal reputation perpetually on the line, I tend to trust them more than TV producers and actors.)

If you ever find yourself watching one too many videos on coding or make-up or filmmaking, stop and ponder for just a moment and ask yourself: Are you watching videos because the information is immediately useful to your work at this moment, or because it’s easier than actually doing the work?

Having Less is Great

Stranded in the rain earlier today, I had time to kill. (That phrase should be illegal.)

At first I listened to an episode of the Tim Ferriss Show (a podcast) where he interviews a palliative caregiver and professor in UCSF, BJ Miller, on his job and what he’s learned studying close to 1,000 deaths. He’s learned a lot, but his lessons are all over the place in the interview and I’ll need more time to extract them before applying them to my life.

A particularly poignant memory of it so far (I’m halfway through it) is his recount of the accident that cost him two legs and half an arm. He was surprisingly casual when he recounted the traumatising story of climbing up a train and having an electric arc zap his metal wristwatch that blew him far away from the train. He’s a strong person, that much I learned.

But more than that, what’s impressive about this man is how he turned his life around. It wasn’t bad before, but he didn’t let things go south from the day he lost 3 limbs. His spirit is incredible!

But I digress, as I did halfway through the podcast. I switched over to my current obsession – Casey Neistat.

He’s a filmmaker and entrepreneur and, now, mostly known as an extremely popular Youtuber. He does vlogs.

I watched a few of his vlogs. Every time I do, I get a strong dose of inspiration. There’s something about this person that appeals to me… I’d just learned that he’s had a rough time before he became successful. (Yes, I know, who didn’t?)

That’s actually what I’m trying to get at today with this post.

In this particular film–something he did in collaboration with The Nantucket Project–he tells the story of Casey Neistat (himself). It’s that popular “my life” type of video. Him being a filmmaker, I had high expectations, and it didn’t disappoint.

A small digression here into filmmaking – it’s clear after watching a number of Casey’s videos that quality of the picture doesn’t matter much at all for Youtube videos. Unless you’re makign a nature documentary or a Hollywood movie, film (ie. camera) quality is responsible for zero outcome. It’s all about the story. I’d recommend anyone to sample a few of Casey’s videos–including the one who he explicitly says what I’ve just said–to get a sense of what I’m getting at.

Ok, back to his life video.

I’m particularly interested in the stage in his life that I’m currently at. Casey Neistat left home at age 15. Went to New York when he was 20 to make films. He had very little by way of money, and at that point when he was 20, he already had a 4 year old son.

First thing I thought about was how he managed to stay creative under so much pressure. I’m in a much better situation now than he was then, and I find it difficult to let my creativity manifest in my writing (blogging) projects.

Could it be that having less actually played to his advantage?

It’s been proven time and again that limitation is the mother of creativity. When faced with great odds is exactly when we flourish in trying to overcome and succeed.

I have to admit, being part of a family that is above middle class, many things are taken care of on my behalf. At age 26, I’m living with my wife of less than a year in our own apartment. That’s ridiculous by most standards in Singapore. I’m acutely aware of my privilege and I’m working hard (since getting my bachelor’s degree last June) to make it on my own.

I’m not saying I wished I was in a tougher situation – that would be foolish and insensitive, and I don’t think that way. What I’m saying is that having less is a powerful driver to work hard and deliver projects/products/services, and I’m curious to find out if there’s a way to artificially induce less-ness without bringing inconvenience (even harm) to the people around me.

Donating things I own to friends isn’t a viable option. My wife would think I’ve lost it. Besides, our accumulation of material goods is already proceeding at a very low rate (from my judgement, that is) compared to many others (though I can’t say the same for debt to the bank). I don’t think it’s the things that we own that makes me feel like I have a lot. It’s probably more about the house, in the nice neighbourhood that I didn’t work to attain.

If I woke up everyday with the mentality that I have to make ends meet today, by whatever means, I think I’d be at least five times as productive and creative as I am right now. It’s a ‘life hack’ that’s staring me in the face and I have no way of accessing it.

Not yet, at least. I have a few ideas in mind but I’m not sure whether they’ll work:

  • Throw myself into a huge project that is way beyond my skill level, with my reputation as an individual writer/maker on the line.
  • Sell the house and move into a much smaller home. <– I’m most inclined to this based on impulse. Probably because it’s going to instantly propel me into living with less.
  • Stop believing that this is a viable shortcut and just get down to work, willing into existence the projects I have in mind. (Willpower isn’t my strength, so maybe I should be working on that?)

If you have any ideas, I’d love to hear them.

Energetic Vs. Hurried

The main thing that occupied my mind today is the difference between hurrying and being energetic.

I realised that even though I’ve been particularly motivated lately (since we got back from a month of travelling in the US), I’m probably not operating at full capacity. Deep down, I know I can perform at an even higher RPM (that is, rigour per minute), and not only get more things done but also give people around me an energy boost.

This idea came to me serendipitously as I was watching one of Casey Neistat’s many vlogs recently. (He’s a filmmaker who’s been making films for a while but only recently shot to fame for a cool idea to use Twentieth Century Fox’s movie promo budget for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on helping people in the Philippines after it was struck by a typhoon.) Casey embodies an energy, though it’s not of the explosive variety. Rather, its’ something more consistent and nuanced. It emanates from him.

Somehow this reminds of something I’d recently read in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, What The Dog Saw, about ketchup. I think it was chapter 3 or 4 where he explored the (continued) reign of Heinz tomato ketchup. At some point there was a lengthy discussion on food tasters and what constitutes a ‘high amplitutde’ food (food that has a holistically blended texture, flavour and aroma that tastes like one thing rather than its constituent ingredients). Casey (the filmmaker) is like a high-amplitude person.

Anyone with a high resting energy is the high-amplitude human equivalent of foods like Heinz ketchup. They resolve to being consistently performing at their best, as a whole.

Ok, maybe the parallels here aren’t as strong as I make it out to be. You’re smart, decide for yourself!

Anyway, let’s get back to the original topic – being energetic vs being hurried.

Being someone who believes in the power of meditation to stabilise our mind and body (in a secular way), I intuitively judge people who are energetic and move faster (or speak louder) than the average person to be unstable. (Not mentally, spiritually.) I’d jump to the conclusion that the person needs to work on his/her inner strength, to stay composed in every situation. To take time to think, decide and then act.

A good friend of mine has these qualities as his natural disposition. I’ve been admiring him for his composure for years now, since I began regularly meditating. I mean, he usually takes up to 5 seconds before giving an answer to something I ask! That’s something.

But I think I might be mistaken. I now think that you can be at peace inside (spiritually stable) while being a human Heinz being.

I tested it out today, and I think I managed to combine the two quite comfortably.

Being aware of time and what’s happening around me (my wife preparing for her make-up gig later in the day, Brownie patrolling the corridor for scrap food, the kitchen lights staying on when it should be off…), I turned up my energy.

From within me, I mustered something to become energetic. Then I sprang to work, vacuuming and mopping the floor and changing the bedsheets at close to double my usual pace, maintaining a level-headedness the entire time. I remained aware of things around me. I continued to be more-or-less present.

It was an interesting experience to say the least. What’s even more interesting is my new take on moving/talking fast. A person can do things fast and look hurried to an observer, but that person can also be composed and be in the present. For now, it remains hard for me to distinguish someone who’s hurried and unstable from one who’s energetic and composed. I expect it to get easier with practice.

I’ll be practising observing people to see the difference for sure, and I’ll do it in Heinz state. Everything from now in Heinz state!

Seneca: Stopping to digest one thought every day

Few things are consistent about me. I like change much more than most people are comfortable with, and I see that as a strength, not disadvantage.

But one thing that happens day after day with me is thinking. I think a lot. Maybe too much – that’s why I started meditation about 2 years ago. Too much thinking and no internalising is a fruitless pursuit, one we should learn to frown upon. Seneca (an extremely wealthy Roman who’s known not for his money but his stoicism, a practical philosophy of life) puts it more eloquently than I think I’ll ever be able to:

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere… Food that is vomited up as soon as it is eaten is not assimilated into the body and does not do one any good; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over if it is being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong.”

And, he concludes, “Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing.”

(Seneca, in Letters from a Stoic)

Having been guilty all my life of letting thoughts come and go without wrestling to retain it in my mind (like vomitting food as soon as they’re consumed), these words struck me where it matters.

To be sure, if you’ve read Seneca’s letters (this is Letter II), he was talking about books and sticking to a few authors instead of spreading yourself thin by reading the new and the old equally.

But I think the lesson is applicable to many things. Kurt Vonnegut, an accomplished American author who I find extremely funny and witty (if I get the joke), applies this thinking to writing:

“Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

(Kurt Vonnegut, Bagombo Snuff Box)

So the lesson I draw here is to default to the few when faced with the option of many. This applies to the books you read as much as the things you write. Personally, I think this means it should apply to thoughts as well.

I’m not Seneca, but sure enough, he’s said the same thing and suggests a practice that would help anyone be strict with their different thoughts:

“After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.”

Thanks, Seneca!

Pick one thought, out of the thousands that occur in the echo chamber that is my skull, and thoroughly digest it that day. I think I can do that. Just thinking about it makes me feel more serene. I can already visualise the clutter in my mind dissolving away.

And if this makes me a better person, then Seneca might have made a slight error… because his pithy one-liner, which by any measure can be read “in the mere passing”, would have managed to be extremely useful.

A life hack offered by someone who’s against the idea that such a thing exists, from almost 2,000 years ago. I’m going to enjoy the ironies for a while.