The Perils of Personal Progress

There is a constant sense that you are missing something, that you are incomplete. That somehow, you are not enough.

Many people will happily confirm this for you:

“You are missing something. You are incomplete. You’re not enough.”

Some are trying to sell you something, but many of them have that same feeling too, and they don’t want to be alone.

You begin searching for that something that you’re missing. Your purpose is to get that something so you can eventually be “enough.” There are levels you’ll need to complete first, and this will give you a sense of progress. That thing you’ve been missing is within your grasp…

Then, after a lot of hard work, you finally get it! It’s here! You’ve arrived…

But you don’t feel very different from how you’ve always felt. Then you begin to wonder if there is another something that you’re missing, and people say, “You’re not quitting already, are you? You’ve come so far!” So you think, okay, perhaps I’m still missing something. I’m still not enough. I’m still incomplete. There’s more work to be done.

So you put your head down again and double your efforts, because you need to get that something. And if you keep working, you’ll get there someday…

Someday, you’ll have the right amount of money, you’ll have the right job, you’ll have the right possessions and the right body and the right thoughts and the right skills and the right accomplishments and the right spirituality and the right love and the right marriage and the right kids and the right life.

Someday, if you keep working hard and playing our games, you can win.

You can be better than everyone else.

# # #

While you’re playing our games, you must always view yourself as a member of one of three groups: best, average, or worst. If you’re one of the best, you must keep that spot. And if you’re average, or one of the worst, you’ll need to work much harder so you can be one of the best. Also, in each group, there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” You are, naturally, one of the good guys. In these games, people are your pawns, allies, and competitors. They are not fellow humans; it is Us vs. Them.

You only have a few years to play, so you must work quickly to become one of “the best.” You will spend all of your energy trying to make your life fit a certain image, while assuring others that you’ve nearly achieved it. Accomplishments will be your fetish, and everyone will applaud as you successfully make your way through each level. Your spontaneity and openness and joy will be replaced with seriousness — the seriousness that’s driving you to achieve this ideal life you’ve mapped out in your head. You must not slow down, because everyone else is playing this game too, and they don’t like it when you don’t take it as seriously as they do. Remember: Your life is to be conquered and won. Enjoyment is incidental.

But the progress you make feels like treading water. Nothing is ever enough to feel like you’re truly a part of “the best” group. A feeling of guilt sinks in with the growing suspicion that you are permanently in debt, that you’ll always owe the world for your existence. There is a cost to being here, and your struggle to justify your entitled existence on this planet doesn’t feel adequate. No matter how you play the game, it’s not totally clear whether you’re doing it right. You begin to wonder, “Do other people understand the rules? Is everyone just faking it?”

One day, you’ll decide that it’s time to buckle down and really commit to winning this game, once and for all. You’ll proclaim that it’s your duty to earn your place, and this is the noble way to become one of “the best.” Everyone will pat you on the back for embracing your insanity, and you’ll find yourself congratulating and admiring those who take the game even more seriously than you do. If only you could be so serious! You’ll convince yourself that this life is not supposed to be so fun or spontaneous. It must be won methodically, with a well-executed strategy. Each day requires sacrifice, and you must remind others how good you are at making these sacrifices in order to become one of “the best.”

And slowly, you forget, and you start to believe that this is all very real; that the outcomes of everything you do just have to be leading to an important… something.

But you’re not sure what that “something” is anymore. It’s changed its shape so many times, and you don’t even know if these rules will get you there.

Everything starts to feel like a game, even people. You tell someone you love them — not out of honesty — but because you feel like it’s the right thing to say, or because it will help you win some other game. Perhaps you can win your own game of being the nicest person you know. Or maybe you want to win the game of not being alone. You become a genuine fake. And when you actually feel real love, you dare not say it because of the problems it could create. You’ve been told that once you say it, you need to follow through, and that’s one more game you’ll need to win. For the rest of your life, you must align your feelings and behaviors with those words. Those are the rules! And what if your words are rejected? What if they laugh at you? You will lose that game, and you’ll need to start over.

And as the years pass, you completely forget that they are all just games, that you’re playing by rules that someone else made up. The rules are only important because we’ve all agreed to abide by them and wear ourselves down in the pursuit of becoming one of “the best.” Of finding our missing something.

You start to develop this dreadful idea that adults are refusing to allow themselves what they really want — to just play and laugh and help one another, without any of the seriousness that comes with the games. You start to think we’ve all conditioned ourselves to believe that the rules are everything, because none of us want to be average. We don’t want to die as one of “the worst.”

So until we can become one of “the best,” we will hold our heads high, and strike down those who stand in our way.

# # #

The games start to get old. They aren’t as much fun once you see you’re running through an endless cycle of bigger and louder. You know that participating in a relentless competition to be one of “the best” is crazy. You see that no one is better than anyone else; we’ve all just been growing in and reacting to different environments that are out of our control.

Still, we try to convince each other that these games are all heading somewhere really wonderful and important for us. So we keep playing and playing and playing…

It’s too late to stop, because you are afraid of breaking the rules. You’ve wanted to win these games for so long, but there are people who are ready to throw you into a lower group. And we pay them to enforce these rules, and tell us when we are losing the game.

A teacher writes in red pen on your paper, and you think “I’m a failure!”

A boss fires you, and you think “I’m a loser!”

A doctor says your body has turned against you, and you think “I’m diseased!”

A police officer shows up at your door, and you think “I’m a criminal!”

A soldier fires a gun, and you think “I’m the enemy!”

A priest reads from a book, and you think “I’m a sinner!”

All of them reinforcing the notion that you’re still missing something, that you are still not enough. That in spite of all you did, you still managed to fail. And above all, to fear what happens to those who aren’t one of “the best.”

So you fall back in line. You keep trying to beat the scam, while you attempt to mend your now broken self. Then one day, the games finally beat you.

And that’s the moment, when you can see the whole scene for what it really is, and… it’s funny. It’s crazy and weird… but it’s actually funny.

But now’s not the time. You must be reverent and solemn and serious and you must not laugh at our seriousness. You must shed a tear for your sins to show how sorry you are. You must wear yourself out and take our pills in order to get better. You must feel guilty about breaking the rules and admit that you’re a son-of-a-bitch. You must believe that your life is being supervised by someone who is always disappointed in you. You must numb yourself into oblivion with food and drugs and TV shows until you no longer remember what it’s like to be healthy or vulnerable or creative or loving. You must grind out your daily existence until your soul is crushed, and you become a wisp of the child you once were.

And you must remember that you cannot win these games, because these games will never end.

# # #

You are not missing anything. You are not incomplete. You are not broken. The endless search for something more, for that thing you’ve been lacking, is like looking behind a mirror. You’re chasing your own tail.

And you are not winning or losing any sort of game. There’s no true “progress” to be earned by you or anyone else, because you have always been enough. You are fundamentally acceptable as you are. You are IT. You simply refuse to accept that there’s nothing more to become, EVER, because that’s the culture you were raised in, and the games are very important to us. We let them define who we are.

Every hoop you choose to jump through gives you a sense that you’re moving forward, but your chase will never end — there will always be a new game waiting for you at the finish line.

Eventually, you have to figure out how to free yourself from the struggle of becoming something more. To let go and just… be.

Life is not supposed to be viewed as an endless competition, and it’s not supposed to be taken so damn seriously, no matter what anyone says. There is no “best” way to live, you can’t make mistakes (even though you can still be punished), and there is definitely no such thing as “them.”

This is all just a crazy dream. It’s a ride. And not one second of it has ever been in your control, no matter how much your ego rationalized it or how convincing your life appeared. Every moment has been uncalculated; there is no past to regret, and no perfect future to carefully plan for. There’s only now.

When you can really remember that and feel it, you start to let go of the struggle. You can stop playing games, and avoid the perils of personal progress. You can just be.

And that’s when your life starts being fun again. That’s when you can reclaim it as your own.

# # #

Many thanks to Alan Watts for inspiration and my shameless cribbing. [Photo by Dave Morrow]

By Charlie Hoehn

The apocalypse begins tomorrow

Dear Doomsdayers:

Tomorrow, the Illuminati and Bilderberg group will announce the apocalypse. All of your preparation will finally pay off as hell occupies earth for one week, and ends in rapture.

Oil fields will burn, crops will wither, and rivers will run dry. Chaos will ensue as transportation and food production comes to a halt. Grocery stores will be emptied, guns will be fired, stock markets will crash, and gold will soar to an all-time high. All media outlets will be used to spread fear, then the power will be shut off. Cell phones and the internet will no longer work. You will be on your own.

Your neighbors will pillage, holding you at gunpoint while they steal your food and trinkets. Police will freely employ brute force, imprisoning anyone who steps out of line. Governments around the world will deploy their weapons, citizens will be gunned down by drones, and major cities will be left in ruin.

Panic and distrust will take root in the ashes of fallen empires. Those who survive will be imprisoned by the New World Order. Every corruption and conspiracy will be fully exposed, and all of your suspicions — that the system is set to enslave you, and people are ultimately self-interested parasites — will be proven correct.

Strangely, you won’t feel fear or despair. You will feel relief and validation. Because a part of you wanted to see us fall. You wanted to see the world crumble to pieces, because it would confirm the frightening forecast you’d come to believe.

Most of all, it would justify the trade-off you’d made: to live your life in fear.

The end of the world would excuse you for never giving anything back, for not trying, for being too paralyzed to ever contribute anything meaningful. “If the whole exercise was futile and rigged from the beginning, what’s the point of playing?”

Well now everyone else can be fearful right along with you. You weren’t so crazy after all!

Of course, the end of the world should have never determined your strategy in the first place. Because all of your preparation — storing food, buying guns, exchanging money — will be in vain. It will never feel like you’ve done enough because nothing can ensure your survival; you will eventually die. You just want to die in less pain than everyone else.

There’s nothing wrong with being skeptical and planning for a long winter, but fear shouldn’t color your world and dictate your time. Preparing to be the best loser isn’t a strategy — your heart is already set on the worst outcome. In your endless search to discover what’s going to screw you over and ruin your life, you fail to see that it’s YOU, right now.

Societies are always rising and falling. If you say “the end is near” long enough, you’ll eventually be proven correct. But until the end of the world actually arrives, the event isn’t real. A truck could hit you today, and you would miss the apocalypse completely. All you have is this moment, which is your opportunity to solve a problem, to know yourself, to create, to love, to live. This opportunity will be with you for the rest of your life, no matter what the circumstances are.

And you can never embrace that until you confront yourself:

You’ve been too scared to try. The idea of the apocalypse was your excuse to give up before the game was over.

By Charlie Hoehn

Negotiate It: My first iPhone app (plus 32 ideas I’ve abandoned)

Today, I’m proud to announce an iPhone app I’ve been working on…

Negotiate It is a personal finance/productivity app that helps you save money. It shows you exactly what to say to operators in order to lower your cable and cell phone bills, or get your overdraft and credit card fees waived. The app also gives you a list of company phone numbers, a call log to keep track of your savings, reminders for when to re-negotiate, and more.

You can read all about our process for making this app in my guest post on Ramit Sethi’s blog. The post is super detailed, and worthwhile for anyone who’s considered creating an app.

And here’s a 3-minute video on how Negotiate It works:

Want to help us out? Ramit and I are trying to crack the Top 10 in iTunes’ Paid Productivity category (we need roughly 1,300 downloads), so anyone who downloads the app and signs up for Ramit’s newsletter (see bottom of post here) will get a few cool bonus gifts:

  • 45-minute video of me discussing app marketing with Chad Mureta (bestselling author of ‘App Empire‘), where we go in-depth on my initial launch strategy for Negotiate It. Chad’s been very successful in the app industry (he developed over 50 apps with more than 40 million global downloads), while my experience has been in marketing bestselling books.
  • Original marketing strategy I put together for Negotiate It. You can read this while watching the video, where Chad and I discuss which of my assumptions were right and wrong.
  • The proposal for Negotiate It that I sent to Ramit a few years ago. It’s a good example of how you can convince your boss to give you the “green light” for a project you want to execute.

I’m very happy and relieved that I was able to see this project through to completion. There were countless issues that came with developing an app (which you can read about in the guest post) but it was a fantastic learning experience.

This is my first online product that I’ve charged money for, so if you’d like to see more from me, cast your vote by downloading Negotiate It!

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I’ve had countless ideas over the years, but I’ve abandoned nearly all of them. When I was younger, I had the energy to try almost anything that popped into my head. My efforts were solid, but I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I didn’t know any successful entrepreneurs so I had to rely on books and the web while I tried to piece things together.

I flopped over and over and over. I tried teaming up with friends, thinking we’d have better luck together. No dice. Just the blind leading the blind. Finally, I realized I needed to be working with people who actually had a track record and knew how to do this stuff if I ever wanted to pull it off myself.

My ability to say “No” to my own ideas slowly improved. I learned that the “light bulb rush” – where I’m struck with my own brilliance – was fleeting, and usually went away as soon as I talked to a smart person or did five minutes of research.

I’m now intimately familiar with how much effort it takes to execute a lucrative idea. The elation of pursuit is healthily balanced with the length of the road ahead. The lesson I had to learn over and over: you have to truly care about something in order to see it through, because you can’t do great work when your sole motivation is a pot of gold.

I thought it’d be fun to do a purge of some of my “jump to conclusions mat” ideas that I’ve let go over the years. You’re obviously welcome to borrow or emulate any of them. Just know two things: (1) a lot of these ideas sucked for reasons I didn’t initially understand, and (2) execution is EVERYTHING. The greatest idea in the world is worth nothing without vision, passion, and perseverance.

32 Ideas I’ve Abandoned

High School (2000-04)

1. Pop Rock Gum. My friend and I wondered why Pop Rocks didn’t make their own gum, so we experimented with mixing Bubblicious and Pop Rocks together. Our first few batches felt like chewing broken glass, but we eventually nailed a winning recipe. We started selling it for $0.50 a piece to classmates, and were making $30 per day at one point. I wrote in to Bubblicious and Pop Rocks headquarters about our results… and never heard back from either of them. A few years later, Pop Rocks started making their own gum (not as good as ours was!)

2. Flashing brake lights. We’re taught to pump the brakes to warn the cars behind us if we’ll be making a sudden stop. This is stupid in most cases, because you’re compromising your ability to stop in hopes of not getting rear-ended; the likelihood of a crash is high either way. I met with InventHelp — a pretty shady company, from what I’ve read — to discuss how to patent a brake light that flashes when the driver pushes the brakes with great force (the rep I spoke with was exceptionally proud that he’d helped bring the spinning lollipop concept to market). I was forced to retreat when I saw the patent price tag, plus I had no clue how to actually strike a deal with a major car company. The idea’s been done but clearly never went mainstream.

3. Sports reels and family reunion videos. I made a bunch of videos for high school sports teams, families, organizations, etc., and ended up selling the videos on DVD. Customers loved them, but the amount of money made did not justify the insane amount of work required. There’s a reason videographers charge a lot, and why they stick to weddings for their bread and butter.

4. Connect Four for TI-83 Plus. I created a working version of Connect Four on my calculator and tried selling it to classmates. No one was willing to pay, so I gave it away. Everyone already had easy access to free games that were even better than mine.

College (2004-08)

5. LIT Drink. Long Island Iced Tea pre-packaged in a Red Bull-sized can (here’s the sell sheet). I had this idea while I was in New Zealand, after seeing how well the Jack Daniels and Coke drinks sold in bars. Long Islands sold really well in Fort Collins, but if you wanted to make one yourself, it cost at least $100 for all the ingredients. There wasn’t much on the market: Salvador’s made a cheap (and gross) pre-mixed Long Island that came in 4-pack of mini-plastic bottles, and there were 750 mL bottles that bartenders used (minus the sweetening ingredients). I remember waking up early to call distilleries on the East Coast to see if it was possible to license the idea (it’s not), and my friend and I arranged a meeting with a former Mike’s Hard Lemonade exec. He warned us that as soon as we had traction with the brand, one of the bigger alcohol companies would come in, make a cheaper product, and dominate the market first.

6. Training Week Meals. Subscription recipe service for high school and college athletes. The athlete selects their health goals, and the site provides a weekly grocery list and recipes – compiled by professional athletes, expert nutritionists, or their coaches – along with detailed nutrition facts for each meal. Potential to partner with supplement and vitamin companies, local grocery stores, catering companies, etc.

7. Artist community. Artists upload photos and videos of their art (furniture, paintings, etc.). Fans get to vote on ideas for things to create, and those items are put on sale exclusively to the fans – for bidding or flat-rate.

8. YourCore. Customizable homepage with drag-and-drop widgets. My friend and I started designing this idea, and hired a local coder to assemble the site. Unfortunately, the result was underwhelming, and – like so many other naïve college students – we assumed ads would eventually fund our endeavor. Then NetVibes and iGoogle came out, so we abandoned ship.

9. Been Here Do This. Fun activity ideas for tourists and study abroad students. Users could mark areas of the map, describe activity, and post photos. Basically a niche version of Yelp. I tried creating this myself in Dreamweaver and quickly learned what a nightmare it was to make websites.

10. Custom beer pong tables. After making one with my roommates and getting positive feedback, we considered creating others and selling them… except none of our friends were willing to pay. (Sidenote: I also wanted to do beer branding for soldiers — Brewjitsu, Nicolas Rage, and Ale Qaeda)

Post-College (2008-Present)

11. The MacGuff. My friend Aidan and I started building an online film school in 2008 (along with a blog called The Projectionist), even though neither of us were experts on the topic. We were able to recruit a few really talented people from Hollywood to be members, then we sat by idly, waiting for them to create content for us. What a horribly deranged assumption! Communities take a ton of work to get up and running, and they depend on compelling content, strong ties, and leadership. We had none of those elements.

12. ‘Think and Grow Rich’ of Parenting Books. Interviews with successful parents of society’s biggest contributors, finding common factors in how their children were raised, what values were instilled, etc. This would probably do pretty well, but I’m not the target market.

13. Custom Nootropics. Subscription service for smart drug supplements which allows you to adjust quantities for each ingredient. You can save your favorite formulas, see which ingredients synthesize properly, etc. Too many health and legal issues to deal with here. Not worth the hassle, and I’m not a big fan of nootropics anyways.

14. Travel-friendly suitcase. A carry-on bag that ejects your laptop at the press of a button. I hate having to whip out my laptop at airport security, but this idea is too gimmicky and not that practical. There are already laptop-friendly bags on the market. I also don’t travel enough to justify caring about this too much.

15. CleanSlate. Homeless people are EVERYWHERE in San Francisco, and the disparity between them and the brilliant minds walking by to go work at their tech startups seemed particularly crazy one day. I thought I had something that might improve the issue (which you can read about here), but after doing more research and talking with friends who’d spent a lot of time in homeless shelters, I saw that tech alone will never come close to repairing this problem. The systems that truly help the homeless are holistic, and require an incredible amount of resources.

16. Facebook Idiots. I made a site where users could submit screenshots of their friends posting funny things on Facebook. I lost enthusiasm for the concept after about ten minutes. Two weeks after I killed the site, Lamebook (much better name) was born.

17. Standing desk kits. I drew up a bunch of concepts for this, but couldn’t come up with anything compelling. Wiring and the need for desk drawers makes this somewhat difficult. And while the market is growing, the demand still isn’t really there. I also thought about just making an e-book with stretches and exercises that focus on alleviating prolonged sitting.

18. Frozen Paleo foods. At the time, I couldn’t find any frozen Paleo dinners in Whole Foods, and my roommates and I were lazy when it came to cooking. I’m not sure there are enough Paleo enthusiasts at this point… Nevertheless, Amy’s Organic is going to be a billion dollar company within a few years, and they started with a frozen potpie.

19. Gadget Club. Similar to Trunk Club — monthly package for early adopter males, giving them access to the latest gadgets. Amazon basically does this with their Vine program. Could also do this for jewelry, books, movies, etc.

20. Natural cures e-books for niche pain points. Tooth pains, acne, etc.  This would be profitable because you’re targeting desperate buyers and could show before/after photos, but it would require a lot of work and SEO. No enthusiasm for this project at all.

21. Daily deals site for college students. You could offer: concert tickets, munchies, health foods, video games, gadgets, beer making kits, Halloween costumes, pizza coupons, discounts at local restaurants, posters, and a delivery service. This could do really well, especially if you start small (focus on dorms, figure out most wanted items, get people on subscription, etc.)

22. Snorricams. You know those shots in ‘Requiem for a Dream’ where the camera has a steady close-up on the person’s face while they’re moving around? The device that makes that shot possible is called the Snorricam, and you can’t buy them – you have to make your own. Because it’s a specialty item with low demand, this could never be profitable unless you did a line extension and offered a ton of other camera rigs.

23. Medical tourism site. Connect uninsured people with reputable doctors and surgeons overseas, handle their itinerary, and earn a commission. This reeks of complications, plus most people aren’t even aware of the concept of medical tourism. Way too much hassle.

24. CDBaby for film. Monthly subscription to high-quality independent films. I still like this concept and hope someone pulls it off.

25. Best Man Online Crash Course. Videos and checklists to throw a great bachelor party and dominate your best man speech. Could easily charge $50-200 for this.

26. DIY Bamboo Bike DVD. My friend and I tested this concept on eBay (before creating the product) to see if anyone would buy it. Two people did over the course of a couple weeks, which wasn’t enough demand.

27. Delicious for learning. You bookmark an article, and gain points when other people click your bookmark and save it to their account (i.e. you’re rewarded for directing others to valuable content).

28. Startup bank. Escrow system that automates payments for startup equity splits. Each founder/employee/advisor enters in their banking information, and the site pays proper percentages quarterly or after specific milestones.

29. Envato for iPhone/iPad. Marketplace of creative assets for mobile app developers.

Mobile Apps

30. FlyBuy. Mobile app that lists all of your frequent flier miles, displaying the number of points you have next to each program. When you hit a threshold, the app notifies you that you’ve earned a free flight. Plenty of partnership and advertising opportunities here. This idea was executed brilliantly by MileWise, which I highly recommend.

21. Astrology compatibility app. Compatibility sites are always popular and result in fun conversations, and Facebook allows you to instantly extract a complete list of your friends’ birthdays. This app would allow you to see your match level with your friends based on your sign.

32. FanCast. Celebrities can send 30-second voicemails and videos straight to their fans. Enable localized targeting so they can personalize messages to different cities while touring (e.g. Send a message for people to buy tickets to tomorrow night’s concert, or send a thank you message for attending). This could be white-labeled and made into an app for individual bands and celebrities.

Ideas are a dime-a-dozen, and it hinders your progress when you hold a thought too close to your chest. Your vision, passion, and perseverance are what will change the world.

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Here are some great resources to spark your creative juices:

  • Springwise. One of my favorite sources of inspiration, offering daily posts on new business ideas and trends.
  • Kickstarter. See which ideas get funded by the masses.
  • Quirky. This site can help bring your ideas to life.
  • How to create a million dollar business this weekend. Comprehensive step-by-step post, written by Noah Kagan (founder of AppSumo, Gambit, early employee of Facebook and Mint).
  • One Simple Idea. Awesome book on how to license your ideas, written by Stephen Key (inventor whose products have sold in Wal-Mart, 7-Eleven, Disney Stores and theme parks).
  • Shark Tank. One of my all-time favorite shows.
By Charlie Hoehn

My TEDx Talk on ‘The 4 Mistakes You’ll Make in College’

On June 3rd, I gave a talk at Mission San Jose’s TEDx event. Because I was speaking to juniors and seniors in high school, I decided to write my speech on some of the mistakes they should try to avoid in college.

Here’s my 18-minute talk:

And here’s my slide deck:

I decided early on to leave out some of the more topical and “obvious” mistakes, like taking on colossal debt, or going to college in the first place. That type of advice isn’t very helpful because our choices about higher education are not strictly rational…

Students take out massive loans in hopes of a better future, while dismissing the greater likelihood of a compromised one. And people go to college because it’s still very strongly enforced as the best possible career move by our society, our parents, and our peers.

I didn’t want to give a talk that pointed out flaws in a decision they’d already made. Instead, I opted to give them advice I would have wanted to hear before starting college.

The four mistakes you’ll make in college are:

  1. The evidence. Most students graduate with very little to show from their four years. If you ask for proof that they attended college, they’ll either point to their degree or their Facebook profile. What all students should create while they’re in school is a blog or portfolio (yourname.com) where they can highlight their interests, knowledge, skills, and work. Your personal website can become a magnet for interesting opportunities, opening doors that you didn’t know existed, and it will give you enough leverage to create your own occupation/title. In other words, if you build the right evidence while you’re in college, you’ll have much greater control over your career path.
  2. Being a student. There’s a big difference between a student and a “seeker.” A student is a prisoner. They are forced into an institution they don’t want to be in, and try to figure out the most painless way to serve their time. A seeker remains curious and interested, and pursues learning for the sake of attaining wisdom/enlightenment. They don’t need permission to learn, nor are they learning solely to get out of the institution. They show up because the process of learning enriches their life; it’s not a forced activity. Unfortunately, formal schooling makes it very difficult to instill and retain this mindset, because we are conditioned — for more than a decade — to wait for permission to learn someone else’s agenda. Your job in college is to cultivate and protect your love for self-directed learning.
  3. The lifestyle. A few weeks before the TEDx event, my roommate told me a great story about a friend of ours who’d partied the night before one of his finals. It had me in tears laughing and coincidentally illustrated one of the points I’d wanted to make, so I decided to use it in my speech.
  4. “I’m gonna live forever!” I talk about the random moment I recognized my mortality during my sophomore year, and tie up the speech with one of my favorite videos, “Music and Life” (narration by Alan Watts, animation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone).

There were several “mistakes you’ll make in college” I considered including, but I ended up combining them with other points or removing them entirely. Here are a few more “mistakes” that didn’t make the final cut:

  • Going for the degree. A college degree isn’t a magical golden ticket that grants you responsibilities and a quality life; it’s a $19 booklet and a fancy piece of paper which signifies your solid performances on tests (somewhat ironically, I lost my degree a few years ago). Focus on forming quality relationships with people you respect, work on things that are meaningful to you, and don’t sweat the credentials so much.
  • Beating the system. There were a few courses I didn’t set foot in for months. In one of my business classes, I would walk in, sign the participation clipboard, then immediately walk out. For two weeks, I didn’t attend any classes while I took a cross-country road trip. My grades never slipped, and I took pride in thinking I’d “beat the system.” But even though I delighted in successfully breaking other people’s rules, I failed to recognize that I was still always playing by them. Instead of constantly trying to figure out ways to break THEIR rules and avoid THEIR work, I should have spent more time creating MY rules and doing MY work. Your education shouldn’t be about scheming and avoiding stuff; it should be about finding the few things you’ll actually want to show up for.
  • Thinking you’ll retire from your “one big idea.” I heard a lot of people say something to this effect while I was in school. The notion is still fairly pervasive: to sell whatever it is you’ve built, then spend the rest of your life enjoying the fruits of your short-lived labor. Again, your career should not be founded on the goal of a quick escape; it should be about creating a life that you can proudly embrace.

I filmed and reviewed footage of each practice rehearsal for this speech, fine-tuning my body language, inflection, volume, pacing, pauses, emotional range, gestures, etc. It was far from perfect (I stumbled quite a bit at the beginning), but I didn’t pace around like a caged animal this time, nor did the adrenaline make my voice shake.

The easiest parts of the speech were the stories; I barely had to rehearse them because they were memorable and allowed me to improvise. The trickiest parts were the random thoughts and statistics I clumsily wove into the narrative (e.g. “This was the first year that unemployed people with college degrees outnumbered unemployed people with high school degrees or less”). Those details hurt the message because I had to work harder to remember the wording, which resulted in a few ‘deer in the headlights’ moments. But overall, I’m happy with the end result.

I initially turned down the offer to give this talk, after convincing myself that my words would be quickly forgotten. I truthfully couldn’t remember any of the guest speakers I’d heard while I was in high school. The only one who stood out was a girl who had gone into excruciating detail about the time she was raped in college (yikes), but that was memorable because I had really low blood sugar. My body was drenched with sweat and I was trying not to faint while she described the assault. My friends sitting nearby thought I was wildly uncomfortable with the content of her speech; the sad reality was that I’d skipped breakfast.

After giving it some thought, I decided to commit to doing this speech. I’m glad I did. It’s always exhilarating and rewarding to deliver your ideas to a receptive audience. All the students seemed energetic and happy to be at the event, in spite of it being the end of a hot summer day.

Many thanks to Mission San Jose for inviting me to speak (especially Brian Hou and Andrew Han), and big up to my buddy Gagan Biyani (founder of Udemy), who did his talk on hacking high school.

By Charlie Hoehn

What I learned from 12 years of baseball

Up until 2004, baseball was my identity. I was never a great hitter, or a great fielder, or a great base runner, but I knew how to pitch. As I entered my senior year, I really hit my stride. I could hear a loud hiss each time the ball left my hand, my curve and slider were dancing twice as much as the previous season, and I could paint the corners of the plate with an ease that comes from a decade of practice.

Then just before the season began, it came to an end. And I remember the exact day I killed my shoulder.

During gym class, my teacher and I decided it’d be fun to throw full court shots with a basketball. I did this for nearly an hour, in a not-so-subtle effort to impress one of the girls in the class.

I’d developed bursitis and could no longer throw without feeling a sharp stab of pain. I had multiple rounds of rehab, deep tissue massages, acupunture, electrotherapy, and cortisone shots. Nothing helped. I didn’t tell anyone how I’d hurt my shoulder. The idiocy was humiliating.

I sat out every game my senior year. In an effort to stave off my boredom (baseball is fun to play, not to watch), I started taking pictures and videos of the games with my favorite gadget, the Sony DSC-T1. By the end of the year, I had a bunch of fun photos and footage of the season. I packaged the best shots into a slideshow we played at our final banquet dinner:

It was the beginning of a new hobby that I’d quickly fallen in love with. And while I’d completely ripped off ESPN’S “Images of the Century,” I didn’t care. The days I’d spent making that video were so much fun, and it was incredibly rewarding to see teammates and family members well up with tears when they saw it. I still loved the game, and had found a new way to express it.

I have so, so many memories from those 12 years…

I remember my first practice at 4 years old, being outside for 3 hours in the cold wind, and wanting to play catch when I got home. I remember getting hit in the face with a fly ball at the next practice. My coach called my mom to ask how I was, and I kept whispering through swollen lips, “Tell him I quit!”

I remember the first time I pitched. I hit a batter in the back, and walked him down to first base to make sure he was okay. (I soon learned to relish drilling any batter that crowded the plate.)

I remember being in complete shock during my first pitching lesson, when I was told my form was terrible. It was the first strong criticism I’d ever received for something I thought I was doing perfectly. I took it very personally.

I remember my neighbors restraining their rage during my backyard games of homerun derby. The tennis balls would randomly bounce off their rooftops for hours. I vowed to reward their patience if I ever made it to the pros.

I remember being slightly terrified my freshmen year in high school, playing against kids who had gone through puberty, who were hitting the ball so hard I thought it’d kill me.

I remember the smell of Icy Hot, sunflower seeds, Big League Chew, and Gatorade. I remember the irritating pinch of leather and worn-out sheepskin inside my glove. I remember hating every time I had to use a bat with those stupid graffiti-style decals, and the awful sound metal cleats made on concrete.

I remember the greatest feeling was hitting a line drive between left and center field with a wood bat that’d been doused with pine tar. A close second was striking a batter out swinging with a high-inside fastball. The absolute worst feeling was getting struck out looking.

I remember getting my front teeth knocked out by a baseball, the 11 shots of Novocain, the root canals, and wearing multiple sets of temporary crowns that looked like Chiclets. I learned to never stand near the catcher in the bullpen.

I remember my aunt being most impressed with my ability to catch the ball each time the catcher threw it back to me. I remember my sister yelling at the ump, “We know you’re blind, we’ve seen your wife!”

I remember the last inning of a close game, and our third baseman calling to me between batters: “Charlie! A bird just landed on the field!” I was so thrown off by the remark that I completely lost focus, and we lost the game.

I remember all the tournaments in Steamboat Springs, Pueblo, Idaho, and Arizona. I remember our team fooling around during one of the games, while the opposing team — and their parents — were taking it very seriously. They were enraged that we seemed to be mocking their efforts. I was called in, and the ball slipped from my hand on the first pitch. It hit the batter square in the head. This was the only time I was more concerned about what would happen in the parking lot than who would win.

I remember clearly seeing the results of practicing correctly. Hitting off a tee for hours every day – an insanely boring drill – resulted in some of the best hits I ever had. It established a simple truth: you can get really good at anything with focused repetitions. (“Practice does not make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.”)

I remember getting picked off at first base THREE TIMES in one game. I remember how many times the ball went through my legs. I remember how many curve balls I swung at and missed. I remember no one calling for the fly ball, and watching it drop to the ground. I remember making multiple errors in my first game playing up, and all of my older teammates sarcastically clapping as I entered the dugout.

I remember so many errors, walks, balks, and strikeouts. I remember winning games we were expected to lose, and losing games we should have won. I remember the frustration that evaporated as quickly as it came. It was just a game…

For 12 years of my life, I practiced throwing, catching, and hitting a ball. Then it stopped, as it does for countless people each year, and I was left to fill the void with something else.

Everyone who plays knows that it comes to an end. Many of the pros get so invested in that one aspect of their life that they’re completely lost when it stops. The question to ask is, where will you go when that day inevitably arrives? How will you reinvent your identity once it’s stripped away?

Baseball taught me that today is preparation for tomorrow, and that the score was never the point. It was my constant reminder that I would never reach mastery; I would always make mistakes, and needed to get comfortable with failing. And when I could no longer play, it was an opportunity to move on and find something else I loved. Above everything else, baseball showed me the importance of resilience. In that sense, it was the perfect game.

My dad was the one who taught me how to play. He coached me for years, took me to the batting cages, paid for lessons, loaded the tee, kept score throughout high school, and footed the bill for my new teeth. Of the several hundred games I played, I remember him missing only a few.

One of his favorite memories (which I do not remember) was of me driving in the winning run when I was 5 years old. Everyone cheered, the coach lifted me up on his shoulders, and I yelled out, “Dad, what did I do?!”

His favorite memory:

Playing catch in the backyard. You never, ever got tired of playing catch. I hope one day you get to experience the feeling that I had whenever I would walk through the door from work and you would hand me my glove and ask me to play. There are few things better for a dad.

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A final sad note: One of my high school teammates, Shane Wise, was recently attacked in downtown Denver. He’s been in the hospital for over a month, recovering from severe head injuries — fractures to his face, skull, and bleeding in his brain. He is uninsured, and the bills are mounting.

This awful incident couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, and given that he recently became a father, he and his family are in a very unfortunate position.

If anything I’ve written has ever helped you in some way, please consider this a chance to return the favor:

Take two minutes to help with Shane’s hospital bills.

Even $20 will be $20 less that he’ll have to pay.

By Charlie Hoehn