The path to pragmatism; making psychology useful

I had difficulty in trying to write over the last several months. On one hand I felt what I was communicating was helpful to me and those who read it, but in my own journey I began to find the things I was writing about as increasingly vague and unhelpful.

I try not to be overly critical of myself, and certainly at the time I wrote them, they felt correct and beneficial. It was difficult to go back and try to find practical meaning and something useful in much of it, and so I felt the need to do a little bit of a reset.

An Imaginary Journey

“I just want to go on my hero’s journey and get out of my comfort zone and overcome my fears and be a super successful entrepreneur that changes the world.” (perhaps a little over-dramatic.)

If you ask such a person, “what do you mean by that?” you’ll likely get something like “Well I’m tired of doing the 9-5, I’ve gotta connect to my life’s purpose and do what makes my heart sing.” (I’ll admit that one made me gag a little as I wrote it out.)

How many times would you have to ask “what do you mean by that?” before a person can give you a real concrete answer on what they want to do and why? You might actually never get such a concrete answer.

Hello Logic, My Old Friend

There is a stigma in spiritual circles about focusing only on what is rational and pragmatic, because the spirit is in the heart and it’s about emotion! And yet you’ll be making your daily choices that bring  you closer to your ideal reality with your seemingly “outdated” logic brain.

Even frequently used spiritual terms like “collective consciousness” and “true self” were developed by Carl Jung, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. I am not invalidating them, but merely saying the path to them will not come through vague ideas and concepts that cannot possibly manifest into the real world.

We all know things we could be doing today to improve our lives, we know things we could stop doing to improve our lives. Feeling guilty for not doing the good or not dropping the bad isn’t particularly helpful though.

In the posts to come, I hope to meaningfully communicate those more pragmatic life lessons I’ve picked up that have helped move my life more in the direction of “generally enjoyable”.


A State Of Play: The Lost Art Of Childhood

“Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”
― Tom Robbins

Whether outrunning a speeding bullet as Superman, shooting the bad guys as a cowboy or merely parading down the street with arms out making jet plane noises, children spend a lot of time playing pretend. Of course this eventually becomes frowned upon as the child becomes older, as it becomes time to get serious, and go to school. School followed by more school, which is eventually followed by work, and eventually retirement.


Even by age 8 you may have some children telling you that playing pretend is for babies. A perfectly valid statement to make for someone who is growing up and seeking their own independence to some extent. Teachers and parents stop encouraging it as they direct their children down the more professional path.


One universally powerful lesson I learned, was that while the type of play may change, being able to be playful is universally beneficial, in all aspects of life. That isn’t to say you don’t take things seriously, this isn’t about entering the extreme of being a clown. A state of play works as a flow state. The actual playing is the meaningful part, not the result of it. Just as playing a game of soccer or listening to a musical piece, isn’t about the end result, but the activity of doing it.


Let’s cut away definitions and techniques, and just look at what playfulness implies. In a relationship, this means you won’t freak out if something unexpected happens, like losing a job, or getting injured. It shows you’re a person in good spirits who is stable and has inner strength. In a workplace, it demonstrates not letting stress get to you, or becoming reactive. It can even shift the power balance and provide you with the dominant frame in a business setting, letting you Pitch Anything.


But most importantly, it breaks the expected pattern of life. Whether you’re trying to ask out a cute girl or guy in a coffee shop or pitch a million dollar deal, the awareness of the situation in both settings makes it an uncomfortable atmosphere. It appears as if one person is trying to get something from the other. In a state of play, you are sharing in the experience. You are stepping outside the world as it exists, and enjoying a moment with the other person.


Hot Tip: Here’s a really easy way to channel a little playfulness. Simply consider, in any scenario, what’s everyone else doing, and how can I do it differently? You’ll automatically be breaking the pattern of expected behavior, and you can use the reactions you get as feedback. You’ll continually calibrate and grow as you naturally become better at determining how to approach situations. Next time you go to swipe your credit card at a coffee shop, do it in a karate chop motion, and see what happens. 


So at this point you may or may not be convinced over the power of play, but what does playfulness look like? If you mean to approach a potential partner, it may mean asking her to run away with you to Paris so you may get married under the moonlit Eiffel Tower, before pulling back and saying you may be getting ahead of yourself, and moving onto introductions. In a business pitch, it may be telling a story of a childhood experience of using the particular product, instead of throwing stats and numbers at potential investors.
Children know what they’re doing when they play cops and robbers, they aren’t at any point convinced they may kill someone by firing their finger at them. Awareness of a situation combined with playfulness is an incredibly powerful tool that can immediately shift how others interact with you. It spawns creativity and a general appreciation for the world when you spend more time in a state of play. Why not have a little more fun?


Bonus Tip: Not the playful type? Start by not labeling yourself that way. Next, simply observe what brings you some level of joy as you go through your day. Is it the matching hats of a young couple? The funky colors on an exotic bird? Is it the fact that your co-worker has an expensive espresso machine on his desk but you’ve never seen him use it? Awareness of what makes you smile will help build your playfulness muscle until it comes naturally.  

Patterns of Living: The Other Big Secret

“Prepare for the unknown by studying how others in the past have coped with the unforeseeable and the unpredictable.”
― George S. Patton

Once upon a time, around 400-600 BC, in three places around the world, three figures arose, all saying a lot of the same things, even though there was no way for them to meet. Socrates in ancient Greece, Buddha in India, and Confucius in China. There is a lot that was added and changed along the way, and you may find a history lesson in other places, but there is one incredibly crucial and practical lesson found in each of their teachings.


There is a rigidity found in religion, as well as later philosophers, as they tackle major life questions like “What does a good life look like?” or “Is it ever okay to lie?” and a slew of other theoretical questions that don’t quite help one live in the real world. For instance there is the famous trolley problem, where a trolley is heading towards five people, you can pull a lever to have it change tracks, but you’ll end up killing one person. If you do nothing, you indirectly killed five people, but if you pull it, you’ll be directly responsible for killing one person. Debates on problems like this do little to assist in living in the real world. You may enjoy armchair debates, but you cannot take your answer away and then incorporate the lessons you learned into your daily life.


That’s where the three figures I mentioned earlier differ. What they realized is that the world is actually a very capricious place. The reality is, you chose very little of your circumstances upon birth. Your race, gender, sexuality, family income, safety of neighborhood, among many other elements are outside of your direct control. There are patterns that dictate your behavior that can be led back to your genes and the sociocultural system you grew up in. Perhaps you were born with below average height and looks, in a poor household. The system you live in tells you that all these things are bad, and your behaviors will be born from that.


And so you live by these patterns. If you are short, you act distraught each time you’re picked last in school for the basketball team. If you’re average looking, you may settle for a partner that may not be the best fit for you, but hey, you’ve got to settle for what you can get, right? If your family is poor, perhaps you would feel ashamed of making a lot of money or simply feel unable to.

Here is where the greatest lesson comes from these ancient Western and Eastern philosophers. It’s possible to break these patterns and essentially “hack” your beliefs. Socrates walked the streets in unwashed robes and openly questioned everyone’s beliefs until they killed him for it, but he successfully snapped a lot of people out of their patterns and ushered in an era of philosophy. Buddha speaks often of the power of our mind and beliefs, and consciousness of our behaviors. Confucius speaks of the importance of rituals, how consciously deciding to do them allows you to step out of your daily life, or ‘autopilot’ status.


Hot Tip: So you want to break a pattern and aren’t sure where to start? Start by dropping your label, like “I am an angry person”. Your quickness to anger comes from your patterns of living thus far, and has nothing to do with your ‘real self’ or anything like that. Next time you feel yourself getting angry, take a pause and see where it’s coming from. Was someone late? Did your partner not understand you? Break it down, and choose to act differently. Each time you catch yourself in anger and act in a different way, you’re developing a new pattern, and soon enough, you’ll no longer be “an angry person”. It won’t happen overnight, but the way you developed it, is the only way to resolve it. 
When I was going through my rough times I mentioned in the intro there was a question that popped in my mind which changed everything. “Says who?”. Who determined when we should get married, the types of relationships we should have, the kind of job we should have, the way we should meet friends, and the rest. The answer was, it was simply the pattern of living in the sociocultural system I grew up in. Everyone is doing it, because everyone is doing it. Circular logic doomed to never end.

Thankfully, as the ancient philosophers teach us, we can consciously break these patterns and develop new ones. We are free to act the way Rosa Parks did when she changed history forever by sitting at the front of the bus, we are free to be the one who says ‘Hi’ to people on the street, instead of complaining that everyone is looking down and unfriendly. When we understand everyone is merely following their own patterns, it allows a space for compassion, and inspiration to be a vehicle for change.

Meditation: The Secret to Everything

“Mindful meditation has been discovered to foster the ability to inhibit those very quick emotional impulses.”
– Daniel Goleman

If you’re anything like I used to be, meditation makes you think of prayer beads, chanting, Buddhism, candles, and a slew of other stereotypes. If, also like me, you were raised in a religious household, you may even have further fear of meditation as being something that goes against your beliefs. Let’s pause there for a moment though. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly, let your breath return to normal and simply feel your breathe, closing your eyes if it helps enhance the sensation.


If you followed the above, you’ve done it, you’ve meditated. Fortunately you didn’t need to convert to a different religion or sacrilege your existing one. Though in a society that suffers from dozens of sources trying to steal your attention at all times, it can be difficult to take that moment or two and simply breathe. From ads on TV or online, your phone notifications, your family members, everything is in competition, trying to snatch away your attention.


Though if I’ve learned anything in the past couple of years, it’s that if you could only do one single thing that could drastically improve each aspect of your life, meditation is it. Not in four hours a day, but even two minutes when you have a moment to yourself. There is a lot meditation can do and even millionaires billionaires do it.


You don’t need to believe in any of the religious or spiritual aspects of it, imagine how a calmer mind with less clutter would react in different everyday scenarios. There’s 10 things you need to do today, they would take 6 hours to complete, but you’ve only got 4! You could panic and struggle to decide which to do, wasting the precious little time you have, or simply spend a few minutes sorting it out in your head and simply beginning. If you get through 5 of them, great. I won’t get into the subject of delegating tasks or setting reasonable deadlines for people here, but realize the potential of a calmer and directed mind in a scenario like the one above.

Hot Tip: So you’d like to start meditating, but aren’t quite sure where to incorporate it to have it become a habit in your daily routine? Wake up 10 minutes early, wash your face, have a drink of cold water and a quick stretch, use the last few minutes of your bonus time to meditate. You’ll find starting the day with an emptied mind and not preemptively worrying about all that could go wrong, builds momentum for a great day. 
How about relationships? Could they possibly benefit from a calmer, and less reactive mind? Why, yes dear reader, they would! It doesn’t matter if you’re single and dating, or have been married for 40 years. Having the ability to return to a place of equanimity means not escalating an argument, it means not acting needy or desperate when your partner is in a slump.
Meditation was what started my whole transition, it gave me the power to find answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. It allowed me to start building an awareness in terms of how I’m feeling at different times, as well as what’s going on around me. You won’t have to go out and buy any books or prayer beads, the right pillow to sit on isn’t nearly so important. If you’re in a place where you can safely close your eyes for a few minutes and simply breathe, you’ve already got all you need to incorporate this super power into your life.


Forgiveness: A Change in Mindset

“Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
― Joanna Weaver

As I turned around to my snickering class mates, I could hear them whispering “I’m surprised he even felt that”. They had been shooting spitballs at me for the last couple of minutes and assumed my wondrous amount of flab would merely absorb the impact without my noticing. These kind of things occurred almost daily, and commonly so discretely that teachers never really seemed to notice, or when alerted, merely told the accused to settle down. It’s easy for some parents to write it off as “boys will be boys” or “children just go through that phase”.
In the first introduction I mentioned a bit about my battle with obesity. As one may suspect, this battle was one that went beyond my inability perform well in sports or in consuming far too much food. I learned later in life that bullies exist in all shapes and sizes, and my overcoming my obesity didn’t eliminate these kind of experiences. It’s unfortunate that the easiest targets are those who are already living with some aspect of themselves they don’t quite love, making the words of the attacker that much more damaging. It’s no surprise that it can often lead to things like depression or in more extreme cases, even suicide.

While it may be easy to blame the bully, or on their parents, it may get you some justice, but it won’t resolve the problem. No human being; child or adult, who is fulfilled and happy, would get their kicks from making others feel terrible. Let me say that once more, no one will wake up and think “Wow, what a wonderful day to be alive!” as they open up their curtains, then go and harass someone later in the day.


Hot Tip: Notice when you think poorly of someone. See if you can re-frame why they wronged you. (i.e. If your boss yelled at you, and normally does not, could it be something happened to him to put him on edge, like an argument with a family member?). Next, notice how responding with kindness and not holding onto grudges pacifies the situation much faster. 
One day, well into my weight loss I went for ice cream (I still treat myself of course!) and suddenly came face to face with one of the bullies from my childhood. At first I could not believe my eyes, but upon gazing at his name tag, I had confirmed it. “Hello, what may I get for you today?” he asked. He hadn’t recognized me, of course. We went through the interaction as normal, and I walked away with my ice cream in hand. I couldn’t feel any resentment. All that came to mind was, I have no idea what his life was like while he was bullying me, nor in the years since then.

I allowed myself to develop this mindset over time, which allowed me to forgive those who were the cause of my suffering. I did it for myself, to carry no more bitterness into the future. Knowing when to set healthy boundaries and say something about what’s bothering you is an important skill to have.

More then compassion for others, compassion for myself turned out to be much harder and a skill I’m continuing to develop. To forgive myself for the way I used to live, and be proud of myself for my own accomplishments. The years I spent overweight and hiding from the world may never return, but the future still lies ahead, undefined.

The Beauty of Rock Bottom: An Introduction

My eyes continued staring at the pen that I was hoping would somehow save me. I was flipping it around in my hand as it continued to hold my gaze, the minutes passed by as if they were hours. Seven minutes later, the date was over. It would be the first of a dozen or so dates that night. As I mumbled a few questions like “Have you ever done this before?”, never once looking her in the eyes, I could only assume I wasn’t cut out for dating in the first place.

Several speed dating events, and over 100 women later, with a dozen online dates in-between, I was finally convinced that I was simply broken and unlovable. Unsure why I would be allowed to live on this planet in this state by whatever entity created the universe, I questioned whether there was a reason to bother going on. What was I without a “second half?”. I was already 25, how is it that I could not get this sorted?

You see dear reader, I spent my childhood and a good chunk of adulthood morbidly obese, peaking out at a lovely 400 pounds. Perhaps not the best reason to avoid dating, the self-loathing and hours spent on video games were a successful distraction from it. After a few years of calorie counting, dieting and exercising, the weight situation was improved at least.


It was at this point that I finally moved out from my parents home and began enjoying the luxuries of doing everything on my own. In addition to going to a job I wasn’t particularly enjoying, and without a girlfriend, I spent my time contemplating how everyone seemed to be getting on with life except for me.

The years I spent obese certainly didn’t help my confidence, self-love or social skills. Even after a lot of the weight was gone, confidence in myself did not magically develop. I had fairly crippling anxiety in most situations. Unable to look even a cashier in the eyes. I figured since the weight loss didn’t fix it, it was just a part of me. I wasn’t meant to be a social butterfly, I was built to be trembling in job interviews and staring at tables while on dates. But it’s not my fault right? I must simply have some bad genes. I wasn’t meant to be direct with women or the center of attention in a room. Right?

I wasn’t used to talking about this kind of thing to anyone. I had never heard anyone else speaking about wanting to change, about being unsatisfied with their situation. This further led me to believe, that change wasn’t something that could happen. That the people I see in the olympics, that the charismatic Bill Clintons of the world, are just ‘that way’.

When suddenly one day I decided to open up to my personal trainer at the gym, he was just a bit older then me, and we had built a bit of a bond. I told him about my frustrations in life and how it seems no matter how many dates I go on, I’m just not compatible with anyone. His answer wasn’t what I was expecting. He told me you can learn to be better. That there’s books for knowing how to talk to women, how to be more charismatic, how to find more peace and calm in your life, how to find your purpose. My mind mostly associated those kind of things with “Oprah nonsense”, that was some huge hoax for people to buy books.

With this seed in my mind that someone I trusted told me that it didn’t have to be this way, I hopped on a plane with a couple of friends and toured around Europe. The whole time still frustrated about my situation, I lashed out at my dear friends in ways I was not proud of. I did have some of the material my trainer gave me on the trip, and started flipping through it. On the day I returned to the real world, I was laid off from my job.

This was my rock bottom; no job, no girlfriend, and terrified of the idea of having to move back in with my parents. My mind reached some sort of breaking point, but what was on the other side was not something I was expecting. I felt as if I suddenly had the ability to start all over. That this was a new dawn.

And so, with the spare time in-between job searching, I started to devour books and began pushing myself to face my fears. Any idea that sounded like it would benefit me, I accepted fully and naively. I was a blank canvas and I would get to decide what the new painting would look like.

With the idea of ‘fake it till’ you make it’, I thought I’d pretend to be confident, and see how I got on. I received a call from an IT recruiter, when they said ‘since you seem really confident, I’m sure you’ll do great’, I burst out in laughter after the call. I had fooled him, totally! The interviews came in quick succession after that, and with techniques like Amy Cuddy’s power poses, the confidence eventually really did become a part of me.

The years of video games, and my career being in the field of ‘computer security’ or ‘fighting computer hax0rs’, allowed me to thrive in the process of ‘personal development’. I always looked for ways to do things more efficiently, or ‘hack them’. I failed over and over, but kept progressing as I would learn something from each failure. It was just like dying in a video game, and trying again and again until I learned the strategy that would lead me to victory.

This led to passions in all kinds of other areas. For instance, I wondered how far back I could find advice on the art of life, this led me to exploring philosophy. My love of ‘hacking’ things efficiently led me to explore neuroscience and psychology. The profound effects of my hitting rock bottom had me look into religion and spirituality.

My search of love, had me explore dating and relationships. While initially all I could find was the old school, weird pick-up artist sort of advice, I did eventually discover a whole community of men who explored ways to become better with women, by becoming their best selves. Learning how to connect with women emotionally, how to have the strength to be vulnerable, how not to become needy or a ‘nice guy‘.



And so I found a new job in a new city (as pictured above, me staring dramatically into the distance at Montreal’s Mount Royal summit), the blank canvas concept extended to my entire life now. I could decide on my friends, my hobbies, my habits and just about every other aspect of my life. I used the skills I learned to connect with others, and built new, far more profound types of relationships. Where before my hobbies were video games and movies, things easy to do as a person with pretty heavy social anxiety, the new me had no such limitations.

I filled my life with people who were on similar paths, from all walks of life, all ages, different dreams and goals. People who cared about themselves and their lives. My hobbies became things like public speaking, I took improv classes, I tried out stand-up comedy to reasonable laughter and success, I even ended up on television as a part of a happiness program.

I suppose the “Oprah nonsense” wasn’t as much nonsense as I thought. The only nonsense was my beliefs. When I believed I could change, change no longer seemed impossible, I was no longer a slave to ‘my genes’. It’s been a long journey, that wasn’t always easy, and is nowhere near over. I hope no matter where you’re at in your story, you find some inspiration and actionable advice in this blog.

I’d like to end with a special shout out to Peter Hartman and Samantha Barley, who both run meetup groups in Montreal, they allowed me to jump-start my socializing and new life almost immediately after I moved into the city. The momentum I’ve built thanks to them has taken me to places I could have only dreamed of.