Letter to a 13 year old boy

I can hardly believe you are thirteen years old. I remember how nervous I was to hold you for the first time when you were a baby, thirteen years ago—you looked nervous too! And I remember when I turned thirteen and how I felt, and I wondered how my life would change now that I was a teenager.

I know it’s kind of weird (that’s me!), but I asked a bunch of people what kind of advice they’d give you, now that you’re thirteen. I asked our family and our friends. You know some of them really well, and others you only kind of know. I guess when you read this years later, you probably won’t remember who everyone is, so I made some notes to help with that.

I have some advice too, as usual. These days it feels like I don’t see you as much as I’d like, so I’m writing down all the stuff I wish we could talk about together, and we will eventually, I guess. I should tell you first, though, that I’m really proud of who you are and the adult you are becoming. I really admire your intelligence, and your sense of humor is a great indicator of that. I am constantly impressed by your athleticism because you make the hard stuff look easy (but practice still helps, right?). I am always in awe of how easily you make friends, and keep them. Did I already say I love your sense of humor? I love you so much, and I’m so proud and happy to be the father of such a cool son.

Here are a few quotes that I really like…

  • “To go fast, you need to be good. To be good, you need to go slow.” (unknown) I like this quote because it’s a reminder of how important it is to go slow and practice, and get better, so that when you really need to “go fast” those skills will be available.
  • “Nothing in life matters quite as much as it does while you are thinking about it.” (Daniel Kahneman) Kahneman is a psychologist, and this quote reminds me that the things I think are super important, or scary, or make me feel anxious, definitely aren’t as big of a deal as they seem at that moment. And that has ALWAYS proven true when I look back at those thoughts a few days later.
  • “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.” (unknown) This one makes me chuckle, but it’s true. Pros know what they’re doing, and they know how to avoid the expensive mistakes that amateurs make.
  • “In work, do what you enjoy; in family life, be completely present.” (Tao Te Ching) The Tao Te Ching is a book, not a person. The text dates back to 400 years before Christ, and a lot of the advice in there is still relevant. Do what you love, and when you’re with people, don’t let your mind, eyes, or ears wander away from them—be present.
  • “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” (Simone Weil) Ms. Weil was a philosopher and an activist. This quote really cuts through the crap and names the truth. You can always get more money to give away, but your attention is very limited and valuable. Be aware of where you spend it, and also be aware of when others spend their attention on you. It’s kind of another way of saying the same thing as the previous quote from the Tao Te Ching.
  • “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.” (Mark Rippetoe) This one makes me laugh, but it’s also true. Rippetoe is a strength coach from Texas, and he’s funny and blunt. When you spend time getting stronger, you’ll be a more useful person in the world. Not just physically, but mentally too because spending time under a heavy barbell forces you to learn about yourself.
  • “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Ian Maclaren) Being kind to other people costs nothing (other than patience), and what you get in return is more kindness. We rarely know what other folks are dealing with, so it’s always a great policy to just be as kind as you can manage.
  • “Bear and forbear.” This is translated from the Latin phrase, “Sustine et abstine.” and it basically means to handle the hardships that come your way, and that there’s no need to add to other people’s hardships, or whine about your own. This quote comes from a group of people known as Stoics.

Speaking of Stoics, there was a guy named Marcus Aurelius who lived about 2,000 years ago. He was one of the emperors of Rome, and pretty much spent all his time at war. He had tens of thousands of soldiers under his command. Each night he wrote in his private journal, and surprisingly this journal has survived to this day. It’s called “Meditations”, and it’s his private notes to himself about how he did each day, and how he could do better. A LOT of people find this little book to be very valuable to them. There are other Stoics to read as well: Seneca and Epictetus top the list.

There’s a saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. For you, for a lot of years, three of those people were mom, me, and your little brother. As you get older, you’ll make your own choices about who those five people are, and your choices will affect how other people see you, and the opportunities that become available to you. That’s both unfair, and true. People will see who you spend time with, and they’ll assume you are similar. Spend time with brilliant athlete-scholars, and you’ll be seen as one, and treated accordingly. Spend your time with potheads, and you’ll be seen as one, and treated accordingly.

There are a few more things that I think are important for you to have heard sooner rather than later. A lot of this stuff seems like common sense, but you might be surprised by how uncommon “common sense” actually is.

Math and science

  • Science should be fun and interesting. Like Adam Savage said on Mythbusters, “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”
  • Learn about the Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule. This basically means that just about anything can be split into 20% of something affecting 80% of something else. See if you can spot this happening with homework, or sports practice…usually the first 10% and last 10% will take up 80% of your time and brainpower.
  • Learn about what’s called the “bell curve”, or “normal distribution”. This is the idea that everything falls into a kind of pattern. Imagine all the 13 year olds in the world. A few are really tall, a few are really short. Most are pretty close to the same height. That’s a normal distribution. Almost everything fits this pattern, and knowing this will help you get a better idea about whether things are awesome or average.
  • Learn to distinguish between causation and correlation, because this is a really common way that people get tricked into believing things that aren’t true. Causation means there’s a direct relationship between an action and a result: if you eat ice cream (cause), your mouth will get cold (effect). Correlation means things happen together, but there may not be causation involved: drownings increase at the same rate as ice cream sales (obviously selling more ice cream isn’t the cause of more drownings, but in the summer both things increase).
  • Learn about the scientific method, and practice on yourself with food, sleep, hydration, exercise, etc. Keep track of results by writing them down. The scientific method just means that you test theories by experimentation, and close observation. For instance, you might wonder if you pitch better with just 4 hours of sleep (that’s called a “hypothesis”). So you’d experiment by observing your pitching performance after 4 hours of sleep, and comparing those results with your performance after 8 hours of sleep. The comparison is called “analysis” and helps you determine whether your hypothesis is correct.

Thinking and talking

  • Figure out how to be a critical thinker, and practice on adults. This might piss them off. Don’t let that stop you (but don’t be a dick about it). Critical thinking is a lot like the scientific method, because you’re always evaluating statements against your own knowledge and experience to see whether there are flaws in the logic and reasoning.
  • Learn to tell the difference between opinions and facts, especially when adults are talking. Everyone likes to pretend their opinions are facts. There’s even a saying, “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts.” Adults make this worse on young people because they want young people to believe that everything that comes out of an adult’s mouth is a fact. It’s not. Use critical thinking to help tell the difference between an opinion and a fact. But don’t be a dick about it.
  • Don’t automatically trust authority; require evidence of one kind or another that the authority is worth your trust. Again, smile while you do this, and don’t be a dick about it.
  • There are things called “logical fallacies.” These are basically tricks with words that people use to make you believe things. If you can learn to identify logical fallacies, people will think you are a warlock. There’s a great list here: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

Money

  • Learn about compound interest, and how to make money work for you instead of you working for money. Compound interest is the idea that your money makes a little bit more money on interest. Say you put $100 in the bank and that becomes $110 because of interest. Now you’re earning even MORE interest on $110, but you only put in $100.
  • Spend less than you earn. If you can learn to live on half of what you earn, and save the rest, you won’t have to work for money for very long. Very few people have the discipline to do this, including me.
  • If you have to choose between a poorly made thing that doesn’t cost much, or a well made thing that costs more, buy the well made thing. This is more of an opinion than a fact, but I think the well made thing will last longer and you’ll spend less time and money shopping for a replacement. Just remember that price isn’t always an indicator of quality.

Human performance and psychology

  • There is a phenomenon called a “plateau”. It means that when you practice doing something, you get better really fast at first, and then you stop getting better at it. This is normal. It’s also frustrating, and that’s normal too. If you think creatively about the situation you can usually break out of it and continue to make progress, but the new progress is usually slower than before. That’s also normal.
  • Sometimes our minds get all wound up and we start feeling anxious and worried. If that happens, try to pay attention to just one specific thing. Usually that will calm down your mind.
  • When someone does or says something that really bothers or upsets you, it’s easy to imagine that they are an awful or evil person, or that they are out to get you or something. That’s almost always not the case. Usually the other person just has a different perspective, and they aren’t intentionally trying to hurt you or make you mad. Figuring out their perspective really goes a long way to fixing the conflict.
  • There are so many explanations for events, but usually the simplest explanation is the one that’s closest to the truth. It’s too easy to invent all kinds of scenarios in our heads, but most of those scenarios add in a bunch of junk that just isn’t there. Incidentally, this is how a lot of conflict begins—people make up flawed explanations for events, then assume it’s the truth. Then they’ll do/say something to piss you off because their assumption is messed up. Keep an eye out for this, and don’t fall into the same trap.
  • Perception is reality. That is, always assume other people see the world differently than you see the world. Always work hard (communicate, negotiate) to reduce the difference between your version and their version.
  • When you are looking at a pile of paperwork (homework, whatever) and feeling overwhelmed, start with the item on top. It can only be three things: trash, save for later, or an action to take right now. If it’s trash, throw it away. If you can do it in 2 minutes or less, do it right now. If you need to save it for later, learn about the 43 folders system. This works with a lot of stuff, not just paper.
  • There are things called “cognitive biases” which are ways that human brains behave in order for us to try and make sense of the world. A lot of times these cognitive biases are basically our brains telling us lies because it doesn’t know what else to do. If you can learn to identify these cognitive biases in yourself and others, people will think you are a warlock. There’s more info about cognitive biases here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

This was a pretty quick note to write, but it was 46 years in the making. I am telling you all this stuff because it’s what I wish someone had told me when I was your age. I wouldn’t have understood all of it, but I would have picked away at it over time until I did understand, and it would’ve saved me a lot of time. I really hope these words help you in some way, and that you’re able to build on this and pass along something even better someday.

I guess I’ve rambled enough here. I love you.

—Dad

Cool Tools Review

Gerber EAB

I have subscribed to Kevin Kelly’s (KK) CoolTools blog pretty much since its inception. I love it because of the variety of interesting things that scroll across the blog. Every now and then I’ll stop to consider something I’m using and decide it would make a nice addition to the CoolTools blog. I did that a while back with a knife that I use pretty regularly, and the review was published this week.

KK has also made a book from the blog. Lots of books have been made from blogs, but this one is really great. It feels and reads like the old Whole Earth Catalog that my parents used to have laying around the house. I received a freebie copy because one of my old reviews was included in the book.

All my CoolTools reviews are here.

ATTN. This is how to lose weight

Happy New Year! If you’re anything like me, you don’t really buy into the new year resolution racket. But maybe, like me, some part of your brain still kinda sorta knows that it’d be a good idea to lose a little weight, for whatever reason. For me, it’s a combination of wanting to carry less weight around during obstacle races and, if I’m honest, just a little bit of vanity. I spent a big part of last year learning a lot about nutrition and exercise. In this edition, I’ll try to distill some of that information down for you.

The thing about weight management with humans is that somewhere along the line we have lost sight of the fact that it’s pretty simple. We stopped seeing the forest for the trees. We let ourselves get marketed into beliving that losing weight is a complex process, and that all these diet plans are somehow making it simpler, when actually the reverse is true. Losing weight is pretty simple. Depending on your goals and lifestyle, it might not be easy. But it’s definitely simple. Don’t believe anyone who tries to convince you otherwise. There are several legit “good guy” authorities on nutrition out there. If you’re interested in knowing more than what I’ve written here, the bottom of this letter has a list for further reading1.

The Secret

The secret to losing weight can be summed up as: eat less than necessary, and be patient. That’s really it. As with most simple things, there’s a lot of meaning packed in there. Let’s unpack a bit of it. First, when I say “eat” I really mean eat real food. Eating doesn’t mean drinking protein shakes, though they have their place; it doesn’t mean eating nutrition bars or prepackaged meals or whatever. As Michael Pollan notes2, when you go to the supermarket, shop around the perimeter rather than in the inner aisles. The edges of the store are where you’ll find the real food: veggies, meat, fish, dairy. The next part, “less than necessary” just means that you consume fewer calories than you require to maintain your current weight. The “be patient” part means that this takes time. The more weight you have to lose, the more time it will take. Healthy weight loss occurs at about 1lb to 1.5lb per week, with some exceptions for start-up water weight loss. Pretty simple, eh?

Corollaries

There are a couple of corollaries to the above “secret” which can be helpful for active people to remember. The first is eat less, move more. The second is you can’t outwork a lousy diet. If you aren’t an athlete, or an active person, then don’t worry about these two corollaries. Sure, it’s good to move more, and you should. But if you live a generally sedentary lifestyle, with no plan to increase activity, then your weight loss is going to be all about food, and movement isn’t really going to play a part, so that first “secret” is all you need to know. Skip down to the bottom for a reading list, and I wish you luck. Everyone else, listen up.

Moving More

If you think you can just add in a three mile run every couple of days and watch the pounds slip away without adjusting what you eat, you are mistaken. The “move more” bit just means that when you eat less than necessary, you can increase weight loss by increasing your activity. Activity alone isn’t going to do it, unless you’re already eating less than necessary.

Moving Too Much More

Moving more doesn’t have to be hard. Just walking more will help. This stuff is all interrelated though, so be aware that if you move a LOT more, like run for miles and miles, your body will adapt to the “new normal” and respond by decreasing metabolic rate. The very thing you think should burn up more calories/fat actually contributes to slowing down your body’s ability to do so, making it more difficult to drop pounds. This applies to any cardio-based activity, not just running.

Count Something

If you are serious about losing some weight, you need to either count calories or macronutrients3. I know you didn’t want to hear that (I sure don’t), but it’s true. At least for a while, until you’ve got your schick down pat. If you are active, you probably should count macros. If you’re sedentary, either is fine. Here is a good generic calculator for starting to figure out your macros (and recipes). Sedentary folks can use this calculator. Active people should prioritize protein intake. If you’re vegetarian/vegan, you probably know where your protein comes from. Everyone else, get your protein from low fat meat: chicken, really lean beef, and seafood. It turns out that your body has a tremendous capacity for processing protein, so eat up.

Macronutrients

Active people need to pay attention to the macronutrient makeup of their food. There are lots of ways to approach this, so feel free to do your own reading to see what works for you. The basic advice for active folks is to eat sufficient protein every day, and cycle your carbs and fat. That means assume you’re eating the same amount of protein each day, but on workout days you eat more carbs and a little less fat. On rest days you eat fewer carbs and a little more fat. You need those carbs on workout days so your body gets enough fuel. You want to lose weight, but you don’t want to sacrifice muscle. Eating insufficient carbs on workout days puts active/lean people at risk of catabolism, which is where your body starts using muscle as fuel rather than fat or readily available carbs. There’s plenty more detail behind all this, but thems the basics.

Tools For Success

Use online calcutors to help you figure out your macros and build receipes to fit them. Learn about, and consider using, intermittent fasting to give yourself some contraints. Reject the idea of “cheat days”; embrace planned breaks (aka refeeds) in your diet. Relax, and don’t get all OCD about food. The most efficient activity for weight loss is to build muscle (which increases metabolism), so consider learning how to lift heavy things.

That Is All

I’ve gone on too long already, but in summary, pay attention to your food, and don’t stress out about the occasional slip-up. Accept and move on. If you need more details on any of this, read the authors listed below. In particular, learn about the causes of metabolic slowdown and the solutions for fixing or avoiding it. Also, if you find misstatements or mistakes in the above, please let me know! I’m an absolute layman when it comes to this, and I’m learning as I go. Writing this for you helps me understand it better.

Good Luck With The Diet


Thanks for reading,

–Bren


  1. For deep info and how-to information, read Lyle McDonald. For good reviews of current nutrition science, read Alan Aragon. For a combo nutrition/fitness perspective, read Martin Berkhan. If you want a little coaching on nutrition while staying active, look into Andy Morgan. ↩

  2. Michael Pollan’s books, in particular Omnivore’s Dilemma. ↩

  3. The main macronutrients are protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Some folks also include alcohol. When counting macros, it’s a good idea to include a little buffer and stay flexible. Andy Morgan has a great outline of how to do this.  ↩

ATTN. here are your lists and guides

 

By this time each year we start to see a proliferation of end of year lists and gift guides. This edition takes a look at a few. My favorite “list of lists” used to be produced by Rex Sorgatz, but he stopped doing it a couple of years ago. Take a look at the glory it once was. This edition will be nothing like that, but I will point out some of the book lists and gift guides I’ve found most interesting lately.

 

Before we get to the actual book lists, check out this list of best book covers of 2012. The entry at #8 is a book that our family read aloud together during Spring Break this year, and we loved it. Wonder is a fantastic young adult novel about a boy with congenital facial deformities, and how he made his way thorugh his first year of middle school. Highly recommended, and it pops up on some of the lists that follow. Also, re: the following lists, I left some off because I hated their paginated design. Notably HuffPo, Esquire, and Christian Science Monitor. Look ‘em up if you like.

2012 Books

  1. Amazon’s Editors Picks >> don’t miss the categorical sidebar on the left (also: some big discounts on this list)
  2. Amazon’s best sellers >> depressingly predictable
  3. Goodreads Choice Awards >> great categorization, chosen by readers
  4. NPR’s Best Books list >> good variety
  5. Publisher’s Weekly >> nothing in here for me, honestly
  6. Barnes & Noble’s list >> lots to browse
  7. NY Times Notable Children’s Books >> one of several lists from NYT
  8. NY Times 100 Notable Books >> another from NYT
  9. NY Times 10 Best >> this is the list you’ve probably already seen
  10. Washington Post’s 10 Best >> be sure to check the links at the bottom of the page for more lists
  11. About.com’s bestseller list >> better variety than Amazon’s list
  12. Audible’s list >> in case you’re more inclined to listen
  13. The Guardian’s list >> good British sensibilities (also)
  14. Brainpickings’ Kid’s Illustrated and PIcturebooks >> love
  15. Brainpickings Psychology and Philosophy >> this is the list I wish I could just import into Amazon
  16. Brainpickings Science Books >> SCIENCE (be sure to browse BP’s site for more lists you might like)
  17. Largehearted Boy’s list of lists >> a bit of overlap, but lots of good indie lists here
  18. strategy + business list *>> the original list is behind a paywall (humbug!), but 800CEOREAD grabbed it. Also keep an eye out for 800CEOREAD’s own list coming later
  19. Bloomberg’s list of business books >> lots of overlaps in this genre

Gift Guides

There are too many niched-out guides to count. I’m sticking with the ones that interest me. Maybe they’ll interest you, too.

  1. Uncle Mark’s Gift Guide and Almanac >> a classic, though this year is pretty spartan. check previous editions by just changing the year in the URL of the PDF (if you don’t understand what I just wrote, keep moving)
  2. Maker’s Kids Gift Guide >> always fun stuff here
  3. Make Magazine’s Gift Guide >> more stuff for making
  4. Duluth Trading Gift Guide >> love Duluth Trading
  5. Lehmans Gift Ideas >> some fun old-school ideas
  6. Manufactum >> not a gift guide, and not cheap, but I love the stuff you can find here
  7. Ask Mefi’s metaguide >> keep an eye on this page in case more guides pop up

I know that feel bro




also! be sure and check out ChristmasGIFs.org for the finest in Christmas GIFfery.

 

Thanks for reading,

 

–Bren

ATTN. Please enjoy your food

Here’s a very short letter for you today, since I’m at the beach with family for a long weekend and can only ignore them for so long. First a quick bit of housekeeping. There’s a little ATTN. badge over there on the left. If you don’t see it, something went wrong. I’m grateful to Darryl Brown for the graphics assist. The badge will show up here, and on the brand spanking new ATTN. archive site. The URL is attnplea.se, the double entendre of which pleases me greatly. 🙂

 

You Shall Not Buy

Here in the U.S., it’s the day after Thanksgiving and consumerism is in full effect. It’s kinda gross, actually. For years now, AdBusters has organized Buy Nothing Day. The posters are still cool, though the movement seems to be less visible these days. Or maybe the ideas are spreading more broadly: check out the front page of Patagonia.com today (screenshot).

 

But I’m a pragmatist and a good deal is a good deal. I kinda don’t even want to start telling you about some of the deals that are going on, because you have a brain and can find them yourself. Those were some weird disclaimers I just wrote. Do I sound conflicted? Anyway, there’s no need to camp all night in front of a store (I’ll admit to doing this for REI return sales, but c’mon, I was in college). The Wirecutter has the best roundup of online gadgety deals, if that’s your thing. The Clymb has some ridiculous deals on outdoorsy stuff (invite if you need it)RetailMeNot has the rest of it. And that’s enough of that. (Why isn’t there a deal on the Whisky Advent Calendar?)

 

Obligatory Book Section

One book that I haven’t read yet is How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read [insert joke about needing this book in college]. Rest assured that I will eventually read it (Maria Popova already has). I’ll probably grab it from my local library. It is sometimes a hassle find a book on a web site like Amazon, and then copy the title, then fire up your library’s reservation page, paste in the title, and reserve the book. A little trick that might help speed things up is the old library bookmarklet generator. If it works for your library, it will totally be worth the time it takes to figure out and build the correct bookmarklet. It didn’t work for me a few years ago, so I had a smart undergrad build me a version that did work. Very handy.

 

This Sums It Up

 

Thanks for reading, and happy Friday.

Bren

P.S. Did you know you can just reply to this letter and it’ll come right to me? Try it out if you’ve got pointers for me, or think I screwed up, or just want to say hi.

ATTN. You should read this

Because I read a lot, I’m probably going to write a lot about reading. Because you subscribed to this letter, sometimes you’ll get to read what I write about what I read. Convenient! This edition takes a look at some cool reading options that have popped up lately.

Read this

  1. Amazon’s Kindle singles offering is a super handy place to find good stuff to read quickly. When it launched there wasn’t a whole lot to choose from, but I think authors and publishers are starting to realize there actually is a market for short, inexpensive, high quality writing. You don’t need Kindle hardware to read these offerings, but you’ll at least need the Kindle app for your computer or smartphone. I’ve read Lying and The Walk Up Nameless Ridge. Very curious about Do No Harm.

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ATTN. I want to go to there.

I’m on the road this weekend, and apparently I had a lot of travel-type stuff to say, so this edition is geared toward travel and a little bit of adventure reading. Believe me, two letters in two days will be an anomaly. As always, thanks for your attention to Attn:

Travel tricks

I know some of you readers have serious road warrior credibility, but I’ve found a few little travel tricks and tips that are worth passing along. This breaks down basically into gear and tech. Gear first.
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