Enjoy a rabbit hole

When someone goes “down the rabbit hole,” it means there’s a certain topic, activity, or thing that intrigues them. Consequently, they want to explore this topic, activity, or thing further so they can learn more about it.


Follow the path and jump in

When’s the last time that you learned something just to learn it, choosing to do so because the subject intrigued you or simply sounded like fun? Or how about a time when you were so engrossed by a new topic that it stopped you from falling asleep because you were interested to learn just one more thing that night?

These situations are constant occurrences for me, and they satisfy me every time they pop up. By carving out the time to allow them to happen and by generally being curious about new things, I’ve stumbled onto one of the key things in life that makes me tick: the process of learning and exploring.

I’m a continual learner and my mind doesn’t rest much, except maybe when I’m engaged in an outdoor activity like hiking or cycling and there’s nothing else to compete for my interest in that moment. Because of my active mind, I spend a lot of my time doing new things that often turn into hobbies. The majority of them come from going down a rabbit hole on a particular topic to discover what’s there and then branching off in all directions to learn about the things that are connected to it. I’m constantly having “I never knew that!” moments of discovery, and that’s what’s energizing about the process.

What do a watch and an airplane have in common?

Let’s go down a rabbit hole together, shall we? It will give you a great idea of what I’m referring to above…

The IWC Pilot’s Chronograph Spitfire watch shown here is one of my favorite watches. Some day maybe I’ll own one, but right now life has many other much higher priorities (like paying college bills for two kids!). So for now I’ll admire it from afar, because it’s much too rich for my blood.

IWC Pilot Chronograph Spitfire
Photo by IWC

A few years ago, I stumbled deeply into the hobby of mechanical watches and horology. I’ve always liked unique and purposeful watches, but it was only within the last few years that I started spending large amounts of time learning about their history, how they work, different types of design, and the genius that goes into creating the complications of a mechanical watch. Complications are the features on a watch face (other than telling the time) often in the form of sub-dials such as displaying the day/date, the phase of the moon, chronograph timer functionality, etc. The micro-mechanical complexity of some of the complications I’ve learned about is fascinating, and some of the most complicated watches can have over 1,000 parts inside. If you want to be amazed (trust me!) by one great example of a super-complicated watch, check out the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600. You’ll be amazed that all of its features are done mechanically.

When I picked up this hobby, it dawned on me that I’ve always been interested in watches, going all the way back to when I was a little kid. I received my first mechanical watch from my parents for my First Communion celebration, and I remember winding it up before bed that night and just listening to it tick until I fell asleep. I wondered what was happening inside of the case to make it work, and after taking up this hobby, now I know! Although the watch band is long gone, I still have the watch body and it still works.

Watches are the perfect combination and intersection of art, function, design, and ingenuity. Since I like those four things, that’s the reason why I like to learn about the models that I’m interested in and how they work. So much so that when I bought a Seiko mechanical watch two years ago that was running about 20 seconds fast per day, I learned how to open it, I used an iOS app and a microphone to measure the rate at which it was ticking, and then I adjusted it to run slower. A watch has a micro-mechanical “heart beat”, and it can be measured and regulated to correct timing errors. It’s basically the same principle as a human getting a pacemaker to help their heart beat correctly. After several days of fiddling with the Seiko watch, I was able to adjust it to be just a few seconds away from perfect per day, which is pretty darn good for an inexpensive mechanical watch. So that story shows how deep I went down the rabbit hole of watchmaking and mechanics to understand it and be able to act on it. I went up, down, left, and right with the topic and enjoyed every minute of it. Great hobby!

Returning to the Spitfire watch, I liked it and decided to read about how IWC designed and built it. Then I peeked my head into another rabbit hole by wondering “Why, specifically, did they choose to focus on this plane?” The watch is named after the plane and there’s an etching of it on the case back. I knew IWC had a long heritage of making pilot’s watches since the 1930’s, but why pay homage to this specific plane? And then I completely fell into the hole…

IWC Pilot’s Chronograph Spitfire case back
Photo by IWC

I began researching the Spitfire and discovered its significance as a game changing single-seat British fighter plane developed in the 1930’s that saw extensive use in World War II and beyond. It first became prominent for the key role it played in the Battle of Britain from July to October 1940, where the advancing German military was turned back from invading Britain after advancing across Europe in all directions. The Royal Air Force’s Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane planes ensured British success, but it was the Spitfire that captured the imagination of its pilots and the public and became a symbol to the world of resistance, freedom, and engineering superiority. It’s reputation and history as an iconic warplane that turned back the encroaching German military were proudly sealed.

But knowing the above wasn’t enough for me. I was intrigued, and began searching for some type of documentary about the Spitfire. Lo and behold, I quickly found one on Netflix called “Spitfire – The Plane That Saved the World” and immediately watched it. It’s a great profile about the plane, those who flew it, why it’s so special, and the place it earned in history. Great story!

With that history in place, the reason IWC created their Spitfire line of watches was clear. They did it to pay homage to the iconic plane in the spirit of IWC’s legacy with aviation and pilot’s watches (and let’s be honest, it’s also a great marketing framework for them). So after all that, I had my answer to the question “Why did IWC choose the Spitfire?”

The commitment of IWC to the Spitfire is significant, so much so that they sponsored a fascinating and unique flight expedition to take a beautifully restored version of the plane called the “Silver Spitfire” on a first of its type around the world flight. The entire expedition is documented on IWC’s website here and also here, as well as a dedicated website to the months-long expedition. It was interesting to see how hard the Silver Spitfire team and IWC worked to keep the memory of the Spitfire and what it means alive.

Was I done? Not yet, there was one more step! The hole went deeper because having seen the Spitfire Netflix documentary and learning about the IWC flight expedition, I then became curious to learn more about the aspects of World War II that I was not entirely familiar with. I sucked my wife into it too, and now we’re watching “World War II in Colour” on Netflix to fill in our knowledge gaps about that pivotal time in world history. Then…I’ll be done! 🙂

Find a hole of your own

All of the above resulted from a watch and some curiosity, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean by enjoying a rabbit hole. I was intrigued and totally enjoyed the learning experience at each turn that it took, and I now have a lot of new knowledge that will lead me to other things (which always makes me a richer person). There was also the bonus of answering my original question about the Spitfire watch as well!

For me, the fun of these deep dives is the discovery process itself. What will I find? What will I learn? What will it lead to? Are there new hobbies there that interest me? It’s intriguing to see how many things are interconnected and how they branch out in so many ways.

Life is hard and we all need a break from time to time. Try going down a rabbit hole for yourself just for the pure enjoyment of the process. Start by picking a subject that you’re interested in but haven’t had the time to explore yet, and start digging around on it. Use the internet, go to the library, read magazines, or use whatever method of research you prefer. To better focus on and enjoy the process, maybe try it when nobody else is home to minimize distractions, or use a rainy day when you have nothing else pressing to do. Let the process carry you, enjoy the paths and sidetracks that you diverge onto.

I would bet that after you try this a few times, you’ll see that it’s not necessarily the destination, it’s the journey. Enjoy the ride!

Wear a face mask correctly for the most benefit

Wearing masks wrong puts you and others at greater risk

Correct positioning of a face mask.
Image from the Centers for Disease Control

I haven’t written a lot about COVID-19, and I don’t really plan to. I’m trying to remain positive and move forward throughout the crisis, so the articles I’m drafting to post here are about other things that are uplifting to me. But I’ll make a short exception here.

We’re five months into COVID-19 at this point, and I still see people wearing face masks incorrectly every day in the media. I figure now is as good a time as any to write a quick post about it.

If even one person reads this post and realizes that they’re wearing their mask incorrectly or they learn the importance of masks from the linked BBC article below, then it has done its job.

Ironically, the people who are wearing masks wrong are actually trying to do some good. They put the mask on in the first place, right? Unfortunately because the masks sometimes don’t come with instructions (or the person made their own mask), maybe they just don’t have the fit concept quite right.

For details on how and why everyone wearing masks helps the overall COVID-19 situation, check out this thorough BBC article.

I read the NY Times often and generally find it to be a good source of content except for the occasional errant fact here and there, which most media sources have these days. Today they published an article that’s an example of something that should have been caught and corrected before publishing. The article was about the good work a delivery person is doing in their community, but every picture of the worker in the article showed her using a face mask that’s only covering her mouth and chin. Her nose is uncovered.

While I most certainly commend the worker in the article for what she’s doing and also for making the effort to wear a mask (both of which are good things!), the Times should not have used photos showing incorrect usage of protective equipment. The article will be seen by many people who might now erroneously conclude this is an acceptable way to wear a mask. I saw similar photos in articles from two other reputable sources this weekend as well.

What simple steps could have been used to correct this situation?

  • Companies large and small should issue employee communications about how to wear masks correctly.
  • The photographer who took the pictures should have helped the woman and informed her that she was wearing the mask incorrectly. She then could have put it on properly before the photos were taken.
  • Media editors should prevent photos showing improper use of protective equipment from being used in their stories.

Working together we can help correct misinformation that circulates about personal safety during COVID-19. Everyone has to do their part to help the bigger picture, so I’ll do my small part here.

Proper fit

To see how to wear a mask correctly, refer to the CDC image above and check out the photos below showing the right and wrong ways.

You should adjust the fit of your mask so that it completely covers your nose, mouth, and chin area. Anything else is wrong and therefore less effective.

CORRECT fit with nose, mouth, and chin area covered.
Incorrect fit, the nose is uncovered.
Incorrect fit, the chin area is uncovered.
Incorrect fit, and if you can’t see why then just don’t go outside. 🙂

Sum it up

Obviously the last photo above is just a bit of comic relief to an otherwise serious topic. Proper fit of your mask will help you and everyone around you stay a degree safer in these difficult times, and we should take whatever edge we can get. In many countries where masks are typically worn during illness, these practices are already part of their cultural and societal norms so they’re well aware of how to wear them properly. However, for those people less familiar with masks because this is new to them, hopefully this refresher helps.

Be safe everyone!

The benefits that mindful listening bring to you

It’s a gift to you and the one talking; mindful listening is so fundamentally different from how we usually converse that we can feel it in our bodies as much as in our heads. 

Laurie J. Cameron

Mindful listening requires us to give up preconceived ideas, judgments, and desires in order to allow space to hear what is being said. True listening requires a deep respect and a genuine curiosity about situations as well as a willingness just to be there and share stories. Listening opens the space, it allows us to hear what needs to be done in that moment.

Mirabai Bush

True story

I bumped into a colleague in the hallway at work who was seeking me out to ask a question. We greeted each other and he asked his question, and then I began to answer him. Remember…he sought me out as a trusted source of information, so this was supposedly an important discussion for him.

Shortly after I began to answer, he took his cell phone out of his pocket and started reading and then typing something on the phone. I looked at him in shock (and maybe disappointment too?), but dismissed it thinking he’d quickly return to paying attention. Wrong. He continued to type and read on the phone.

In disbelief at this waste of my time, I stopped speaking and just looked at him. It took at least five long seconds of awkward silence for him to finally look up and say “It’s OK. I’m listening. You can keep talking.”

I responded with mildly shrouded sarcasm “No, it’s fine. I’ll wait until you’re done.”

Realizing the error of his ways, he sheepishly tucked the phone back in his pocket and proceeded to listen attentively to the rest of the answer to his question.

Has anything like that ever happened to you? Or, has a conversation that you’ve had ended with less than optimal results? I would bet the answer is yes, and if so then read on to learn how you can contribute to improving your conversations through mindful listening and at the same time help to steer them to successful outcomes.

Art and desire

Listening is part art and part desire.

It’s an art because mindful listening requires a thoughtful combination of skill, timing, and restraint so as not to derail the true messages that are being communicated. It involves reading body language and recognizing things like the nuances of facial expressions or a pause in speaking. It’s about keeping an open mind to what’s being said and responding accordingly to it in the moment. From a visual perspective, if you could see a conversation with mindful listening in the air, then I would liken it to a series of colored lines between the people speaking that all weave together into a pleasing and intricate pattern. It’s a good feeling to walk away from a conversation like that.

Mindful listening also involves desire because in order for a conversation to be successful, you have to care about what you’re saying and you need the desire to listen and understand what the other person is expressing. If you don’t care and you have no desire to listen, then the conversation is pointless and it will fail.

There are piles of books and training courses available about effective mindful listening, but honestly all you really need to easily get started is this short article “How To Give Your Full Attention” by Laurie J. Cameron over at Mindful.org. For additional easy tips on trying this, you can also check out this short article by Elaine Smookler.

Laurie speaks about some core skills and cues needed for successful listening, and I agree with her that these things are sorely lacking in many conversations that occur each day. Many people simply don’t or can’t focus enough to listen to a basic conversation in order to make it productive and successful for everyone involved.

Three key points

Three things that I would like to briefly emphasize about listening include:

1. Be honest about your skills and behavior: Some people think they’re good listeners, but they’re simply not. When trying to understand why your conversations are not going as well as expected, be honest with yourself to understand what you might be doing that hobbles them. Listen to the feedback that people give you during or after a conversation. Learn from your experiences and be honest with yourself so you can improve.

2. Pay attention to body language. I can’t stress this enough…Look at the person you’re speaking with, acknowledge what they’re saying, be present in the moment, put your phone away, be silent when they’re speaking, and don’t interrupt. Body language and overall conduct is absolutely critical to mindful listening.

3. Keep an open mind. A large percentage of the time, people go into conversations with a desired outcome in mind, and that’s understandable. That’s how we move our topics, work, and activities forward. However, it’s important to understand that taking that stance typically predetermines a lot of how the conversation will flow, and often that predisposition is not a good thing because you’re not really going to listen to the other person if you’ve already decided how the conversation will proceed. Instead of predisposition, it’s necessary to achieve balance between keeping an open mind and being flexible while still achieving purpose.

Sum it up

The benefits of mindful listening can’t be overstated. For both your personal and professional lives, this form of listening creates better communication, empathy, trust, respect, and strong bonds between people. Many aspects of society today are sorely lacking these things, so we should all do our part to improve our corner of the world through mindful listening.

I agree with Laurie that mindful listening can initially be challenging because it takes effort and it’s not the norm we’re used to. However with a little practice, the labor of doing it will soon bear fruit for you. A successful conversation is certainly better than a frustrating and pointless one, so give it a try the next time you’re speaking with someone. Truly…listen. See if you notice the great improvement that mindful listening can bring to your every day interactions at both work and home. And also see if you think the quote below is true…

The very first time you give your attention to someone, I bet you’ll notice instant softening, openness, and connection.

Elaine Smookler

The heaven that is ad-free websites

Install AdBlock Plus (free!) to rid your webpages of annoying ads and speed up your browsing

Over the past few years, internet ads have slowly crept their way from existing as minor annoyances to being a regular pain in the ass. What started as relatively unobtrusive banners at the tops and bottom of pages and blocks in the margins have evolved to become scrolling, blinking, text-blocking, distracting, sometimes hard-to-close monsters. I hate them.

This morning I boiled over on the topic. I was trying to do some quick research on something that I needed to fix, and every website I went to was inundated with ads. I had to spend several seconds figuring out how to close several of them because they hid the ‘x’ in a hard to see part of the ad. Enough!

This post is not an exhaustive list of ad blockers that are available these days. Quite frankly, this is a straight forward topic and I don’t feel the need to write a long post about it. If you want longer details, check out this article from the folks over at Tom’s Guide about many of the options available.

For me, it’s simple. Go with one of the best solutions that’s been around for a long time, is reputable, and is endorsed by major publications and review websites. Don’t even spend time thinking about it. That solution is AdBlock Plus from eye/o GmbH.

You can download the needed browser extension directly from the AdBlock website, or Mac users can install it from the Mac App Store. There are versions available for Windows and mobile devices as well. Make sure you turn off the option in the software for ‘Allow Acceptable Ads’ in order to get a total ad-free experience. If a website that you use forces you to allow it to serve ads, then you can click one button to turn off AdBlock Plus for those websites and the software will remember that setting for the future. For example, two websites that I use (NBCNews.com and CNBC.com) require ad blockers to be disabled for their sites.

Try it, it’s free. You have nothing to lose, and you have your internet-using sanity to win back. The lightweight app installs in just a few clicks, and as soon as you load some of your previously ad-bloated websites you’ll be pleased with the results. Enjoy a saner internet!

Arctic Circle Skate with Luc Mehl

Two of the tagline words for this blog are ‘passion’ and ‘explore’. I’m passionate and focused about the things I choose to learn about and engage with, and I love to explore and see new things. The two words synchronize perfectly with every one of my hobbies.

This post is about an article that caught my attention called “Arctic Circle Skate” located at this link and it definitely falls into the category of ‘explore’. It’s written by a guy named Luc Mehl and his blog is called ‘Things to Luc At’ https://thingstolucat.com.

An icy tale

The article describes a carefully planned expedition ice skating journey that Luc and Greg Mills took in the Arctic Circle. They traveled over lakes and the sea, in daylight and darkness, between the Alaskan towns of Selawik and Kotzebuehas. It’s filled with many great photos and a 6-minute video that shows the expedition and conditions that Luc writes about, so it’s definitely worth watching to give visual life to his writing.

I came across Luc’s article in a roundabout way. I was reading about how to use the excellent Gaia GPS hiking app on my iPhone and the Gaia website had a summary article about Luc’s expedition that further linked out to his own Alaskan adventure blog. (Those are the types of paths I sometimes go down on the internet when I’m interested in a topic…)

Adventures like the one Luc describes require careful planning, preparation, and skill in order to avoid disaster. The way he used the Gaia GPS app and satellite imagery to plot the course for the adventure so they would only travel over smooth ice for better skating was a stroke of genius. Everything else needed to be be plotted carefully too, not just the route. They needed to know where they would sleep, what time to get there, how to skate safely in the dark, how to stay warm in brutal conditions, etc. So many critical details. And speaking of which…ice skating in the dark in the Arctic Circle at night with nobody else around?! Yikes! The thought of that kind of freaks me out…

Never lose your sense of adventure

Luc’s article perfectly describes a robust sense of adventure! It’s important to keep that as you get older because it leads to a healthier and happier life. It keeps you curious and on your toes. Your sense of adventure can include physical or mental activities (or both), it really doesn’t matter. The key is to keep your eyes open to explore and learn.

When I was a kid my adventures were pint-sized, but nevertheless…they were mine. I could let my mind run away for hours to fill an entire afternoon with a high seas pirate adventure in my own back yard using a huge box from the new refrigerator my parents just bought as my “ship”. I have so many vivid memories of activities just like that when I was little. As an adult my adventures are a little more elaborate (and sometimes expensive!), but one thing still remains the same…they’re mine. You always carry your adventures with you.

I’m glad that I never lost that sense of fun and adventure as I got older, and I hope some aspect of it has rubbed off on my kids as well so that they’ll reach out to discover their own adventures during their lives. These days though I limit my adventures to Earth-bound activities because my aerial activities many years ago of skydiving and hang-gliding did not end well (the former was a minor crash, the latter was a more significant total wipeout). I’m perfectly happy to keep my feet mostly on the ground now, although I’ll write a separate photo essay here soon about our repelling adventure in Moab, UT in 2016 when we were most definitely NOT on the ground.

Enjoy Luc’s icy exploration story, and let it awaken your sense of adventure to plan and try a new idea, even if it’s a calmer activity around your own home area. Just go out and let your mind run away with something new for a while…

Review: MasterClass, and its unique draw that no other learning platform offers

Don’t let a piece of you die

Here’s a short story…

Back in 2012, I was going through a tough time at work. We all occasionally have those difficult times and they tend to come in waves, and wow…this was quite a wave! Horrendous workload, mounting deadlines, ongoing layoffs, and some difficult people combined to make it a rough environment to deal with.

I tend to be a “heads down” type of person when things gets tough. I dig in and push hard to get through whatever’s happening, and I aim for the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the work circumstances above typically lead to long hours, less time with family, poor sleep, a lot of stress, and no time for anything but….work.

Looking back at that time it’s clear that I was physically exhausted, but there was also something else happening emotionally that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I didn’t realize what was bothering me until I emerged from the fog many months later in 2013. The answer was that I was spending all of my available time on work and I completely paused my hobbies, learning, and creative activities. Since I’m an active, creative, continual learner, this was really hurting me and I didn’t realize how much at the time.

During your life, you’re fortunate if you experience a few truly meaningful moments of epiphany. Many people don’t. I’m referring to those moments of sudden insight that stop you in your tracks, reset you, and alter you as a person to point you in a new direction that truly affects your life. The situation above was an epiphany for me.

On the day in 2013 when I realized what I had slowly given up throughout the previous year, I made a promise to myself to:

  1. Never lose sight of “me” again
  2. Never stop learning

Related to #2, I believe that when you lose your curiosity about the world and your drive for continual learning that a piece of you “dies”. Part of what makes us grow as people is constant learning, experiencing new things, seeing new horizons, and meeting our goals. I learned through my experience that this is an essential part of who I am, so I can’t lose sight of that again.

Fast forward over the years since then and I’ve kept my promise to myself. I’ve happily explored the paths that my curiosity and learning have taken me down by seeing new places, doing many new things, and acquiring new knowledge and skills along the way. I’ve learned from many different sources and people over the years, and I’ve shared the best of those with others around me so they could benefit as well.

The short story above about the importance of continuous learning brings me to the subject of this article, which is MasterClass.

What is MasterClass?

MasterClass.com is a premium learning platform with an impressive list of instructors who you’re sure to recognize. Luminaries include Ron Howard, Wolfgang Puck, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Martin Scorsese, Annie Leibovitz, Judy Blume, Natalie Portman, Carlos Santana, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, Steph Curry and many more. These people are true masters in their field.

From the accomplished names above and many others listed on the MasterClass website, it’s easy to conclude that the subject matter is quite varied, and this is one of the main things that immediately attracted me to MasterClass. The current list of learning categories includes the following (with multiple master instructors in each category):

  • Film & TV
  • Music & Entertainment
  • Culinary Arts
  • Writing
  • Business, Politics & Society
  • Sports & Games
  • Design, Photography, & Fashion
  • Science & Technology
  • Lifestyle

The content on MasterClass is exclusive to their platform. You won’t find it on other learning websites, YouTube, in books, etc.

I’ve found the classes to be fun, engaging, insightful, and valuable. That’s exactly what a learning platform should be! It should excite and engage you in the learning process so that you’re left wanting more.

As of February 2020 when I wrote this, the cost of one course on MasterClass is typically $90, and I was originally planning to sign up for just the one course I was interested in. You can make a case that the $90 cost is worth it because of the high quality, but there’s a better offer that I opted for instead. For $180, you get full access to all of the classes for one full year. Looking through their catalog and instructor list, I saw many classes that I would take if I had access to them, so I opted for the one year all-access subscription instead.

Once you join a single class or an annual subscription, you can watch the class videos on your laptop through the MasterClass website, and there are also apps for iOS, Android, and streaming TV boxes (e.g., Apple TV) if you want to watch on a large screen TV.

Many of the classes have what I’ll call “light” assignments at the end of some of the lessons. These exercises are meant to reinforce the main points of the lesson and in some cases also practice what you’ve learned. You can choose to do the assignments or not, but I found them valuable so I completed them. Some classes, like Malcolm Gladwell’s, have a more sophisticated “end project” in addition to the assignments for each lesson.

You can join MasterClass, start a course, and progress through lessons any time and at your own pace. There are no set start and stop dates.

Finally, one other thing worth mentioning is that MasterClass Gift Cards are available for your favorite learner on your shopping list. The gift of learning is a great gift indeed!

Why pay for this content?

I’ve been focusing on my writing more seriously in recent years, and one of the first classes I started was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Teaching Writing”. I mentioned this to one of my friends and he asked “Why would you pay for that? There are so many online learning platforms and university writing classes available that you can use for free.”

That’s true, and in fact I’ve tried some of them. As you might expect, I found that the quality and consistency is hit or miss. Some have been quite good, but others consisted of poor content, poor instructors, or were recorded with shaky video and terrible audio that made them unwatchable.

So why pay?

My answer is that MasterClass has a different and specific draw than other classes on the internet produced by people who I don’t know. The draw is that MasterClass courses are taught by well known masters in their field whose work I’ve read, listened to, seen in movies, etc. I have a direct connection to what they’ve done because I enjoy and respect their work. If you’re a long time fan of one of the instructors then you’ve likely read or seen many of their works in the past, which means your connection to them could span a significant period of time in your life.

The point is that there’s great value in a strong connection between instructor and student that achieves the core purpose of any learning platform, which is to engage you. In the particular case of MasterClass, you know the work of these instructors, you like it, and you’re drawn to what they do and how they do it. Those facts can engage you more deeply in their courses and therefore you’ll hopefully get more value out of them. That engagement, and the quality of the instructors and content, are the core value proposition for the cost of MasterClass.

Just to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking classes and learning from people who you don’t know. We all do it every day. I just wanted to mention that that’s not the premise of MasterClass.

One final thought on this before moving on. There’s also great value in learning from people who have “been there” because they carry with them a lifetime of experience and insight that beginner instructors simply don’t have. The MasterClass instructors deliver their content with carefully crafted structure, and their statements carry impact. They know the message they want to deliver, and it comes across clearly and concisely. For example, I can’t tell you the number of times I pressed ‘pause’ during Malcolm Gladwell’s videos so that I could write down a valuable “gold nugget” thought that I knew I would want to refer to in the future. This is not just glossy content with a price slapped on it because of a famous name. It’s truly insightful.

What do you get for the price?

Regardless of whether you spend $90 per course or $180 for the all-access pass for one year, the quality of the material is the same. You can read about the details and sample some of the content for yourself on the Masterclass website, so here I’ll summarize just the highlights from my perspective:

  • The classes are taught by masters in their field.
  • The production of the class videos is excellent with high quality audio and video.
  • Consistently high quality of content. The learning material does not disappoint.
  • The classes are well structured, and each typically contains about 20 lessons that average about 10 minutes in length per lesson (with some being as long as 20 minutes). This structure makes the content easily digestible, especially if you’re on the go and you only have limited amounts of time to watch lessons here and there.
  • There are downloadable PDF files available for most of the classes with relevant details for each lesson in that class. What’s in these PDF’s is unique to each class, so there’s no single format or content structure. Often they’ll link out to further materials available on the internet from the instructor (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell linked out to several of his long-form articles written for New Yorker magazine to support the points in certain lessons).
  • You can participate in community discussion boards on the MasterClass website where attendees discuss the class, the assignments, and start new discussion threads of their own.
  • There’s an extensive list of supplemental articles related to the courses written by the MasterClass editorial board. This is an extra bonus to membership beyond the classes themselves and there’s so much great reading to discover there…
  • Mobile apps are available for all platforms.

The bottom line

In summary, MasterClass is great concept with luminary instructors providing high quality content in a strong, consistent, easy to use learning platform available on all types of devices. For those interested in the subject matter available, it’s a treasure trove of insight into the minds and work of these masters in their field.

I can comfortably recommend MasterClass to those thinking about trying it. The main tip that I would offer to you is to thoroughly review their course catalog before you sign up to determine if you might be interested in taking more than one class. If you’re interested in more than one, then most certainly the $180 all-access pass for one year is worth it for you. Enjoy your learning experience, and have fun with it!

Everything you ever wanted to know about the taste and global domination of…coffee!

Contrary to some of my long-form posts that you’ll find here on ‘Slant on Life’, this is a short one.

Many of us reach for coffee every day, often more than one time. We do it out of sleepy necessity, wanting something warm to drink, as the common denominator of a relaxing conversation, or just because we…love the taste!

For people who drink coffee because they love the taste and want to learn more about that (and how coffee goes from bean to cup), this post is for you!

Tip from me: Know your labels to get the taste you want. In the photo above of a bag in our house, the label tells you all you need to know. If possible, buy a handheld coffee grinder and grind your own whole beans each morning for freshness. From the label take note of the roast (light/medium/dark), whether or not it’s a blend, the type of bean, where it was grown, and the expiration date. The videos below discuss all of those factors.

But first, a word about decaf coffee and caffeine

For those of you who might be concerned about your level of caffeine intake from your coffee habit, or simply wondered “How is decaffeinated coffee made?”, check out this article called “How Much Caffeine Is in Decaf Coffee?” from Healthline.

And speaking of caffeine…Are you curious about why it perks you up and seemingly gives you long lasting energy? Check out this short video from NBC New’s “Better” series that clearly explains how caffeine affects your brain and body. It’s interesting to know the specifics of it. If you want to reset yourself back to normal, maybe consider giving decaf coffee a try instead. 🙂

And now, to the videos about taste and bean-to-cup

This first video called “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about coffee” shows the many different factors that influence the taste of coffee. Flavor is affected by where beans are grown, what altitude they’re grown at, how long they’re roasted, and of course how the coffee is brewed. Learn it all from Chandler Graf in his TED Talk filmed at Beltway Coffee in Abilene, Texas.

This next video linked here called “How the world came to run on coffee” discusses the coffee industry from end-to-end to get from bean to cup, and explores how coffee has become a central part of many societies around the world (the excellent companion article is here). As the video mentions, it’s a business worth hundreds of billions of dollars that supports the livelihood of over 120 million workers worldwide. It’s no wonder that “in just a few centuries, the world has developed a two-billion-cups-a-day habit”.

Sit back and enjoy the articles and videos linked above, with a cup of coffee…of course!

Happiness and the “Little Book of Hygge” by Meik Wiking

Folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.

Abraham Lincoln

A trip to the mall uncovers small wonders

I was Christmas shopping at the mall in December 2019 when I came across what turned out to be my favorite gift idea of the year.  It was the four books pictured here about mindfulness, gratitude, and self-awareness.  I sat engrossed in Barnes & Noble bookstore for over an hour paging through them while deciding which one to buy, and in the end I just bought them all! 

These little books are packed with many of the same ideas that drive me on a personal level, so it was easy to relate to them.  They’ve since found a permanent place on our fireplace mantle.

Everyone grows during their lifetime.  Our learning and experiences drive our change, and we become more of who we want to be as a person as our viewpoints mature over time.  In the past few years, I’ve changed in many ways that other people might not even notice, but for sure my thinking about people, things, places, and life in general have shifted.  I’m striving to have more simplicity and goodness around me, and less complexity and negative outside influence.  These books directly relate to my goals.    

I’m on a path to eliminate anything in my life that doesn’t take me in the direction I want to go. Interpersonal drama, chaotic people, constantly negative news, etc. All…gone! Realizing that they add no value to my life and then moving on from them helps get me to my desired state of “goodness”. Anything that helps me move in the direction I want is something that I make a part of my life, and I want to share those things with others when I discover them.

If you read and really think about what these books are saying, you’ll be surprised that they can change the way you look at your life, and maybe even how you look at life in a broader sense as well.

The focus of this post today is one of these four books, The Little Book of Hygge – Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking.   

Hygge concepts, plus some additional perspective

The Danish have been ranked as the happiest people on Earth several times.  Why?  They say it’s partially because of their hygge mindset.

Hygge (pronounced hoo-ga) is generally defined as “a Danish word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment”.  The Little Book of Hygge mentions that hygge is a feeling.  It is comfort.  It comes from within.  It exists only in the absence of stress and nuisance and feeds off feelings of happiness and relaxation.  

This link is to a related CNN article about how some of these concepts tie into the “World’s Happiest Country” that’s selected each year by the United Nations.

Additionally, this is the link to the 2019 World Happiness Report, which contains the underlying concepts and data that drive the selection of the “Most Happy Country” each year.

The book, and Danes themselves, often mention candles and other items that will help you achieve hygge.  In my opinion though, anything that makes you comfortable, happy, and peaceful can lead you to what hygge is ultimately about.  If sitting in the woods gives you feelings of comfort and contentment, then maybe that can be your “chair” or your “candle” in relation to the book, so don’t focus entirely on the products mentioned and expect miracles from them. Know yourself, and use whatever works for you.  

Interestingly,  I’ve read several articles that examine hygge from the Danish perspective and how they react to the worldwide phenomenon of people trying to adopt a more “hygge lifestyle”, and they somewhat recoil about it. They view what happens around the global hygge phenomenon as general “marketing exploitation” of their lifestyle.  

In a way, they’re right.  There are always people and companies that will try to make quick money any way they can, and if they can do it from selling so-called “hygge lifestyle products”, then they will.  So the point of the Danish reaction is:  You don’t buy candles, warm blankets, light a fire, get a hot drink….and then automatically have “hygge moments”.  Hygge is much more than that.  

I agree completely.  It’s a mindset, not a product.

These are links to two articles from New Yorker magazine and Mashable.com that speak about what I mentioned above, and both are worth reading to get different insight into the topic of hygge.

There are typically multiple viewpoints about all lifestyle topics, and you have to pull out the things that you see value in to adopt them for yourself. 

So let’s get to the book… 

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge was exactly what I expected after browsing it in the bookstore.  It’s a light-hearted, concise, clear, and interesting book that can easily be read in one sitting (although it certainly justifies much more “thinking time” after that to fully absorb it).

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Its mission is to “…inform and enable better decisions for human wellbeing through data-driven research”.  I encourage you to review their website, which is filled with interesting information about their mission. To me, having facts behind the somewhat nebulous and highly personal topic of happiness is valuable so that it receives the proper level of seriousness and respect.

Meik did a good job laying out his book in way that builds upon itself nicely as you progress through it. At the broadest level, the book contains thoughts about Danish culture in general to put the book into context.  There are also thoughts that are a bit deeper and make you pause and think about Danish culture versus your own culture, and the pros and cons of each.  Finally, at the lowest level there are many “gold nugget” thoughts that resonate with you on a personal level which you can take away and use for yourself in an actionable way.

The book contains anecdotes and easy to understand charts and graphics that help explain the concept of hygge and present the underlying statistics about what Danes say about their country and lifestyle.   

So with that introduction, here are some of the gold nuggets that I took away from The Little Book of Hygge that are worth mentioning here:  

  • Experience and savor the moment. If you take one thing away from the book, make it this! The whole book centers on this key point. 
  • Hygge is about atmosphere, experience, and relaxed thoughtfulness.  Feeling happy, calm and safe.
  • Togetherness is a key aspect of hygge, and the feeling of hygge can exist even in total silence with other people.  It’s “like a hug, without touching”.
  • Equality is an important element of hygge.  Noone is trying to be better than the other.  
  • Hygge is about the process, not the end product.  There were several humorous examples in the book about people cooking together, and even though what they cooked turned out terrible, enjoying the process of doing it together was what made it a hygge experience. 
  • Your home is your “hygge headquarters”.  Create a nook for yourself there.  Everyone needs “their spot” in their home.
  • Treat yourself with cakes, hot drinks, etc.  It seems funny for the book to mention this multiple times, but it’s important to remember that hygge is all about feeling, surroundings, calmness, and peace.  The idea is that things like treats, hot drinks, etc impart a traditional feeling of comfort and therefore contribute to hygge.  My extra point to add here is that whatever the “treats” are, there are no rules.  It’s whatever makes you comfortable, cozy, relaxed, and peaceful.
  • The items on the “Hygge Wish List” in the book are all about comfort, sensation, and texture.  These typically represent comfort in most people’s minds.
  • Enjoying nature is key.  For me personally, something like walking on a treadmill is nowhere near the same experience as walking outside in the fresh air for the same distance.  I think people lose sight of this sometimes, and it does make a big difference in the experience.
  • The more a hygge item or event separates the “here and now” from the tough realities of the outside world, the more valuable it eventually becomes to you.
  • Hygge is dimmed, rustic, and slow.   I agree, which is why I’ve always thought that lighting is so important, especially warm lighting.  It’s also why I didn’t like walking around our house when I was little and always finding the rooms darkened unless someone was actually in them.  Mom and Dad were always insistent about “turning off the lights when you leave a room”, and I understand why, but still…

Make hygge yours

The ideas and sentiments around hygge are good to consider adopting because they can genuinely improve your life on many levels.  So how do you bring hygge into your own life and make it yours?  

Try these tips:

  • The obvious first step would be to read the book, but I would also suggest writing down the key thoughts that resonate with you while you’re reading like I did above.  It helps to grab those key thoughts in the moment rather than trying to remember them later.  
  • Review your key takeaways as soon as you’re done reading, think about what the statements mean to you. Think about how you can make them actionable.
  • Think about what brings you peace.   When do you feel your most relaxed, and why is that?  Get a firm understanding of this because these things will help you create your hygge “nook”, and these are your hygge “products”.
  • Since hygge is partially about sharing and togetherness, think about the people you’re closest to and why spending time with them is valuable to you.  But…I also think it’s important not to stress out about the “togetherness” aspect of this.  Hygge feelings can most definitely be felt during time on your own, so if that’s what works for you, then that’s perfectly fine. Do what works for you. 
  • Be present.  Outside distractions of any type are the enemy of hygge.  
  • Start simple.  Don’t rush to buy supposed “hygge products” and then sit in your house and wait for hygge to magically occur. Instead, work your way into it.  If you’re a reader, try something basic like making yourself comfortable and grabbing a block of time when you’re completely undisturbed…and read.  Think about how it feels to enjoy something you like in your nook in your home without any interruptions whatsoever. As you experience and value those times by yourself or with others, you’ll begin to better understand what hygge is all about.

In closing, reading this small book is time well spent. The ideas represented by hygge are certainly not new, but having it wrapped up and presented in the framework of “the Danish mindset” makes it easy to understand and think about further. Enjoy the process of moving yourself toward a hygge mindset, but go easy on the heavy treats. 🙂

Natsukashii – Gain value from your moments of nostalgia

Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

Question: Can you get value from nostalgia?

Me, age 6, with Sapporo souvenir hat
that I still have today!

What feelings come to mind when you think of nostalgia?  

For me, it’s typically a mix of both happiness and sadness.  I’ll often remember something nostalgic that makes me smile, laugh, or reminisce with someone, but then as the moment fades I’m sometimes left feeling a bit sad until the thought eventually passes from my mind. 

Aside from the emotions above, would I typically associate “value” with nostalgia? I didn’t…until today.

The thing that changed my mind was this article called “A uniquely Japanese take on nostalgia” by Erika Hobart on BBC.com, and it immediately resonated with me for a variety of reasons.  

The article is about natsukashii, which generally speaking is “a Japanese word used when something evokes a fond memory from your past”.  Erika mentions that it comes from a verb meaning “to keep close and become fond of”.  

The thing that specifically caught my attention throughout the article is how the Japanese emotionally frame nostalgia so that it ends up being a more positive experience rather than a sad one, and they regularly seek out natsukashii experiences to enrich their lives. Why? Because doing so adds great emotional value for them and their society as a whole.

Learning about different cultures

I’ve always had an interest in learning about different countries, traditions and cultures, but it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been actively spending significant time researching them.  It’s been an interesting and enriching experience far beyond the effort that it requires.   

Japan is a land and people filled with history and tradition, and it has kept both firmly in sight over the centuries.  It’s one thing for a country and its people to have historic checkpoints over time that they make reference to one way or another, but it’s a significantly different scenario to have the past and traditions remain ingrained in daily life over time and across generations.  

Between the two scenarios above, the latter offers more value because it helps people build a sense of shared identity about who they are, where they’ve come from, and where they’re collectively going.  If you study countries with a strong sense of identity and community like Japan, inevitably a large part of their overall story is that sense of tradition surviving through generations and remaining in daily life.  Japan has achieved this in part through concepts like natsukashii, which permeates their society. 

The thing that concerns many people about the U.S. is that its sense of identity and history is sometimes getting lost, most notably over the past fifteen years or so.  It seems that values and traditions are eroding, as opposed to becoming further ingrained in daily life. That’s not a good direction for long term well being, so it’s in the interest of U.S. citizens to understand that and change it.  

In a way, perhaps that’s part of what subconsciously drives me to learn more about other cultures.  It’s not only to satisfy my curiosity and interest about the world’s people and places, but also to consider where they’ve come from, what they value, and where that’s taking them so that I can better reflect on myself and my own country. Pursuing this type of knowledge and awareness is a strong path for personal growth, and I place great value in that.

The Japanese connection to Dad…a natsukashii moment   

My Dad, who passed away in August 2019, was a video tape editor for the U.S. NBC television network for most of his career.  During his time there, he worked on many great TV shows and sporting events, and he was once fortunate enough to travel to Japan to work on the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.

Dad came home from that trip with many stories about Japan and its people, culture, and traditions.  While he was there he took advantage of Japan’s great reputation for photography equipment to buy a new Konica 35mm SLR and 8mm movie camera, so his stories had the added benefit of many photos and movies to go with them. We had many family movie nights where he would project his slides or 8mm movies on the screen in our darkened living room while he happily narrated about the entire trip. I remember it all vividly. I can even still remember the unique scent from the projector and its hot light bulb that eventually filled the room while we were watching. There was something comforting about it…  

Even though I was only six years old at the time he went, I remember that Japan made enough of an impression on Dad for me to notice it when he got home.  To this day when someone mentions Japan and Olympics together, I think back to Dad’s trip there, as well as the topics of tradition and history.  If you asked Dad what his favorite experience was while working at NBC, he would quickly answer “Visiting Japan for the Olympics”.

Perhaps the essence of natsukashii is what Dad experienced when he was in Japan.  He was 47 years old at the time and had a busy career, was raising four kids, traveled for work, and commuted into New York City every day.  Maybe experiencing the way natsukashii runs through Japanese tradition and society gave him pause to reflect, and maybe that’s what made the overall strong impression on him.  Although I can no longer ask him that question, it’s interesting to consider…     

Dad (left) with an NBC colleague at the Sapporo Ice Festival

So the BBC article above made me think about nostalgia, Japan, Dad, and value…and it gave me a natsukashii moment of my own.  After reading the article and doing further research about natsukashii, I better understand the real-life value that nostalgia can offer through gratitude for past experiences both joyous and sad, and I will carry that new mindset forward with me from now on. 

In other words, I didn’t just remember Dad’s trip to Sapporo. In the context of Erika’s article, I felt the emotion of it too.  The emotion of being sad when he left, happy when he returned, the excitement of waiting for his long distance calls to update the family, looking at the souvenirs he brought home, etc.  There is value to be taken from all of that because it’s the deeper aspect of it. Although we were thousands of miles apart while he was there, it was still an experience that we shared together. We each had our own very different perspective about it, and I felt all of that after reading and considering Erika’s article.  

How to make the natsukashii concept yours

So what does this mean to you? How can you make the natsukashii concepts from Erika’s article and my comments here your own?

Ultimately, it seems to me that the value of natsukashii is about “feeling, sharing and valuing”, instead of simply “remembering”. I’ll be writing a lot on this blog about personal mindfulness, but in a nutshell that’s what you have to do. Be more mindful and intentional, and think more deeply about what you’re remembering.

When you want to try digging further into the feelings of a nostalgic moment, try considering the following:

  • How does it make me feel? Which emotions?
  • Is what I’m remembering happy, sad, both, neither?
  • Who were the people I shared it with?
  • What do the people mean to me? Why do I value them?
  • How did that time/experience/event affect me? Why?
  • Be grateful for all of the experiences you’ve had, because they make you who you are.

There’s an endless list of questions that I could list here as prompts, and you can come up with your own too. The goal of all of them is to make you…feel. When you feel is when you move from simply remembering something to a more intentional, mindful and emotional appreciation of that moment. It’s at that point when you’ll find added value to your nostalgic moments, and indeed your life. That’s natsukashii.