Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Standing up for, if not in, Hong Kong

The world's eyes are on Hong Kong this week, including mine.

I wish it weren't my eyes though. I wish it were my feet. I wish my feet were just two of these feet:

I'm not a tremendously political person. Like anyone else, I have beliefs, and I do feel strongly about them. But I generally don't engage people in political conversation, and anyone who reads this blog knows I don't really use it to espouse my views. For the past decade of my life at least, my focus is more on the micro side than the macro side of humanity, and how one person can make his or her life better. I'm generally more interested in analyzing decisions and improving the self than I am in politics. I have a somewhat Talebian approach to the news. I've never marched in a protest or demonstration.

But Hong Kong is special. Not just to me, but to the world. For about as far back as I can remember, Hong Kong has topped the major worldwide economic freedom indices. Despite being nominally controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, it has been a haven for investment, growth, and free markets. It is not perfect on the social liberties axis (e.g. harsh drug laws, no gay marriage), but it has enjoyed reasonably free press and is one of the best "live and let live" societies out there.

It is orderly. Tremendously so. There is virtually no violent crime. Taxes are low, but infrastructure and public services are generally excellent. It's not a libertarian paradise or anything, but it's about as close as we have here on this planet.

Both sets of my grandparents lived through the poverty and bloodshed of Mao's Cultural Revolution and had their assets seized by the state. In the 1970s, they found a way to send my parents to Hong Kong, still under British rule at that time, in hopes of a better future for them. (My paternal grandfather would eventually raft and swim from mainland China across a dangerous channel to freedom in Hong Kong, and would later become a Canadian citizen.)

My parents were in turn fearful of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, and came to Canada. And so I was born and raised in Vancouver. But after the handover, it seemed that China was going to respect the laws of the land in China. Why mess with a good thing, after all? And so, my parents started to spend more time in Hong Kong. They encouraged me to get HK residency, which I did. It seemed like all that panic about Communist China gobbling up Hong Kong was for nothing. But fast forward to today and it seems we are on a critical threshold for the future of the freest city-state of the modern world.

Although I have always been in favour of an autonomous Hong Kong, I always felt ambivalent about the "Occupy Central" movement, as in my mind I associated it with Occupy Wall Street. But this is clearly different. What's amazing about the current events in Hong Kong right now is that seemingly the whole city is rallying in support. These are no longer just "student protests". The completely unprovoked pepper-spraying of peaceful students (and this old man below) has led to a tipping point where businessmen, professionals, and conservative elderly have joined with students and labour in a unified cause.

In typical Hong Kong fashion, the protests have been peaceful and orderly. Aside from one bizarre incident where a car randomly plowed through the crowd, there has been almost no incidence of property damage or violence. The intent is not to destroy or damage or cause anyone economic hardship, and this has led to the pervasive surge of support currently being felt throughout Hong Kong.

Another unique aspect of this protest is that it is ethnic Chinese people protesting against China. Historically, protests over self-determination have usually involved an ethnic minority controlled by the perceived aggression or oppression of a distant government representing an ethnic majority. But the vast majority of those protesting in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese ("Han people", as they would be called on the mainland. But they realize that Hong Kong is special, and that it is different, and that it is worth fighting for. They know that their brethren on the mainland do not have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia, and that they can be jailed indefinitely for opposing the views of the state.

And so you have a movement is not divided along ethnic or socioeconomic lines. The two sides are simple: there is the side that believes that Hong Kong should be able to freely elect its leadership, and the side that believes Beijing should be able to install a puppet leader.

What scares me here is that even with right on their side, Hong Kong could easily fall without support from the international community. Foreign governments have not exactly demonstrated great backbone when it comes to standing up to the bullies in Beijing. As Tom Grundy of the "Hong Wrong" blog pointed out, Britain even made it a point to officially turn its back on Hong Kong, despite former Prime Minister John Major's 1996 promise that "Hong Kong will never have to walk alone".

And so I am fearful for the future of this great city. For so many years it has stood as a beacon of freedom and a shining pearl in the shadow of the world's largest dictatorship. I fear that it will be swallowed up, despite the brave people putting boots on the ground and umbrellas in the air in Central, Admiralty, Mong Kok and the rest of the city. As I said, I've never been a marching sign-carrier, but I've never wanted so badly to be part of something.

I actually feel significant guilt that I am not there. I'm not being asked to pick up a gun and shoot someone, or take a bullet myself. The only thing that is being asked of me or anyone else who has an interest in the future of the great city is to put two feet on the ground.

Soon. Very soon.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How to defeat mediocrity: making stress work for you

Imagine any form of strenuous physical exercise. Lifting the heaviest weight you can, running your fastest possible 5k, sparring against the toughest fighter in the gym. You are trying to get through the last rep, the last hundred meters, the last 30 seconds of the last round. You are a full 10-out-of-10 on the effort scale.

Drenched in sweat, you hit the showers. You've earned yourself a nice cool shower and you start to feel better immediately. Now, depending on how well you manage your lifestyle, one of the following two scenarios result:

Scenario 1: Your lunch hour is almost over, and you've got a huge meeting with the boss. Or your wife is landing at the airport in ...oh shit, eight minutes! Time to cut the water, towel off, and still sweating, you throw on your clothes. You grab your gym bag (oops, forgot your water bottle), sprint to the car, and start speeding out of the parking lot. Two hours later, you're exhausted, but there's still lots of work to do, so you reach for another coffee or energy drink to get back to baseline.

Scenario 2: You take a long, cool shower for ten minutes. You towel off and have a smoothie at the juice bar. You take a 15-minute walk home, grab a quick power nap, then move on with the rest of your day.

Obviously, I think most people would prefer to be in Scenario 2.

Since our body always wants to be at a state of equilibrium, I've tended to look at health and wellness through this lens of equilibrium. One of the most important interplays in our body is that of the one between the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is the "fight-or-flight mechanism" that engages the body for action. The PNS is the "rest and relax" part of your nervous system. The two systems ebb and flow like yin-and-yang. Neither is ever completely inactive, but throughout the course of the day, the two work together to keep the body in equilibrium.

Activities and experiences can either be sympathetic-dominant or parasympathetic-dominant as well. For example, contrast any of the following:

  • intense hill sprints / a slow nature hike
  • waking up in the morning / falling asleep at night
  • an ice-cold shower / a warm bath
  • daydreaming and fantasizing / executing and building
  • rigourous studying / escapist pleasure reading
  • deep tissue massage / gentle foam rolling
  • intense intellectual thought / quiet meditation
  • hunting for food / eating and digesting it

These pairs are not "opposites", and neither is one in the pair "better" than another; I simply wanted to show the types of activities that are SNS or PNS dominant. The only thing that is actually bad is too much of one and not enough of the other. Also, I didn't just list physical activities; in fact, for most people who aren't serious athletes, mental stressors (and factors such as diet and sleep) probably have the greatest nervous system impact.

Typically, you want to ramp stress up, and then ramp it back down into recovery. That's why people do warmups before the tough workout. It's also why I take a short walk outside in the morning before I do any heavy mental lifting, as well. When I'm done with the stressful task and it's time to put the weights (or the laptop) down, I wind down, grab a drink, and do something relaxing.

Imagine that we had a way to determine, in real time, what a person's stress level was at any given moment. This guy is competing for a gold medal at the Olympics, he's at 10. This guy is delivering a career-defining presentation, he's at a 10. This guy is doing his usual morning workout, he's at a 7. This guy is getting a Swedish massage on the beach, he's at a 2.

What's useful is, of course, not the average or the sum of a person's stress level, but rather its distribution. Probably, most people in first-world countries are at a normal distribution:

(I should note that stress should not really be linearly evaluated in such a way, but I am treating it as linear to make a point here.)

Most people spend almost all their time in the middle. Their lives are fine. They get some exercise, but probably not enough. They get some sleep, but probably not enough. They are fairly good employees at work, but not superstars. They don't have financial troubles, but nor do they have great wealth. They watch a lot of TV and spend a lot of time on Facebook. They can also probably tell you a lot about the personal lives of their favourite celebrities and athletes. 

When they try things, they set low expectations. They half-ass a lot of different things, and are rarely too engaged in what they are doing. 

There's nothing wrong with these people, really. Society needs them, and luckily they are an abundant resource. They're just simply not serious achievers.

I don't want to be one of these people, either. You probably know some of these people. One could be your boss, your personal trainer, your teammate, your colleague. They might make a lot of money (or go broke gambling it all). Two hours after they leave the gym, they are reaching for another can of Monster or Red Bull just to get back to baseline. They are writing e-mails at 11:30pm and checking for responses at 5am. They certainly don't bother with meditation, or gentle stretching. Ain't got no time for that!

If they are professionals, they are running from one high-stress decision to another. If they are athletes, they are training multiple times a day to exhaustion (and never take days off). Sure, they might end up billionaire CEOs, Olympic gold medalists, or revolutionaries. Or they may drop dead of a heart attack. It's a coin flip.

Note that in spite of the fact that the huge majority of their lives are spent in the 7+ range, there is a big spike at the 1. That's because their lifestyles are so high-stress that they frequently get sick or injured, or get burned out, have nervous breakdowns, and so forth. At some point, their bodies have enough and shut them down. If you spend all of your life at the redline, don't be surprised when the engine blows up. 

Most of us don't know too many of these people. We probably don't know too many zen monks living in isolation on top of mountains. While these people might seem enlightened and happy, the vast majority of them probably aren't getting much done either.

In his fantastic book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that this approach is possibly even responsible for some of India's troubles:
"...the Indian fascination with advanced techniques for self-control, at the expense of learning to cope with the material challenges of the physical environment, has conspired to let impotence and apathy spread over a great proportion of the population, defeated by scarcity of resources and by overcrowding." 

This is what I'm looking for. As an athlete, I am trying to train hard, at high intensity, to improve in my sport. As a businessman, I am trying to work hard and think of creative solutions. As a student, I try to study with intent. As someone currently writing a blog post, I am trying to put aside distractions and focus on my words. But I also make sure to balance this with down time. I do some post-workout static stretching and quiet meditation. I eat well. I take naps, lots of them. I take caffeine in the morning, and magnesium at night.

You'll often hear people say (with pride), things like "I work hard and I play hard". This is great. But to this, we must add, "I rest hard". You might also hear someone (probably a millenial) describe him or herself as "pretty chill and laid-back". This person needs to add, "but I get shit done when I need to."

I am not putting myself out there to be better than anyone else. I often fail both at being too intense and being too lazy. I still spend more time at the 5s and 6s -- that wishy-washy level where you're not really doing anything useful, but not actually focused on recovering -- than I would like. But I put this out there as an ideal to strive for, not a goal to be reached.

Stress is not good, stress is not bad. Stress just is. It is a part of life and one that should be embraced as well as respected. One should not go through life trying to avoid stress, but rather actively managing it, and making it work for you.

If you want to be an achiever, then achieve. Work hard. Focus. Go all-in. But then, rest, recover, then do it again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life After Poker #2 -- Jason Strasser

I made it to two episodes, woohoo! That means this is officially a real thing. I think.

In show #2, I chat with Jason "strassa2" Strasser, one of the original young no limit hold'em superstars that burst on the scene in the early 2000s. Jason was making big money playing high-stakes NLHE from his college dorm room at Duke, and traded that career in for a lengthy and successful career as a trader for Morgan Stanley. But playing with the house money wasn't fulfilling enough, so he decided to start his own hedge fund. Jason joined me from his office in New York to talk about the time he spends on the 2+2 poker and investment forums, the fun of being in the financial markets, the pressures of managing the money of his friends and family, his attitudes towards poker today, what he misses about the poker lifestyle, and much more. Jason's is a true success story of how a player goes from beating the big poker games to making real money beating "the Street".

Here's where you can find it, and here's the direct download link. And iTunes here. Let me know in the comments what you liked, didn't like, or anything at all!