Category Archives: Personal Development

The Science of Success

the science of successI gave in to the temptation earlier this week to make an impulse purchase in the grocery store check-out line, Time magazine’s special edition on the science of success. I read the issue cover-to-cover immediately thereafter. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the topics covered line up with books I’ve already read and covered in this blog! Some highlights:

  • Stellar CEOs tend to be utility players; they have a range of above average skills rather than a single standout ability. Beyond above average intelligence, they exhibit: self-compassion to overcome setbacks and stay on track; an ability to control their attention; a stellar work ethic; and, a growth mindset.
  • Highly accomplished people are paragons of perseverance. They work at their craft. They model ferocious determination.
  • There’s a clear link between healthy bodies and high achievement. Exercise activates the prefrontal cortex, increases attention and focus, builds confidence, improves mood, and relieves stress.
  • Successful people understand that “finishing strong” isn’t about catching up at the end of a race to make a respectable showing. It’s about consistently focusing and doing your absolute best at every moment, from start to finish.
  • Each individual has a distinctive biorhythm that dictates when they’ll have their peaks and valleys of energy. Know your type (i.e., lark or night owl), identify the tasks to be completed, and determine the right order in which to pursue them given varying energy levels throughout the day.
  • Failure is an essential element of success. We fail until we find the right answer or approach. If you live cautiously, you fail by default. Expect setbacks. Feel your failures and learn from them. Then move on to what’s next.
  • Luck favors the prepared.

The issue closes with the principles that have guided some of or highest achievers:

  • Jane Goodall, leading expert on chimpanzees, received this advice from her mother: “If you really want something and you work hard and you take advantage of opportunities – and you never, ever give up – you will find a way.”
  • Steve Jobs, microcomputer pioneer: “You’ve got to put something back into the flow of history… [so that] people will say, this person didn’t just have a passion; he cared about making something that other people could benefit from.”
  • Helen Keller, one of America’s most inspiration figures: “Resolve to keep happy… and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”
  • Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, advises us to exercise restraint and practice humility. “You can tell a guy to go to hell tomorrow – you don’t give up the right. So just keep your mouth shut today and see if you feel the same way tomorrow.”
  • Shonda Rhimes, entertainment mogul, stresses swagger. “We all have something about ourselves to brag about, something that is amazing or special or interesting… I say we need to start a bragging revolution.”
  • George Washington Carver, agricultural scientist: “It’s not the style of clothes one wears, neither the kind of automobile one drives, nor the amount of money one has in the bank that counts. These mean nothing. It is simply service that measure success.”
  • Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State: “Whenever my father saw that I had to take on something difficult or do something that I might not have confidence about, he would say, ‘Strike it.’ That was his version of ‘go for it.’ To me that meant you have to believe in yourself and go after what you want.”
  • Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter: “Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.”
  • Maya Angelou, Pulitzer-prize winning poet, took her grandmother’s advice to heart: “If the world puts you on a road you do not like, if you look ahead and do not want that destination which is being offered and you look behind and you do not want to return to your place of departure, step off the road. Build yourself a new path.”

How Successful People Use Their Time

As a follow-up to last week’s post, I read Laura Vanderkam’s book What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast: and Two Other Short Guides to Achieving More at Work and Home. Here are some of the high points from her writing.


Our highest value activities should revolve around nurturing our careers, nurturing key relationships, and nurturing ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us let these activities slip to the bottom of our “to do” lists.

Mornings are the best time to set priorities for the day and ensure that important tasks get on the schedule. It’s also the time to DO some of those tasks – e.g., exercise – while our willpower is at its peak.

Laura’s advice: Give your career, your family, and yourself the best of your day, not what’s left over when everything else has taken its toll. To that end, picture the perfect morning. Think through the logistics of making it happen. Build the habits that reinforce those priorities.


We all need restorative down time to give a boost to our energy, motivation, and productivity. And yet research has demonstrated that it’s not rejuvenating to simply “veg out.” We need some form of stimulation to feel happy, creative, and whole. Common activities include exercise, team sports, coaching, music, art, hobbies, volunteering, adventures with family and friends, and leveraging work-related skills in alternate forums (e.g., a tech writer who crafts poetry).

While most folks bristle at the thought of planning for their off hours, Laura maintains that “rest time is too precious to be totally leisurely.” Absent a plan, time can easily be filled up with chores, errands, email, web-surfing, TV, and other people’s agendas. That being said, plans do not have to be rigid and detailed. Laura advises scheduling a few “anchor events” at key intervals through the weekend. Beyond giving the weekend structure, they fuel a sense of anticipation as the weekend draws near. Anticipation alone confers a sense of excitement and happiness.

Laura’s advice: Compress chores by creating a distinct window of time to do them (and allowing some to be left undone.) Mine your list of “100 Dreams” for ideas. Use mornings wisely. Create traditions with family and friends. Schedule down time (e.g., meditation, nap). Make time to explore. Plan something fun for Sunday night.


Successful people take their work seriously… and take their time at work seriously. Laura’s research suggests that they adhere to the following 7 principles:

  1. They keep track of how they spend their time and actively consider ways to use it more effectively.
  2. They develop plans for the coming day, week, month, and year. They carve out time for periodic review and make adjustments, as needed.
  3. They say what they’ll do and do what they say. To that end, they are choosy about what they allow on each day’s priority list. They are realistic about what they can get done and hold themselves accountable to their commitments.
  4. They know that some activities masquerade as “work” but don’t advance their professional or organizational objectives. Common “briar patches” include email, texts, meetings, and conference calls. Successful people find ways to communicate and collaborate effectively. They know that there is an opportunity cost for their time and that of their colleagues. (You don’t need an hour’s meeting to complete 15 minutes’ worth of work.) They also know that scheduled breaks and social time benefit work.
  5. They work at their craft. They stay abreast of developments in their fields and challenge themselves to remain at the top of their game.
  6. They remain employable through careful cultivation of their knowledge, skills, experience, networks, and interpersonal skills – a.k.a., “career capital.”
  7. They love what they do. They take pleasure in making headway on meaningful projects and find joy in the doing of them.

Make Good Use of Time

Over the years, I’ve read several books on time management. I’d like to be able to say that I’ve put all that good advice into practice. But the truth of the matter is that I’m regularly overbooked and need refresher courses (and inspiration) to do a better job managing my time.

My latest foray into this subject matter came by way of Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours (for which the subtitle is You have More Time That You Think). The title comes from the total hours in one week – a period sufficient to get a true picture of how we spend our time and to consider how we might allocate this precious resource better.


Time is an interesting concept. One the one hand, it’s not infinite; there are a fixed number of hours in every week into which we must fit all of our activities. On the other hand, you can fit a whole lot of life into 168 hours when using time wisely. Unfortunately, many of us fritter that resource away and wind up feeling like we’re scrambling to get everything done.

Here’s the basics of Laura’s time management planning process:

First: Do a time log over the course of a few weeks to see exactly how you are spending your time. Categorize your time into meaningful categories and subcategories. Be especially attentive to how you spend your work hours. Pay attention to how much of that time is truly productive versus just logging hours. Once you’ve got meaningful data, ask yourself: Is this really how I want to spend my time? Where can I make adjustments?

Second: Create a list of “100 Dreams” (or “1000 Dreams”) to provide fuel for exercising your passion muscles. Consider how these items might factor into your work life and provide rewarding ways to spend non-work hours.

Third: Identify your core competencies. These are things at which you are natively skilled and for which you have sufficient interest, ability, and motivation for continuous improvement. They should be abilities that you can leverage in multiple spheres of influence and that you find meaningful and important. The happiest people spend most of their time exercising their core competencies. They get rid of, minimize, or outsource tasks that don’t leverage those skills.

Fourth: Start with a blank slate (Sunday through Saturday, 24 hours per day) and fill in the hours from the ground up. Start with the necessities and high priority activities – e.g., good quality sleep, personal hygiene, eating (including shopping and meal preparation), work, relationships (e.g., spouse, children, friends, colleagues). Think about what choices you can make to increase the percentage of time that exercises your core competencies. Most folks find that they have a lot of time remaining that can be filled with meaningful activities… some of which could simply be restful, restorative “me time.”

Fifth: Give some structure and purpose to leisure time. Laura says: “Time is too precious to be leisurely about leisure.” As a case in point, Neilson research tells us that the average American spends ~30 hours/week watching TV of which ~20 hours per week represents concentrated attention. Could that time be better spent thinking about creating a more vibrant career, more meaningful relationships, and/or improved health and vitality?

Finally: Be open and flexible as you start to re-architect how you spend your 168 hours per week. There may be things on your “list of dreams” that you thought were really important that turn out to be duds once you actually start factoring them in. That’s OK! You’ll be learning a lot about yourself in the process. It may even be the case that things you’ve always considered core competencies may not be things that really bring you joy or provide fuel for personal development. Again – that’s OK! Consider what else might provide a sense of freedom, excitement, or challenge.

One final piece of advice really landed for me: Learn how to fill bits of time with bits of activity. As a life long musician, I’ve allowed myself to become stuck on the idea that time spent practicing must come in hour long chucks. Yet if I have my piano or guitar at hand, there’s no reason why I can’t work on bits of music in 10 to 15 minute chunks.

A Fresh Approach to Goal Setting

Having written about the top 10 mistakes we make when launching self-improvement initiatives, it occurs to me that I ignored the biggest one of all: Choosing the wrong objective/goal/resolution in the first place. I confess that I’ve been guilty of this error in judgment quite often. I’ve committed to what could and should be good for me rather than what I really want.

feel goodI was introduced to a book by Danielle LaPorte’s a couple of years ago – The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul. With that auspicious title, I opted to take a leap of faith and work through the exercises to see what they might reveal.

Danielle’s basic thesis: “Knowing how you want to feel is the most potent clarity you can have. Generating those feelings is the most powerful thing you can do with your life.” To that end, she walks readers through an exploration of the five major areas of life:

LIVELIHOOD & LIFESTYLE Career, money, work, home, space, style, possessions, fashion, travel, gifts, sustainability, resources
BODY & WELLNESS Healing, fitness, food, rest & relaxation, mental health, sensuality, movement
CREATIVITY & LEARNING Artistic and self-expression, interests, education, hobbies
RELATIONSHIPS & SOCIETY Romance, friendships, family, collaboration, community, causes
ESSENCE & SPIRITUALITY Soul, inner self, truth, intuition, faith, practices

She asks readers to turn off their analytical (and ofttimes judgmental brains) and explore the answers to four foundational questions:

  • In every area of my life, what am I grateful for? What’s not working?
  • What are my core desired feelings?
  • To generate my core desired feelings, what do I want to do, experience, or have?
  • What three or four intentions and goals will I focus on this year?

I’ll confess that I rolled my eyes a bit when reading about core desired feelings. I thought, “How do I know what my core desired feelings are?” Yet clear patterns emerged when working  systematically through the exercises. I could identify circumstances where I activated desirable feelings and those where I decidedly did not. I came up with words to describe how I’d like to feel in each area of my life, and then settled on four adjectives that best capture my desired state:


Knowing that’s how I’d like to feel, it’s much easier to consider opportunities and assess the degree to which they are likely to evoke those feelings. They also provide the litmus test on whether or not to keep doing some of the things on my plate. And, of course, I can challenge myself to make a daily, weekly, and monthly plan to increased the core desired feelings in each area of my life. (I’m reminding myself of that commitment with a sticky note on my computer stand!)

One final piece of advice from Danielle’s book:

Set out to do three or four things this year with gusto and excellence, rather than doing a dozen things just sufficiently. The momentum and satisfaction you’ll gain from pulling off just a few amazing endeavors will far outweigh anything you could gain from doing a bunch of things halfway. Trust your inner guidance and don’t worry so much about getting it right.”

Charting the Road Ahead

“Vision without action is hallucination. Action without vision is random activity.”
– Edie Raether

the road aheadThe trees are ablaze with Fall colors in my corner of the world, with autumn leaves falling all around me. It’s a gentle reminder to bring the year’s projects to completion, harvest the wisdom reaped during the year, and lay the groundwork for the coming year’s activities.

While thinking about next year’s plans, I came across a few notes from a talk given by self-improvement guru Edie Raether many years ago. She’s entertaining and very sharp.

Early on in her talk, she reminds the audience that human beings are fundamentally pleasure-oriented creatures. We seek positive emotional states and make decisions in pursuit of them. In fact, what we choose by emotion, we justify by logic. As such, it’s crucial to figure out what floats our boats before getting too embroiled in the planning process. To that end, it’s a good idea to spend some time reflecting on our past experiences and discern patterns surrounding our greatest joys and greatest disappointments.

Armed with a sense of what brings happiness (fulfillment, peace, etc.), we must dare to ask ourselves: What would we do if we knew we couldn’t fail? This question isn’t a cliché; it’s a call to take our dreams seriously enough that we name that place where we’d like to go. We must focus on all the ways we might get there, leaving aside the 100 “yeah, buts…” that cloud our thinking. We must be ready to create a new future and be open to serendipity. (She asks: “When opportunity knocks, do you complain about the noise?”)

She then served up the following 5 steps:

  1. Have a vision. And for every vision, there is a re-vision.
  2. Make a plan. Figure out what you’ll need for the journey, where you’ll need to go, and who’ll you’ll want for traveling companions. Be specific. Define milestones.
  3. Commit. As a case in point, she noted that George Burns booked the Palladium in London for his 100th birthday. He was routinely asked, “Do you think you’re going to make it to 100?” George would reply, “I have to. I’m booked.”
  4. Take action. “Fake it until you make it.” This saying is not an encouragement to be phony; it’s a mandate to live the dream.
  5. Believe. Barbra Streisand always knew that she would be a star even though she did not have the traditional “look.” She believed in her talent, her passion, and her drive.

Good Friends Promote Good Health

I can’t imagine going through the journey of life without having wonderful friends with which to share it. I’m fortunate to have people in my life around whom I feel seen, heard, and valued. I am comforted in knowing that we give and receive without judgment, expectations, or scorekeeping. Their love and support is a source of sustenance, and I trust that mine is nurturing for them. I’m especially blessed to have married a man who is as great a friend as he is a life partner.


Good friends make me feel good. But until recently, I didn’t realize the extent to which they are as much a contributor to my health as my happiness.

In The Healing Self, Drs. Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi tell us that the heart is responsive to how we feel physically and emotionally. Being loved and supported by others results in lower arterial blockage. It also affects the immune system. As a case in point, they ask their readers to assign one point to each relationship in which there is direct contact (face-to-face or phone) at least every other week. Those whose scores fall within the 1-3 range are four times more likely to exhibit cold symptoms than those with six or more. Moreover, the number and diversity of relationships exert greater influence on health than their intimacy.

In Mind Over Medicine, Dr. Lissa Rankin emphasizes the importance of having healthy, judgment-free relationships that give us the freedom to be our authentic selves. Love, nurturing, compassion, and feelings of belonging soothe the mind, halt the stress response, induce the relaxation response, and heal the body. They also bring out our best selves while elevating our moods.

Studies show that positive psychological states, such as joy, happiness, and positive energy, as well as characteristics such as life satisfaction, hopefulness, optimism, and a sense of humor result in lower mortality rates and extend longevity.
– Dr. Lissa Rankin, MD

Friendship also exerts an influence at the cellular level. Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel explore this connection in The Telomere Effect. Telomeres are a repeating segment of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of our chromosomes. Much like the plastic or metal aglets placed on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres keep our DNA strands intact. It turns out that good friends are like trusted guardians of these essential genetic building blocks. When they’re around, our telomeres are protected. By contrast, unhealthy relationships are a telomere risk factor. Situations that consistently mix positive qualities with unhelpful or disturbing interactions engender a kind of stress that produces shorter telomeres. When telomeres become critically short, our cells can no longer reproduce.

Finally, I recall a discussion with my father’s neurologist when Dad first exhibited signs of geriatric dementia. The doctor told us that four things were essential to maintaining one’s mental faculties for as long as possible. The first three were not surprising: a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep. The fourth was socialization. While sudoku and crossword puzzles are fine diversions, they can’t compete with sustained, positive contact with other human beings. The more we engage with others, the more we exercise our brains and the better we feel.

Man’s Search for Meaning

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

If you’ve never had the chance to read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, it’s time that this best-selling book finds its way onto your reading list. It may not change your life, but it will certainly give you a new lens through which to view it.

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who was transported and processed at the Auschwitz concentration camp in October 1994 alongside his wife. He survived months of slave labor at a camp affiliated with Dachau before his liberation by American soldiers the following year. Sadly, his mother Elsa and brother Walter died in Auschwitz; his wife Tilly died in Bergen-Belsen.

How does someone find meaning in such dire circumstances?

concentration campConfinement in the camps bought harsh working conditions, insufficient nourishment, lack of sleep, and a host of psychological pressures. Yet through it all, there were prisoners who devoted their energies to comforting others and sharing their meager scraps of food. They’d lost everything, but they retained the ability to choose how they’d respond to their circumstances. They exercised control over their mental and spiritual well-being.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation,… we are challenged to change ourselves.”
– Viktor Frankel

Pain and suffering find a way into every person’s life. How we face these challenges determines the quality of our character. The extreme conditions in the camps forced the prisoners to adjust their core attitudes toward life. They stopped asking life what it would do for them; they started asking what life expected of them.

Each of us comes into this life with a purpose to be served. Our distinctiveness has a bearing on the work that we’ll do as well as the lives we’ll touch. If we accept these responsibilities, we can learn to bear almost any hardship. This awareness gives us a sense for the unfinished (or unrealized) work that awaits completion through our efforts. It helps us see the faces of loved ones whose happiness and well-being demand our presence and participation in their lives. No other person can walk in our footsteps; no one can be replaced. As Frankl says:

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets oneself – by giving himself a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”

To that end, Frankl cautions against aiming at success. The more we set our sights on it, the less likely we’ll attain it. Success ensues as an unintended side effect of dedication to a cause greater than oneself. He asks us to listen to our conscience and carry out its directives to the best of our ability.

I’ve certainly never experienced any trauma or tragedy comparable to the Holocaust. Yet I draw comfort and inspiration from Frankl’s words at a time when our country seems to be in such turmoil and armed conflicts abound. Even Mother Nature seems to be lashing out in response to our questionable stewardship of her bounty. It’s easy enough to feel discouraged. Here again, Frankl cuts through all the noise with a clear and compelling message:

“For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become worse unless each of us does his best.”
– Viktor Frankel

Seriously – read the book!

21 Ways to Sustain Inner Peace

I’ve had an especially rough week. Too much to do, too much stress, and too little sleep alongside a substantive family emergency. I decided to revisit a set of practices that Mary Lynn Hendrix derived from The Work of Katie Byron.

inner peace

  1. Take responsibility for your beliefs and judgments. Avoid the temptation to judge others; focus on cleaning up your own stuff. Be compassionate and forgiving.
  2. Notice when you’re minding other people’s business. Did they ask your advice? Could you apply that advice to your own life?
  3. Hold lightly what you think you know about yourself. Challenge your beliefs. Consider the payoffs (and the costs) of hanging on to them.
  4. Practice “detaching” from your body and your story. Experiment with a third person narrative of your life and events to see what new insights this practice yields.
  5. Speak in the present tense. Experience life in the moment. Avoid the temptation to ruminate about the past or worry about the future.
  6. Learn to love the work that’s right in front of you. Love doing dishes. Love the laundry. Love writing that 1-page memo on which you’ve been procrastinating all day.
  7. Listen to your body. Practice stillness to give it space to speak. Explore what’s really going on when it twitches, tingles, aches, tenses up, etc.
  8. Practice narrating event as if you were a roving reporter. Focus on the facts: What is happening right now? What’s drawing my attention? Where are my hands, feet, arms, legs, etc., and what are they doing? What do I see? Don’t get caught up in the interpretation of the facts or fear of what’s coming in the next moment.
  9. Practice taking what others say at face value. Resist the temptation to assign deep meaning or hidden motivation. Let them finish uninterrupted while giving them your full attention. Once you’ve really listened, then you can consider how you might respond.
  10. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. Don’t fret excessively about what they’ll think. Don’t use words to manipulate others.
  11. Watch life’s recurring dramas as if they’re theatrical plays. Take heart in knowing that you can leave your seat, exit the playhouse, and step outside at any time. The play will still be there later.
  12. Rewrite the drama. Consider how it would play out through the mind and eyes other playwrights. Notice how your experience of it changes.
  13. Exercise polarity. When ruminating on a negative thought, take yourself to the opposite pole to experience something positive. Come back to the positive pole every time you feel yourself slipping.
  14. Awaken self-love. Make a list of everything you love about someone else and share it with them. Now look at the list and see how many of those things are also true of you.
  15. Live your truth. Move, respond, and speak with genuine intention and interest. Don’t compromise your integrity with false excuses or explanations.
  16. Ask for what you want. People don’t know what you want unless you tell them. If they are unwilling or unable to give it to you, find ways to give it to yourself.
  17. Be open to life’s lessons. Recognize that the people and circumstances that come into your life are there to teach you about who you are.
  18. Practice self-gratitude. Stop looking outside yourself for validation.
  19. Use vanity mirrors sparingly. Don’t get caught up in a reflection that doesn’t tell the story of who you are.
  20. Stop justifying yourself. Notice how often you provide explanations for yourself and your words, actions, decisions, etc. Who are you trying to convince? Practice right thoughts, decision-making, and action, and stand firm.
  21. Be grateful for criticism. Say (or think) “thank you” to the slings and arrows, even though it hurts. That attitude enables you to hear the feedback and use the information in a way that serves you.

The Power of Onlyness

“I believe that at the root of our humanity is a passion to create value with heart, to work alongside others who care, and to make a difference.”
– Nilofer Merchant

Ranked #22 on the 2017 Thinkers50 global ranking of management gurus, Nilofer Merchant has launched over 100 products that have generated nearly $2 billion in sales. She’s a published author who thinks deeply about strategies, frameworks, and cultural values. Her latest book is a clarion call to identify, embrace, and actuate our distinctiveness in a way that promotes the common good. She titled it The Power of Onlyness: Make Your Wild Ideas Mighty Enough to Dent the World.

Ms. Merchant shares her perspective on onlyness within the context of inspirational narratives (including her own). The successes generally adhere to the following story arc:

Individuals tap into ideas or issues that prove deeply meaningful. Their histories, backgrounds, and surroundings influence what they notice and what evokes their response. When an idea or issue comes to the fore and ignites passion, it gives clarity of purpose going forward.

Individuals bring their distinct gifts, skills, experiences, passions, and insights to the enterprise. They value themselves for who they are, just as they are, without getting tripped up by what other people think. They simply focus on doing what they can. This orientation toward action confers its own reward. As Ms. Merchant says, “discovering yourself is a function of being yourself.”

the power of onlynessThey align with others who share their passions, purpose, goals, and values. Ms. Merchant argues that onlyness does NOT result in loneliness. Quite the contrary! Cultivating community transforms the individual from being the “only one” who gives voice to an idea or issue into a powerful force for change based on the scale and strength of the collective. Finding community may take time and effort. Social media helps! It may also mean letting loose the bonds with other communities for which the pressure to conform has proven stifling. Yet it promises the freedom to feel deeply attached to the world and others while standing firm in one’s own beliefs and ideas.

They invest the time and energy to forge trusted, cohesive communities. Such communities balance the distinctive ideas and contributions of the individuals with the overarching mission and goals of the collective. They forge trust. Ms. Merchant writes:

“To move an idea into reality, everyone involved with it needs to know how to be curious enough to discover the right problems to solve. They need to listen to one another as options are explored, and be vulnerable enough to accept help from one another. Also, they need to tussle together on tough decisions so that, ultimately, they can lean on one another as they prepare to move into action.”

They commit to taking effective action. They build frameworks that enable individuals to contribute based on what they see while ensuring that the end results contribute responsibly to the overarching purpose. They foster collaboration using all relevant technology and make sure there’s ample room for in-person gatherings. They give ideas room to grow without suffocating them with unrealistic expectations or a mandate to be “successful.” To that end, side projects and extracurricular activities can provide relatively low-risk testing grounds.

Mr. Merchant warns that the road ahead may not be clear, and the journey may take a number of twists and turns. That’s OK! As she says: “Until you do the actual work, the strength and specificity of your goal will not become clear – to you or to others.”

While Ms. Merchant’s book contemplates making a dent in the world, I find the concepts germane to crafting one’s life plan. It argues for spirited and intentional exploration rather than adhering to a conventional road map. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

How the Healthiest, Longest-Lived People Live

In 2009, National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner published findings from his quest to find the world’s longest-lived, healthiest human beings and identify common threads that unite them. Dubbed the Blue Zones®, he found these exemplary communities in California (a Seventh Day Adventist community), Costa Rica, Greece, Sardinia, and Japan.

blue zone communities

In The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, he shares nine secrets to their success:

  1. Sustained movement through acts of daily living – walking, preparing meals using whole foods, doing chores, gardening
  2. Purpose – a reason outside of work that makes life worth living
  3. Daily routines through which they relax and relieve stress
  4. Leisurely meals during which they eat to ~80% capacity (leaving ample room for digestion)
  5. One or two glasses of wine daily with good friends
  6. Primarily plant-based diets with small, intermittent servings of meat, poultry, and fish
  7. Social circles that encourage and reinforce their healthy behaviors
  8. Participation in faith-based communities
  9. Focus on family as witnessed by committed marriages, attentive parenting, care and concern for the elderly

Unlike the average American, these folks do not obsess over the latest health fad. They don’t count calories or worry about the optimal ratio of protein, carbohydrates, and fats. They simply live the way their parents and parents’ parents lived without the specter of heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and dementia looming in their advanced years.

In The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Buettner takes a closer look at food choices in the 5 communities. While the composition of their diets vary according to tradition and available raw materials, all 5 communities place little emphasis on fish, meat, poultry, and eggs. Here are their average daily intakes by food group:

Vegetables 33% 14% 46% 12% 32%
Fruits 27% 9% 16% 1%
Legumes 12% 7% 11% 4% 16%
Grains, Rice, Pasta 7% 26% 6% 47% 23%
Fish, Meat, Poultry, Eggs 6% 7% 11% 5% 15%
Dairy (e.g., goat’s milk) 10% 24% 26% 8%
Oils 2% 2% 6% 2%
Sweets 1% 11% 4% 3%
Other 2% 6%

Based on his research, Buettner suggests the following practices:

  • Make your first meal of the day the largest, lunch the second largest, and dinner the smallest; add one light snack, as needed.
  • Cook at home using fresh, high quality ingredients (e.g., organic produce, free range poultry, grass fed meats).
  • Don’t eat while standing, driving, watching TV, reading, or using electronic devices. Rather, invite family and friends to dine with you.
  • Stop eating when you are 80% full. Either pre-plate the food, or eat slowly enough that the body can register its food consumption and signal when full.
  • Make meal time a celebration!

He also recommends food choices for longevity. Based on his experience and a confluence of nutritional research, 95% of the diet should come from a whole plant. Meat, poultry, and fish should make occasional appearances in small portions – i.e., servings roughly the size of a deck of cards. Eat at least one-half cup beans daily as they’re high in protein and fiber. Minimize dairy as we don’t digest it well (although fermented goat’s milk seems to be OK). Replace common bread with sourdough or whole wheat. Snack on nuts. Slash sugar.

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