What happened to my brain after 30 days without alcohol

WineI used to think of small sacrifices as trivial or worse. After all, what could possibly be the point of giving up chocolate or wine or Facebook for some period of time?

Then I met someone who introduced me to Stoic philosophy, and I tried giving up alcohol for 30 days. That experiment turned out to be more meaningful than I could have imagined.


In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, I learned that Stoics weren’t the emotionless, dry philosophers I had imagined. For example, Marcus Aurelius, one of the greatest  emperors of Rome, was a Stoic. I learned they also shared quite a bit of philosophy with Buddhists. They embraced the impermanence of life and sought to be mindful and grateful for what life had to offer. Part of this was practicing self-denial.

“What Stoics discover[ed] is that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercise their muscles, the stronger they get, and the more they exercise their will, the stronger it gets. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for their courage and self-control. They will be able to do things that others dread doing, and they will be able to refrain from doing things that others cannot resist doing. They will, as a result, be thoroughly in control of themselves. This self-control makes it far more likely that they will attain the goals of their philosophy of life, and that in turn dramatically increases their chances of living a good life.”

What didn’t happen in 30 days

When I mentioned to someone that I wasn’t drinking, the typical reaction was one of surprise. “Why not? Are you sick?” After I meekly explained the experiment I was trying, they’d ask “Do you feel any different?”

My answer was usually a simple “No.” I didn’t lose weight or lose my desire for a nice glass of red wine. Perhaps I ate more dessert.

The reason I tried this experiment with alcohol was that my drinking had become unthinking. I didn’t feel it was excessive. Perhaps a glass or two of wine 4-5 times a week, sometimes more. But it was a habit, and I was uncomfortable with that.

Perhaps I could change it.

The things that changed

30 days without alcoholDuring this time I was also reading The Brain That Changes Itself, a review of the science of neuroplasticity – how our brains are capable of being rewired in ways we thought were impossible just a few decades ago.

By giving up alcohol for 30 days, I was actively rewiring my relationship with alcohol. I was more mindful about drinking. More precisely, I became aware of the environmental cues that made me drink and so I was more conscious – literally, by engaging my prefrontal cortex – of when and why I wanted a drink.

Also, when I had a glass of wine on the 31st day, I was more grateful for the smell, taste, and after-effects of a glass of wine.

The wisdom of the Stoics can now be found in more modern scientific works like The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control and The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Work, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.

It isn’t the particular sacrifice that’s important. It’s the act of exercising your willpower. I’m looking forward to my next 30-day experiment.

The road rage chronicles

I’m embarrassed to tell these stories, but I’m sharing them for two reasons.

One is that I’m conscious of the social media effect, a tendency to share an idealized version of one’s self. I’m sure I’m guilty of it, and I would rather be honest and ashamed than inauthentic and admired.

The other reason is to show how changing habits is possible even when they’ve been deeply-rutted over several decades.

Route I-95N

1988: Route I-95N 

After college, I was living in the Bronx and would commute each day to Bell Labs in Middletown, NJ, 55 miles each way. Coming home, I would fight traffic on the NJ Turnpike, then at the bridge, then on the Cross Bronx Expressway.

I remember times when I would scream at the top of my lungs in frustration. Though I had chosen where I worked and where I lived, and though I knew there was always going to be traffic on that route, I could not accept it.

1990s: It’s other people’s fault

Over the ensuing years, it wasn’t just traffic that bothered me, but other people. How dare they try to cut into my lane! I would tailgate the person in front of me to block them. Oh, the slow drivers! I would flash my brights to punish them.

Once, as I was double-parked, a person honked. There was plenty of room to get by! I muttered something I thought was under my breath until the gentleman got out of his car, kicked my door, and threatened to kill me.

2004: Late on the Upper East Side

Circling in upper Manhattan, looking for a space, I’m late for an appointment. I can’t be late. Yes, I should have left earlier, but I can’t be late. I continue circling and miss a spot, and I hit the steering wheel so hard the horn goes off and won’t stop. Now I’m driving on Park Avenue with a blaring horn, humiliated as well as late.

I realized I couldn’t keep acting this way. Something had to change.

2015: The Henry Hudson Parkway

Now, I regularly drive on the Henry Hudson Parkway and still face traffic and bad drivers. But much of my bad behavior is gone. The impulses are still there, but over ten years I’ve gradually managed to react to those same triggers in a different way.

Traffic? I always have TED talks with me and a delay means more learning and entertainment. A rude driver? I imagine they may be rushing to the hospital, or have a frustrating life, and my anger evaporates.

Over time, small changes to my driving environment and to my responses (“If this happens next time, I will do this…”) have added up to me being calmer and safer.

I’m no saint. If the kids are screaming or playing loudly or doing what kids do, I still struggle sometimes not to floor it and scare the hell out of them. But small changes, practiced constantly over time, have made a big difference.


How an undisciplined person was able to blog for 200 weeks in a row

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

I still remember this all-nighter in college, writing on my trusty Smith-Corona typewriter.

That undisciplined person is me.

I’m someone whose list of things to do is scrawled on scraps of paper. I put off things I don’t enjoy doing, like taxes and even the smallest of administrative tasks. Occasionally <ahem> I’ll eat and drink too much.

Despite my lack of discipline in some areas, though, I’ve managed to write a blog post every week for 200 weeks. By sharing how I did it, maybe I can help others who want to write more too.

The beginning

It was about six years ago when I first started writing. Looking for some kind of creative outlet as I was changing roles at work, I began using a low-tech blogging platform that was available inside the company, and the early posts were therapeutic. I wrote about things I was interested in, and with each post I felt like I was developing a useful skill.

I wrote only half a dozen times that year, but one post about trying to use Gmail at work attracted over a thousand comments. I was amazed at how a simple essay on a social platform could make it possible to connect people and build a movement. Something clicked. I saw that by making my ideas and work visible, I could shape my reputation and get access to opportunities I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

I started to take writing more seriously. My friend Eric, an author and journalist, helped me by editing my work and offering support. I gradually started writing more, enjoying the feedback, and after 18 months or so I was posting something every week inside my firm.

The struggle

Writing did not come naturally. I would procrastinate. I would stare at a blank screen not knowing what to write. I would hate my early attempts at a post as I kept failing to make a concise point.

I was mindful too that I was often spoiling Saturday mornings with my brooding over a laptop, testing my wife’s patience. And for what?

I thought of stopping, but I remember reading Seth Godin’s daily blogs at the time, and they provided me with much-needed encouragement. Here’s one of them:

“Where, precisely, do you go in order to get permission to make a dent in the universe? …

If you think there’s a chance you can make a dent, GO. Now. Hurry. You have my permission. Not that you needed it.”

And another:

“Are you making a dent in the universe?

Hint: lots of random pokes in many different spots are unlikely to leave much of an impact. And hiding out is surely not going to work at all.”

I always thought I could make a dent, but I was increasingly aware that time was running out. I became more purposeful. At a low point in my career, I saw what it was like not to have many options, and I saw writing as a way to take some control over my learning and access to possibilities. I refused to give up.

In June 2011, after writing for a few years at work, I was going to give a talk at a conference and I wanted people there to be able to find my work online. So I bought a domain name, picked a WordPress theme, and anguished over my first public post.

I think only 16 people read it, and despite all that writing at work, I still hadn’t found my voice – what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. But that is now 200 weeks ago. The more I wrote, the more comfortable I became. Over time, a gradually growing audience would tell me how they came to expect my posts every Saturday morning. Not wanting to let them down motivated me to ship each week.

Making it a habit

As the weeks went on, I gradually got smarter. I kept a list of topics so I wouldn’t ever panic in front of a blank screen. I started drafting posts earlier in the week so my subconscious could work on the post for a few days. And I stuck to a schedule. Everything I had read about authors I admired said they treated writing like a job. You sit down and write, and you meet your deadline no matter what.

After perhaps 100 public posts the writing started to get easier or, more precisely, I didn’t worry about it as much. The regimen relieved me of much of the stress. The difficulty of writing a good first draft is now familiar and my anxiety quickly turns into recognition. “It’s okay,” I tell myself, “it’s just part of the process.” I also know that each post is another small step towards getting better.

While I still don’t recognize myself as a disciplined person, I have become a disciplined writer, posting twice a week now and having just finished a book. Writing is now something I enjoy doing, and I can see applying that process, that discipline, to other parts of my life.

I’m looking forward to it.

What you learn when you spend 17 years in the same company

Screen Shot 2015-04-04 at 9.35.57 AMLinkedIn recently reminded me that I’ve been working at the same big firm for 17 years.

“Say happy work anniversary!” they said.

So I liked my own announcement, as did 76 other people. Their comments made me reflect on what I’ve done, what I’ve learned, and why I’m still working in the same place.

“Congrats! WOW has it really been that long?”

Most of the comments were a simple “Congratulations” and many expressed mild shock at how time flies, or how I survived for so long, or both.

My favorite was this one: “17 years and mostly glorious. Well done!”

Mostly glorious. I remember when I joined in 1998 and it felt like we were building a business. In those early years, I spent months in London in a small apartment in South Kensington, working with smart people and intimidating traders to implement new technology. Then we were off to Frankfurt to do it there. It was thrilling. Against most predictions (including my own), our business thrived. We all did.

I also remember laying people off and barely escaping that process myself. I remember fear and stress. I remember a string of bosses and the worst performance review I ever had.

17 years in a large organization means I’ve seen the best and the worst of people, of teams, and of the firm overall. It means I’ve failed many times, and learned about the vicissitudes of business and life. Much of what I see now at work is comprised of movies I have seen before.

“All the best for the next 17”

Working in a big organization, I’m increasingly conscious that my work there is not obviously ennobling. I’m not saving lives or saving the planet.

What keeps me working there are 3 Cs: craft, connections, and compensation. Large organizations provide unique opportunities for developing valuable skills, to do so with people around the world inside and outside the firm, and to get paid regularly while you’re learning and connecting.

The organization is a platform, one that I get value from while I deliver value of a different kind to the firm and the people in it. Late in my career, I’ve learned to spend much more time on my craft and my connections and less time focusing on the yearly bonus that’s largely out of my control.

The biggest surprise

The biggest surprise to me is that the recent years have been my best by far. Not the best-paid or best-titled but the most important and the most helpful to people. We’ve changed the culture, given people a voice, and enabled them to take greater control of their career and life.

Although almost all of the people I worked with when I started are long gone, and the people and management I work with now have no idea of my contributions in the past, it’s fine. There’s a more important legacy I’d like to leave.

As Maya Angelou has said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

One woman who left the firm said congratulated me “for making people’s work lives sunnier.” I liked that. Increasingly, I’m learning to mark my success by the number of people who say “Thank you for making this a better place.” That kind of feedback makes my work fulfilling and inspires me to do and be more.

Maybe working in a big company can be ennobling after all.

The Rashomon Effect and the movie in your head

Have you seen the famous Japanese movie, Rashomon? Released in 1950, it was directed by Akira Kurosawa and won several international awards, introducing the rest of the world to Japanese film. It also became famous for capturing the difficulties involving human memory and experience.

“The term Rashomon effect refers to real-world situations in which multiple eye-witness testimonies of an event contain conflicting information.”

The multiple-eyewitnesses can be in your head, and what happens in the movie describes what’s happening to you every day. Knowing that can change your life.

Rashomon – 羅生門

The film centers on an incident in a grove. The body of a samurai is found, stabbed to death. A bandit is suspected and captured, but his testimony in court, along with that of the samurai’s wife and the woodcutter who found the body, all present starkly different realities.

The banditThe different perspectives are played out in the movie, and the only thing clear is that the stories are self-serving. The bandit’s account portrays him as bolder and braver than in the other accounts. The woodcutter leaves out an important detail that could get him into trouble. The wife is either a helpless victim or a sinister, scheming woman.

The viewer – and perhaps even those telling their stories – are left uncertain about the truth.

I thought of this effect when I was responding to the simple question: “How was your vacation?”

One week. Two stories.

The Rashomon effect has been used to “describe the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.”

How was my vacation? It includes an 11-hour delay because our flight was overbooked, having my son throw up twice on the bumpy, windy road to the hotel, and arriving at 1am in a small room with bad lighting and walls so thin another guest asked us to be quiet. It’s a story of limited vegetarian options and ants in the bathroom and a Muzak version of the “Theme from Arthur” piped in during lunch. It’s having both kids throw up on the way back to the airport and missing our flight.

How was my vacation? It was “Paradise.” That’s the word my wife and I used each day to describe the beautiful surroundings and the weather. Wherever we went, the people were so kind and friendly it verged on spiritual. “We don’t have much, but we’re grateful for what we have.” It was the guide taking care of my son on his first horseback ride, and holding his hand on the trail even when no one was looking. It was seeing sloths and iguanas and crocodiles and countless varieties of birds. It was mangoes and avocados so delicious you were happy to see them at each meal. It was being woken up by howler monkeys and watching the sun light up the volcano that dominated the landscape.

All of it is true, though the memories are already being replaced by the stories I tell. Some details are reinforced with each telling while others fade, lost forever. Which version will I tell to whom? And why?

What’s your story?

The truth is that our reality is actually a fiction. Our attention is so limited we only have a sparse sample of what’s actually going on, and we use stories to connect the dots and make sense of things. What we experience as reality is just a movie inside our head, a movie we can direct if we know how.

When you’re aware of this, you can shape your experience not only in hindsight, looking backward, but in the moment. You can choose what to pay attention to, how you will react, and ultimately what will be a major or minor part of your story.

Think about what you pay attention to and what you ignore about yourself, about others, and about what’s happening around you.

How is your day going? How’s your life?