Monday, November 27, 2006

"Spirit" -> Intuition


Richard Wiseman, which is a great name, has declared himself the father of luck.

Specifically, he has been studying what differentiates lucky from unlucky people.

The answer really doesn't have to do with being lucky.

Lucky people are "lucky" because they have some unique characteristics that distinguish their behaviors. In other words, they set themselves up to be lucky.

Gary Player, who also has a great name, has said the self obvious, ""The harder you work, the luckier you get." However, it is more than just hard work that is involved in luck. And Wiseman has identified four characteristics of lucky people. I want to look at one of them in this post:

Intuition.

Wiseman has found out that lucky people listen to their hunches. As my grandfather told my Dad, who told me, "Boy, when you have a gut feeling and you go against it, watch out."

The brain and our spirit process things on multiple levels, and this often comes out as a hunch or intuition.

But there are three basic ways that we screw up the intuitive voice as humans.

1. We miss the intuitive voice altogether:
a. By listening to things which are not actually intuition
b. By not listening at all to our intuition

2. We misinterpret the intuitive voice<


Let's dig into this a bit more.

Intuition is the thoughts that sit inside of our brain that gently nudge us in a particular fashion regardless of the "logical" information that exists.

1a. Missing the Intuitive Voice: "Listening to things which are not actually intuition."

For example, I knew a friend that was dating a wonderful girl. He thought his intuition was speaking to him became uneasy about the relationship. So he decided to split with her. I could see from the side that the split was simply from getting his wires crossed, and he misread his own internal signals.

What happened? The uneasy feeling came because he was falling out of love, and he didn't have the maturity to understand that a long term relationship wasn't built on "being in love" but loving. So, as soon as the "in love" feeling went away he thought that it was intuition saying "don't see this girl anymore."

The opposite of this happens all the time. When you are in love, you will be sorely tempted to assume that intuitively you "should" marry the girl that you are in love with. Many people follow this path, and they will end up miserable. Being in love is not a good source for intuition. You must be careful to separate the intuition from the emotion that lies underneath the intuition.

I had something like that this week. I was not feeling good. I am pretty sure that I had a bit of a cold. Everything at work seemed to irritate me. I had a shorter fuse. Was my intuition telling me that everything was wrong? The answer was no. I wasn't feeling good, therefore I was grumpy.

This is the first point: Intuition is intuition. Make sure intuition is not other things like being sick or have other emotions from non-related projects.

1b. Missing the Intuitive Voice: "Not Listening To Intuition At All"


You might think, therefore, that you shouldn't trust intuition at all. If it can run the risk of being offset by something as minor as being sick, doesn't this mean it is unrealizable?

The answer is "yes and no." Intuition is not completely reliable, otherwise it wouldn't be called intuition. However, it does play the odds. While you intuition is not right 100% of the time, it is going to be right more than 50% of the time. The more that you use your intuition about an area, the more you'll recognize failures in the area, and modify your intuition to be better in the future.

2. We misinterpret the intuitive voice

It is good to consider the following scripture:

I Kings 19

11 Then He said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
13 So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”


This is such a great passage, and one that all of us should know. The still small voice can be found in our day to day walk. The LORD is whispering to us every day. I am not saying that God is in us. God is on the outside.

I am saying that on a consistent basis, God does talk to us. We need to test this intuitive voice against scripture and what is right.

It is up to us to listen.

Thus it brings me back to my previous posts on ear training. I beg you. I plead with you to go to my links and download the software on ear training and try it for a while. Ear training is the perfect analogy for intuition.

Almost everybody can sing a song, but few people can name the notes. If I play two notes on the piano, you may hum them back to me, but I bet it will be very difficult to say "oh, that was a perfect fourth" or say "oh, that was Fa then Do." By studying ear training, you can learn to do just that.

However, as you start to ear train, you will find out that identifying the notes is just maddening. You will think that you hear a note, but you'll be stumped as to what note it was. You will even be able to hum or sing the note, but attaching a name to that note is difficult enough to make you almost cry.

However, by working at it, bit by bit, you will find out that the notes almost start to name themselves. What was formerly a jumble of sound will start to say say "Do, Ti, Re, Fa" and other wonderful names.

The whole secret, in both ear training and intuition, is to make up your mind that you can hear and name the notes, start listening, and follow-up on what you believe was the direction of the music note (or inner voice).

Pretty soon, you'll be able to pick out themes and directions.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"Mind"-> What Am I Doing?

Luis von Ahn is very, very clever.

He thinks that people waste a lot of time playing solitaire.

"How many hours do you say?"

He figures that we "waste" 9 billion hours a year just playing this game on a computers.

By contrast, it took just 20 millions hours to build the panama canal.

He asked himself, "How can harness this time to output something good?" This is a very interesting answer, and Google invited Luis to tell them what he did, and the lecture is recorded here.

The lecture is well worth your time. Because he tricks people into doing work, and in a very modern way, Luis becomes the Tom Sawyer of the age of computers. Only, he doesn't use a brush, but a game pallet.

You should just go to this site to see a list of games that he has developed to get people to solve very tough problems.

Now, here's the deal. I see what he is doing, and it pretty much makes me wonder what in the world am I doing with my life.

My job is one of negotiation.

About the best that I can hope for is applying a little game theory to my negotiations. However, the bane of my life is that I actually don't create anything new. I simply preserve what we have. I am standing on the other side of the table trying to figure out how much I have to give to somebody else so that they will buy my company's products.

This is a good job. It is a job that needs to be done. I have many people who depend on me successfully negotiating our products price so that they can send their kids to school, set aside money for retirement, or create a career. It is a job worth doing.

But it is not what Luis is doing. Luis is not simply trying to preserve what has already been created. No, indeed, Luis is creating. He is using his minds and and the gifts that God has given him to to make something. To tease something into the light.

He creates something where there was nothing.

He pulls a rabbit out of a hat, and I wish I am him.

Perhaps tomorrow, or the day after, I too will find a hat. I too will find a rabbit in the bottom of the hat.

But tomorrow, tomorrow I go to work.

And I'll negotiate one more day.

"Spirit" -> Divine Providence

Divine providence.

Here are two words that we have lost the meaning of, and we are so much worse for wear because of it. How can we so lose sight of God, and we do not understand this concept? What was the last time that you heard a sermon preached on Divine Providence?

Yet, the heroes of the Bible understood this. Look what Joseph had to say to his brothers that had treated him so poorly.

Genesis 50:20 (New King James Version)

20 But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive.


Have you ever driven in a car and had no idea what was over the next bend? If you really can't see into the distance, there is always the possibility of making a wrong turn, having an accident, or driving past your desired destination.

God is above our earthly view, and he can see around the curves and hills. From his vantage point, he can help us "tune our driving" so that we don't make mistakes. It is his perspective that allows him to direct our path with divine providence.

However, the lack of understanding of divine providence is something that has plagued the church for a long time.

To quote Wesley from Sermon 67:

"There is scarce any doctrine in the whole compass of revelation[ie divine providene], which is of deeper importance than this. And, at the same time, there is scarce any that is so little regarded, and perhaps so little understood. Let us endeavor then, with the assistance of God, to examine it to the bottom; to see upon what foundation it stands, and what it properly implies."

As Wesley pointed out in his sermon, the subject of providence is not limited to Christians, and indeed, the idea was found much more firmly inside of Greek thought rather than inside of Christian thought.

However, the Greeks based providence is one of fatalism. They believe that we are powerless to change anything, and the threads of fate will cause us to be swept along with nary an objection.

However, for those of a Wesleyan theological bent, we see the following out of the scriptures:

1. God has a plan for our lives
2. He is weaving all of those plans together
3. We can see the events in our life as signs from God
4. Our free will is captured in how we will internally respond to God's guiding hand
5. However, God's will cannot be changed. If we are not willingly be conformed to the divine providence of God, then we will be destroyed.

My nephew recently told of a story of forgetting something, and then rather than being disappointed in forgetting this item, we went back to get it and accepted that God wanted a delay in his schedule. Because of this delay, we was able to meet a friend that he would have either wise missed.

Where was his "free will" exercised in this event? If you looked at this, you might say "he had no free will, because God was manipulating the circumstances to have him meet his friend." This is not true. The freewill came when he reacted to the change in schedule. This is where he has the ability to impact the outcome:

a. He could have been all ticked that he had forgotten something
b. He could have thanked the Lord for the delay and looked for the reason why

In this case, he said that we wondered what God was up to. Received the delay with a good heart, and he was delighted with the results of this delay. This is his exercise of free will to accept the plan that God has laid out for him on that day.

God has a cycle that he takes us through:

1. Get a set back
2. See how we react to it
3. Depending on the out come of our reaction, he leads us in two different paths

Let's look at my life. I have had 3 major issues in my working career that looked like major setbacks because of "bad events" that happened to me.

In each of these "bad events," I got an extraordinary physical blessing. Here is a list of extraordinary good events that happened after these bad events (and each case was tied to the bad event through a clear chain of events):

a. My salary was doubled
b. I received almost a years worth of salary on top of my current salary
c. I received a massive amount of stock

These three separate events were years apart, so it it wasn't just one big miracle.

Even more importantly, all of these events happened without me contributing. The only reason why I list them here is because it was so obviously completely and total beyond my control, it was clearly a miracle that I had absolutely, and I mean absolutely nothing to do with.

Now, I don't believe God because he has blessed me.

Although I don't like to think about it, God can decide to test me at anytime: even as a righteous man ala Job. However, the above events are just so strange and wonderful that they have become a touchstone of faith in my life. The children of Israel had the parting of the Red Sea. I have my three financial events.

Out of the events above, in sheer joyous response, I have been able to fund a couple things that is in the Lord's work. Now, I want to be clear. I hate, absolutely hate the idea that if you give God money that he is obligated to give you something back. I did not give back to the Lord because it was going to "keep the cycle coming." The idea that you give money to the Lord to get back money on earth is horrible theology. However, if God does miracles in your life and you are not gracious and thankful something is fundamentally broken inside of your Christianity.

The next time something good happens in your life say, "Thank you God, let me be gracious and accept this perfect gift from your divine providence." And, like our spiritual forefathers in the Old Testament make an offering to the Lord for the goodness that he has given you. Write the good event down and remember it.

The next time something bad happens in you life say, "Thank you God, and although this bothers me tremendously and I cannot sleep, I know that you are behind this all, and your divine providence is guiding all of this. I will trust and love you despite the bad things in my life. Please delivery me quickly and safely through this time of trial."

Understand Divine Providence and this short vapor of a life will be all the more rewarding.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"Music" -> The Well Tempered Clavier (The Latest Episode)

Yes, today is Thanksgiving, but the subject for today is Fugue #2 in the Well Tempered Clavier book (or the WTC) by JS Bach.

As mentioned before in my October 1st post, I am trying to make it through Bach's book before I leave this earth.

Let recount what the WTC is all about:

a. Bach wrote it as an exercise for his students
b. It consists of a prelude and a fugue in every major and minor key
c. There are 12 major keys and 12 minor keys for a total of 24 keys
d. Two pieces times 24 keys is 48 pieces
e. Bach, after writing his first book, decided that each key deserved another prelude and fugue
g. So, he wrote another book with 48 pieces in it
h. Total he wrote 96 pieces
i. At one time or the other, I have completely played Prelude 1, Prelude 2, Fugue 2
j. I am now stuck on Fugue 1, which has been a misery to get through, but beautiful all the same
k. Once through this piece, I will have only 92 pieces to go
l. I am praying that I'll increase in speed in learning or I'll run out of life

Plugging through the music in my spare time results in a slow forward progress. However, little by little, I can start to see the end of the current piece I'm playing come into sight.

Today I worked on measure 22. There are 27 measures that make up the second Fugue. Compared to the section that I was struggling through back in October, it should be simpler. However, the brain is a funny thing. I have been going through the second half of measure 22 slowly, and my brain just is not catching it.

The pattern is basically the same for most types of learning:

1. You laboriously learn a section of music by learn each hand separate
2. You then meld the hands together slow
3. You gradually pick up speed
4. Then the magic happens

What is the magic. This is when you go from consciously playing the piece to your hands just playing themselves. It is magic.

If I put up a recording of my playing, you would hear me play fairly smoothly through measure 21 or so. Then suddenly, I get to measure 22 and every thing grinds to a halt. I go from what sounds wonderful to something that sounds like a rank beginner.

I almost don't know how to describe what it is like to simply have your hands fly over the keyboard, and you don't even think about it. For somebody that doesn't play, here is how you want to think about it.

Watch a child trying to figure out how to walk for the first time. Most children have all the muscle tone that they need to walk long before they actually try and walk. Instead of walking, however, they "cruise." They pull themselves along furniture and walk while hanging onto something.

Why do they do this? Because they have not development the balance and the fine motor skills required to actually walk. They have all the strength, but the brain isn't wired for walking. So, they spend a long time simply developing their brain for walking.

You were a child just like this at one time. You had to develop you brain so that it could walk.

Now, think about walking. Do you need to laboriously plot out how to stand and how to balance?

No. The subconscious has now taken over. You simply move, with your body on autopilot.

The same thing happen with playing an instrument. You progress and the mind can go onto autopilot as you view the notes. As mentioned before, the "best of the best" get in around 10,000 hours before they truly get to world class performance. For the serious amateur, perhaps 3000 to 5000 hours would be enough. If the research is correct, if you put in around 5000 hours practicing the piano, you should end up pretty good.

The problem, as I am find in my own life, is how do you get all these hours in. The idea or throwing 5000 hours after something is pretty amazing.

For instance, it has been around 53 days since I was working on measure 17. On average, I probably don't spend much more than 1/2 hour practicing the piano a day. Thus, I have put in around 26 hours of practice. Most of this practice is not on the WTC. About 2/3 of this practice has been on my scales. (When I was younger, I had learned A-G scales, but none of the flat or sharped scales such as Ab to G# enharmonically.) So, I have been practicing my scales, and during the last week or so, I am now able to play all major scales or the 12 chromatic scales that are on the piano.

So, I'm not so disappointed in my progress, but it does cause me to think about how to find time to practice more. After all, if I am practicing 1/2 hour per day, then I am going to end up with roughly 182 hours of practice over the course of a year. Not bad, but it is going to take over 20 years to get just 2000 hours of practice in.

Finally, one more thought. I am a very busy person, and I hardly watch any television at all. However, the majority of Americans watch around 30 hours of television per week. This translates into 1500 hours of "practice" per year watching the television. However, none of this is deliberate practice, and as the first post in this blog points out, this activity looks to be brain degrading.

Just think if we could harness the power of the television into something that would cause our brains to grow. If the average American could spend 20 hours per week doing something constructive with their brains (or using this to support their body), I think we would have a productivity bonanza that would cause the USA to catch economic fire.

Epilogue: My wife and I were talking about life and productivity this morning. We have accumulated a considerable amount of wealth over the last 14 years. However, when we were in our 20, we were really focused more on ourselves. We wanted to a series of things in our life, and most of these were very self focused. Now, when I look back on this time, do I have a bunch of "once in a life time" memories that I am really, really glad that I did while I was young?

The answer is no. Don't make a mistake, because I am not sad about this time, but doing stuff that was completely self absorbed didn't necessarily create an environment that was rewarding and I could look back on with good thoughts.

Instead, I have much better thoughts about the time after this: having kids, creating a home, creating investments, and supporting the work of Christ.

What was the difference between our early 20s and after?

My wife pointed out this morning, that we were not pursuing God during our early 20s. This is the truth of life. The more that you pursue only things that are interesting to you, the less that it will ultimately result in memories that cause you to be satisfied.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"Body & Mind" -> Success (Part III)

In the previous post, we found out how incredible the training effect is on the body. If you approach things correctly, you can be in your 60s and still have the endurance of 20 years old.

The brain is even more interesting. As mentioned before in this blog, brain cells are post-mitotic. This means that brain cells don't increase, but neither do they die! In other words, treat the brain cells you have well, and they will stick with you.

I won't repeat my earlier post, but I do encourage you to read it again. It will help you remember what you need to do to preserve your brain.

So, lets repeat a few concepts from this blog:

1. Brain cells are the hardware
2. A skill (or expert performance) is the software.

Now if you have a lot of skill at something, is this because you are talented?

Remember that we talked about KA Ericcson publishing a paper in 1993? His paper really pushed the idea that practice and not talent was key in skill aquistion. It will makes sense if you understand the nature of the brain.

1. Brains fundamentally are not constructed radically different. Some people have wiring that is a bit screwed up, and others have a few more brain cells, but for the most part we are pretty all the same.

2. Thus, you need the right software download to get skill into your brain.

So, let's ask ourselves "what is talent?"

Talent is the ability to load the right software into our brain to acquire skill.

If you remember the movie "The Matrix," you should remember that the characters could download skill via a cable into their brains: that is that they could "download" the right program for Kung-fu, for language, or for flying a helicopter. However, that was science fiction. How do we "really" put software into our brain.

Many people believe that to download the right skill into your brain you need "talent." You might look at an individual and assume "wow, look at that skill. I bet it wasn't hard for them to gain that skill. Therefore, they must have something that I don't. They must have "talent," which allows them to download that skill without much problems."

This is called Nature vs Nurture. Is it the "inside" that makes a difference, or is it the "outside" that makes the difference?

So if you see somebody that has a lot of skill on the violin, you will probably believe the following:

1. Their brain was preprogrammed for the violin. (Nature)

OR

2. Their brain was easier to program in certain people. (Nature)

OR

3. More time is spent stuffing into their brain the information for the skill. (Nurture)

The first two say "talent." The last one says "hard work."

The world of psychology has gone back and forth over this. In the hey-day of BF Skinner, it was assumed that everybody was a blank slate, and your could simply "program" any person to any end.

However, things like the Minnesota twins study started to cast grave doubts on this. What was the Minnesota twins study? If was looking at identical twins that were separated at birth and were raised in different environments. It was very interesting to see that even when raised apart, many twins had very similar skills. So, many said, "ah hah, people have inborn talents that allow them to have similar skills."

Ericcson has started to swing the pendulum back to "programming" via hard work. How did he do this?

While Ericcson looked at several different areas, he looked very closely at violin players. Now, let's say you believe great violin players are born (have inborn talent) and not made. Thus what would you assume?

*If you believe in talent, we would expect the very skilled violin players to become very, very good without much practice.

*If you believe in talent, we would expect the violin players that aren't good to spend a lot of time practicing, but not to become very good.

So let's look at the data that he found.

The chart to the side shows the different categories of violin players. Part of the challenge is finding people who are willing to track how much time they spend in practice.

However, they found three different groups that they could get data on:

1. Teachers, who were good enough to teach.
2. Student that were "good"
3. "Talented" individuals

If you read the chart, you are going to come to a conclusion that is not tied to "having talent." Instead, you will see that, at any age, the best students simply practiced more.

Let's repeat that: simply working harder resulted in having more skill.

Lets look at bit at the data. The data shows the total accumulated time our subjects had spent in practice.

For instance, by the time the "teacher catagory" was 20 years old, they had accumulated under 5000 hours of practice. On the other hand, the good players had under 8000 hours of practice. However, the best players had over 1000 hours.

Think of it this way:

The best players simply flooded their brains with the violin. The ate violin. They slept violin. They spent twice as many hours every week playing the violin over the teachers. And because of their hard work, they resulted in "talent" for the violin.

Here is the issue, if you can't do something, don't blame your lack of talent, blame that you don't want to practice.

As Ericcson dug into this, he also found out that the way that you practiced was incredibly important. Some people may do an activity all day long, but they don't get any better. However, other people can also do something all day, and they will get better.

This problem is not new, and we can look at telegraph operators to see data from 150 years ago.

The telegraph was the internet of its age. The biggest problem with the telegraph was the speed of the operators. The faster your operator, the more your profits would become. So, they started to study operators.

Some were "naturally" very fast, and others were slower. While operators started the job, they were slow, but they increased their speed with time, and then eventually their speed leveled off. Thus it would appear that the speed of the operator would naturally "stop" after a while.

But here the really interesting thing. If they engaged these operators in special kinds of training they could increase their speed again. So, even though they might "naturally level off," it was possible to get them faster again.

So how did this happen? The analogy that I use is the "empty garbage can" that people throw used paper towels into in public restrooms. The garbage can is like your brain. The stuff that you need to put into your brain is like the paper towels that need to be put into the trash can.

Now, when the garbage can is empty, you can simply throw in the towel. What happens when the towels get to the top of the can?

You can either say:

1. The trash can is full
2. I need to compact the trash that is in there so I can throw in more towels.

This happens at work all the time. I come into the men's room, and the can is overflowing with paper towels. What do I do?

I roll up my sleeves, I grab a new paper towel, and I use this paper towel to push all the other paper towels into the trash can. By pushing in the new paper towel, I am able to open up more space on top, and then people can throw more in.

What I find is interesting: I am the only person I ever see compacting the trash. Most people are simply lazy, and they would rather say "the trash is full" and throw their towel on the ground, than going through the effort of pushing down the used towels.

Most people when they sense that their "brain is full" simply get to the point where the "natural" empty part of their brain is full with facts. So people have a bit bigger brain and can naturally take more facts, but even here, their brains eventually fill up. However, if you really want to cram in the software, you need to roll up your sleeves and do some work and really cram more software in.

So, how do you do you stuff more knowledge into your brain? You use "deliberate practice" and cram the software programming into the brain.

So, what do you need for deliberate practice?

Here is the list (as in a paper that is recapped by Larry C. Farmer & Gerald R. Williams):

(1) a highly motivated student
(2) with good concentration
(3) performs a well-defined task,
(4) at an appropriate level of difficultly,
(5) receives informative feedback, and
(6) is given opportunities for repetition to correct errors and polish the skill before moving to the next task

The best way that know how to describe this is to talk about my piano playing. I can sit down and just practice without trying anything hard. I simply play pieces that I've played before. Or perhaps, I simply play through a couple of pieces that I've done before. The problem with this is that is in NOT deliberate practice. This is junk practice.

To gain skills, I do something that makes my brain hurt. This is how I do this.

1. I go to a new section of the music that I have not mastered.
2. I practice with one hand until I can play the passage correctly. Right now it is Bach's "Little Clavier Book" and will be a phrase which is a measure or two. This is very often very difficult in the tough passages, and my brain almost feels like screaming as I hit the wrong notes or sit at one key trying to figure out what key to press next.
3. I then go through the passage with my other hand on the section of music designed for it. Again, this is very difficult and my brain almost hurts.
4. I then slowly go through the section with both hands until I get it correct.
5. I then increase the speed of this passage until I can play is through.
6. I then back back a few bars to see if I can transition into the passage.
7. Finally, I start from the beginning of the piece to see if I can get to the new section.

This process is very painful, and I can't do it all day. I can feel my brain saying "I'm full, why are you pushing more in?" However, after a while, I have gained the section, but it also helps me in other sections. I have done the deliberate (painful) practice.

Let's go back to the telegraph operators. What they did was take the operators and challenge them in speed tests and contests--very similar to the way that I might practice the piano. They encouraged them to push harder and practice on words that might slow them down. Then did individual drills.

The outcome? Everybody got better. Even the ones at the top of the pack.

You can apply this to work.

1. Do you use Excel? Are you trying to figure out Pivot tables?
2. Do you do presentations? Are you reading books on how they should flow and the pictures that should be inserted?
3. Are you responsible for giving out prices? Are you trying to memorize all of the prices that are in the book so you don't have to look up a price when somebody ask you, but you simply know them?

All of the above require practice, practice, practice. Have you ever thought really, really hard and you couldn't quite get something? This isn't bad. This is the act of "cramming in the extra paper towel" to compress the garbage in the garbage can. The struggle to learn shows that you are in the process of rearranging your brain.

Now here is the rub. I believe that there are two things that go into your ability to do deliberate practice.

1. Some people are just naturally geared toward stuffing things into their brain.
2. Some people have the ability to be disciplined.

If you are not in boat #1, you need to be in boat number two.

Now, let's be clear, you need to have something to aim at. If somebody hands me 50 pounds of flour and asks me to stuff it into a small garbage can, it just isn't going to work. You need to make goals that are reasonable. This can be summarized in the following:

You can often do much more than you think, and often less than you want. To maximize your potential you need realistic goals and the willingness to suffer a little.


You must sit back and make some goals for yourself. How do you do this?

a. Measure where you are at.
b. Make a goal to get a bit better that you perceive as a stretch
c. Do deliberate practice
d. Retest to find how close you have gotten to your goal.
e. If you get close to your goal, reset the goal higher.

For example, let's say you type 40 words per minute. However, you know that if you type faster that you'll be able to communicate at work much better. You should do the following:

1. Buy a typing program
2. Measure you current speed of typing (lets say 35 words per minute)
3. Set a goal for 50 words per minute
4. Practice the skill tests they have in the program (boring, but needful)
5. Test and reset the goals once you are at 50 words per minute

It often helps to understand what is the fastest typist in the word. Right now it is about 150 words per minute. I would suggest setting a goal under this, since you should always measure on a curve to avoid setting goals that are unrealistic.

Finally, what about the Minnesota twins study? To me, the answer is pretty simple.

There is one thing separate people, their desire to work hard.

While you can get people to similar skill levels (regardless of the talent idea), you need to review the list of items that are necessary for deliberate practice. Number one on the list? A highly motivated student.

Now here is the final irony. There is one talent that is critical for skill acquisition.

The talent for accepting hard work.

It seems that the desire to work hard, to deal with the pain of deliberate practice, the intrinsic interest in an area is all tied to our ability to work hard.

In the end, perhaps it is nature. Luckily, we can often raise ourselves beyond our normal desires. As a Christian, you can ask the Lord to help you.

Luke 11:9 (New International Version)

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

"Body & Mind" -> Success (Part II)

KA Ericcson published a paper that caused us all to redefine the Nature vs Nurture assumptions in 1993. The paper was called "The Role of Deliberate Practice in he Acquisition of Expert Performance." In a nutshell, it said that people have simply overestimated the idea of talent, and, in fact, the main correlative factor with talent (or expert performance) is the willingness to practice.

There will be two things that determine your talent: Your Brain and You Body.

If you are a great piano player, most of this is inside of your brain not inside of you fingers. In fact, some instruments like the violin are REALLY inside of your brain, as it takes exceptional motor skills to land the fingers so that they are within the 64th of an inch that can make a note out of tune. The limiting factor in moving your fingers, unless you have lost a finger or have arthritis, is the software in your brain, not the hardware of your fingers.

To the opposite effect, to be a great runner the limiting factor is in your body, not in your brain.

So there are two things that you can train: your mind and your body.

The body has a tendency to "blow up" faster than the brain, so let's see how much of the body we can keep. Therefore, we'll be looking at the body first.

How much can you train your body?

The main measurement that exercise physiologist look at is a measurement call V02Max. It is not important for this post what this is, however, I would like to give the ranges for V02Max.

Here is a table for V02Max. Let's look at a couple of figures. If you are "high" as a 20-29 year old this means that you are a really good runner. This is the guy that you think as an athlete in the office. He runs. He is trim. He finishes high in local running races. If you look on the table, you will see that his V02max will be around 59.

He can run six miles in 40 minutes.

Now pretend that you are 65 years old. If you are "average" your V02max will be around 30.

This means that you can run 6 miles in about 60 minutes.

So how can you increase your V02max? One answer: Practice.

Here is a table on how practicing helps you V02Max. If you can run roughly 75 miles/week, you can raise you V02Max by 15 points. This is pretty amazing. By simply working out a little over an hour per day you can go from an average 20 year old to an athletic 20 year, just one catagory under and Olympic athlete.

However, as you age, you can also use this training effect. Let's go back to the idea we just said a moment ago, that you are a 65 year old male. By running a lot you can take you V02Max to 45. This will now give you a 6 mile run time of 49 minutes. You can roll back the years of time off of your frame.

Your V02Max will go from "average" to high.

The thing about many 65 years old is that they have too much weight on them. The interesting thing about V02Max is that it goes up as you lose weight. Let's say that you are 22 lbs overweight. By losing that 22 lbs, you can raise your V02max to 51.

Now your running time is 45 minutes. This means that you, as a 65 year old "average" guy--who practiced real hard--can probably beat over 50% of the men that are half your age in a running race. Even better, when you run against that "real stud" of a young 20 year old, you finish only 5 minutes behind him. Yes, you aren't going to race him, but you are just a little bit slow. You are not an old man that can't get out of his chair.

Let's review what we just found out:

If you are 65 years old, you can raise your V02Max an unbelievable amount.

If you are average:

You can gain 15 V02Max points by running 75 miles per week.
You can gain 6 additional points by losing 20 pounds.

Now perhaps you can't run 75 (150KM) miles per week. If you can run 60 miles per week, you still can gain 13-14 points on your V02Max. If you can't do this, 30 miles per week can raise your V02Max by 8-9 points. Quite frankly, I like around 30 miles per week since studies show that more mileage that this leads to injury.

So, by the numbers, keeping trim and doing 6 hours of running per week will cause you to have a 6 mile run time of around 50 minutes, just 10 minutes slower than that young stud.

Now, here is the rub. People will look at you and they will say "wow, isn't that guy lucky to be blessed with such good genes, he has so much talent. As a matter of fact, he can keep up with guys half his age."

The issue is that you weren't blessed at all. You gained all of this via God allowing you to train. It was practice that cause this "miracle" to happen.

By training of a consistent basis and keeping trim, you are redefining what it means to be 65 years old.

Your biggest skill? The willingness to work hard.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Body & Mind" -> Success (Part I)

What is success?

Most of us have a desire to be successful.

For instance:

Have you ever watched a good musician and said "wow, I wish I had his talent?"

Have you ever looked at a wealthy person and said, "wow, I wish I had his wealth?"

Have you ever looked at a smart person and said, "wow, I wish I had their brain power?"

Have you looked at Tiger Woods and said, "wow, I wish I had his talent?"

Generally, if you remember the hedonistic treadmill, the framing become the following for success:

"Success is our ability do a skill or attribute which is in the top 10% of the defined population."

This is my own personal definition, but one which I believe is found in reality. The interesting about my definition is the fragment "defined population."

So let's go back to a sport like golf. If you are playing with your buddies at work in a regular group of 10 people, and you are in the top 10%, you would be the top player in your own "defined population." Everybody in your group would say "wow, he has talent."

Place that person into a "defined population" of 100 professional golfers, that person would only be considered "talented" if he could also end up in the top 10 players (or top ten percent).

In most cases, in reality, the "talented" guy from the local pool would be crushed even against the bottom professional golfer. So we have the "local hero" with talent go to "professional with no talent."

To extend this look at professional golfers further, lets look at the defined population of PGA money winners. So now lets up look at the PGA money list.

Today, there are 263 golfers on the money list. If you are at the bottom of the list, you made $6000 this year. You might as well be working for minimum wage. Now, remember that this minimum wage "bottom of the list" golfer, would crush anybody that you or I know in our day to day walk. However, I don't think that you our I would say that he is talented in light of the money list. In some sense, he can't make a living wage, so perhaps professional is too strong of a word.

What could be considered professional? To be a professional golfer requires you to pay most all your own bills, and you probably need to be making around $200,000 to be considered "professional" because you need subtract all of the costs of transportation, paying your own medical expenses, retirement, and other costs.

If you use this as you cut off, then there are really only 200 players in the PGA that are making their living from golfing.

By my definition, if you hung out on the PGA tour, you would expect to find out that out of this "defined population" we would find out that it was the top 20 golfers that their buddies considered as "successful."

Is this what the PGA players actually believe? Well, if you scan the list, you will see that the well known players below 30 on the list are clearly people that the golf commentators describe as either "on the way up," "on the way down," or "have their career on hold."

For example, Tom Lehman who is around 40 on the list, will make about $1.7m this year, but he is described as "past his prime."

Why don't we described him as "wildly successful because he make $1.7M?" His yearly earnings would place him above the 1% percentile for average income. We don't call him wildly successful because we are comparing him to his peers. If, on the other hand, we did compare him against the average salary, everybody would call him wildly successful.

So, if you use my methods, how will you define success?

1. Define the subset by which you want to be measured
2. Work toward getting into the top 10%

For instance, the last census showed the following as average incomes in the USA in 2002: you need to make $114K to be in the top 10%.

If you wanted to be considered "smart" a IQ of 120 would put you into the top 10 percentile.

How about for pull-ups as a 17+ year old boy (Presidential Fitness)

AGE 17+ -> PERCENTILE

100 -> 26
95 -> 17
90 -> 15
85 -> 13
80 -> 12
75 -> 11
70 -> 10
65 -> 10
60 -> 10
55 -> 9
50 -> 8
45 -> 7
40 -> 7
35 -> 6
30 -> 5
25 -> 5
20 -> 4
15 -> 3
10 -> 2
5 -> 1
0 -> 0

15 pulls are required.

Makes sense? Now, your only challenge is to find the percentile charts and how to test.

We'll discuss how much of this is under your control in a future post.

Monday, November 13, 2006

"Spirit" -> A Couple Of Good Sermons

In my neck of the woods, our local Christian talk radio station is sponsored by my Church. The station is KWVE, which can be found on the web also.

When I wake in the morning, I can listen to snippets of the sermons as I do my morning chores.

Two exceptionally good sermons had two thoughts that really stuck with me today.

Thought 1: Washing In Scripture

Jon Courson has been talking about the intricate details of the Levitical law. If you thought this was borning, Jon keeps it very engaging. He truly is a talented speaker. Today, he was talking about how all the laws really can be used both as situational laws with the nation of Israel as a Theocracy, but they can also be used as metaphors for the Christian life.

Today, he spent time on the metaphor of the washing of the hands as something which was done as something to keep yourself separate from sin. He then went on to say that the scriptures were referred to in the Bible as being water.

He then went on to say that he doesn't understand it, can't quit grasp why, but he has noticed that if we wash our minds in scripture, we are able to handle temptation better. By the very act of read scripture, our brain mysteriously sort themselves out. People that have been unable to overcome temptation and sin in their own life, with a constant dose of Bible reading will find themselves better to resist the devil.

Now, I won't go into details, but from time to time I do not have a sinless imagination. While I am not perfect, I have noticed that I have worse problems when I am not on my path of reading through the Bible every year. When I heard this statement, I couldn't have agreed more from the results in my own life.

Scripture is like a magic stream of water to clean our mind. And hearing other people preach it, just doesn't have the same effect as reading it yourself.

Thought 2: The Lord Doesn't Work On Our Time


The second thought came in a sermon from Chuck Smith. Chuck is 79 years old. He has a church of 20,000 people. He is known nationally. His work has kicked off the entire Calvary Chapel movement that has influence untold thousands of believers.

It is hard to imagine his impact on Christianity over the last 30 years.

Yet, in the sermon today, where he was talking about getting in front of God, he related about his start. He said that he had 17 dry years of no results. The denomination that he was in simply seemed so wrong.

He said that his wife and him had basically retreated from mainstream churching, and had climb into the idea that they would just be doing some home Bible studies. Yet, it was out of this "giving up" of the big Church idea that the entire Calvary Chapel movement sprung.

It was when he was at the very lowest that the Lord started him on his most exciting path.

The issue is that we want to see nice forward progressive in whatever we do. We want to see 10% today, 20% tomorrow, and 30% the following day. However, the Lord doesn't work like that.

The Lord tends to work like the following:

1. You get a vision and/or a goal.
2. You work at that vision or that goal.
3. You don't really get anywhere.
4. You are almost at the point of giving up
5. The Lord supernaturally turns it around and restores you to the original vision

This pattern repeats itself in the Bible over and over.

1. Abraham can't have a son
2. He does something stupid like "trying to help God out"
3. This turns into a big mess and a family rivalry
4. God eventually fulfills his promise via Sarah

Even Christ is the same:

1. God promises a savior
2. We get Jesus
3. He gets crucified
4. God fulfills his promise via resurrection

This same pattern happens in our life.

We just need to look for it.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

"Spirit" -> The Trouble With Surveys

Ah the wise surveyor. And while the picture shows someone that surveys the land, for this post I want to talk about our surveyors or pollsters that pretend to survey the state of the nation.

The pollsters would like us to believe that he has out his instruments and he judges the landscape. He'll give you right answer and help you understand how everything lines up.

The problem for us Christians is that the methodology is fundamentally broken. Even wonderful organizations like Barna research that feature Christians are failing to help us really make sure we are getting a good understanding of the overall landscape from a Christian perspective.

As an example, here is some commonly accepted survey results:

1. Christians have the same or a little higher divorce rate when compared to the general population. (Barna Research)

2. 40% of American's go to church every week. (Barna)

3. Diet and exercise are ineffective at lowering your body weight. (Well known)

4. The smarter you are the less likely you are to believe in God. (Numerous studies)

The above are a few of the statistics that you may have heard if you scan the popular media. The problem, with all of the above, they are half truths.

My first two "facts" are derived by George Barna, who is by all accounts a believing Christian. However, the method in which his group presents data makes me wonder if Barna really understands what is going on.

For instance, let's look at his research on divorce rate. Mr. Barna reports that if you are a Christian you are "less likely to co-habitate" but are no less likely to divorce.

Let me run this past you again:

If you are a born-again Christian your chance of cohabitation drops to just 25%.

If you have any background in the scripture, this should scream at you:

You are NOT going to be "born-again" and cohabitate.

The facts are obvious. Barna is using a "self described" term to then assign a label to a group of people. I can call myself Asian descent, but that isn't going to keep me from being primarily Norwegian. Talk about a logic error.

The problem with the state of religion in the USA is that we have a bunch of people that simply lie about their faith. For instance, let's take a look at 40% of people attending church weekly. I simply don't believe it as I have lived in multiple places in the USA, and I simply haven't seen this rate of church attendance amongst my peers.

But, am I the only one to say this? A short snip from here (see Hadaway CK, Marler PL, Chaves M. Overreporting church attendance in america: evidence that demands the same verdict for more details) that sound very, very true by my observations:

Recent studies have been made of individual counties in both the U.S. and Canada. Researchers counted individuals as they went into church, synagogue, etc. They later interviewed a random sampling of adults in the county. They found that the survey results were inflated by about 100% from the actual attendance figures. Although about 40% of the American adults said that they attended church, the actual value was about 20%. Canadians lied by the same percentage.


Here is something shocking, people lie about how often they attend church.

This is where psychology pays off. People often describe themselves in light of what they would "like" to be, rather than what they are.

For instance, if you carry this over to dietary science, when people try and describe how much they eat, they regularly and in every peice of research done, under count the number of calories they take in.

This is similar to research that shows the majority of American drivers believe their driving skills are above average.

Here is the truth in our society:

1. We can't describe our spiritual diet
2. We can't describe our physical diet
3. We don't describe our physical level of activity
4. We don't describe our spiritual level of activity
5. We are self delusional

The truth is that we can't tell the truth. So be careful of the surveys.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

"Mind & Spirit" -> Epilogue: On Happiness and Ted Haggard and Richard Dawkins

My epilogue to the post below starts off with this very unpleasant picture of pain. I wrote the post below before I went for my weekly run. My wife normally bakes me a loaf of bread so I can go running and come back to a hot loaf of carbohydrates.

I did something that I haven't done for a decade. I run on trails, and I happened to catch my foot about 1/4 mile into my run and I fell down. My left arm and left palm had the brunt of it, and immediately I had the tell tale shock of dirt, gravel, and blood.

Now, when I got up, I thought "maybe I should just quit." However, I decided to press on.

As I ran, I thought to myself "Why, Lord did you allow me to fall?" And I had a vision come to my brain of the post that I had just made. In the same way that the Jesus taught us by parables, I think the Lord teaches us with examples of life's experience.

Think about it. I am on the blog "preaching" to you:

1. Be financially prudent
2. Eat the right stuff
3. Be athletic in your mind and your bodies

Now, you could look at me and say to yourself, "Man, that guy really hurt himself by running. What was he thinking. He looks bad. His arm is hurting. He has blood on his shorts. There is no way that I am running. Instead of being healthy, this guy hurts himself. What a hypocrite."

Yet, this would be really stupid for you to do. Because I stumbled and fell does not mean that what I have tried to teach you is bad. To the opposite, if you only knew me and how much my body has changed because of a disciplined approach to exercise, you would clearly be a believer in some of the principles that I "preach."

In the same way, you may want to judge Christianity by the falling of one man. This would be a silly thing to do. You can't just look at one failure and judge a life style.

Now the analogy goes further: I was very tempted to "pack it in" after my fall. As a matter of fact, I started the run feeling just slightly under the weather. I really didn't feel like running today, and the fall on top of this made my desire to quit very, very high.

However, after getting up, I said to myself, "well, I am going to try to run for just a bit, and see how I feel."

There is a popular Bob Carlisle's song:

We fall down, we get up.
We fall down, we get up.
We fall down, we get up.
And the saints are just the sinners
Who fall down and get up.


The Saints fall, but by the Grace of God, we get back up.

By the way, my time for the loop was a yearly personal record by 1.5 minutes, which shows the fall does not determine how we will finish.

"Mind & Spirit" -> Reflections On Happiness and Ted Haggard and Richard Dawkins


"If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands." The chart to the side shows the happiness rating of people as they attend church more and more. Evidently, you get much happier the more you attend church.

We'll get to this at the end of the post.

But first, I want to call your attention to the latest scandal in the Church.

I am, as I would imagine most Christians are, profoundly sad at the falling of Ted Haggard at New Life Church in Colorado Springs. While I only had a passing knowledge of him, I decided to read a bit about him. In the process of this, I stumbled across Richard Dawkins vs Ted Haggard, which came from Richard Dawkin's BBC television series "The Root Of All Evil."

In this television show, Dawkin comes to Haggard's church and kicks off his interview with Haggard by comparing his sermons to Hitler's Nuremberg Rally. Now, this should should cause you reflect a bit. Here we have a prestigious man of science. A man who would like to say that religion is a bad thing because it causes bad behavior.

He starts off by saying words that are more than harsh. How can Dawkin have so much hate that he compares the regime that killed 6 million Jews with a man that preaches in a church?

Really, could Dawkin be more insulting? Could any comparison be worse?

If you continue to watch the video, you will see that Dawkins goes on to craft a very disingenuous chunk of 3-4 minutes of film to make Haggard look as stupid as possible, including a short snippet of where Haggard evidently told Dawkin and his film crew get off his church grounds. We don't get to hear both sides of the tale. We only hear Dawkin telling us what a horrible man Haggard is, and how he threatened him.

In this whole chunk of footage is a section where Haggard lectures Dawkin on being arrogant. Dawkin in his film uses this section to make Haggard look look very, very arrogant and a bit hot headed.

Hindsight is 20-20, but I am always recalled of something that Bill Gothard (who has seen his fair share of troubles) said about dealing with those that are clearly on the path to insult Christianity.

Don't roll around in the mud with them.

When met with situations like this, how did our Lord respond? My favorite model is when the Lord answered a question with a question. Basically, God goes on the offensive by saying, "So, before you attack me, let's find out the base that you are standing on."

If only, Haggard could have said the following:

"Richard, I'll answer you question, but first I want to ask you some questions. Is this okay?"

a. Why have you been divorced and remarried three times?
b. Are you happy in your life?

I am sure that Dawkin would have been highly insulted. Not because these questions--to a man that declares there is no God--should be insulting. He would have been insulted because it points to the vacuum that exists in his own life.

I'm sure he would have answered, "well of course I'm happy." Then why were you married 3 times? Why was life so unpleasant that you had to marry three different women? Why couldn't you make a smart intellectual move and find the right answer in your personal life with your first wife or your second wife?

If he said he was happy, I would state, "then why are you seeking to destroy the happiness of other by removing going to church, which is clearly tied to people's happiness?"

If Dawkin said "I am unhappy," then you could point out that in America we are allowed to seek happiness.

See Dawkin is not interested in having a conversation, but he was interested in getting footage to make Christians look stupid. Dawkin is not interested in what will allow humans to be better, but he is interested in making people as miserable as himself. His life has no security, and wishes everybody the same.

Welcome to the 21st century persecution. You're stupid Mr. Bible believer.

How can anybody see this snippet of film and not think Dawkin, who is a very smart person, doesn't create a vehicle to assassinate somebody's else's character. This great man of evolution (and I will not say science after Dawkin's proof of evolution through his METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL model, which has multiple logic errors) is now being praised in the blogging community as being vindicated by Haggard's failure.

I will submit that we are not proven by the "outliers" on our data. The best proof for Christianity is based around how it impacts the overall character of a population.

I have a bad book habit. If I see something that looks sort of interesting, I'll simply pick it up and read it when I can. Many years ago, I saw a book called the "Optimistic Child" by Martin Seligman, and it changed my life, while reinforcing my belief in Christianity.

Seligman became famous for being the best and one of the first communicators on the psychology of what makes humans effective. Part of the recipe for being effective is being happy.

To quote the founders of the USA:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


Now being happy is good, and some of the neural impacts of being happy are nicely reflected on in Kathy Sierra's Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain post on her blog.

To summarize her post, she talks about mirror neurons. These neurons makes up a part of our brain that is pre-wired to mimic people we hang out with. Hang out with unhappy people, get unhappy.

She uses this to spring board into how we can catch emotions from other people.

Now, you can spend time thinking all these deep thoughts, or you can turn to the Bible, which is 2000 years old, and read Paul's statement:

1 Corinthians 15:33

Do not be misled: "Bad company corrupts good character."


So again, we find out through biology what the Bible so amply calls out so clearly.

However, the Bible talks that man makes a choice to become blind to the obvious, and while anybody should be able to simply and quickly reflect "wow, that exactly what is in the Bible," for the most part man makes a choice to ignore the wisdom found in these pages.

The truth of the Bible lays in its ability to touch everybody on a fundamental level to improve themselves. The Bible points that the true Christian life will result in fruit that can be seen.

So back to Dawkins and Haggard. Haggard experienced what is called a "Severe Mercy" from our Lord. He has been exposed in the depth of hypocrisy, and now we'll be able to see what he is really made of. Haggard has years to rebuild his faith and the faith of those around him. If he is a Christian, then this is the best thing that could have ever happened to him.

Christianity can often be a tonic that cures many ills: it can heal families, it can cure the alcoholic, and, I believe, can even help to reduce man's desire to do sexual acts that should not be done. It does not, however, insure that our leaders (and ourselves) a guaranty that some of us won't fall.

If you are a Christian wondering how God could allow this to happen and "what a bad witness this is" my words to you is the following:

"Grow up"

Do you have so little understanding in our faith that you allow something like this to bother you beyond a short time?

Here is the insight for the day: Christianity is built on humiliation.

One of the most powerful proofs for Christianity is that we are built on humiliation and low status. Our God is a crucified man. There was no more embarrassing event in the time of Christ than crucifixion. Your enemy's taking you, beating you, and making you an object of scorn. There is no other religion (until recent times) that took a criminal, a person that was crucified, and said that we are crazy adherents to this person.

Therefore, since we know that people (until we get to modern times) don't willingly follow a made up story based on extreme humiliation, we need to ask what could be logical and reasonable explanation why this movement called Christianity suddenly sprouted. How can such an unlikely story--because no 1st century Jew would dare say that he followed a crucified man--happen to happen?

The only possible explanation is that this story, which is impossible to create by cultural standards, actually happened.

It would be a little like saying that "I go to Ted Haggard's Church." Most people would be so embarrassed about this latest incident that they probably want to climb into a hole and hide. Why? Because they know that they world is saying, "Here is a man that preached against gays and drug use. You followed him as a great leader, and now we find out that he was gay and used drugs." Well, while we can't commend this fallen leader, we need to recognize that the Lord control all the steps, and will control the outcome.

Now, from what I can tell, Ted Haggard preached the gospel and taught sound fundamental stuff. So this is what any follower of Ted Haggard should do.

1. Ted fundamentally taught us all the right stuff
2. Ted had a problem that was hiding from and lying about.
3. We rejoice in that once it became obvious that Ted's lie could no longer be hidden, the words he speaks seem to be one of repentance
4. If you think that we turned off our brain while listening to Ted, you are wrong
5. If you think that we followed a man, you are wrong
6. Life moves on
7. We continue to go to church

Which brings us to the first chart in this post. It is a from a series of charts by the Pew Research Center. The chart shows the happiness ratio for people that go to church more often and less often. You can see from the chart, the more you go to church, the happier you are.

Just because somebody makes a mistake, doesn't mean you give up on the faith.

To quote David:

Psalm 122

1 I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"Spirit" -> No Plans With Goals


Hi, so you're a Christian?

You better get use to juggling.

The whole of Christianity is the trick of juggling divergent themes. This is not to say that Christianity is difficult. The message of the cross is very simple: you are guilty and you need to be forgiven. However, the Lord challenges us with practical applications that are not simple for sinful man to hang onto.

Through out this blog, you will see that I say things like "where are you going?" and "What are your goals?" Therefore, you might suspect that I believe that you should be "goal driven" and "driving in purpose."

While I believe the Lord calls us to make goals, think about the future, and to make investments, I also believe the following:

"Beware when we make any plans."

So let's look at a couple scriptures on our planning.

James

(4:13) *Now listen,¤ you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money."¤ (4:14) *Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.....(4:15) Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will,¤ we will live and do this or that." (4:16) As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil.¤

Matthew

(6:31) So do not worry, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' (6:32) For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.¤ (6:33) *But seek first his kingdom¤ and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.¤ (6:34) Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Why? Because the Lord has his plans for you.

Jerimiah

(29:11) For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (29:12) Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. (29:13) You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (29:14) I will be found by you," declares the LORD....

The key is not the idea that "we make plans" but that "we discover God's plan."

As I have mentioned before, I go to Calvary Chapel. The well known leader of the first Calvary Chapel is our Pastor Chuck Smith. He was recently preaching on Moses. He told the story that Moses always had a calling to rescue the Children of Israel from Egypt. However, Moses--at a young age--got ahead of the Lord. He then remarked that the biggest challenge in his life was faced whenever he decided that he was going to "help the Lord out."

I have a close friend that perhaps that you can relate to. He has had ups and downs in his life. However, during several occasions he had an explosion of growth in his career. At a fairly young age, he made it up to Vice President level at a major corporation. However, through a couple bad turns, he got knocked down a half step, and is cruising at the same level for roughly 5 years.

He recently told me that he knew that he was blessed, but during the last five years he had gained skills, wisdom, and judgment. He said that he was more capable and brighter now than ever before, and he was highly tempted to go and find another job that would reward him for his ability.

I asked him why he didn't leave his job.

He said that that would be cheating. He said that he was waiting for his next promotion to come from the Lord, and he knew the Lord had a blue print for his next step. He said that he knew the Lord wanted him to wait rather than trying to force his way to a higher level at his current job, or a better paying job at a different company.

He said that he was battling with this, and some days he was sorely tempted not to wait. However, on most days, he had fought back his own inclination, and was satisfied in the job he had, regardless if he knew that he could do more. In my mind, he's found the right path, and I understand how difficult this path really is, because I fight the same urges in my job.

The ultimate goal of our Christian life is as follows:

1. Control your own desires
2. Live a life that is quiet and reverent to the Lord
3. Go about discovering the plan that God has for your life. Then cooperate with this plan.
4. If you discover wealth or good times, it will be because the Lord gave them to you. Not because you set high and lofty goals and were driven to them.
5. If you are to win a battle in your life, you need to do this because you are depending on the Lord's plan. Not because you did anything.

We are called to work as hard as we possibly can, yet we are to take no comfort or security in that hard work. Our comfort and security comes from the Lord, in whom our trust is placed.

It is all about the trite phrase with a wallop: "Let Go And Let God."

Letting go doesn't mean "giving up."

Letting go means "letting go of our own comfort in our own works."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Body & Mind" -> Coolest Web Tool For Housing Market

Words almost fail me at how cool this website is.

But first you need to know the issue.

Real estate as you primary residence is probably the best investment that you can make for the future. We've covered this in a previous post, and if you are not thinking about moving into a house you probably aren't thinking correct.

However, let's talk a bit about overheated markets, like Southern California.

Let's assume you do all the right things. You look at a bunch of houses (the average buyer looks at 3 to 4). I think you need to see at least 20 or 30. You have a good idea of good construction and bad construction. You have an appreciation for what factors are going to hit your targeted neighborhoods.

You think you will know when you find a bargain.

The only question is "how is the overall market?" Real estate markets will often get overheated, and then the local market prices for house may fall. I had a friend who had this happen to him in Oakland, and he got hurt for many years since he lost 1/2 year's salary because his house went down in value, and he decided that he needed to move. (If, by the way, he could have staid at the same residence another 10 years, he still would be patting himself on the back for such a great bargain. Eventually, the market caught back up and handily passed th old mark. The damage is that you buy, the market goes down, and you are forced to immediately lose a bunch of money because you sell the house for a lot less than you bought it.)

Now this is very fickle to figure out. I have personally seen some people say "I'm waiting for the market to turn" and it simply never does. I would suggest that in some areas of the country the market may turn, and I think the folks at this keen website have a great tool for many major metro areas.

If you look at the inserted JPEG, you'll see a map of the USA. Based on a bunch of different factors (population density, income etc), they figure out if an area is overvalued or not.

So back to my neck of the woods, Southern California, you'll see a lot of red. Therefore, a lot of potential for the market to go down in value. If you lived in Southern California, I would carefully think through the following:

1. Can I find a new construction housing at a bargain? Buying a new house from a good builder normally helps you. A lot of problems that pop up in 30 year old houses don't exist in new houses with new codes. Not that you can buy without thought, but new housing generally is more energy efficient, stands up better in an earthquake, and is build with modern materials. When the market slows, however, new housing is really, really stuck. The builder has investments tied up in houses. This is death for a builder. He can't afford to have a bunch of empty houses sitting around. So if the market is slowing down, and he had a bunch of houses coming, now is the time to strike! This could be a great bargain time. With pre-owned houses, the owners simply don't move, and the pool of houses get smaller.

2. How quickly will I have to move? Again, like my friend, the worst possible thing is to buy a house and be forced to move because of a new job or change in life. So the less stability you have in you life, the less you should think about buying now.

If you go to the website, you can do context sensitive histories of the areas on the chart. They'll plot out the progression of each colored area.

If you are worried that you area is over valued, I would allow check out this site and see what their analysis says....

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Body" -> The Confusing World Of Numbers


Today we are going to talk about houses. Your house will help your finances.

I work with a series of people who handle money, and get paid exceptional salaries. Every once in a while, I stumble across co-workers that are renting. This simply is a very silly strategy, but the reason they do this is because the numbers are confusing. I am convinced that many people that buy houses don't even understand why buying a house is such a good idea. They simply want to own something.

I personally have bought and sold 5 houses. I believe that most people should buy a house twice during their life. I am a special case because all of my moves where paid by my companies that hired me as an employee. Many times they spent mind boggling amounts of money to move me. However, in this post, I am assuming you will not be in my special case. In this post, I am assuming that you are getting out of college, and you know where you want to live.

To see why renting is a bad idea, we need to run the numbers.

To recap, my goal is for you to "be free" from worrying about money and get to the point where working is optional. Now, if you take that freedom to become "a man or woman a leisure," I personally believe that you will commit a sin. The reason to become free is to be able to follow the Lord where ever he leads you.

If you want to establish wealth, potentially one of your biggest expenses will be housing. So what are the strategies for you preserve your wealth when paying for housing.

So a couple of concepts:


In general, renting is bad.
In general, moving is bad.

The ways that home loans are set up, for the first 7 years of owning a home, 90% of your payment goes to simply paying interest. This sounds horrible doesn't it? You're paying a bunch of money, yet it all goes simply for interest! Yet, this will work nicely for you because the federal government has launched a massive program of subsidization to the rich. This program is called "mortgage interest deduction" from your income. This is the biggest bucket of free money that you can get to in most cases.

The tax rates work as the following in the USA as per a snip from Wikipedia.

* 10%: from $0 to $7,550
* 15%: from $7,551 to $30,650
* 25%: from $30,651 to $74,200
* 28%: from $74,201 to $154,800
* 33%: from $154,801 to $336,550
* 35%: $336,551 and above

Let say that you have eye set on living in Cary, North Carolina. You have saved, and you can buy a house up to $120,000 with $20,000 down. So you need to finance $100,000 to move into this house.

Now, a 30 year mortgage at 6.25% interest will force you to pay $616/month for 30 years to buy this house. I'd like to point out that Cary, NC, is a wonderful little town, and around $100-120K would buy you around 1000-1200 square feet in a duplex or condo with 2 to 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.

Unfortunately, the local government will put some property tax on you, so your payments will be closer to $750 per month. However, if you make the average salary in the USA, you will have a take home pay of about $2100-2200 per month, depending on if you have some deductions for medical insurance and other options at work.

Now, here is the beauty of this. Remember that I said that the first 7 years was mainly interest? You get to deduct this from your income tax. You can also take out the property tax. So while you paid $9000 a year to live in your new house, the government will refund approximately $2000 to you (if you are making $40,000 per year.) So in "real" money, you are paying $7000 per year (at least for the first 7 or so years) to live in your house. This is about $580 per month.

To rent something in Cary for about the same square footage, you would have to pay around $150 more per month!

Unfortunately, you shouldn't plan on spending that $150 because you'll need it for things like lawn mowers, saving for a new roof, fixing broken facets. So in the short run you'll be about even.

So why move into the house that you own? There are two main reasons:

1. The house will appreciate in value every year 3%. In 10 years, the house will be worth $135,000. You will still be paying around $583 per month for your mortgage. Now lets say you need to the previously mentioned $150 per month for roofing and other house things.

2. The apartment will increase rent every year 3% (people do receive rent increases), and you'll be paying $978 dollars in rent per month.

So in ten years, you'll be saving over $200 per month! This will like giving yourself a $2400 raise in salary per year. This is a lot of money on a $40,000 salary, and it will be because you made a smart move today.

Let's review the facts one more time:

1. You are living in a house
2. You're out of pocket expense for this house is initially no more than renting, other than an initial down payment.
3. In 10 years, you will be pocketing an additional $200 per month.

Thus getting into a house will be a "no brainer."

Are there downsides?

The answer is yes, with the biggest downside being "the lemon." In an apartment, buying a lemon means that you move out. So before you buy that first house, you need to really think about what you are buying. There are many ways of buying a lemon.

a. The house has structural problems
b. The house has loud neighbors
c. The house has mold problems
d. The house has a bad roof
e. The piping is bad
f. There is no insulation and your heat bills are enormous

As few books as are on individual finance, there is even less on how to buy a house. All I can say, spend time educating yourself. There are two things that lead to financial ruin:

1. Picking the wrong spouse
2. Picking the wrong house

And often I see people doing both.

Now remember I said that moving is bad?

The main reason is the real estate fees and the increases in property tax.

Let's say in 10 years you want to sell the house. Unfortunately, for all practical reasons, you need to use a real estate agent. They will normally charge you between 6-7% fees to sell your house. The real estate agent takes $8000 in fees when they sell your house for $135000. So you don't make $35,000, you make $27,000. Thus they take 25% of your profits. It's enough to make you want to become a real estate agent.

Also, almost always, when you move, you will find out that the property tax goes up more than you expect. By in large, the government assessor tends to not raise taxes as fast as they could. If they did this, they would get angry citizens storming their office. Instead, they raise the property tax a little slower than is real. However, when you buy a house, they don't give you a break. They hit you with the full amount.

You can go the opposite on this. If you can find a house with a great outside and property, but a trashed inside, you should be able to get it for a bargain. In turn, if you fix up in the inside, then the tax assessor will simply not be clued in and not assess you aggressively as if you bought a perfect house from the get go. The fixer upper can be a bargain. My only words as why NOT to do this is split focus.

I've seen too many people thinking about their house at work. When this happens, the work suffers. The promotions don't come. The salary doesn't increase. So this is choice you need to make. Make sure to count the REAL cost of a bargain.

So the strategy is to minimize the amount of times you need to move.

If you want a good guideline, do the following:

1a. Get out of college and save every penny you can. If you are single, move into your parents house if they will let you. If you need to, rent a room. The whole goal is to work hard and save every penny you can for that down payment.

Or

1b. If you happen to be married to a hard worker, congratulations, you hit the jackpot. You probably need an apartment, but it is much easier to save with two salaries.

2. Now plan on the following schedule, on AC (after college):

AC year 1 to AC year 3 = Save as much as possible for a down payment. If you are single, try for $500 per month. You need to invest it wisely! If you can do this at 10% interest in 3 years, you'll have $22,000. If you are married and you can save $1000 per month, you'll have $44,000.

AC year 4 -AC year 13 = Buy that first house. If you live in the right area of the country, you should be able to afford 1000-1200 square feet as a single guy. If you are married to a hard worker, you can probably afford 2000 square feet. About AC8 or so, if you are fortunate, plan to have the first kid.

AC year 14 - death = Buy that final house. Now is the time to be a bit more picky. You may have some kids by now, and you are probably busting out of that first house .

Can you afford a bigger house at your AC year 14?

Well you have a couple of things going for you:

1. You have the initial $20,000 you saved up for the first house
2. You have the increase in equity (remember you will sell your house for more than you bought it for)
3. You paid down the original $100,000 loan, on the first house, from $100,000 to $84,000.
4. Perhaps you have a better paying job
5. Perhaps you were able to save some more.

Now, remember that this is 10 years in the future, so if you buy a $200,000 house then, it would be like buying a $150,000 house now. So, the second house will be bigger, but not twice as big. Also, you will have your mortgage payment go up. You'll be paying closer to $1000 per month with taxes, but then again your salary should be going up over the next 10 years. The average salary should be around $55,000 in the USA. This will allow you to swallow hard and buy that bigger house.

If this is the final house that you buy, this is it. No more increases in housing costs!

With this final house, you know that you are never going to pay more for your monthly housing costs. As a matter of fact, by the time you are 65, you will have paid your house off. Life will be beautiful!

For the AC14 house, you really need to start thinking hard:

How big of a house do you need?

I am going to speak out of school, since I don't know you and I don't know your life style, but, as I read the Bible, we are to be satisfied with what we have. Buying dream homes is not the point of our life. Our dream home is in heaven and not on earth. However, you DO need a house. For example, with my family, I have four kids, a homeschooling wife, and they spend virtually every moment at home. In this instance, I do believe that I need a "farm house" of sorts. It is pretty big, and for our life style it is a really good idea.

Secondly, remember that a house is nothing more than a place to lay your head. Having a big house will not pay you a single dime. So while buying a house is a great deal, to be financially free you need to have an income source. Since we want you to get to a point where you don't need to work, you need to be saving money for your investment portfolio. So, with this second final house, you should be thinking hard and long.

In the perfect world, you want to be able to spot what you need early, buy it, and pay it off as slow as possible. Which brings us to point #2.

2. Pay it off as slow as possible.

To many people this may sound crazy, but this is extremely logical if you can do the following:

a. Limit your "free wheeling spend" budget.
b. You have good options about where you will invest your money.
c. You have the discipline to stick to a program.

3. Case example.
Now let's say you are thinking about 2 mortgages:

15 year (House bought in just 15 years!)
30 year (House payments a long time)

If you can swing the extra payments, doesn't the 15 year look a lot better?

By going to a mortgage website that determine your after tax impact, you can find out that "after taxes" you have the following:




15 Year:

Monthly Payment = $845
Total Payment = $152,000

30 Year

Monthly Payment = $616
Total Payment = $222,000

Man, if you can just swing a bit more every month (the extra $229 for a 15 year payment), then you can save $70,000. Sounds good doesn't it?

But look at it another way. Let's say that you sign up for the 30 year mortgage, and rather than spending that extra $229 per month, you put it into an investment that yielded 11% per year (the average of the S&P 500). You can use this calculator to see this.

In 15 years, you will have accumulated $104,000 dollars by just investing that extra $229 in a high yielding investment.



So at the end of 15 years (on your 30 year mortgage), you look at your statement at you'll see that you have around $72,000 left to pay. Because you want, for any reason you desire, to pay off your mortgage, you take your $104,000 dollars and pay off your mortgage. This will leave you with $32,000 more than if you decided to simply go with a 15 year mortgage.

Now this was a big long example, but there are shortcut ways of thinking about this.

I will tell you how to "do this quickly" and we'll bundle in a bit more tax impacts.

Take your interest rate on your house 6.25% for the 30 year mortgage. Now times it by (100%-your tax rate). In this example, it would be 6.25*.75%.

This is the marginal cost of your mortgage rate = 4.65%. This is your "real cost" of interest on your mortgage. In other words, after the government refunds some of your interest expense, you are paying 4.65% interest.

Now, you want to find out how much your investments will bring in. Now times the investment return rate times your (100%-tax rate). In this example, it would be 11%*.75%. (I have oversimplified this, since there are some investments like a 401K plan, where you don't get taxed, and you should really look at all the different things you can do, but the example I'm giving is about the worst case.)

So this is your marginal investment return rate = 8.25%

The difference is the "better off" rate = 3.6%. (Your marginal mortgage rate - your marginal return rate.)

So now we can plug this into our calculator to find our the rate for 30 years of outside investing your money.

If you go to the previous website, you'll find out that you are $55K better off in 30 years by using the outside investments.

For our example, this is worth 6 months worth of salary! (In 30 years, the average salary will be around $100,000 per year at historical rates.)