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Short Book Review: Gandhi — A Life

I knew very little about Gandhi before reading this book, which I picked up on a whim at the library one day.

Here are some things that stood out to me. 

Gandhi apparently made a suicide pact with a friend when he was 9 years old

At the last moment they lost their nerve.

Gandhi got married at age 13

He instantly fell into the role of domineering husband. Funny to imagine a little 13 year old bossing around a wife. Also, super sad. If Gandhi treated his bride like this, imagine what other people were doing.

“take beef tea or die”

That’s what a doctor told Gandhi, a vegetarian, when he got sick while visiting England as a young man. Gandhi would rather die.

Beef tea is what passed for medicine in the early 1900’s

Gandhi was charmed by the Eiffel Tower

He was pretty good at saving money but was so enthralled at the Eiffel Tower he dropped big money (seven shillings) “for the satisfaction of being able to say that I had my lunch at a great height.”

Gandhi exuded cult leader vibes at certain points

He lived way out on a commune for a while with a bunch of followers. He was notorious for punishing those who did not live up to his standards of perfect moral purity. Usually this mean being mean to young women.

He even did that annoying thing where he would punish himself for their misdeeds, making them feel even worse. He admits he was cruel in this regard.

Later, he started making woman who were “sinners” shave their heads.

Not a good look for a leader many assume is the ultimate exemplar of peace and tolerance.

Gandhi was anti-money until he really needed some

As he grew up, he became increasingly anti-material goods, and anti money in general. Then he found himself needing money so that he could quit his job, buy an Ashram, and focus entirely on furthering his political ambitions.

A benefactor with money stepped in and bought him a whole damn farm where he could live and work with many of his followers.

One of the most famous movements in history might have fizzled out had a friend with money not stepped in at the right time. His social capital and ability to make rich friends was as key to his success as his determination and his religious conviction that what he was doing was right. 

Gandhi denounced the caste system and embraced “untouchables”

I’ve been pretty harsh on Gandhi so far, so I want to note that he could be pretty badass when it came to defying the social constructs of the time. He even adopted a daughter from the lowest caste in Indian society, the “untouchables.”

This controversial move threatened the stability of his movement, and boycotts were threatened, but he held strong. When people told him he might be boycotted, he doubled down:

Gandhi was unperturbed and told the ashramites that if the situation warranted the would all move to the Untouchable quarter of Ahmedabad and live on whatever the could earn by manual labor.

That’s hardcore. The boycott never happened and the Ashram continued on.

Gandhi’s work ethic and stamina were impressive

He would often get up at 2 AM, walk 20+ miles to his law office, work all day and then walk home at night. No one on the farm/commune was supposed to take a train and spend money unless it was really important. He didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk, literally.

When Gandhi did ride trains, he usually rode in 3rd class rail cars amidst utter filth

He’d arrive places and the welcoming committee would have trouble finding him because they’d look for him the first and second class cars.

I respect his commitment to experiencing the lifestyle of those he wanted to help.

His schedule when visiting England for a conference was insane.

He only slept 1.45 hours sleep per night! That’s a lot to ask of a 60 year old whose diet at the time consisted entirely of nuts and dates.

He lived the lived the #loinclothlife to the fullest

Dude was marching into high level government meetings in England rocking a loin cloth and a toothless smile while preaching his brand of Bhagavad Gita-Thoreau-Tolstoyian ethics. What an unlikely character to have the most powerful nation in the world wanting to please him. When not in a loincloth, he stuck to wearing incredibly simple shirts and shawls.

He talked a big game about wanting Muslim and Hindu unity but wouldn’t let his son marry a Muslim girl

He essentially disowned him over it. Pretty wack, in my opinion.

He advocated for non-violence against the Nazi regime

This is not surprising. Gandhi got a lot done through preaching non-violence. It’s just always a bit startling to read how bad some people’s Hitler takes look in hindsight. It’s another example of “when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, one of the founders of Pakistan, was a fascinating guy

I can’t come close to covering all the details here, so I’ll just highlight that Jinnah has one of the most baller quotes from a political leader ever.

He worked hard to bring Pakistan into being as an independent nation. Once this was complete, a lot of people came out of the woodwork to take credit for things they didn’t do. They said they were owed something for their part in creating the country.

Jinnah’s reply:

“You helped to create Pakistan? My dear man, I got you Pakistan with a typist and a typewriter.

The author of the book follows up that quote by saying “this was more or less a statement of fact.”

The great ones are human too

I came into this expecting to be absolutely blown away by what a saint Gandhi was. And he did do some remarkably saintly things. But he was mostly just a committed person fighting for what he believed in while exhibiting some pretty profound character flaws. Just like the rest of us. I find this motivating. Maybe I too can refuse the beef tea, do things my way, and make a difference in the world.

Nicotine is Not Evil: A Literature Review of Studies on Pure Nicotine

In a recent interview, the famous military strategist Edward Luttwak said:

“One book I’ve never written, is “The Impact of the Arrival of Nicotine and the Scientific Revolution.” A big jump in intellectual achievement that took place among those Europeans, all of whom smoked. The social history of nicotine begins with the sharpening of the brain.

He also thinks the west’s war on nicotine is making us all dumber.

Take away my nicotine patches, and I am immediately 5-10 IQ points stupider, which I can’t afford.

The contented grin of a man covered from head to toe in nicotine patches.

I’ve chewed 1 piece of 4mg nicotine gum about 5 days a week for close to 10 years, and I endorse Luttwak’s message.

But if you believe the medical establishment, we are both living recklessly. I was taught from a young age that nicotine is a toxic, deadly substance. And when tied to tobacco products, that appears to be the case.

But what about doing nicotine just a little bit, and never smoking it? I decided to research everything I could about pure nicotine to see if I should be scared off.

I was able to find plenty of research claiming nicotine is a horrific substance that only an idiot would willfully ingest. But when I dug deeper, I saw that all of the damning studies are really about using tobacco. I also noticed a surprising amount of research showing nicotine’s positive effects, such as how it helps with ADHD, irritable bowel disease, and Parkinson’s.

When it comes to studies claiming that nicotine is bad independent of smoking, I feel like Anthony Edwards when he was asked to comment on Rudy Gobert’s rim protection — they “don’t put no fear in my heart.”

In this post, I’ll show why.

This has nothing to do with nicotine, but I’m fascinated by the fact that they are teammates now. Edwards once said Kristaps Porzingis was a better defender than Gobert, lol.

What the scientific research has to say about nicotine

Tobacco and nicotine are so intertwined in the scientific literature that they are hard to separate.

Thankfully, amazing independent researchers like Gwern, a total hero of mine, walk amongst us. He did the hard research into pure nicotine and wrote up his results:

Much of the nicotine/​tobacco literature willfully conflates the two, leading to misleading attribution of the harm of tobacco to nicotine; many associations with harm are confounded by past or present tobacco use (eg. Kenkel ⁠et al⁠ 2020), but when pure nicotine is examined, as in patch/​GUM nicotine replacement therapy, the harms appeared minimal: like all stimulants, nicotine may raise blood pressure somewhat, and is addictive to some degree, but the risks do not appear much more strikingly harmful than caffeine or modafinil (and certainly appear less than the many commonly-used amphetamines).

Overall, I am personally comfortable using nicotine gum (but not vaping) once in a while, and have done so since 2011 without any noticeable problems or escalation in usage frequency.

Preach! 

I am not going to reinvent the wheel and analyze at all the studies that Gwern looked at. What I can offer is a more in depth analysis of some oft cited studies which supposedly prove that even pure nicotine is terrible for humans.

A closer look at a few claims about pure nicotine 

I’ll start with Harmful Effects of Nicotine by Mishra et al, 2015. It has been cited 278 times and appeared as the 5th ranked post when I searched Google Scholar for “nicotine effects”.

The paper is a review of 90 studies that claim to only look at pure nicotine. They come to the conclusion that even without the influence of tobacco, nicotine is extremely bad for you.

There is an increased risk of cardiovascular, respiratory, gastrointestinal disorders. There is decreased immune response and it also poses ill impacts on the reproductive health. It affects the cell proliferation, oxidative stress, apoptosis, DNA mutation by various mechanisms which leads to cancer. It also affects the tumor proliferation and metastasis and causes resistance to chemo and radio therapeutic agents.

Scary stuff! But I think it’s way overstating the negative effects.

First off, about half the experiments and studies cited by the Mishra paper involved animals. (I looked at the first 20 of 89 cited studies and extrapolated from there.)

Most dealt with rodents, but there was a wide variety of animals used. Dogs, cats, and rabbits are also in the mix.

A dog being forced to smoke to test if it would get emphysema. (source)
More smoking dogs.What is wrong with people. (source)

In my opinion the majority of animal studies are hot garbage. These papers get at my viewpoint:

But there are of course animal results that do translate to humans, so let’s carry on and see if the Mishra paper gives us anything to get worried about.

Giving baby mice tumors for fun and profit

Pour one out for all the laboratory mice (source)

I decided to pick a couple of the studies the Mishra et al paper uses to support its claims to see if they justify such strongly negative conclusions about nicotine. If they aren’t reputable, why should I trust the other 80+ studies in the review? Just having a bunch of studies doesn’t mean anything if they’re all weak.

One claim the Mishra review makes is that nicotine is a tumor promoter.

Following the citation for that claim leads me to a paper called Nicotine and Gastrointestinal Disorders: Its Role in Ulceration and Cancer Development by Chu et al., 2013. 

The Chu study says nicotine is a tumor promoter, but instead of showing the evidence that proves it, they merely state it as fact and cite yet another study to back up their claim.

The study they cite is called Nicotine promotes gastric tumor growth and neovascularization by activating extracellular signal-regulated kinase and cyclooxygenase-2 by Shin et al, 2004. 

This paper finds “a direct promoting action of nicotine on the growth of gastric tumors.”

Which indeed it does. But the methods of the study make me question its relevance to humans. 

Here’s how one would go about replicating what Shin and crew did:

  • Get a bunch of 4-6 week old mice
  • House them in individual chambers
  • Surgically inject cancer cells into their stomach lining 
  • Force the mice to drink either tap water, or water with extremely large amounts of nicotine in it
  • Wait three months
  • Kill the mice and look to see if they had tumors and how big those tumors were

Every mouse in the study got a tumor, so at least that bit of science is settled — injecting baby mice with cancer reliably gives them cancer. 

Next, they looked at how big the tumors were and found that the mice given nicotine had slightly bigger tumors than the mice that drank tap water.

So grateful it’s not my job to cut out the intestinal lining of mice and take pictures of it.


That’s not great. No one wants bigger tumors. But should we update our thoughts on the human use of nicotine because of this study? Ehhhhh.

Let’s talk dosing. The mice in the “high nicotine group” consumed about .8mg/day of nicotine. Given the mice weigh a mere 25 grams, they were taking in an astounding amount of nicotine for their body weight. It’s the equivalent of a 150 pound human consuming 2000mg/day of nicotine. That’s like smoking 80 packs of cigs per day, or chewing 500 pieces of nicotine gum per day! For three straight months!

I would not disagree with a scientific paper saying that chewing 500 pieces of nicotine gum per day for three straight months is bad for you. I just think it’s not quite relevant to the average person. And I might think the scientists making a mouse consume that much were slightly unhinged?

To continue with my skepticism, we are talking about isolated baby mice who were purposely given stomach cancer.

I do think that if you already have stomach cancer it’s probably not a great idea to ingest large amounts of nicotine every time you drink water for months at a time. I am not sure what this tells us about someone like me, a 35 year old cancer free person who does nicotine in small doses.

The problem is that when a review paper confidently states that nicotine promotes tumors, they don’t also say,

We think it promotes tumors because in a 20+ year old study performed on baby mice who had cancer injected into their bodies before being forced to consume the equivalent of hundreds of cigarettes worth of nicotine per day, the nicotine caused tumors 2mm bigger than those in a control group.

That would be a lot less convincing.

Did you know one of the animal right’s movements first major supporters gave the movement a lot of money because he was worried about being reincarnated as a draft horse? I kind of feel like that about lab mice. (image source)

more dubious nicotine studies 

So the first claim made by the Mishra review paper technically checks out. But it didn’t convince me, a human being and not a mouse in a concentration camp laboratory, to worry about my low-dose nicotine intake.

I decided to investigate another claim made in the Chu paper mentioned above. Remember that this paper is a load bearing pillar for some of the claims Mishra makes in their influential and highly cited review paper talking about how bad pure nicotine is.

In a section of the Chu paper titled Gastric Ulceration, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and Pancreatitis the authors state: 

“Nicotine caused a reduction in gastric mucosal blood flow and mucus volume. Taken together, all these factors may partially explain why cigarette smoke and its components exacerbated gastric ulceration.”

To prove that claim, they cite a 2005 paper published in Nature called “Mechanisms of Disease: nicotine — a review of it’s actions in the context of gastrointestinal disease” by Thomas et al., 2005. 

The Thomas et al. paper is yet another review paper that looks at around 800 articles relating to nicotine and the gastrointestinal system. Notably, it does not say it’s trying to control for pure nicotine without tobacco smoke. But whatever, let’s set that aside for now.

The claim I am checking is “nicotine caused a reduction in gastric mucosal blood flow and mucus volume.” 

The only section on gastric mucosal blood flow in the Thomas paper states that “studies have provided conflicting results, but in some studies nicotine reduced gastric mucosal blood flow.”

Okay, kinda weird. That is quite a hedged statement. If you check out the paper they cite to make that claim, you get a sense of why.

The paper is by Cho et al. from 1990, The influence of acute or chronic nicotine treatment on ethanol-induced gastric mucosal damage in rats

I really don’t think this paper should be used as a strike against nicotine. Let’s look at why.

Maybe nicotine actually prevents ulcers and helps IBS?

To reset a bit, we are now 4 levels deep. Mishra et all was a meta analysis saying all nicotine is evil. They cite Chu et al. to back up claims, Chu et al. cites Thomas et al, Thomas et al. cites Cho et al. 

It’s like freaking Inception trying to keep it all straight. 

Leo thinking about whether his nicotine habit is ultimately good or bad.

The claim I’m investigating is whether or not nicotine reduces gastric mucosal blood flow (which I’ll refer to as GMBF from now on, like the paper does.)

The Cho paper does in fact conclude that, sometimes, nicotine reduces GMBF. But overall it finds that nicotine is more likely to increase GMBF!

Here are the last few sentences of the paper’s abstract:

It is concluded that acute nicotine pretreatment elevates, whereas chronic nicotine pretreatment differentially affects GMBF. These effects could account for their protective or preventive actions on ethanol ulceration. The increase in nonacid gastric secretory volume by nicotine could partially explain its anti-ulcer effect.

Anti-ulcer effects! So while the Thomas quote (“in some studies nicotine reduced gastric mucosal blood flow”) is true to the letter, it completely fails to get at the core of what was found in the study they cite to support their claim. 

The claim was that a reduction in GMBF partially explains why nicotine makes ulcers worse. When you follow the trail of citations to their conclusion, the claim cashes out in a study saying the exact opposite of what the anti-nicotine study is suggesting.

I can’t say for sure that nicotine doesn’t exacerbate gastric ulceration in rats. But I feel pretty confident saying the study I looked at that purports to prove that it does cause gastric ulceration in rats says nothing of the sort.

I think this says a lot about the overall state of the anti-nicotine literature. 

That’s because in the end, their scary claims often end up looking a lot weaker, and sometimes will be completely contradicted by, the studies they cite to prove their point.

I also think it’s notable that Gareth Thomas, the lead author on the Thomas et al. meta review, has run another study showing that nicotine is “a safe oral treatment for people with inflammatory bowel disease.”

Is all anti-nicotine literature this flawed?

Maybe I missed the key anti-pure nicotine studies that produced meaningful results applicable to humans. I do admit that I am biased in wanting nicotine to be relatively harm-free, so that could have tainted my research.

I know that some people are worried that nicotine might be messing with our dopamine receptors, which seems bad? When I google “nicotine and dopamine receptors” and click first result that does not mention smoking, I land on an article that says:

Long-term exposure to nicotine alters brain circuits and induces profound changes in decision-making strategies, affecting behaviors both related and unrelated to drug seeking and consumption.

That doesn’t seem great! Ah, but what is that I see in the very next line?

We investigated in mice… 

Ah, right. There are those mice again.

In this study, they “implanted osmotic minipumps subcutaneously to expose mice to continuous nicotine (Nic, 10 mg/kg/day) or saline (Sal) for 3 weeks.” Let me translate: They gave the mice a nicotine dose equivalent to an averaged sized human ingesting 170 pieces of 4mg nicotine gum per day, or around 20 packs of cigarettes worth, every day for 3 weeks.

I’m surprised they didn’t just drop dead. Instead, they seemed to have moved a little faster than the other mice, plus they “exploited” rewards more.

I can’t say that all the research is on mice given stupidly large nicotine doses. And I can’t say that nicotine won’t mess with your brain in a negative way. I can say that I remain unworried about 4mg doses.

Nicotine as wonder drug

Leo, deciding that the pros of tobacco-free nicotine outweigh the cons. Vaping still seems bad for your lungs though, fwiw 🤷

If you’re like me, you might now be convinced that low-dose nicotine is not that bad for you. But is it good? Potentially, in some cases!

Here are just a few of the many studies and popular science articles talking about the positive effects of nicotine. Editors appear to really like using the delightfully naughty “wonder drug” moniker in headlines.

I also take seriously the fact that basically every successful person I’ve read about who lived between 1800-1970 was an avid smoker, and thus consumed a lot of nicotine. Many of these people were supremely unhealthy on many levels, but they made huge contributions to the world.

I gotta think the nicotine buzz helped Thomas Edison with his creations and Mark Twain with his writing. Twain certainly thought so. He claims to have smoked 300 cigars a month, and once remarked:

If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go.

Mark Twain
He apparently started smoking at age 8?!

More personally, I used to have awful IBS symptoms from ages 7-25. When did they stop? Right around when I started using nicotine, which has been shown to help with irritable bowel type issues. 🤔

There are even people arguing that Nicotine isn’t addictive! This 257 page academic report from 2002 written by 2 Israeli Ph.D’s says that, “Nicotine is not an addictive drug and that the popularized equation of the addictive properties of nicotine and heroin has little to do with science.”

Gotta love science. You can always find a study saying something that makes you feel good.

The almighty Gwern on whether nicotine is a performance enhancer

Gwern appears to be as fascinated with nicotine as I am, because along the general nicotine research he did he also conducted a nicotine use self-experiment. It’s famous in the internet circles I inhabit. People tend to reference it when arguing that nicotine doesn’t actually improve mental performance when taken daily.  

I recommend reading the whole study, if for nothing else than to see a true master researcher at work.

I’m like, “Gum make Drew feel good.” Gwern’s like, “Let me do a blinded study with placebos and Ph.D level rigor to see if I do better on tests of cognitive function when I chew nicotine gum.”

Gwern doing Gwern things while studying nicotine intake

His thinks that the gum maybe gives him a slight boost in performance, but it’s kind of hard to say.

The greatly increased variance, but only somewhat increased mean, is consistent with nicotine operating on me with an inverted U-curve for dosage/​performance (or the Yerkes-Dodson law): on good days, 1mg nicotine is too much and degrades performance (perhaps I am overstimulated and find it hard to focus on something as boring as n-back) while on bad days, nicotine is just right and improves n-back performance.

He concludes by saying he’ll continue to occasionally use nicotine gum.

The main thing I question is that he’s measuring his performance in what amounts to a memory challenge.

I don’t do nicotine to improve my working memory. I do it because it makes activities, especially long form writing, a lot more fun and productive. When I’ve got that nicotine buzz going it feels like I can better make connections between disparate ideas, write jokes, think up metaphors, and stay on task. I feel more creative and energetic. I’m not claiming it makes me smarter, only that it helps me get started on tasks and feel more in a flow state while I’m doing them. Perhaps substances that boost the creative side of things don’t have strong effects on the memory game side of things. 

My next quibble has to do with dosage, a potential downside he acknowledges by saying ,“1mg may have too small effects to easily detect.”

To me, studying only 1mg of nicotine is kind of like studying how you’d feel on 3 ounces of coffee. I can definitely feel something on 1mg of nicotine, but it’s much different than how I feel on my standard 4mg. 

Finally, Gwern and I have much different brain chemistry, upbringing, beliefs, priors, and brain harmonics.

Gwern is really into anime. I’ve never watched anime, nor do I have a desire to. And I don’t think Gwern stays up late watching NBA playoff games and texting his friends when he thinks the announcers are saying something dumb. 

As much as I wish I was more like Gwern, he’s just another data point, and I am hesitant to trust his conclusions over my own experience when deciding what nootropics to take.

In my opinion, there’s no substitute for trying things out for yourself.

Still, I can’t rule out that what I feel when I do nicotine isn’t mostly the placebo effect. I should do Gwern’s experiment and find out. Maybe one day. 

More on my personal experience with nicotine 

Nicotine can have a heavy body load. It hit me hard the first time I tried it and I almost threw up. So watch out for that.

Tolerance wise, I certainly don’t feel the rush for as long and as hard as I used to. But I still feel it plenty, and enjoy it. My slightly diminished buzz hasn’t led me to escalate usage over the past decade.

Just as I drink about the same amount of coffee each day, I have not had much trouble sticking to 4mg (or less) of nicotine whenever i used it. I tried to go higher once when I was staying up late for work, but the effects didn’t scale.

I don’t feel I get a ton out of increasing the dosage. And I’m grateful for that! You can find a lot of stories online of people who get very addicted to chewing gum or vaping. If you are one of those people, unfortunately you should probably find a different drug of choice. I normally have a very addictive personality so I’m super grateful that hasn’t happened to me.

Nicotine withdrawals can be nasty, so I’m glad I haven’t gone through that either. Mason Hartman had awful withdrawals when she stopped using nicotine. Her negative thoughts around nicotine gum in general gave me a lot of pause around my usage when I first read them.

Then I realized she was on a whole ‘nother level than me when it came to her intake!

I’d bet that I’d be feeling rough going cold turkey after that amount of daily use, too.

I set two strict rules around my usage that I’ve broken only a handful of times over the last decade. 

  • Never more than 4mg in a day
  • I always have to write at least something before I do other tasks. So even if I’m taking it to knock out a bunch of boring work tasks I don’t want to do, I need to jot something down in my journal beforehand. I do this because I like writing and want to be doing more of it, and because it helps me feel like I am not slipping into the habit of mindlessly consuming nicotine. (I wonder if the fact that I do this around nicotine and not coffee shows how deep the anti-nicotine propaganda is still in my system.)

Speaking of coffee, I have experienced plenty of legit crashes when my morning caffeine wears off. I can definitely notice when a nicotine dose wears off, but it’s nothing like a caffeine come down. It’s more like, “Okay, back to normal now.” A bad caffeine come down, at least for me, is more like, “Ugh, everything sucks and I have no motivation now.”  I can also chew gum in the evenings and still sleep soundly that night whereas late night caffeine throws my sleep off.

The biggest thing for me is that nicotine gets me locked into a writing flow state like no other substance I’ve tried. With nicotine’s assistance I can basically always sit down for solid hour or more of focused writing and have a great time doing it. From what I can tell, I am far from the only one who finds writing and nicotine to go hand in hand.

Would we have The Hobbit or LOTR without JRR Tolkien’s tobacco habit?

Nicotine also gets me over general work roadblocks remarkably easily. I can knock out a whole bunch of annoying tasks I have been putting off, such as emails, on 4mg of gum. Mostly it helps me get started at all, an effect Gwern also acknowledges when talking about why he likes gum more than patches:

I find I need stimulants more for getting started than for ongoing stimulation so it is better to have gum which can be taken precisely when needed and start acting quickly.

When I take breaks I don’t get jittery, nor do I crave gum all day. Maybe I get a little more annoyed in the afternoons than usual, since I normally do the gum between 2-4 pm.

I also get hungrier and more fatigued without it. I don’t believe I gain weight when I take breaks but I also haven’t measured it that closely and I am generally in really good shape. 

I also have had times where I take nicotine and feel some minor chest pain and tightness. But I’ve also had that when not chewing gum! So, I dunno what to make of that.

I recently had a thorough health checkup and came out looking very healthy on all measures. This includes sperm count and quality, since I had to get that checked out as part of the IVF process. I only mention it because anti-nicotine crusaders absolutely love to say that nicotine is disastrous for sperm. Maybe for some (and probably for smoker!), thankfully not for me.

All in all, I feel fine about my level of consumption and I think I’ll be okay as long as I’m vigilant about not letting my usage escalate.

My parting thoughts on Nicotine

Nicotine seems fine in small doses and I like it. 

If future research proves me wrong, and all nicotine is bad, maybe I’ll become more dedicated to finding a nootropic stack that replicates nicotine’s effects with less risk. L-tyrosine seems like a promising candidate, and I’ve used that in place of nicotine several times recently.

I also can’t rule out that there is a downside to chronic use over many years, although after all my research I’d be surprised if the effects were any different than chronic caffeine use.

All in all, I hope that my nicotine doses are small enough to not cause harm. I can also justify my usage the way people justify doing any drug — the benefits of boosted mood and productivity outweigh the downsides, at least for now.

I hope we don’t find any new bombshell accusations against nicotine. Can’t the universe just lets me have this one? I don’t eat meat or drink alcohol, so it only feels fair.

BPS — The Best Adult Basketball Tournament

It’s hard for adults to find activities with all of the following:

  • Intense physical competition
  • 150+ awesome people looking to connect with old friends and make new ones
  • Communal meals and nightly parties
  • A rugged camping vibe with unlimited natural beauty

There’s a yearly basketball tournament I’ve been playing in that checks all the boxes.

It’s called BPS. It’s a name derived from the initials of Brian P Schwartz, a close friend of the trip founders who died tragically before the first ever tournament, just over 15 years ago.

From what I’ve learned, Brian was an amazing, loving person who was as kind off the court as he was tenacious on it. He was a hoops junkie who would have loved the tournament that bears his initials.

Amazing pic of the BPS campus at night by @dhsalz13

The basketball tournament

BPS is what happens when pickup basketball fanatics take things to the next level.

I’ve played in a lot of consistent pickup games. But I’ve never been in one where the leaders one day said, “You know what? Let’s take a weekend every year, invite all the best players we know, travel 6 hours by car to the middle of the woods, sleep in bunks, hold a draft, bring nice uniforms, and battle each other across 8-10 super intense games on outdoor courts to determine a champion.” 

That’s basically what happened with BPS. A bunch of guys, mostly from the Chicago suburbs, get together at the site of a summer camp many of them attended growing up and put on a freaking epic basketball tournament.

The structure

Just before the 2022 championship game

The scale of the operation is so impressive. There are 3 games going at once, with scoreboards, stat keepers, and videographers. You call your own fouls but there are court supervisors to settle thorny disputes. There are doctors on hand if needed, as well as trainers and massage therapists. This year two different people brought a pair of hilarious looking full-leg compression recovery pants that saw a ton of action between sessions.

Me taking recovery more seriously than I did when I was a professional basketball player. Shoutout to @rossrunnington for letting so many people use these.

There’s even a sportsbook. Futures odds come out after the draft, and there are betting lines on each game.

The book doing the lord’s work by handling all the bets before the championship game (photo by @rossrunnington)

I get a kick out of the people who come up to me before a game, looking me up and down like a racehorse, trying to sound casual as they ask me how I’m feeling about my next matchup.

I have yet to place any bets myself, but it makes me unreasonably happy when my friends come up to me after a game and tell me I won them money. 

As for the actual format, every team plays each other once, and then the top 4 teams play a single elimination final four.

So if you make the finals, you play 10 games in two days.

My first year, both my big toe nails fell off in the month after BPS. After every tournament I’m always so sore I can barely move for a week after. It’s an insane way for a bunch of office workers to treat their bodies, but that’s part of the allure. Anyone can go play in a local half court 3×3 tournament. Only the incurable, degenerate hoops junkies will spend a weekend playing 10 physically punishing, outdoor, full-court games in the Midwestern summer heat. It self selects for people who enjoy playing hard just because it’s fun. My kind of people.

It’s not uncommon to see people on the floor for loose balls, concrete be damned. (photo by @rossrunnington)

Picking teams and gameplay

The trip starts off with each of the 9 team captains pulling names out of a hat to determine the draft order. Then they make their first round selection. This year, I was the 4th overall pick, which helped me a lot because it’s a snake draft and the first pick gets the last pick of the second round. 

Two captains, and a couple of the nicest dudes you’ll ever meet, going at it (photo by @dhsalz13)

The first round draft is in front of the entire camp, then all the first rounders and their captains head over to a different room to complete the rest of the draft. The war room atmosphere is so fun. Everyone has printed out lists, rankings, and an intense focus. The founders have recreated in miniature what I imagine a real professional sports draft feels like. There’s a moderator, a clock, a big board that displays the picks, and a sense that the fate of your team hangs on each selection. 

The tournament has really talented players considering it all takes place way off the beaten path, in the north woods of Wisconsin. I am not the only guy who played pro, multiple people played in college, and there are a ton of former high school stars and adult gym rats who will absolutely light you up.

Don’t let all the baldness fool you — these dudes can seriously hoop. Brian (with ball) gives me buckets every time we play. (photo by @rossrunnington)

As for the basketball itself, games are to 21 by twos and threes. There are morning and afternoon sessions on Friday and Saturday, with two games each session. The top 4 teams play in a single elimination final four.

An important gameplay factor is that there is no time limits on the games. If you find yourself in a 45 minute grinder because it’s deadlocked at 19 and you’ve been trading missed jumpers while absolutely mauling anyone who comes in the lane, well, good luck to you, because you might have to play again 5 minutes after that one ends.

You also call your own fouls. You might think this would lead to chaos, but when it’s a bunch of mature people it actually works really well. Because while everyone wants to win, no one wants to win so bad they’re willing to cheat.

Of course there are questionable calls. But have you ever played in an adult men’s league with refs? Have you seen what it does to once mild mannered people? How it can turn them into a rage filled lunatic, ready to throw down with a 23 year old official who’s just trying to earn a few dollars of side money? 

The BPS way is better. Shame, in the form of loud boos from the crowd for weak calls, keeps people in line. 

The fact that you can’t foul out does lead to some interesting dynamics where layups are extremely hard to come by. If you’re in the paint, you can usually expect to get a forearm shiver, especially if it’s game point.

My college roommate Erik (center), new to the trip, not understanding he should be savagely fouling my boy Joel on a shot this close (photo by @dhsalz13)
Erik’s teammate Zach showing him how it’s done (photo by @dhsalz13)

My 2022 trip

With scouting help from my boy Danny, my friend who introduced me to the trip, I had a solid target list and got almost everyone I wanted. Besides Danny :(

Shoutout to Danny (in white) giving it his all, banging in the post, and making it to the final four less than 9 months removed from ACL surgery 🤯💪 (photo by @dhsalz13)


Everything clicked, and my team went on to win the championship. I think the highlight of our run was an epic final four comeback after being 14-6 and then 20-17.

Pure joy after captain Boehm (arm raised) hit an incredible double pump layup to cap the final four comeback (photo by @rossrunnington)

Then we rolled in the finals. It’s my first time winning in 3 trips and it felt amazing. I could not have been happier with my squad. Every person played their role to perfection and we had incredible chemistry.

Going at D Kay (he’s a beast) in the championship. (photo by @dhsalz13)
Getting a rare, cherished, clean look. Too bad I airballed it. (photo by @dhsalz13)
The pained look on my face encapsulates what it’s like trying to defend during your 10th game in two days (photo by @rossrunnington)
Boehmer’s finals game winner (photo by @rossrunnington)

I was also extremely pumped to have one of my best friends, Erik, join me on the trip. We used to do ice baths together after battles in college. Now it’s more of the same, we just ice in Catfish Lake instead.

More than a vacation

Great photo of Catfish Lake by @rossrunnington

You can look at BPS and say sure, that sounds fun, but can’t you take a trip to a random hotel and have an equally good time playing in a pool volleyball tournament?

For me, that’s not the case. BPS provides brotherhood, a sense of accomplishment, the release of tension through insanely intense competition, and the chance to bond over meals with people of all age groups. You can’t find that shit on a Carnival Cruise.

Homies
Late night hang

People at BPS care about each other. People check in on my job and my life. People want to make sure I’m okay. People from the trip help each other out when they hear someone is in need. I am still new to the group, but I can already see the ties run deep. If I faced a crisis, people from BPS would be there for me.

Finally, at least in my opinion, a run of the mill vacation will feel good in the moment but it won’t have many lasting effects. Not so with BPS!

Scientist and consciousness researcher Andres Gomez Emilsson writes about how taking part in unique and challenging group experiences can feel transformative because they elevate our collective consciousness and plant seeds of hope within attendees. His description of how he felt going to one such event could have been written about BPS:

Experiences where one gets a sense that humanity, if properly focused, could indeed get its shit together, might have a much deeper emotional effect on people than they intuitively realize. All you may need is a proof of concept to create a glimmer of hope.

Okay, that’s some lofty, idealistic language. And to be clear, BPS is not a big hippie fest where we all hold hands and perform chants of thanks to Gaia . You’re more likely to see a keg stand than to overhear a conversation about how to get humanity properly focused on values that matter.

Is a keg stand not a beautiful symbol of human connection in its own way? (photo by @rossrunnington)

But that doesn’t mean something isn’t happening beneath the surface.

Many of us spend more time than we’d like as part of an isolated family unit, ho humming through our days, interacting mostly with our employers and our screens. Going to an event like BPS is like being given a 72 hour glimpse into an alternate reality where there is more time for physical activity, friendship, and community building.

It leaves me feeling like more of us should be doing what the founders of this trip did. We should actually create awesome experiences, not just hope they materialize. Darren and the other BPS founders prove that it’s possible. In doing so they inspire others and create waves of positive energy that reverberate far past a single weekend.

Darren (center, orange shirt) MC’ing the opening ceremony. After these talks it’s always clear the trip is as much about brotherhood and building friendships as it is about basketball.

Maybe all that sounds a little cringey and cult-like. But hey, a wholesome cult centered around basketball? Sign me up.

Moving back to Brooklyn + other life updates

After 3 happy years in Sheboygan, we are moving back to Brooklyn. 

We moved to Sheboygan to:

  1. Try something new by living in a small town
  2. Start our own family

Well, we accomplished the first thing! Sheboygan is a cool spot and we made some awesome friends and memories here. Our leaving is not a knock against the ‘boyg. 

The big reason we’re leaving is that we did not have any kiddos. We’ve been on a years long journey which has involved literally everything medically possible to have a little bebe, starting with basic interventions all the way through IVF. It’s been a lot, especially on Ashley’s body.

A silver lining is that Ashley was able to figure out that she has endometriosis and adenomyosis. She had surgery to address those issues which has significantly improved her quality of life.

At some point a few months ago we just felt like it was time for a fresh start. We were in a big house with no kiddos to fill it, and we never envisioned ourselves living in the suburbs without kids.

I’m not sharing all that to get pity. My life is still amazing! But hey, it was infertility awareness week last week and I think it’s helpful to do my small part to remove the stigma around infertility by talking openly about our struggles.

Plus the housing market was/is going crazy. We realized we could sell, make a little money, and change up our trajectory. We’d been so kid focused, and it felt like time to take a step back from all that and reassess what we want out of our lives. It will be helpful to have a change of scenery as we do so. And of course, Brooklyn is awesome. 

We made some really great friends out here and it was awesome spending more time with Ashley’s family. It was also really cool living just 4 hours from my brother and his family. It’s bittersweet to leave, but it feels like the right thing to do.

Home ownership

I know everyone warns you about how much work it is to own a house, but I still feel like I need to add my voice to the chorus. When you’re not fixing big things, it’s death by papercut, with the lawn care, snow removal, and “little” updates that take a half a day because your DIY skills are stuck on suburban Los Angeles Jew mode (shoutout to our new bathroom vent fan, though.)

We made a small amount of money on the house sale because we got lucky to sell into a crazy hot market, but we easily could have taken a financial loss given how much money we sank into it. The people saying renting is always financially worse are all shilling for big real estate! Opportunity costs with your money and time are real! 

We’re excited to be renters again, though of course that has pitfalls as well. If inflation keeps going wild our rent could jump up. If the building decides to do construction we could hear jackhammers all day. If our neighbors love having 3 AM parties we either have to join them or learn to live with it.

Brooklyn

We really liked living in BK a few years ago, specifically Park Slope, so we’re going back. Unlike with previous moves there was not a long, country-wide search to determine our next spot. We know what we like at this point. 

And by what we like I mean what the dogs like. We picked a place that could be hit or miss for humans but will almost certainly be a dog paradise. We’re just here to provide them with a life of luxury.

The dogs care not if the humans have a place to sit.

People keep asking if the pups are going to be okay moving from a place with a big ol’ backyard to a small BK apartment. I truly think they are going to like it even more. Because they mostly don’t care about the backyard. I thought they’d want to frolic back there all day, but nah. They want to be right next to us, demanding food, love, tug of war, and walks.

And what walks they will get in Brooklyn! We currently do about 5-6 miles a day together but it’s mostly the same 3 routes over and over. Now we’ll have tons more options. And they’ll get to hang out with all the pups in Prospect Park, which from previous observations is an unlimited fount of pure doggie joy.

Dog beach is real and it is right next to our apartment.

I feel quite confident the pups will be fine and that Oscar and Arnold will maintain their spoiled status as the undisputed kings of the house and happiest beings around.

Other life updates

So that it doesn’t feel like everything I write on my blog is about cities and moving, here’s some other stuff that’s been going on with me.

Vegan diet

I’ve been vegan for a couple years now and I’ve gotten really into animal welfare in general. I know, I know, I’m the guy who used to eat chicken feet by the pound. And I’ve probably subjected quite a few readers to horrendous smelling slow-cooked liver stews. But a switch flipped when I got my first puppy and now I’ve gone full PETA (though I try hard not to be annoying about it.) I wrote about my transition in a Quora post.

If you wouldn’t eat smol Oscar then don’t be eating smol pigs and birdies! At least that was my thought process.

I am happy to report that I am in possibly the best shape of my life, my muscles did not disappear, and all my recent blood work came back looking great. I had a small fear that I’d end up pale, frail, and tired and I’m glad that’s not the case.

Writing

I’ve done quite a bit of that over on Quora if you want to check it out. I continue to post there because it’s satisfying when posts get a lot of views without me putting in any effort into distribution. I would like to write more on my personal blog too, though.

I also self published a book of essays on Amazon a couple years ago. I tried to make it in the style of David Sedaris, though of course I fall way short. It has 4 positive reviews on Amazon and only one of those is from my mom, so I consider that a win!

Shoutout to my sister for convincing me to use this hilarious photo of 15 year old me with Lute Olson as the cover.

Meditation

I am way into meditation, doing about an hour a day on average. I like this guy’s guided meditations on YouTube.

Basketball

I’ve been playing a ton. I made some good friends in Wisconsin through the Kohler Company’s corporate basketball league.

I have almost stopped getting nervous before games and beating myself up after bad plays like I used to do when I was playing for a living. I am all about competing and trying your best but damn I have some unproductive, deep rooted patterns I need to break. Hence a lot of meditation, ha.

I also play in a yearly tournament up in northern Wisconsin with a bunch of guys I met in Chicago which is super fun.

Work

I have a remote sales job at a cool company called Parabol that helps meetings suck less. As someone who has been a part of way too many sucky meetings, I am happy to contribute to this mission.

What does the future hold?? 🤔

I don’t know. It’s just been drilled into me via freelance writing that a piece of writing needs a conclusion. But because I am doing this for fun I can have the satisfaction of simply saying: this is the end of the post.

Hit me up if you’ll be in NYC!

Book Review — Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination

Walt Disney was not a trust fund kid. He grew up lower-middle class-ish, I think. I’m not sure how to classify a family in the early 1900’s that goes from a modest dwelling in Chicago, to a pretty nice farm in Missouri (that totally failed after a few years), to a decent house in Kansas City.

During Walt’s formative years his dad had a steady job. But early 1900’s dads are gonna early 1900’s dad, so of course Walt had to get up at 4am and deliver papers starting at age 9 and turn all the money over to his father to avoid beatings.

If you squint, you can see an upbringing of child labor and overall harshness that was downright Dickensian.

Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination does a wonderful job of diving in to all those details. But it’s over 600 pages long and I lost interest after his early years, so this will review Walt’s life from the beginning through the creation Snow White.

Despite his rough start, Walt was able to break into superstardom through a combo of work ethic, talent, and an inhuman level of risk tolerance.

Work Ethic

Let’s talk about this mf’ing paper route. When I was 9, I played a lot of basketball and video games. When Walt was 9, his dad bought a paper route in Kansas City and seemingly thought to himself, “I may be older and kind of sickly, but that’s no problem, because I have a pre-teen boy I can work like a draft mule!”

I think it’s worth a couple long block quotes to get a feel for the misery:

Only nine years old, Walt was nevertheless tethered to the route. On weekdays he would rise early, in the darkness, to get his allotment of fifty papers and deliver them. He returned home at five-thirty or six, took a short nap, and then woke up and ate his breakfast. He had to leave school a half hour early to pick up the papers for the afternoon run. On Saturdays, in addition to delivering the papers, he collected the fees. And on Sundays, he had the double load.

It was worst, of course, in winter, when Walt had to trudge through the cold and snow, slipping on the icy steps, often crying at the knives of frost he said he endured. Some of the drifts into which he waded were so deep he sank to his neck. At times the cold and his tiredness would conspire, and Walt would fall asleep, curled inside his sack of papers or in the warm foyer of an apartment house to which he had delivered, and he would awaken to discover it was daylight and he had to race to finish the route.”

But he at least took time off, right? Ha!

“In six years on the route he missed only 5 weeks — two with severe cold, a third on a visit to his Aunt, and two more in 1916 when he kicked a piece of ice with a new boot and was stabbed by a nail hidden in the chunk. He screamed for help but had to wait twenty minutes before a deliveryman stopped, chopped the ice loose, and took him to a doctor, who pulled the nail out with pliers and gave him a tetanus shot.”

To pour salt in this tiny boy’s real wounds, he could not keep the money from the route. It all went to dad. So Walt took on even more jobs to make some money of his own, which…how? How did he have the energy?

Are the most successful people the ones with the most energy? Economics Professor Robin Hanson has commented on the overlooked importance of energy when it comes to success, and I think it’s important to consider.

Walt is clearly standard deviations above the norm, energy wise. I think this effect is understudied.

I also wonder about the extent to which the routes built character and work ethic and the extent to which they acted as a drag. Walt later said the route helped forge his character, but we don’t have the counterfactual. And I don’t think he was building much character when he was bleeding out in a snowbank in the early morning hours.

How much earlier could he have blossomed if he’d been allowed to spend more time with his art? Or would he merely have wasted his time in a less productive fashion if he wasn’t constantly at work?

I’m all for giving kids autonomy and responsibility, but I have issue with writers such as Simon Sarris, who wrote a piece about famous people who held jobs at a young age. He concludes:

In my examples the individuals were all doing from a young age, as opposed to merely schooling. And while they may not have wanted to work, the work was nonetheless something that both they and society felt was useful: something purposeful and appreciated. In a sense they had useful childhoods.

Sure, he was doing “useful” work in a sense. People need papers. The question is whether it was a net positive for young Walt.

Disney himself is conflicted on the issue.

Later in life, Walt would talk about how the route built character. He said he “developed an appreciation of what spare time I did have and used it to great advantage in my hobbies.” There’s something to that.

But he also admitted to having nightmares about the route long into his adulthood, waking up in sweats. There’s some deep trauma there.

I think the route was a big reason why Walt refused to send his parents money until well after he was one of the most famous people in the country. His Dad took the wrong side of the gamble when deciding to take his pre-pubescent son’s paper route earnings or build good will for the future.

Whatever the case, Walt kept up a prodigious work ethic the rest of his life. He made art non-stop in his free time, he took night classes at art institutes, and he did twice what was expected of him when he finally landed a job drawing for an ad studio in Kansas City.

Still, he was laid off after 6 weeks due to budget cuts. Rather than mope, he started his own business and then went to work for a company making promotional ads that ran in movie theaters.

This is where he got his first taste of animation, and he went all in. He borrowed equipment from work and set up a studio in his garage to practice on his own. His schedule became very focucsed:

He would repair to the garage after work each day, emerge for dinner, then return to his camera stand. “When he’d come home and long after everybody else was in bed, Roy remembered, “Walt was out there still, puttering away, working away, experimenting, trying this and that, drawing, and so on.”

Because he was skilled and a hard worker, Walt probably felt more comfortable than most taking big swings with his career. This was an advantage, but damn, what a wild ride it became.

Talent

Around age 7, Walt discovered a love for drawing. Shoutout to the Aunt that encouraged him early on, leading Walt to say “She used to make me think that I was really a boy wonder!”

Another neighbor, Doc Sherwood, recognized Walt’s skills and asked him to draw his horse. Walt did a good job and Doc praised him. This brought young Walt to near ecstasy.

The drawing became, in his brother Roy’s hyperbolic words, “the highlight of Walt’s life.”

Walt’s talent would grow from there until he was known at his school as the art kid and was good enough to trade his pictures for free haircuts at a barbershop in Kansas City. The proprietor hung the pictures in his shop, thrilling young Walt. He was still writing to this barber 30 years later telling him how important his recognition was.

It’s fun to wonder about if these same people hadn’t encouraged him, Walt might have ended up working in a factory or delivering papers his whole life.

Later on he’d develop thick skin, but how would he have reacted if people squashed his dreams early on? You have to imagine that he really was exceptional, but still, how many hardscrabble midwesterners from 1910 took the time to care about a boy making art? I mean, Walt’s own best friend admitted that “It was kind of sissy for a guy to draw.”

So if you see a kid with talent, make sure to let them know! If you have an animal they can draw, or a barbershop you can display their work in, even better.

Early Walt drawing from his time with the Red Cross in WWI

Betting on himself

Two early Walt creations, Mickey and Oswald, interacting

Walt’s schooling ended in 7th grade, and he barely scraped by to make it that far. It’s hard not to fall asleep in class when you work day and night on a paper route designed by the villain from Saw.

7th grade dropouts with very little real work experience are not supposed to look around after a year at a company and think, “I’m not so into this whole working for other people thing. I think I’ll build an animation empire.”

But Walt went for it. He started making animated fairy tales on the side that attracted some positive reviews, but he failed when he went wide trying to sell them.

He was undeterred. This quote sums up Walt’s attitudes toward this failure and all subsequent ones:

Walt was far from defeated. On the contrary, he seemed strangely elated, certain that his fairy tales would find a distributor and that he would soon be running his own studio full time.

He was like freaking Rocky. Always getting up after being knocked down, always drumming up more money, learning more about his cameras, working more hours, spending all his money and a lot of other people’s money. Grinding.

He eventually left his stable job and started his own studio but it didn’t work and he went bankrupt.

Walt didn’t even think about using the bankruptcy as a sign that he should hang it up. There was no talk of joining his Dad and getting a job at the jello factory. Instead, he got on a train to LA and started the grind all over again.

He had a personality type built for the harsh realities of entrepreneurship.

A coworker through these trying times remarked on Walt’s unending optimism:

I never once heard Walt say anything that would sound like defeat. He was always optimistic about his ability and about the value of his ideas and about the possibilities of cartoons in the entertainment field. Never once did I hear him express anything except determination to go ahead.

Once in LA he proceeded to build Disney into a productive animation studio with a marketable star (Oswald the Rabbit) only to have everything come crashing down. The majority of his staff went behind his back to take their main project and start a competing studio, leaving him without his only piece of marketable material and like, two loyal workers, one of which was his brother.

But he just kept moving forward. If he could no longer legally make Oswald the Rabbit cartoons, he’d just think of something better. He made Mickey Mouse.

This mentality is so impressive. It would have been easy to wallow in pity. Walt is more like Giannis, who face setbacks with equanimity.

But thinking up Mickey was not enough. His studio needed money to make the cartoon, and they had none. Some might have been tentative to take on too much risk, given all the recent setbacks. That’s not how Walt rolls. He sent an all caps telegram to his brother about how to get the money for the Mickey pilot:

MORTGAGE EVERYTHING

The Disney’s took loans from any friend, family member, or former co-worker who still saw their potential.

Obviously it worked, as we all know Mickey became a world wide hit, as did his next big character, Donald Duck. This put Disney on the map and made him an international celebrity, but it didn’t improve his financial situation as much as you might think.

Walt was bogged down in bad contracts and shady distribution deals, and there was never much profit to speak of. Whatever they did make was poured right back into the business, which actually helped them ride out the great depression better than a lot of businesses that were investing in the markets.

In typical Walt fashion, he rounded up every resource he had and plowed it into a new project: the first full length animated feature film, Snow White.

And we’re talking every resource. He put almost all of his 500 or so employees on the project and he personally oversaw almost every aspect of the production.

Then, when he needed an infusion of funding to keep the production of Snow White afloat, what does he do? Of course he takes out the equivalent of $20 million worth of loans in 2021 dollars, plus he mortgages the future earnings of his hit shorts. As Walt put it, in order to make Snow White:

I had to mortgage everything I owned, including Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and everybody else.

Snow White made a gazillion dollars and was met with critical acclaim and Walt could finally relax with the whole “bet everything I own and much that I don’t” on animation projects. That must have felt good.

Lessons

From my read, the talent, the homies, and the work ethic were all key components to his success. But I think you could have turned the knobs down on those from a 10 to an 8 and still have churned out a Walt Disney. What I don’t think can be compromised on was the ability to calmly and repeatedly make risky bets, and keep making them even if the first few didn’t work out.

How many talented people quit after hitting their first roadblock? How many people reach a local maxima of success and are okay with that, rather than pushing forward? (e.g. making Mickey shorts forever and not doing risky full length features) How many people have Walt’s level self confidence and swing for the fences mentality? How many people can stare down financial catastrophe over and over and yet keep increasing the size of their bets? All that feels more rare than having work ethic and talent, though I don’t have supporting data.

My takeaway is that it would be quite awesome to follow the Disney blueprint, and many modern tech entrepreneurs do. But I also think I’ll be okay at slightly lower rungs of success that don’t require me to repeatedly bet literally everything I own in order to get where I want to go.

Book Review: Building a Life Worth Living by Marsha M. Linehan

When Marsha M. Linehan was 18, she went from prom queen nominee to suicidal mental hospital patient in a matter of months.

She cut herself, fought with staff, and smashed her head onto the concrete floor. Pretty quickly, her parents and therapists gave up hope of her getting better.

Fast forward 10 years after being committed and Marsha was well on her way to developing Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which became the gold standard therapy to help patients suffering from her same illness — borderline personality disorder –actually get better.

This book tells the story of that incredible rise from the ashes.

The Epiphany

What drove her to such a dark place at age 18 is not that interesting. She isn’t really sure herself, other than that she suffered from low self esteem and her mother was invalidating. The best parts of the book are about how she battled her way out of a truly grim situation, so that’s what I’ll focus on.

Mental hospitals in Tulsa, OK in the 1960s were about as grisly as you would imagine. Marsha was forced to get multiple rounds of shock therapy, she was pumped full of drugs, and suffered various other indignities that would not fly nowadays.

Between the drugs, the intentionally smashing her head into hard surfaces, and the electric brain shocks, Marsha lost most of her memories of this period. She remembers breaking windows to get shards of glass to cut herself with, being placed in solitary confinement for months at a time, and callous nurses. She almost constantly wanted to die.

Her attitude started to change not because of a breakthrough therapy session, but because of an experience by herself at a piano.

Part of losing her memory was forgetting how to play the piano, an activity she used to be really good at. She liked to hang out at the piano anyway.

One afternoon, she sat at the piano and felt compelled to make a promise to god that she would get better. She promised she would help others like herself get better, too.

Here’s how Marsha describes it:

“The day when I was sitting in the piano room by myself, a lonely soul in the midst of other lonely souls on the unit, I can’t be sure what made me do what I did next. There and then I made a vow to god that I would get myself out of hell and that, once I did, I would go back into hell and get others out. That vow has guided and controlled most of my life since then.” 

She blows right past how this breakthrough happened! Maybe she assumes the reader will understand that people who are raised religious tend to make unbreakable vows to god when at low point.

I wanted her to say so much more. That’s a massive decision and a big shift with little precipitating cause. At least from the reader’s perspective.

This was the same person who asked nurses to strap her to a bed while wrapping her up like a burrito in wet, cold, bed sheets. That was supposed to be punishment. Martha would request it because it would stop her from trying to hurt herself.

Then, bam, “I guess I’ll sit at the piano and decide to devote my life to getting better and to helping people.” And she actually does it, as opposed to most people, who can’t even commit to going to the gym after buying a membership.

Did she have other times she made promises but just not keep them that she left out? Was this kind of her schtick? We don’t know.

Her compact with god didn’t lead to instant healing, but there was clearly a shift that left her open to changing her predicament in ways that didn’t involve killing herself.

She says she finally realized that she actually didn’t want to kill herself when her doctor told her he stopped caring whether she died or not. He gratuitously added in that he would not go to her funeral. This feels harsh, but it fired Marsha up.

Her theory is that everyone worrying about her suicide attempts was encouraging her to do them more, for attention.

“When Dr. O’Brien made his stand that day, I came to realize for the first time that I did not want to die. That was the turning point. I realized that killing myself was incompatible with my vow to get myself out of hell. I had to find a way to stop wanting to kill myself, and I did.”

That’s hardcore! Hey, whatever works.

She soon gets another important motivational boost when she learns that if she didn’t get better her parents would put her in a state hospital instead of a the private facility she was in. If her facility was good in the grand scheme of things it would be real depressing to know what was bad. We have to imagine Marsha had an idea of how much worse it could get, because this threat scared her straight.

“When I heard that the hospital was giving up on me, and that my parents might really put me in a state hospital, I decided that I would prove them all wrong if it was the last thing I did on earth.”

I guess they should have threatened that sooner!

Her writing makes it seem like each event is an isolated catalyst and I wish she’d dug more into how they all built on each other and culminated in her breakthrough. It went something like → see God at piano → have doctor give up on her → have parents give up → feel righteous anger burning like a thousands suns → get act together. Not the order of events I would have guessed.

I am most struck by the original piano epiphany. Can that happen to the average person? Do you have to hit rock bottom? How do you cultivate what’s needed to get to that point when you are, again, spending much of your day literally hitting your head against a wall and being physically re-strained in freezing cold sheets?

I would have loved her to explore this more and cut out some of the fluff around her meditation retreats later on. I bet she’d say something about “finding your why” and this book made me want to take that a lot more seriously in case I find myself in a situation where my “why” is the only thing that keeps me going.

Setbacks, Getting Her Act Together, Facing New Challenges

Marsha starts living on her own at a YMCA and takes a secretarial job at her dad’s company. She struggles, and even tries to commit suicide multiple times by swallowing pills. The pact with god only got her so far.

She keeps chugging along, and eventually starts going to night school, meets someone, and falls in love. But it turns out he had a wife on the side. This crushes her but surprisingly does not send her into a suicidal tailspin, which is kind of remarkable considering her recent history.

She just sort of, got through it. How? Again, she’s just kinda unsure. Which is as remarkable as it is unhelpful to those trying to draw lessons. 

She writes:

“Within a year of leaving the institute of living [her mental hospital] and going back to Tulsa, I experienced a significant shift. It is hard to explain, but it was as if a new and happier me emerged from the cocoon of the anguished old me. And, remarkably, the metamorphosis just happened, unprompted by anything I said or did.”

I don’t buy that self analysis. It seems to me that it very much was prompted by things she said or did. She decided that she was going to devote her life to getting out of hell and helping others do the same.

She slipped up on this with her suicide attempts, but the decision and motivation still clearly meant something to her. And she also proved she can step out from under the shadow of her invalidating, emotionally unsupportive parents by earning some income and going back to school. And a huge part of what made her depressed at 18 was that she felt boys didn’t like her, so learning a boy could devote so much time to her must have been a boost to her ego, even if he ended up being pretty shitty.

Also, she was really drugged up at the institute, so maybe, ironically, it was a matter of getting off the antipsychotics that helped her improve.

I feel like clearing the drugs out of her system, plus the self esteem boost from love, earning a wage, and progress towards getting a degree was enough to push her into a state where she felt there was something to live for. 

I find more hope in that story than just “one day I woke up and felt good, no idea why.”

It is hopeful that a change of scenery and a few lifestyle tweaks can blossom into very positive outcomes, even if you can’t pinpoint exactly what combination of changes made the difference.

On the Right Path , God Helps Out Again

She goes to Chicago, she works hard, she goes to school, her rich uncle agrees to pay for college. All looking mostly good! Marsha on the up and up! 

Yet again, the most intriguing part to me was an unexplainable moment that shifted Marsha internally and set her on a different path. 

As she worked toward a degree in night school, she was in a place where she did not want to kill herself. But she still felt despair, she still go depressed, and she still had low self esteem. 

Then this happened one day when she was feeling particulary bad:

“I went into the chapel, knelt at a pew, and gazed at the cross behind the altar. I don’t recall what I was saying to God at the time, if anything, but as I gazed at the large crucifix, all of a sudden the whole of the chapel became suffused with a bright golden light, shimmering all over. And I immediately, joyfully knew with complete certain that God loved me. That I was not alone.

She ran back to her room proclaiming how much she loved herself, and spends a page talking about how she felt like before that experience she was “split” and after she was healed and had become her true self in a way.

“I said out loud ‘I love myself.’ The minute the word ‘myself’ came out, I knew I had been transformed. If anyone had asked me up to that point, ‘Do you love yourself’ I might have answered ‘I love her.’ 

After I descended into hell in the institute, I had always though or spoken of myself in the third person, as if there were two of me, split somehow. I hadn’t been split like this before I went into the institute, but during that experience, until this moment in the chapel, I had been somehow split.” 

Wild! Out of nowhere spiritual healing experiences for the win. I guess if you pray enough this just might happen? I’ve had profound experiences meditating where I see all sorts of cool stuff, but nothing which healed something deep within me quite like Marsha’s experience.

I like how Marsha is very spiritual and not ashamed about it. Her vibe reminds me of how more scientists in the past used to be open about their delightfully weird spiritual beliefs. Isaac Newton spent a ton of time identifying hidden messages in the Bible, for instance. Erwin Schrodinger, of quantum mechanics fame, said that, “In the presentation of a scientific problem, the other player is the good Lord.” I think Marsha would agree.

Post church epiphany, Marsha’s up and down journey continues. She falls in and out of love, gets different jobs, tries new research methods, and starts to develop what will ultimately become Dialectal Behavioral Therapy (DBT).

She still struggles with wanting to die, which she differentiates from wanting to kill herself. She gets a good therapist and calls him at all hours of the night and is a bit of a wreck. She gets through it and does what Marsha does, which is to plow forward and work her ass off.

A couple other interesting tidbits from this period:

  • She became keen on taking troubled people into her house to live. One time she had someone on parole for murder mingling with her students during a study session. Her students were not woke enough to handle this and asked her to stop brining murderers around.
  • She quit smoking using the following strategy → She knew she needed a habit to replace getting cigs from her purse. She chose to grab a dime and transfer it from one jar to another, and to convince herself this is what she actually wanted to do. She stuck with this until it worked. Maybe borderline people are much better at convincing themselves of things? Or maybe I overestimate how hard it would be to convince myself of something. But this is bananas to me.

Living the Zen Life, Creating DBT

Spiritual experiences continue to influence Marsha’s life as she develops large chunks of DBT therapy while at a zen monastery.

She decides to go to a monastery on a whim and ends up loving it so much that she rearranges her schedule in order to stay longer. She has spiritual awakenings there, as one does when they spend 14 hours a day meditating. She cries at the feet of a Zen master named Willigus for a long time and then emerges back into society with a newfound ability to use what she calls “wise mind.” She eventually becomes one of the first therapists to bring mindfulness into western therapy practices, and her patients get a lot out of it.

I ended this section thinking academic tenure sounds pretty sweet, taking casual 4 month sojourns to zen monasteries for “work purposes” and whatnot.

I also think it’s cool that she didn’t read a book about Zen and then decide to start using it in therapy. She wasn’t doing this stuff based on theory alone. If Marsha was going to incorporate mindfulness and radical acceptance into her approach it’s because she went to a remote mountain and radically accepted herself for 4 months to see how it felt first hand.

Similarly, if she’s teaching that it’s important to say off the cuff, slightly ridiculous things during sessions even when tensions are high, it’s because she’s had success doing just that. She once had a patient say “A friend will take care of my dog if I killed myself and Marsha said, “No they won’t, because I’ll tell them not to.”

If she’s teaching patients to convince themselves they like something more healthy than their destructive habit it’s because she made herself want to move dimes from one jar to another instead of smoking cigarettes. Still can’t believe that one worked.

Through trial and error, intentional collection of feedback, and trips to monasteries, the standard version of DBT therapy started to take shape. As she was building the practice of DBT, Marsha focused above all else on finding something, anything, that actually helped people.

It’s worth stopping for a second to point out that those with borderline personality disorder are notoriously hard to treat. BPD is “characterized by emotion dysregulation, impulsivity, self-injurious behavior, and suicidal behavior all of which contribute to the highest emergency and inpatient service utilization of any psychiatric disorder.” There are also no effective drug treatments as of 2021.

That’s a tough situation to step into. As she was developing DBT, Marsha would to sit with patients while others watched her through a one way mirror. She’d try everything she could think, then everyone would review and say what went well and what didn’t. Then they’d iterate. It reminds me of comedians preparing their set by doing open mics. You bomb a lot, but you learn, and you build on the bits of laughter you did get. It’s kind of amazing this wasn’t standard practice with how to develop therapies before, or maybe it is and I just need to do more research. 

I was less interested in what DBT actually is than in how it came to be, but here’s a brief summary: DBT is the practice of accepting bad things as they are while also understanding that you can learn skills that will improve your life. It involves group therapy, phone coaching, mindfulness, and emotional regulation skills.

The therapist tries to strike a balance between accepting the patient fully, validating their problems, and making them feel heard while also encouraging them to change and teaching them how they can do that (hence the “dialectical” part of the name, which means striking a balance between two contrasting poles)

And all therapists practice in groups because the patients can be insanely taxing and the therapists need support, too.

Marsha admits DBT therapist turnover is very high and she kind of describes it like the investment banking of the therapy world. It’s an intense process where you learn a lot and work a lot but burn out quick. It’s like the investment banking of the therapy world, minus the high pay and the Adderall plus they actually help people.

This approach was a sea change in how people dealt with Borderline people previously. In the bad old days, all patients went through endless psychotherapy aimed at uncovering the source of their issues. This can help some patients, but suicidal people with borderline personality disorder had poor outcomes with traditional therapy.

Marsha was having none of that Freudian bullshit. She wanted to change behaviors and get people healthy, to hell with the source of their issues. She built a system based first and foremost on changing behaviors.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one last, and, according to Marsha, crucial part of the DBT therapist toolkit — dance circles.

Marsha makes up her own moves and says patients love them and that everyone always cries tears of joy during the dances . I had a hard time believing this. I looked it up, and it’s real, but I can’t confirm tears of joy or transformational dance inspired breakthroughs. I just love that DBT is like “We use advanced techniques to help the hardest to treat patients and part of that is doing the horah, so what?”

The establishment was annoyed as hell by Marsha’s shenanigans, as it tends to go with establishments.

They’d be like “Wah, but how are you even helping these people, you’re just putting a band-aid on the problem.” And Marsha was like “well all your basic-ass talk therpay mumbo jumbo leaves a lot more dead bodies in its wake, so I’m going to keep doing me.”

I am totally on team Marsha with this one. The controversy reminded me of an anecdote from psychiatrist Scott Alexander about an effective treatment for a peculiar patient that had some docs applauding while others pulled their hair out:

The Hair Dryer Incident was probably the biggest dispute I’ve seen in the mental hospital where I work. Most of the time all the psychiatrists get along and have pretty much the same opinion about important things, but people were at each other’s throats about the Hair Dryer Incident.

Basically, this one obsessive compulsive woman would drive to work every morning and worry she had left the hair dryer on and it was going to burn down her house. So she’d drive back home to check that the hair dryer was off, then drive back to work, then worry that maybe she hadn’t really checked well enough, then drive back, and so on ten or twenty times a day.

It’s a pretty typical case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but it was really interfering with her life. She worked some high-powered job – I think a lawyer – and she was constantly late to everything because of this driving back and forth, to the point where her career was in a downspin and she thought she would have to quit and go on disability. She wasn’t able to go out with friends, she wasn’t even able to go to restaurants because she would keep fretting she left the hair dryer on at home and have to rush back. She’d seen countless psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, she’d done all sorts of therapy, she’d taken every medication in the book, and none of them had helped.

So she came to my hospital and was seen by a colleague of mine, who told her “Hey, have you thought about just bringing the hair dryer with you?”

And it worked.

For good measure, Marsha conducted a lot of studies showing how people actually do improve their self esteem when going through DBT therapy, they don’t just paper over their issues. Other studies have replicated these findings, and DBT is firmly cemented as the best treatment for borderline personality disorder these days.

No Excuses

Her writing style can be dry at times, but the content makes it a good read anyway. Everyone loves a good comeback story, and this is one for the ages. We all talk about proving the haters wrong. Few rise up from the depths of a wicked mental illness and actually do so. 

At the end of the book, Marsha revisits the mental hospital where she spent her most hellish years. She gives a moving speech where she reveals to the pubic her struggle for the first time. That’s so baller! It’s like the ultimate version of going back to your high school reunion and being better looking and richer than all the bullies. “Yeah, I used headbutt a concrete wall right over there just to feel something, but look at me now!

You can see how that would inspire so many people facing dark situations. If Marsha can climb out of mental hospital hell and become a world class therapist / dance choreographer, the rest of us have no excuses when it comes to overcoming hardships and following our dreams.