Take your brain to the gym

I’m concerned about the extinction of voluntary discomfort. I’m not talking about the billions suffering globally in cycles of poverty, displacement, and hunger. I’m talking about the billions who have managed to expunge discomfort from their lives entirely — to their detriment. Sleep at will, eat at will, exercise only when suits, leave the house only when compelled, work only as required, engage only as programmed.

Being uncomfortable is not something that is acceptable in 2019. Hunger born of a lunch delayed is an emergency to be tackled in real-time, with urgency that would not be out of place in responding to certain small natural disasters. In-person conflict is avoided to the point of censorship, while deeper disagreements transmogrify into existential schisms with the aid of the anonymity of the internet in the comfort of our homes. Much as the act of smiling can trigger actual happiness, there is evidence to suggest that practicing discomfort can equip us to deal with it when the unexpected enters our lives uninvited. This Letter is about the exercises we can do to increase our mental fitness daily and resist the siren song of complacency.

A quick note before we dive in: Many of you have asked where you can see Urbach Letter back-issues. They’re available here along with other writing I don’t deem important enough for your inbox.

A Cow in the Rain

Stoicism is a school of personal philosophy which is evoked far more often than it is understood. The cartoon image of a cow standing unmoved in the rain is a vast oversimplification of stoicism that does its usefulness a disservice.

As canonized in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, and countless more contemporary texts, stoicism is the regular practice of exposure to calculated discomfort in order to internally level-set. This empowers happiness at lower levels of external positive stimulus than many (myself included) generally require. Stocism enables the contrapositive as well: happiness in the face of truly discomfiting external stimuli when they should arise.

For Seneca, this meant spending extended periods of time living as a pauper to convince himself that, should tragedy strike, he’d be able to continue a worthwhile existence. This gave him the strength to take risks and live his truth without the spectre of fear hiding behind every calculated risk.

It should be immediately clear to the readership of this Letter why a “personal operating system” like stoicism is useful for the modern entrepreneur or investor. Risk is an inherent part of our lives. It permeates everything we do. Like a professional poker player, we hold our futures in our hands — but only to an extent. Over the long run, we will win; but only if we hold it together during the statistically foreshadowed dips in the road.

4 Exercises in Productive Discomfort

Not every day is bench press day, so here are four eminently doable ways to introduce discomfort into your daily life:

  1. Cold Showers. This one snuck up on me. You don’t need to travel far in the deeply masturbatory world of modern self-help to find thinly veiled humblebrags related to ice baths and cold showers. There’s some real research on the positive effects of cold and heat shock therapy, but I was still skeptical. I always figured the immune system damage from cold exposure wasn’t worth the roll of the dice. I don’t know when the switch flipped for me, but one day this summer I stopped turning the shower handle to the left. The benefits were immediately apparent. No waiting for the shower to get to temp, tentatively sticking a hand in. No fogging up the whole bathroom. Shorter showers — no luxuriating. Big endorphin release. Sense of accomplishment akin to completing a morning workout or making one’s bed. Try this hack: the water out of your tap isn’t cold enough to give you the physiological benefits Dr. Rhonda Patrick discusses. You go out in search of colder water. You appreciate the coldness of different showers and pools as you travel. You buy bags of ice.
  2. Stop Eating. You don’t need to eat for the next month. I’m not suggesting you do that, but I am suggesting you put into context our thrice-daily human compulsion to eat. There are myriad benefits to chucking that schedule to the curb. But the strongest, by far, is freeing yourself from a cycle of endless mouth-pleasure that comes at the detriment of your health. Try waking up, not eating, and then going to sleep. See how your brain goes through various spasms trying to compel you to eat. See how it eventually calms down and accepts the new normal. You have control again.
  3. Myofascial release. Digging into your sore hamstrings with a foam roller or lying your front delts on a lacrosse ball is undeniably uncomfortable. It’s also one of the few sources of truly good-for-you pain. It’s very hard to hurt yourself by rolling out a sore muscle (don’t roll your IT bands), despite the pain that may result from doing so. This creates a perfect playground for re-framing your relationship to pain, while improving your mobility and promoting muscle recovery. Because it’s self-inflicted, unlike a deep tissue massage, the psychological effects are stronger. You are the agent of painful but positive change.
  4. Ask for 10% off. Stolen directly from Noah Kagan, because it’s so good. Next time you’re at a coffee shop, with nobody behind you in line to inconvenience, ask the cashier for 10% off your coffee. They may ask if it’s your birthday. Your answer is no. They may ask you if there’s any particular reason you think you’re entitled to the discount. You must say no. You must not lie. Whether you get the 10% off or not is not at issue. But if you can’t bring yourself to ask a coffee merchant for a few cents, it’s unlikely you’re able to have hard conversations with the meaningful people in your life.

Cool Thing of the Week:

Hydaway Bottle

For something that looks like a cross between an android beehive and a late-nite infomercial product, the Hydaway bottle is a remarkably good piece of silicone to own. Do you care about waste? Then you should keep a re-usable bottle on you. Too bad they’re impossible to keep in a briefcase. Do you like paying 5 bucks for Dasani after security at JFK? Neither do I. Do you like begging the stewardess for water every 10 minutes because all she has are child-sized cups?

I’ve tried a plethora of gimmicky reduced-space water bottles. I’ve tried the flexible platypus ones, and the collapsing dog bowl ones, and even one where somehow velcro is involved. These are all exercises in frustration. The startling thing about the Hydaway bottle is that it actually works. The spout stays locked, the D ring is of a useful size for hanging off a backpack, it remains standing even when empty, and it’s simple (and dare I say fun) to drink out of. New constant companion.

Get /Giphy With it:

Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:

Mandatory Self-Promotion

After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.

If you like the Urbach Letter, the best way to give back is emailing me copious atta-boys to print out and stick on my fridge.

The second best way is connecting me to your friends at family offices, VCs, and terrific startups. For investors, Brandt & Co. focuses on a class-leading diligence product to shine light on technically complex early-stage investment targets. For founders, we aim to prepare them for institutional scrutiny and provide the tools to help their companies grow and scale.

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