Near Yellow Mountain

Monday, September 9, 2019

Aging Out?

“It is better to burn out than it is to rust”
Neil Young

I don’t obsess about the passage of time but I have to admit I think about it more than I used to.

A couple days ago I was in a trendy supermarket (not normally my style) shopping for raw material to do my weekly grilling of wild caught fish and grass fed beef to complement my daily “Bulletproof Coffee” habit. Clearly, I am not on the slippery slope to veganism but I do pay more attention to the quality of things I put in my mouth these days. As I approached the meat counter, my phone rang. It was my younger daughter checking in from LA. “Hey Dad, how do you feel about running another marathon?”

I was the crew when my daughter ran her first marathon

Like “Alexa” my knees monitor all my conversations. While I tried to say “well buddy, let me think about it” my knees were saying “hell no!, really XXXXing bad idea”. Not wanting to let my aging knees push me around, my rejoinder was “maybe doing a half marathon is a better idea”. So we agreed that we would try to find a half marathon that would be part of her training to run her second marathon of the decade. As the years seem to pass by faster and faster, I am finally learning to begin to accept my limitations….. Well, maybe.

According to my Fitbit, last week I walked, hiked, jogged and hobbled 78.98 miles. Half a lifetime ago when I was running 5 marathons or more a year, covering this mileage would have taken less than ten hours, last week if the “demon on my wrist” is to be believed it took me closer to 19 hours. What can I say, “stuff (aka shit) happens”.

Going the distance takes longer than it used to

In a few days I will leave for Spain to hike approximately 112 miles over ten days with several family members on a route “El Camino pilgrims” have been traversing for over 900 years. The entire route is over 500 miles starting in France and terminating near the Atlantic coast of Spain, I am only doing the “home stretch” this time. Time constraints make 500+ miles impractical although I am quite sure if I find the experience enjoyable, I will go back and do the entire distance. Hell, if an untrained Martin Sheen could "go the distance" in the movie “The Way” why can’t I?

I don’t write in my personal blog much these days but it seems in recent years I always feel the need to memorialize getting fired on 9/10/2012. For several weeks after the actual event I felt like I had experienced “the end” of my career only to realize by 2013 I had really experienced, as my wife put it “Christmas in September”. As usual she proved to be correct, in five years on my own I made more money than I did in 23 years as a “corporate executive”. I spent less time working and had a LOT more fun doing it. That said, success only happened because of all the friends I made along the way. Fortunately "being of a certain age" hasn't limited my ability to make a living.

Time has done its job and given me perspective. Seven years after getting fired, I have only good things to say about  "the axe falling”. I never pretended it didn’t hurt at the time but fortunately I was able to move on and, with a lot of help, prosper.

I still love the (lithium) business I grew up in but now I spend almost as much time thinking about how I can support younger people in their careers – lithium or otherwise while I spend more and more time trying to slow down my mental and physical decline curve. 

Lithium has been "a long and winding road"
Today I held my breath for 4 minutes and 35 seconds while doing my normal breathing exercises. I couldn’t have done that at age 20, 30, 40 or 50 but I also know running marathons in the 2:40’s as I did “back in the day” is off the table. So I have to take the good with the bad and look for the upside.

I won’t belabor this post. If I do the math and use actuarial assumptions I still have over 40% of my adult life (assume it started at 20) left. Why wouldn’t I focus on the many things I still want to accomplish?

Learn another language or two, write a book and maybe run another marathon with my younger daughter when she turns 40 in 13 years. Of course the more immediate issue is running a half marathon in late December.

I am hoping my remaining glass is more than half full. I am not asking why the engineer designed the glass to be twice as large as required......

Friday, July 19, 2019

Fifty Years Later: From the Moon to Twitter

I am writing this one day before the fifty-year anniversary of man landing on the moon. On July 20, 1969, I was a 12-year-old watching on TV in glorious “black and white” – the broadcast was in color but we didn’t have a color TV. Holding my less than month old first nephew on my lap as the drama unfolded, life was good. I felt a kinship with all the serious faces at mission control in Houston as “Uncle” Walter Cronkite guided us through the events of the day on CBS.

"Uncle" Walter Cronkite
I started writing to NASA a few years’ prior to Apollo 11 – addressing the envelope simply: NASA, Houston, Texas. Every letter I sent got a response and came with a lot of cool, space related stuff. I am not sure how I got the idea to write NASA but in a world where most of my info came from the encyclopedia at home or the small library in my hometown of several hundred people, I think the librarian taught me at about age eight that if I wrote to the chamber of commerce of any city; they would send me information. I was a curious kid that figured if the chamber of commerce in Richmond, Virginia or Huntsville, Alabama would write me back, why wouldn’t NASA?

The people at NASA were smart enough to know that public support was critical to funding the space program so they were great at responding to even handwritten inquiries written by left handed eight year olds. I was already flying my own model rockets with “engines” containing gunpowder that I “launched” by sticking a thin piece of wire into the bottom and giving the wire a “little juice” from a battery about 30 feet away. My rockets went up several hundred fee and even had a system to release a plastic parachute to bring the rocket to the ground, normally, undamaged. The first video games were still about a decade away but I certainly didn’t feel a void.

Early astronauts had visited my little hometown and skied at our local ski area while running tests at Bell Aerospace a little more than an hour north of us. As a pre-teen, I absolutely felt connected to the space program.

Getting model rockets via mail order or swag by writing NASA was my early version of Amazon Prime. I had to pay for the rockets but the swag from NASA was always free. I was doing all this when Jeff Bezos was in pre-K.

Smoking wasn't a Problem in the Apollo Era
On July 20, 1969 the chain smokers at mission control were my heroes and so were the three men in space and all those who came before them. I obviously hadn’t been in space but I had flown in a two seater plane my dad kept in a hangar at a local farm. Unfortunately, the fact that I was legally blind in my left eye DQ’d my long term space ambitions but living the space dream as a kid was a great part of my childhood.

Now I carry more computing power than put man on the moon in my IPhone. Fifty years later technology has brought many improvements to life but, in my opinion, has brought as many negative consequences as well.

On New Year’s Day of this year I wrote a blog post about taking more time for myself and family in 2019. In January, I did well sticking to the concept of spending less time working and more time on other things that interest me. My wife and I flew to London for a couple of days before going on a tour of Sweden, Finland and Norway. We spent a night in the famous ice hotel in Sweden, a few nights at a reindeer farm in Finland and more time at a wonderful resort hotel on the edge of a Norwegian fjord.

Most evenings (which at that time of year pretty much starts at 3PM) were spent in search of the “northern lights”. During the short days we hiked, snowmobiled, went dog sledding, XC skiing, wandered in the small towns and just generally had a good time. I didn’t need to take ice baths when it was so easy to pop of a sauna or hot tub and into a snow bank. It was a great couple of weeks but my old habits returned as soon as I went “back to work”.

Over the next four months I logged over 100K flight miles with visits to Asia, Oz and multiple trips to South America. I wasn’t really traveling more but I certainly wasn’t cutting back. I wasted way too much time on Twitter. Don’t get me wrong – properly managed Twitter can and has been a great tool but it can also be a HUGE time waster. My elder daughter warned me of the dark side of Twitter long ago but I gradually got sucked in. It was my mistake to respond to people that baited me. Of course, me responding helped them gain exposure and followers. It was a rookie mistake that I made too often.

Numerous friends tried to counsel me to “take the high ground” on social media but the message took a long time to sink in.  

In late June while I was kayaking for a few hours in Vancouver with my wife and some friends, I reflected on my abysmal 2019 performance in balancing work and other activities. I noted my first half failure and decided that I would focus on doing more non work things in Q3. Like many in my generation, I often confuse being busy with meaningful work output. Learning to say “no” is a skill I need to get better at. As a recognized expert in a niche industry I get numerous requests for comment from reporters, companies that hold out a carrot of retaining me while trying to get me to work for free by requesting an “introductory call”, small investor questions, etc. Just reading the large amount of unsolicited electronic communication takes time. Although I probably delete more than 40% of my email without reading anything but the caption; far too often, I try to “be a nice guy” and respond to people in a meaningful way which probably is a waste of time in most cases.

It is amazing how so many of my followers on social media seem to think I have an obligation to answer their questions. Most questions that I get could be answered with a little research by the person asking but they are simply too lazy to do the work themselves.

In reality I probably have more than enough time to support my real clients podcast and write monthly posts on the industry which I do as a public service. Those are the things I want to focus on work wise.

I just need to get better at saying “no” to both myself when I am tempted to scroll around mindlessly on social media or when the DMs from Linked In start coming in asking me for “a little time” or “a small favor”. Probably my all-time favorite request was from a lady in India who emailed me on five separate occasions pleading with me to tell her “the best Chinese lithium stock to buy” so her young son could “have a bright future”. She said she “found me on Linked In”. I responded only once saying that if she read what I post on Linked In the answer should be obvious.

Me, Two Years before Apollo 11

I am hoping the remaining 24 weeks of this year are more “balanced” than the first half of the year. July is off to a good start. My wife and I are going on daily hikes to prepare for the 112 miles we will hike on the “El Camino” in Spain over several days in September. I have used both of my Spanish learning apps every day this month, I finally played more than a couple holes of golf today and plan to be back on the course tomorrow.  

Fifty years after man landed on the moon, life is better in some ways and less good in others but at the end of the day the problems any of us have with technology are often self-inflicted. I am a big fan of shopping via Amazon Prime, banking without going to the bank, working from home, communicating seamlessly and cheaply with people all over the globe, watching what I want when I want via Netflix and other platforms. Yet, I still remember the joy when I would get a package from NASA after waiting two weeks. Something to be said for deferred gratification. Still pondering that……

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Good to Be Back

The first day of 2019 seemed like a good time to return to my long neglected personal blog. No, it’s not a New Year’s resolution; just something I always enjoyed and decided to make time for.

I started a blog several years ago to help me adjust to living back in the US after over a decade living in Japan and China. A respected Asia expert that advises many large International companies was hired by my former employer hired to “help” me decide to move to China from Japan. We became friendly especially after he told me that my employer “was terrible at supporting ex-pats” and I should only go to China if I “thought I could handle it without proper support from HQ”. You have to love a person with that level of honesty.

Ex-pat life provided all sorts of interesting experiences

We spoke again before I returned to the US after living for more than five years in China and five plus in Japan. He congratulated me on my success in Asia, told me I would have trouble adjusting to life both in the US and back at HQ and suggested I write a book about my experiences. A book seemed out of my wheelhouse but I thought writing blog posts might be both good therapy for me as I adjusted to life back in the US and if I ever changed my mind about a book about my ex-pat experiences it could be a good resource to draw from.

No book yet but the my wife got the blog bound
Time passed, my adjustment to life in the US took a couple years but my adjustment to life back at HQ never happened. Less than two years after returning I was jettisoned from the corporate world and got busy reinventing myself as an advisor to various stakeholders in the lithium world. I signed up for Twitter and Linked-In, starting writing business posts and my personal blog was, for the most part, neglected.

For me, the Christmas – New Year’s Holiday period is a time to reflect on where I am in life and where I want to go next. I have been extremely blessed to have been at the right place at the right time in the lithium world. The “survival” worries I had when I no longer had a “corporate master and safety net” are a memory thanks to the largesse of the growing lithium market.

New Year's is a good time to "reboot"

Like many “type A” people when I get into something, I tend to narrow my focus on the whatever the “new thing” is to the exclusion of other interests. Reading and writing for pleasure were one casualty of my focus on communicating with the world regarding lithium via social media and more recently a podcast. I may have fallen prey to those Silicon Valley types who have designed an ecosystem that has many of us behaving like gerbils on a treadmill seeking small dopamine hits (whether we know it or not) as we collect more followers and “likes” on our social media sites of choice.

So I am planning 2019 to be a year of re-balancing how I spend my time – more quality time with my bride, books, hobbies, etc and less “screen” time with the “app” creations of teens and twenty somethings.

I am not retiring or leaving the lithium world just as things are getting really interesting in the transition from an oil based to a renewable energy economy. I just want more of my “flip phone” era lifestyle back. Of course this is both a personal as well as a general “first world” problem – that many readers of this blog probably have too.

Now that the lengthy preamble is over I can get to the topic I had in mind. Over the past 28 years I have accumulated over 5,000,000 frequent flyer miles. I have circled the globe 103 times on Around the World tickets. Including those trips plus normal point to point, round trip tickets I have crossed the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans more than 250 times. It takes absolutely zero skill to board a plane and accumulate miles but it is difficult to travel to six continents and not be humbled by what you don’t know.

The older I get the more it strikes me how many interesting people you come into contact with when traveling and how much you can learn just by engaging with the locals. I am still learning travel tricks on a regular basis because I started paying more attention a couple of years ago after having some obvious travel hacks I had been missing pointed out to me. I will save those tips for another day.

When I interviewed people for jobs during my days in the corporate world, I often asked people that said they had “five years” experience if they “really had five years’ experience of if they had one year of experience five times”. I wanted to know HOW they were better in their thinking and work in year five than they were in year one. Very few people have a good answer to that question but upon reflection I realized I need to constantly be asking myself a variation of that question – am I spending enough time learning new things and making sure I am having new experiences?

Last year I had a situation where my “normal” hotel in Tokyo was sold out and I had to stay somewhere else. It turned out to be a great hotel – much better than the one I was comfortable with and showed me I had gotten into a travel rut of always staying in the same hotels in various cities and eating in the same restaurants.

There is something to be said for making travel easy and as stress free as possible but there is also something to be said for walking into a place called “Champagne and Gyoza” at 1am in Tokyo with another gaijin and just seeing what happens. Turned out to be great gyoza and marginal champagne so we had beer instead. Ninety minutes and two dozen gyoza later I was back at the hotel with a memory I won’t soon forget.

Lately, when I am alone in Asia; I seek out places I have never been. It takes me back to some of the great experiences we had when my family first moved to China and we communicated with sign language, flash cards and a few spoken words. Almost every day brought a new experience when we first arrived in Shanghai.

My wife and I always tried to teach our kids to “ask for the order” when they wanted something whether it was a room upgrade, a discount or a pet sitting job. The best examples of this concept I ever saw were from kids selling things on the street in Cambodia and Viet Nam. Both times they were pre-teens who learned enough English to try to sell things to tourists. In both cases, they made eye contact, established where we were from, said something to establish credibility.  One young lady sold us by knowing all the state capitals in the US, proving it to us and then using the positive impression to sell us a travel guidebook that was clearly printed locally. My wife started to leaf through the book and was stopped in her tracks by a firm response: “lady the book is $2, just buy it” which is what happened. It always amazed us how entrepreneurial kids were in places like Ho Chi Minh, Angkor Wat and Lhasa.

This little guy rowed his bucket out to our boat and "asked for the order"
On another occasion we were walking along the street in Ho Chi Minh a boy of about twelve came up to us with nothing to sell; he just wanted to beef up his language skills. We talked for about ten minutes and suddenly a late model BMW pulled up to the curb. Our new friend politely said “Oh that’s my mom, I have to go she drops me off near international hotels a couple times a week so I can chat up foreigners and improve my English”.

The passion for learning I found traveling in Asia and working with young people in China, taught me that I needed to consider how much time I was spending consciously focused on continuing to develop myself.

If nothing else writing this blog helps me re-live great memories of the time I have been privileged to spend traveling the world and living in Asia. Sorry if this was a little too much stream of consciousness but thanks for coming along.