Category Archives: Lifehacks


Motivation, Aptitude, and Skill – The Three Facets of Success and Excellence

The title sounds really cheesy, I know, but this is a subject near and dear to my heart. This post has been on my to-do list since at least October of 2011, possibly earlier. I also want to preface this by saying that I don’t know that this is an original idea — I don’t claim it to be, but last time I looked I couldn’t find anything tying these three concepts together in this way. I welcome comments pointing me to other, better work.

Disclaimers made, here we go. I think that to succeed in any endeavor, you need three things: motivation, aptitude, and skill. Briefly, I will define these as I think of them.

  • Motivation: The inherent drive to do something. This could be for any reason.
  • Aptitude: The inherent or natural ability to do something.
  • Skill: The learned ability to do something.

I have the urge to make a triangle diagram, but I’m going to fight it for now. Basically, you won’t want to do something unless you are so motivated, which is something of a tautology. You may not be able to unless you have the aptitude. A good example of aptitude is the proverbial one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest. No matter how much he practices, he’s still going to have a very hard time. Finally, skill is the development that occurs on top of aptitude. There’s a common misconception that Mozart was simply able to play the piano and compose because he was a whiz. He may have had a ton of aptitude, but he also had a skilled composer and musician for a father, who drilled him from an early age on the skills required to realize that aptitude.

That last point is what really got me thinking about this in the first place. I was a smart kid. I had a lot of aptitude at certain things. I didn’t learn until I got to college that I’d never really learned to properly develop a skill to realize that aptitude. I think there’s a common cultural perception in America, or maybe even the West in general, that some people are just naturally really good at something, and therefore they end up excelling at it. This is a really poisonous notion, because then when people try to realize an idea they become frustrated, decide that they’re just “not any good at it” and quit. Culturally I wish we could shift to really recognize that a skill must be developed in order to realize aptitude.

Let me give you an example that I hope applies to you and will illustrate what you want. It could really apply to any artistic endeavor — this problem seems to be most manifest with regard to art. If, as a kid or even as an adult, you had a vision of something you wanted to draw, and then you sat down to try to draw it, you probably found that you could not make what was in your head appear on the paper. To me that artistic vision was part of the aptitude, but the skill was missing. Obviously if you were trying, you had the motivation. If you were like me (at least at one point), you may have become frustrated and given up. This is because your motivation was being channeled into merely trying, not developing the necessary skill, perhaps because you believed that you just weren’t naturally good enough at it. If drawing doesn’t apply to you, maybe it was playing guitar, or playing basketball, or learning to program.

Before I close this initial essay on this topic, let’s examine what happens when you only have two of the three components of this triangle-I-will-not-draw:

  • Motivation and Aptitude: Skill is lacking, and so as in the example above, this often results in frustration. If you recognize that skill must be developed, then that frustration can be channeled productively.
  • Aptitude and Skill: No motivation, so you never get it done. Could be considered “wasted talent”, but there are many good reasons to not be motivated to do something.
  • Motivation and Skill: This is tough. This is the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest. Like the first situation, it’s going to lead to frustration. In this case probably the only reasonable response is acceptance.

So there you have it, motivation, aptitude and skill. The next post on this topic will probably relate these three concepts to the concept of a “challenge”. I welcome additional thoughts as well as criticism.

Melatonin for Jet Lag: The short and simple answer.

I am going to be doing a few red-eye flights in the near future, to time zones far from my own. I decided to review the scientific recommendations around melatonin for jet lag. Unfortunately, most of the articles that have the needed information are behind paywalls, so I bit the bullet and bought a review article. Now I can share the important information with you, dear readers. Here it is:

  • Take 2-5 mg of fast-dissolving or liquid melatonin about 30 minutes before sleep.
  • Do this when you’re ready to sleep on the red-eye flight
  • Do this every day at your destination for the first 3-4 days
  • Maybe avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • Do NOT take melatonin earlier in the day, or at any other day or time beside what is listed above. This includes not taking any in the days before your flight.
  • Try to get dark when you should be sleeping and light when you should be awake (by the time zone you’re adjusting to).

That’s it. Lots of long-winded discussion exists on the internet. Many abstracts tease at this information but don’t give it. But now you have it. Happy travels.

Converting HRS’ OASIS Schedule Output to Google Calendar

The Heart Rhythm Society uses a system called OASIS for online schedule planning. I wanted to put the output into google calendar, but they only output it in formats that were not compatible with Google Calendar. However, one of those formats is CSV, and it’s not too hard to process with perl, so I made a little converter.

Caveats: It was designed to work with this year’s OASIS, it discards some data, it may be full of bugs, etc. It was hacked out in less than an hour until it did its job sufficiently well, then left as it was.

That said, it worked great for me. Also, it puts all posters from a given session in the event description of a single session item. Here it is:

#!/usr/bin/env perl

use strict;

unless (@ARGV == 1){
print "Usage: <input filename>";

open(INPUT, "<$ARGV[0]") || die "Failed to read file $ARGV[0]: $!\n";
chomp(my @input = <INPUT>);

my $line = 0;


print "\"Subject\",\"Start Date\",\"Start time\",\"End Date\",\"End Time\",\"Description\",\"Location\"\n";

my %psessions = {};

foreach my $line (@input){
my @tmp = split(/,/, $line);

my $subject = '';
my $description = '';
my $location = '';

for(my $i=0; $i<=12; $i++){
$tmp[$i] =~ s/"//g;
$tmp[$i] =~ s/^\s+//g;
$tmp[$i] =~ s/\s+$//g;

# Use session time if no presentation time given
if($tmp[5] == ''){
$tmp[5] = $tmp[3];
$tmp[6] = $tmp[4];

# Split times and dates
$tmp[5] =~ /([0-9]+\/[0-9]+\/[0-9]+)\s+([0-9]+:[0-9]+\s+[AP]M)/;
my $stime = $2;
my $sdate = $1;

$tmp[6] =~ /([0-9]+\/[0-9]+\/[0-9]+)\s+([0-9]+:[0-9]+\s+[AP]M)/;
my $etime = $2;
my $edate = $1;

# Posters
if ($tmp[11] =~ /^Poster Session$/){
my $pskey = "$tmp[7]";
print STDERR "Found poster session $pskey\n";
$psessions{$pskey} = {};
$psessions{$pskey}{'subject'} = $tmp[8];
$psessions{$pskey}{'stime'} = $stime;
$psessions{$pskey}{'sdate'} = $sdate;
$psessions{$pskey}{'etime'} = $etime;
$psessions{$pskey}{'edate'} = $edate;
$psessions{$pskey}{'location'} = $tmp[9];
$psessions{$pskey}{'description'} = '';
$psessions{$pskey}{'description'} .= "$tmp[0] - $tmp[12] by $tmp[1] $tmp[2]\r";
$subject = "$tmp[7] - $tmp[8] - $tmp[12]";
$description = "by $tmp[1] $tmp[2]";
$location = "$tmp[9]";
print "\"$subject\",\"$sdate\",\"$stime\",\"$edate\",\"$etime\",\"$description\",\"$location\"\n";

# print poster sessions
my @subkeys = qw(subject sdate stime edate etime description);

foreach my $key ( keys %psessions ){
my $sep = '","';
print '"';
foreach my $subkey (@subkeys){
print $psessions{$key}{$subkey}.$sep;
print $psessions{$key}{'location'}.'"'."\n";

Weighing Next Actions Using Prioritized Goals

Merlin Mann has uttered many sagacious phrases (and even sentences) about priorities. For example:

You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.


Astute as that is, how does it help you choose what to do when you sit down at your desk? Sure, there are the obvious things. But if one of your priorities is “start a company”, and another is “maintain my relationships with my wife and daughter”, there’s still a lot of ambiguity when deciding just what is the best thing to do next.

I’ve discovered that keeping an ordered list of goals (note, my actions are not ordered or “prioritized”) helps immensely. It has two main benefits:

  1. When considering adding a new next action, project, commitment, or whatever, it’s easy to look at or think about the list and say, “This does [not] match up with any of my goals. I will [not] incorporate it into my to-do list.
  2. When sitting down to plan your day (you do that, right?), it makes it easy to decide what goes on the list. Start at the top of the list of prioritized goals, and work down. Pick actions suitable to your energy level, setting, etc, that move you toward your most important goals first.

Of course, you can’t really assign priorities to your goals. They exist. You just have to think about them and then formalize them by writing them down. More wisdom from Merlin:

I think priorities are simple to understand precisely because their influence is so staggeringly clear and unavoidable to behold, then act upon. Ready for this one?

A priority is observed, not manufactured or assigned. Otherwise, it’s necessarily not a priority. [Emphasis his]

In my book, a priority is not simply a good idea; it’s a condition of reality that, when observed, causes you to reject every other thing in the universe – real, imagined, or prospective – in order to ensure that things related to the priority stay alive.

Example. When my daughter falls down and screams, I don’t ask her to wait while I grab a list to determine which of seven notional levels of “priority” I should assign to her need for instantaneous care and affection. Everything stops, and she gets taken care of. Conversely – and this is really the important part – everything else in the universe can wait.

Merlin on 43Folders (The entire post is definitely worth your time and a major part of the inspiration for what I’m writing here.)

Here’s the exercise to do for coming up with your ordered list of goals: think about what’s important to you in life. Really important. Everything-stops-for-it-important. Write it all down. Compare the items in your mind — if you had to choose between two of them, which one would come first? Repeat until they’re in order.

See, it’s insightful for Merlin to talk about how priority just happens, but it’s so easy to forget about what’s important to you when you’re sitting in front of a computer (or a blank canvas or staff sheet, or whatever). If you want a method to ensure that you stick to what’s really important to you when distractions abound, give it a try.

I’ll give you a real-life example of how this was useful for my wife Amanda and I. Between our jobs, our daughter, and her day care, we have very little time or money to spare these days. We were making a list of goals using the method I described above, and I said, “maybe we should pause Netflix for a while.” She said something about how we enjoy watching stuff from Netflix and we have so many interesting things queued up to watch. I thought for a second or two, and looked at the list of goals that we had so far made. I asked, “Where on that ranked list of things that are important to us does ‘sitting together not interacting and watching tv shows and movies’ fit?”. She replied: “pause it”.

What are you still doing that wouldn’t make it onto your list? What aren’t you doing that would?