Traveling Alone: The Crazy Stranger Challenge

Monkey Me
Making friends is easy!

Traveling alone is awesome.

Traveling alone sucks.

I plan on writing a more detailed overview of my experiences as a solo traveler when I finish my trip, but for now I wanted to share a quick thought that I had today and then to ask you all for some help.

Feel free to read the background thoughts or just skip to the bottom for the challenge.

Approach Anxiety

We’ve all been in situation where, for whatever reason, we want to talk to a stranger. They could be some attractive member of the opposite sex, a celebrity you see on the street, or just someone who you find interesting for whatever reason.

We want to go over and talk to them, but it’s difficult.

The degree to which this is the case varies based on the person- e.g. introverts might have a harder time with it than extroverts (although that’s a totally different can of worms that I won’t get into right now- shyness and introversion have been shown to be fairly disparate), but almost everyone has this feeling to some extent.

But what is this feeling exactly? Why is the simple act of talking to someone difficult? Isn’t it something we do every day?

I would posit that this anxiety is really just the fear of being judged. We want to go over and talk to them, but what will they think of us? Will they think it’s strange? Will they think I’M strange?

There are three main workarounds that I have found for this problem.

  1. The hard way: change yourself. Keep telling yourself (perhaps in the 3rd person) that the world won’t end if you go and talk to someone, and maybe you’ll start to believe it. Or at least you will after enough practice. I’ve been working on this for years but still have a ways to go.
  2. The easy way #1: do something to artificially ensure that they won’t think you strange.
  3. The easy way #2: do something to yourself to artificially ensure that you won’t care if/when they do.

The latter two are the ones that I want to focus on right now.

The second can be accomplished by putting yourself in situations where starting a conversation would seem totally normal. This is how something like speed-dating works: they are able to mostly eliminate approach anxiety by imposing a setting where you are required to talk to someone, so at least the act of you starting a conversation won’t be judged (what you say is of course a different matter).

One way that I have found this method be applicable while traveling is in the difference between meeting someone during the day vs at night.

If I happen to be staying one bed over from someone at a hostel or sitting next to them on a bus, it’s quite natural to start up a conversation. Hostels tend to be very friendly environments where everyone is open to meeting people. If I have to sit next to someone for an extended ride then saying a few initial words is just polite.

Now fast-forward a few hours. I’m now at a bar by myself. Like a creeper™. Suddenly that same girl who would have been totally friendly when chatting back at the hostel will think I’m weird if I just come over and just start talking to her at her table (or at least my instinct is to assume that to be the case).

Thankfully I’ve so far been able to avoid the above situation by just making friends during the day or arranging to meet people at night, but not every day can be a winner.

This brings me to Method #3.

The easiest example of this method the Costume Phenomena. Put yourself into a crazy enough outfit and suddenly it’s not you that they’re judging anymore.

Everyone wants to talk to a gorilla:

GorillaSuit

Even for less full-coverage costumes where your face is visible, you can still effectively hide behind the alternate persona.

But while this method is loads of fun, it’s hard to really apply in too many different situations.

Instead, a lesser version of this method involves changing not other people’s perspective of you, but your own perspective of the interaction. When someone dares you to go and high-five a stranger, you may feel a bit nervous, but it’s not too bad because at least YOU know why you’re approaching them. It’s someone else’s fault. Any judgement should really apply to them.

This finally leads me to the real point of this post.

The Stranger Challenge

I’ve started to play little games with myself both to give me an added kick to go meet people and just to make the interactions more hilarious.

Last week I played the accent game for a few days. One night I successfully convinced two Irish girls that I grew up in Dublin, but they were able to guess that something was off and that really I also had one parent who was British. The next day I kept it up and thoroughly confused a newlywed couple at Chabbad visiting from Canada.

I have plenty more ideas for things to do that are successively more crazy, but I think it would be way more fun if the challenges were actually externally imposed. I am therefore throwing down the gauntlet to all of you: post a comment(s) with some type of challenge for me to do involving strangers, and up/downvote other peoples’ suggestions. I’ll see how many of them I can manage to do over the next week.

Let the craziness commence!

A Journey to Thailand: The Day that Wouldn’t End – Part I

“AH AHM DA KING OF KHAOSAN! NOW BRING ME MORE KETCHUP!”

As the echoes of this magnificent declamation faded away, I could hear clapping from the group of Australians behind us. The Thai waitress was slowly backing behind the counter and I could see the three Chinese girls in the corner looking on in apprehension. Intrepid traveler and linguist that I have become I still couldn’t make heads or tails of their sing-song whispers to each other, but their meaning was clear: “Who’s the crazy Lithuanian dude in the tank-top, what’s he yelling on about, and why did he steal Jinjing’s crown?”

The rest of us sitting around the table, at that point expecting if not quite accustomed to Franz’s antics, just looked at each other. Nobody said it, but we were all thinking the same thing: “That guy needs more ketchup like King Tut needs another roll of toilet paper.”

-Bangkok, a random Burger King, 55.5 hours without sleep-

Will you take a look at that. Pretty pathetic, huh? Well, you’ll never believe this, but that llama you’re looking at was once a human being. And not just any human being. That guy was an emp-

Wait. Wrong narrator again. Sorry guys. But as long as I got that far I might as well skip a bit.

Look, I tell you what, you go back a ways, you know, before I was a llama, and this will all make sense…

Tuesday, Feb 9th – Silver Spring MD – 8am 

Brrrring! Brrring! Brrring!

Well, actually it was more like a ” bzz bzz bzz.” I use an app called Sleep Time for my alarm that wakes you up by a specified time based on your sleep rhythms, and starts with a very soft buzzing before getting more annoying. Thankfully I tend to sleep about as deeply as a ferret with a cocaine problem so the buzzing’s all I ever get.

But anyway.

I woke up feeling… excited. Odd, I know, for the day I was leaving to Thailand. But for me it actually was a strange feeling. I almost never get excited. I’ve been on tons of great trips in the last year, and I certainly looked forward to all of them, but for none could I truly have described myself as “excited.” Especially not enough to at all impact my sleep the night before.

In fact the last time I can really think of that I felt a similar way was right before I left to study abroad in Israel for a year. Right after high school. When I had just turned 17. Over 9 years ago.

So what makes this trip special? I’ve thought about it, and settled on the “?”.

“?,” you ask?

?. The Unknown. I’m going all by myself, have made almost no plans, and as such have almost no expectations. I have no idea what could happen, and therefore anything could. For every other trip, I knew that it would be fun. I could anticipate the fun. But fun is fun. For this, who knows?

But back to the narrative.

I’ll do a more detailed post about my packing / preparation adventures later, but for now suffice to say that I managed to fit all the manner of clothes, food, electronics, and a small kitchen sink into my brand spanking new (why is that even a phrase?) 40L Tortuga travel backpack. All packed up it weighed in just under 30lb. Not too bad I thought.

Note to self #1: trusting “thinking” is dangerous.

Tuesday, Feb 9th – Dulles Airport – 6:30PM – 10.5 hours since sleep

All right! My flight was scheduled for 9:10 PM.  Plenty of time. And not a single person in the security line. Go me! Now let me just mosey on down and show them- wait, what’s that? You want me to weigh my innocent little backpack?? But… it’s a backpack! This never happens to me flying Southwest:( Goodbye cool American startup airline. Hellooo Emirates, official airline of the United Arab Emirates.

Apparently there’s a 7kg weight limit on your main carry-on, with an added 5kg personal item allowed. Let’s see, 7 + 5, carry the 1, multiply by that number… that’s something like 26, 27 pounds? And I had weighted in at almost 30? So much for my awesome packing job.

Note to self #2: find out how to procure a proper Bag of Holding (how many of you had to google that? Prove your nerd-cred!).

Soo. I could either leave half my stuff behind, ooor…

Repacking

Hurray for the little drawstring bag I brought for day-excursions! After stuffing all of my heaviest compact electronics + foodstuffs (I blame you Mr. Soylent) into it, as well as loading up my pockets a bit, I managed to bring my big backpack down to 7kg on the dot, and the small one a precise 5kg. Whew.

You won’t get rid of me that easily Emirates! But perhaps I should hold off on such premature declarations. They’re not done with me yet.

Wednesday, Feb 10th – Somewhere – 2:46AM – 18.77 hours since sleep

Alright Emirates, you’re not too bad. They asked me about my kosher meal before we even took off, I got to plug in my various devices at my seat, watch Daniel Craig be all nice and manly-like, and now I’m doing my best caterpillar impression with the complementary fleece blanket and neck pillow while getting my กลายเป็นนักภาษาศาสตร์ on. 20 hours on the plane should be enough to learn a foreign, asian, tonal language right?

Out the window is a pretty fantastic sun-sky-thing:

Sun Sky Thing

Just a quick note: I actually had a plan for this trip. It was to start Tuesday evening and end Thursday morning, crossing 12 time zones with one 12.5 hour flight and one 7.5 hour flight. I know that I’ve always been terrible at sleeping on planes, but the quality of the flight here actually gave me some hope. I would spend the first flight learning Thai, then the 4-hour layover, then the second flight would be Wednesday evening. If I could make use of my sleep deprivation by that point to even sleep a few hours on the plane then that would get me nicely on-track for being jet-lag free. Silly, silly me.

Wednesday, Feb 10th – Abu Dhabi – 6:30 PM

Hellooo United Arab Emirates. I’m going to be trapped here for 23 hours on my way back so I better get my Dora on.

First stop:

20160210-1834

Well slap me silly and call me Ahmed. Aren’t other cultures fun?

And, speaking of other cultures, I don’t think I’ve seen any of these in any American airports:

Smoking Area 1

But at least it’s empty right?

On to the better parts of Middle-Eastern culture:

Bazaar

Don’t worry, I’ve been training for this moment for my whole life. I touched nothing but the lamp(s).

I thought about getting one, but first I need to locate some old woman willing to trade her old lamp for my new one.

Onwards!

Hmm… what’s that smell… seems like I spoke too soon.

Smoking Line

Some of them were even there with kids.

But wait- not all is lost! There is still what that is good and pure to be found in the Middle East!

Star Wars

Thursday, Feb 11th – Somewhere – 4:00AM – 35 hours without sleep

Emirates, I take back every nice thing I ever said about you.

I miss that last plane. I really do.

Did you ever play the game “sardines” when you were a kid? You know, it’s like hide and seek, but you start with only one person hiding. Then each person who finds the first guy has to squeeze in and hide alongside him. Last person to find the rest loses.

Whoever designed this airplane must have had a great childhood full of these sort of games, accompanied by a very unfortunate nostalgic streak.

BMI is a joke. Really, a totally useless metric. I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life where it didn’t deem me anorexic.

So when I can’t sit in an airplane seat and put my arms down next to me, you know there’s a problem.

Unfortunately, the larger fellow next to me found a great way to solve said problem. I’ll give you a hint: it didn’t involve putting his arms down next to (or on top of ) him. Somehow he managed to fall asleep within 2 minutes of sitting down, way before takeoff. He also turned out to be great at impressions. In this case, he spent the next 8 hours doing a fantastic one of an industrial rotary saw with a head-cold.

To top it all off, the nice stewardess Anna (actually nice- she was really the only good thing about the flight), after some back and forth with the captain, informed me that those power outlets cleverly hidden beneath most people’s seats (not mine for some reason) were actually just there for show.

And, to NOT top it all off, here’s what I got when I ordered coffee:

Plane Coffee

That was before I started drinking any of it.

You can guess how well my brilliant jet-lag avoidance plan went.

————

I know you’re all probably thinking “All this travel stuff is boring! Tell us more about Franz!!” Well, I had to spend several days going through it so I feel no remorse about making you spend 2-3 minutes. Stay tuned next week for Part II – Thailand.

 

Why a Good Chocolate Bar is Like a Diamond

Chocolate Tempering

Have you ever tried to break a piece of chocolate in half only to have it crumble instead of snap (e.g. with those Israeli Mekupelet chocolate sticks)? Apparently there’s a cool scientific reason for this.

I was listening to an interview with Seth Godin today on the Tim Ferris Experiment, and for a few minutes he was speaking about his new obsession with chocolate. After a glowing review of these guys which gave me a serious chocolate craving (which I have unfortunately yet to satisfy), he mentioned a part of the chocolate making process called tempering. I had previously only thought of the word in either metallurgical or metaphorical contexts and so was instantly curious.

Seth described it as a process that “lines up all of the molecules in the chocolate in one direction,” allowing good chocolate to snap instead of crumble when breaking and giving a bit of a sheen to the surface. Chocolate and esoteric science being two of my most favorite things in this world, I couldn’t just leave it at that.

It turns out that cocoa butter molecules can form six different types of crystalline structures. Each one has a different melting point and slightly different physical properties, the most desirable of the bunch being form V. Chocolate is tempered by cooling and reheating to very precise temperatures so as to eliminate all of the crystals with lower melting points leaving only the V’s, which then work as seed crystals for the rest of the chocolate. Once it has fully cooled, a properly tempered bar of chocolate is really a crystalline structure just like a precious gem. But way more delicious.

Is this knowledge useful? Probably not for most people. But I’ll definitely be thinking of little chocolate gemstones and snowflakes next time I snap a bar.

I didn’t want to bore you with the more elaborate details, but for anyone whose curiosity was really piqued here is a nice article that gets into more specifics about how the process is carried out.

P.S. – Why am I writing about random chocolate facts when I’m supposed to be showing all sorts of cool Thailand pictures? Because those posts will be way longer and I’m a bit busy being in said pictures 🙂

A Proven Way to Boost Performance in Public Speaking and Otherwise Mitigate Social Anxiety

–I hate your psych-babble, just tell me what to do:

Change your self-talk from first to second/third person. No, “I can do this. What they think about me doesn’t affect me.” Instead make it “Avisha can do this. What they think about Avisha doesn’t affect him.”

Research shows that making this change will significantly reduce anxiety and boost performance, particularly in social contexts.

Of course if you use Avisha’s name then the benefits for all those non-Avishas out there have yet to be proven. But feel free to give it a shot and let Avisha know how it goes.

It works for LeBron.

 

 

More Psych-Babble Please

The primary mechanism in play here is something called “self-distancing.” We tend to go through our lives extremely self-focused, constantly interpreting everything that happens through the lens of how it could affect us or be because of us. And because we are so self-focused, we instinctively assume that everyone else is focused on us as well.

Imagine that you are about to go out to a party when you realize that you have a distinctive pimple on your cheek. You try to cover it up, and your friends tell you that it’s barely noticeable, but still you end up going through the entire evening just knowing that every person in the room is covertly staring at you and it.

Now imagine that your friend had the pimple, and you were the one telling her that it was barely noticeable. Even if you were lying a little bit to make her feel better, I bet that you would very quickly forget about it and barely even recognize it when interacting with her throughout the evening.

If only you could view yourself not as yourself but as your own friend.

Researchers at the University of Michigan recently published a meta-analysis of 6 other studies on self-talk. Participants in these studies were subjected to social-anxiety-inducing situations and given clear instructions on how to mentally prepare themselves, either with first or 2nd/3rd person references. These situations included meeting someone for the first time and being told they have to make a good impression as well as being instructed to give a public speech with only five minutes of prep-time. Researchers measured performance through a combination of proven emotional surveying techniques and careful live analysis by judges.

Across the board, participants in the non-first-person groups demonstrated lower levels of anxiety before, during, and after the activity. They also were more likely to view the upcoming activity as a challenge rather than as a threat and less likely to spend much time dwelling upon their performance after the fact. Finally, and possibly most relevantly, they actually performed noticeably better on the activity itself.

It may sound a bit silly, especially if you are the type to actually verbalize your self talk, but I highly recommend giving it a try. Avisha knows he will.

It’s even kinda fun.

Free Throws and Psychology: I’m good at one of these things

The world record for Most Consecutive Free Throws in basketball is currently held by a man named Ted St. Martin. He shot 5221 consecutive throws over a span of 7 hours and twenty minutes, more than doubling the previous record of 2750. Ted was never in the NBA. He didn’t play on a college team. He didn’t even play in high school.

So what was Ted’s background that allowed him to accomplish this amazing feat? He was a dairy farmer. He attributes his success at free throws to the discipline learned through spending hours on end milking cows and having to constantly wake up in the middle of the night to birth them.

But is this really so amazing? If you stop and think about it, a free throw is a shot with no interference and as much prep time as you need, taken from a mere 15′ away from the backboard. Professional players who spend all of their lives focused around this one game shouldn’t have any problem with that. Right?

Wrong.

The 2015-2016 NBA average for free throws was only 75.6%. That means that professional players miss 1 in 4 uncontested shots from 15′ away.

Ed Palubinskas, the “Free Throw Doctor” of the NBA, is famous for saying that free throws are 90% psychological. In fact, when training Shaq he had Shaq sometimes train blindfolded so as to try and shake his ingrained psychological aversion to free throws (blinding him shifted the focus from it being a free throw to just the biomechanics). This seems to be in keeping with Ted’s claim of mental discipline being key.

Shaq blind free throw
Shaq blind free throw

 

Dirk Nowitzki, one of the NBA’s all time top shooters, had a career free throw accuracy of 87.9%. He talks about how one of his early coaches had him sing a song while going up there to “get himself out of his head”.

I would posit that it is best to view the psychological and physiological as two parts of a larger, interconnected system. You need both the carefully trained muscle patterns and a way to consistently access those particular sequences.

Dirk’s coach’s tip taps into something that psychologists call “reinstatement theory,” a way of looking at memory and performance in terms of their greater environmental context. I’m sure most people have heard some college student claiming how “I learned this while drunk so I need to be drunk to remember it.” Well, they actually could be correct.

Psychologists have shown how the biggest factors in memory storage and recall are our physical senses. And they are all active all the time- there is no disentangling the particular visual or kinesthetic memory from their accompanying auditory or olfactory cues (although some cues may be stronger than others). Remember one and you remember the rest.

One interesting study on reinstatement theory was carried out by Steven M. Smith. He had students in three groups all studying the same material. One group did it while listening to Milt Jackons’s “People Make the World Go Round,” another to Mozart, and the third to nothing. He then tested portions of each of these groups in all three types of backgrounds. The results across the board were that those who listened to the same music during both studying and testing performed almost twice as well as those who studied in silence, and even if they listened to the different music there was some boost in performance.

When Dirk Nowitzki stepped up to the free throw line and sang the same song to himself that he sang many a previous time (Mr. Jones by Counting Crows), he was aiding himself in pulling up those particular kinesthetic patterns.

Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones
Dirk Nowitzki Mr. Jones

There are many other lenses through which to interpret this phenomena- my favorite of which is that of the science of habit formation, which I will go into at some later date, but also just the purely psychological.

My takeaway from all of this is just to use it as another reminder that physical performance and mental performance are intrinsically linked, and that there are often ways to take easy shortcuts with one through proper use of the other.

A final note to those who are actually interested in basketball and want to improve upon their own free throws: don’t just practice free throws.

Kerr & Booth ran a study where they had two groups tossing bean bags into holes while blindfolded, with feedback after each throw. One group tossed into a hole 3′ away, the other alternated between 2′ and 4′. Afterwards they were all tested on a 3′ hole. Amazingly enough, the group that had never before practiced on a 3′ hole performed significantly better.

I could go on at length about the benefits of varied practice and ways to make use of it, but I think I have waxed long enough already. My first “Daily Learning” post seems to have mutated into a combo DL + Musing.

Oh well.

 

 

Credits: the Surprisingly Awesome podcast from Gimlet media + the various studies that I have already linked to.

Hello Blog!

My name is Avisha NessAiver and I try to live by the following mantra:

My day is incomplete unless I have learned something new and improved myself in some way

And, to head off the inevitable quibbling, I do believe that we are subtly improved by everything we learn. Here I am referring to skills, relationships, and actual personal development.

I have started this blog both to incentivize myself through public accountability and to share my learning, both past and present, with all of you.

I plan on having three types of regular postings:

  1. Daily Learning – I am constantly reading books, perusing articles, and listening to podcasts. Whenever I encounter a tidbit that I consider to be particularly interesting I will try to do a quick writeup about it. These posts should be quick bursts of (hopefully) pleasant mental diversion.
  2. Musings – Often prompted by some life experience or piece of learning, these will be my own thoughts about any aspect of life. Expect widely varying lengths.
  3. Travels – I rarely spend an extended period of time in one place. Here is where I will attempt to document the more interesting portions of my travels. Sometimes these posts will revolve around a particular story, other times they will be more travel-photo-blog style aiming to just give a snapshot of some interesting place that I’m in. Expect a large number of these in the near future as I am about to embark on a 3-week solo-trip to Thailand.

As with everything in life, this type of blogging is a skill, and one that I am definitely a beginner at. My goal is to provide content that always lands somewhere on the spectrum of entertaining <-> educational, and I hope that your honest feedback will help me to quickly figure out what I am doing right and wrong.

With that I shall say, “Hello, welcome to the site, and I hope to see you here on a regular basis!”