John Muir – Exemplar Review

This year I picked John Muir as my exemplar. I recently came up with a new review template to help me get the most out of the process of having an exemplar. Below is my entry for this John Muir.

What did John Muir achieve?

John Muir helped lead the efforts to preserve millions of acres of wilderness land in the United States so that future generations could enjoy them. His is the founder of the Sierra Club, a well published author, responsible for upending the geological theory of how the Yosemite valley formed and is credited as the spiritual father of both the US National Park service and modern conservation efforts. He also managed a very successful orchard and had a great beard.

Why did he care about that?

Some people pursue goals intentionally or rationally. Others seem to just follow their inner voice – perhaps in a more emotional way. John Muir seemed like someone that tried to do many other things in life, but whose heart simply drew him to the wilderness. First he spent time there and documented everything he was amazed by. Then he grew to share his interest in the topic by publishing articles about it that captivated the public. Eventually, when he saw the wilderness he loved being destroyed, he took action to help defend it.

How did he think about the world differently than his contemporaries?

Mainly, Muir viewed wilderness as something beautiful and worth pursuing, rather than a resource we should strip for profit. A kindred spirit and one time companion of Emerson, they stood in contrast to the prevailing spirit of the industrial revolution. He often demonstrated wild abandon, such as the time he quit his job, started walking south and spent all of his life savings as he covered 1,000 miles, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico.

Muir seemed to enjoy being a contrarian, perhaps a result of disagreeing with his father from an early age. He seemed to enjoy opposing others proving others wrong, as he did with the geological experts of his time, despite Muir having completed no study in the field. He also seemed delighted to hack the system and live a life based on his own first principles, whether that was by finding work that allowed him to live in the mountains, or establishing a marriage that allowed him the alone-space to escape back to them. Being untied to conventions, listening to his heart rather than society’s mind, let him be in tune with things that others wouldn’t see until much later as society shifted.

Finally, Muir seemed to have an optimism that I’m not sure was common with his time. It certainly isn’t common in ours. He was almost naively optimistic that he could convince people of the beauty of nature and get them to help support him in preserving it. I’ve found that most successful people are wildly optimistic but not all wildly optimistic people end up being successful. Muir was, of course, successful in his case, which seems to justify his optimism. I can’t help but feel like he was a few bits of chance away from being a bubbling, bearded homeless man, going on about things no one would ever care about. Perhaps the distinction between that and his reality isn’t as stark or as important as it seems to me.

What are a few of Muir’s behaviors that helped him?

The behavior that seemed to most cause Muir’s success was his passionate and focused exploration of the things that interested him. He was not at all, as far as I can tell, strategic in his decisions. He did not sit and think, ‘I would like to make a name for myself and meet a President, this wave of conservation seems prime to take off, perhaps I should become a talking-head on this topic and make a name for myself.’ Instead, he just dove in and ran at a topic he cared about to the point where he became the de facto expert on it.

Another behavior that served him well was letter was developing relationships quickly. Despite being a bit of a hermit, Muir seemed to have the ability to strike up conversation with anyone, and quickly form enough trust that they wanted to help him. Many of the big achievements of his life came from people he met one time that propelled him forward and built a platform for him.

He had a lot of success making a certain segment of the public see his point of view by sharing his writing. Interestingly, all three of the exemplars I’ve profiled (the others being Ben Franklin & Eric Liddell) have been writers, concerned with influencing the public. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the people who prioritized having great influence on the masses are the people that the masses remember hundreds of years later.

Another of Muir’s behaviors, that resulted in success was forming a few key mentor relationships. Jeanne Carr was invaluable in his success, she was the one who sent a personal letter Muir had written to a magazine publisher, kicking off his professional writing career. She also worked behind the scenes in his life, introducing him to the woman that would become his wife and setting up meetings with people that would solidify him as a public figure, such as Emerson. Another mentor that I noticed less frequently mentioned was Robert Underwood Johnson, the editor of The Century Magazine. Johnson it seems helped set up Muir as a face of the conservation movement, while Johnson worked behind the scenes lobbying politics and building a publishing platform for Muir to utilize.

What are some of the decisions he made that contributed to his success?

Muir showed talent as an inventor early in life in an age where invention, industrialization and machine creation was the new hot thing. He was born nine years before both Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. He abandoned all of that and headed away from city life towards the wilderness though – this would prove to be the decision that defined his success most. Following his passion rather than anyone (society, friends, family, etc.) or anything else (fame, money, security, etc.).

I wonder what the alternate-reality Muir, the one that stayed in industry, would have achieved. At worst it seems he could have gone on to have a profitable career in that industry, perhaps crossing paths with Edison, Bell, Tesla or similar. Perhaps he would have gone on to do really great things and we would know the name Muir anyhow. I suspect if his heart wasn’t in it though, he would have had a middling career and the founding of the National Park Service would have been delayed by years or generations.

I noticed that Muir tended to live in bursts of about 5-10 years before deciding to switch gears. For example his Yosemite period was 1868 to 1874, and later he would spend close to a decade focused on running the family orchard. I would, of course, notice that trend because I am currently undertaking the planning of my next six year burst. I’ve noticed this pattern leading to success from a few people and think there is something to it. I could write more about it later, but I believe it has something to do with continual personal growth, the synthesis of multiple different areas in ways no one has tried before, and being available to go through new doors that weren’t previously open, thanks to changing times, new technology, a changing zeitgeist, etc.

What was one thing about the John Muir’s life journey that is encouraging to me?

John Muir achieved most of his success later in life. In fact he didn’t even step foot in Yosemite valley until he was 30. So for the first 30 years of his life he knew nothing of the place that would largely define his life. He was 40 when he met the woman that would be his wife, 42 when they married, and 43 when his first child was born. He was 54 when he co-founded the Sierra Club.

All of this is to say that most of his impact came later in life and most of it spurred from things he had no awareness of until he was 30. As someone in my 30s, it is encouraging to know that you don’t need to be exposed to a topic early in life in order to eventually have a big impact in that space. I think this stands in nice contrast to the stories of the college-dropout tech company founders of our age that seem destined for greatness before they exit puberty.

It is encouraging for me to think that there are still topics out there that I could, in theory, learn about, become passionate about, and have a huge impact in. My story is not yet written.

What is one thing about Muir’s life that makes me feel like I should do more with mine?

Muir found something he cared about so much he was willing to devote his life to it. His passion would lead him to a fame that became nearly self-perpetuating. It brought him into the company of heroes of his, like Emerson, and a US President – arguably one of the most powerful people in the world at the time. Yet, unlike many fame builders that use a topic to come to prevalence, his passion was genuine enough that he was willing to sacrifice his standing and those relationships when he disagreed. That strength of passion is rare.

As I look at my own life, there is no longer a thing I am so passionate about. Perhaps there should be.

What did Muir believe about the world that I have already or should soon reconsider?

In many ways I am a kindred spirit of Muir’s. I do best outside and often find myself in contrast with the majority. I’ve also been writing a lot the last few years, though not with the focus or impact Muir had.

The area I can probably most learn from his is his optimism. He was willing to believe in the positive impact people, and particularly the US government, could have.

Which of his motivations have I reflected most on?

With Muir it isn’t his particular motivations as much as the reason behind them that I’ve reflected on. I certainly care about natural beauty, and could probably do more to help preserve it, but that hasn’t been my key take away. Instead I’m struck by how passionate he was, how narrow that kept his path, but how far it brought him on it. If having impact is important to me, I would be best served to do that in a single area, rather than 10.

What is one of his behaviors that I tried out this year? How did it go?

I didn’t actively pursue any Muir inspired behavior’s this year outside of my normal ones. I got started on learning about him a bit late in the year. I did visit eight US National Parks and a few other National Forests & state parks this year though, getting some time in the wilderness.

Which other behaviors will I consider putting into practice in the future?

Unlike Benjamin Franklin, who’s life seemed to be chock-full of life hacks and behaviors worthy of emulating, Muir doesn’t have many that stand out.

The behavior I think helped Muir the most, that I am not strong at myself, is the formation of a few key mentor and partner relationships. Having another set of eyes and a different skillset goes a long way and seemed to help Muir again and again. I could do better to set myself for those, identify places I have them today and make the most of them.

What decision making heuristics can I adopt from Muir’s experience?

As I read about Muir I couldn’t help but think that I am living the life he abandoned. He had a talent for inventing machines in a time where machine invention was profitable. Times have changed and software is now the profitable space. He abandoned that profitable field at 30 to follow his passion, but at 32 I recently turned down a job in the space I’m passionate about and took a job working for one of the most profitable software companies. He followed his heart and I followed my brain.

Our circumstances at this age are different of course, he was single until he was 42 and at 32 I have five other mouths to feed. When he was married and had children, he settled down and ran an orchard for a decade. Perhaps I am just getting to that earlier.

I think I can learn from how following his passion allowed him to work harder, focus more and draw in others to help him though. I might benefit the most from applying this heuristic in a similar way to Muir, using it to help decide my next burst of 5-10 years of focus. Looking at Muir’s life, it seems hard to imagine that leaving Yosemite to manage an orchard in Oakland is the thing that would be best for the preservation of the valley, but in fact, it likely was. Perhaps my own journey will have decisions that seem counter intuitive but produce results I couldn’t have predicted. Maybe some of my future strategic decisions will allow me more opportunity to be passionate later as well.

What are some of his failures I can avoid repeating?

I think it is important to weight the trades offs one makes in achieving any goal. Sometimes failures are miscalculations and blind spots, but other times they are long running prioritization decisions that become regrets.

From what I can tell, Muir was fairly absent at home. None of what I read went so far as to call him a bad father, it seemed he was very caring just often deep in study or off walking in the mountains alone. It does sound like he sometimes brought his daughters wit him on trips to the mountains, which is encouraging, but it still seems a stretch from being a little league coach or scout troop leader. This is also a trend I’ve noticed in the three exemplars I’ve studied to date, it seems rare that someone is known by the world and known by the children – time is a limited resource.

Muir’s greatest failure is interesting because it appears one where he lost the battle but won the war. The debate over preserving the Hetch Hetchy Valley was divisive. Even some who were conservationists were in support of the dam and the water it would provide to San Francisco. Muir remained an idealist on this topic, refusing to compromise, and eventually lost. Then he watched as the dam was built and the valley he loved was flooded. There is perhaps a lesson in being extreme and finding compromises here, especially with the context of the time and the recent earthquake and resulting fire in San Francisco. Interestingly though, the debate was so fierce, that it has made it harder for future damns to be built and we have not since built another dam in a National Park.

What other cool facts did I learn about John Muir?

I didn’t know where else to put this so I put it here. By the age of 37, Muir hadn’t accomplished much, but was an expert in Yosemite. Around that time, Americans developed a national fascination with the west. Consider that it was 1968 when Muir first stepped foot in Yosemite, one year before the Transcontinental Railroad was complete. Yosemite was certainly one of the most visually striking parts of the west and Muir was the expert on Yosemite.

You can view this as a lucky break in zeitgeist evolutionary selection that we still remember Muir or you can apply the lesson another way to see that being on the top of a rising tide will lift your ship.

I didn’t know Muir was an inventor, he made some cool things that seem a bit silly now but 150 years ago were probably pretty cutting edge. Check out some pictures here including the alarm-clock-bed that dumped him from his sleep come morning.

Exemplar Review Template

My goal in designating yearly exemplars is to be able to learn from other successful individuals. In studying their lives, I hope to be able to identify; thought patterns that shaped their worldview, motivations that drove them, behaviors that helped them succeed, and decisions that proved favorable. I then hope to benefit from that knowledge by applying it to my own life; letting the thoughts hone my own worldview, using their motivations to adjust or magnify mine, experimenting with the behaviors, and creating heuristics based on the patterns of decisions they made.

After a few years of doing this with mild results, I felt like I would benefit from a bit more structure. I want the practice of having an exemplar to be more than reading a biography every year. I want it to involve some reflection and some action. Below is my first pass at a template for an exemplar review.

  • What did the exemplar achieve?
  • Why did they care about that?
  • How did they think about the world differently than their contemporaries?
  • What are a few of the exemplar’s behaviors that helped them?
  • What are some of the decisions they made that contributed to their success?
  • What was one thing about the exemplar’s life journey that is encouraging to me?
  • What is one thing about the exemplar’s life that makes me feel like I should do more with mine?
  • What did they believe about the world that I have already or should soon reconsider?
  • Which of their motivations have I reflected most on?
  • What is one of the exemplar’s behaviors that I tried out this year? How did it go?
  • Which other behaviors will I consider putting into practice in the future?
  • What decision making heuristics can I adopt from their experience?
  • What are some of his failures I can avoid repeating?
  • What are three cool facts I learned about the exemplar?

Sabbath Year Review

Last year our family took a year off from normal life. I took a leave from my job, we put our stuff in storage, we moved to a new city and everything about our life became very different. Now that we’ve reentered normal life, we’ve been asked, and asked ourselves, ‘Was it worth it?’

With perspective from a few months back at normal pace, but with the time still fresh in my mind, I want to take an opportunity to reflect on than question. In general, I believe my answer is yes, but not for the reasons I had suspected.

Reflecting on The Stated Goals

Before we dove into the year, I was intentional about doing some thinking and setting a light structure for the year. I had defined seven things I wanted the year to consist of: a sabbath to the Lord, rest, enjoying this chapter, pausing things, living without, evaluating & a year set aside.

Of those, I feel we did well at a few. It was definitely a year set aside, there was lots of evaluation and we I certainly deeply experienced this chapter (enjoy wasn’t always the most accurate word).

One we learned more about – setting aside a year as a sabbath to the Lord. That is still a concept I’m wrapping my head around but I feel that it stayed close to the center and surfaced often.

There are a few we got better at eventually, such as pausing things and resting. It took me 10 months to stop training for marathons and about as long to realize that even with two stay-at-home parents, hiring babysitters is a really good idea. We had typically only used babysitters for times when we needed them because we had a commitment, we’ve now learned we sometimes need them so that we can have time with no commitments.

I don’t feel we did very much towards ‘living without’, the idea that we would cut back our consumption and luxury, and I think I’m ok with that. For example, scaling up the amount of babysitter time we used went a long way for promoting rest, even though that was one of the things I would have assumed we would have gone without since we had two full time parents.

Reflecting on the Flow of the Year

My intention was to emphasize the above seven attributes at different times of the year in order to create a bit of a flow throughout the year. I had imagined four periods: rest & enjoyment, going lean, looking around & looking ahead.

Generally, we kept to those stages, and that design was great for allowing us to progress through things in a way that made achieving our goals possible. Here are some more detailed thoughts.

Period 1 – Rest & Enjoyment: We spent a lot of time as a family in sunny summertime Seattle doing the outside activities we love. We also got a chance to visit family and friends without having to worry about vacation days. It felt mostly relaxing, except for the giant effort required for moving. In retrospect, that was one element we wouldn’t do again during a sabbath year. This post summarizes the feeling well.

Period 2 – Going Lean: We were forced to go really lean as we had our fourth child and had little energy for anything other than the most basic. While this wasn’t an ideal undertaking for a restful year, having a fourth child while I also had to work full time seems even less ideal. Looking back, I feel that we have to curb our judgement of the sabbath year around the quantity and ages of our children. I suspect every sabbath will present its own unique difficulties, but I doubt any will be quite as trying as this one. This post summarizes the feeling well.

Period 3 – Looking Around: In the period designed to allow us to look around at what life had to offer, we did so, but not quite as much as we had hoped and it took longer than expected. Where I had hoped to explore a few dozen ideas, some a few hops away from our preexisting situation, in reality we explored 3-4 options, mostly just a single hop away. We did get a chance to live in a city on our shortlist and explore a few neighborhoods. I also got to explore a number of potential career changes by having conversations with people in those areas and trying out a new role after my work leave ended. What was positively surprising to me was how beneficial taking time off could be for making good long-term decisions because of how all inertia was stopped. I wrote about that more here.

Period 4 – Looking Forward: Because the third period stretched a bit longer than planned, the period of looking ahead and making decisions was pushed back a bit  was cut short, meaning most of the reentry work was actually pushed back into after the year ended. While not-ideal, it did mean that a lot of hard work was reserved for after the year of rest.

Reflecting on the Decisions & Changes We Made

Before the year I speculated on some of the things that could change in our life as a result of the sabbath year. Those included changes to how we earned an income, where we lived and how we did life. I was explicit that no changes were necessary, that if we decided to return to things as is because that is what we felt was best, that would be fine.

We in fact, did make a few decisions, some were departures from our old way of doing things and some were just making them concrete.

1. We decided that the next few years aren’t a period for taking on big risks or flirting with overcommitment. There are times where shooting for the stars is a great idea, but right now our margins of time, energy & patience are too thin. Doing things with high variability and risk aren’t worth the potential upside. This is going to be a guiding principle that affects a lot of smaller decisions – for example I will not be starting my own company, I won’t even consider it for ~5+ years.

2. We decided on having Seattle be our long term home with plans to snowbird (or rainbird) in southern California in the winter eventually. We had trouble deciding on a single place to live and the idea of two locations seemed really attractive and meshes well with some other ideas we have about life. At first, we considered doing things to opposite way, with San Diego as the home and Seattle as a summer vacation spot, but for a bunch of reasons (ranging from family, to global warming, to taxes, to the age of our kids, the job market) it made more sense to make Seattle our home base.

Part of this came from gathering data while we lived in San Diego. I had assumed that living there, where the weather is nicer and the beach is nearby, would would result in me surfing & enjoying the outdoors more. In reality, in my current stage of life I spend a lot of time indoors in an office and inside taking care of kids. Comparing two years worth of outside time data, I noticed that there was a difference in my outdoor time between San Diego & Seattle during the coldest months of the year, but that minimized come springtime and actually flipped come summer. This data helped me feel confident in our current plan.

3. I changed my work mentality from that of trying to retire early to realizing it is good for me, personally, to work. This was a direct result of me not enjoying not working very much. As a result of that I’ve decided that I shouldn’t be in a hurry to stop working and should instead be optimizing for how much control I can have over what work I do and what work I am able to do next.

As a direct follow up to this item and #1 up above, we’ve decided to increase our spending on things that will save us time and energy. Our approach used to be to try and do things ourselves and save money wherever we could. We are now dialing that frugalness back for a period to make sure we aren’t overwhelmed. Our goal is to identify the highest levered ways to convert our money into more free time and relaxation. For example, we will be buying more healthy prepared meals to save on meal prep time a few times a week, hiring a house cleaner, scaling up the amount of babysitting/nanny hours we have and possibly other approaches. This will be tricky for us. It will be especially tricky to rewind our frugal habits but still keep them at the ready for later periods where we might chose to use them again.

I would still like to be able to decrease the weight that compensation plays in a my future job decisions by saving up enough money that I could, in theory, retire, but I do not plan to actually retire. It is more likely that I would use that flexibility to be very selective in what projects I work on and to broaden my range of potential projects to include those that do not offer high compensation.

4. After two years away from being a product manager, the role that leads a software team in prioritizing what to build, I decided to return to that role. I really like creating new things and product manager is a role where you get to do that in a way that has short and long term impact. This was a direct result of me researching other roles and even trying out a new role for six months. Despite my success in that new role, it isn’t how I want to spend my time going forward. I’m glad I got to experience that and confirm it.

5. In my searching and exploration faze I exposed myself to a lot of ideas that helped me reject some false tradeoffs I’ve long held. One is a lie I’ve believed for a while that the highest paying corporate jobs at the biggest companies are stodgy, un-impactful and dehumanizing. I believed in contrast that if you really do what you really believed in, it probably wouldn’t pay much money and will be at some small company, likely a non-profit. I now believe impact, enjoyment and compensation are almost entirely orthogonal. There are jobs that happen to pay a lot of money that make a huge positive impact and that are very interesting for certain people and there are jobs that pay very little that are soul sucking and that also do nothing morally good for the world. I now feel more free to believe that working for a large company can be just as mentally stimulating, morally rewarding and impactful as working for small company, or oneself. What is important is evaluating the individual situation – the company, role, team and work being done.

6. Along with rejecting some ideas I’ve held, I also became more comfortable explicitly accepting some beliefs I’ve loosely held. One is that that doing high quality work is in itself good, even when the task seems far from the objective. We can’t always know where our work will take us or measure our true impact. The idea of doing good work, no matter the work, is well illustrated by a likely apocryphal story that during a visit to NASA President John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor carrying a mop and asked: “What are you doing?” To which he got the response, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” There are big goals I would like to help achieve and I’ve realized, the right place for me right now might be mopping the floor, and that is perfectly fine.

7. I wrestled with the notion of identity and how hobbies played a role into that. Most of my life, either surfing or running has been a big part of how I spent my free time and also part of where my identity came from. Just read through this blog to see that in action. I’m now entering a phase of life where neither of those is going to be a big part of my life and I needed to do some thinking about how hobbies fit into my life, which hobbies were the best fit and what that meant for where my identity came from. I still have a lot to figure out here over the coming years, but have some ideas in place to begin to explore.

8. As a direct result of items #1-6 above, I decided to kick off a job search which eventually ended with me accepting a job as a product manager in Google’s Cloud organization. This particular role is not one that I would have selected, had I not been able to process through all of the above.

I realized that right now I am in a unique position to work in a role that I enjoy, on a project that I find interesting and potentially very impactful, at a company known for excellence in execution, compensating employees generously and treating its employees well. It seemed like a wise decision to take advantage of this opportunity.

Key Learnings

Throughout the year, we learned a lot the hard way. I wanted to pause and document a few of those to help me in the future and to perhaps solve others following in my footsteps.

1. Moving during a sabbath year. It is hard for me to be strictly against this, because in the end, us moving helped us make one of our biggest decisions. I would caution against moving in any other circumstances though because it is a ton of work. Moving takes up about a month of free time in my experience – so doing so 3 times in a year takes up 1/4 of the year, which isn’t ideal.

2. How much to scale back working. During our year I took off work completely for ~7 months and resumed working in a lightly structure role for ~5. Based on that, my recommendation to others would be to be cautious about how much you scale back. If you have never gone for a period of 3+ months without working, I wouldn’t recommend going cold turkey for a full year unless you have some strong structure or something particular to keep you busy. It is probably best to scale back hours by 25-50% for your first attempt. Or to perhaps find a new and interesting job or volunteer project that you can do part time to keep some familiar structure in your life.

3. Be mentally prepared for some heavy introspection. ‘Know thyself’ is what the Greek philosophers preached. But despite the easy access we each have to ourselves, getting to know ourselves is actually quite difficult. Being mentally prepared for some challenges here would go a long way.

4. Your to do list won’t necessarily clear. During the year, my todo list surprisingly increased. I went from ~20 items to 36 and recurring scheduled tasks increased from 28 to 47. The increase in recurring tasks likely had more to do with me having time to formalize things I was doing from memory before, which is good. The increase in regular items seems to be normal gas-like behavior, projects expand to fill the time you give them. I was able to drop my backlog of articles & videos I’d saved from 35 to 15 though, so I did make some progress there.