Writing everyday – inspired by Seth Godin

Seth Godin finds time to write a blog post every day. If he can do it, so can I. How does he do it? He writes like he talks.

I’ve removed all the barriers to blogging, worrying about categories, tags, images, SEO, etc. Just now using this platform to get my thoughts down often and to refine and clarify my focus.

My latest passion is resonating with the heart instead of the head. My personality type says that my preferences is on logic. Unfortunately, logic doesn’t always appeal to everyone.

My Fuji X-T2 is coming in the mail today. I’m looking forward to learning the mechanics of photography and then using that skill to learn to observe, compose, and see the world.

 

Rethinking retirement, cutting credit cards, and saving intensely

In my 20’s, I harped on the need to save for retirement but didn’t actually make good on my preaching. As an economist, I learned the theory of compound interest and how money grows exponentially over time. In theory, it makes a lot of sense, but in practice, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Behind the math was life and emotions. I lived in a world of consumerism, where more and more material goods keep getting produced. As I got into my 30’s, technology had perfected marketing. There wasn’t a day where my news feed wouldn’t have something that I must have, or a deal too good to pass up, or social media posts of all the great adventures my friends were having.

Behind the scenes of my own stylized social media life was one of student loans, car payments, and mortgage payments. There was a subscription fee, automated purchases, and service for everything. Just a few months back, I had meal delivery service, restaurant delivery, Amazon subscribe and save, Apple Music, Hulu Plus, housekeeping, and even underwear subscriptions. Everything was automated and everything was on a subscription. No matter how many raises and bonuses I got, it barely kept up with the monthly expenses.

Mint.com didn’t work because all it did was made me feel guilty for how much of my spending came from coffee. It wasn’t a budgeting tool, it was a spending tracking tool.

The moment came for me when I came across Mike and Lauren, a young couple on You Tube. They had a video on How to Retire Early. The basic premise is they save virtually all their income in their 20’s and save their magic number: $420,000. Their goal is to hit that number by the time they’re 30 and that savings should net around $17,000 annually from the earnings. Much of this comes from Mr. Money Mustache, The Shockingly Simple Math Behind Early Retirement. There’s a swelling group of young individuals that aren’t convinced that working 30+ years to retire at 65 on a beach is the way to go.

Financial independence means having the finances so that you don’t have to work to make ends meet. Instead, you can do whatever you want, whether it be doing a hobby that doesn’t pay or working a job that you love.

What really hit me was that I’m past 30. I missed the opportunity.

During this, I also have been commuting to work and listening to Dave Ramsey podcasts again. His approach is a no debt, live like no one else so that later you can live like no one else. He preaches the Seven Baby Steps:

Baby Step 1 – $1,000 to start an Emergency Fund

Baby Step 2 – Pay off all debt using the Debt Snowball

Baby Step 3 – 3 to 6 months of expenses in savings

Baby Step 4 – Invest 15% of household income into Roth IRAs and pre-tax retirement

Baby Step 5 – College funding for children

Baby Step 6 – Pay off home early

Baby Step 7 – Build wealth and give!

For years, the economist in me used the theory. My student loan interest was low, why pay it off. My mortgage interest was tax deductible. Instead of being focused, I tried to do everything all at once and didn’t do anything.

Later this month, I’m going to cut my final check to pay off my student loans ($40k). I’ve been making payments since 2005. Making the minimum payments would have dragged this on until 2025. Again, in theory, just make the monthly payments and invest in higher earning things. In practice, a payment here and a payment there and then you have no idea where your money went.

In following Dave’s plan, I’m on a cash system for restaurants and groceries. Ouch, just a month in and I already burnt my eating out budget. It’s packing lunches for the rest of the month. What I do know is that you spend significantly less when there’s friction in the transaction. Why else do you think credit card companies are investing in making your transaction seamless.

Just last week, as I sat down to have dinner. I found that dried beans and rice are insanely cheap to buy (and healthy). I went from $15-$20 dinners to $2 per meal. I stacked up my credit cards and started to dial each one. I reached a customer service rep and said I wanted to close my account. Immediately, I’m transferred to an account manager and they always start with how are you?

I’m great I said. I’d like to cancel my account please.

May I ask why?

I’m on the Dave Ramsey plan and I’m cancelling all my credit cards today.

Silence. You are doing what? You realize that your card has all these great benefits, you can earn cash back to help with your investment plans.

That’s okay, I don’t need a credit card.

I still don’t understand, if you pay off your card, you’re earning the points and not paying interest. What about emergencies? Don’t you want to at least keep one card for emergencies?

I’m okay, I have a big pile of cash for emergencies.

These conversations go on card by card. Discover, thank you for being a loyal member since 2000. They were straight up belligerent and very aggressive. Surprisingly, American Express, also one of my oldest cards, was incredibly understanding and supportive. The account rep had a sister-in-law that was on the Dave Ramsey plan.

There we go, I’m free of credit cards. Not one.

It’s sometimes a pain to buy things without a credit card. I also find myself making less impulsive purchases because it requires thinking.

It’s been some time now but I finally feel money again. It’s not a number. It’s my hard earned work, stress, and successes.

What’s up next?

I’m going to build up my emergency fund over the Summer and then ramp up retirement savings. Everything else is going to go toward paying off my mortgage. Conservatively, I am on pace to paying off the mortgage in 10 years and pacing toward a retirement at 50. The prospect of working until 67 just seems terrifying and not worth the consumerism of today.

A call for help, stop our addiction to our phones

Our phones are killing us.

Let’s go back a bit. The world took a hit of one of the most addictive items in 2007 when Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. For those that were using phone before the iPhone came out, you’ll remember innovative features like how small can we make these phones, picture messaging, and even PDA features. As an early adopter of the iPhone, I remember people saying they’re not sure they need to get email on their phone and it’ll never replace my point and shoot camera. Fast forward to nearly the 10 year mark coming up and it’s a rarity to see anyone without a “smartphone.” It’s become the essential device that everyone has on them all the time. It’s the device we wake up to and the device we go to bed with.

I was out to dinner a few days ago and I watch a young couple eat together. The guy was on his phone the entire time, scrolling with his left hand and eating with his right hand. His presumably girlfriend was eating next to him, staring into space. Instead of striking up conversation as we used to, this couple were connected to the world at their fingertips but so far apart they might as well eat alone. This used to be an extreme case but it’s the norm today. We spend more time photographing our meals and sharing it with the world than we are sharing it with those in front of us.

Is this old fashion thinking? I don’t think so. It’s not a generational issue, it’s not an age issue. It’s happening across the board. The appeal of connection of our phones, apps, social networks is addicting. Infinite scrolls is infinite, the news and updates will never end.

I caught myself in this addiction. My world was projected on a four inch screen. I was caught up on 4K resolution screens rather than the 360 immersive resolution of the real world. It’s the fear of missing out that drives us away from the beautiful world back into the virtual world. Instead of living our own lives, we live in the lives of filtered and staged experiences of others.

I’m calling it out now. Please innovate us out of this mess. Get us away from the touch screen and back to the big world again. Make wearables that tap us when something is important for our attention and make interactions with machines where we can do so looking up rather than down. Technology should enhance our lives, not replace it.

Learning new trades during a staycation

My two were staycation is slowly winding down. I spent about six hours a day working on finishing out my partially finished basement. About four years ago, we had a refrigerator line burst and it ended up flooding the basement ceiling. I used the home insurance payout to replace my electrical system instead of repairing the drywall. Over the past few years, I’ve torn out most of the drywall  and replaced the electrical and plumbing system as well as install a furnace.

This project was to learn new trades as well as finally finish up the space into something liveable rather than just storage.

The trades involved in this project include:

  1. Concrete work – leveling out the basement floor. I used twenty bags of self leveling underlayment to fill in various dips in the basement slab.
  2. Concrete grinding – I had to cut up a foundation block where the old chimney used to be. This involved connecting my circular saw with a diamond blade and cutting a grid pattern into the foundation and chipping it away.
  3. Framing – no structural work was needed for this project. Instead, I framed in three partition walls into the space and a knee wall along the foundation perimeter.
  4. Electrical – I pulled wiring for six outlets along the new partition walls.
  5. Networking – two pulls of Cat 6 Ethernet went along to each room in the house. With the basement walls opened, it was time to pull the wiring before I closed it up.
  6. Insulation – four bags of Roxul insulation was used to insulate and also create noise blocking for the partition walls.
  7. Drywall – hung ten sheets of drywall.
  8. Plaster – applied four bags of plaster veneer base coat. I didn’t use a finish coat because I wanted the sandy old world look.
  9. Paint – primed and painted the walls
  10. Flooring – installed 22 boxes of resilient vinyl planks. This by far was the worst job requiring a lot of kneeling on the floor and standing up and down.
  11. Trim – trimmed out the baseboards along the floor.

I finished the project in about ten days. It could have gone faster had I worked longer days but I wanted to take it easy. Most importantly, this was a good break from my day job and used muscles (literally) I don’t normal use. It also tapped into a different part of the brain and stretched me in different ways. As a project manager, my job is to plan everything out. This project was 100% winged. I made everything up as I went (and made relatively few mistakes along the way).

Don’t think I want to do another project this size again but I did learn a few new trades along the way.

Going to the material yard to pick up plaster
Framing in partition walls
Hung the drywall and installed plywood sheathing.
No one plasters here in the West Coast. This pink stuff is plasterweld, a bonding agent that helps the plaster adhere to drywall.
My favorite part of the project was plastering. It’s a lost art and really fun.
Primed and painted the walls with whatever paint we had stored up. The flooring was easy to get start but really became a nighmare project. It was painful standing up and down constantly over two days.
Here’s the finished room (need to install the outlets).

Focus and Flow with Focus@Will music service

In a world where distractions are the norm, there are a few techniques I use to keep that to a minimum. Music and a nice pair of headphones is my current solution. I recently discovered Focus@Will, a music streaming service that’s designed specifically for this. For me, I’ve always leaned to Daft Punk and the Inception sound track as my go-to tracks for focused work. Focus@Will curates music with the optimal tempo, rhythm and tones to get into the state of flow.

There are channels that are spa and nature, but also classical music and high energy music. Each channel helps you tune in specifically for your work demands. There are also special channels for brainwave entrainment, tuned to lock your brain into a specific frequency. The effects are temporary and only last when the music is play. I compare this to a meditative state.

All this sounds like a bunch of BS and that’s what I thought initially. I gave the free trial a run, no credit card needed. I’m generally a skeptic so the trial was worth putting this service to the test. I’m currently working on a high stress project with multiple workstreams. Focus is critical especially since heads down time is limited. When I do get time to work at my desk, I want to make the best use of the time. I have found that putting the headphones on and playing the ambient channel (my favorite) keeps me in the zone. It’s a different focus than my typical Daft Punk playing. I’m much more zoned out and tuned into the work in front of me. The only downside is I’ll be completely disconnected from my environment and people have to wave me down to get my attention (isn’t that a good thing?).

I rarely endorse a service but in this case, this is money well spent. I highly recommend Focus@Will and recommend you give it a trial run (affiliate link). I’ll report back in a few months after more usage.

First look at the ColsenKeane 4313 Minimalistic Satchel

I

n my search for the ultimate lifetime bag, I came across a new addition to my collection: The ColsenKeane 4313 Minimalistic Satchel in Crazy Horse Leather.

In a world where everything is mass manufactured in some off-shore location by assembly line factory workers, ColsenKeane is truly a throwback in time of old-timer leather craftsmen. Meet Tony Bozeman, one of two leathersmith working at ColsenKeane led by designer and founder Scott Hofert. Tony literally put together my bag start to finish. When an order is placed, these guys pull out a roll of hand selected leather and put blade to hide. The effect is a bag that’s perfectly imperfect, made by someone that loves their craft. This bespoke approach and American made means the bag is spendy. Like any piece of art, I like to factor in the time and materials it takes to make a bag like this and you appreciate the value you get for the price.

colsenkeanelast
Photo Credit: ColsenKeane.

I live in the world of digital and analog. My tools are digital, spreadsheets, databases, and computing devices. What ColsenKeane has done with their bags is take a very grungy and beefy piece of leather and craft it into a minimalist, slick, and modern design. Every part is built with a specific purpose and no more. It’s made of one think piece of thick 10oz leather that makes up the front, bottom, back, and flap. Two side pieces are stitched together with heavy duty waxed nylon thread forming the rectangular briefcase-like body. I noticed that it’s double stitched, meaning two thick strands of thread are woven in an overkill fashion. This is not a high fashioned bag, the fit and finish is rough by design. It feels like a cow was slaughter, tanned, and woven together in the back country for the modern day man. It balances out and warms our cold machined aluminum products.

colsenKeane-43
Photo Credit: ColsenKeane

Two belts are woven throughout the satchel making it a part of the bag, not just through loops like most bags. The handle is just a simple strip of leather that’s hooked into the two belts, forming a cohesive structure, not just individual elements. 

The leather comes from high end US tanneries and I chose crazy horse. It has waxes that are buffed in. As a result, when you touch the leather, fold it, or scratch it, the colors change and comes to life. Every time I touch the bag, it seems to change. Crazy horse also looks antique out of the box and only gets better with age. I can’t wait to see how this bag changes over the coming months as it breaks in.

The bags come with a variety of options including:

  • Front and bag inside organizers made of natural tanned leather that patinas to a beautiful golden brown
  • Magazine pocket in the back that holds quick access documents
  • Luggage belts that hold the satchel onto your travel roller bags
  • Convertible backpack option that allows you to carry the bag like a backpack
  • Exterior pocket that gives an additional 1″ of storage

I went with a very simple design, no organizers on the inside and a magazine pocket on the outside. This completely free form space allows me to update my bag as my technology and needs change. For now, it’s a weekend diaper bag when I’m out and about with the baby. It’s also my thinking bag when I need to get away and focus on life.

This bag is the balance of two worlds, modern and old world. The design is modern, yet the materials are old world with copper rivets that will form a beautiful patina. It can carry our technology like laptops and tablets yet balances out all that tech with rugged organic, taking us back to a time where we were more in touch with nature. The minimalist design is offset by the manual process used to create the bag. Edges are raw and hand cut. Copper rivets are hammered by hand. The leather celebrates the imperfections of the hide. In a world where everything is mass produced, this is a product that truly is uniquely you.

Finally, I find that the satchel’s closure design requires extra effort to open and close. In a world where we’re looking for quick release mechanisms, I do find and appreciate a system that requires you to slow down. It’s just a reminder to stop running around all day and take a moment and enjoy the tactile feel of lashing in the belt to the buckle and strapping it down.

Two belts are lashed through the bag and tied down. The leather is starting to break in a bit as I use the bag. 
The handle is looped into the belts. When closed, all the weight is pulling from the bottom of the bag and evenly distributed.
The stitching is really rugged and doubled up.
The back side of the 10oz hide is unlined.

Breaking in a Saddleback Briefcase

W

hen I got my Saddleback Briefcase, I went on a process to break it in so that it’s more manageable as an every day bag. Out of the box, Saddleback products are beautiful but very stiff. My last bag, the messenger, took a solid two years to break in. I’m hoping to accelerate the process this time with my briefcase.

Edit: There’s a lot of commentary online about how this is cheating the aging process. There are methods to truly doing this and will create an immediate aged look. I’m not trying to accomplish that with my briefcase. Instead, I’m looking to break it in quickly so that it’s truly functional as an every day bag. For a bag that’s marketed to fit Apple products, I’m pretty sure most users aren’t mountain climbing with their briefcases. This method was intended only to do the initial break in, like a new pair of baseball gloves. It’s the years of use that will later add the patina.

The following procedures may void your warranty. Do so at your own risk. Shh… don’t tell Saddleback about this, my warranty is probably void now. I didn’t buy the bag for the 100 year warranty. I bought the bag because I know this is one I don’t need to baby and it was built to take the beating.

Break in procedure

  1. Stuff the bag with books, magazines, and as much weight as you can. Hang it for a couple days. This will stretch out the bag a bit and loosen it up. I had double finding a place to hang that much weight so I rigged up a 2×3 that saddled across two saw horses and hung my bag on that.
  2. Rub a thin layer of rubbing alcohol on strategically placed areas you want “distressed.” Fold up the bag and make as many wrinkles as you can. Check out this great article by Chamberlain’s Leather Milk.
  3. Drag the bag in some dust and gravel. My basement has a pile of concrete dust and chips from a demo project. I roughed up the bag in the mix. This creates scratches in the leather and will scratch up the hardware a bit. Go slowly so you don’t create more damage than you want. Some people recommend using sandpaper but I’m not a big fan because it creates artificial scratches.
  4. Clean it up with a damp rag to remove the dust and gravel. Spray the bag down with some water. This is going to dry out the leather and cause damage. On lesser products, I’d be afraid of causing structural damage but as a testament to Saddleback, their products are so rugged this barely puts a dent in it. Let the bag dry out completely.
  5. For the next couple days, keep massaging the bag. Bend it, fold it. Toss it around. At work, I keep it under my desk as a foot rest. My shoes then rub up on it all day long.
  6. Repeat this procedure as many times as you’d like until you get the desired effect. The alcohol, dust rub, and wetting and drying is damaging the leather. It’ll make the leather brittle and crack. Again, my bag showed no signs of this.

Daniel Hoang Saddleback distressed

Clean and condition

Now that your leather is broken in, distressed in some areas, and thirsty for necessary oils, it’s time to condition it back to life.

  1. Use Clamberlain’s Leathermilk cleaner to clean up all the grime. You want the leather pristine.
  2. Use their leather conditioner or water protector. The latter will darken the leather slightly.
  3. Rub the edges of the leather with some beeswax. I use Otterwax which is a blend.
  4. Let the bag dry out overnight and buff it to a shine with a cloth.

Daniel Hoang Saddleback Edge Finish

Other approaches

The best way to get that aged look and beautiful patina is to use the bag. Here are a few ideas to really wear in the bag.

  1. Fill the bag with stones of varying sizes and roll it around the yard. This will create wear on the inside and create a tumbling action.
  2. Fill the bag with construction tools and and use it at a job site. I’m a DIY remodeler so it’ll likely be my home or friends home.
  3. Expose the bag to water. Walk in the rain. Strap it to the hull of your kayak.
  4. In the Summer, leave it out in the sun for some UV exposure. Use the bag as a cooler for Summer picnics.

Here’s my briefcase after the break in. It slouches and just flops down because it’s so soft. The scratches are barely visible after the two coats of conditioning. Now off to soak in some rays on a sunny day. 

I also didn’t like the handle in the briefcase. My messenger handle was made of just leather and had a pleasant creaking sound when it moves. The briefcase handle has a small pvc pipe in it to hold its shape and to give it strength. It also made it really rigid.

I tried a coping saw but that cut the leather. I then used some tin snips to cut kerfs in the ends of the pipe. Using some needle nose pliers, I was able to twist and snap off pieces. Eventually, I was able to use a pair of pliers and muscle it out. 

I’m sure I’ve completely voided my warranty now but I think my briefcase is now officially broken in, edges dressed, and the handle soft. For a basically brand new bag, it feels like I’ve had it for years. Now to use it daily and build the character naturally.

Switching to the Saddleback Briefcase from the Messenger

I like things that last a long time and age well. There’s something about owning something for so long and seeing that story in the scuffs and patina of the object. It also teaches you something about patience. Natural patina takes time. The wear and tear of every day life adds to the story. Of course, there are ways to artificially age objects and create that “distressed look.” I’ve tried it myself but it only leaves you empty, a feeling of manufactured story telling.

My first leap into this obsession started with my Saddleback Leather Messenger Bag I got on September 2013. I wanted something to replace my typical nylon laptop bags. New, the bag is super stiff due to the pigskin lining they use. It makes the interior really resilient and easy to clean but it also means the interior likely will look new forever. I got a chance to take the bag with me on a trip to Sayulita Mexico to break it in. Over the course of the next two years, the bag really broke in, especially as I bang it around from daily work. It softened up really nicely.

Daniel Hoang Saddleback Sayulita Mexico

A few days ago, I decided it was time to jump onboard and switch to the larger briefcase (top left in the picture below), along with a few other obsessive-compulsive purchases (the pouch and the travel case).

Daniel Hoang Saddleback Christmas

I personally like the “new leather” where they’re less selective about cutting out stretch marks and scars in the leather. The Internet went on a big rampage and fuss over this change but for me, that’s why I love these bags. I know that these are not the best bags that money can buy. I had my eyes set on a really expensive briefcase from Marcellino or JW Hulme. While both are beautiful and professional, I ended up again with another Saddleback because I wanted something I could rough around and be okay with that. To me, the high end bags are like buying a premium luxury car. It’s capable but you really won’t want to take them off road. Saddleback is like a rugged Jeep that you feel okay knocking around and know that it’ll look good banged up. My briefcase shows some slight stretch marks on the back but the rest looks pristine. The second change that Saddleback made was a more suede-like pigskin instead of the plasticky lining. This was the deal maker for me. I like this softer and more natural look than the previous generation styles.

Like my last experience with my messenger bag, this unboxing experience was the same. It comes out really stiff and not really usable out of the box. Here’s my break in procedure. I roll it around, jump in it, hit it, scuff it up a bit, and then stuff as many magazines and books as I can in it and leave it hanging over night. The weight stretches out the bag a bit. After three days of this, it’s softened up enough that I feel like I can start using it as my every day carry. For the next couple months, I plan on being a little rough on the bag including tossing it in the car and tossing onto the ground. No need to baby it.

Like a nice leather pair of shoes, it’s going to hurt for a few weeks to months but the effort is well worth it. Here’s a pair of undyed leather shoes I got in Italy in May 2014. It started out as a really light yellow color. I wore this pair painfully through Venice and Rome on the cobble stone walkways. After months of sun exposure, dirt, rain, and wear, it fits like a charm.

Daniel Hoang Italian Leather Shoes

Back to my Saddleback briefcase. I made a few modifications. The edges are unfinished intentionally. The owner says it’s to show the quality of the leather. Frankly, finishing leather edges is a lot of labor and would add significantly to the price. Unfinished edges are fine, look rugged, and fits within the design of the bag. In this case, I wanted my edges slightly finished. I rubbed it lightly with some high grit sandpaper, wet it down with some water, and ran it over with a cocobolo wooden burnisher on my dremel. The high friction and heat causes the leather to harden up into a nice rounded edge. I then hand rub the edges with a bar of Otter Wax.

If you read the reviews on the Saddleback bags, the common theme is that they’re heavy. I look forward to packing it with my work documents and equipment and lugging it out in 2016. My 2016 resolutions is to be mentally and physically resilient. This is a chance for me to test out that physically resiliency.

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