cup of coffee anyone?

There once was a peculiar coffee shop called “Akaneya”, located by the train station in Karuizawa where their baseline coffee started at double the price of a typical coffee at other cafes. Not only that, Akaneya’s secret menu is rumored to have included a cup of coffee that costs upward of $100.

Karuizawa is a rural little town that my family used to visit during the summer to get away from the Tokyo heat. You may also know it as the home of a recent season of the reality show “Terrace House” on Netflix, which is a very interesting cultural phenomenon worth checking out for anyone interested in how some Japanese young adults go about their lives.

Back to coffee. What’s really interesting about Akaneya’s coffee is in its philosophy and history. The first Akaneya opened its doors in Kobe, a large city in west Japan. Its owner, Mr. Funakoshi, had suffered from medical issues throughout his life and reasoned that he could not work a normal day job like everyone else. About all he could handle was to own a small coffee shop, and not only that, his goal was to work as half as much as a typical coffee shop owner. What interesting aspirations! Can you imagine going into any job and right off the bat claim “my goal is to work as half as much as others”? Well that was precisely his goal.

He got to thinking how he can achieve this. He set a goal to serve about fifty or so customers in a day. He figured that the coffee must be priced high to not attract too many customers, but he had some pride. He wouldn’t allow himself to serve anything whose quality didn’t justify its high price. A coffee that tastes bad but is expensive just for expensive’s sake was of no interest to him. And so began his journey to figure out what exactly makes one fine cup of coffee.

His first stops on the journey were the various operators that import and process coffee beans. He carefully observed how they work, and asked them questions until he was confident in his understanding of how this industry operated and the important concepts that end up affecting the taste of the final product, the brewed coffee.

This was 1966 and as such times were different. Of all the coffee bean processors in Japan, there was only one that roasted the beans using charcoal. He decided to buy the beans from them. But instead of letting this operator blend the beans as they saw fit like any other coffee shop would, he brought back a variety of beans in order to decide on a blend himself after much trial and error. He made each cup of coffee to order using the pour over technique, which was eventually made popular in other coffee shops in Japan (and later in other countries as well), but putting in so much work into each cup was certainly not the norm at the time, as no other coffee shop was known for doing the same.

His meticulous research did not stop at the coffee itself. For the best drinking experience, he also needed to find the right cup. He looked into cups made domestically and internationally, made from a variety of materials, and eventually found cups to his liking in Okura Touen, a Japanese producer of fine artistic china, after visiting various factories and observing the pride that each put into their work, as well as the conditions, cleanliness, and management of the factories.

With all this research and preparation, he opened his first coffee shop in Kobe, Japan, and it did better than he expected, which meant he was working more than he would have liked. Remember, his goal was to open a coffee shop that did not attract many customers. Eventually he left the operations of this busy shop to others, and opened up another location in the rural Karuizawa where the population is small and people would typically only visit during the summer months. This store was more to his liking, and he was working less, just like he wanted to. He spent his newfound free time learning about various things, and unexpectedly, the second floor of the shop eventually became a secret meeting place where various important officials and higher-ups of society would come and talk to Mr. Funakoshi for inspiration, to learn from his profound insights about business and the world.

So goes the interesting story of the Akaneya coffee shop and its founder, Mr. Funakoshi. What’s the point you say? Well, whatever lesson you learn from this is up to you. At the very least, it’s a fascinating story of the irony of life, about a guy who ended up successful because he didn’t want to work. Perhaps herein lies an important aspect of work: be creating something that you can be proud of.

retirement

It has been four months since I left my day job. I came to a decision to retire after sifting through a variety of financial advice out there and most of them seemed to state that, based on my net worth and average spending, there wasn’t much of a reason for me to limit what I do on a daily basis based on financial reasons, and I’ve been wanting to pursue some things that I could not make enough time for due to the demands of having a full time job. Today’s post is a little update on how my life is going four months into retirement.

I actually got busier after retiring.
My main motivation to retire was to make time for more music, and I figured that if I didn’t have my day job, the hours I spent on coding would be replaced by music, and I’ll be happier. I am happier indeed, but ironically, it’s not because of less coding and more music. In fact I am still coding quite a bit everyday for fun. Retirement has helped me realize that I actually still like coding a lot. The difference now is that I code with purpose and energy because I intentionally choose the projects. My typical day starts with intense music practice in the morning, then a few hours of coding, then a conversation with my partner, then a music gig or a few more hours of practice in the evening to end the day. All in all, I am doing much more than I was while working, because I am motivated. So ironically, retirement has made me busier.

I still make money.
A retirement police, if there was such a thing, might accuse me of not really retiring, because I am still working quite a bit, and making more money than I spend. It turns out that even when you leave your job, if you are intentional about continuing to invest your time into your skills, you end up gaining a skill set for which people will pay you money. I have music gigs on a regular basis now. How awesome that people are paying me money to do something I would happily do for free.

Should you quit your job too to pursue art?
Something that I get asked is whether they (or someone they know) should quit their jobs too. One litmus test that helped me come to my decision was to ask myself this question, “Am I excited to do what I’m about to do today?” and when the answer was “no” for many days in a row, that was a good sign that my job was no longer consistent with my deeply held values of who I want to be and what contributions I want to make to this world.

Whenever we are about to make a change in our lives, we automatically think about all the downsides, like:
“What if I can’t find another job and go broke?”
“What if I end up disliking my new job also?”
“What if I pursue a new career only to find out that I am not good enough for it?”

Our minds like to think up the worst case scenarios, and there’s probably a good evolutionary reason why humans have evolved to be so cautious, but a little bit of rational thinking doesn’t hurt here as it helps us see that first of all, the worst case scenario is precisely that, just a “worst” case that likely won’t happen, and even if struggles await you in the future, it is much more empowering to live with full confidence that your future self will be able to handle the tough situations that will come up, than to be in a constant state of worry about things that haven’t even happened yet. Besides, it’s actually the struggles in life that truly develop you as a person. There are many upsides to quitting too, and those don’t get discussed enough.

In economic jargon, there is an “opportunity cost” to working. In plain English, that means that the number of hours in a day is limited, so the hours spent at your job represent the hours that could have been used to do something else. That something else, if it will lead you to future opportunities that you would not have otherwise, and is something you would value over what you are doing currently, making a change in your life is seriously worth your consideration.

However, a word of caution here is to not use your job as an excuse for not doing the thing that you want to pursue right now. Note that I only left my job when I was already landing a comfortable amount of gigs to know that my art had some value in the world, and I have lived frugally all my life and equipped myself with in-demand skills such as teaching and engineering to get me to a place where I can afford to take more calculated risks. You can always get started, and now is better than later. There are many great artists that started on the side, using their precious mornings/evenings pursuing their art. So regardless of what you decide to do about your day job, always be working on your art.

worthy of your attention

The plane landed slightly before the scheduled time. There was an air of excitement among the passengers. We were all eager go home and do whatever it was that each of us were going to do next. Sleep, see our loved ones, or in my case, play my piano. Then we got word that we had to wait on the taxiway for an indefinite amount of time because there was another plane parked at the gate where we were supposed to deplane. I thought to myself, “cool, extra time to get my Spanish studying in,” and started studying. About twenty minutes into being stuck there, I couldn’t help but notice the complaints coming from those around me about the situation: “Oh come on who messed up?” “How is it that airlines can never figure this stuff out?”

I admit that I too express my share of complaints about things at times, but if you step back and assess the situation, you notice just how silly this is. It is one thing to complain about something that can be changed. But to complain about a situation that simply won’t change or you have no power to change? What’s the point of that? Are those things even worth your attention?

One time, a student of mine messed up pretty bad in a piano recital. I asked him afterward, “so what do you think happened?” He was quick to respond “I got nervous. Also it was cold and my fingers didn’t move well.”

While it may be true that he got nervous and had cold fingers, I really was hoping for a different answer. Something like “I didn’t practice enough” because really, that would have been a much better attitude to have about what had just happened.

Do people get nervous for a performance? Sure, I get nervous every single time. Does a venue where you perform get cold at times? Of course. But those are out of your control. But you know what you could have done? Practice more. Practice so much so that you are so damn good, so that even with your nerves and freezing fingers, you still have complete command of the instrument, and you are able to perform at a high level.

Stop giving any of your attention to the things you cannot control, and focus meticulously on the things that you can. You will be amazed with your results.

All about IRAs

This is a continuation of a series of posts on personal finance. You can read the entire series here: http://blog.shinadachi.com/category/finance/

If your employer does not offer a 401-k or 403-b, there is still a way to get a similar tax advantage while saving for your retirement with an IRA (Individual Retirement Account).

IRAs are recommended over normal investment accounts for a simple reason: the significant tax advantage that it gives you.

IRAs come in two flavors: The traditional IRA and the Roth-IRA. They are taxed differently, as follows.

Traditional IRA
A traditional IRA account can be funded with your pre-tax money. This means that whatever you invest into an IRA account this year can be deducted from your income, resulting in a smaller income tax for you.

Once invested, your money will grow tax free, unlike a normal investment that incurs a tax on your capital gains.

When you take the money out in retirement, you will pay income taxes on whatever you take out.

Roth-IRA
A Roth-IRA account is funded with your post-tax income. This means that you will NOT be able to deduct your investment from your income. But because you have paid taxes before the initial investment, you can take it out in retirement completely tax free. And just like the traditional IRA above, the money also grows tax-free.

Which should you choose?
If you are trying to decide between a traditional IRA vs a Roth-IRA, consider how much your income is now, and how much you expect you will draw from your IRA in your retirement years.

This is not easy to figure out since your life and your future has a lot of unknowns, but the typical advice is that for young low-income earners, Roth-IRA may be the optimal choice as your income is likely lower today than in the future. You have a long time to amass a significant net-worth, which will likely lead to withdrawals in the future larger than your current income. I purposefully did not draw the line the separates young/old or low/high income, as each life situation is different and there is no clear answer here.

My case is a little special, because as an engineer and a freelance musician, I tend to make a lot of money in certain years and not in other years. So I actually invest in a traditional 401-k (similar rules to traditional IRA) in the years I work a normal day job, and convert a portion of it to a Roth-IRA when I focus on music. The conversion is considered a taxable event, but since I make significantly less money as a musician than as an engineer, my income for the years I work as a musician is taxed at a lower percentage.

How do you start an IRA account?
Most investment services allow you to open an IRA account with which to invest your money. Whatever you choose, a good philosophy to follow is to do the following with your assets.
1. Invest most of your assets in a diverse stock index fund. I like Warren Buffet’s advice, 90% stocks, 10% bonds, and rebalance occasionally to keep the ratio. This is good because even though the stock market is volatile, it has a higher average annual return in the long-run than other investment vehicles. One precaution here: volatility of the market makes some investors scared, or react to the market (like selling all of their stocks after a market crash). Don’t be like those investors, and stay invested and consistently stick to the 90/10 ratio for the best long-term results.
2. Invest with a firm that does not charge you a high fee. When I got my first job and started investing back in high school, I made the mistake of investing in mutual funds with fees as high as 1% annually. In hindsight this didn’t make much sense when many index funds have expense ratios below 0.1%.

Vanguard is considered the king of index funds with their variety of offerings and low fees. I am quite fond of their VTSAX fund, which is the total stock market fund that exposes you to the entire U.S. stock market. How cool that you can be a part owner of every single publicly traded U.S. company by simply investing in this one fund! There is also the VBTLX, the total bond market index fund. So implementing Buffet’s advice of 90% stocks and 10% bonds is easy with Vanguard. Invest 90% in VTSAX, 10% in VBTLX, and rebalance occasionally as the market fluctuates to stay close to a 90/10 holding ratio.

I also love the wealth of low-fee “robo-advisors” available today that implement strategies similar to the above, but does all the work of investing/rebalancing for you. This includes services like Schwab Intelligent Portfolio, Wealthfront, and Betterment. Robo-advisors tend to have much prettier and easy-to-use user-interfaces compared to Vanguard, so they are recommended for people who may not be interested in learning the nitty-gritty details of the different kinds of funds but simply want an easy way to consistently put away money for their future without having to think about it.

Tokyo concert

If you’ve been wanting to visit Japan, next month might be the perfect time to go.

Why? Because I’m playing a solo concert! Besides, Tokyo is just a cool place that you should experience regardless.

I’ll be performing some of my newest pieces, some I haven’t even recorded yet.

When:
5/18 4PM JST

Where:
Tokyo Lutheran Church
1-14-14 Okubo

It will be free admission. I will be collecting donations though, to support a young struggling musician, me.

Just kidding, I am not struggling, and I will donate all the proceeds to an organization that provides training for people to become effective conversation partners. It means a lot to me to support them, since they were instrumental in helping my grandmother overcome her anxiety and depression. The best part? My grandmother, who has never shown an interest in my music, is actually planning to come to this concert. It will be her first time to see me perform, ever.

See you next month Tokyo!

on motivation

“My passion doesn’t give me joy any more. I don’t feel like doing anything,” a former coworker and a fellow artist called me asking for advice.

I knew exactly what she was going through.

People assume that because I have been pursuing music all my life, any time I spend on music is nothing but joy.

Lies. Far from it. In fact, it is perfectly normal for me to have days when I don’t feel like writing any music.

About four years ago, I took a sabbatical with the intention of focusing all of my time on music. I looked at the savings I had built up, which at that time was enough to cover about ten years worth of my then minimal living expenses. I told myself, “Let’s give this five years, give or take. For the next five years, I won’t work a normal day-job, and instead I’ll focus all my time on music and see where it takes me.”

Where this landed me was a complete surprise. It didn’t take very long for me to discover that I actually don’t like music as much as I thought I did. Yes I still love music to this day, but I don’t love it to a point to be spending all of my time on it. I have many other interests that give me joy. That unfortunately means that I won’t be the best player in the world, not even close. But I’m actually ok with that, and it took my sabbatical to come to this realization. When I went back to working, I regained my deep love for music again. How life works is funny sometimes. Although I didn’t get to the point where I thought I would, the saving grace is that I have been able to turn all of my interests (music, teaching, and engineering so far) into a way to generate income anyway, which is a great place to be in as that income then funds my continued self-improvement in various ways, which then leads to even more income, creating a wonderful positive feedback loop. I thank the mindset that I have gained from other artists which helped me to get to this point, so today, I want to share a bit of that mindset.

Why?
Some people ask, “Why bother? Why do I have be good at what I do?” This is something I’ve wondered too, and I don’t know if there is a universally correct answer. I don’t know if improving and becoming good at something is a worthy cause for everyone. But from personal experience, the better I get at something, the more enjoyable it gets, so that fact alone is enough to fuel my constant quest for improvement. There are also many side effects at being good at something too. That it creates an income stream is one, but more important for me is the ability to make a difference through art.

For example, it’s happened on multiple occasions that I am playing something on the piano and someone in the audience starts crying. There is some profound power in music that can’t be explained by words. I’ve also had a handful of young musicians tell me that they started playing music because of me. That’s actually why I started playing music seriously too, when I was inspired by a particular musical performance, so it’s heart warming to know that I have been able to pass on the torch to others.

What?
What should you be good at? I actually don’t think it matters much, as long as it is something positive. Like your goal shouldn’t be to elevate yourself by putting others down. But I also don’t think that you need a pre-existing passion for the things that you pursue. Phrases like “do what you love” and “follow your passion”, while they come from good intentions, are not very actionable advice. The problem is that these sayings can make you think that if you don’t “feel” like doing something, it may not be your passion and therefore you should stop. Now I know that that’s not the intent of both phrases and I still generally agree with the spirit of both (for example, if your life is shitty because you hate what you’re doing, you definitely have the power to do something to make your life awesome instead), however it is concerning to me that a person can hear these pieces of advice and takes away the wrong message, as explained below.

A common misunderstanding is that a passion is “found” and you must find yours too. But that’s not how it works. Rather, passion, like most other things in life, is developed slowly as a result of your actions. Your passions are also dynamic, as they continue to change drastically as you live out your life.

A common mindset among people, mostly due to cultural factors of our current society:“I feel like doing this” -> “Maybe this is my passion” -> “I’ll work on it” -> “I don’t feel like doing this today” -> “This must not be my passion” -> “Go find something else” -> Rinse and repeat

Unfortunately, this won’t lead you anywhere, as you will never find anything that you “always” feel like doing. There simply isn’t such a thing, and you will never be good at anything with that mindset.

An alternative (and more helpful) mindset: “I’m going to commit to working on this whether I feel like it or not” -> You develop a habit of self-improvement. -> You start to enjoy it more and more as you start to see the result of your work. -> The action becomes an automatic habit. -> You get really good at it. -> People appreciate you for your knowledge/ability/whatever. -> It feels good because you are contributing to something greater than yourself. -> You have developed “passion”.

Or, put it more succinctly,
“Passion leads to action” – No
“Action leads to passion” – Yes

Making a Living

In a society that so often ties your identity to your job, a lot of people equate “making a living” with “making money”. Such an expectation is setting up a lot of people for disappointment when they realize (as I did after trying many jobs searching for the perfect fit) that no job will completely capture all of their unique tendencies and passions as a human being, so let’s set the record straight once and for all.

“Making a Living”
To make a living means to do the things you love to do in your life. For me, this includes things like reading, learning something new, teaching and helping people, donating to my favorite non-profit organizations, cooking, playing and writing music, getting inspired by watching the musicians I admire, seeing my family in Japan, and spending time with my close friends.

Note: the typical (but incorrect) definition of going to a job that you don’t enjoy and coming home too exhausted to do anything other than to watch TV, unless you think that the purpose of your life is to watch TV, should not at all be called “making a living.” A more appropriate phrase for that is “making a dying”, as you are slowly but surely getting closer to your death while not doing anything to make you come alive.

“Making Money”
Do I even have to define this? This is everything that you do that earns you money. For me, that includes activities like engineering of various kinds, playing music, teaching, and investing.

Now that we got those definitions out of the way, let’s talk about something really important: “the meaning of life”.

What is the meaning of life? Many find this question quite difficult to answer, because there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer here. But I think it’s actually rather simple. The meaning of life the way I understand it, is to do as much of “making a living” as possible, whatever that means for you. Keep in mind that you have only been given a finite amount of time on this planet to do that.

“Making a living” is about you. “Making Money” is about the economic need of society that you fill. You are lucky if those two are one in the same. But naturally as you and society both change over time, the two will almost always fail to align 100%. There is no such thing as a perfect job in which you get to do the exact thing that you want to do with your life on your job every single day. Your job, therefore, is not your identity, despite the cultural myth that makes it seem so. You are so much more complex and so much more beautiful than a mere job title you happen to hold.

Given that, it is very important that you carefully think about how you are handling your time and money. If you educate yourself about personal finance and take an optimal approach, you will be able to live more. Fail to do so, and you will be “making money” for the rest of your life, regardless of how little that may align with your “making a living”.

self-limiting beliefs

One of the tragedies of this world is the prevalence of self-limiting beliefs. It is common among people of all ages. A self-limiting belief goes something like this:

“I’m just not talented enough to do/learn ___.”

Now, it is true that sometimes you just aren’t talented enough, like in the case of certain athletic feats. For example, most of you, no matter how hard you try, will probably not break Usain Bolt’s 100-m dash world record, simply because of the body that you were born with.

But when it comes to other goals, the only thing limiting you is your belief.

I just got back from a trip to Juan Aldama, a small town in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico. One of the fascinating things I’ve come to realize (other than my newfound appreciation for reliable tap water that I have back home) is just how incredible the human brain is. I consider myself a pretty intelligent person, yet the Spanish I’m able to speak was nothing compared to the little kids playing about in the streets of Mexico, and they haven’t even had a single class on Spanish!

“Of course they can speak Spanish, they’re growing up in Mexico” you may say. But speaking a language is an incredibly difficult feat. Any language spoken in the world today has a great variety of sentence structures and subtleties to say the same things in a slightly different tone, yet humans are incredible at picking up these subtleties by performing pattern recognition, almost all unconsciously. In the case of a language like Spanish, it is made even more difficult by the presence of verb conjugation. In order to use the language effectively, you must know every conjugation of every verb, and boy are there lots of them! The verb form changes depending on so many factors (1st, 2nd, or 3rd person? singular or plural? present, past, or future?). Put all those together and you quickly realize that it is nothing short of a miracle that kids are speaking any language. Speaking a language is a much more complex task than solving calculus problems, playing jazz piano, or programming a machine-learning algorithm. Yeah those things are kind of complex too, but nowhere near the complexity of the vast knowledge and problem-solving skill you must possess to speak a language. Yet these kids handle it no problem. They’re still little kids!!

So don’t you dare say that you are not talented enough. Your brain, with enough practice, has mastered the art of speaking your mother language. What makes you think that it cannot master other things?

comfort zone is boring zone

I recently had the opportunity to serve in jury duty. Although I did not end up being selected as one of the twelve jurors, I got to experience the jury selection process for the first time, and it was quite interesting just learning about how this process works. I also learned of this magical machine called “stenotype” that the court reporter types on, and I still don’t quite understand how those machines work, but it was so cool to see someone type at godly speeds!

The jury selection involved, probably due to the content of the case, the lawyers representing the plaintiff asking the potential jurors the question “have you been turned down by a job?”.

What followed was a really fascinating outlook on life that I hadn’t known.

Overwhelmingly, the most popular answer was “No I have not been turned down.” Now I don’t know if people were just saying that, or if they really have not been rejected, but assuming that most people were telling the truth, I was shocked that that answer is at all common in this society. The friends that I’ve talked to about such matter all seem to be people who have been rejected, and in many cases, rejected MANY times! I’m no different, as I probably have been turned down by over a hundred jobs by now, because let’s face it, most job applications that you submit, if you’re submitting them for positions that you don’t meet all the qualifications (which are the most interesting and challenging jobs that you should be applying for anyway), you will naturally get rejected most of the time.

It has become kind of a goal of mine to always be seeking rejection by doing things that I might fail at. This isn’t something that I randomly picked up, it’s something that I’ve learned throughout the course of my life to be the path that leads to the most growth, and to me, growth and satisfaction are one in the same. Failure is good, because it motivates you to better yourself.

The first time I began to internalize all this was when I failed my Algebra 1 course. The failure was demoralizing, but I noticed that because I had to take the course a second time, I got more practice, and I got really good at it. It was as if I had twice the practice as everyone else, and little did I know that failing this one course really set my life well for the future that was to come. I can’t thank Ms. Leung (my first Algebra 1 teacher) enough, for having the insight to see the value of me repeating the course. So many teachers would have not cared and just passed me on as it often happens. Luckily, that was not the case for me. Sometimes, failure is the best thing that can happen to you.

Similar thing happened when I was applying to colleges. I’ve always been a slower learner compared to my peers, and my poor academic performance resulted in me being rejected by every university I applied to. I literally felt like a failure, because the younger me back then did not know how the world worked and so just assumed that going to a prestigious (or at least some four-year) university was a requirement for success. But the motivation I got from this failure was so valuable, because even though I had always worked pretty hard, I worked harder than ever during my junior college years for no good reason other than in hopes that I would prove to the world that I am not a failure. Thinking back, that was probably not the healthiest motivation for studying, but it did equip me with some really valuable, fundamental knowledge in various subjects that I used as a stepping stone to take my learning further at the university level and beyond. I no longer have the desire to prove anything to the world because I’ve learned how pointless that is (the world is too big to care about small beings like each one of us, so better not worry about such grand things and just be happy), but my urge to keep learning something new has remained with me to this very day and continues to fuel my curiosity.

This illustration by Jessica Hagy sums up my point better than I can, so I’ll just stop talking: