The Making of Free Money

In November 2015, I did something genuinely nice for a stranger every day. Good deeds ranged from serving dinner at a homeless shelter, handing out balloons at a children’s hospital, and baking cookies for my neighbors.

I think I’m a fairly nice person (after all, I am Canadian). But I’m not that nice. What kind of effect would extreme altruism have on my well-being?

The answer, it turns out, was a huge one.

November was my favorite month of 2015. And the day we filmed “Free Money” was the highlight.

My dad inspired the idea. When I was 12, he presented me with a thought experiment: Let’s say that happiness is a tangible thing, and you’re given a large sum of it. (I always pictured the amount to be just big enough to wrap my arms around.) You can either give all that happiness to one person, or spread it out amongst a large group of people—say a hundred or so. Which do you choose?

I never had a great answer, but the idea stuck with me. When brainstorming possible good deeds, my dad’s thought experiment popped back into my head. I wasn’t sure how to quantify happiness. But money… now that was something tangible I could test.

I decided that I would give one stranger $100 and 100 strangers one dollar and then compare the two. Which one did I feel was more impactful?

On November 5th, I withdrew $100 from the ATM and gave it to the first person I saw. It was surreal, for both him and I. The exact word he used was “dumbfounded.” He then told me that he was using the money to buy a PO box (of all things). It was unequivocally the nicest thing I’d ever done for a complete stranger, and it felt pretty good.

I wasn’t sure if giving 100 strangers one dollar could measure up. But a couple weeks later, I decided to try.

As fate would have it, one of my best friends, Greg Arch, was in town filming another project. I asked him if he’d be game to film my experiment on his day off. He agreed.

Thank the heavens for the people of San Francisco and for Greg and his camera. Because the end result far exceeded what I could have ever imagined.

What you see in “Free Money” is a collaboration between three of us: Greg, my brother Scott (who produced the background song), and I.

Not to mention those beautiful people of San Francisco. Who taught me that happiness spreads. That kindness begets more kindness.

That a smile, a handshake, a hug are worth so much more than money.

11 Ways to Fuck Up a Fishtank

top pick

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sure, I had heard the cautionary tales:

“Aquariums are money pits.”
“They smell like death.”
“They’re a nightmare to maintain.”

Clowns, I thought. Surely I can figure it out.

I’m writing this because I was wrong.

It all started, if you can believe it, with a 15% raise in our rent. To offset the increase, the roommates and I rented out our laundry room for $500 a month.

It takes a special type of person to live in the room where we clean our underwear and we found the perfect applicant: our friend Mitch. Mitch is just as likely to channel his energy and intelligence into studying engineering at UCLA as he is into learning to kick himself in the head. He was well suited for the laundry room. Within weeks, he transformed a 6’ by 8’ box into an actual bedroom, furnished with a custom-fit bed, shelves, and (not by choice) a dryer.

One fateful day in November 2013, Mitch stumbled upon an aquarium store a few blocks from our apartment. The shop windows hinted at underwater worlds—swaying plants, cragged rocks, and glittering fish. “I remember thinking we could have a dope aquarium for like 300 bucks, probably,” he recalled.

Mitch pitched me on the idea that night. I was on board immediately. I had long fantasized about owning an aquarium. As a kid, my dad had regaled me with stories of his childhood fishtank. It sounded like a rewarding hobby—relaxing and meditative. Call it whatever you want—a quarter-life crisis or a quixotic quest—but I was hooked.

On paper, Mitch and I were perfect partners. Mitch researches projects like a PhD student preparing his thesis. His early exuberance is infectious, but after the initial stages, his dedication wanes. In contrast, I generally need a kick in the ass to get going, but then I excel at the long game—planning, plodding along, and willing the project to its next step. Our strengths combined nicely—a dream team, if there ever was one.

In reality, Mitch and I fucked up our aquarium basically every step of the way. The fact that we still have a fully-functioning fishtank despite our incompetence is a testament to the tenacity of life.

We were awful caregivers—ignorant, neglectful, and petulant. Our pockets were drained of cash. Our time was sucked into a whirlpool. If we had known the path ahead, we would never have taken the first step.

For anyone who’s considering owning an aquarium: think twice. For anyone who already has one: I hope you aren’t as dumb as us. For everyone else: enjoy the schadenfreude.

Here are eleven ways to fuck up a fishtank.

1. Placing a 600-pound aquarium tank on a granite ledge

Fish tank ledge

Mitch and I wanted schools of fish. This necessitated a large tank. After weeks of meticulous research—mostly debating which fish looked the coolest—we decided to take the plunge and buy a 55-gallon tank. We figured that no matter how you sliced it, purchasing a gigantic glass container was the first step.

We identified the perfect spot for our tank: the granite kitchen counter ledge between our living room and kitchen. This afforded a 360-degree view of aquatic bliss.

One problem: the aquarium was four inches wider than the kitchen counter.

This is where our plan went awry. Mitch and I assumed we could extend the countertop ledge with plywood and cork board, and place the aquarium on top.

The following questions would have been wise to consider: But what about gaps in the materials? Won’t those cause fluctuations in pressure? Doesn’t placing 600 pounds of glass on a shaky surface risk the aquarium’s destruction?

We did not ask those questions. Instead, we assembled the tank on this patchwork base, and started filling it with water. We noticed that the water level was uneven. We thought it might even out if we poured in more water. It didn’t—of course it didn’t—our aquarium was not immune to the laws of physics. We checked the internet. “Once filled with water, you should have no more then 1/4″ difference.” We were at 4 times that.

A scene flashed through my head: a squeak, a creeping crack, a leak, and a burst. Water spraying. Fish flying. Our living room carpet soaked through in three inches of water.

There went that idea. When aquarium stands went on sale for Cyber Monday, Mitch and I snapped one up and placed it in our living room.

2. Budgeting $300—or any amount of money—for an aquarium

dragon rocks

We had heard that aquariums were expensive hobbies. But we thought we had the two most expensive purchases—a tank and a stand—out of the way.

Laughable. The spending spree had just started; we still had to buy myriad marine miscellanea. The immediate next need was a base: the soil and rocks.

Mitch volunteered to go to our local aquarium store, Aqua Forest Aquariums, solo. I got a call later that night:

Me: “Hey dude. I’m at work. What’s up?”
Mitch: “So I went to the aquarium store… and I kind of blacked out.”
Me: “What?”
Mitch: “Well, I bought the soil and rocks, but they were more expensive than I thought.”
Me: “OK… Like more than $100?”
Mitch: “Oh yeah. Well over $100.”
Me: “How much did you spend, Mitch?”
Mitch: “$360.”
Me: “What?! How did you spend $360 on soil and rocks?”
Mitch: “Well, the soil costs $120, and the rocks cost $240.”
Me: “You spent over $200 on rocks?!
Mitch: “Yeah. They look so sick though.”
Me: “Go back to the store and return them.”

The problem with Mitch and purchasing decisions is that he always wants the best. So when he sees rocks for $10 a pound (“dragon-shaped rocks,” he reminded me) he goes all in, not recognizing that rocks are heavy, and thus, expensive.

On occasion, I got sucked into the spending whirlwind—see Exhibit A: a $450 eighty-kilowatt light with LED moon lighting (worth it). But other times, I held out—see Exhibit B: the $0 rocks that we gathered from the Tiburon bay.

Either way, Mitch’s initial estimate of $300 would prove conservative. In total, we spent well over $2,000 within the first year.

3. Setting external deadlines

ugly sweater

By December 2013, Mitch and I were one month into the aquarium project. And all we had to show for it was an empty glass container on a stand.

Our roommates, Andrew and Joey, were unimpressed. They had given the initial idea a thumb’s down—a fool’s errand, a distraction, a doomed project. At this point, they were right. The aquarium was an eyesore. Joey was particularly annoyed, as Mitch was using the aquarium as leverage to pay off a $200 debt from another failed project. History was repeating itself.

The four of us had planned on throwing an ugly sweater party just before Christmas. A week before the party, Mitch and I promised that the aquarium would be ready, “with at least one fish in it.”

We thought the schedule was straightforward. Day 1: Layer the soil, pour water on top. Day 2: Let it settle. Day 3: Put some plants in. Day 4: Plunk in a couple fish. Day 5: Done, with a couple days to spare. Happy plants, happy fish, happy roommates.

It didn’t work out like that for several reasons. The core one was…

4. Not following directions and inventing our own

2013-12-12 23.25.32

How hard could it be? I remember thinking, three bags of soil at our feet. It’s dirt. Just dump it in.

We layered Power Sand—small rocks that gave the roots something to grasp—on the bottom. On top, we poured Amazonian Aqua Soil—some nutrient-rich dirt that Mitch insisted was “absolutely crucial for plant growth.” We shaped a hill in the corner and smoothed a grade from front to back. It actually looked pretty good.

We just had to add water. If we had read the directions, we would have seen this: “Finesse and slow pouring is key.”

Instead, I dumped in a pot of water like I was filtering macaroni through a strainer. The carefully-sculpted hills looked like they had been struck by a meteorite.

Mitch was livid, and took over. Although he reduced the flow from a firehose to a trickle, the damage had been done. By the time we had filled all 55 gallons, the aquarium figuratively and literally looked like shit. We figured that we just needed to let it settle for an hour or so.

If we had read the directions here, we would have seen this: “It takes about seven days for Aqua Soil to settle. Don’t tamper with it.”

Instead we thought we’d accelerate the settling process by removing pots of dirty water and adding fresh water. Nope. Not only did we remove essential nutrients, we just succeeded in making the water murkier.

If we had stopped there, we would’ve just been garden-variety idiots. But in the face of mounting ugly sweater peer pressure, we took it a step further.

We turned on the filter, thinking it would tranquilize the turbulence. But no, this just stirred up the tank more. It was like turning a dormant nimbus cloud into a volatile cumulonimbus.

By now, it was past midnight. Our apartment was a wreck. Dirty brown water seeped onto the tiled floor. Our sink was clogged with this Amazonian soil bullshit. Because of it, our garbage disposal had broken; when Mitch attempted to fix it, more murky water sprayed all over our kitchen (and to my delight, Mitch’s face). We were fucked—Andrew and Joey were going to lose their minds.

We cleaned up as best as we could. It didn’t help much: the aquarium looked like a pig’s trough, and our apartment the pig’s pen.

As I was getting ready for bed, I heard the front door creak open. It was Andrew. I chirped, “Hey man, Mitch and I started setting up the aquarium.”

“I noticed,” he deadpanned, walking past me. As he closed his bedroom door, he added, “I don’t want to hear another word.”

The next morning, the water was still a deep brown. As it was for the next six days following. Needless to say, it was an inhabitable environment for fish.

The aquarium was the laughingstock of our ugly sweater party.

5. Placing the aquarium in direct sunlight

aquarium algae

Did you know that sunlight produces algae? Well we didn’t. At least not until it was too late.

A month after the ugly sweater debacle, we introduced plants to the aquarium. We couldn’t have known it then, but those plants brought microscopic bits of algae.

After a couple weeks, the algae bloomed. Since our tank had been lifeless for months, the algae was actually a welcome sight. It looked pretty cool—green threads undulating with the flow of the filter. But that sentiment did not last. After a couple more weeks, algae had usurped the tank as the dominant presence. Something had to be done.

After consulting our friends at the aquarium store, we learned that algae is a universal problem for aquarium hobbyists. The best way to avoid it is to keep ambient light away from the aquarium. Of course, geniuses that we were, Mitch and I placed the tank in full view of our wall-length glass window. And since the tank weighed well over 600 pounds, the tank wasn’t going anywhere. And neither was the algae.

We had a few strategies to combat the algae blooms. We recruited Siamese algae eaters and plecos, which chomped up and down the aquarium, growing in size with ample nourishment. And on a weekly basis, Mitch and I would roll up our sleeves, dip our arms into the tank, and tear at the algae with scissors, tweezers, and our bare hands. We even bought a black blanket to cover the tank during the day.

Occasionally, Mitch and I seemed to win the battle. But peacetime never lasted—algae was a stubborn and elusive foe. For the vast majority of our aquarium’s lifetime, the flora and fauna were shrouded in velvety green mediocrity.

6. Governing by natural selection

fish natural selection

I’m not sure whether Darwin would have been proud or horrified, but our fishtank was a microcosm of survival of the fittest.

We introduced our first fish in March 2014. We’ve hosted a dozen different species of marine life since then: colorful dwarf gouramis, albino cory cats, hulking Congo tetras, sleek bosemani rainbowfish, shy discuses, contemplative blue rams, three species of shrimp, and two waves of snail infestations.

The one thing these creatures have in common? They’re all dead.

I can’t say exactly what we did wrong—fish are fickle—but I have a few theories. When we didn’t change the water for weeks, the fish would die. When algae choked the aquarium with oxygen, fish would die. When we subjected the tank to rapid change—a little too much cleaning, those unappreciative fuckers—fish would die. Sometimes they died for no apparent reason, like they were just sick of our aquarium and decided to give up.

It takes a hearty type of fish to live through the turmoil, and a few have lasted. Our first Siamese algae eater is massive now. The cardinal tetras keep on trucking. But that’s it. We currently have 12 fish swimming in the tank, out of over 100 that have ever flapped a fin.

At first I would get genuinely sad. It’s always a bummer to flush a fish down the toilet (although we prefer the euphemism, “off to swim in the ocean”), and see the lifeless fins artificially flap once more in the current.

Well, with one exception…

7. Guppies

yellow guppy

Protagonists require antagonists. A hero needs a villain. In our story of the fishtank, the bad guys were unified by genetics: the guppies.

Guppies are well-loved within the aquarium community. Their brilliantly colored tails shimmer like ribbons. They float near the surface and give the aquarium aesthetic balance. Mitch and I diligently picked out our favorite guppy species, and settled on a mix of lemon cobras, blue cobras, and orange sunshines. We placed an order on (yes, you can buy live fish on the internet), and they arrived the next day.

We’re not quite sure how, but the package contained unexpected guests: four fat brown guppies.

Whatever, we thought. Free fish. We acclimated all ten guppies to the tank, and released them into the wild.

It didn’t take long for Mitch and I to resent these unwelcome visitors. They were a bane on the aquarium. Whenever we sprinkled food near the surface, they hoovered it before the smaller fish could nibble a flake. We deemed them bullies. Divas. And worst of all, they were a boring brown in a school of exquisite color.

Oh, and we learned that the brown guppies weren’t fat. They were pregnant. Fifteen more specs were floating through our tank.

In between shots of whiskey, we decided to dispose of the brown guppies, once and for all.

It was painful. For twenty minutes, we jabbed a blue net through the water and terrorized the aquarium. When we caught a brown guppy, we sent it to swim in the ocean. We justified this displacement by freeing up food and space for the other fish.

But really, it was an aquatic annihilation. So who were the bad guys? The guppies? Or us?

8. Leaving Mitch to his own devices

cleaning the tank

When it’s time to clean the tank, Mitch and I have a routine. I’ll ask, “Hey Mitch, want to clean the tank?”

He’ll wince, slouch, and groan,“Aaaaah, not tonight.”

“Why not?” I’ll ask. “You’re just sitting there on the couch.” He’ll look at me like he’s constipated, and then groan again.

I would say one of two things here. Scenario A: “Fine. I’ll do a bit tonight and you do some tomorrow.” Or Scenario B: “Fuck it… I’m just not cleaning it at all then.”

I almost always chose Scenario B. You’re probably muttering tsk tsk. Something is better than nothing, right?

You’d think. But you’d be wrong. When I did opt for Scenario A, it backfired.

By June 2014, our aquarium was in relatively good shape—strong plant growth, beautiful fish, and clean water. The big issue, as always, was the algae. It was unbearable. So after Mitch and I did our little song and dance, I volunteered to scoop algae on Sunday if he chipped in on Monday.

Lo and behold, I came back Monday night to a clean tank. Mitch had done his part. I was ecstatic. Mitch sat on the couch grinning, like a golden retriever who had just presented his owner with a sock.

On Tuesday, the tank looked even better. The water was clear, the algae had been decimated, and the aquarium appeared less cluttered. As I was admiring it, I said, “Hey Mitch… Is it just me or are there fewer fish in here?”

He glanced at the aquarium. “I’m not sure. I was kind of thinking the same thing.”

I searched the tank. The guppies were nowhere to be seen. The tetras weren’t hanging out by the log. The plecos weren’t near the filter.


“Mitch, when you cleaned the tank yesterday, did you remember to put the filter intake top back on?”

The answer was evident in Mitch’s guilt-ridden face. “What the fuck, Mitch?! Like seven of our fish have been sucked up into the filter!”

Mitch grimaced. “Aaaaah shit… man, I don’t want to clean that. Just let them disintegrate.”

I lit into him. “Disintegrate?! Are you fucking serious? Mitch! You are cleaning this filter. Take responsibility for your actions!”

He hemmed and hawed, sitting there like a lump. So I removed the filter and drained it. It was a grisly sight—fins, tails, and pale floating bodies. Four fish were dead—all the plecos and a guppy. Miraculously, there were two guppies and a tetra still alive. Barely.

From there on out, cleaning the tank was a two-person job. Usually accompanied with blasting trap music.

9. Enabling the critics

enabling the critics

Our aquarium was fodder for the peanut gallery. “You should get more plants,” a friend would say. “Why do you have so many plants?” another would ask. The armchair critics abounded.

The worst offender was our roommate Joey. He contributed nothing, and yet offered endlessly inane commentary. He obsessed over the algae growth in particular, espousing a theory that our high-powered light was the culprit.

We ignored him. As he is wont to do, he repeated his points louder and more defiantly. We still ignored him. Frustrated that his arguments had fallen on deaf ears, he took matters into his own hands.

On most days, I decompress from work by gazing at the fish and inspecting the tank. On this particular day in February 2015, however, I couldn’t do much inspecting. The tank was shrouded in algae—the water was a solid wall of green.

It made no sense. We had just cleaned the tank a few days before. Maybe the lights had gone haywire? I fiddled with the switch. No response. Weird.

The light was plugged into the power strip as usual. The power strip, however, was unplugged entirely. Which meant that the filter, heater, and light were all turned off. A stagnant tank is algae’s best friend. No wonder.

But why was the power strip unplugged? Mitch hadn’t touched it. I hadn’t touched it…


He had gone on a rant about the light a few days before. That same night, he attended Wing Wednesdays at a local bar, undoubtedly imbibing several Tecate tallboys. I was asleep before he got back.

I fished the story out of our other roommate, Christina: the night before, Joey had stumbled into the living room. Emboldened by Mexican beer, he decided to prove his point once and for all. But instead of unplugging just the light, dumbass drunk Joey unplugged the entire power strip instead.

I cornered him the next day. “Hey Joey. Can you explain why the aquarium filter stopped working?”

The jig was up. He knew it. I knew it. “I thought it was the light,” he replied sheepishly. Then adding, “It was Christina’s idea.”

“And why did you unplug the light?” I asked.

“Because I thought it was causing algae,” he replied.

“Interesting,” I retorted. “So what you’re saying is that by unplugging the light on your incorrect hypothesis that it created algae, you caused a 5x growth in algae by also unplugging the filter. How ironic.”

It was delicious. Joey was like the annoying twelfth man who subs himself in and airballs a layup. He kept his commentary to himself from there on out.

10. Bringing in an outside consultant

outside consultant

Mitch sprung the news on me in May 2015: our friends had a room open up—a real room—and he snagged it. This meant that we had to find a new roommate.

We found a suitable candidate: Aaron, a recent college graduate from the East Coast. During the roommate interview, he revealed that he loved aquariums and would be willing to help. That won him the room.

Which was great, because our fishtank was in a sorry state. The algae was overwhelming. The water quality was poor. The fish looked lethargic—just a few fin flaps from death.

Aaron moved in on a weekend when I was out of town. I came back on Sunday and was surprised to see our aquarium clear and clean.

With half the number of fish we had on Friday.

At first I was pissed. This aquarium guru comes in and kills ten fish in a weekend? Did we just agree to live with a serial killer? Unbelievable.

But I couldn’t be that upset. It was my fault that the aquarium was in terrible shape. All Aaron did was clean the tank. The fish had become so accustomed to filth that its removal was their downfall.

Even though I’m listing him as one of the eleven, Aaron turned out to be far from a fuck-up. He breathed new life into the aquarium. He eradicated the algae, sculpted the scenery, and recruited a school of new fish. The tank looked amazing.

Although Aaron’s stint was short-lived—he quit his internship after three weeks and moved back home—he left a lasting impact. The aquarium still looks great to this day.

11. Throwing in the towel

fishtank tetras

Just before Mitch moved out, we watched the sun set from our balcony and reminisced about the aquarium. We laughed and cringed recounting our many missteps. Even though Mitch was moving just 10 minutes away, I knew this amounted to sole custody of our fishy children.

It occurred to me that we avoided the one fuck-up that would have ruined the aquarium: we never threw in the towel. Early in the process, when the tank was a thick sludge of brown, we considered selling the parts for scrap on Craigslist. But we trudged along instead. We didn’t give up.

Which is why, in spite of it all, I’m proud of us. Because make no mistake: owning an aquarium is a commitment. It takes time, money, and effort. Most of the time, the fishtank felt like an enormous burden.

But then there are moments when it feels like someone hits the mute button on the city streets, and all that’s audible is the soft trickle of water. The fish dart through cracks in the driftwood; the plants dance in a synchronized sway. The light catches and shimmers off the scale of a cardinal tetra, radiating blue and red. Worries of the past and apprehensions of the future melt away, and the world shrinks to the shifting mass of flora and fauna inside my living room.

In those moments, I’ll think: It was worth it.

My Month Eating (Literally) Like a Paleolithic Man, Pt. I


My stomach lives a cushy life.

He has pizza shoveled in from a hole-in-the-wall down the street. Beef au jus sandwiches delivered from door-to-mouth. Chicken taquitos superheated with electromagnetic radiation and gobbled with gobs of sour cream. He is, needless to say, perpetually pleased. But if I ignore him for more than a few hours, he throws a fit like a petulant puppy, hissing and growling until I eat and ease him back into tranquility.

Earlier this year, two questions began to obsess me: What if eating wasn’t this easy? What if food was hard to get? The questions inspired ideas; the ideas coalesced into an experiment.

For the entire month of April, I would treat food—from acquisition to preparation to consumption—as prehistoric humans did (with a few modern twists). I deemed this The Literal Paleo Diet. I’d like to introduce it under the formidable pretense that it is the most masochistic diet I know of, stopping just short of starvation (although we’ll get there too). Behold:

– I could only eat food that could be reasonably hunted or gathered (e.g. vegetables, fruits, nuts, raw meat) and prepared using Paleolithic means
– No refrigerators
– No microwaves
– No ovens
– I had to “forage” (read: walk to the grocery store) for all 3 meals
– I had to “hunt” (read: walk a mile to the store) once a day for meat

The month profoundly changed my relationship with food, eating, and living. Pineapple and almonds became a frequent dinner option. I crushed garlic with my fists. Peeled avocados with my fingernails. Chomped heads of broccoli at my desk. I eventually lost 18 pounds in 30 days. I developed an intense loathing for an inanimate object. I went to bed starving. I even turned to religion.

I’ll explain more in due time. But first, let’s go back to that fateful April Fool’s Day…

Day 1: Tuesday, April 1st

Did cavemen eat smokehouse almonds?

I deliberated, feet planted on the cold tile, eyes transfixed on the charcoal-red nuts. Well… no, probably not. But I mean, almonds are almonds, right?

A new record. Sleep still drooped from my eyes while I munched factory-flavored food.

It was the morning of April 1st, 2014, and I was in denial. After 15 blissful months of normalcy, the swirling emotions from my year of personal experiments—a dollop of anxiety, a dash of dread, a pinch of excitement—were back.

My new life was nuts.

A few hours after losing the rhetorical battle with smokehouse seasoning, I faced my first forage. I knew from month-long bouts with vegetarianism and extreme cheapness that the first grocery trip on a new diet is eye-opening. In this case, however, it was primarily aisle-closing.

The group of allowed foods was restricted to one area: the produce section. The Rules forbid dairy, grains, gluten, legumes, and refined sugars, and since my office had no stove, I had no permitted method to cook meat. I effectively regressed into a diurnal raw vegan.

Lunch was a spinach salad, topped with avocado, almonds, dried cranberries, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. The first few mouthfuls were delicious; mouthfuls #30 onward were a chore. My stomach grumbled in gastrointestinal protest.

I need to begrudgingly admit that I still waded in shadowy territory. My almonds were roasted, the dried cranberries were infused with sugar, and it seems implausible that any plant naturally secretes vinegar. My friend Todd summarized it best: “I gotta say, this whole idea seems pretty half-baked.” I hadn’t yet fully crossed over (because how can one live without balsamic vinegar?!) although ties to my previous life of comfortable options would vanish soon enough.

Even still, Day One was about as much fun as Kim Jong-un. My energy lagged. I had trouble focusing. My stomach was picketing up and down neural pathways, screaming for détente.

But if there was any solace, it was my new favorite time of day: dinner. Goddamnit dinner was goddamn amazing. I devoured a mountain of ground beef—sautéed with garlic, onions, and spinach—complemented by a savory sweet potato. I  spent the next hour blissfully melted into my couch watching 60 Minutes.

Day 3: Thursday, April 3rd

Usually in the presence of co-workers, it’s best to leave your quirks at home. In my case, I had judiciously strewn them across my desk.

With no refrigerator and minimal dignity, I had stored three days worth of food—bags of nuts, boxes of berries, and containers of wilted spinach—adjacent to my co-workers’ computer monitors.

Since I was just 6 weeks into my new job at a 60-person company, for many, I successfully cemented a first impression of “that weird guy with chia seeds on his desk.” To make matters worse, I was not particularly discreet—for three days straight, I had shunned the healthy and delicious company-catered food while I chopped carrots and sliced avocados in the nearby kitchen. Questions quickly came, and the answers were met with skeptical bewilderment.

My close teammates were rooting for me though, which was nice. After each afternoon forage, they would hopefully inquire, “How’d it go?” (I rolled a 4 today, so great.) Although I concede that it was difficult to determine whether they genuinely wanted me to succeed or if they just preferred to appease any additional grumpiness.

And let’s be honest: although I was trying to be upbeat, I was grumpier than Bill Belichick at a Skrillex concert. Even when I could eat freely, food still dictated my mood ruthlessly (my mom’s crabbiness catch-all: “Have you eaten sweetie?”). Now, cantankerous fog clouded my head, and I sulked through a measly 2 out of 8 items on my daily to-do list.

Beyond just emotions, the Literal Paleo Diet heavily altered the physical structure of my day. I woke up 45 minutes early in order to squeeze in a morning forage and a breakfast fry-up. I skipped catered lunch to embark on an hour-long afternoon forage. And then there was the two-hour ordeal that qualified as dinner (which, to be fair, was still as magnificent as ever). In my old life, eating encompassed one hour of my day. Now, it occupied four.

Fortunately, I know from previous personal experiments that the shock from a new monthly trial was usually fleeting. I saw it time and time again: the summit lies beyond Day 3. After that, the new habit became routine. With a stomach full of food, I slept, hopeful that enlightened adjustment was on the horizon.

Day 4: Friday, April 4th

He laid face up on the pavement.

Following a triumphant head-over-heels flip, the dot was now staring at me square in the eyes. My first meeting with One.

Ah. One. I forgot to mention him didn’t I?

Here’s the background: food in the paleolithic era was no guarantee. Unsuccessful hunts and fruitless forages abounded. And since this month was a simulation of food and eating as a paleolithic man, the Urban Forager Diet contained one more rule—the coup de grâce, if you will:

For every hunt or forage, I rolled a die upon arriving at the store’s sliding doors. If the result was a 1, I could not enter and had to leave empty-handed. Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? No.

It’s hard to express the disappointment that One brings. He’s indifferent to hectic workdays. Oblivious to prayers and pleas. I could bargain. I could try ignoring him altogether. But he would always prevail. And with 70 more rolls ahead of me, and a 16% chance of encounter, I knew it would be just the first of many times that we would cross paths.

The Rules prevented me from going into the Safeway that Friday afternoon, my second forage of the day. But I had dutifully stored food in case a situation like this were to arrive.

Unfortunately, the food—a banana, two carrots, and cashews—were not necessarily my first lunch choice.

While my co-workers filled their plates with catered Indian food, I threw a fistful of cashews into my mouth and chomped a carrot in malevolent dissatisfaction, like some sort of Bizarro Bugs Bunny.

Later that night, I eagerly made the mile-long trek to Trader Joe’s. The walk is primarily uphill, and my anxiety rose proportionally with the elevation, peaking when the red store letters crested into view. I twiddled the die nervously for the last 50 steps. As I approached the grocery carts, I gave it a flick.

A friend! The beneficent four!

I snuck into TJ’s, speared a ferocious grass-fed ground beef, trekked home and ravenously inhaled every spoonful of steamy meat, tangy onion, and savory beef fat.

I also desired a successful hunt for another reason. It was Friday, and I wanted to celebrate conquering the first four days of what was quickly becoming my most foreboding challenge to date.

One of the benefits of inventing your own psychotic diet is that you get to make the rules, and I, as head gamemaker, declared that red wine was permitted. To be fair, I had to jump forward a few thousand metaphorical years—from prehistoric and pre-alcoholic Africa to 7000 BC and very-alcoholic China—to scoop a bottle of Malbec from present-day Argentina, but I didn’t let the numerous logical fallacies impede my path to drunkenness. I sipped red wine with revelry.

Like a responsible primitive humanoid, I limited the red wine to two glasses. I resisted my friends’ attempts to feed me other types of alcohol (even while they literally waved beer under my nose), and went to bed early.

Day 5: Saturday, April 5th

salmon sweet potatoes

A quick note on my health.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping for some ancillary benefits from eating so goddamn healthily. And five days in, things started to fall into place.

With a full night’s sleep and a successful early morning forage, I consumed a breakfast of four eggs, an avocado, and a couple handfuls spinach before 9am. I hate to sound like a dietician, but the impact was clear: consuming protein and healthy fats instead of white carbohydrates in the morning is like fueling a fire with a wood log instead of newspaper. My new breakfast boosted my energy and focus, which were sustained well into the afternoon.

I had also already lost 5 pounds, although I’d attribute that mostly to water weight and a pre-month overindulgence of bowling-alley appetizers. I was clearly in better shape; whereas a long walk used to kill my calves and wreck my glutes, I could now clip through a two-mile walk uninhibited.

If you compared my meals to family members, Dinner is clearly the handsome breadwinner, Breakfast is Dinner’s smart and industrious little brother, and Lunch is the ugly middle sister with headgear.

Today in particular, Lunch was a real bitch. I ate on the couch with my roommates, and munched a cilantro-mango-spinach-avocado-lime salad, which sat in between Panda Express and a deli platter with crackers, pepperoni, and cheese—all of which looked delicious, and none of which I could eat. The mangos and avocados were underripe, and I overpowered the spinach with far too many cilantro shreds and lime squeezes. Instead of a tropical, citrusy delight, the salad just tasted like acid and plants.

I should mention here that yes, I was aware that my salad consisted of mangos from southeast Asia, cilantro from southern Europe, and cashews from northern Brazil. Either I was a paleolithic superhuman with incredible ocean-leaping abilities, or I was a modern man that wanted a little breathing room. We’ll go with the former.

Fortunately, my nighttime hunt was successful. Dinner lived up to expectations, as always, and I gobbled close to a pound of salmon, a hearty sweet potato, and a sautéed cucumber. I also foraged a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from TJ’s, which I drank liberally later that night.

As much as I enjoyed the drunkenness, I have to admit that as a mid-twenties male in a bar, narrowing my alcohol choice to red wine was not a sound mating strategy. My teeth were stained a dull purple, and it’s tough to impress girls while loudly and repeatedly requesting “one house red please” from the surly and apparently deaf bartender.

As if it’s any surprise, I did not go home with anyone that night.

Day 6: Sunday, April 6th

This section is less an entry and more a quick tidbit of advice.

Unless you enjoy misery and hangovers, housing a bottle of red wine and then some under any circumstances—especially as an escape from extreme healthiness—is just generally a very bad idea.

Day 9: Wednesday, April 9th

On Wednesday morning, I awoke the same way as I had for the past three workdays: groggily and at 7:15am. I crawled out of bed, slipped on running shoes, grabbed the die, and headed out the door.

I was relieved to meet a friend—the agreeable five—at Safeway. One had ambushed me the night before at Trader Joe’s, scaring off the salmon I planned to net for dinner. My consolation prize was finishing off the last of my eggs, sweet potatoes, and avocados.

I excitedly restocked, swiping each item at the self-checkout. When it came time to pay, I patted my pockets.

No wallet.

Fuck. Fuck!

Does Safeway self-checkout accept an iPhone as payment? No? Well I’ll just double back for my wallet and re-roll. That’s allowed right? It’s not like the machine will remember me… Goddamnit how the fuck do you forget a wallet on a goddamn grocery run?  But after fifteen seconds of deliberation, my inner stickler won: Go home dumbass.

Let’s extend the paleolithic metaphor, for a minute. Say I was hunting boar. Also say that in my supreme paleolithic negligence, I forgot to bring a spear. Later, with the beast berserking towards me, do you think he’d allow me to saunter back and snag a weapon? No. He’d rotisserie me with his tusks and turn my ass into bacon.

I moped home, chopped up an apple, slammed back a handful of almonds, and left for work.

Lunch’s forage was more favorable, although I eagerly awaited the night’s hunt after 24 hours of veganism.

On the twenty-three minute walk to Trader Joe’s, I often passed the time by calling my parents. For a majority of the call, I dissected the various woes of this ridiculous experiment with my mom. As my mom is both a retired doctor, and, well, a mother, she was simultaneously supportive but concerned about me being well-fed.

Before I hung up, my mom reminded me (several times) to stock up. I had to remind her (again, several times), that I would if I could, but that food was no guarantee. The fates needed to smile upon me first.

Shortly thereafter, I arrived at the sliding doors and rolled the die.


Unbelievable. Just unbelievable! I hated that single-eyed shithead. I scooped up the die, punched a wall, and stormed back home.

In quick succession, I passed by a woman munching a sandwich,  walked underneath a giant, neon-red ‘BURGERS’ sign, and overhead a German man ask his girlfriend “Vat are ve having for dinner?” I called back my mom and told her the grim news. She was more distraught than the time I told her that I lost my job.

For me, food was more than a guarantee; it was a God-given right. For 25 years, I didn’t question that. I had taken quick and convenient eating for granted. Taken fridges, ovens, and microwaves for granted. Even just taken food—delicious, plentiful, healthy food—for granted. I’ll try not to wax poetic, but until very recently, that’s not how things were. It’s still not for some.

But in that moment, I didn’t consider that I was lucky to eat pineapple and almonds for dinner. I was just pissed off.

I went to bed hungry. Determined for revenge.

Day 10: Thursday, April 10th

oyster shucking lemons

Now he was just laughing at me, like a guffawing cyclops.


That son of a bitch. The fucker! I had hoped for a morning reprieve. Instead, I received a morning middle finger.

In the last five attempts, I had successfully foraged just once. My apartment food stash was dwindling dangerously, down to just fruit and nuts, which I ate for my second fruitarian meal in a row. The novelty had officially worn off.

For lunch, I decided to trade up watering holes and venture to Whole Foods. I flicked the die.

Six! Fuck yes.

I craved meat, but I had no stove at work, and thus, no way to cook it. I didn’t particularly wish to contract salmonella or mad cow disease, so land animals were out. That left one option:


Fortuitously, I had an oyster shucker at work (long story), and unsurprisingly, I gave zero fucks about wafting a fish-market stench throughout the company halls. I shucked and slurped a dozen slimy oysters with glee.

I was still hungry for something meatier, so I anxiously awaited the evening hunt.

I was working late and had to have dinner at the office, so it was raw meat again. A few hours previously, I had spied a juicy cut of sushi-grade salmon at Whole Foods. I desired to return. The salmon would be mine.

One had interceded two evening hunts in a row (a not-implausible 1-in-36 chance). He wouldn’t stoop to three in a row (a very implausible 1-in-216 chance). Would he?

A couple minutes later, I had my answer.

Yes. Yes he would.

The anger had faded and in its place was depression. I morosely munched dinner, which was an orange and almonds.

Fruit. Again.

I reminded myself that things although things were bad, they weren’t that bad—fruitarian diets have been practiced by many, including Steve Jobs and Ashton Kutcher, who emulated Steve Jobs for a movie role. Fun fact: Steve Jobs died from pancreatic cancer and Ashton Kutcher was hospitalized a few days before shooting for—get this—intense abdominal pain.

Just peachy.

Day 11: Friday, April 11th


Broken. Defeated. Friday morning marked the fifth time (sixth if you count the failed attempt) One had vanquished me in eight potential encounters. Six out of eight! I hadn’t had a successful apartment forage in four days.

I did the math: the odds of this occurring were less than 1 in 1000. Of course I expected a few unlucky rolls, a little bit of hardship. But not this.

I ate my last slice of leathery, three-day-old pineapple and finished the last of the almonds. From there on out, the options were bleak: one onion, a few cloves of garlic, wilted grapes, and half-a-bag of cashews. Literal starvation was an actual possibility.

I no longer controlled the die; it controlled me. One had the upper hand. When it came to matters of the stomach, I was powerless.

I will preface this next part by stating that I am one of the least superstitious people I know. I think gambling is for suckers, loathe horoscopes, and don’t believe in God. I majored in applied mathematics for fuck’s sake: I knew that this month was precisely that.

But I had never faced anything as visceral as food deprivation.

First, I swapped the die. It could be loaded for all I knew. That little shit had to go. But I went one step further and turned to something higher.

I worked from home on Friday, and before the lunch forage, I searched my apartment for divine inspiration. And I found it on my balcony, in the form of a weather-worn, sun-bleached, marble Buddha statue. His smile beckoned.

I grabbed a few grapes and walnuts from my stash and sacrificed them to Balcony Buddha. I mumbled what I guess qualified as a prayer, and gave his tummy a quick rub with my index finger.

I felt ridiculous. Up until 30 seconds ago, I couldn’t even correctly spell Buddha (thank you spell check). But things couldn’t get much worse—why not turn to religion?

With Buddha on my side, I made the afternoon trek to Safeway. This was big—the make-or-break moment. An onion-grape-cashew stir-fry was a legitimate lunch possibility. I gave the (new) die a roll.


I stocked up—eggs, sweet potatoes, avocados, fresh fruit, and fresh veggies galore. It was good to have food. Holla at sh’boy Buddha!

It feels weird to admit this, but the praise to Buddha was genuine, not ironic. This was just the beginning of my grandiose armchair-theory on food, chance, and religion. If you’ll indulge me for a minute, it goes something like this:

The beginnings of religion can be traced to the Paleolithic Era. In my view, early religion was developed not to explain life’s mysteries nor to give prehistoric humans morals. Paleolithic religion was practiced because food was uncertain. Because self-control spirals in the face of hunger. When food is a product of random chance, its acquisition seems dictated by some unknown magnet. So one succumbs to something higher. Why do you think all the early religious idols are animals?

I realize that I effectively condensed a complicated, sacred, 100,000-year-old concept down to a paragraph through speculation and brief Wikipedia research (so I’m not completely full of shit). But sounds pretty convincing, eh?

Several hours later, I made the evening journey to Trader Joe’s with a divine wind at my back. I could feel it: the tide had turned. I actually rhythmically clapped my hands over my head like a JV cheerleader so as to remain properly pumped up.

The pearly gates of Trader Joe’s came into sight. I rolled the die.


Sweet relief! For the first time in four days, I would taste meat. I passed through the sliding doors, and watched urbanites filter through the aisles, blissfully unaware of their good fortune. They go to the store, they walk inside, and they buy food. What a novel concept.

My mouth watered as I checked out, ground beef in tow. The month was just barely a third over, but I had trudged through a year’s worth of suffering. I found light in the tunnel when there was only darkness.

This required celebration. I foraged another bottle of red wine—this time, a Bordeaux—ready to drunkenly bask in the victory I had so rightly earned.

It would take another nine hours to realize what a terrible mistake I had just made.


To be continued…

How to Job Search Like a Savage

How to job search like a savage

One week after I got canned, my inbox flooded with companies seeking to meet me. The impetus was a two sentence email written by my friend John:

“My very close friend Alex just entered the job market. He’s a savage- if we needed to bring on a marketing hire right now, there’s no question he’d be it.”

Savage is right. In six weeks, I had 72 interviews—as many as 7 a day—with 33 companies. The list included 22 Y Combinator graduates and some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. They all shared one thing in common: one year ago, my résumé would have been buried in their queue and forgotten.

It was unbelievable. I started job searching 10 days before Christmas. Most employers were sipping eggnog and planning their holiday parties, not recruiting. But if finding a job is a battle, I stormed JobLand like Attila the Hun.

When the dust settled, three companies offered me jobs, all for incredible positions with a pay raise. Between the hundreds of email chains, phone calls, and coffee meetings, I discovered patterns and tested theories, iterating on blunders and capitalizing on triumphs. And after reading dozens of job searching articles, I concluded that most are useless at best (“show up 15 minutes early!”) or harmful at worst (“gotta take what you can get!”).

I’m now three weeks into my new job. I’d like to share everything I learned from fired to hired.

The 5 Steps

Step Zero: What do you want to do?
Step One: The basics (résumé, cover letter, LinkedIn, Google)
Step Two: Getting the interview
Step Three: The interview
Step Four: After the interview

[Disclaimer: The following is based on my observation, and is thus inherently biased towards 18-35 year-olds (with a slight slant towards tech/startups/SF). If you have kids, a mortgage, or 15-years experience, your priorities and roadmap might differ from mine.]


In six weeks, I got so much damn advice that I could put Dear Abby out of print. The most valuable: work on interesting things with interesting people; value learning above all else. Forget the brand name. Forget the title. Forget the paycheck. Learn. Simple as that.

Because of that, 90% of your job search boils down to two questions: What do you want to learn? Who do you want to learn it from? You can ask other questions to get to 100% (i.e. how big is the team? where is the company? what’s the culture like?), but those two initial questions form the bedrock.

In my case, I wanted to continue learning growth hacking, and wanted to study under a veteran VP of Marketing. I also wanted to learn about an industry aligned with one of my passions (books, music, travel, education).

No skipping this step. Otherwise, it’s like hacking through a jungle with a fork and a horoscope.


Oriented? Good. Now it’s time to get the books in order. It pains me to admit this, but résumés and cover letters are still relevant. LinkedIn profiles and Google results too. None of these things will win you jobs, but they can lose you interviews.

This step is all about mitigating risk. Here’s how to avoid looking like a dumbass.

The résumé

There’s all kinds of mundane shit I could say about résumés, so here’s something practical: don’t format your résumé like an idiot. Can you use bolded fonts, bullet points, and consistent margins? Do you know the difference between one page and two? Does your Word processor have spell check? Yes, yes, and yes? Congratulations, you passed the idiot test.

The big secret: employers don’t actually read résumés. At least not fully. They’ll glance at the company names, skim a few bullet points, and search for a couple key phrases. They want to quickly decide: is meeting this person worth 30 minutes of my time? The most efficient way to determine otherwise is if the candidate’s résumé resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. I’ve hired for a dozen jobs, and it’s unimaginable how many ostensibly smart people chose to take a shit on their keyboard rather than hit Tab a couple of times.

There are other considerations of course—focus on specific projects, use metrics whenever possible, put the most relevant/impressive bullet point first, and add one interesting personal fact (my buddy puts “amateur dinosaur enthusiast”). But for the love of God, ask a smarter friend to give you the idiot test. If your friends are all fellow idiots (read: college students), email me and I’ll help you out (alexgivesupblog at gmail dot com).

The cover letter

Cover letters are obsolete. At least, a cover letter that exists as a separate document. Whether you know it or not, your first point of written contact is your cover letter. Whenever I see an email with the words “I’ve attached my cover letter,” I immediately think: Clown! That email IS the cover letter!

A cover letter is also not regurgitation of your résumé. Instead of translating bullet points to sentences, elaborate on why you’d like to work for said company. Do some homework. Make it personal. What do you find interesting about their model or role within their industry? What skills do you have that would contribute to their success? It’s fine to spend a few sentences talking about what you’ve worked on, but make the cover letter primarily about them, not about you.

Finally, don’t use language that’s stuffy and formal—it will read better if it sounds like you are writing to a friend. And Jesus Christ, don’t open with “To Whom It May Concern.” Just say “Hi.”


People have written thousands of words about LinkedIn. Here are the only 27 that count: Complete LinkedIn’s onboarding process. Make sure your profile is up-to-date. Get a former colleague to endorse you. Don’t spell words wrong. Have more than 100 connections. Aaaand you’re done.

Employers always check LinkedIn (it’s often the #1 search result for your name), so spend a little time brushing it up. Bonus points: if you’re a guy, use a picture where you’re not smiling like a goofball. If you’re a girl, pick the hottest possible picture of you in a semi-professional setting. Sexist? Yep. Welcome to the working world.

Google Results

Google yourself. Seriously. Employers will. Search in an incognito window for precision and click the first 10 links. Get rid of anything that makes you look like an imbecile. That means deleting the time you tweeted “#CHRONIC4LIFE” at A$AP Rocky or removing that totally epic beer pong video you submitted to CollegeHumor.

For example, my mom called a week into the job search and we had this wonderfully awkward conversation: “Alex, when you Google your name, why is there a picture of you smoking a joint?” It was a cigarette, and it was complemented by a glass of Fernet and a rose between my teeth (ah… Buenos Aires), but even still, I promptly deleted it.

If your name is common and not derived from an obscure sect of Ukrainians like mine, you can bask in your blandness and skip this step.


The oldest maxim in the book is also the truest: jobs come from people. Not from CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, or Craigslist. At least not the good ones. Somehow that timeless advice has been tangled in a knot of ethernet cords.

In my case, I used a job searching tool or internal application system exactly zero times. My tools and systems were people. Those people led to job opportunities and before I knew it, I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the companies I was speaking with.

Here’s how I did it:

Make a list of friends

The first thing I did after I got fired was make a list of people to call (well… right after scarfing down a mountain of mashed potatoes gurgling with gravy). I jotted down the names of friends, former colleagues, and local acquaintances. Some were VPs and CEOs, but just as many were junior-level. Some had access to mailing lists, but most didn’t. Some had direct industry knowledge, others were tangential at best. When I stopped 20 minutes later, the list was over 40 people long.

In my case, I’m fortunate to have a great network of folks that were ready to help at a moment’s notice. You might not be as lucky, but not to worry—your list list can consist of anyone. Maybe a fellow university alumni works at your dream company. Or maybe your dad’s friend is an expert in your chosen field. It really doesn’t matter—you’ll quickly discover how open people are to help, especially if you’re respectful, honest, and eager. Everyone’s been where you are, and they want to return the favor.


Here’s where things get interesting: don’t email them. The easy route is crafting the perfect email and bcc’ing 40 names. Don’t get me wrong—that’s better than shotgun blasting your résumé out to, but it’s like hitting a ball in deep left and stopping short of first.

Pick up the phone and call. If they don’t answer, don’t leave a voicemail (nobody likes voicemails). Just text: “Hey _____, give me a call when you got a minute? Had a question for you.”

A real human conversation provides so much more nuance and depth than a computer screen. If you can swing meeting for coffee or chatting over a beer, even better. The personal touch makes a world of difference.

Once on the call, respect their time, keep the rambling to a minimum, and have a clear ask for help. I’m not going to script a conversation for you, but if you primarily use your phone to order delivery Chinese, here’s a primer. Bullshit for a bit—30 seconds or whatever feels natural. Then make a simple request: “Hey I’m looking for work, and I could use your advice. Do you have a minute?” You should explain what type of work you’re looking for, or at the very least, what you would like to learn (see Step Zero). It doesn’t have to be precise, but it should be actionable.

People are incredibly willing to help; they just need you to tell them how. You will be inevitably asked, “How can I help?” The answer can be as simple as “Can I send you my résumé? Let me know if you hear of anyone hiring?” Or “Is it alright if I look through your LinkedIn once we get off the phone and ask for a couple intros?” Or maybe “Anyway you could intro me to [Person X] at [Company Y]?” Whatever it is, be specific.

If you’re a keyboard junky that hates using the phone, it’s time to learn. The phone is the most powerful tool in your job searching toolkit.

Follow up

Your work doesn’t end when the call’s over. Right after you hop off the call, shoot them a quick email with a thank you and a tidbit of their advice that you loved. Attach your resume and a 3-5 sentence blurb about you that they can forward along. If you discussed a specific intro, ask for it.

Most importantly, take notes. Buy a notebook (my favorite) and jot down any tips, pearls of wisdom, or companies to consider. This forces you to crystallize the most important things, and you can readily reference it before any future meetings.

A word of cynicism: at least half of these people won’t deliver any promising leads. That’s OK. They gave you their time and their wisdom, and that’s premium value in itself. But talk to enough people and leads will come. Some will provide more than others (the aforementioned John, for example, delivered a whopping 22 leads), but just keep hustling.

From there, wait for the intros to trickle in.


Hello, and welcome to Step Three. You done good. A friend got you an intro, and a company wants to interview you. Rub your hands together. Do a little dance. The fun stuff begins.


“Nah, I’m just gonna wing it,” said no successful job seeker ever. Don’t be an asshole—spend 30 minutes researching. Browse through their company website, read their Wikipedia page, and skim a press piece or two. Write down anything that looks important (value props, size/market cap, company direction, new developments, etc). Stalk your interviewer a bit on LinkedIn so you know who you’re talking to. If the company has a service or a website, sign up and go through the welcome flow. Remember: take notes.

Done with the basics? Good. Slide on your creativity cap. Brainstorm 1-2 things that they should be doing in your field (the ideas don’t have to be good—the process is the important part). If applicable, pinpoint one aspect of their web presence that you can improve. Reflect on why you’d like to work for them.

Mark my words: you will be asked one of the following two questions, if not both, in your first interview:

”What do you know about our company?”
”Why do you want to work for our company?”

The reason? It’s an amazing predictor of a candidate’s genuine interest. When that question comes, and it will: boom. Fastball down the motherfucking middle.

Directly before the interview

When it comes to what to wear, follow the herd. If you’re interviewing at an investment bank, don’t wear a t-shirt—wear a suit. If you’re interviewing at a 5-person startup, ditch the tie—you’ll be more comfortable in a hoodie. [And no, I did not dress in jorsts and a sleeveless button-down for any interviews.]

Don’t be late. Obviously. But just as bad: the clown who feigns initiative and arrives at the interview 20 minutes early. Stop. It’s annoying. Interviewers are busy—they want to finish their hour’s task without Tweedle Dee dorking around in the lobby. Arrive early, but if you’re too early, take a walk around the block. I usually like to arrive at the address 10-15 minutes early and walk through the door 1-3 minutes before the interview starts.

Above all else: RELAX. You’re not disarming a bomb. Listen to your favorite song. Read an inspiring article. Watch a stupid cat video. It’s just a job interview. You’ll be fine.

Once the interview starts

This is it. The big moment. Introductions commenced (smile; look them in the eye), handshakes were exchanged (no limp wrists), and you’re sitting in a black-backed swivel chair. You now have one job and one job only: bullshit for as long as possible.

What most interviewees fail to grasp is that the success of a job interview is determined by two factors, often in this order: A) Do I like this person? B) Is this person competent for the job?

You’re not going to win any likability battles with your knowledge of balance sheets, cost per acquisition metrics, or jQuery. You will, however, win points for chatting through your mutual love of Argentina, or about that Niners win, or about a great book that you’re reading.

Interviewers need to get a feel for you as a person before they can envision working with you as an employee. If your interviewer wants to shoot the shit, she’s trying to get to know you. But if the interviewer clearly hates small talk, don’t force it—let him dictate the pace. The point is not to be the one who transitions into serious interview mode.

At some point, you’ll feel the conversation turn a corner. The following five words will decide the next 20 minutes.

“So… tell me about yourself.”

This is the first “real” question 90% of the time, and its an open invitation to pitch yourself. Everyone’s pitch is different. In general, talk for more than 30 seconds but less 3 minutes.

Stories matter. People forget facts; they’ll remember stories. Avoid listing stats like you’re a Pokemon card and craft your own personal narrative. Tie in projects that you’ve worked on and skills you’ve developed. Anticipate questions (like “why did you leave [x job]?”) and answer them in advance.

In my case, I wanted to emphasize that I’m both creative and analytical (an important blend in my field), so I always started my answer with, “Well the best place to start is my freshman year of college when I was picking between a math major and an English major.” I got terribly sick of that line, but it was effective—it neatly framed my journey as math major to entrepreneur to book marketer to startup growth marketer.

The interviewer might ask you follow up questions about each project to gauge how you work and think. Just answer honestly, be authentic, and don’t overinflate your role. If you’ve worked on interesting things with interesting people, the rest will work itself out. If you haven’t, it should be clear why you need to start now.

Common questions

You’ll get asked a ton of industry- and company-specific questions that I can’t help with (this is why we prep, class). That said, generic questions are frequent as well. Here are 4 common ones that can trip you up without some care.

1. “You’ve been given a project about [x]. Where do you start?”

Most times, you’ll have no fucking clue. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s the point. The interviewer wants to see how you react to uncertainty. Even further, the interviewer is possibly struggling with this project and wants an outside perspective. There’s no right answer, but there is a right approach. Ask questions immediately for more detail (e.g. What’s the objective? How do you measure that?) Then discuss your process for digesting and implementing new information into action. Mine consists of a little bit of research, talking with a ton of smart people, starting before I’m ready, and constantly iterating. Yours might be different, but be comfortable talking through it.

2. “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”

At first, this question drove me to fits. Five years?! I’ll be 30 in five years. I guess praying that my hairline doesn’t recede and my back hair doesn’t spread? Unfortunately, this question requires a better answer than flippant references to mid-adulthood puberty. Here’s why: if the job in question does nothing to advance your long-term goals, that’s a major red flag. Your five-year plan doesn’t need to be precise (in fact, it’s better if it’s somewhat open-ended), but this next move should be one rung in a ladder, not a shot on a dartboard. If you’re struggling to put together any sort of answer, revert back to Step Zero: what do you want to learn in the next 5 years?

3. “Tell me about a time that you failed”

Here’s your chance to win respect for sucking. Don’t hold back—the more epic the fail, the better. Failure is life’s great teacher; if you can show that you learned from that time you cataclysmically face-planted, that’s 10x better than bragging about the one time you did something right. Done with thoughtfulness and authenticity, this tactic can be incredibly disarming.

4. “What salary are you targeting?”

Before the interview starts, project a yearly salary. Add another $5,000. Say that number. Now shut the fuck up. No, no, no—don’t rationalize. Don’t give more detail. Shut the fuck up. Immediately justifying your number shows insecurity. Save the explanation for any possible follow-up questions. If they want to negotiate (and they might), you’ll already be $5,000 ahead.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Doofus McDumbass will take this golden opportunity to ask about the hours, the paycheck, and the vacation policy. Don’t be Doofus McDumbass. This is your last chance to to glean key information and wow the person sitting across from you.

I care about a company’s culture and values. Whenever I asked what those were outright, however, I received a canned response. These two questions give more authentic insight:

1. “What’s been your favorite day at the company?”

2. “Who is the best person that you’ve worked with?”

By forcing the interview out of rote responses, I learned much more about the culture and type of people within the company. The answers were filled with illuminating stories, not modified PowerPoint slides. These questions are also overwhelmingly positive and chances are the interviewer will love reminiscing. Not a bad note to end an interview with, eh?

I also like to employ the sneaky catch-all:

Are there any other questions that you think I should be asking?

A note on body language

I won’t be so bold as to reduce an entire mode of communication to a paragraph (if you’d like a book, this is a good one). On second thought, you’re damn right I will. Here’s the 80/20: when talking, don’t touch your face, neck, head, or opposite shoulder. At best, it shows insecurity. At worst, it looks like you’re lying. Keep things simple and leave your hands on your knees or the desk in front of you.


The good news: you’re through the thick of it. The bad news: at this point, things are mostly out of your control.

Immediately following the interview, take notes. What are the position’s responsibilities? Any notable bits of info about the company? Questions you stumbled on? This will be an invaluable reference.

Follow-up notes are overrated, but they help move the conversation along. The next day, send a quick message, “Hey ____, really enjoyed speaking today. Would love to keep talking, let me know any next steps?” Unless, of course, ____ sucked and you have zero interesting in continuing the discussion.

The goal of most second, third, and fourth round interviews is for the rest of the team to vet you, and make sure that they can work well with you. And to prove that you’re not completely full of shit. To prepare, review your notes, brainstorm a few initiatives, relax, and hope that people like you.

To maintain your sanity, keep this in mind: most job opportunities won’t pan out. There could be any number of reasons: someone else has more experience, the field is unfamiliar, more specialized skills are required, the position ceases to exist, whatever. Don’t get hung up. In fact, if you’re batting above .500 on job opportunities, you’re selling yourself short and need to cast your net wider. My “success rate” was less than 10%. Even though I turned down a number of second round interviews, I also didn’t get offers from some top choices. And you know what? It all worked itself out—my new job is amazing.

Above all, remember this: when the offers start coming—and they will—don’t choose the higher salary. Don’t choose the prestigious title. Don’t choose the safe career move. When the time comes to walk a new path, there is only one question worth answering:

What will you be paid to learn?

I Got Fired Last Week. That’s a Good Thing. Here’s Why.


“We’d like to help you transition out of the company.”

As the conversation progressed and reality sunk in, my ears slammed shut and blood streamed to my head. And since I neglected to bring a jacket for what I thought was a routine Friday morning coffee meeting with my CEO, it was cold and now I was shivering like a dumbass.

I joined the company eight months ago when it was just three guys with laptops, and I’d watched it successfully launch, raise $3.7M in funding, and expand from 3 employees to 13—three of which I’d recruited and hired. I was proud of my first 8 months at work. I ran a viral email campaign that signed up a person a minute for the week preceding launch, and then generated a firestorm of media coverage when the product opened for business. Shit, I had just released a new version of our website two days prior that improved on-site conversions by 400%.

What happened?

It’s painfully simple. I excelled at the company’s growth stage because I had a ton of hustle, a lightning fast ability to learn, and the entrepreneurial wherewithal to juggle 30 skills at once. Now, the company had blossomed, hired a new VP of Marketing with twenty-five years experience, and had reached a point where it “needed specialists instead of generalists.”

The irony did not escape me: as the company’s Director of Growth, I grew the company to the point where it had outgrown me. Twelve days before Christmas.

The walk back to my apartment was long. I called my parents in tears and relived every misstep, looking entirely out of place in the midst of the morning hustle and bustle. When I got back to my apartment at the ripe hour of 9:30am, I strongly considered draining a bottle of whiskey on my balcony and blacking out before noon. But after a hefty lunch, where I specifically asked for a dinner plate “with extra gravy,” that plan changed. Dramatically.

Here I am one week later. I’ve had a dozen interviews, a job offer, and am now actively turning down work instead of looking for it.

It’s possible that getting shit-canned was the best thing to happen to me in 2013. Here’s why:

1. Getting fired lights a fire

This is not the first time I’ve been fired. It’s the second. After the first, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to start my own company (it also inadvertently inspired another epic undertaking). This was not a coincidence. Every late night was fueled by a frenetic energy to prove those doubters wrong. I wanted them to view letting me go as the biggest mistake in their company’s history. It wasn’t of course—not even close—but after every personal victory, I still felt like Reggie Miller raining 3’s in Spike Lee’s weasely face.

I would go so far as encouraging everyone to get their ass handed to them along with an Employee Termination Letter at least once in their life. It’s an unforgettable feeling, and getting kicked in the gut by the unforgiving boot of unemployment is a beautiful thing. As long as you have the resilience to counter it with a roundhouse kick to the face.

2. I learned to appreciate my friends

You remember friends, right? Those things you pushed aside in favor of late work nights? You know, something other than your laptop’s blueish hue? I thought I did too—but after getting canned, that view changed.

After that fateful Friday lunch, I immediately started calling friends. Close friends. Old friends. New friends. Friends in high places. Friends in low places. I talked to over 40 people in 4 days. So many were unbelievably willing to help. They readily dispensed advice, made intros, and lent sympathetic ears. It was tremendously humbling

Those friends knew friends—CEOs, recruiters, employers, and more. That led to job opportunities, which led to interviews, which led to offers. I knew this intuitively, but it’s true: jobs come from people. Not the internet. Not job boards. And if nothing else, when’s the last time you grabbed a consolatory beer with a Craigslist post?

3. I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none. 

This was a tough one to swallow. But look at the facts: I’m a math major who writes in his spare time for fuck’s sake—I wear more hats than a balding magician. Although I’m very good at a dozen different things, I’m an expert in none of them. And that’s dangerous.

Yes, employees are greater than the sum of their skills, and most organizations—especially small ones—need people who can fill the roles of 2 or 3 people. But get this through your head: if you’re not the best at something, you’re replaceable.

This was brutally true for me. Other than being an affable goofball, there was not one thing I was best at in this last company. Our designer is a better designer. Our engineers are better coders. Our CEO is a better marketer. Our Chief of Staff is a better leader. Yes, I was very good at those things, but was I the best at any one of them? No. Painful, but true.

In other words: I was expendable. That phrase “we need specialists instead of generalists,” already haunts me. It will also be the last time I hear those words. Think I’m going to become a master in my next job? Yep. Better fucking believe it.

4. The grass is greener, goddamnit!

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard some variant of that phrase in the last week. “Something bigger and better is out there waiting for you.” “These things happen for a reason.” “You’ll find something even more exciting.” At first, I wrote it off as conciliatory bullshit. Those pearls of advice are so hackneyed that my stomach acid swirled at every utterance.

But when I took stock of my life and reflected on every failure, there’s a pattern: I’ve rebounded like Dennis Rodman on amphetamines. That failed Chemistry class? Highest GPA next quarter. Fired from my first job? Started my own company. Lost control of that company? Life-changing three month journey through Europe.

So contrary to my cliché aversion, I know this time will be no different. The signs are strong. I can’t see it yet, but I can feel the florescent green, Hulk-strength grass ready to shoot through the soil.

Over the last week, I’ve viewed this exit from every angle. Losing your job will facilitate that type of introspection. But one thought has prevailed over all the self-pity, anger, and dejection:

What an amazing Christmas present.

Bonne Année!


On a cold January day, I tightened my peacoat and trudged through snow-sprinkled backstreets en route to Place Verte, my favorite Parisian café.

Near the end of December, I flew halfway around the world with no return in sight. After getting crushed by the entrepreneurial roller coaster, I exited the company I helped co-found with enough money to fund a 10-city Europe trip, starting with Paris. And for the last week, my only daily obligation was to sit huddled in a corner, sip on a café crème, and write.

It took a 5,000 mile plane flight to begin making sense of 2012. Throughout the year, I had jotted scattered notes about each month’s experiment. But every time I tried to write more than a couple paragraphs, I quit in a flap of frustration. My first draft of January’s resolution, for example, was so monumentally awful (actual original hook: “Us Californians are pretty liberal about weed”) that I didn’t write a single word for the next two months.

I thought the most important year of my life would be relegated to memories and bar stories.

But a little voice grew louder, amplified by the questions from friends. “Why aren’t you writing about this?”

I rationalized this several ways. I would have to honestly address some unsavory characteristics (see: smoking, drinking, swearing). I’m not a natural writer, and I knew that translating those 12 months into words would be like birthing a hedgehog. I had no time or energy after 60- and 70-hour workweeks.

But thousands of miles from home, those excuses held no weight. I never expected to write about my life, mainly because before I felt like I had nothing to say.

Now I did.

I combed through memories from the last 12 months as I watched the coffee steam mingle with my frosted breath. I started the year baked on my mattress in the living room of my apartment in San Francisco, and ended it in someone else’s living room at a New Year’s party swarming with Frenchies. Somewhere in between there was a story.

Over the course of those few weeks, disconnected thoughts coalesced into a narrative. Patterns formed. Ruthless self-examination uncovered my bedrock characteristics: the need for a challenge, pigheaded stubbornness, and the complete neglect towards the whims of other people.

There are habits that have stuck. I read on public transportation instead of mindlessly swiping my iPhone. I eat more vegetables. I walk more. Other habits have fallen by the wayside. This blog is evidence that, much to my parent’s disappointment, I still swear like a motherfucker. I haven’t touched a Bible in over a year.

The process to create new routines is both brutally simple and excruciatingly complex: a frantic burst of initial willpower and then a slow burn of steady persistence. For me, a change was cemented in 3 days. From there on out, it was maintenance.

But each month was different. Months that involved a change in body chemistry (e.g. giving up meat, masturbating) caused a sharp shock to my system (e.g. violent shits, sleepless nights). Experiments that involved a shift in communication (e.g. no Facebook, no phone) were pleasantly refreshing and easiest to maintain. Trials that challenged fundamental daily practices (e.g. no transportation, no music, no spending) were a grind that left me exhausted by the end of each month.

It was also fascinating to watch the bottomless well of grit and self-control spill out into other aspects of my life. I approached the turbulent process of running my own company with a steely stoicism. I rededicated myself to daily piano practice. And most importantly, the wealth in willpower fueled my grueling quest to write.

While formulating the introduction to Alex Gives Up as Parisians floated in a blur of scarves and cigarette smoke, I thought back to the beginning. It sounds weird to say, but that post break-up Facebook stalk fundamentally changed my life. Because I realized something. Something I knew theoretically but had now lived so vividly.

I can change my habits.


Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food

Market Meadows Stock Shoot

In the month of November 2012, I had a goal to spend only $8 a day. Within this goal, I layered on a mini-experiment: I wanted to try the cheapest, most calorically-efficient item at every fast food establishment. So over the course of 22 workday lunches, I punted any semblance of healthy eating and tried them all.

Without further ado, let’s meet the contestants.

Burger King Spicy CHICK’N CRISP® Sandwich
Calories: 460
Cost: $1.29
Calories/dollar: 357
Pros: Hah.
Cons: These should be labeled with a biohazard sticker. The spicy breading—not spicy enough for flavor, but just spicy enough to induce cold sweats—conceals a whitish-grey chicken mush sandwiched between two white buns, a slathering of mayo, and a leathery leaf of iceberg lettuce. In a related event, I had to shit an hour after consumption.
Grade: F

Jack in the Box Tacos
Calories: 361
Cost: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 361
Pros: A fair price. A liberal application of Jack in the Box’s delightful hot sauce masks any flavoring quirks. I also didn’t have to shit immediately afterwards.
Cons: I don’t know how, but the yellowed taco shells are simultaneously mushy and stale. The only strength of the Frankenmeat soy/beef concoction is that it could be considered edible. I’m about to shatter delusions for frat boys everywhere, because here’s the reality: Jack in the Box tacos are painfully mediocre.
Grade: C+ 

Jack in the Box Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger
Calories: 400
Cost: $1.49
Calories/dollar: 246
Pros: Bacon.
Cons: All bacon is not created equal, and Jack in the Box clearly sources their bacon from the pigs that subsist on a diet of their own shit.
Grade: B-

KFC Chicken Little
Calories: 380
Cost: $1.19
Calories/dollar: 319
Pros: Tasty breading, juicy chicken, and a sesame bun.
Cons: Comically small. Literally finished it in 3 bites.
Grade: B

Taco Bell Soft Taco
Calories: 180
Cost: $1.19
Calories/dollar: 151
Pros: Taco Bell sets the bar for fast food tacos. The meat is salty, and the tortilla, cheese, and lettuce are recognizable, which is as close a compliment one could give to fast food ingredients.
Cons: In a growing list of things I thought I’d never say, Taco Bell is fucking expensive. At a paltry 151 calories per dollar, I had a wave of buyer’s remorse after consuming a taco.
Grade: B-

Taco Bell Bean and Cheese Burrito
Calories: 380
Cost: $1.19
Cost/dollar: 319
Pros: Generally looks like a burrito.
Cons: Its color and consistency are uncannily reminiscent of dog shit, making it the only item on this list which is both literally and figuratively shitty. And yes, I realize I’m already at 4 shit jokes.
Grade: C-

McDonald’s McDouble
Calories: 390
Price: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 390
Pros: The most artfully crafted cheap item on any value menu—two sumptuous meat patties, beautifully melted cheese, toasted fluffy buns, all rounded out by a winning supporting cast of ketchup, mustard, onions, and pickles. The gold standard for cheap fast food—in many ways, I feel more of an attachment to the McDouble than most people I see on a regular basis.
Cons: After 20+ McDoubles consumed in the month of November, I started having a bizarre Pavlovian effect where my mouth started tasting like McDoubles any time I passed by a McDonalds.
Grade: A+

McDonald’s McChicken
Calories: 360
Price: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 360
Pros: The winner of a competitive racket of fast food chicken sandwiches. Has a nice zesty breading on the aforementioned fluffy buns. Actually tastes like chicken.
Cons: A nice complement to the breadwinner of the McDonalds family, the mighty McDouble, but still not worthy of upper echelon status.
Grade: B+

Del Taco Regular Taco
Calories: 200
Cost: $0.59
Calories/dollar: 339
Pros: It is a taco, and I like tacos. Also, for some bizarre reason, I used to love Del Taco when I was 8 years-old, so Del Taco garners bonus points for childhood nostalgia.
Cons: Surprise surprise, eight year-olds are not renowned for their reliable judgment of food quality. Del Taco is fighting tooth-and-nail with Burger King for the shit crown (known cross categorically as “The Nickleback Award”) for worst fast food establishment. Del Taco’s underwhelming taco is emblematic of this achievement.
Grade: C

Del Taco Bean and Cheese Burrito
Calories: 440
Cost: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 440
Pros: Cheap. Very cheap.
Cons: In a shocking turn of events, it’s cheap because it sucks.
Grade: D-

November: Spending


“Have you eaten lunch?”

I was in the home of a mega-bestselling author, who had just contracted my company to run the online marketing launch for his newest book. The book, a soon-to-be bestseller centered in the world of food and cooking, was a follow-up to his #1 bestselling tome about health, fitness, and dieting. The man was not only one of my favorite authors, but a certifiable health guru and bonafide foodie—I had just picked up his lunch which consisted of duck confit and a Moroccan bean salad.

Well… this is going to be awkward.

Setting aside any shred of social tact, I replied to his lunch query. “Nah, I’m alright. I have some Top Ramen in my backpack.”

I was lying. It was knock-off Top Ramen. Actual Top Ramen wasn’t in my price range.

He raised a quizzical eyebrow. I took a deep breath and launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. “I’m doing this experiment where I give up something new every month. This month I’m giving up unnecessary spending, so I only have $8 a day to spend. Hence the, uh, Top Ramen.”

He laughed, shook his head, and walked over to his kitchen. He reached into the cabinets and with a wry smile, handed me a jar of protein powder.

“Take this. I need your brain to work this month.”

I thanked him profusely. But while working at his dining room table later, I still sheepishly munched my raw block of noodles sprinkled with yellow chicken seasoning.

November was my first legitimate brush with poverty. I was born extremely lucky. My parents are two working professionals who loved and provided generously for their two sons. I never went to bed on empty stomach. Never had to worry if there would be any presents under the tree. Never felt crippled under the weight of student loans.

But even with a privileged upbringing, my parents still instilled a sense of financial cognizance and responsibility. I’ve saved in a bank account since I was in first grade. I would never be caught dead wearing designer jeans, driving a Range Rover, or drinking Fiji water. In fact, my dad, who frequently asserts the superiority of generic-brand food items, insists that Grey Goose is for “wimps” and proudly consumes cheap, plastic-bottle vodka—Vitali, Gordon’s, and Popov—which you’d be more likely to find at a frat house than a suburban home.

So it was armed with my dad’s ingrained frugality that I strolled into the grocery store on November 1st with a $40 weekly budget and a head brimming with confidence. I knew that this trip would be different from my vegetarian buttfucking in February. I love grocery shopping, which coupled with a degree in mathematics, meant that I was ready to make Safeway my bitch.

As a clarifying sidenote: the rules for this month were to spend an average of eight dollars a day, or $240 for the month This did not include my rent, utilities, or bus pass. To those of you who kneejerk react with “that’s cheating—you’re not following the rules!” I respond thusly: Bitch, I make the fucking rules.

I needed to consume at least 2,000 calories a day, so arithmetic inferred that each dollar spent had to net at least 250 calories. This invoked hard dietary restrictions.

First to go were fruits and vegetables. These food groups, lauded by health professionals as a “nutritional necessity,” were an unjustifiable caloric luxury. My mom was less than pleased about this development. My inner nine-year old was stoked.

Next to go were all name brands. Later Nabisco, see ya Hillshire Farms, and suck it Kraft. I stuck purely to Safeway brands.

As I walked through the aisles, I did more nutrition-fact-checking than an overbearing yoga mom. In one instance, I cataloged the number of calories on 10 different cheeses, setting each down before I found the golden ticket—an unassuming pack of Safeway-brand American Cheese Singles.

My cart filled as I meandered through the rows. A five pound hunk of ground beef here (600 cals/$). Four packs of spaghetti noodles (1500 cals/$) and two jugs of generic spaghetti sauce (237 cals/$) there. I picked up, debated, and begrudgingly put back a 4 gallon tub of vanilla ice cream, even though it was an astonishing deal at 900 calories per dollar (I was poor, not a fatass). Cans of beans (450 cals/$), marble slabs of watered-down ham (137 cals/$), squished loaves of bread (600 cals/$), and the aforementioned knock-off Top Ramen (470 cals/$) rounded out the rest.

Ninety minutes later, I strolled out of Safeway with two bags, a few coins to spare, and a victory pump. However, the high from my super savings trip crashed once I set the bags down at my refrigerator.

Well, now I guess I have to eat this shit.

I put away the bags and got to work, whipping up a gigantic vat of spaghetti sauce and a web of noodles. This would be my dinner… for tonight, and tomorrow night, and five more consecutive nights following. When I felt like I splurging, I sprinkled on bits of American cheese.

It was boring, but effective. Lunch, in contrast, couldn’t have been less monotonous.

When the month started, I knew that I didn’t want to concede my downtown San Francisco workday lunches. The place is a food mecca, with options that are diverse, healthy, and—if you bring your Yelp A-Game—goddamn delicious.

I very well could have just brought a ham and cheese sandwich in a paper bag lunch and called it a day, but I had something in mind. A mini-experiment…

If I was truly going to do this poor thing, I had to penny pinch with the best of them. Other than schizophrenia, it’s rare that homeless people are the best at anything, but when it comes to getting a deal at a fast food restaurant, they’re at the top of the pecking order. And after taking Safeway for a ride, it was time to show the lower class how it’s done.

I embarked on a quest. I wanted to find the tastiest cheap deals at every major fast food chain. So over the course of 22 weekday lunches, I tried them all.

SIDEBAR: After I surpassed 750 words dissecting fast food minutia, I realized that I required an appendix. So if you choose, I highly recommend reading the aptly titled “Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food.”

If I had to condense 750 words of fast food wisdom into one, I would just say this: McDoubles. Goddamnit I love McDoubles. At a ridiculous 390 calories per dollar, they’re not an only absurd deal, but are sumptuously delicious and contain 5 of 5 food groups (if you’re poor and/or homeless, ketchup counts as a fruit and pickles as a vegetable).

I can’t pretend like I made it through November only with frugal spending. I had help. A lot of help.

My friends were incredibly supportive. They picked up my tabs, treated me to lunch, and bought me enough alcohol to get a hippo hammered. One friend (hi Nico!) paid for an entire night’s worth of food, transportation, and drinks. My cousin gave me $20 to Whole Foods with the instructions “eat some vegetables!” The aforementioned author constantly loaded me up with food from his pantry. Their generosity was humbling, even if I cashed in on years of favors in a quick 30 days.

Not everyone was supportive, however. One friend, who had justifiably grown quite sick of my shenanigans (we’ll call her—oh, I don’t know—“Julia”), refused to let her then boyfriend buy me a late night slice of pizza. And then got in a fight with him when he bought me one anyway. The moral of the story is that pizza always wins.

To be fair, I didn’t necessarily return all the goodwill flying my way.

Midway through November, I got blasted on drinks exclusively bought by friends. The night ended in a haze.

Next thing I knew, I woke up on a friend’s couch with the glaring sun piercing my bleary eyes. I had a splitting headache, a queasy stomach, and was not enthused about the prospect of moving.

I explained this back in January, but marijuana is the undisputed champ of hangover cures. And like a sign from God, roughly one foot from my face was a bubbler and a Tupperware container of weed.

My friends, however, were asleep in the other room. I was faced with a dilemma. My own personal supply had run dry and I couldn’t exactly afford to allocate a portion of my monthly budget towards weed. After an internal battle, I realized what was happening:

Am I really about to just… steal drugs?

Yes. Yes I am.

I looked left. Looked right. The perimeter was clear. I cautiously opened the container and scooped out a nug of weed. When I went to put the lid back on, I hesitated, thinking, “well… I might as well play it safe and replenish the supply.” I scooped out a few more buds, snapped the top back on, and slipped out the door like a thief into the night.

To the illustrious list of accomplishments from the “Alex Gives Up” experiment, I can now add “was poor; stole drugs.” From my friends. Who are girls. And didn’t tell them until a month later.


Although I took frugality to new levels–like never paying for group taxi rides, groveling for drinks, and consuming the same bland but efficient dinner 7 days in a row–I still had a couple splurge moments. For example, I blew $2.49 on a Colt 45 Tall Boy because I wanted to day drink with my friends. And then gulped it out of a paper bag. Talk about living the high life.

It was little moments like those–the pleasure that only a deserved sip of malt liquor brings–that made November my favorite experiment of 2012. Each dollar saved, each penny pinched, brought a little jolt of adrenaline. I went entire days spending exactly $0. It was fun–a diversion from the financially reckless lifestyle of the common American twenty something.

It was also humbling. At Safeway, I got stuck behind a family paying for their groceries with foodstamps. The mom–a middle-aged black woman–stared straight ahead as the cashier took 15 minutes totaling everything while her kids fidgeted with increasing intensity. Although her head was held high, the mother’s tired eyes betrayed a harsh reality: I chose to limit my spending. Many had no choice.

With two days left in November, I still had $50 in my wallet. I had saved vigorously, and I wanted to buy something I could put on the mantle–a trophy of my second successful month of the year.

So I blew a three day paycheck on a ferocious toy dinosaur. I fucking earned that stegosaurus—it was one of the most satisfying purchases of my life to date.

After the last poor supper (aka two delicious McDoubles), I still had $22 left to spend. With newfound wisdom, I recognized that the pathway to success was through reasonable judgment and big ambitions, so I deposited the rest into my bank account.

Just kidding. I bought lotto tickets. Twenty two of ‘em!

I could see the headlines: “Man attempts social experiment and wins big.” The classic rags to riches story. I rubbed my hands together, preparing to make it rain. Dollar. Dollar. Bills ya’ll.

I woke up next morning and giddily checked the winning numbers. I grabbed my first lotto ticket. No dice. Next one? Nothing. Each ticket brought a little bit more disappointment. In a matter of seconds, my entire stack lay on the floor, discarded and dejected. One ticket actually won $2, but I was so disappointed that I left it crumpled on the ground.

But now was not the time for disappointment. I spent 30 days clawing tooth and nail, and I ended the month at a net of exactly $0. By any objective standard, I dominated November.


Read the appendix: Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food

October: Transportation


“Alex, you’re a bit of a nut, you know that?”

Even my own mother was questioning my sanity.

I had just told her October’s resolution, which was no gas- and electric-powered transportation. That meant no cars. No taxis. No buses. No subways. And since I’m irrationally terrified of city biking and haven’t ridden a Razor scooter since Junior High, that left just walking.

As a friend put it, “What started off as a noble endeavor is quickly spiraling into self-inflicted torture.” This month was way out of character. The only outdoorsy thing about me is my lumberjack-like chest hair. I’m not particularly environmentally conscious (in high school, I “protested” Travel Green Day by driving to school twice and spraying aerosol cans when classmates complained). In fact, as a teenager, I lamented that Italy sucked because there was “too much walking.”

So yeah, I’m a gas-guzzling, electricity-draining, spoiled American. As September transitioned to October, I was prepared for a real kick in nuts.

On October 1st, I laced up my Vans, slung on my backpack, and trudged off for work.

It was a rare hot, sunny day in San Francisco—a good omen, I thought. I needed to drop something off, so I detoured 15 minutes south before rerouting towards the office.

There are days when you realize how beautiful your city is, and this was one of them. I strolled by green grasses, gazed at the pastel-colored Victorian houses, and made goofy faces at the dogs passing by.

At around the time I passed my second park I thought, “Weird… I should be able to see downtown by now.”

I walked another block. No closer. In fact, it felt like I was moving further away.


I had just walked three-quarters of a mile in the wrong direction.

I’ve jokingly referred to my sense of direction as my worst quality, but there was nothing funny about that moment. My pleasant stroll turned into a labored slog—the beautiful sunshine now just hot solar radiation.

One hour and 3 miles after leaving my apartment, I stumbled into work. I looked like Death’s sweaty cousin. My backpack stuck to my drenched shirt as beads of sweat poured down my face.

I slumped into a chair, kicked off my Vans, and took a deep breath. My back was sore. My feet were sorer. My pride was sorest.

To be fair, if I had any internal compass whatsoever, October might have gotten off to a better start. But the ramifications hit me—I was stuck. I could go only as far as my legs would take me. Now everywhere had to be evaluated by its walkability.

And I needed to change my fucking shoes. I gladly subbed out my Vans for more functional running shoes, even if I lost style points for sporting them with jeans (a.k.a the “Jerry Seinfeld”).

Those shoes would soon be tested.

On the first Saturday in October, UCLA football was playing Berkeley. Thanks to September’s resolution, I had not watched a second of my alma mater’s football program. I wanted to go. One problem:

A 5 mile body of water called the San Francisco Bay.

I checked to see if bikes were allowed on the Bay Bridge. They weren’t. BART used electricity. Unless I wanted to swim, I was out of options. And then suddenly:


It just popped into my head. Wind power! I was in business!

But where to get said sailboat on 5 days’ notice?

I asked friends that sailed. I Googled. I Craigslisted. Three rejections and two hours later, I had reached an agreement with a fellow by the name of “Captain Josh” to sail myself and 10 friends across the San Francisco Bay at $40 a pop. And alcohol was allowed on board.

Here we go sailgating! Initiate fistpump!

When the day arrived, I laced up my new pair of Nikes and ran two miles to meet Captain Josh. After getting lost (shocker) with just five minutes to spare, I broke into a dead sprint. I wasn’t going to be late. I had a sailboat to catch, goddamnit!

Luckily, I arrived on time and introduced myself and the group to Captain Josh, a mid-thirties guy with Top Siders and a sweaty upper lip. We boarded and headed out, ready for a luxurious booze cruise. Unfortunately, Captain Josh had to use his gas motor to navigate out of the pier—strike one. After five minutes, he said, “so we can turn off the motor and put up the sail now, but just so you know, the wind will basically tilt us sideways.”

I took stock of our group. One of my friends—to preserve her identity, we’ll call her “Shelley”—was already turning shades of green from the rocky waters. Her boyfriend, we’ll call him “Todd,” was shoveling Cheez-Its into his face by the handful, his drunken eyes moving independently like a chameleon’s. We were not fit for a 45 degree tilt.

So I took one for the team. “Fuck it. Let’s use the motor.”

The next 90 minutes were gorgeous—blue seas and bluer skies. I didn’t care that we used more gas than an SUV—the opportunity to enjoy the ocean breeze underneath the majestic Bay Bridge was too good to pass up. Exceptions needed to be made.

But the trip didn’t end when I hit dry land. While everyone else loaded into cabs en route to the stadium, I stretched for my second run of the day. I was not in good shape—my muscles were tired and the post-workout meal of Maker’s Mark and Coke was not exactly replenishing. But I gave myself a quick little pep talk and off I went.

A few minutes into my jog, my brother—who could barely form full sentences at that point—ditched his cab and came barreling onto the sidewalk. I was glad to have a companion for the 3 mile trek ahead. But what followed was one of the dumbest, and most dangerous things I’ve ever done.

Running three miles when you’re out of shape is dumb. Running three miles when you’re out of shape and hammered is dumber. Running three miles over bridges with tiny sidewalks, heavy traffic, and laughably small “guardrails,” all while out of shape and hammered is just fucking moronic. There were several moments when I pictured my mother’s reaction after being notified that her only two sons were lying in adjacent hospital beds.

But an hour later, we made it. It took a 2 mile run, a sailboat, another 3 mile run, and several near-misses, but for a brief few hours, I was king of stupidity at the Berkeley game.

Captain Josh offered to give us a discounted ride back, but I opted for BART. When faced with the option of breaking October’s resolution or enduring The Amazing Race Part II, the decision was quite clear. Fuck. That.

After the ill-fated first try, my later walks to work were less sweaty, but much… well, livelier. One of San Francisco’s defining characteristics is its multitude of districts, which change in a matter of blocks. Case in point: five minutes into my morning walk to downtown, I went from a quiet residential neighborhood to smack dab in the middle of the Tenderloin.

I hate to be coarse (not really), but if San Francisco was the human body, the Tenderloin would be the unwashed butthole after a battle with a spicy bean and cheese burrito. In fact, it’s not particularly uncommon to walk through the Tenderloin and see a scraggly homeless man wiping his actual butthole with discarded trash. Nor is it uncommon to see the ground littered with dirty needles, urine puddles, and human blobs rolled in patchwork carpets.

So twice a day for 31 days, I got to mingle with San Francisco’s best and brightest. Needless to say, I walked quickly.

It could’ve been the environment, but I found walking to work to be a mixed bag. Doubling my morning commute time—especially when things at work were heating up—added stress. I couldn’t get into that Zen-like meditative state. Watching bus after bus whoosh by—on one walk, I counted seven—did not particularly help matters. But there were positive aspects. I lost 5 pounds in 31 days. My day was brightened each morning while exchanging friendly “hello’s” with a kind-faced, older gentlemen lounging on his front porch. And I got to experience the sights and sounds of my city in a new light.

Weekends were another beast altogether and I was usually forced to play the role of social outcast. Birthday party for a close friend in Napa? “Yeah… not gonna make it.” Roommate needs a ride from the airport? “Really wish I could, but my hands are tied.” Friday night outing in distant North Beach? “I think I’ll just go to McTeague’s.”

As the remaining October days dwindled, I reflected on my progress. I could knock out 2 mile walks no problem and my calves had turned rock-hard. In aggregate, I walked over 120 miles in a month—enough to make it from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. No transportation wasn’t as soul-crushing as no music, nor as psychologically taxing as no swearing, but it was hard-core. When November 1st came, I was more than happy to resume my post along the 38 bus line.

Unfortunately, things would not get easier. Not by a longshot.

In November, I would take penny pinching to a new extreme and attempt to live off of $8 a day.

September: TV & Movies


Picture this scene: two friends are lounging on a couch watching TV. Another walks into the room. Instead of occupying the empty seat on the couch, the newcomer pulls up a chair, flips it opposite the couch, and sits with his back to the TV.

For one month, that weird-ass newcomer was me.

In September, I couldn’t watch TV and movies. This month was at the core of the Alex Gives Up experiment—shedding bad habits in the search for new ones. TV offers cheap laughs, vicarious thrills, and mind-numbing distraction—not much beyond entertainment. Lucky for me, I had practiced low levels of television for years.

When I was a kid, my parents established a strict no TV, movies, and videogames on weeknights policy. To use a Biblical allusion from last month, TV was the forbidden fruit, my parents were God, I was Eve, and Rugrats on Tuesday nights was the snake. There were no morning cartoons before school. No Nick at Nite after homework was done. No late-night softcore porn on Cinemax (internet to the rescue!). Although I hated it at the time, the rule was a shrewd move by the ‘rents, and I did well scholastically partly because of it.

So when September 1st arrived, I was ready to revert back to that 5th grade mentality

The first day of September fell on a Saturday. I groggily pulled myself out of bed to smells of a sausage, onion, and spinach omelet wafting from the kitchen and a high-frequency buzz emanating from the living room. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my roommate planted on the couch watching pixelated images from my new rectangular nemesis.

I walked into the living room with my head down like a guilty kid about to be scolded by his parents. Keeping the TV firmly out of view, I walked past the couch and sat in a chair opposite our coffee table.

And this would become my life for the next month.

I initially thought that taking a break from TV would be a breeze. But I underestimated TV’s value as a social activity. When friends are hanging out with nothing to do, TV provides a solid backdrop. It could be high school buddies enjoying a beer over The Game. It could be girls giddily gossiping over the newest steaming pile of shit that network execs have cleverly disguised as reality television. Whatever it is, TV is the social glue for Americans everywhere.

When you look at the numbers, the average American spends 34 hours a week watching TV. That’s insane. That’s like watching half of an NFL team’s regular season in a week or, if you’re a particularly delusional girl with terrible taste in men, the first four seasons of The Bachelor. It’s as close to a national malady as they come, right up there with NASCAR and

So whenever I hung out at a friend’s house, the de facto activity was watching TV. If I wasn’t already a social outcast, my backwards seat embossed that scarlet letter. It was annoying as shit. While my friends chuckled along with the newest episode of Workaholics, I sat there and dicked around on my phone. Or stared at the wall. Or as one friend put it, “awkwardly watched everyone else.”

Abstaining from movies was slightly easier. I had to turn down a few invites to see September releases, namely Looper, End of Watch, and The Master, but I didn’t consider any to be must-sees. This was partly by design. I picked September because it’s generally a movie no-mans-land—the piece of bologna sandwiched between summer blockbusters and Oscar-bait indies.

But TV is omnipresent. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s at bars, in restaurants, in store windows, and in so many other places I’d never noticed until I actively attempted to avoid it.

So slip-ups were imminent. At bars, my eyes would flicker and I’d catch a second of television. On one occasion, I crawled onto the couch after a particularly unforgiving workday and accidentally watched 7 seconds of ESPN. I immediately scolded myself and resumed my post at the backwards chair.

But for the most part, I stuck to the resolution. My post-work routine changed dramatically. Instead of wasting those nighttime hours with SportsCenter or a fifth re-watch of 50/50, I read. I played piano. I went to the gym. My nights were peaceful, more productive, and that TV-induced malaise at the end of the day was gone.

However, falling asleep took some getting used to.

For the majority of my teenage years, I had mild insomnia. I would lie in bed for hours, my mind running like a Kenyan from child rebel soldiers. After college, I started watching a TV show—usually It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—before bed. It was like the grown-up version of a bedtime story, and it worked. Before long, my eyelids would droop in tune with the show’s opening theme song (fittingly, it was also the first time I noticed the effect new habits have on my well-being).

So with no TV, I turned to music videos before bed. It technically wasn’t television, and it wasn’t a movie, so my internal referee gave motioned “play on.” And before long, that worked too—I had no trouble falling asleep.

One of the funnier aspects of a television-poor diet was the pop culture ignorance. In particular, I missed every single bad call in the replacement refs era in the NFL, including the infamous Packers-Seahawks game (which had such a legendarily bad call to end the game that it has its own Wikipedia page). Listening to incredulous commentators with just my imagination and the ceiling as visual clues was hilarious—mainly because I had no clue what everyone was so upset about. Some things just have to be seen.

When September came to a close, I was proud of the effort I put forth. I lost a few battles to twitching eyes, but it was one of my most successful months to date and provided a clear benefit—I really was more productive. But I was still happy to have my old friends back.

I also invested in a new pair of running shoes. They would see a lot of use. Because I would spend the entire month of October without transportation.