It started in a spiral notebook. I wasn’t even five years old, yet, I’d already developed an unruly obsession with the Dow Jones. Not in investing, just in the numbers themselves, the way they’d somewhat arbitrarily move up or down, and then get charted in technicolor by USA Today.
And, so, I asked myself what most kids fresh out of Pre-K would: “What if I measured my life like the stock market?” For real. Look how happy, healthy and well-adjusted I turned out.
I determined that at the closing bell on Friday each week, I would ask myself how the week was, and assign it a number: I’d jot that number down in the notebook. Then, I’d do it again, and add or subtract that number from the previous one. From there, I’d be able to develop an objective, quantitative response to, “How’s it going?” I did this in lieu of a diary, because, why the hell would I want to write my every waking thought? I mean … who does that?
In 1993, I developed a set of five criteria to develop more consistent results:
- Academic Performance — an assessment of how I did in school, based on grades (later modified to Professional Performance, upon completion of University, an assessment of how I was doing in my career)
- Health — a summary of diet and exercise activity, plus-or-minus any illnesses or substance abuse issues
- Mood — a sliding scale of my level of happiness, ranging from majorly depressed to unsustainably euphoric
- Finance — an assessment of how much money did I make vs how much money did I waste (it’s important to note that spending on important things and/or things that are worth it, i.e. a vacation or a necessary car repair or dumping money into an IRA isn’t wasteful spending)
- Relationships — A quantitative analysis of how much closer I got to the good people around me, how much farther away I got from toxic people, and (if in a committed relationship) how well I thought my love life was going.
I measured each variable on a scale of -2 to 2, so that a perfect week was a 10, a total disaster was -10, and an average week was zero. (I once measured each variable from 1 to 5, switched to the current scale in 2001, and went back and retroactively adjusted the previous data.) I would average out the weekly totals out at the end of each month, to prevent too much noise in the data. (So, although I took the temperature weekly, only the average temperature for the month is what made it into the master data set.)
Now, who’s ready to see some fucking graphs?
Look at that beauty. It is my entire life — every kiss, dollar, disappointment, achievement, party, playground, concert, hug, disease, soccer match, conference call — in one chart. That’s over 30 years, from just shy of my 5th birthday to just shy of my 36th. It’s kinda ridiculous. But it’s instructive. Come … navel-gaze with me. (You are welcome to skip the chart-by-chart breakdown and skip to where it says “Life Lessons” if this feels too much like nerdy masochism for you.)
Chart I: Childhood
This chart covers my entire life from the time my time spent swinging on the playground in Madison, Alabama to the minute my mom’s van drove me and my family out of our home in Niagara Falls to our new home in the Utica area. It loosely correlates to K-5th grade, and covers a lot of playing baseball with neighborhood kids and drawing creepily accurate street maps of various U.S. metro areas in sidewalk chalk on my driveway.
Here, the data is pretty clear. The dip between July of ’87 and May of ’88 was Kindergarten in Alabama, where the memories are fuzzy and I don’t remember making real friends, and I suffered from constant asthma attacks. The gentle climb from May of ’88 to March of ’92 was a steady stream of birthday parties, solid scores on standardized tests, a youth filled with being the teacher’s pet and someone who always listened to his parents, played pickup baseball games and generally enjoyed being alive. The hockey-stick skyrocket on the far right represents just totally killing it in 5th grade and essentially running the school, right up until my friends blocked my mom’s van from leaving the neighborhood when it became clear I was not coming back for junior high.
- Generally great grades
- Healthy relationships with neighborhood kids and classmates
- Lots of team sports and extracurricular activities
- Asthma and frequent illness
- A vague feeling of loneliness in Alabama
- I wasn’t necessarily raking in the cash
Chart II: Adolescence
This chart covers my entire life from the time my time spent in the greater Utica area, covering the start of being the “new kid” in sixth grade to waving goodbye to my parents before heading into the Brewster dormitory at Syracuse University. This is grades 6 through 12. Here, we have growth spurts, voice changes, first awkward dates and kisses, first overseas trips and a lot of playing AYSO soccer and drumming in concert bands.
Here, the data tells a somewhat rockier story. The precipitous drop from August of ’93 until May of ’95 tells the story of a gangly, lonely kid who got picked on a lot in middle school, didn’t get invited out a ton, and went to bed to the dulcet tones of his parents arguing. May of ’95, however, yielded the first of many fortuitous standout moments: The Great Virginia Beach Marching Band Trip, which was my first unsupervised road trip without my parents chaperoning — this is when I finally fell in with a group of real friends, and where I picked up sarcasm as a defense mechanism for my unrelenting earnestness.
The following 18 months was a bull market highlighted by being named All-State in Percussion, Winning the Geography Bee, traveling to the British Isles and seeing my first concert, kissing my first kiss, uttering my first (of many!) curse words, drinking my first shot of whiskey, and just generally bad-assing my way through the eighth grade.
Freshman year was freshman year, sophomore year was spectacular, junior year was spent in a relationship that did some toxic damage to my other relationships. Let’s talk, again, about the (mostly) unbroken vault upwards at the right side of the graph.
By the end of senior year, I: played three varsity sports, ran my first two 15K road races, hiked the highest peaks in the Adirondacks, was first-chair percussion in every band our school had, graduated with high honors, got accepted into Syracuse University to study Broadcast Journalism, was in a committed relationship with my high-school sweetheart, had a tight group of friends and an even tighter group of acquaintances, and was generally killing it in every sense of the word. I never expected, five years earlier, that this peak would dwarf the one in the Summer of 1993, but the Summer of 2000 did just that.
- Really great grades and a broad range of extracurricular activities I excelled at (Music, Sports, Scouts)
- Extraordinarily active social life highlighted by great friends and one outstanding girlfriend
- Generally physically fit junior and senior year
- Moderate to extreme happiness in even-numbered years (’96, ’98, ‘00)
- My parents marriage grew extremely rocky, then fractured in 1997–98
- Crippling loneliness and victim of bullying in 1994–95
Chart III: College
This chart covers the time I said hello to my roommate in the Brewster dormitory at Syracuse University to the time I finished my last final exam at the University at Buffalo. Here, we largely see existential crises, frequent psuedo-philosophical epiphanies, being an actual weatherman, habitual marijuana smoking, occasional binge drinking, frat parties, all-nighters, and pulling off the rare grade hat-trick of being on the Dean’s List and Academic Probation in consecutive semesters: TWICE.
The first thing that sticks out about this data is how little it moves over four years. College was neither good, nor bad. I mean, it was a lot of both, but it almost always balanced each other out. My grandfather died. I got arrested a couple times. I started playing concerts. I traveled a ton. I dumped my high school sweetheart, linked up with a hippie, pledged a fraternity, tended bar to make ends meet, struggled to make ends meet, partied and also spent a lot of time eating pasta alone and watching Mountain West Conference college football.
With one, glaring, massive exception, that pronounced uptick in the middle: February through September of 2002. This is when I discovered Adderall. I first took 10mg before I took to the stage in a punk band I was in at the time, and it was a revelation. I’m generally a scatter-brained mess of a human, multi-tasking ad infinitum. But I was able to slow down and truly engage with the world.
I started taking 5mg at 8a.m., 5mg at noon, and 5mg at 5 p.m. every single day. Here’s what happened:
- I graduated second semester sophomore year with a 3.8 GPA, the highest I would ever have.
- I was promoted at the restaurant I worked at to server captain.
- I helped grow a startup punk-band into a regional sensation and also started playing guitar and writing songs of my own.
- My relationships with my friends and family improved dramatically.
- I got into (for second college, deep breath here): USC, UNLV, UNC, Penn State, Columbia, Arizona, UCLA and … ready? University of Texas. (Oh! Austin! I bet you didn’t know I was fixing to come hang 15 years ago!) I went to the University at Buffalo, because I am a total sucker who listened to his mother too often and didn’t take nearly enough risks.
I probably have ADHD.
- Hyperactive nightlife and diverse set of novel experiences
- Enjoyable (if not necessarily) successful relationships with romantic partners
- A healthy bit of achievement over a span of eight months
- Generally excellent health
- Incredibly risk-averse to the point of stunting my career, twice
- Incredibly unlucky for getting arrested for drugs that weren’t mine (kids: don’t let women into your car who have pot in their purse, THEY get a ride home. YOU go to jail.)
- #RIP Papa (related: that day, I started smoking cigarettes)
Chart IV: Young Adulthood
This covers the period of time from when I stopped going to school until when I loaded up all my belongings in a Hyundai Sonata and drove to Austin to start a new life. Here, we find my first two post-second-college professional jobs, the beginning of my fledgling music career, the beginning of my marginally more successful sports-writing career, and a LOT of time spent out till 4 a.m. in dive bars and talking on the Internet to strangers.
2005 contained a DWI arrest — but not a conviction, my BAC wasn’t high enough, recreational cocaine use from January through June, a bizarre firing from my restaurant job and money troubles caused by a combination of the first three things. Then, I settled down, got a pretty great girlfriend, and a telemarketing job that transformed into a job doing Database Administration. (An I.T. job? Sure! Why not?) That’s the uptick in 2006.
After a brief down-period in the Winter of 2007–2008, what follows is a beautiful upward slope. I reconnected with my high school sweetheart who was living in NYC at the time, and there was an enjoyable bit of nostalgic romance. I got a new job working from home for a boutique ad agency and worked with talented people across the country. I traveled damn near everywhere I could. I started playing music. I met an incredible, supportive group of friends that I still call friends and are probably going to be the pallbearers at my funeral. I crafted a pretty great relationship with my dad. I wasn’t making a ton of money, or practicing a lot of healthy habits aside from running and bike riding, but I was generally pretty happy, self-sufficient and successful.
2010, I decided it was time to leave Buffalo, to venture out into the world and see how great life could be. After narrowing it down to a short list of cities, I visited them all and chose Austin. In parallel, I’d met a woman who made me very happy, who just so happened to live in San Antonio. 2010 was also when I coined the term “Victory Lap.” A Victory Lap is that feeling you get when you know you’re on the precipice of a major life change, so you start cashing in all your chips in a series of heat checks, and they all tend to work out really well and be a ton of fun. That’s the upward arc on the right side. Looking back through time, 1993, 2000, 2002 and 2010 all fit neatly into this category. Those were the “peaks.”
- Stable professional employment from 2006–2010
- Supportive, healthy network of friends both locally and nationally
- Life-affirming side-hustles of writing columns and playing music
- Rough and tumble first half of 2005
- Rocky end to a long-term romantic relationship in 2007
Chart V: Texas
This chart covers everything from 1/1/11 — when I unloaded all my belongings out of my Hyundai Sonata and into my new apartment in the 512 area code up until present-day. Here contains a destructive series of events that led to me jobless, homeless, car-less and penniless by September of 2012, followed by gainful, meaningful employment doing what I love to do (writing things!) at a large, successful technology corporation. This chart also contains two long-term girlfriends; both relationships ended under vastly different circumstances. Writing and music take center-stage professionally. Mental health issues take center-stage personally.
From January 2011 until September 2012, we see an incredible down-period. I had issues making the transition to Austin. I was laid off from one job and fired from another. I had a stable romantic relationship, but with a woman who lived just a bit too far away to be local, and so I never actually met anyone in town. I ran out of money. I became extremely anxious and depressed, and was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I let my health slip.
From September 2012 until July 2014, things stabilized and gradually improved. I started my job, and it quickly turned into my dream job. I started playing music again. I started writing again. I didn’t really drink or smoke. I started running again. I did a fair amount of traveling. And, perhaps most importantly, I went and saw the right therapist at the right time, and she gave me a list of concrete steps to take my life from good to great. All of these were done in the first half of 2014, and the final step was “break up with your girlfriend.” Which I did in July.
What followed after that, as you can see above, literally broke the data model. By the Spring of 2016, during a trip to Miami with the lady, I was off the charts. What you see is the single most productive, successful, happy, healthy, exciting, rewarding period of my entire life. I was promoted a couple times at work. I got a couple raises. I started writing for a national sports publication. I started writing about music. I recorded an album. I started a freelance branding company. I got sober. (And then started appreciating fine whiskey cocktails.) I ran several half marathons and did several bike races. I moved into a new condo. I had a lot of really interesting talks with really interesting people. I finally made enough money to pay off all my debt (incurred from earlier in the chart) and establish a nest-egg. I fell in love — really, really hard. My friends and I affectionately referred to this period as “Peak-Gorman.”
From an all-time high on August 31, 2016, after a trip to Seattle with the lady, then we see a slow, steadily increasing arc back downward, which came to an abrupt halt on August 21, 2017. I got into a Twitter flareup that (briefly) ruined my writing career. I stopped playing music. I lost my girlfriend. I was sadder and more anxious than normal. I drank more than usual. I was not as healthy. I wasted more money than usual. (I did, however, see really great friends in New York and Chicago and Phoenix, so the news wasn’t all bad.) This was a market correction. We’ll talk about the abrupt uptick that follows it in the forthcoming section.
- Extraordinarily successful professional career that up until five years ago was entirely unimaginable, and, frankly, not within the realm of possibility
- Two very long relationships which, until their ends, were generally very pleasurable and meaningful
- 7 half-marathons and a full marathon
- Lost 55 pounds in 2015
- Vacations to four separate countries, both coasts of this country, and a vast wealth of novel experiences and opportunities
- The general malaise of 2011, led by crippling anxiety, loneliness and depression
- The full collapse of 2012 as a result, which was complicated by a debt death-spiral and a lack of professional opportunity
- Whatever happened that bridged 2016 and 2017, which was a prolonged “anti-Victory Lap”
Chart VI: The New Peak
Let’s zoom in on the past year, shall we? This uptick looks quite gentle when framed over the course just one chart, but as you can tell from the widescreen views, this is quite a rampaging bull. So, what happened? Habit changing happened. Allow me to point you, once again, to this shining beacon of self improvement:
12 Common Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Mood And Your Life (Stop Doing These)
I mean, come on … you deserve better than this.
Oh, did you think I was just writing about what I feel like you should do? Nah, B. Those 12— I hesitate to call them steps — ahem, strategies are my full-court press to treat my broken brain and my broken life. Even though I really only do them about 80% of the time, they’re working — and not just a little bit. As a unit, they’re the most effective life changes I’ve ever introduced. Here was the rollout schedule:
- August 21, 2017: Stopped drinking
- October 3, 2017: Started using Mondays and Tuesdays as days to schedule “fun” activities with people
- October 9, 2017: Started my daily juice breakfast / salad dinner regiment
- November 1, 2017: Started writing an hour per day
- December 1, 2017: Started a 13-week course of therapy
- January 1, 2017: Gave up Facebook and Twitter (I reintroduced them on July 1.)
- February 1, 2017: Thoughtfully created a list of people worth keeping in my life, or talking to more frequently.
- March 1, 2017: Began a routine of walking outside for 15 minutes every morning.
- April 1, 2017: Started drinking 3L of water each day.
- May 21, 2017: Started running between 2–7 miles every morning.
- June 1, 2017: Started cleaning 20 minutes each morning.
- July 1, 2017: Tapered smoking.
Has it worked? I don’t mean to sound like a pompous prick or anything, but, like … life’s as good as its ever been. And I’ve got the data to back it up.
- All the hyphens!
- All the self-discovery!
- All the productivity!
- 1,000,000+ pageviews!
- This thing!
- I can run seven miles now without stopping to walk!
- I’ve done a really, aggressively shitty job of dating. In addition to not being what you would call a “catch,” I also just straight-up don’t ask anyone out. (The occasional kink with married women, though, has been lovely.)
Life Lessons Based on Data (TL;DR)
Let’s look at the full chart once again.
Now that you’ve had a chance to digest all that, here’s a few takeaways worth talking about:
- Life almost always gets better. Look at that trend-line. Up 553 points over 30 years, after starting from zero, with very few prolonged bear markets. So, stay optimistic and appreciate the things around you! Barring terminal or near-terminal illness or trauma, the general arc of life from ages 4 to 34 tends to move up, if you do the following things:
- You will naturally gravitate toward what you love as a career — let it happen and keep working on it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there’s a strong correlation between the amount of time I spend doing things I love to do, my professional or academic success, my mood and my financial health. Those things are all really interconnected, and they help you foster great relationships with like-minded people.
- Eat well. Move often. Go easy on the vices. I’ve always been really cognizant of my physical health since the beginning. That’s not the same as always taking care of myself. The healthiest periods of my life (2015, 2018) are, unsurprisingly, also the most successful and scored the highest. Eating real foods (mostly plants), running and biking and hiking, and laying off the booze, smokes and drugs (aside from the strategic deployment of Adderall in 2002) has mostly correlated with bull market periods.
- Take calculated risks and say “yes” to travel and novel experiences.So, yeah. Let’s talk about this. A lot of the greatest things that moved the needle the highest involve either traveling somewhere new, or trying something new. The largest upswings (1993, 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2008, 2010, 2015) contained either a substantial risk, a long vacation (or many vacations), or in anticipation of moving somewhere new and therefore entering “Victory Lap” mode. Here were the three biggest times I bet on myself and it largely paid off:
- December 2010 — moving to Austin (not initially, but …)
- September 2012 — staying in Austin after it didn’t work out the first time
- July 2014 — breaking up with a girlfriend of four years
5. Accumulate as little debt as possible. I shiver when I think about how high my present-day score would be had I not been flat broke until I was 30. I’m just going to let that sit there. Since paying off over $57,000 in loans, collections, credit cards and other miscellaneous items, and getting to $0, I can breathe a lot easier. Which is huge for my mental health and helps me stay flexible.
6. Invest in other people. My most rewarding relationships were forged by either running in the same circles and making it a point to keep showing up(Austin’s music scene, Buffalo’s “wolf-pack [the pallbearers]”) or by falling into people I’ve really connected with on the Internet or through others. It’s good to do good, show up for people, come through for them, and share things with them.
Anyway, so that’s some meta-analysis of my life. Did you make it through that slog of geeky Microsoft Excel goodness? Mercy.
As a final point, I’m not suggesting you incorporate this methodology of measuring yourself into your life. I’m sure this seems unnecessarily comprehensive, patently ludicrous and … frankly … pathological in some respects. But, it does help to be mindful of how you’re doing in the things that matter to you. Because unless you know what matters to you, and what the gap is between where you are in life and where you want to be, it’s going to be pretty tough to make any sort of measurable improvement — no matter how you measure it.