We’re honored to have Mark Pincus back us at Village Global. He’s one of the most creative and energetic founders in the Valley. I’ve known Mark for a long time. I really enjoyed the opportunity to chat with him in this fireside chat (embedded below) where he covers his entrepreneurial career to date and lessons learned, the founding of Zynga, his philosophies on product management, and more.
When it’s time to perform — on stage, in the boardroom, in the bedroom — confidence is the essential mental component to strong execution. Even solo activities, like being able to fall asleep at night, are aided by self-confidence (“I’m a good sleeper!”).
The substantive way to increase your confidence in life, it seems, is to rack up a series of wins. Experience = confidence (usually). Of course, accumulating experience takes time. And if you’re always pushing yourself into uncomfortably new situations, as high performers tend to do, you often won’t have experience to draw upon that can fuel your inner confidence.
So there are a range of more “shallow” ways to increase confidence — tips and tricks and hacks that function like a placebo effect for confidence. Things that make you feel more confident, even if, as a matter of fact, there’s no substantive reason why the hack should increase your real-world performance.
Superstitious routines come to mind. The baseball player who taps on home plate with his bat a few times, in exactly the same way, before each pitch. The public speaker who re-ties her shoes in exactly the same way just before going on stage.
Following a “meaningless” routine can calm the mind, which creates the space for quiet confidence to flood the mind. A hyperactive mind is rarely a confident one.
Luxury goods can generate a confidence placebo effect; in fact, I’d argue this placebo constitutes most of their practical value. Wearing a fancy watch, toting a fancy hand bag. These are things that do nothing to actually help you perform in the business room but they can lend a certain swagger to the person showing off the luxury good. Even if no one sees the watch on your arm the entire meeting — so there’s no external signaling going on, which is the other function to a luxury good — if you feel like a baller while wearing it, you’ll feel more confident doing whatever you’re doing.
Enhancements to physical appearance serve as a confidence placebo. Women wear makeup and sometimes don’t look any better physically as a result but feel more attractive, which results in confidence, and confidence tends to be a very attractive trait. Mission accomplished, if indirectly.
A subtle example of a confidence placebo in business is how we rely upon and invoke studies and data. Many studies about business and success are bullshit. You know how it goes: Seven graduate students hung out in a lab and one person who was wearing a brown jacket decided he didn’t want to buy the product and so now we must conclude a Very Important Fact about all humans who wear brown jackets. We cling to studies and reports and data in part because it gives us confidence in the intuitions we want to act on. It gives us confidence in the anecdotes we’ve heard and want to synthesize. When you’re a CEO and about to walk on stage in front of your employees to announce a pivotal decision, knowing that “some researchers at Yale” support some element of your decision gives you the confidence to announce, with a clear voice, your point of view. Confidence aids decisiveness.
If you’ve read a bestselling book about sleep that’s replete with faulty studies but your knowledge of the “studies” enhances your confidence about sleep — I’ve perfectly calibrated the temperature of the room to what studies say is the optimal temperature! — then you may well sleep better. And if the “data” behind power posing is questionable, well, hey, if power posing gives you greater confidence before performing, it’s probably still worth it.
There can be nothing wrong with placebos. And remember that — studies show! — that even if you’re aware that you’re benefitting from a placebo effect, it doesn’t fully negate the effect. So knowing which placebos help with confidence in-the-moment can give any performer an edge.
When confidence is helpful for performance is an interesting nuance here. Obviously at the time of performance you want to be confident. But if you’re too confident too far ahead of the time of performance it might lead you to under prepare beforehand. Suppose you need to deliver a key presentation at work in a month’s time. If you’re too confident, too early on, you might not spend the cycles preparing that actually will improve performance substantively. Confidence placebos are ideal just before the time of performance.
In Buddhism there’s a concept called The Three Characteristics. The Three Characteristics define all experiences in life: Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness or suffering), Annica (impermanence), and Anata (not-self). If you examine the nature of each life experience that you have, the Buddha argued, you’ll find an element of each of the Three Characteristics in it.
No positive experience is completely satisfying; there’s always some lingering unsatisfactoriness. And of course there are plenty of negative experiences, too.
No experience is forever; it ends at some point, including life itself.
And no experience is inextricably tied up with “you”; the experience relates to component parts of an experience that do not amount to a stable “you.”
Buddhism argues that the highest happiness is peace. Put differently, being at peace with the nature of reality — the unbending laws of the universe, which includes the three characteristics — is key to deep happiness.
The principle of Three Characteristics can be valuable in understanding business and life in a non-Buddhist context. Let’s try to map them into lay terms:
Nothing is perfect, permanent, or personal.
Perfect. If you strive for excellence, as I do, you’ll never be fully, totally satisfied. Nothing can ever be perfect. Be at peace with that.
Permanent. This too shall pass. Whatever is going well right now, whatever is going poorly — it’s not permanent. Be at peace with that.
Personal. Whatever is happening to your business, don’t take it personally. It’s bigger than you. More to the point, your company mission is bigger than any one person, including you. You are merely one person in a larger ecosystem of forces that shape the success or failure of your business. Be at peace with that.
Being at peace with these realities is easier said than done. In fact, developing this kind of peace may require nothing less than an ardent spiritual undertaking to fully internalize what these truths mean.
But even at a surface level, I think the 3 Characteristics can be useful reminders to laypeople. To me it’s one of the more helpful applications of Buddhist thinking to real life.
A tweetstorm I published last week…
Marketing people at venture firms are always trying to figure out if they should be promoting the firm brand or the personal brands of the individual GP partners. Are there venture firm brands that are “bigger” than the individual GPs’ personal brands?
Brands that are arguably bigger than any one person include Sequoia, Greylock, Accel, Kleiner, etc. Multi-generational performance over 40+ years. But will newer VC firm brands ever outshine the underlying individual personal GP brands in a shorter period of time?
It’s rare because the VC business model is so individualistic: individual GPs, masters of the universe, eating what they kill, serving on boards solo, etc. VC firm “partnerships” are often collections of individuals more than a team (despite what they say).
This dynamic has been compounded by a modern media environment that amplifies *individual voices*. Corporate Twitter accounts suck. Authentic, personal, human voices rule. I doubt there’s a venture firm corporate Twitter account with more followers than any popular GP.
To be sure, VCs themselves tend to know all the firm brands and the associated inside baseball. But founders I speak to often know the names of human GPs first, and firm names second (if at all). “I want to pitch @rabois” more than “I want to pitch Founders Fund”
If you’re creating a new VC firm today, should you just do away with the notion of building a firm brand altogether? Look at what @toddg777 and @rahulvohra named their new venture firm: The Todd and Rahul Angel Fund Should more venture firm names simply be the names of the GPs?
The firm-wide brands that endure and outshine personal GP brands have to, in substance, operate as an institution greater than the sum of the parts (i.e. not driven by individual star GPs). Example “institutions” would be @ycombinator, @villageglobal, @join_ef, @JoinAtomic.
For LPs who want to invest in venture, in a concentrated set of relationships over a long period of time, this means they’re often investing in either a) fragile large firms, or b) stable small firms run by the founding GPs.
Large firms are fragile because GPs take their value with them when they leave. Startup founders follow human GPs. The firm brand is weak. There’s no *organization* for the LP to invest in for years and years that has a moat independent of specific GPs.
Small firms run by the founding GPs are stable because the founders won’t move/leave (usually). So the personal brand capital accrues entirely and permanently to the firm. But some larger LPs struggle with this option because it’s hard to deploy large dollar amounts into small funds.
It’s for this reason that I’m bullish (and admittedly biased) in favor of the new firms formed as “institutions” not only because of how they can add value to founders, but also for how they can serve as more reliable long term stewards of LP capital.
Some seed stage angels and VCs — including we at Village Global — will make “founder bets” where the investment thesis is mostly or entirely about the talents of the founders, irrespective of the founders’ specific idea, business model, market, etc.
The purest form of founder bet is on a talented team with no idea at all. Simply a founder(s) who know the next chapter of their life is going to be an entrepreneurial journey of some sort — idea TBD. We call these Day 0 Founder Bets. Usually these take the form of being the first $100k-$500k into the company.
Founder bets make sense to some VCs because team matters most. Team is the overwhelming driver of startup success. Now, it’s true that a great team can’t beat a bad market, as Marc Andreessen once noted in his canonical post on product-market-fit. This leads Marc to put market above product and team when evaluating the trifecta (product/market/team) of forces that explain startup success.
But a great team — if it’s early enough in the life of the company — can pivot to a new market. As we all know, many of the great businesses of all time ended up pivoting away from their day 1 idea. So at angel stage/pre-seed/early seed, team trumps all in my opinion, especially a team that knows how to pivot if necessary.
Given the possibility of pivot, the boldest form of founder bet is when when you invest in a founder with an idea you actively dislike. You nonetheless bet on the founder to either prove you wrong (and VCs are wrong plenty!) or you bet they’ll pivot to a new idea over time.
You know what’s even trickier? Betting on a founder whose idea you don’t believe in when the founder is unbelievably passionate about it. It’s the founder who says “I’ve been obsessed with this problem for the past two years. I can’t stop thinking about it.” Normally passion’s a good thing and the more personal the passion, the better. It leads to more customer empathy, more overall persistence, and all the rest. But if it’s overriding personal passion that’s feeding a bad v1 of the idea (in the humble opinion of the VC), it may make it less likely the founder will pivot later. By contrast, some founders arrive at their initial business idea through an analytic process that’s not quite as personal. They’re not scratching their own itch; they just believe they’ve identified a market opportunity through rigorous research and customer interviews. (There are actually many great companies founded this way.) In the situations where the founder’s day 1 idea is more “analytically” conceived, it’s easier for me to make a founder bet on a founder whose idea I disagree with — because I can more likely see the possibility of pivot.
To be sure, not all seed VCs make founder bets. I know several great seed VCs who’ve told great founders, “I love you, I want to back you, but I won’t back this idea. Change your idea to X, and I’ll fund you.”
Here’s Anamitra Banerji from Afore:
And pure founder bets are almost never done at Series A and beyond. The later the stage of the investment opportunity, venture firms evaluate team heavily but also give due attention to product, revenue metrics, broader market dynamics, etc. Here’s Semil Shah:
There are many ways to make money in venture. To understand why some seed funds make founder bets and others do not, portfolio construction and overall firm strategy explain a lot. If you’re a seed fund that’s making 5–10 investments in a year, you’re more likely to have the time and inclination to carefully diligence the investment beyond just team strength. If you’re investing in 500 companies a year, a la Y Combinator, you’re more likely to say “Fuck it, fund it” if the founder possess enough raw talent. There’s simply no time to do it any other way.
At Village Global, we’re happy to make founder bets (including day zero bets when the founder hasn’t yet formed a complete idea), especially through our Network Catalyst accelerator program. Applications for the Summer ’20 vintage are now open. Amazing founders apply — we want to bet on you.
Just Mercy is a memoir from lawyer Bryan Stevenson about his work fighting against the death penalty and mass incarceration in Alabama. A couple months ago the book got turned into a Hollywood film featuring Michael B Jordan (which I haven’t watched). There’s also an HBO documentary about Stevenson (which I did just watch), and the TED talk that brought Stevenson’s work to the mainstream for many in the tech community a few years ago.
I found his memoir incredibly inspirational. And of course sad and infuriating at the same time. Stevenson details numerous instances of injustice; some of which are never rectified prior to the alleged criminals’ execution. Some injustices are innocent men dying (or about to die, were it not for Stevenson’s intervention) for crimes they did not commit. Others are guilty men who were subject to excessive punishment (e.g. the death penalty) or suffered from a failure of due process that is inhumane.
Separate from the stories of specific stories of justice denied, Stevenson argues for proper historical understanding of the current state of affairs in the American justice system. He starts with the settlers’ genocide of Native Americans –> slavery –> lynching –> the mass incarceration of today. It’s all connected. The inequities in today’s justice system find their roots in racial discrimination of the deepest sort dating back centuries. I was rather persuaded by his argument that truth & reconciliation needs to occur in America about the Civil War and slavery and Jim Crow in the same way that other countries have reconked with grand scale injustices, e.g. South Africa, Rwanda, Germany, etc. As Stevenson says, you have to first deal with the truth, then address reconciliation.
Of my Kindle highlights, here’s one paragraph: “We have shot, hanged, gassed, electrocuted, and lethally injected hundreds of people to carry out legally sanctioned executions. Thousands more await their execution on death row. Some states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults; we’ve sent a quarter million kids to adult jails and prisons to serve long prison terms, some under the age of twelve. For years, we’ve been the only country in the world that condemns children to life imprisonment without parole; nearly three thousand juveniles have been sentenced to die in prison.”
Stevenson as a human is something to behold. The passion, the relentless, the desire to serve a purpose larger than self. Bryan has never married or had children. There are no close personal friends who receive routine mention in the memoir. He doesn’t appear to have any hobbies outside of work and playing the piano. He is consumed by his mission and it’s a very admirable mission at that. We owe people like Stevenson a debt of gratitude for sacrificing so much for the greater good. I frequently ask myself, when I read memoirs or biographies about men and women of this disposition (Lyndon Johnson comes to mind), whether I could ever see myself so subsuming my own desires and personal needs in service of any sort of mission, be it a noble one such as Stevenson’s or a purely selfish one. I usually conclude I cannot. The single mindedness and complete subjugation of the individual to the mission — the dissolution of the ego, if you will, but not in the Buddhist sense of that phrase — is something I don’t see in my past, present, or future. But who knows. There’s a purity to life purpose that’s appealing. There’s no question as to how to spend your time when you wake up in the morning. You go and do the work, day after day after day.
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I spent the holidays reading this epic Russian tome, my first Russian novel. It was a good book to read while on Christmas break — being able to sink into it for a few hours each day allowed me to stay grounded in the plot and keep track of all the characters over the course of the 800+ pages. I had the expectation that I’d get lost; I don’t tend to do well when the character count exceeds a handful. But now, with a couple months of distance from the experience, I still have a vivid sense of Levin and Kitty and Vronsky and Anna, which shows the depth of the
2. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb. A compelling memoir of a therapist reflecting on the act of being a therapist and going to therapy herself. Lots of excellents nuggets into how therapy works and doesn’t work. A few highlights:
Therapists use three sources of information when working with patients: What the patients say, what they do, and how we feel while we’re sitting with them…
“We’ve talked before about how there’s a difference between a criticism and a complaint, how the former contains judgment while the latter contains a request. But a complaint can also be an unvoiced compliment…
Anger is the go-to feeling for most people because it’s outward-directed—angrily blaming others can feel deliciously sanctimonious. But often it’s only the tip of the iceberg, and if you look beneath the surface, you’ll glimpse submerged feelings you either weren’t aware of or didn’t want to show: fear, helplessness, envy, loneliness, insecurity…
As Andrew Solomon wrote in The Noonday Demon: “The opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality.”…
Sex comes up with almost every patient I see, the same way that love does. Earlier on, I’d asked John about his sex life with Margo, given the difficulties in their relationship. It’s a common belief that people’s sex lives reflect their relationships, that a good relationship equals a good sex life and vice versa. But that’s only true sometimes. Just as often, there are people who have extremely problematic relationships and fantastic sex, and there are people who are deeply in love but who don’t click with the same intensity in the bedroom.
3. Autumn by Karl Knausgaard. I love Knausgaard — search my blog for my other reviews. This one didn’t stick for me. I did like this paragraph though:
But if it were possible to see everyone who has retired to their beds in a great city at night, in London, New York or Tokyo, for example, if we imagined that the buildings were made of glass and that all the rooms were lit, the sight would be deeply unsettling. Everywhere there would be people lying motionless in their cocoons, in room after room for miles on end, and not just at street level, along roads and crossroads, but even up in the air, separated by plateaus, some of them twenty metres above ground, some fifty, some a hundred. We would be able to see millions of immobile people who have withdrawn from others in order to lie in a coma throughout the night.
4. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. A modern, funny, incisive novel that’s being widely read, apparently, by those in the in circles of Brooklyn lit, etc etc. I enjoyed it a great deal. I didn’t find it, in the end, as feminist a book as I was expecting.
He explained to Toby that presence in a yoga class, no matter your ability, was a shortcut to showing a woman how evolved you were, how you were strong, how you were not set on maintaining the patriarchy that she so loathed and feared….
She was now an inner ear problem, something affecting his balance…
I’d read those stupid blogs about Disney, and they all warned me that the character lunch at the Crystal Palace would fill up fast, so I should book at eleven A.M., but they did not warn me about the existential dread of being there. It was like I could finally see what I’d become, made clear through my presence among yet another entire set of women who looked just like me. I couldn’t bear being this suburban mom who was alternating between screaming at her kids and being the heartfelt, privileged witness to their joy. But the people around us—the haranguing mothers and the sexless fathers—I kept trying to find ways that I was better than these people, but all I kept landing on was the fact that the common denominator was me.
5. Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell. Lots of interesting observations from one of the strongest non-fiction storytellers at work today, even if the big picture thesis eluded me, a bit. Still recommended.
And of every occupational category, poets have far and away the highest suicide rates—as much as five times higher than the general population…
In one national survey, three quarters of Americans predicted that when a barrier is finally put up on the Golden Gate Bridge, most of those who wanted to take their life on the bridge would simply take their life some other way. But that’s absolutely wrong. Suicide is coupled.
Two and a half years ago, I went through a lightly traumatic, near death experience. When I recall the event in my own mind, or if someone who knows about it raises the memory with me, I usually begin to shed a few tears (my eyes well up within 10-15 seconds) and my heart rate increases. A couple months ago, I had dinner with a couple people who were there at the time of the incident, and they brought it up (“Do you remember that time…”). Light tears gathered almost instantaneously in my eyes. And, later that night, I tossed and turned and thought about the incident for several hours while trying to fall asleep.
To be clear, it’s not something I think about every day or even every week. I’ve only had one real “flashback.” And even when I do experience stress about it, it’s not debilitating. I usually cry lightly for 30-45 seconds, and then move on. Sometimes I don’t cry at all; I simply agitate mentally about it, quietly. For example, a few days ago, I was reading a book and came across the phrase “near death experience” (in a context that had nothing to do with the incident I went through). I stopped reading and I found myself, in my mind’s eye, going back to the incident 2.5 years ago and I spent 5 minutes thinking about it. So, I lost focus for a bit, but then let it go and was able to continue reading. Not a huge deal, all things considered.
I’ve considered seeking professional counseling or approaches like CBT to process my experience. But I think that’s overkill for what I’m experiencing.
So instead, I’m trying an old fashioned method: suppression. I’m simply trying not to dwell on it too much. I’m consciously aware of what’s happening, which makes this suppression instead of repression (which would refer to unconsciously suppressing feelings).
A doctor friend who thinks about these things pointed out to me the difference between “strong suppression” and “light suppression.”
Strong suppression would be establishing a rule with myself that I’m not going to think about the incident again. I’d also tell the 4-5 people who were present at the incident or know about it: “Hey, don’t ever bring up that incident again.”
Light suppression would involve not proactively thinking about, not bringing it up with others, and generally trying to change the topic if the topic came up. But it would not be establishing a hard and fast rule. If I randomly thought about the topic, or someone else raised it, that’s fine — I would simply change the topic swiftly and not sweat it. I wouldn’t relive it, or analyze it, or dwell on it, or talk about it. If it happens to come into my mind, I let it be and let it pass on by and then get back to whatever I was working on / thinking about.
The challenge with a strong suppression strategy is it creates stress around compliance and enforcement. If I tell someone “Hey, never talk to me about that again” I now have to monitor compliance with that rule. The monitoring process itself is stressful in addition to the stress that arises when the incident becomes top of mind.
It occurred to me that there’s a generalizable lesson here, perhaps, about strong vs. light rules in other domains of life. The stronger held the rule, the more stress you’re putting on yourself to monitor and enforce compliance with that rule. For example, with habits, if you create a strong rule of needing to do something every single day (e.g. meditation), the stress of monitoring your own compliance with that rule can be more cost than it’s worth. It’s also the case that once you break a strongly held rule — or catch yourself not being compliant — it can be harder to re-capture the motivation to begin again from 0.
So I’m going with light suppression here. I’m not going to write about or think proactively about this incident again. When it arises in my mind, I’ll let the thought pass on by. And I’ll change the topic if someone else raises it with me.
The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath by Leslie Jamison is a searing account of her struggles with alcoholism.
It’s long. I read the first 400+ pages and got distracted by something else and never came back to it. But the 400 pages I read were phenomenal, and gave me great insight into the mind of a super high functioning alcoholic and the nature of addiction. I’m no expert in the genre of addiction memoir but this one, apparently, is considered among the best.
Some of my Kindle highlights below. Bolded sentences my own.
In John Barleycorn, a novel published in 1913, Jack London conjured two kinds of drunks: the ones who stumbled through the gutters hallucinating “blue mice and pink elephants,” and the ones to whom the “white light of alcohol” had granted access to bleak truths: “the pitiless, spectral syllogisms of the white logic.” The first type of drunk had his mind ravaged by booze, “bitten numbly by numb maggots,” but the second type had his mind sharpened instead.
Life with Daniel was weird and ragged and unexpected. It tingled. He was a messy eater. There were bits of cabbage in his beard, patches of ice cream melted on his sheets, crusted pots and pans in his sink, tiny beard hairs all over his bathroom counter.
drinking and writing were two different responses to that same molten pain. You could numb it, or else grant it a voice.
My ability to find drunken dysfunction appealing—to fetishize its relationship to genius—was a privilege of having never really suffered. My fascination owed a debt to what Susan Sontag calls the “nihilistic and sentimental idea of ‘the interesting.’” In Illness as Metaphor, Sontag describes the nineteenth-century idea that if you were ill, you were also “more conscious, more complex psychologically.” Illness became an “interior décor of the body,” while health was considered “banal, even vulgar.”
My own pain seemed embarrassingly trivial, self-constructed and sought.
At a certain point we were on my bed and I didn’t want to fuck him—but I was too drunk and too tired to figure out how not to fuck him, so I just lay there, still and quiet, while he finished. The situation would sharpen into awareness, in fleeting moments, and I’d think, This isn’t what I want, and then it would dissolve into soft focus again.
In early drafts, there were no explicit traumas in the narrative that produced their self-destructive impulses. The mystery of these impulses was what I wanted to explore, the possibility that you might damage yourself to figure out why you wanted to damage yourself—the way exhaling into cold air makes your breath visible.
Being just a man among men, or a woman among women, with nothing extraordinary about your flaws or your mistakes—that was the hardest thing to accept.
A few scientists eventually wondered: What if they were given some company? What if they were given something else to do? In the early eighties, these scientists designed Rat Park, a spacious plywood habitat painted with pine trees and filled with climbing platforms, running wheels, tin cans for hiding, wood chips for playing, and—most important—lots of other rats. The rats in that cage didn’t press the coke lever until they died. They had better things to do. The point wasn’t that drugs couldn’t be addictive, but that addiction was fueled by so much besides the drugs themselves. It was fueled by the isolation of the white cage, and by the lever as substitute for everything else.
Their aliveness, their daily-ness, their back-and-forth energy, came like a sudden slap, a confirmation of my fears: He would always crave the sharp tingling sensation of falling for someone, rather than having her.
Pool told me that he started shooting heroin after dropping out of college, operating under the notion, as she put it, that “writers needed conflict and adversity. So he deliberately went out to find some.”
Describing Dave to a friend, I invoked that scene from Out of Africa where another character explains what’s charming and infuriating about Robert Redford as a big-game-hunting, impossibly restless lover: “He likes giving gifts, but not at Christmas.”
When Dr. Chisolm told me that she sometimes attaches a warning when she encourages certain patients to seek out AA, it didn’t surprise me. “You’re really smart,” she tells them. “That might work against you.” The idea of being “too smart for AA” immediately resonated with the part of me that sometimes found its truisms too reductive or its narratives too simple.
At meetings, I hated when other people abandoned narrative particularity in their stories—I accidentally crushed my daughter’s pet turtle after too much absinthe—for the bland pudding of abstraction—I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I wanted crushed turtles and absinthe. Clichés were like blights, refusals of clarity and nuance, an insistence on soft-focus greeting-card wisdom: This too shall pass, which I once saw on a cross-stitch in the bathroom of a Wyoming meeting, followed by It just did. Long ago, I had learned that to become a writer I had to resist clichés at all costs. It was such accepted dogma that I’d never wondered why it was true.
I’ve become quite taken with saunas recently — primarily dry, wood paneled saunas, but I’m not unhappy with steam rooms. I find myself more relaxed after a deep sweat; I also think it helps me sleep better. Taking a cold plunges after a hot sauna is especially effective at lifting my energy level in the hours following. Cold showers can serve a similar purpose. A friend once advised to “breathe” in the cold plunge if you feel like the cold is overwhelming. When the cold starts to feel too much, just keep breathing.
(For my interest in sauna, I must credit, in part, Bob Wright, for his encouragement here and for spreading the good gospel of sauna as spiritual practice over at BloggingHeads.TV.)
Over Christmas and New Year’s this year, I traveled through Munich, Zurich, Istanbul, and Ankara with friends and family. By some good luck, we ended up sampling a range of saunas that were just the thing for cold winter days in Europe.
In Germany, we went to the Therme Erding sauna complex just outside Munich, the second largest sauna complex in all of Europe. 4,000 visitors per day. 35 different saunas and steam baths. And dozens of different pools. It’s truly massive. You pull your car into a multi-level above ground parking garage that’s situated next to what appears to be an enormous mall and dome structure.
The adults-only sauna facility is in its own area within the compound. Unlike the kids waterslide area, teeming with children sprawling and splashing about, the sauna area is more quiet, more refined, and… completely nude. And co-ed. People wear towels and robes while walking around; inside each sauna or steam room, they sit on their towels. No bathing suits allowed. I saw more naked humans in a couple hours than at probably any other time in my life. Within a few minutes, the weirdness wears off, and truth be told it was kind of relaxing to be free of constraint or squeeze. The downstairs area, with its low ceilings and narrow, cave-like walls meant people were slinking past each other in the nude to get to their preferred destination. Through it all though, a remarkably wholesome atmosphere. No funny business in sight.
There was excellent variety across the 35+ different offerings. The traditional dry saunas varied in temperature, humidity, scent, and setup: some were in dungeon like underground caves, others were in huge glass paneled amphitheaters. The steam rooms offered the opportunity to scrub yourself in salts before entering. The outdoor thermal pools allowed you to float along with your head exposed in outdoor frigid winter air. An assortment of different jacuzzi-style jets were placed along the pool walls along with some built in “chairs” that you could lounge in with special jets propulsion. Nearby to all this was an outdoor cold plunge. Going from hot water to cold always revs the engines; especially so when the temperature in the air upon getting out of the cold plunge is also freezing.
In Zurich, we went to the Thermalbad. This is a chain of spa facilities throughout Switzerland; supposedly the Zurich location is the finest. It’s a beautiful, modern facility designed like Roman cisterns built inside of an old Zurich brewery building. As opposed to choose-your-own-adventure, this places encourages a sequential process whereby you start in Station 1 and end in Station 12, with signs suggesting the amount of time to spend in each station. It starts with a lightly warm steam, followed by a sequence of differently heated pools, then some hotter steam rooms and scrubs. My favorite pool was the “classic Roman pool” where the depth and temperature made it feel like I could almost float effortlessly, as in a sensory deprivation pod. Very relaxing. One station had me lie on my back on slightly warm stone floor, which I’ve never done before.
A TripAdvisor review of Thermalbad notes, “It’s a lot of money to spend to watch couples basically all but have sex.” That seems off. I didn’t witness anything X-rated, and this place, unlike the one in Germany, was all clothed. Even the locker room had curtained “changing areas” for changing into bathing suits. The Swiss: as buttoned up as ever.
Elsewhere in Zurich, we went to a neighborhood gym/community center that offered a large indoor pool for swimming, plus a medium size thermal pool that offered a range of jets and suggested a rhythm to the water massage. Every minute or so a light would flash (like one of those rotating lights on the top of a cop car but adhered to the side wall) to indicate it was time to move to the next set of jets. With each move in jet, the pressure moved up the body, from hitting your legs at first and ending with your upper shoulders. The propulsion of the jets — the forcefulness with which the water hit you — was intense. I’ve never felt jets pulse water so hard. Nor have I seen such precise instructions offered about when it’s time to switch to the next jacuzzi jet. The Swiss: as punctual as ever.
In Istanbul, we went to the Cagaloglu hamam — a 300 year old facility. Not quite as tourist-famous as the hamam next to the Blue Mosque where we went 5 years ago but just as ornate on the inside. The male and female experiences differ here. As I reported five years ago during my first trip to Istanbul, men receive quite a beating. Your therapist slaps you around, pulls your arms in every which way, attempts light weight chiropractiory, and with no warning, dumps buckets of hot water over your head. It’s fun and worth it but anyone with tender shoulders or backs should beware. I told my therapist at one point to be more careful of my back, and he replied, “Relax.” It turned out that that was the only word in English he spoke. Women, reportedly, experience a much gentler set of scrubs. Unlike the hamam in Morocco, the Cagaloglu hamam in Istanbul does less loofa scrubbing. There’s not the stunning pile of dead skin at the end of it. But you’re still relaxed and alert.
All in all, there’s great sauna culture in Europe. Lots of relaxing fun. And I haven’t even to Finland yet… that’s going to be its own trip!