Setting Up a Home Sauna and Cold Plunge

The most consequential purchase in my life in 2020? Installing a Finnish barrel sauna in my backyard in the Bay Area.

Over the past few years, I’ve been enjoying sauna more and more: Relishing hotels that offered them. Luxuriating in the steam room at the local Equinox gym several times a week. And making special treks to public saunas such as the Archimedes Banya in San Francisco or the vast Munich facility I visited last Christmas or bath houses in Turkey and Japan.

There’s something about sweating and then cold plunging — the contrast between the two — that I find incredibly relaxing and energizing.

Not that I’ve exactly made a new discovery here. Sweat traditions have been around forever, from the Native American sweat lodges to the bathhouses of Russia, Turkey, Finland, Japan, and elsewhere. For hundreds of years, in every corner of the globe, people have purposively sweat in search of benefits such as basic relaxation, skin health, cardiovascular health, and more. Pick a desired health outcome and there’s certainly many anecdotes, maybe even a study, that supports sauna’s salutary effects. The timeless popularity of sauna has been complemented in most of these places by a recognition of the energizing power of contrast: high heat and then low cold. Sauna + jumping in a cold lake, for example.

So among the many unfortunate consequences of Covid-19, one that hit me especially hard: all the saunas and gyms are closed! It finally felt right to invest in getting my own sauna for my own backyard. After a bit of research, I purchased an outdoor barrel sauna from Almost Heaven Saunas.

The sauna arrived on a pallet, and a hired handyman assembled it in 5-6 hours. It’s a two-person sauna but it really just fits one person comfortably. An electrician had to run an upgraded power line out to connect to the Harvia heater inside the sauna — that took another half-day.

It’s beautiful:

In concert with the sauna, I bought a 150 gallon stock tank to serve as a cold plunge. I fill it up with garden hose water. No ice. It’s cold enough with simple hose water in the Bay Area. I put a little hydrogen peroxide in the water to keep it clean and empty it out every 10 days or so and re-fill with fresh water.  I haven’t done a DIY freezer set up yet; nor splurged on a super expensive dedicated cold plunge. For now, it does the trick.

In the two months I’ve had the sauna, I’ve used it about every other day. It’s glorious. Routine: 10-15 mins in the sauna at 180-200 degrees Fahrenheit. Cold plunge for 2-3 minutes while slowing inhaling and exhaling. Sit and rest for a few minutes and stare up at the enormous redwood tree in my backyard. Drink water. Then sauna again. The “stare up at the enormous redwood tree” is a real step in the process. I really hadn’t fully appreciated its majesty before the sauna routine. There’s something about warming back up after a plunge, sitting in the recliner chair, and staring up that produces a light spiritual experience:

As I was preparing to receive the sauna, I read a great book called The Wedge: Evolution, Consciousness, Stress and the Key to Human Resilience by Scott Carney. The wedge refers to the space between stimulus and response. For example, on the cold plunge experience: “At some point I told myself that it wasn’t cold that I was feeling on my skin; the muscle-tensing sensation caused by my environment was joy itself. This mental trick transmuted the entire experience. I consciously assigned a meaning to my sensations, and that alone made me more resilient.”

Scott takes a tour of different environments that produce stress and writes about their effect on the body. Among other things, Scott trained with Wim Hof.

Another excerpt from Scott:

“A person can choose a life path of muted sensations, avoiding pain and living indoors protected by a cocoon of technological comfort. That person can work a 40-hour work week, fully fund a retirement plan, carry acceptable insurance, dutifully pay taxes, have a few children and ultimately die comfortably in bed. This is the default life plan that many Americans follow.”

I also read Jesse Coomer’s e-book on cold exposure, which is a helpful overview of how to think about cold plunging and a cold practice in general.

If you’re getting interested in sauna, I’d recommend the Sauna Times, and the Sauna Talk podcast which is a delight to listen to for any sauna enthusiasts. If you’re interested in cold exposure, start by taking cold showers (do the last 1-2 minutes of your shower with just cold water) and focus on your breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly. Cold showers alone can be a tremendous boost to energy.

Some requests on my end:

  • I’m looking for tips on good sand timers (clocks) that won’t melt or get stuck inside the sauna. The one I bought has sand that’s jammed.
  • I’m interested in doing a sauna tour in Finland (or elsewhere). I.e. spend a week traveling and check out different saunas/bathhouses in the country. Any suggestions welcome.
  • If any entrepreneurs want to create a Soho House like business for sauna, let me know. Or a D2C business that involves sauna or cold plunges. Americans are slowly waking up to sauna and I bet there will be some interesting businesses built in the space.

What I’ve Been Reading

Recent books:

1. The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks by Ben Cohen. This was a lot of fun to read — full of fresh stories and research about the idea of the hot hand in basketball as well as in fields as varied as art and business and law. Originally, the hot hand existed anecdotally in the minds of basketball players (and other athletes). Then it was “disproven” by famous academics. Now it’s been proven again to be real in basketball (players can get “hot” and be more likely to make shots once hot). In fact, Cohen suggests a wide range of professionals can experience a hot hand. Shakespeare wrote many of his best plays in a period of a few months. Einstein “packed a career’s worth of intellectual achievements into a few months.”

Back when I was writing books, I often stayed up super late if I felt “hot” — unusually productive, focused. My productivity usually dropped off the subsequent day, due to lack of sleep or the chaos generated by pushing off whatever I had originally scheduled to have been doing during the period of time I unexpectedly got “hot” — but in the end it was worth it for the creative output the hot hand helped generate. I haven’t taken that approach in recent years. I run more structured days. I wonder if I should revert; whether I should be more attentive, at the micro productivity level, to when I’m feeling the hot hand in my venture work and “ride it” until I cool off. Thanks to Russ Roberts for recommending this book.

2. Writers & Lovers: A Novel by Lily King. An engaging, well written, pretty-easy-to-follow story chock full of quips that made me laugh or think. It’s especially resonant for anyone who’s tried writing a book though that background isn’t necessary to appreciate it, as the primary themes revolve around romantic life in general. Thanks to Marci Alboher for the rec.

3. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. One of the more troubling points of view that’s increasingly popular in our culture is the idea that some people ought to be banned from life if they make a serious mistake. I.e., if you make a serious mistake, your career ought to be ruined and you ought to live in shame for the rest of your life.

Most of the time, I believe we should not judge people for their worst mistakes in life if they’ve shown genuine remorse and rehabilitation. And we shouldn’t conclude someone’s even made a mistake until proof or evidence has been furnished. Yet modern social media culture seems to cultivate an atmosphere of take-downs, of kick ’em-while-they’re-down, of unrelenting scorched earth attempts to destroy someone’s reputation forever for whatever wrong they’re accused of committing. And accusation is all it takes; destroy now, find evidence later.

This book is a fascinating look at real life examples of people whose lives were destroyed — or attempted to be destroyed — by various internet mobs. “You don’t have any rights when you’re accused on the Internet. And the consequences are worse. It’s worldwide forever.”

4. Barking Up the Wrong Tree by Eric Barker. Eric and I “grew up” on the blogosphere together a long time ago. His popular self-help blog is always full of interesting studies and factoids about how to live a healthier, happier life. It took me awhile to get around to reading his book for some reason (sorry Eric!) but I finally read it and enjoyed it. A bunch of good nuggets and if you’re familiar with his blog and like it, you’ll like the book.

What Kinds of People Prefer In-Person vs. Zoom?

In these Covid times, we’ve all done more video chatting than ever before. Some people love it. Some people are missing in-person.

What are the personality, cognitive, and communication style correlates with someone preferring Zoom/video chat meetings to in-person or vice versa? This is not an exhaustive list of pros and cons of video vs. in-person companies or meetings, but specific to the individual personalities of people who seem to prefer one over the other.

People who prefer in-person meetings tend to be:

Extroverts. Extroverts report that socializing makes them feel *more* energized, whereas introverts get their batteries drained and then need solitude to recharge. In-person involves more energy transfer between and among the people involved than on a Zoom — either energy addition (for extroverts) or energy subtraction. (H/t ToddS)

Kinesthetically communicative. With physical touch, hugs, slaps, rubs, hand gestures, etc.

Good at reading other people’s body language. These tend to be people with a high degree of emotional intelligence which helps them read eye contact, body gestures, and “wayfind” in a conversation through subtle cues.

Physically attractive. And aware of how to use attractiveness in the room.

More “quiet” or reserved in meetings. Because they can get shouted over or interrupted more easily on videochat. In-person it’s easier for them to signal to a group, “I want to speak.”

“Personal” relationship builders who don’t always prioritize short term efficiency. These people bridge to personal topics as well as professional ones in meetings, broaching intimate topics based on the trust that’s usually only established in-person. Even if it means going off the agenda and “wasting” time to explore these areas.

People who prefer video chat meetings tend to be:

Introverts. For the inverse of the extravert reason above. Energy transfer in-person is more draining.

Focused on efficiency and productivity in meetings in the micro sense. There’s less random chit chat on a Zoom. On a video meeting, you get straight to the agenda, usually. If you don’t love small talk, you get to skip a lot of that when doing a video meeting. Easy to do a 15 minute video call; not easy to do a 15 minute coffee meeting.

Focused on efficiency and productivity in the macro sense. You can do 12 back to back Zooms in one day. No travel time. No walking between meetings. No down time. All meetings, all the time.

People who are socially awkward in person. Or people with body image issues. If your physical appearance isn’t a plus — Zoom helps level the playing field.

People with high computer cognitive skills and good multitasking skills. They can multitask while on a Zoom and get more done. In-person, you can more easily be “caught” and seen as rude if you’re multi-tasking in a meeting.

The fourth dimension

Myself? I find a lot to like about both videochat and in person. One of our founders recently said: In-person for innovation; remote for iteration. I think that captures it well: In-person seems superior for the most complex conversations. Videochat works well for small iterations on top of an agreed plan.

I don’t think we’ll ever go back to having as many in-person meetings as we did pre-Covid, given how effective Zoom is in so many use cases.

Nonetheless, I suspect that when people return to sustained in-person interaction, post-Covid, they’ll realize just how unsatisfying so many of their video calls are in comparison. They’ll remember the richness of being in person. I’ve certainly experienced this in the outdoor meeting I’ve participated in since Covid.

I’m reminded of a Po Bronson line: “Physical affection is a fourth dimension: You can get through life without ever knowing that it’s there, but it sure adds something to the experience when you open up to it.”

The More Success You Have, The More You Can (and Should) Hire Appropriately-Rated People

Talent markets tend to be efficient. In a given industry, great people are in high demand and command high salaries commensurate with their value, and bad people are in low demand and receive low salaries.

Of course, there are plenty of inefficiencies. We all know amazing people overlooked by employers for whatever reason. I’ve written about some of the “tells” of underrated people — for example, people who are especially bad at self-promotion, physically unattractive, socially awkward, etc. Auren Hoffman has a great list too of traits that signal underratedness.

Early in one’s entrepreneurial career — as you start companies, recruit people, corral support for your various projects — your only talent strategy option involves “talent arbitrage”: finding underrated people. You don’t have much money or status, so you bargain shop to find deals: people who provide outsize value for their cost.

I believe an important evolution to go through as a talent manager is to recognize when it makes sense to not default to prioritizing underrated people. When you have money and status, you can actually pay what it takes to get people who are “appropriately rated” on the open talent market.

Two reasons why you seek appropriately rated people:

1. Lower variance. Talent markets generally rate people accurately. High priced people are more reliably of the quality you expect. “Underrated” people can work out spectacularly from an ROI perspective but in my experience they can backfire more often, too.

2. Speed. The more successful you are, the higher your opportunity cost of time. So speed of process becomes relevant. It’s usually faster to partner with or hire people who are appropriately priced vs. scouring the earth for the hidden gem. This is especially the case if you’re hiring within a team and need to convince others of a given candidate’s abilities. Underrated people are by definition not obvious, which includes not obvious to your teammates whose buy-in you seek.

The recruiting strategies of startups vs. big companies illustrate this point. When a startup is looking for an ML engineer, and can only afford to pay the person scraps, they might find the college dropout who’s mostly self-taught but wicked smart and, of course, cheap, because Google doesn’t know he exists. When Google is looking for an ML engineer, they might make offers to all the PhDs coming out of Stanford’s CS department. The Google approach is more expensive, but more likely a reliable (not perfect!) filter for high talent, and certainly a lot faster. This is an imperfect example because what a company like Google needs in terms of talent make-up differs from what a start-up needs (e.g. hustle). But the overall point holds nonetheless, I think.

Now, the amount of success necessary to switch from “hire underrated people” to “hire appropriately rated people” can vary based on industry, functional area, etc. To take an extreme: If you’re a tech startup recruiting software engineers, even if you’ve raised a Series C and have breakout success — you might still need to employ a talent arbitrage strategy and hunt for underrated gems, because you’re still competing against enormous Google salaries.

Admittedly, this overall idea may not be earth shatteringly novel: it’s consistent with how humans generally approach consumption as their wealth increases. But it has special importance when you’re on a team or building an organization. The normal “life” pattern is that the broke college kid shops when things are on sale and the rich middle aged adult ignores discounts and shops when convenient. Some billionaires never kick their frugality habit in their personal lives. It can be irrational at times, even amusing, but it’s a personal decision. However, when talent managers fail to kick their “underrated” talent strategy even as their company or team obtains greater and greater power, it can be detrimental to the success of their overall organization. They’re missing out on reliably high quality people and they’re likely moving too slowly.

Bottom Line: “Talent arbitrage” of targeting underrated people is a necessary strategy in the early days as a talent manager. As you get more and more successful though, it makes sense to relax into the wisdom of the market, and cultivate a habit of hiring appropriately rated people.

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A somewhat related, somewhat unrelated idea: I remember in my youth thinking I’d never spend more than X dollars on a piece of clothing or a meal or whatever. I simply could not understand why someone would spend $120 on a pair of jeans or $300 on a dinner. Now that I’ve had some outrageously expensive meals and few other expensive goods or experiences, I can see the appeal. I’m not just talking about the signaling benefits of conspicuous consumption. I’m talking about genuine appreciation for a product or service or experience that’s absolutely world class in quality.

Sometimes the attributes that makes a product, service, or experience world-class are subtle. The marker of a luxury hotel is usually not a flashy lobby; instead, it might show up in how the cleaning staff cleans and organizes your toiletries during housekeeping, and in a hundred other ways like that.

Is there a similarity here with “high end” talent? Do really expensive talent sometimes possess characteristics that are harder to appreciate from afar, but once you’ve worked with “the best” you realize just why these sorts of people are paid so much? In the same way that high end food and drink tend to stand out in subtle ways, the traits of high end talent may also be more subtle than something as blunt as years of experience. I’m thinking of traits like poise, emotional stability, genuine humility, a hard-to-describe “it” factor that causes other people to want to follow him/her, etc…

(Thanks to Auren Hoffman for reading a draft of this post.)

Book Reviews: Killing Commendatore and Americanah

I’ve read more fiction in 2020 than in any other year in recent memory — maybe the escapist urge amidst all the insanity that’s going on in the world.

Fiction is good any year, of course. I recently came across this Marilynne Robinson quote in the New Yorker profile of her this week: “All literature is acknowledgment. Literature says this is what sadness feels like and this is what holiness feels like, and people feel acknowledged in what they already feel.”

Two recent longer novels I read:

1. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A wonderful, engrossing story about two Nigerian immigrants to America and the UK. A love story. A story of assimilation. A story about national identity. The plot is easy to follow, the ideas raised are deep, and the sentences are often gorgeous. I loved it. Separately, I want to learn more about why the Nigerian diaspora in America is so successful.

Some Kindle highlights from Americanah:


She did not tell him this, because it would hurt him to know she had felt that way for a while, that her relationship with him was like being content in a house but always sitting by the window and looking out.

Kosi led the way around the room, hugging men and women she barely knew, calling the older ones “ma” and “sir” with exaggerated respect, basking in the attention her face drew but flattening her personality so that her beauty did not threaten.

There was something immodest about her modesty: it announced itself.

Ifemelu told her about the vertigo she had felt the first time she went to the supermarket; in the cereal aisle, she had wanted to get corn flakes, which she was used to eating back home, but suddenly confronted by a hundred different cereal boxes, in a swirl of colors and images, she had fought dizziness. She told this story because she thought it was funny; it appealed harmlessly to the American ego.

Her mother asked breezy questions and accepted breezy replies. “Everything is going well?” and Ifemelu had no choice but to say yes.

There was something in him, lighter than ego but darker than insecurity, that needed constant buffing, polishing, waxing.

It puzzled him that she did not mourn all the things she could have been. Was it a quality inherent in women, or did they just learn to shield their personal regrets, to suspend their lives, subsume themselves in child care?

With his close friends, she often felt vaguely lost. They were youngish and well-dressed and righteous, their sentences filled with “sort of,” and “the ways in which”; they gathered at a bar every Thursday, and sometimes one of them had a dinner party, where Ifemelu mostly listened, saying little, looking at them in wonder: were they serious, these people who were so enraged about imported vegetables that ripened in trucks?

Fred mentioned Stravinsky and Strauss, Vermeer and Van Dyck, making unnecessary references, quoting too often, his spirits attuned across the Atlantic, too transparent in his performance, too eager to show how much he knew of the Western world. Ifemelu listened with a wide internal yawn.


2. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami. My sixth Murakami novel over the past decade. See my reviews of: Norwegian Wood; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki; 1Q84; Kafka On the Shore. I also read half of the Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I usually recommend Norwegian Wood to people who haven’t read any Murakami. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is lesser known but equally good IMO.

Killing Commendatore is vintage Murakami. The pace is slow here. The language mostly lovely. Descriptions unfold in detail — houses, cars, people. Murakami captures the ennui of his characters. Surrealism abound: Talking spirits, portals that transport you to a different world, and so on. In his descriptions of female characters, there’s an obsession with breasts that’s extreme even by Murakami standards (known as he is for attempting to channel a Japanese male obsession with breasts, which is how a friend explained it).

From a review of the book that captures the intention of this novel pretty well:

….[it] express the truth that despite how rational and stable we may be, our lives are actually out of our control. We do not choose whom we love, or who will love us, or who will hire us, or any of the most important aspects of our lives.

And not only are we not in control, there is much more going on than we can see, know, or understand. That so much that happens is inexplicable seems miraculous. Murakami writes, “There are channels through which reality can become unreal. Or unreality can enter the realm of the real.”

By writing about metaphors and ideas, by ringing bells underground and animating two-foot-tall men, by having the desperate desires of others intrude on the simplest of plans and a whole lot else, Murakami is reminding us that the world is more enchanted than we might think. And an enchanted world is a wonderful place to live.

Special shoutout to the voice actor of the audiobook version of Killing Commendatore, Kirby Heyborne, as he was spectacular. He nailed the different characters’ voices; it felt like you were really listening to a movie. At 700+ pages, this one is probably 200 pages too long. But if your mood is right, you can settle in and enjoy this one. Especially if you have a long road trip ahead of you.