Last year started with a question: How often do we remember the meals we eat? When I thought about it, only a couple. The other 99% we completely forget about. And as much as I love great food, I realized it rarely ever adds to my long-term happiness.
This led me to wonder, why then are eating habits so hard to break? Why can’t I control my body and health, when other areas of my life are in order? How do I rethink the way I eat, and ultimately transform my habits into investments?
May 4th I’ll be entering a bodybuilding competition, and I’d love for you to be there! For me competing represents everything I’ve learned about controlling my body and my health. It’s the realization of a year-long process of transformation and exploration.
Yes, I’ll be in a speedo, tanned and oiled up, posing for your amusement. Don’t miss out!
Skyline High School (map)
12250 Skyline Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94619
Prejudging: 12:00 pm ($15)
Main show: 5:00 pm ($25)
VIP package: prejudging + main show, first 8 rows ($50) CASH ONLY at the door.
I’d love for you to be at both events, but if you can only attend one, come see the prejudging. This is where there judges take their time evaluating all the bodybuilders, so the audience can get a close look at the physiques. This is also where I’ll get the most stage time, versus the main show where I only get 90 seconds.
What is natural bodybuilding?
All bodybuilders who compete on an elite level (Mr. Olympia, IFBB, etc.) take steroids. Because anabolic steroids are illegal, they are not technically allowed in competition. Thus competitions usually split into two major types – bodybuilding and natural bodybuilding. Natural bodybuilding competitions test their competitors for HGH and steroid use, while bodybuilding competitions don’t test for these things.
How much of bodybuilding depends on genetics?
At the level I’m competing, almost none. The difference between a person with an average physique and a person with a great physique is almost all mental. Do they have the discipline to train regularly and stay on the diet? Are they an expert at nutrition? Do they train hard every time? When they plateau do they find a way to keep moving forward, or do they blame external factors? Can they resist social pressures to eat out? Over time, these little differences add up and become significant differences. Bodybuilding is really about training the mind. The body is just a reflection of it.
How long does it take to build muscle?
On average a guy can build about 3 lbs of lean muscle mass per year (drug free). On steroids, they can build about 7 lbs per year. I first started weight training after college, around 2008, where I weighed 170 lbs. At the competition I’ll weigh around 180 lbs, which means my yearly gain has been only 2-3 lbs per year. Some of the best bodybuilders start training at 15 years old (like Arnold Schwarzenegger). Since I’m 27 and have only been seriously bodybuilding for the past 1.5 years, I’m technically at a disadvantage. But I’m hoping my dedication and nutritional knowledge will help offset my late start.
Why did I decide to compete?
The short answer is YOLO. The long answer is, I take all of my hobbies seriously because you extract the most value when you commit to things long-term. As you reach higher levels of competency, you unlock new opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available. Competing is also a way of creating permanent assets (pictures, memories, awards, a sense of accomplishment, etc.) from something that’s generally regarded as temporary (your body / youth / good looks). I wrote a whole blog post on this for those interested: http://qaboom.com/cultivating-a-jiu-jitsu-mindset/
There’s a martial arts school next to my gym that I pass by every day. A few months ago I walked in on a whim, and somehow ended up with a judogi and an enrollment in a two week course.
Since then I’ve been practicing the flying kicks and elbow strikes of Muay Thai, the joint locks and throws of Judo, the takedowns of Hapkido, and have amassed a colorful assortment of bruises to show for it.
Going through the movements of punching and kicking, I’ve come to appreciate a certain beauty in delivering the perfect strike, which transcends the violence it was meant to employ. Practicing the steps involved, starting from the legs, shooting through the hips, moving to the shoulders, and ending at the fist, you start to get the sense that immense power emerges not from brute strength, but from a calm, calculated refinement.
Although the striking arts has helped rekindle some of those fond childhood memories of pretending to be Bruce Lee, it is the tamer ground fighting art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) that has really got me thinking about pursuing a black belt.
If you’ve never seen BJJ before, it looks like two people hugging and rolling around on the ground, which unfortunately deters many people from trying it. But once you learn the basics, it becomes this fascinating, never-ending chess of two bodies trying to gain dominance over the other, vying for better positions as opportunities open up, and eventually ending in a submission. If either player reaches a checkmate through an arm bar or choke, their opponent taps out, and the match is over.
A Brief History of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu originated in Japan as Judo, which was introduced to Brazil in 1914 and later modified by Helio Gracie to create the style we now know today.
Helio was originally just an observer in the Jiu-Jitsu class his brother taught, until one day he found the opportunity to teach a class. Although he had memorized all the techniques and understood the moves theoretically, he did not have the physical capability to carry out many of the techniques required by Jiu-Jitsu.
Helio began adapting a Jiu-Jitsu which better suited a person of his physical ability (Helio was frail and not particularly fast), maximizing mechanical leverage wherever possible, and thus minimizing the brute force required to execute a technique. If a move had any inefficiencies, he got rid of it or modified it, and eventually created a Jiu-Jitsu which could be learned by anybody – smaller, slower, weaker, man or woman.
Helio went on to become one of the most recognized figures in Brazil, with 19 professional fights and only two losses, defeating most of his opponents (who were often more than twice his size) by submission. He was so certain of the effectiveness of the Jiu-Jitsu he created that he made it his life mission to spread the practice of BJJ, and prove to the world that it was the most effective martial arts ever created.
In 1993, Helio’s oldest son Rorion Gracie created the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in order to identify the most effective martial art in a real fight. Fighters from all disciplines – Boxing, Tae Kwon Do, Wrestling, Muay Thai, BJJ, Karate, Sumo – flew to Denver to engage in a no holds barred fight, with no rounds, no weight classes, no time limits, and no rules, to prove to the world that their discipline was superior.
Rorion appointed his younger brother Royce gracie to represent the Jiu-Jitsu their family had created, and entered him into the tournament. Although not as strong or big as his other brothers, Rorion felt Royce would make a better example of the effectiveness of BJJ in defeating larger and stronger opponents.
At only 175 lbs, Royce went on to win 13 fights in a row, defending the title 5 times and holding the record for the most submission victories in UFC history with 11. By defeating opponents far bigger than him, he drew attention to the importance of ground technique, and gave rise to the popularity of BJJ. In subsequent competitions, fighters began adopting techniques from more than one discipline, helping to create the fighting style now known as mixed martial arts (MMA).
Today UFC is one of the fastest growing sports organization in the world, and practically every MMA fighter must know at least the basics of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in order to compete effectively.
To learn more, I recommend watching these documentaries:
Every once in a while, when a hobby like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu captures my fascination, it takes me by surprise. Since I’m usually interested in more things than I have time for, I tend to be very selective of the hobbies I take up. When I find myself falling in love, I take a cautious step back and start asking questions.
Why have hobbies like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, programming, and bodybuilding captured my fascination, when others have lost their appeal? What do they have in common, if anything? Why BJJ but not Muay Thai? Why computer science but not engineering?
In a world full of options and not enough time, often the hardest decisions are not what to do, but what not to do.
It occurred to me that my love-at-first-sight attraction to BJJ was more than just serendipity. BJJ, and its underlying principles, are a perfect representation of the kind of philosophy I’ve internalized. If I could compress all its wisdom into one motto, it’d be this: Spend your time and effort on where it will make the most impact.
In other words, focus your time and energy on high leverage activities (HLAs). An activity has high leverage if it makes an enormous impact on your life, relative to other activities. It’s usually something that you can continuously get better at, produces value both internally and externally, and improves your life in multiple ways.
HLAs, when you find them, don’t just appear. They take over your life. They change your thinking, reshape your goals, and ultimately become an indelible part of who you are.
My first experience of high leverage was in high school when I learned to program. I used to play calculator games in math class, until my brother one day taught me a few programming concepts. After showing me how to use a for loop, store variables, and display sprites, it occurred to me that this was all knowledge I needed to create my own game.
I started designing and publishing my own games, and soon found myself far more interested in making games than actually playing them. It’s hard to justify spending hours fighting orcs and leveling up, when you know behind the scenes you’re really just circling around a game loop, watching sprites oscillate at a specific frame rate.
I remember feeling an overwhelming sense that I could create anything – summon alien invasions, invent fantasy worlds, clone Game Boy games, hack the operating system, build my own tools — all with just a few commands and simple logic.
When I learned to program for the web, this experience of leverage was even greater. After launching my first website in college, and seeing how easy it was to share with friends, I could not stop thinking about all the possibilities of what I could create and distribute. I felt this enormous creative power just tingling at my fingertips, ready to be unleashed onto the world, and felt deep down that something special was about to happen.
After all, I was working with the most powerful technology ever created (machines that make billions of calculations in fractions of a second), leveraging the largest network ever created (with the ability to instantly send data across the world at almost no cost), and learning to control it (through programming). With all this leverage, able to be wielded by a single person, it’s a mystery how anybody studying computer science could not take advantage of this enormous power.
We are living in an age where a college kid can create a website from his dorm room and turn it into a multi-billion dollar business years later. Where a nobody in China can hack into secure government websites and gain access to sensitive information. Where a person in India can pull themselves out of poverty by outsourcing their virtual services to U.S. buyers.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has a similar quality in that once it’s been shown to you, it changes your whole perspective of what fighting really is. What used to look like an unstructured chaos of wild swinging, now looks like a series of opportunities to gain dominance, move to better positions, and setup for an arm bar or choke. This newly refactored perception will make karate and kung fu seem like tawdry displays of pretty kicks and flips, and you’ll begin to see why BJJ is more often compared with chess than it is with fighting .
Just like how there are natural leverage points in the body which BJJ exploits (an extended arm, an exposed throat), there are also natural leverage points in life which can be exploited to produce enormous impacts. Cultivating a Jiu-Jitsu mindset involves learning how to identify where these leverage points are, and how to position yourself to take advantage of them.
Although the specific leverage points will differ depending on who you are and what you value, there are a few that almost everyone can identify with.
The most obvious ones that come to mind are HLAs that generate high income. Finding your life passion and generating a high income from it is essentially the armbar of life – it has the highest potential to completely change your life.
As much as we’d like to hate or deny the importance of, money controls a huge part of our lives. It determines what we do with our time (for most people this means spending 40 hours a week working), where we live (somewhere close to work), what we choose to study (a subset of marketable skills), and who we mingle with (people in similar social strata).
If you are shaking your head in denial, telling yourself that you chose all those things with complete autonomy, chances are you are either completely unaware of the invisible shackles money binds you to (or frees you from), or you are sequestered on an island somewhere where coconuts and fish are the primary tools of leverage.
The difference between having absolutely no money, and having all the money in the world, is larger than any other asset you could obtain. But as we’ll discuss later, there are low-leverage ways of obtaining it, and high-leverage ways of obtaining it.
So what makes one activity higher leverage than another? Although the answer will vary from person to person, I’ve identified a few common properties that all HLAs share:
1. They produce value internally
Activities that produce value internally are those that are autotelic, can be continuously improved upon, and help build portable values like discipline, creativity, and adaptability, which help in other areas of life.
Singing and traveling are examples of autotelic activities – they are enjoyable in and of itself, and its purpose is itself (rather than a necessary step to achieving some outcome). If someone’s ever asked you why you like doing X, and the only answer you could think of was “Because it makes me happy”, chances are it is autotelic. Activities that are not autotelic include things like filing taxes, and working an unfulfilling job (even if the money you earn fulfills you in other ways).
Consumptive activities like watching TV or fine dining can also be autotelic, but they cannot continuously be improved upon. You cannot master the art of watching TV or eating food. HLAs tend to be those where performance standards can be internalized, and skill levels can improve through deliberate practice.
Learning an instrument like piano or violin, or playing a team sport like soccer, are activities that help build portable values like patience, cooperation, and inner confidence (they are also autotelic and can be mastered). This is why tiger moms are so obsessed about their children becoming virtuosos by the age of five. In contrast, activities like gaming (Starcraft, World of Warcraft) are autotelic and can be mastered, but don’t usually build values that are applicable in the real world. Tiger moms frown upon games.
2. They produce value externally
Activities that produce value externally make the biggest impacts. These are activities like programming, writing, acting, and entrepreneurship, all which produce external assets. The best assets are ones you can control, don’t deteriorate over time, and spread easily to others.
Websites and businesses are assets you have total control over, but friendships and your professional network are assets that are not completely in your control. Networking and socializing, although still HLAs, produce assets that have the potential to disappear completely.
Assets should ideally not deteriorate over time (or do so at a very slow rate). These are assets that don’t require heavy maintenance to keep its present value, and ones where the value doesn’t depend on an evershifting environment. Creative works (art, music, ideas) and digital assets (code, photos, videos) require little maintenance to retain their value, while an asset like good looks requires lots of maintenance. Celebrity knowledge, and a level 60 Barbarian in Diablo III, are assets that lose its value as the industry changes, while math and science live in environments that never change.
Assets should spread easily to others, which means ideally they should be distributed through a near-frictionless medium of exchange. Knowledge and ideas have traditionally been the easiest assets to distribute (through HLAs like writing and teaching), but since the advancement of manufacturing, distribution, and technology, assets that used to be difficult to distribute or had limited reach, like services and products, are now enjoying the same advantages that non-physical assets have .
3. They impact multiple areas of life.
There are many HLAs that naturally impact more than one area of life. Exercise is a great example. Although keeping fit in many ways is a huge drag, often requiring a lot of maintenance (particularly if you’re trying to keep muscle), it improves so many other areas of life that I would still consider it a HLA. It keeps you healthy, improves productivity, boosts energy levels, makes you more attractive, builds confidence, and changes how people perceive you. It’s only when you focus so much on exercise that it becomes the only thing you are good at, and you don’t allow it to impact or enhance other areas of your life, that it becomes a low leverage activity (this is why people get labeled “meathead” or “gym rat”).
Analyzing My Own HLAs
Given our criteria of what HLAs should look like, let’s take a look at some of my present and past activities and see how they fare (note that this is just my own opinion / experience):
Can be mastered
Builds portable values
Assets don’t deteriorate
Assets spread easily
Impacts multiple areas of life
Spending time with friends and family
Internship in college
It turns out that activities I’ve been most dedicated and passionate about meet every criteria I laid out above. Activities that don’t meet any of the criteria I tend to avoid doing, almost to a detriment, and have weird ways of working around them.
For example, because I dislike shopping so much, I will often buy several pairs of the same shirt and pants to last me for the next few years (to avoid shopping in the future). Unfortunately this also means my friends often see me wearing the exact same thing every weekend, which impacts me in other ways (i.e. the perception that I have no style).
Bodybuilding, although in many ways is the ultimate high-maintenance activity (eating every 2 hours, working out five times a week, being sore all the time, can’t eat out), has improved my life in many ways. It started with this thought: how many meals in our lifetime do we really remember eating? If I think about it, only a couple. The other 99% of meals I completely forget about. I realized that although I enjoy food at the time I’m eating it, most of the time it doesn’t add to my long-term happiness. I figured since I was already working out 3-5 times a week, by coupling it with a strict diet I would progress faster, feel healthier, look better, and ultimately turn eating into an investment. I ended up dropping my cholesterol by 60 points, and transforming my body.
By far the highest leverage activity I’ve ever done was building Clockspot, my current business. People often ask me “How many employees do you have?” When I tell them I only have one, the reactions are usually a mix of surprise and disappointment. What most people don’t realize is that they are staring at a behemoth built of pure leverage…while asking the wrong questions.
Generating over seven figures a year with very little overhead costs, just one employee to run customer support, and 30 minutes per week of my time to keep the business growing, it’s really leverage (programming) leveraging leverage (the web) leveraging leverage (sales automation, aka Google) leveraging leverage (hired employees).
I’m convinced entrepreneurship is the ultimate HLA. Working a job, even if it’s a high income job, is the karate of making money. When you punch and kick, your output scales linearly with effort. You can still learn to maximize your output through technique, but its power is still confined within the natural limitations of a punch. When you work a job, the money you make scales linearly with how much effort you put in, and it is capped by the supply for that job.
Just remember, it doesn’t make fiscal sense for any company to pay you more than the value you produce. As an employee you will always be on the losing end of the bargain, because you will always get paid less than what you are actually worth to the company.
Entrepreneurship is the Jiu-Jitsu way of making money. You spend your time on where it makes the biggest impact – building assets that generate value, rather than generating that value yourself. If you need to increase sales, you spend your time either building a sales team, or automating sales through channels like affiliate marketing and Google Adwords (building assets that generate sales), rather than doing the selling yourself. You work directly with the natural leverage points of the market, rather than work within the bounds of a job position created by someone else.
Getting the Most Out of Your HLAs
If the HLA you are interested in doesn’t fulfill all the criteria I laid out above, don’t worry. There are many ways of getting more out of the things you are already doing.
1. Pair complementary HLAs
Often when you pair two HLAs together, you generate far more value than if you had just done them separately. Blogging and traveling are good examples. Traveling generates value internally, but naturally does not produce any external assets (aside from interesting anecdotes). By pairing it with blogging, you externalize your travel experiences for the world to see. They both help each other – blogging makes your travels more memorable and impactful, while traveling makes your writing more interesting.
Other natural complements include bodybuilding and photography, reading and writing, and programming and entrepreneurship.
2. Extract useful principles
For any activity to impact your life in other areas, you have to allow it to. People often pigeonhole themselves so that the things they do define and confine, rather than enable and empower.
When I started my first business out of college (Qaboom.com) I saw myself primarily as a programmer, not a business person, and spent a considerable amount of effort looking for a person to handle the “business” side of things. It wasn’t until I changed my mentality that I realized that my analytical and creative thinking could be applied in business as well.
To be good at a lot of things, you have to be able to abstract the lessons and principles you learn from one activity, and learn to apply them in other activities. Constantly ask yourself questions like “What is the greater lesson to be learned?”, or “How is X similar to Y?”, to get the most out of the things you do. When you get into the habit of doing this, you’ll start to see things that others will miss .
3. Get beyond 80%
You may have heard the saying that 80% of results come from 20% of the effort. While the pareto principle (or any variety of 4-hour-workweek mentality) can be useful in the right context, it often allows people to justify being mediocre at the things they do.
As is the nature of an investment, at some point HLAs will yield far more value relative to the effort you need to put in. It may be better to double down your efforts, rather than stop trying once you get to 80%.
Part of why getting beyond 80% is important is because it opens up opportunities that otherwise would not have been available.
I’ll use bodybuilding as an example . Initially it is extremely difficult, and most people will quit within the first month. But after overcoming the inertia of having to change your eating habits, adapt to the training intensity, and be comfortable bringing your food everywhere, you’ll start to feel healthier, look better, and actually enjoy the process. You’ve reached stage one, cashflow positive, where you start to see that exercise is improving your health and physical state.
If you progress even further, which doesn’t require any more effort than what you are already doing, a whole new set of opportunities open up. Now people are starting to notice your physique. You get the occasional compliment, and you notice that people respond to you differently. You have more presence in a room, which boosts your confidence. You’ve reached stage two – you’re starting to see that bodybuilding is improving your social life.
You’ve internalized the various changes that came about through your body transformation. Your dating life is better, you feel more energetic, and you’re up for trying things you never thought you’d be good at – Jiu-Jitsu, dancing, mountaineering, half marathons. You decide to take it one step further and try competing. So you hire a trainer, who helps refine your knowledge and technique even more, and eventually enters you into a local bodybuilding contest. To your surprise, you actually place among the top 5! It’s a great night, your physique is at the best it’s ever been, there are a ton of pictures and videos which you’ll one day share with your grandkids, and your girlfriend and family are extremely proud of you. You’ve reached stage three – you’re starting to generate external assets (pictures, videos, awards, stories) that immortalize your experience, and more opportunities have opened up as a result of your improvements.
Fast forward a few years, you’ve kept up with bodybuilding, competed in many more shows, and you now have a huge fan following on Facebook. You’ve signed with a few corporate sponsors, your physique is noticed everywhere you go, and you’ve inspired thousands of people around the world. You’ve reached stage four. You’ve managed to generate an income from your passion, and you’ve become a thought leader in the industry – the things you do, tweet about, and post on Facebook affect thousands of real people.
Finally, many years pass, and you’ve become one of the top bodybuilders in the world. You enter the Mr. Olympia…and win. Overnight, you become a celebrity in the industry. Every sponsor is vying for your endorsement, and you go down in history as one of only 15 men to ever receive this prestigious award. You’ve reached the final stage. You’ve mastered your craft, which has given you a lifetime of purpose and fulfillment, and your achievements have helped shape the industry you love.
If you had stopped at 80%, you would have only experienced improved health and looks. But like all HLAs, as you reached higher levels of mastery, new opportunities opened up, uncovering huge reserves of value that you otherwise would not have been able to tap.
Life After Leverage
I’ll end with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Venkatesh Rao:
A life that gets progressively more complex takes a good deal more philosophy and reflection to navigate. Success and failure become matters of perspective and interpretation rather than simple arrival. You may even find that the categories become less relevant to you with each arrival. (Read the full article)
When I first read this quote, it really hit home. As I’ve become more free, financially and geographically from being able to work from anywhere, and mentally, from learning how the world really works, I’ve found that life has only gotten harder and more confusing, not easier.
When you live a leveraged life, free of constraints and prescribed courses, you must come to understand yourself on a more veracious level. With no constraints to force you in a direction, no paths laid out for you, and no one to tell you how things are and should be, you’re left to pilot alone in the dark. Discovering the things that fulfill you, and being honest about the things you truly want, become a matter of survival. Without it, you risk a life of drift.
In a world full of possibilities, I’m often left wondering which is the greater tragedy – having not explored it all? Or having not explored all of one?
So if you have some time this week, join me for a bit of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and come experience the power of leverage first hand. Then take some of it with you. Who knows, this may be the armbar that changes your entire life.
 Punching is actually discouraged in BJJ. Whenever you attempt a punch, you come within range of the opponents punch as well, exposing yourself to potential injury.
 With 3D printing technology, we can now literally print bicycles, clothes, and even prosthetic limbs. Some day I may even enjoy shopping for clothes…which would involve downloading the latest clothing designs online, and sending them to my 3D printer to be constructed to my exact proportions, and colored in my favorite RGB values. Sweatshop workers would be a thing of the past, supplanted instead by warehouses of 3D printers, plugged in to the internet.
 Although I don’t play Starcraft anymore, the biggest lesson I learned from it was the importance of build order. In Starcraft, and often in life, having the right build order is the difference between winning or losing.
Starcraft is a real-time strategy game where players compete to gather resources, build up an army, and eventually battle each other to the death. A build order is a specific sequence of actions a player takes to win or lose the game. Often the best players in the world memorize 50+ steps of a specific build order, in order to execute a strategy flawlessly. When pit against a lesser player, who will make mistakes here and there, causing their opponent to gain a cumulative lead of a few minutes, it will often result in an early ambush and eventual defeat from the opponent.
I’ve used what I learned about build orders in Starcraft to be better at cooking (a big part of stir frying is learning when to drop in certain ingredients), more efficient at bartending, and to decide when to pursue certain ambitions.
 I like using bodybuilding as an example because in many ways, it is like programming. It’s a kind of greatness you can achieve all on your own, through your own hard work and persistence, eventually building an aesthetic of unbelievable refinement, just from a series of very simple steps.
In early 2012 I started following a strict bodybuilding diet, which involves eating seven times a day, and obsessively measuring out every meal to meet a predetermined ratio of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.
To commit to this food plan, I usually have to pack my meals in tupperware and bring them with me to parties and other social outings. This means I’m often caught scarfing chicken between conversations, and pulling out my food scale at awkward places. Although I try to be discreet, I usually end up having to explain my obsessive behavior to those around me.
The question I get asked most often is “Why are you doing this?”. My standard response used to be “To look like Arnold“, but I’ve been asked this question enough times where I’ve since given it some serious thought.
It first started with a health checkup in early 2011. Since I have a habit of working out regularly, and generally stay away from junk food, I was surprised when my doctor told me I had high cholesterol. My total cholesterol was at 226, where ideal is 150-200, and my LDL cholesterol was at 153, where the ideal is less than 130. “But the good news is”, my doctor assured me, “you’re only 25. People don’t normally get heart attacks until they’re 60.”
Around the time when I got my cholesterol checked. I was in good shape, and worked out 3-5 times a week.
Now this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you I went home and immediately started my bodybuilding diet. But like most people who are aware of a health problem, I made no effort to change my habits.
That summer, I even traveled Europe for 5 months and ate all sorts of cochinillo, schweinshaxe, and foi gras, cholesterol be damned. By the end of the trip, I still managed to lose 15 lbs. I guess that’s what happens when you spend your days lounging in Parsian parks nibbling on macaroons instead of pumping iron. Looks like my ancestors gypped me on the cholesterol gene, but gave me some kind of freakish metabolism instead.
By the time I got back to the U.S., I was ready to get back in shape, so I did what I always do when I’m trying to bulk up – I started lifting weights 5 times a week, and eating a gratuitous amount of food in order to gain as much muscle as possible.
This method sounds terrible to me now, but in college it worked wonders. I could devour all sorts of cookies, steaks, and hamburgers, and still build muscle while remaining lean. But in my older age, it was clear that my method wasn’t working as well as it used to. Although I was building muscle, I was also starting to develop a gut. Yup, this was officially my first sign of aging. Goodbye youth…it was fun while it lasted!
I lost 15 lbs while traveling Europe. Here’s me in Germany, at 180 lbs.
Before I started the bodybuilding diet, I bulked back up to around 200 lbs, eating whatever I wanted.
So I turned to the internet for advice. Anyone who has ever tried searching for diet tips online will probably agree with me that it’s about as fun as filing your taxes. You have to trudge through hundreds of contradictory nutritional advice (milk is bad for you, milk is the perfect drink, avoid egg yolks, egg yolks are the best part), dodge gimmicky supplement ads (“Effortless six-pack abs in 2 weeks, or your money back!”), and decode vague health information like “Detox your body with a cabbage cleansing to restore your inner spiritual and emotional balance”. Huh?
I wasn’t looking for a flash diet or a quick fix. I wanted to do it the hard way. The way that works.
It turns out all the more credible sounding articles were bodybuilding related. Unlike articles marketed towards yoga girls and beach body types, bodybuilding articles tend to dive deeper into the biochemistry of food, and focus on the overall diet, rather than focusing on a specific “healthy food” . I’m still waiting for the day a frozen yogurt cleanse becomes fashionable, triggering a new generation of yoga girls with uncontrollable gas.
The more I read about bodybuilding, the more there was to learn. I soon found myself reading all about the glycemic index, the role of B vitamins, the effects of omega-3 on jaw development, formulas for calculating basal metabolic rate, etc.
My nightly entertainment quickly degenerated into watching meatheads on YouTube lift heavy objects while grunting loudly. I was so into my videos that one night my girlfriend had to subtly suggest we watch something less testosterone-charged, like The Notebook. We compromised and ended up watching Food, Inc.
Looking back, it’s kind of amusing that I became so fascinated with a hobby such as bodybuilding. Although I’ve lifted weights for years, I never thought I’d have anything in common with bodybuilder types. But actually its appeal (at least to me) has a lot in common with gaming and general nerd stuff. Watching your body change is like leveling up, and pre-packed meals are like health potions. Following a consistent diet plan allows me to do things like A/B test foods and their effectiveness. Tracking metrics like meal timing and proportions means I know exactly what day and time I will run out of chicken in my fridge. Bodybuilders are really just body hackers…nerds in giant meat suits. Okay maybe I’m stretching it a bit. But this is how I justify my quick downward spiral into meathead land.
What to Eat
One thing I noticed right off when doing my research is that all bodybuilders eat the same few foods. If you go over to bodybuilding.com and check out any professional bodybuilder’s profile, chances are they built their physique using chicken breast, brown rice, and broccoli. At first it was a weird concept to go from eating whatever I wanted to eating only 10 different kinds of foods. But actually in an industry filled with noise and drowning in misinformation, this stroke of clarity was what I needed to get started.
Here are the foods that all bodybuilders eat over and over:
99% lean chicken / turkey
Salmon (this is both a protein and fat source)
I’m tempted to cover all the reasons why these few foods are popular among bodybuilders, but I’ll mostly just summarize.
Chicken breast and tilapia are going to be your main sources of protein because they are lean, easy to cook, and not too expensive. You could also try turkey, halibut, or other lean fishes (sole fish, catfish, tuna, etc.), but I find that each have their respective disadvantages. Turkey, if not ground, can be very tough. Halibut is far more expensive than tilapia. Sole fish is generally very fishy, and flaky once cooked. Also since you’ll be mass producing this food, you’ll want something that will last at least a week in your fridge. Just from my anecdotal experience, chicken and tilapia pass the seven-day-old taste test better than other types of meat.
Whey protein (which is extracted from cow milk) will also be a staple. It’s popular among bodybuilders because it’s quickly absorbed by the body, making it perfect in a post-workout shake when the body is in an optimal state the utilize the protein. I also recommend having it in the morning as a breakfast shake if you’re too lazy to make eggs. Before bed, I recommend casein protein (thicker and slower absorbing, also extracted from cow milk).
Egg whites are also a great source of protein. It has the highest bioavailability of any protein source, which means the body can utilize more of it due to its balance of amino acids. As a comparison, beef is only 80% as bioavailable, and soybeans is 74% . The main disadvantage of egg whites is that it naturally contains a lot of sodium. Since I don’t add salt to my food, I was surprised when I first calculated my sodium intake, which was on the high side due to egg whites.
For vegetarians, vegans, or those watching their cholesterol (fish, lean chicken, and whey protein all contain cholesterol!), I recommend Nutiva Organic Hemp Protein or Life’s Basics Plant Protein (the unsweetened version is better). Hemp protein (extracted from ground up hemp seeds) is amazing stuff – it’s a complete protein, it’s high in fiber, and it’s rich in Omega 3-6-9 essential fatty acids. At first when I did my research, I was set on finding a highly isolated plant-based protein, something like Manitoba Harvest Hemp Pro 70, where most of the calories would come from just protein. But the fiber and essential fats in hemp is part of what makes it so great, so I actually think the isolated versions take away many of its advantages. If you’re not a vegan, I recommend mixing the hemp protein with whey protein for better bioavailability (hemp is “complete” but still low on certain amino acids, like lysine). If you’re a vegan, I recommend just using Life’s Basics Plant Protein (the pea and brown rice protein fill in the gaps in hemp’s amino acid profile). I use hemp protein twice a day – once in the morning mixed in with whey, and again before bed, mixed in with casein.
Beef – I do not recommend eating beef or any kind of red meat. I love a 12 oz ribeye just as much as anyone else, but after looking up the nutrition facts I’ve concluded that you should only eat it on rare occasions, if ever. It has far more cholesterol and saturated fat than chicken or fish, and the visible fat is harder to isolate and remove. If you do eat beef, I recommend it be organic and grass-fed, which is leaner, lower in cholesterol, and higher in omega-3 than corn-fed beef. The same is true for salmon – if you have the budget for it, I recommend buying wild caught salmon, which contains more omega-3 and less cholesterol than farm-raised salmon. Here’s a pdf of the leanest cuts of beef.
Controlling your carb intake is the most important factor in whether you gain muscle or lose fat. Usually the only difference between a gaining diet versus a cutting diet is the increased carb consumption. The best carb sources are whole grain, unprocessed, and high in fiber. Refined carb sources like white rice, pasta, and white bread are not optimal because they have a higher glycemic index (GI) and lower fiber content . Most bodybuilders will eat low GI carbs throughout the day, the only exception being right after a workout, where you’ll want to eat a high GI carb (like bananas, candy, or fruit juice) combined with protein.
Brown rice is what I eat most often, because it’s easy to make in a rice cooker, it’s cheap, and you can keep dry rice in your pantry forever. The main disadvantage is it can taste dry and stale after a few days in the fridge, so I usually just make a batch once every two days.
Sweet potatoes are my favorite in terms of taste. It’s good right out of the oven, it’s good cold, and it’s also good after a week in the fridge. It can also be used as a dessert (try adding cinnamon and almond oil!). The main disadvantage is that it takes a long time to cook (I usually bake a batch at 400 degrees for 1 hour 30 minutes), and you have to peel the skin.
I eat a lot of oatmeal as well. Old-fashioned oatmeal is really convenient if you own a hot water dispenser, but my favorite is steel-cut oats. Old-fashioned oats are oats that have been cut, rolled flat, steamed, then lightly toasted. It’s more processed (and thus higher glycemic index) than steel-cut oats, which are just whole grain oats cut into pieces by a steel blade. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook (you can make it in your rice cooker), but has a better texture and taste.
If you’re not a brown rice, sweet potato, or oatmeal kind of person, you can always try Ezekiel bread, which is a low GI flour-less bread made from grains, legumes, and lentils. You can usually find it at stores like Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, sometimes in the frozen foods section (it doesn’t store very long if you leave it out).
Almonds are probably the most popular fat source used by bodybuilders. It’s mostly comprised of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat (versus coconut or macadamia nuts, which contain a higher amount of saturated fat), and contains a high amount of fiber. I recommend eating either raw almonds, or unsweetened almond butter. You can also try making your own almond butter, which is a lot of fun – just grind a bunch of almonds in a food processor, and add a bit of vegetable oil (or almond oil!) to get it going. Almonds are probably my favorite fat source because it keeps forever, and I munch on them while I code.
I occasionally eat avocados to change it up, but there are many practical disadvantages. Avocados come in various sizes, so if you’re OCD about measuring out your food like me, you almost always leave part of an avocado in the fridge, which won’t be good the next day. And since they don’t last long in the fridge, especially once you cut it open, you can’t pre-pack it in tupperware the way you can with almonds. Recently I’ve been buying fresh guacamole from the store (make sure it only contains whole avocados and fresh vegetables, with no added oil or sugar) and using that instead of avocados. Easier to store and measure, and they taste great on eggs.
Omega-3 – Fresh salmon is my favorite source for this. I usually just bake it in the oven with lemon and pepper. You can also take fish oil pills if cooking fish isn’t your thing, although I generally recommend you get your nutrients from fresh whole foods . You can also use flaxseeds or chia seeds, which are rich in omega-3 and omega-6. I usually just grind these up in my protein shakes, which gives it a rich nutty flavor.
You should include a wide variety of vegetables in your diet, but if you were to stick to only a couple, it should be either kale, spinach, broccoli, or asparagus, ideally all of them . The best vegetables are dark green leafy vegetables, and vegetables with bright colors like red peppers and eggplant, which indicate high antioxidant content. Eating vegetables helps minimize fat gain because it lowers the overall glycemic index of your meal, and it fills you up without being highly caloric. I usually fill a separate plate full of vegetables with every meal.
Here are some example meals that I make often:
Egg whites, salsa, spinach, oatmeal, rasberries, blackberries, green tea
This is a typical breakfast for me. If I’m in a hurry I’ll usually just make a protein shake blended with oatmeal.
Ahi tuna steak, sweet potato, kale, green tea
I drink green tea with almost every meal. Green tea is high in antioxidants, and aids with fat loss.
Tilapia, brown rice cakes, asparagus
Puffed rice cakes are also popular among bodybuilders. This one is wasabi and seaweed flavored.
Scallops, brown rice, red peppers, baby kale
I only occasionally eat shellfish due to its high cholesterol content. It’s otherwise very lean, and delicious to make.
Sweet potato, almond oil, cinnamon, blueberries
One of my favorite ways to prepare sweet potato. Instead of almonds and oatmeal in the morning, I’ll sometimes make this.
Breakfast for the lady
Egg whites with ketchup and sriracha hearts, plain Greek yogurt with blueberries, old-fashioned oats, green tea.
If the pictures here look mouth-wateringly tasty, don’t be fooled! Remember there’s no added salt, sugar, or oil ;)
I usually steam, bake, or grill my food, with no added salt, sugar, or oil. If you must pan fry, I recommend using a no-stick cooking spray like Pam to minimize the oil you add to your food. Here’s a good video on how to do this.
I recommend getting some appliances which will make cooking ten times easier: a food scale, rice cooker (most Asian people use a Tatung rice cooker, including me), blender (protein shakes taste better when you blend it with ice), countertop grill (I own two, a Foreman grill and a Cuisinart Griddler, for double the production capacity), and a hot water dispenser (for green tea and oatmeal).
You can actually make almost every meal in your Tatung rice cooker, which is what I do now. Just fill your rice container with a bunch of vegetables, and place your chicken or tilapia on top, seasoned with pepper. Add water and press start. In 20 minutes you’ll have a fresh meal, with minimal cleanup.
I use shrimp here, but you can just as easily steam chicken or tilapia. Steaming vegetables with seafood (you can even use scraps like crab shells, fish heads, etc.) is a great way to flavor it without adding extra calories or oil.
Steaming brown rice and yellow squash
Sometimes I’ll add squash or peas to my rice for added flavor and color.
Baking chicken and asparagus
I usually just squeeze lemon onto the chicken, tilapia, or salmon, then add pepper.
Flaxseed oil, almond oil, almond butter with roasted flaxseeds, avocado. I used to chug shots of flax oil right before bed, but I’ve since learned to buy whole flaxseeds and blend them in my shake.
Measuring out 8 oz of brown rice
When I first started out measuring my food, I was pretty OCD about getting the numbers exactly right, and would scoop out grains of rice to get the number to exactly 8.00 ounces. I’m a bit less obsessive now – I can allow anywhere from 7.95 to 8.05 :)
Measuring out 6 oz of chicken
99% lean chicken tenders are my favorite to use because they taste better, and cook faster than whole chicken breasts.
Measuring out 8 oz of asparagus
I don’t restrict how much vegetables I eat, but I make sure to get a minimum of 6-8 oz with every meal.
Prettifying my meal
Meals are more exciting when they’re beautiful.
Spice it up
Low calorie condiments are your friends. At five calories per tablespoon, you can really go crazy with it. Salsa and reduced sugar Ketchup are two great ways to add flavor to your food (I like them on my eggs) without adding too many calories to your meal.
Mass produce it
I usually cook all my food at once. Here’s 50 lbs of food, made to last two weeks.
I recommend spending money on some high quality, microwavable, freezable, leak-proof storage containers (don’t buy the dollar store ones!). The ones below are terrible – I returned them after I spilled turkey juice all over my book bag and jacket.
These are the ones I use now - OXO Good Grips LockTop. They are completely leak-proof, easy to stack, and have a clear top so that I can quickly see which meal I’m grabbing.
My fridge is packed full of these containers of chicken, broccoli, and pre-packed meals.
How Much To Eat
The first step is to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the amount of calories you burn in a day just resting, then either add or subtract 500 calories, depending on whether you are trying to lose or gain weight. This number will be how much you’ll want to eat in a day to lose or gain about 1 lb a week (a 3500 calorie deficit equates to about 1 lb of fat loss). There are many different ways to calculate BMR, but if you’re not severely overweight or underweight I recommend just multiplying your current weight by 16. This is roughly how many calories you eat in a day. For example, I currently weigh about 215 lbs, so my BMR is about 3440 calories (215 x 16), and I would need to eat 3940 calories a day to gain 1 lb a week, or eat 2940 calories a day to lose 1 lb a week.
The next step is to determine what proportion of protein, carbs, and fat you’re going to eat. Most bodybuilders, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, eat a 40/40/20 proportion, meaning 40% of calories come from protein, 40% of calories come from carbs, and only 20% of calories come from fat. Generally if you keep your fat proportion between 20-30%, you’re eating lean.
Believe it or not, most people eating a “normal” diet get the majority of their calories from fat. Even if you have a healthy meal of 6 oz salmon, 6 oz brown rice, and 6 oz broccoli, with no added oil, the majority of calories will come from fat. This is because fat has 9 calories per gram, while carbs and protein only have 4 calories per gram.
If you’re lifting weights 4-5 times a week, I recommend a 40/40/20 proportion, which is what I use. This will help minimize fat gain while bulking. So for example if I’m trying to eat 3940 calories to bulk up using a 40/40/20 ratio, I’d have to eat 394 grams of protein (3940*0.40/4), 394 grams of carbs (3940*0.40/4), and 87.5 grams of fat (3940*0.20/9).
You may have read that your body only needs one gram of protein per kg, or that the daily recommend value is 50 grams of protein per day. Why are bodybuilders eating 300+ grams a day? Partly, it’s because the recommended daily value is a terrible benchmark to look at. As a 215 lb man, lifting weights 5 times a week, my daily recommend values could not possibly be the same as a 100 lb woman. So ignore “recommended” amounts.
But the other part is that you are consuming protein not only for muscle building, but also for energy. High protein diets help you lose weight partly because your body has to work harder to process protein for energy (versus carbs), which means your body actually burns more calories breaking down protein than it does carbs. So even though protein and carbs both give 4 calories per gram, the net gain from eating protein is actually closer to 3.2 calories per gram . This is known as the thermic effect of food, and is also the same reason why high GI, processed foods (chips, mashed potatoes, white bread) make you fatter than their unprocessed, low GI counterparts (brown rice, sweet potato, oatmeal), even if you eat the same amount of each . This is why counting calories doesn’t work – 50 calories from potato chips isnt the same as 50 calories from broccoli.
When To Eat
Now that you know what to eat, how much to eat, and in what proportion, it’s time to organize your diet into meals. Most bodybuilders eat 6-8 times a day, waiting 2-3 hours between each meal. I eat 7 times a day, eating a meal every 2.5 hours (I count shakes as meals). Most bodybuilders will explain that the reason for eating so many meals is to keep your body’s metabolism high. But I believe it’s more practical than anything else – if you tried fitting all that food into 3 meals, you’d probably throw up. Since you’re eating foods low in fat, and eating a ton of vegetables, you’re going to be eating a much larger volume of food than you’re used to, even if it’s not that much more caloric.
Once you decide how you want to split your diet, you can calculate what you need to eat every meal. For example if I split my 3940 calorie diet (394 g protein, 394 g carbs, 87.5 g fat) into 7 meals evenly, I’d need 56 g of protein, 56 g of carbs, and 12.5 g of fat every meal. That’s roughly 7 oz chicken, 7 oz brown rice, and 0.6 oz of almonds every meal.
Instead of splitting everything evenly though, I recommend controlling your intake based on when you workout and sleep. I wrote about meal timing in a previous post, so I’ll mostly just summarize – eat more carbs and protein before and after a workout, and reduce your carb intake at night. Fat intake should be inversely proportional to carb intake. Whenever you eat a meal high in carbohydrates, you don’t want to eat a lot of fat with it. Foods like french fries, mashed potatoes, chips, cookies, cheesecake, etc. are the worst because they’re a combination of high GI carbs and a lot of (saturated) fat.
I eat most of my fat right before bed, usually as a shake with flaxseeds and casein protein. This goes against the popular belief that eating after 9pm makes you fat, but in the absence of carbs your body will not store this as fat. Also most bodily functions like testosterone production, recovery, etc. happen at night, so eating fat at night is also beneficial because it helps with hormonal balance.
Although I’ve lifted weights for years, my body has changed more since starting the diet than it has in the last 5 years. Without following a regimented diet, there was just so much potential I wasn’t tapping.
In Japan not too long before I got my cholesterol tested.
Beginning of my Europe trip, where I weighed about 195 lbs.
I made a progress video 3 months into the diet. I spent 2 months cutting from 212 lbs to 196 lbs, then 1 month bulking back up to 207 lbs.
I went off the diet for a bit when I traveled Indonesia and Vietnam, but I continued to take whey protein (morning, afternoon, night). Here’s me at around 210 lbs or so.
Here’s my most recent picture. This is the most I’ve ever weighed – 217 lbs, around 17-18% body fat.
The result I was most anxious to see is how the diet would affect my cholesterol. I purposely chose foods that were known to reduce cholesterol, like almonds and oatmeal , and used low cholesterol protein options whenever possible (like hydro whey, and vegetable-based proteins). I’m proud to say that my LDL cholesterol dropped from 153 to 102, and my total cholesterol dropped from 226 to 169, a drop of 57 points. I was so surprised and pleased with the results that I had to ask my doctor multiple times whether the results could possibly be wrong. She just laughed and asked, “Are you actually surprised your diet could affect so much?” I guess I was.
Before – January 2011
After – July 2012
Justifying The Time Spent Bodybuilding
Initially I had a hard time justifying the time I was spending working out and reading about nutrition. Since I’m not a professional bodybuilder, value my social life (specifically, eating out with my friends), and have other aspirations beyond becoming The Hulk, I naturally questioned whether I should be doing this at all. Although it’s true my youth and body won’t last forever, I believe there are many long term benefits of having gone through this process.
Nutritional Knowledge – The biggest benefit of having spent all this time bodybuilding is my far more extensive knowledge of nutrition. This not only affects my current and future food choices, but also the food choices of my future kids and family. I’ve drastically changed my eating habits, and possibly eliminated the health problems I would have developed as an old man, saving me many years of my life. Cost recouped!
Looks & Youth – Although looks are transient, you will only be young once. It’s worth capturing your youth in photos when you’re at your fittest and healthiest. It’s also far more difficult to build muscle once you’re old because of declining testosterone levels. Low testosterone is responsible for the majority of problems men experience in middle age, like depression and loss of sex drive. Keeping a habit of working out and eating healthy will literally extend your youth by keeping testosterone levels high. Check out Dr. Life’s work on youth management. He’s a living example of being a 70 year old man in a 30-year-old body.
“Muscle memory” – Probably the most frustrating thing about working out is that if you fall off the diet or routine for more than a few weeks, you lose a lot of your gains. But anyone who works out knows that you aren’t exactly starting over. There’s a phenomenon with weight lifting (my brother calls it “muscle memory” – if you know an official term for this please let me know) where if you’ve reached a certain size before, it’s much easier to reach that size again, even if you’ve lost all your gains. Each year I get bigger and stronger, even though I’ve lost and regained that weight many times over. So working out is not just a cost, it’s an investment into something you can actually keep.
For more thoughts, you can check out my answer to the Quora question “Is getting ripped worth it?”
A Note About Steroids And Genetics
Although I don’t personally know anyone who takes steroids, it gets mentioned all the time in bodybuilding circles. All bodybuilders who compete on an elite level (Mr. Olympia, IFBB Pro Men’s Bodybuilding, etc.) take steroids. Because anabolic steroids are illegal, they are not technically allowed in competition. Thus competitions usually split into two major types – bodybuilding and natural bodybuilding. Natural bodybuilding competitions test their competitors for HGH and steroid use, while bodybuilding competitions don’t test for these things.
Although the top bodybuilders use steroids, there is no reason to use steroids if you are just looking to get ripped. As long as you are consistent with your workout and eat a strict diet, you can reach an enormous size naturally. There are so many adverse affects from long-term steroid use that it’s just not worth it if you aren’t looking to be the next Mr. Olympia.
Also if you are hitting a plateau at the gym, most likely genetics are not the problem. I’m always surprised how quickly people conclude that their lack of progress is due to some genetic ceiling. If you haven’t made as big of an effort as I have in learning about nutrition, learning the proper workout techniques, and eating a shocking amount of food, you have not even begun to tap your genetic potential. Bodybuilding is all about discipline and consistency – if you are consistently working out and eating more calories than your body burns, it will grow. It has to grow. Your body will not defy physics.
Here’s proof that genetics don’t matter – This is me in college, at around 165 lbs. I was as skinny as they come. It took me 8 years to get to 217 lbs.
Download Diet Excel Sheet
Here’s the Diet Excel Sheet I made to track my meals. You can easily customize it to fit your needs.
 I believe the term “healthy” is too ambiguous and overused for most people to know how to interpret. Taken outside the context of your overall diet, you can’t really determine whether a particular food is “healthy”. If you’re starving in the wild, I can guarantee you a gigantic cheesecake will be much healthier for you than a bowl of broccoli.
 Eating carbs causes your body to release insulin, a hormone which regulates fat metabolism in the body. High GI carbs increases the chance your body will store fat (but also helps with nutrient absorption), while low GI carbs minimizes this chance. If you chug a tub of lard without consuming carbohydrates, your body wouldn’t absorb very much of it, if at all. This is why Atkins and paleo diets work so well – you can eat as much fatty meats as you want without gaining weight.
 If you rely on pills and refined foods you miss out on beneficial nutrients you would have otherwise gotten from whole foods. For example, salmon also contains vitamin B-12 and creatine. Avocados contain potassium and fiber (versus refined olive oil, which contain neither).
 These are the most nutritionally dense vegetables commonly found in grocery stores. I recommend watching Dr. Terry Wahls’ TED talks on foods for your mitochondria. Incidentally, foods great for bodybuilding (omega-3, creatine, vitamin-Bs, sulfer, etc.) are also great for brain function.
Hi, how is everyone doing? My name is Jason, and I’m Benji’s younger brother.
Benji is about 15 months older than me, which means I’ve known Benji for all of my life. But there was once a time when Benji didn’t know who I was, because, well, I wasn’t born yet. Because of our particular birth sequence, I sometimes like to pretend that I’m more qualified to talk about his life than he is about mine.
Growing up, when all the other kids were playing outside, Benji would usually prefer to sit in his room and read his encyclopedia. For some reason, Benji really loved world geography and memorizing random facts, which usually meant if you were wrong about something, he would have no hesitations about correcting you. Don’t know what the capital of Uzbekistan is? Me neither. But Benji will gladly inform you that it’s Tashkent.
I once strolled into his room where I caught him studying fervently. When I asked what he was up to, he glanced up with an annoyed look, then brusquely announced that starting that day, he would memorize the entire encyclopedia from A through Z. And with a determined look, he flipped the page to “Aardvark”, dropped his head, and went right on studying. So much for playtime with big brother.
My brother Justin and I used to call Benji the “goody goody tattle tale boy”, because whenever Justin and I would sneak to the computer room to play video games in secret, Benji would immediately march downstairs and report to our mom that we weren’t studying. Our mom would storm upstairs with the terrifying “dra bei zu ze”, my dad’s bamboo back-scratcher, and wave it in front of us in a threatening manner, asking us “Ni yao da le ma?”, which in Chinese means “Do you want to be spanked?”. Whatever answer we gave, this always resulted in a swift quack to the hand. Justin and I never could figure out the right answer to that question.
Benji was such a good boy in fact, that I can actually count on my right hand how many times Benji has ever been spanked in his whole life (hold up 3 fingers). Unfortunately for me, I probably got spanked 4 or 5 times a day. It wasn’t that I was a bad kid…it was that Benji was too good of a kid in comparison. Thanks Benji.
So in comes Irene and everything changes.
I knew Benji was up to something when one day he went MIA for a week, briefly mentioning that he was going skiing with some girl and her sisters. Then out of the blue, Benji calls and tells us that the girl he met was coming to Macon to meet the parents. He then calls 5 minutes later and says actually, the girl’s parents are also coming to meet the parents. This is when Justin and I knew something was up. The Gung family was coming to size up the Ho family, which meant it was time to clean up the house, cut up some fruit, and dig out those old videos of Benji performing his first piano concerto.
Like any properly executed courtship strategy, Benji demonstrated his suitability in a variety of ways. For all you single guys out there, this is the time to start taking notes.
First, Benji started playing the piano. As soon as his fingers hit the keys, an ocean of serenity filled the room, and you could see the Gung’s eyes glaze over as they all looked at each other, signaling their approval. Meanwhile, Irene stood frozen in the corner, trapped under Benji’s spell, with little red hearts sprouting from above her head, her mind somewhere frolicking in the clouds of Benji-La-La-Land. Musical talent? Check.
Next, Benji pulled out his big book of skyscraper drawings that he had been creating since a little kid. Dusting off the cover, he explained each one in detail, meticulously describing the inspirations behind each work. But to be honest, Irene was probably too busy batting her eyelashes at Benji to hear anything he had to say. Artistic talent? Check.
Next, Benji expressed his interest in pursuing a career in medicine. Successful future career? Check.
And last, and by far my favorite, is when we somehow got onto the topic of working out and staying fit. Benji instinctively thrusts out his right hand, gives his bicep a good curl, and demonstrates the sheer monstrosity of what such a bicep could lift. As Benji’s bicep expanded larger and larger, rising up like mountains, Irene’s eyes grew wider and wider until they were as large golf balls, which looked something like this O_O. Hot boyfriend material? Check. Protection from ninjas and thieves? Check.
But securing a great catch also requires a skilled catcher, and Irene certainly had plenty of tricks up her sleeve. It was clear that Benji had fallen for her charming personality, energetic spirit, and her impressive accomplishments. But personally, I think what got Benji was Irene’s killer cantonese impression, where she pretends to speak like a foreigner, fresh off the boat. It’s pretty hilarious if you’ve never seen it. Nothing works better for winning the approval of the Ho brothers, than to order french fries at the drive-through of a Burger King in Irene’s off-the-top cantonese accent, perfectly delivered with a straight face. Justin and I certainly couldn’t stop laughing. Super cool future sister-in-law? Check.
Although some of the sweetest memories are those of courtship, I’m certain that for Benji and Irene, the dearest ones are yet to come. Love is a journey, and the adventure has only begun.
Irene, I’m so happy that you are now part of our family. Benji could not have chosen a better person to match him.
And Benji, I’m so happy that you found someone to stop you from memorizing the encyclopedia from A through Z. Although you may have been the “goody goody tattle tale boy” when we were younger, the truth is I’ve always looked up to you as an older brother, and I’ve learned so much from you. I’m so happy that you finally found someone as great as Irene to share the rest of your life with.
You guys really are made for each other. The proof is in the name. I look forward to lots and lots of Gung-Ho nephews and nieces, and I’m sure Daddy does too.