In Profile: Mark Moschel

mark m picThere’s this saying that I’ve seen going around more and more lately. It goes, “people don’t remember what you say or do, they remember how you make them feel”. It’s a fine platitude, but it misses out on something.

What it misses, I believe, is those rare times you’re given a nugget of truth or beauty. When you meet someone who genuinely offers wisdom, you tend to remember it. This is particularly true of one certain branch of wisdom—practical wisdom.

One example is upon hearing a particular method or trick that’s told to make your life better—we find ourselves remembering these.  We’re always looking for the nearest road to improvement.

After talking with Mark Moschel one retains more than a few tidbits of what was said, and remembers them precisely.

Moschel is currently the CTO of Chicago’s Factor 75 and describes himself as an Entrepreneur and Writer, though he’s quick to point out that labels aren’t exactly his thing. “We’re all just trying to figure out who we are,” he says. In his case, he’ll have to pick from where to hang off a dozen different branches if he needed one specific label.

It’s perhaps his fixation upon non-fixation that allows for a great breadth of practical wisdom. In one conversation, he can talk about techniques for jumping higher, or talk about artificial intelligence with enough forward-thinking to make your head spin.

This idea of practical wisdom seems to permeate around him, always. It’s not a true intelligence for it requires deeper thinking and inquiry into truth. And it’s not spirituality, because it has to be grounded somewhere and on something.

Interviewing Moschel one is struck by how much he knows—and how little he allows himself to be content to know. It’s curiosity that drives him, almost for the sake of remaining curious. There’s no endgame in sight, he says.

We first meet on a Sunday at Lovely, a cafe in Chicago’s Wicker Park. He’s upbeat—chipper in basketball shorts and a light black sweater. Moschel’s sad we can’t sit outside, but we find a table and he immediately pulls out a notebook. He’ll be taking notes on our conversation, and one imagines he does this with most of his coffee shops chats. He is, after all, a learner.

In addition to his pursuits above, Moschel runs the local “biohacking” organization in Chicago. Each month, he gathers a group together to listen to speakers, debate new ideas, and test out recent innovations in the area. For those not in the know, biohacking is the idea of optimizing the natural state of your body for peak performance. It is, if one needed to pinpoint it, the nucleus of Moschel’s life.

In one way or another, most of our conversations come back to something in the biohacking world. Whether it’s habit formation, healthy eating, or being curious about your own self—we find ourselves hovering around this sun every few minutes.

I ask how he got to be this way. That opens a can of worms. We’ll get there.

First, let’s understand Moschel himself. He’s short and pale, and well-built and energetic. His dress is more set for a pick-up basketball game than a restaurant. He consistently carries a backpack with him with his computer, a notebook half filled in, and probably a book or two (he’s always reading something).

Moschel grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, a pocket of comfort that tends to breed conformity. For a few years, he followed a familiar line—school in Champaign, work at Accenture out of it. All was set for the easy road upward.

But there were things along the way that deviated him from this path. He read Seneca and thought hard on stoicism. He found out he had an irregular heartbeat—a pure inefficiency at the heart (excuse the pun) of himself. He witnessed a classmate dying in Champaign right in front of him. “Another reminder that life is short,” he says of that episode.

And soon enough, he was learning from his older brother about the world that computer programming opens and expanding on what he learned with his CS degree. He made a plan to formalize his learnings, quit Accenture, and get into programming. He did this—taking a week’s vacation to work around the clock learning how to program and then took a short trip by himself to Portland, Maine to close off the corporate consulting chapter of his life.

In the transition, he found himself drawn not just to the programming ecosystem, but also to the larger entrepreneurial one tied into it. If he had this gift of creation in the digital age, why not use it for his own ideas?

And ideas he’s had. Moschel talks about the idea phase of his thinking and its not hard to imagine it being near limitless. It’s the execution—the shutting down of any future ideas for the moment and the silencing of the all-too-distracting internal brain that plagues him sometimes.

I talk to him about his internal brain. He speaks of it in broad, people terms. We’re a distracted group, he says. We’re bogged down in these distractions and our day-to-day of really not accomplishing much. This is one of the sadnesses he sees in humanity.

Where he comes in is a chance to rectify this. With proper habits and strategies, he knows he can help people dull this inner friction. But it’ll take time.

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Humanistic optimization is an odd goal for some. For one, it’s hard to track. When does one hit peak? Do we have an objective way to begin to solve that? Does one want to hit peak creativity? Peak management? And what is lost when one does? Is peak creativity a footbridge to insanity? It’s not hard to imagine the questions expanding infinitely.

The other issue I’ve heard is that optimization can seem, well, un-human. “To err is human,” right? And what if we work toward no errors? Toward perfection.20151106_115311

Moschel isn’t sure he believes in perfection, but there’s always room to move toward it.

With talks of Artificial Intelligence becoming more populated these days, it’s not hard to make a cranial connection. Robots, running off the perfected lines of programming created by people like Moschel are said to be the closest approximation of “perfect” in our world today. Are we moving toward a more robotic versions of ourselves? Less prone to perceived weaknesses—lapses in judgement, feelings, etc…

Moschel is an interesting case here. He works on machines. He loves technology and sees it as an avenue to helping the mass of people not achieving their best selves. So it fits into his goal mentioned above—helping us silence our distracting brain.

So, what’s your favorite part of being a human? I ask him point blank.

He swerves around the question. “You mean, what’s my favorite part of being alive,” he asks.

“No,” I say. “Not really,” but he answers anyway.

HIs answer to that is related to our utter insignificance. He talks about the timeline of the Earth. About the billions currently populating this planet. The billions more to come. The other planets out there. We mean so little, he proclaims.

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Later we discuss work and to-do lists. Moschel is never specific with his issues. He doesn’t burden you with his own tribulations. The whole “misery loves company” idea is lost on him, it seems. Why talk about troubles? What good does that do? It’s logic that tells us none.

And it’s logic that makes the world go around. Moschel is one of the few people you see that can quickly take a fact and implement it into his life. It comes and goes with little emotion—all in the name of living better, according to a set of objective logic.

Clarity. Clarity, he says, is his greatest motivator. Knowing precisely what one hopes to achieve. Of course, this is the always challenge—to have it and to hold it.

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At our last meeting, Mark spends time preparing for a month of writing challenges. He’s had articles half-started and is having trouble completing them. In his own words, this is due to the wonderful distraction that is research and the wanting to jump into a newer, more timely or exciting article. He too, like all of us, reaches for the bright shiny thing sometimes.

At our first meeting at Lovely, he is breaking down a habit system for his writing challenge. He’ll write for 7 minutes each day. The key, we brainstorm, is approaching this as a sort of automatic writing—a technique where one just puts words to paper, no matter if they’re relevant or not.

To aid in this 7-minute daily challenge, he works on a reward and consequence system. If he doesn’t do this goal, there must be some negative repercussion or enforcement. What that is he’s not sure about. He likes working out. He eats well. He wants to volunteer. He can spare a bit of money and anything more than a bit is excessive.

He decides after  a while on a negative. He’ll hold himself accountable to this throughout the month.

Before the end of the day he’s set up a calendar to “X” out each day that he completes his 7 minutes. This is a habit-building process he’s used for years (some know it as the “Seinfeld” hack, named after the famed comedian). He shares it with me. “Accountability is vital,” he says.

There’s little doubt in my mind that he’ll complete his challenge and output for writing this month. If he doesn’t, I imagine it’ll be because he got too busy. Too distracted, perhaps, with newer and more enticing enterprises.

That’s perhaps the divide we find. We’re all subject to this push and pull, between our commitments and our instincts. For most, we let this pass by, accomplishing some things and talking ourselves out of the importance of those that fall by the wayside. After all, there’s a new Netflix show just out and football to watch. Furniture magazines to sift through and daydream on. (So we beat on, boats against the current)

I like to imagine Mark in this battleground, fully equipped with the best armory on the commitment side. Hacks and tools and manipulations and a whipsmart intelligence. Will he win the war? It depends on how you look at it. The war itself might just be a series of battles, strung out over days and months amounting to a lifetime.

The intersections we’re at are always coming and going. There’s no such thing, in this life, as a street with all green lights. For Moschel, this means always looking further down the road at new optimizations. When we hit a red light, how do we not slow to a standstill? How do we swing momentum in our own favor? And what of our emotions—occasionally running those red lights or wild left turns out of the right lane. To what do we owe our randomness—even as we seek perfection?

Moschel summed up this overlap himself, almost happenstancely. “Humans are crazy machines,” he says. “We’re hilarious.”

For all our faults, we may just be the best of all possible scenarios after all. That is, until we’re not. And we’ll wait for the providers of those brilliant, new practical wisdoms to show us the way.Mark-moschel