Life Lessons Learned from Hang Gliding


As you may or may not know, I’ve been taking hang gliding lessons for the past few months. Because my time in Northern California is quickly coming to a close and it will be much more difficult to learn how to hang glide back in Michigan, I took a half day vacation this past Tuesday and headed down to Milpitas; I had two of the very best (and longest) flights that I’ve had to date. I was at the top of the 50 ft training hill all morning and learned a ton about steering and pitch! Being in the air for 20-30 seconds gave me much more time to try new things and to get feedback.

I was with two other students and while they were flying and hauling the glider back up the hill,  I considered some of the many parallels between hang gliding and life in general.

It’s hard to recover from a bad launch: When you launch a hang glider you’ve captured a lot of energy. Ideally a pilot uses this energy to navigate and stay aloft for a while (my instructor doesn’t even take out his glider if he’s not going to stay up for at least an hour). When I have launched my glider when it wasn’t balanced I always end up taking much shorter flights because I have to spend a lot of my energy correcting the glider in the air vs. doing it correctly on the ground. In life and business, I’ve found that doing something successful on your first time out of the gate is really important. When I bought my first house I paid fair market value. I also didn’t have to do much to the property except move in and get some house mates. This positive experience is responsible for my continued interest because it did something far more valuable than making money: it built my confidence such that I believed that I could do it successfully. Now when I purchase a property, it’s almost always below market value and has a 5 or 6 figure rehab budget. This type of project would be terrible property to start one’s real estate investing career one. Thus far I’ve been training on a 330 sqft glider. I’ll work my way down to a 170 sqft one. In life it’s important to aim for a perfect launch and to do that you should set yourself up for success by starting with training wheels.

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On Not Climbing the Corporate Ladder

If you want to see my first (and to date only) Kickstarter project that I’ve funded checkout I’m Fine, Thanks. The quote that resonated with me (and conveniently has to do with this article) is the following:

You’re climbing the ladder and you get the the top and you find out you have it leaned up against the wrong wall.

Old Synergasm Post

Originally published February 5, 2012

People are taught that if they prepare themselves well in college, they’ll be able to start the endless trek of climbing the corporate ladder. There are few common misconceptions, though.


  • The first rung can sometimes be quite high; while an entry level position allows one to grasp on, you have to be strong enough to pull yourself up…otherwise you fall off. Pulling oneself up is always where the most opportunity is; you’ll learn a ton! Embrace this change!
  • They don’t tell you that while you can climb up a portion of the ladder yourself, you’ll eventually reach up to grasp that next level and realize that there’s a missing rung! No matter how hard you reach for that elusive next rung, it’s impossible to get there…unless there’s someone that already resides above that rung and is willing to reach down and help pull you up! The extent of you climbing versus other people pulling depends on how many rungs are missing; which is dependent on your company’s culture.
  • The third big misconception is that it’s not really a ladder anymore; builders realized long ago that when working on a large project it’s much more efficient to use scaffolding vs. a ladder. This means that if a rung is missing above where you’re currently located, try taking a step or two to the right and then reaching up again. Vertical moves can be frustrating, but sometimes they’re necessary. Be careful though, sometimes scaffolding isn’t very stable and you certainly don’t want to fall down!

Why You Should Do Mazes Backwards

Old Synergasm Post

Originally published May 6, 2012

It’s easier that way. I promise. If you’ve been doing mazes from the beginning, you’re not guaranteed to ever make it to the end. But if you start where you want to end up and then work your way backwards, you will absolutely find the steps you need to take to get from where you are, to where you want to be.

This concept is vastly under used…instead of deciding at what age you wish to retire, and then working backwards to figure out what you need to do in order to get there, people meander there way through life turning, right, left, and then backtracking because they weren’t really sure where they were going in the first place.

Companies without an idea of what company they want to be in 20 years continue along with business as usual, making linear progress instead of exponentially changing the way they do business.

College grads escape academia only to wander through 40 years of pointless hops through the corporate world.

The solution for all of these: figure out where you want to be, what you want to be, and who you want to become. Then backtrack.

Why I Write

This was written in response to clarify why we were writing Synergasm. Tim mentioned that we were quite different individuals, but did have some overlap. He also mentioned me wanting to try to start figuring out how to fix our education problem in America. This was my response.

Old Synergasm Post

Originally published April 5, 2012

Tim was close, but my life goal is to solve the education problem in America…not just start, but actually solve it! How am I doing this? I’ll talk about that in an upcoming post soon! After the meeting that Tim and I (and his wife) had we all decided that we needed to write more often. I told him that while I had the best of intentions, I didn’t feel that I always had something to say, and I wasn’t going to write just to write…I needed it to be about something. Also, with a busy schedule, sometimes it’s difficult to find the time. This was one problem that I felt confident I could overcome. Tim mentioned polyphasic sleeping, and it’s something I’m going to try: staying awake 22 hours in every 24 hour period by taking 20-30 minute naps every four hours! I’ll start posting more about they why and how behind that in upcoming posts, so stay tuned! It promises to be an interesting journey for us all!

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College Education: Why we Need a New Signaling Mechanism

Old Synergasm Post

Originally published February 21, 2012

Where we’re at:

Take a look at any industry and you’ll notice that all products are on a spectrum that  separates luxury from commodities: Macs are luxury goods, PC’s are commodities. Ivy League schools are luxury goods; state schools are commodities. Craftsman tools are luxury goods. The Wal-Mart version are commodities. You get the picture…

Why is this important? Where they fall on this spectrum determines how much people are willing to pay for that product. This is largely due to how much society in general values the product as a signaling mechanism. Want to appear hip? In tune with the young crowd? Buy yourself a Mac! This works for a while; early adopters to a luxury good are often rewarded with the prestige that surrounds that product. Because others believe that you take on the same traits as the product you’re consuming, you’re willing to pay a bit more for the product…to credibly signal that you do indeed possess those traits. The iPhone was like that for a while, and it worked quite well…until everyone and their uncle bought an iPhone. Now the awkward two-finger typer who doesn’t know the difference between Notepad and a C prompt is just as likely to have an iPhone as the guy who jail-broke iOS 5. Alas such is the way most signaling stories end. Read More →

The Future of 3D Printing

Old Synergasm Post

Originally published January 2, 2012

Imagine that Apple has just released the iPhone 16; instead of the crazies lining up the night before outside of the Apple stores, they instead sit behind a computer waiting for the clock to read 12:00 AM. As soon as it does, they click the link on Apple’s website that downloads the CAD plans to their 3D printers. The 3D printer then begins laying out the different materials (pulled from your personal store of the most commonly used elements from the periodic table) and “prints” the new iPhone in layers. So how far away is this technology?

While 3D printers have been around since the ‘80s; they’ve been known as rapid prototyping machines for sometime and have largely remained in the domain of model shops that could afford their large price tags. What appears to have been happening though, is that with their rise in popularity, they’re beginning to transform from solely being prototyping machines to being considered for use in “additive manufacturing” The Economist contrasts this to the “subtractive manufacturing” that occurs today.

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A Blogs Death and Evolution

Towards the end of 2011 a good friend of mine started a conversation with me about doing a joint blog. We found common ground by focusing on management an education. We spent the first half of 2012 trying to keep up the motivation to write, but it tapered off over time (something I hope doesn’t happen with this blog). Either way, I spent a good amount of time on the articles that I wrote there, and wanted to preserve them. So I’ll be transferring them over to this blog and tagging them “Synergasm”. I think a few are pretty good. You can read our inaugural post below to find out what we originally set out to do.

What is SYNERGASM? Borrowing from the Urban Dictionary, this word is defined as expressing oneself using several business buzzwords in rapid succession. We are all confronted with a lot noise around our jobs, including terrible buzzwords. We want to cut the noise a bit and have an honest talk about management and education. We want to find a way to help future students or employees (and employers) do better and do more.

As confounded young professionals, we found ourselves scribbling notes on things that struck us odd about corporate culture. Together, these notes became stories and these stories became Synergasm, the blog on management and education. Our goal is to begin a dialogue between young professionals, our corporate overlords, and the broader world. It is our hope that through conversation we will be able to create stronger professionals, greater managers, better businesses, and in a very small way, a better world to work and live within.


The Authors


Timothy Schaaf, 28, is a five year veteran and strategic financial analyst for a large asset manager. When not worrying about global financial markets, Tim spends his time reading, exploring, enjoying food or otherwise pretending to be a chef (Chez Timmay) in his own kitchen with generally acceptable results. He lives with his wife, Andrea, and splits his time between Michigan and New York City.


Nathan Biller is a 25 year-old living in the happening town of Grand Rapids, MI. He’s a part-time photographer, a wannabe real estate mogul, and a nerdy Excel-junkie that works for the world’s largest office furniture manufacturer as a financial analyst when not working on articles for synergasm.

He has some diverse hobbies including playing handbells with the Embellish Handbell Ensemble, SCUBA diving, and travelling to new places!

Nathan also has a life goal: to solve the education problem in America, hence his interest in this blog. His goal in writing these articles is to uncover novel ways of dealing with education and to connect with others that have a similar passion!

The Candy Man Earns 500% Profit

There’s a story that I’m fond of telling about my early experiences of being an entrepreneur. It’s filled with unfairness, flying under the radar, gumption, glee, and a sudden end to the golden times. Let’s begin!

My parents believed in a relatively small “salary” for completing chores around the house. So in exchange for doing things such as setting the table, vacuuming, and keeping my room clean, I received $2 per week in spending money. Contrast this to others in my 4th grade class who had parents that gave them $20 per week! I didn’t think this was fair, and so I set out to alter the balance more in my favor.

My mom shopped at three stores each week and purchased different staples at each depending on the coupons du jour (she was an extremely fiscally responsible women for which I admire her greatly). One of those three was our local family fare store and they stocked this wonderful candy known as Zotz Fizzy Candies. We just called them fizz candies. They were sold in individual packages but each package was loosely attached to 4 other pieces. Each individual piece was $0.02. After trying these a few times on my trips to get groceries with my mom, I hatched a plan and solicited my mom’s help: each week I would have her take my $2.00 to the store to purchase 20 “strings” of 100 individual pieces of fizz candy.

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Easy 5 Step Plan for a Successful Retirement

I used to want to be a financial planner. But after studying finance in school and doing a ton of learning on my own, I realized that the only way I could make a living at it would be to sell people things that weren’t in their best interest. I can be an amazing sales person, but I have to believe what I’m selling otherwise I lose all motivation.

When I was in college, I was a member of our Investment Portfolio Organization. Why an organization instead of a club? Simple: IPO is a much better acronym for an investment club than IPC. Anyway, we did a lot of presentations on stocks and had speakers come in and tell us about different professions that we could explore with a finance degree. There was a time when we were looking for a few people to fill open slots of time, and I volunteered to take one of them. I was a bit worried about how it would be perceived because I was the black sheep in that group: I don’t believe in actively investing in individual stocks.

I have a different method which I believe is far superior; in fact, I’ve spent many months reading countless books about this, listening to Dave Ramsey’s 3 hour radio show each day, and watching Susie Orman each week, and spent well over 30 hours preparing a 133 page PowerPoint deck walking people through my thinking and showing them why I believe what I do. It only takes 45 minutes to go through, and usually generates a lot of questions. But there are a lot of people that care less about the why and more about what to do, so I’ve distilled it down into a much shorter blog post. This is what I tell my family and friends to do. Both my brother and sister follow it. In subsequent blog posts I may go into more depth surrounding specific topics (my clever way of incentivising you to come back and read more of the things I write!).

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A Big Change

Note: I wrote this on 20130304 with the intention of starting a blog and keeping track of all my experiences. The good news is that I finally got my blog up…the bad is that it took me 5 months (well, it took me 3 days, but I didn’t start until almost 5 months after initially deciding to do it!)…and as I review my blog post, I notice that I procrastinated in it too! I’m sensing a theme :/

As I begin writing this I’m sitting in O’hare waiting on the next part of my life to start! It has been a long day. I went to bed at 1am EST after spending most of the day procrastinating by NOT packing up my life. I then set my alarm for 5am (but woke at 4am) at which point I continued consolidating everything I would take with me on a 9 month experience in Palo Alto.

So let’s step back a minute: I’ve spent my entire life in West Michigan. I was raised to be a good Dutch boy (I’m cheap…frugal if you like to dress things up a bit)…and I’m pretty proud of that fact. I’ve gotten some great deals on things, and I like great deals almost as much as Warren Buffett does! My roles at Steelcase have given me a broad base of both domestic and internal experience and have certainly broadened the way I look at business opportunities. Even though I’ve expressed interest at working within our innovation engine vs. our performance engine, it was still a shocker when I got an e-mail which asked if I’d be interested in moving to California for 6 to 9 months to launch a new venture! Almost exactly 3 months later, all my worldly possessions that I hold dear are packed and (hopefully) safely stowed in the belly of my plane.

  • My camera and tripod: I love capturing photos. They’re priceless memories, and I find the process of creating a beautiful image to be cathartic
  • My iDevices: iMac, iPad, iPhone(less about the devices themselves, and more because they provide and channel to the ever important digital-space that allows me to connect with friends and family)…plus access to the many epub books which I enjoy collecting
  • My clothes…and I have a ton of them. Hopefully I brought everything I need.

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