Bedroom self-portrait. Photo Courtesy of Darrin Zhou.

I’m a heavy sleeper. I wake up everyday feeling like I’ve been bulldozed over, rolling around and fermenting in my consciousness, like a grain malt steeping in the darkness. Sometimes, especially recently, I’ve been carrying a sapped, dragged energy throughout my days, wishing that I’d get my life more together but never really having the spirit to do so, rolling around and wishing I’d do something.

My other Immersion Edition pitch was making ceramics, but the higher-ups decided that fixing my life was the more worthwhile pursuit. Maybe this is their way of staging an intervention. Maybe I also definitely need it. So, in all its glory, I present the Darrin-Zhou-get-your-shit-together plan, as listed:

  • Components of the “75 hard” program, including, per day:
    • Exercising twice a day for 45 minutes, one workout being outdoors
    • Reading 10 pages of a book
    • Drinking one gallon of water
    • Follow a diet of your choosing
  • Meditating
  • Wim Hof breathing
  • Taking only cold showers
  • Journaling in the morning
  • Scheduling “worry time

This is essentially everything that I’ve wanted to start incorporating into my daily routines but have never gotten around to actually doing. Maybe it’s not a good idea to plunge into the deep immediately, but anything, even too much, is better than nothing at this point. So, let’s roll.


After a week of toil — Brussels sprouts pastas and 7 a.m. workouts — I can satisfyingly report that overall, resoundingly, the process works. I feel great! If your goal was to gain muscle and mentally feel better, I’d recommend what I’m doing now: meditation and Wim Hof breathing are clinically effective at decreasing anxiety and stress. They’re both methods based in science and they undoubtedly work. My internal shit-togetherness index is definitely higher, which is what I underwent all this misery for in the first place.

Darrin Zhou works out in the Arboretum before sunrise Saturday, February 15. Riley Nieboer. Buy this photo.

I look into the mirror at myself, and my physique has gotten noticeably better. This is what I wanted. But I don’t feel different. I don’t feel like a better person, and I’m certainly not satisfied.

Everything’s more routine now: I wake up, journal, meditate, eat, workout, shower, Wim Hof breathe. Meditation clears my mind, the workouts satiate my body. For the first time in a while, I don’t really feel stressed and I don’t really feel anxious, which is amazing, but it’s not replaced with peace and serenity; the empty space sits as void. I feel empty.

Affirmations self-portrait. Photo courtesy of Darrin Zhou.

I always thought if I just woke up earlier, went to the gym more, did all those mindfulness exercises and read more, then I’d become that person — I’d be happy — and my current state was just at tension with those actualized states of my being, like electrons out of their preferred orbits. Maybe, my thinking goes, if I just attacked those details of my life with the ferocity I know I have then I wouldn’t feel … worthless.

But I’m here, and I’ve done all those things, and what I’m left with is not happiness but greed. Greed for more time, for bigger muscles, even more mental clarity and even more out of every facet of my life. If I only had more. When spring comes I will be reborn, by midsummer I will find love, and when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, I will be the person I was always meant to be. Midas’ hand beckons to me: revel in this routine, in the comfort of this siren’s call and you can feel like you’re enough. You can feel like you mean something

I’m left with an urge for more time. I downloaded Blinkist, an app that summarizes books for you. I filled out their introduction questionnaire, and I’m told that by using their service, I can save 56 hours a month from reading books! It makes me sick. The part of my brain responsible for artistic integrity is trying to unionize, but I placate it: try it. It couldn’t hurt.

On Blinkist, I “read” the “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” in 15 minutes. It’s a blur, but more pressingly, this method of reading saves time, and tomorrow I can listen to another Blink — the app’s name for a book summary — as a podcast while I work out. Maybe I’ll finally subscribe to one of those meal kit delivery services: I like cooking, but it’d save me time. And I always sleep too much; maybe I could try polyphasic sleep, too?

With all of this saved mental and physical energy and all this time, I work. This must be what I want.


Through the fervor of self-improvement culture, I’m promised that meaning in the world is simple, with my path to enlightenment tied to its methodology and morning routines. When I have streams of passive income and fully optimized schedules, I will be fulfilled. Method books and Medium articles, then, become its scripture – “Save 20 Hours a Week By Removing These 4 Useless Things In Your Life” or “19 Rules for a Better Life (from Marcus Aurelius) or anything that takes that sense of worthlessness away from yourself or our uncaring world and into your habits, into those things that you have control over and can change. I don’t know how true this dogma is, but I do know it’s deeply comforting to me; maybe to do otherwise is to surrender control and face the abyss.

It was Albert Camus who concluded, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” In the reinterpretation of the infamous Greek myth, Sisyphus is not crushed by the hopelessness inherent in his situation, but liberated by it. In the face of the absurd, Camus sees true freedom and happiness.

I sometimes feel that I’m being turned into a machine designed for better auto grader scores and email replies. Like Sisyphus, the roots of my discontent sprawl over the same, repetitive flowerbed: Am I injecting my life with meaning or do I accomplish nothing? Self-improvement was supposed to offer liberation, and to some extent it does, but a part of me wonders if it’s just adding fuel to the existential inferno.

Regardless, it’s Sunday, and tonight’s meditation asks me to consider my idols. As a child, I wanted to be like Steve Jobs. I think everyone has wanted to be Steve Jobs or Michael Jordan at some point in their lives, but maybe we don’t consider how they’re acidic people. I mean, look at them. They’re tortured by their greatness.

Who do I want to be now? David Foster Wallace, I think, or Mark Rothko, with their brilliant minds and tantamount works of art that they’ve blessed the world with. And, surely with their entrance into literary and artistic immortality, with their rightful place among the greats and with their achievements that their childhood selves couldn’t even begin to digest, they’re happy. They practically have to be.

They weren’t.

They struggled with what all of us, fundamentally, have to face: the human brain is in such stark contrast entropically with the rest of the world that we’re so, so desperately lonely, looking for any semblance of structure out of whatever bit of stimuli, praying for the sand grains to align when they decidedly don’t. We’re order-starved, condemned to search for clarity within a world that offers none, so when something comes along and promises that, yes, your worth can be as simple as working out this much and reading this many books, we become engrossed by the direct feedback that self-improvement provides and how ordered and comfortable everything seems through its lens.

But when the end goal of self-improvement becomes more about those external metrics than actually increasing our well-being, without realizing it, our workouts become pushing boulders up the same hill every day, and the time spent on our habits become building blocks for an empty tombstone, and when we inevitably die, it reads: Here lies the reader. They bench pressed this many pounds. They read this many books, and spent this many hours a day working on their passions.

Overall, though, it was a positive experience. If your goal is to become your ideal self — go on more dates or make more money or break into all of your desired industries — those will be the actionable steps for you to have the requisite physical and mental clarity to be able to achieve them. You just won’t be happy.


It’s the last day. It’s 7 a.m. and I’m at Barton Pond, preparing to dive into the freezing water. It’s a cold plunge: the culmination of everything that I’ve immersed myself in this week.

I hop into the water and it’s soul-suckingly cold. I’ve come to the pond with faint hopes of being reborn — maybe, when I emerge from the water, I will be that person I always wanted to be, and for a brief moment, it works. My body feels clear, and I experience a moment of profound mental clarity; everything else except for the ego washes away.

It tells me to stay in this cold forever. It beckons me deeper, and deeper, until nothing.

That thought is quickly discarded as I scamper out onto the lakeshore, wrapping a towel around my shivering body. My foot is cut from the rock bed, but I don’t notice because it’s also numb, and I don’t really feel better: just aches, and freezing, and a voice in my head saying, God, what a stupid, dumb decision.

Barton Pond cold plunge self-portrait.Photo courtesy of Darrin Zhou.

I’m a heavy sleeper: Everyday, when I wake up, I forget who I am for a fleeting moment. I sit up and watch the rising sun cast shadows on my bedroom wall: shadows that dance to their ancient, iambic tunes, to their own cultures and histories, and for a moment I see everything, before it slowly fades as I remember my day’s work: as I remember my life. Then, I get up and I make those same Sisyphean choices anyway, minute by painful minute, second by beautiful second.

Statement Columnist Darrin Zhou can be reached at