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Joshua Sommer: “Learn your limits”

Learn your limits: The world around us right now brings so much pressure to bear on us. Work can be over-demanding. Advertising can just bombard us with what we can’t afford but are tempted to buy. Social media can break our hearts. Look at how many young people have taken their own lives due to […]

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Learn your limits: The world around us right now brings so much pressure to bear on us. Work can be over-demanding. Advertising can just bombard us with what we can’t afford but are tempted to buy. Social media can break our hearts. Look at how many young people have taken their own lives due to cyber bullying alone.


As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Joshua Sommer.

Joshua Sommer is 47-years-old and he worked for ten years a writer and researcher at The Oregonian including the Arts & Entertainment section. He went on to run a digital marketing (SEO) company for 16 years before returning to his first love, creating visual art. His pieces have been displayed in galleries including Alberta Street Gallery and Blackfish Gallery in Portland, Oregon. He has shifted his focus to app development with an eye on ethical or responsible design in order to support the well-being of users. He can be found online at https://prox.contact


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Hi, yes it’s great to talk to you as well. Thanks for this opportunity to speak to a topic I’m very excited about. A little bit about me: I was raised In Santa Cruz, California until I was 11-years-old or so, when my family relocated to Estacada, Oregon. Most of my schooling took place in Oregon, including my college days. While still in school I went to work as a copy aide at The Oregonian. After a few months I realized that there was an opportunity to pitch short articles “on spec” to editors that needed to fill holes with copy on the fly, because I had access to the various teams’ schedules and I could see what was coming up to be published. I started looking for anything that wasn’t on an editor or writer’s radar. I covered local bands, restaurants and various arts-related events. I would put together anywhere from ten to 20 column inches of copy and I would send it to the proper editor on spec. Soon I was writing regularly for the paper and was moved to the research department where I continued to write when a story really interested me.

In 2008, I took a buyout from the paper and launched a digital marketing company with a heavy focus on content writing. I’ve been running that company to this day.

As a hobby I paint in both watercolor and acrylic mediums, along with some pyrography and gunpowder art. My art has been included at the Blackfish Gallery and Alberta Street Galleries in Portland, OR.

Due mostly to this past year, I’ve shifted the direction of my company slightly and we are going to focus more on building apps with users’ well-being as the top priority, beginning with our first app, PROX, which should be ready for beta testing in February or March 2021 if everything goes according to plan with our Kickstarter campaign and pre-seed funding.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

I have always had this overly romanticized idea of what a reporter looks like. You now, he tells the hard stories. Chases down every lead. Has all sorts of love interests swooning over him. Maybe he even keeps a bottle of brandy in his drawer at work, just in case. So, I was inspired by great actors and actresses who portrayed these types of writers or reporters. This prompted me to start hacking out (bad) short stories when I was a kid.

Then I fell in love with talented writers that could just spin a great story. At the same time, I got my first Commodore Vic20 and started learning the Basic programming language, and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a writer-hacker hybrid that fought for the little guys. I know, it’s all pretty ridiculous and far-fetched. However, this really was the rudder that steered my careers.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Actually, it was my wife, Natoscia’s idea for me to pitch stories to The Oregonian when I was there as a lowly copy aide. I mentioned to her that I had access to the story budgets, or a basic outline of what was planned to be published for the next month or so and that none of the band’s we liked or restaurants we enjoyed were ever mentioned. In fact, I told her, I could look back in the entire digital archive for the paper and see which bands, restaurants, galleries, artists and so forth had never been covered. She said I should ask if I could work something up on one of those and I was skeptical. Then she suggested that I just write articles on restaurants or upcoming arts and entertainment subjects as if I were assigned the story, and then submit those as finished pieces that editors could use as a backup. This worked immediately.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I have several times made glaring mistakes in articles. Some of which were published, and I had to apologize for. Some of the mistakes were minor and some were major. I learned the power of humility and how important it is to apologize when it is necessary.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I mean, I have to go with the Bible, even though I know that is a tired response.Whether you believe the Bible was inspired or not, it is hard to argue that it isn’t full of great advice. Great advice, in fact, that has been plagiarized and reprinted in a lot of self-heath books. Such as, treat other people as you’d like to be treated, don’t overindulge in alcohol, food or partying. I can say with all honesty, I have on many occasions failed to follow its advice, but when I have it has always benefited me.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In our work, we talk a lot about cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Learn your limits: The world around us right now brings so much pressure to bear on us. Work can be over-demanding. Advertising can just bombard us with what we can’t afford but are tempted to buy. Social media can break our hearts. Look at how many young people have taken their own lives due to cyber bullying alone.

We must know our limits. And if we are young, our guardians need to pay attention and know our limits. What does this involve?

We have to learn to unplug once in a while. I remember posting a painting I was proud of. One that just made me ache of my mom who died three years ago after struggling with cancer. I’ll never forget, I kept refreshing my Instagram over and over for days hoping other users would see my work, read the story and “like” or comment on the post. I was so underwhelmed. It was crushing. And I’m a 47-year-old man who isn’t looking to win a popularity contest. I realized right then what social media must be doing to the hearts and minds of vulnerable users. I posted an announcement that I was going offline for a while and uninstalled Instagram.

So, we need to know our limits for everything from work to play and know when we need to step back and practice self-care.

2) Make a list: Make a monthly, weekly and daily list of your goals, responsibilities, bills, chores and people you want to reach out to and thank, encourage or just check in on. Print it out and physically cross things off as you progress through the day, week and month. Doing this with a pen is extremely rewarding. And here’s the pro tip. Categorize or number your list with the hardest things or the things you hate doing first and do those. The list gets so much easier and your shoulders get lighter, I promise.

I learned this the hard way at The Oregonian and again at home. There were stories I just didn’t want to write so I would put them off and write stories that were fun. Well, that would build and build and I’d suddenly have a handful of editors asking me for stories that were close to deadline and I would stress out, over-drink, forget to eat, lose sleep and then turn in poorly written copy.

The same thing would happen at home. A toilet would break, or a wall painted, or pictures hung, and I would just want to zone out after work. It also put my wife in the awkward position of having to ask when I thought I’d me able to get to some of the things that I’d promised to do.

After I discovered the power and efficiency of a good list, it removed so much pressure from my day-to-day life.

3) Sleep, but not too much: We have to get good sleep to recharge, heal and sort things out. If you’ve ever had that “Aha!” moment just before you drifted off, or after waking up in the middle of the night, or right after you wake up, that’s your brain telling it is has been sorting something out in the background that you may have not even realized you were worrying over.

This will be different for everyone, but I get the best version of myself when I’ve had right around six to seven hours of sleep. However, I still find myself sometimes getting three hours of sleep or 12 hours of sleep. This can be due to too much caffeine before bed, worry, fatigue or just plain laziness. When I stick to a schedule of getting to bed at a certain time and waking up at a certain time I do much better. As a pro tip, give yourself something you need to do first thing at the time you want to wake up and don’t hesitate, just get up and do that one thing. For me it is just standing up, stretching, and starting the coffee. At this point I’m already out of bed. The next thing I do is to shower and get dressed right away. Then there’s no chance I’ll crawl back in bed.

I didn’t always do this, and it really messed me up for the times I needed to be awake and functional. This is an item I always include on my daily list now.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

I know this will sound silly to some people, but I like to read aloud a few of my favorite passages of the Bible or really helpful quotes from people throughout history that are very self-assuring and comforting each morning. By doing this I get to hear my own voice telling myself these positive, reinforcing things. And while I know you’re going to think this sounds an awful lot like the old Deep Thoughts by Jack Handy skits from Saturday Night Live, but before you laugh I promise this really works,

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Know what and how much you can eat, drink and tolerate: It’s taken me decades to know that certain foods and beverages are just off limits to me, while there are also some that are ok in smaller doses.

I’ve moved from an all protein, low carb routine to a juice only routine and back again. I’ve cut out alcohol, caffeine, sugar, gluten. If you can name it I’ve tried it to the extreme. For me I’ve found that balance is key. Too much of any one thing and you deprive your body of certain ingredients it needs to function. Too much of any one thing and you can overload yourself, leaving your body to try to catch up with what you’ve put into it.

If you are worried your body doesn’t tolerate a certain type of food or drink, try weaning yourself off of one thing only at a time and see if that helps with your sleep, energy, pain points and overall mood.

2) Know when to eat and drink: I keep this on my list. Seriously, I used to forget to eat, then eat all at once at night just before bed. My body and mind do much better if I eat and drink at the same times every day, even if I don’t feel hungry.

3) Move: I used to have terrible head, neck, hip, back and knee pain. In fact my left knee dislocated just by turning over in bed once. It ached for days and I could barely walk on it. I was a day away from going to the ER when I stretched on the ground and it popped back in.

My knee continues to be my weak point, and occasionally it will pop out and my wife will lovingly and gently pull on my foot until we hear an audible “pop”. I thought maybe I just had bad joints or the beginnings of arthritis. I went to a naturopath and sat down on her table. Before she even asked why I’d come in, she looked at me and asked, “Are you having back pain and headaches?” I affirmed that that was why I was there, and she said that she’d observed in my posture walking in and sitting that I wasn’t carrying myself correctly. She shared diagrams of proper posture then explained that even a small amount of movement like walking and swinging your arms is important for the mechanics of all of our joints and can help alleviate stiffness and pain and as a positive side-effect we get a little exercise as well.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

I have to refer to my list again here.You’re right, it is easy to intellectually know something and to ignore it regularly. Keeping a list of goals and what you’re eating and when is crucial.

One of the biggest obstacles to eating right into practice is life itself. It is so much easier and faster to drive through a fast food restaurant then it is to buy or prepare something healthy in advance of our hunger. Life is hectic, busy and stressful and a lot of times the one place where we can control earning a little bit of happiness and joy is through taste. So we reward that sense in an effort to control a small part of our lives in this crazy world.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

This is really where what we are doing with PROX will be of benefit, since this is the problem we are attacking head on.

1) Limit your time on social media: If you look at your phone’s usage statistics, you might be surprised how many hours every day you’re spending on one social platform or another. There’s a reason for this, in fact there is an entire science behind how to get you addicted to spending more and more of your time on social media app. We want to change that with PROX. I don’t think I need to get too far into the weeds here, but there a couple resources I can share for further research, one is a documentary titled Social Dilemma and it is on Netflix and the other is call Google Well-Being. Just looking at both of these will give you an idea of how nefarious the 50 billion dollars social networking business is. You see, you’re not really a person to these platforms, you are revenue. So the longer they can keep you engaged the more money they make, often to the detriment of your emotional wellness.

2) Choose real friends based on real life: If you’re interacting with someone on a social media platform and you’ve never met face-to-face, take everything they share with a grain of salt, and be very stingy with your trust and your personal details. Your real friends in real life can be easily identified. They don’t hurt you or make fun of you. They are concerned if you or someone you care about isn’t doing well. They spend a lot of time listening to you and are interested in giving you healthful advice when you need it.

3) Block out negative input: Feel free to put a hard stop on following or allowing someone toxic to follow you. If you know someone on social media who can only offer snarky or even lightly sarcastic comments on your posts, videos or comments, watch them. Decide how much of that you’ll tolerate and then just block them before they can get to know you deeper and therefore hurt you deeper. For me I have a rudeness, bullying or sarcasm limit. If the person is not a very good personal friend or family and they are routinely negative to me, I block them. The reason for this is that they are following me to get the most out of me and to make themselves feel better and I don’t need to tolerate a one-sided relationship. I should note this applies to close personal friends and family too, but before I go to extremes with these, I’ll often reach out to them in person or by phone and mention that something they said or did really hurt.

This goes both ways, though. By way of good practice, and as a feature we are building into PROX from the beginning is to ask yourself before your post or comment on something, “Is what I am posting or saying right? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” This is just a little hint to help you pause and proceed with kindness.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the power of smiling to improve emotional wellness? We’d love to hear it.

I was just having this conversation with my wife and a few others. Have you ever noticed when someone calls you, you can actually hear if they’re smiling? This is important because when we know someone is smiling at us, even from a distance, it usually makes us smile. And here’s the thing about smiling, if you’re smiling it makes it hard to frown.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

1) Regularly imagine yourself as someone you know who is worse off than yourself.

It is so much easier to have empathy when we attempt to walk a mile in another person’s shoes. If we really focus on what someone else is dealing with on a day-to-day basis, it is good way to help us want to extend ourselves in service to others which ultimately benefits us spiritually.

2) Say thank you and accept thanks freely. Don’t be shy to give thanks and praise anytime and to anyone that deserves it. At the same time, don’t be overly modest and reject sincere thanks if it is being offered to you.

3) Take yourself physically to the awe of nature. When we see what tiny specks we are in the grand and awe-inspiring world and universe around us it helps us to feel connected to something or someone bigger than ourselves. And once we can see and appreciate that and the artistry that goes into that it helps to know that our lives must having meaning and that if we try we can find out what that meaning is.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ve already touched on this, but there is so much more we could be doing for ourselves and each other by being kind across social platforms. This past year we have seen some nasty lies and bullying in very public places and by very influential people, and this has spawned and encouraged others to follow that movement of negativity, hate and intolerance. We can directly have an impact on that by providing a platform where this is unacceptable and can be monitored using crowdsourcing and community input. From the ground up we are reinventing social media as a place where people and positivity can thrive by putting all the control into each user’s hands to determine what they will accept and won’t accept using robust content, interest, goal and value filters. On a personal note I’d like to never see some young kid hurt by people not liking his posts, not getting real friends to follow him or by uncontrolled bullying. If these are features users want in a social media platform, I’m good with that. It will have no place on PROX.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Yeah I’d love to get in front of David Crane of Google Ventures and Maggie Stanphill of Google Wellbeing just to see how we could work on this together, faster and with the best teams.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

The PROX project can be followed online at https://prox.contact and Our Kickstarter goes live on Dec. 26, 2020 at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/proximity/we-can-bring-kindness-and-wellbeing-back-to-social-media

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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