From Sun Tzu to Tim Ferriss: Success Via Indirect Attack 

From Sun Tzu to Tim Ferriss: Success Via Indirect Attack 

“Take advantage of the enemy’s unreadiness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack unguarded spots. ” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Question 8 from Tim Ferriss’ “17 Questions to Test the Impossible” in Tools of Titans again revisits the value of adopting an attack strategy that maximizes misdirection.

“8. What if I couldn’t pitch my product directly?” -Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans

Tim had already approached the channel with the least traffic to get people’s ear. However he still wanted to use the media’s sounding board to get the word out. He realized that to get the mic he would have to use some misdirection. They weren’t interested in help him do promotion. Much less for free. Every other author had already tried that and failed. Media outlets probably trained their staff to reject any calls announcing “I think I have a book you’d love to talk about on your show.”

Instead Tim decided to try to get exposure for his book without pitching it. He came up with ideas to position himself in the public eye. Then that attention drove people to find his book. It is the same strategy as last week where subtlety allows the target to walk into the pitch on their own. By using misdirection, the target’s natural defenses aren’t engaged, the flank is left exposed, and victory is achieved.

I am very inspired when reading this part of the book and listening to the numerous podcasts that touch on it. As a psychotherapist it is part of my everyday approach. You could argue it is how therapy works (that and the privacy… and the relationship with a stranger who will never intentionally hurt you). As an athlete it is continually the space I find the most gains: what do I currently not realize I can do or think I can’t do? This is what has taken me from “I can’t run for two minutes without stopping” to a half Ironman and marathon. As a father it is where I see my kids find their greatest joy: the discovery of previously unknown ability. As a performance development consultant it is where I see clients earn my value tenfold: “I don’t know why I didn’t realize that.”

This strategy is straight out Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. I’ve mentioned this idea many times. We use it in psychotherapy where symbolism and metaphor speak to the subconscious around the conscious. I use it in Cogntive Behavioral Therapy by making your favorite hobby a medium for retraining your internal working model. It is the backbone of Behavior Modification with kids and pets.

The value here, I think is in continually trying to push your outer edge of comfort and familiarity. Asking yourself questions to explore ideas that aren’t intuitive. Really good questions that are provocative and awkward. “What if I had to pitch around my product” is such a question.

Mental Healthcare: the Stubborn Ox

My example of pitching around comes from my own journey as a mental healthcare reform advocate.

May was Mental Health Month. It was amazing to see so much conversation happening about mental healthcare. Both due to stigma and our own need to create confidentiality, mental healthcare usually has to lurk in the shadows. Instead we had a month of celebrities sharing their stories, articles talking about research and epidemiological data, and a few even people talking about treatment. One of my patients even decided to use his media platform to allow us to talk about our work together (should hit YouTube at the end of June).

All of this was great. However it was a minor step in the otherwise bleak path of mental healthcare reform. My path begins back in my residency training.

Coming out of medical school I had the false assumption of expertise and knowledge. Silly me for thinking that a degree in medicine and a license to practice would confer any sense of being. Instead it was 5 years of being marginal at a thing while you watched others do that thing better than marginal. I was lucky to land at a program for my adult training that routinely turned out very high quality psychiatrists. Our hospital-based work and our clinic-based work were each run by guys that were extremely good at their craft. Not surprisingly, one had actually trained the other himself. When I went to my child fellowship I again ran into a psychiatrist who did the job in a way that made it look more like art than work. These experiences left me with one impression: the people at the top of my field know what they are doing.

Then I finished training and moved to California. Here I found a new breed of “knowing what they were doing”. It wasn’t clinical skills, though I’m told each has a masterclass level at that too. It was advocacy.

For years I had struggled with my identity as a psychiatrist. From jails to inpatient units, I consistently worked at places where I was exposed to psychiatrists who did not approach care the way my intuition thought best. However the hierarchical nature of medicine trained me to think that  I am young so I must be wrong. The status quo is always right. I was identified in both adult residency and child fellowship for being “a problem” because I talked about trying to do things better. The verdict was always “what makes you think you could ever know what is better than an institution that has been doing things this way for years?”

In my California group of collaborators I found people willing to say to the rest of our field “we can do better.” It felt great. I’d found my place. I surrounded myself with providers who valued time with their patients, building relationships, and working through therapy. I found people also suspicious of the secret relationship between doctors and pharmaceutical companies that ultimately brings harm to patients. Together we talked about our shared experiences of seeing fantastic results in our patients and doing so via high-quality psychotherapy. It felt like discovering pencilllin. EVERYONE NEEDED TO KNOW THIS!

Together our group took this message back to the people at the top of our field. We were elected advocates representing Northern California child psychiatrists. Twice a year we travelled to the national  advocacy meeting to bring our message. Then it happened. The same thing that always happened when I tried to ask doctors to consider doing things a different way. We were rejected.

It wasn’t your average rejection either. Exit polls from the meeting called our message against pharmaceutical bias and fraud in medicine “the least valuable part of the meeting.” We had esteemed members of our field stand up to rail us for monopolizing the time with this issue every 6 months. We were told by a very high up elected official that “doctors have better uses of their time” than to pursue what we are doing. We had a room full of psychiatrists cheering when someone stood up to ask us to not bring this issue to the table again.

It was heartbreaking. I don’t use that word lightly. We were children who had made breakfast for our parents on their birthday and they told us they weren’t hungry. Such was the impact that we didn’t even take the microphone to fight back. We just sat. Gobsmacked. It wasn’t even the pain of the rejection. It was the saddness that realizing our colleagues were so far away from fixing this problem. We would have to prove to them there was a problem before we could even problem solve it.

In psychology we call this the pre-contemplative state of change. It’s the alcoholic who doesn’t think they have a drinking problem. You are trying to prove to them the sky is blue but they don’t even believe there is a sky. They are too busy looking at the ground.

I had been transported back to my training. I thought a thing and was told I was wrong not on the merit of the argument but on the a static value that I could not be right. It was about this time that I remembered something that gave me clarity. A sentinel moment from my training. The last day.

My fellow trainees and I were sitting around a table having lunch on the final day of our fellowship. As doctors do at this stage, we were all freaking out about the prospect of being on our own in a week. A simple question had come to mind- how often do we need to check vital signs in our outpatient practices? We each agreed on an answer- every time. Then someone offered a counterpoint. One of the docs she worked for didn’t do them regularly. “Oh that’s malpractice.” Then someone asked a great question: “where did we come up with our idea of checking every appointment?”  “Every time” was our clinical policy in the program. “Where did they get that?” “Don’t know.”

We were left with no final answer. All of our cognitions of when to check vitals were based on a supervisor telling us what they thought. We accepted it. They knew how to do a thing better than us. They must be right.

Being the rabble rouser I am I decided to hit the internet for answers. In 5 minutes I had the practice guidelines for Pharmacologic Management of Psychiatric Disorders in the Pediatric Population. Guess what happened. Our teaching had been wrong.  WAY wrong. Our clinic policy. Also wrong. It likely existed to appease an insurance company, not to represent the standard of care. Santa Claus didn’t exist.

It was both exciting and tragic. The tragedy being that on the last day of training we realized a flaw in our education. In two years we hadn’t once seen this document I found on the internet in 5 minutes. Why? What else were we missing? On the other hand, the excitement was the feeling that maybe I could allow myself to think intuitively again. That is until I fast forward 2 more years back to our rejected advocacy efforts.

Pitching Around Mental Healthcare Refoem

Having now experienced three iterations of unsuccessfully trying to talk change with a bunch of psychiatrists (the irony is stifling), I needed to return to my Sun Tzu. And my Tim Ferriss. This rock wasn’t going to move. I needed to stop trying. I needed a different strategy.

“What if I had to pitch around my product?” How would I flank mental healthcare reform? Surprise it. Create change without ever asking permission or it knowing it had decided to change. I’d previously been trying to do an intervention on an alcoholic who argued  “I just like to have a little something to relax”. That was my mistake. My miscalculation. My learning.

I found my flanking technique.

What was the goal of my attack on mental healthcare reform?

Better patient care. Improved median wellness for humans. The development of mental healthcare as profession highly skilled people fought to achieve.

I realized that while psychiatry does the best job helping people with severe illness, we do a crap job for everyone else. What other industries offer people a path to wellness? That answer was easy: fitness, art, sport, execution of one’s job, and many others. In fact, I decided that every industry was bringing someone somewhere a “best in life” experience. Maybe that could be a way to use my skill to move the needle on wellness. What if I can use those mediums to help people?

Soon after this experience I launched Optimim Performance Consulting. A few months later I became a consultant for Equinox Fitness’ personal training programs in Northern California. I’d left medicine and found people interested in change and doing things differently. Ironically it is requiring me to not function as a psychiatrist. No evalutions. No therapy.  All strategy and practice.

Here I can achieve exponential gains. The managers I work with each have teams of 5-10 trainers. Those trainers each have dozens of clients. If our work together can help people achieve goals even 1% more efficiently the net gain for society is tremendous. That’s more impact than I can have as a physician any day. That is if you buy that achieving goals is what is best in life for humans.

In thinking about helping people in this indirect manner so many options open up. As a consultant I can help game developers consider ways to promote wellness in their users thus creating a more sustainable audience. I can talk to a start-up about how to create a culture shift toward Positive Psychology and a Growth Mindset. I can work with athletes, artists, and performers to improve their craft and maybe achieve improved mental wellness as a biproduct. It’s perfect.

Summary

I’ve sold hard on the idea that best thing to come to our lives is probably hiding in a recess of unconsciousness. This certainly pertains to anything we wish were different. Rather than keep pushing on a locked front door, we should come around the side and see if we can crawl through a window. From Sun Tzu to Tim Ferriss, if you ask yourself to find indirect approaches to success you will unlock greatness. It is evidenced in Tim’s book launch and my experience trying to improve human wellness through non-medical consulting. Intentional change is one of the most valuable experiences in human life. It can happen predictably by engaging unique systems like this one.

Use Least Crowded Channels to Open Doors

Use Least Crowded Channels to Open Doors

Never assume that because everyone else is doing it, they have found the best way. My career in medicine has consistently exposed me to the reality of man’s ability to perpetuate assumption and maintain status quo. We even go so far as to roundly reject and attack newness and innovation. Here I’m referring to my colleagues, not my patients.

Question 7 in Tim Ferriss’ “17 Question to Challenge the Impossible” returns to an old theme.

“7. What’s the least crowded channel” -Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans

This question came in advance of his launch for The 4-Hour Work Week. In planning his attack strategy he asked writers what resource they wish they used more in their launches. This allowed him to identify that blogs were an untapped resource. This was 2006. Weird to think of blogs being a fresh innovation.

As he did with his work in Question 1 where he maxed his sales stats by working when others were not, he looked for a way to access bloggers where others were not. He asked himself which channel was the least crowded. The answer was to find a mass gathering. That was the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Then he looked for a way to access bloggers in a place he could have less competion for attention. Rather than setting a goal to kinda meet a lot of bloggers, he wanted to allow for the opportunity to deeply meet a few. It worked.

There are many layers of strategy we can pull out of this to discover value. The most obvious is the recommendation to approach desired resources from an angle with the least competion. Another is the use of an advisory board to access short-cuts to learning. He also set his goal in a place to be predictably achievable which unlocked his highest quality performance. Finally, he used a flanking strategy to engage his enemy.

Let’s break down each piece.

Attacking a Resource via the Least Competitive Channel

This idea is written into so many different places Tools of Titans and other texts of its genre. It is also written in the how-to’s of investing, entrepreneurial, athletics, and even survival. If you need something, it would be great to be the first to the table. Or at least get their before the crowd. Those who safely push for the outer edge of discovery often find the most sustainable access to success. By staying in a Growth Mindset and pushing toward discovery you guarantee a steady stream of fresh new resources and a lifestyle the promotes wellness. If done responsibly.

That’s easy to say but can be hard to do. The first step is a leap of faith. You have to assume the channel is there but that you cannot yet see it. If you did see it, so could others. You are on a quest of discovery. You are trying to explore your blind spot. Potentially an entire industry’s blind spot. To find it you first have to believe it is there even if you don’t have proof.

Once you find that blind spot, you have to be willing to step in and try it on. It won’t be easy, guaranteed, or comfortable. However if you apply the same method of incremental progress you can engage your discovery and minimize risk at the same time.

You also have to be open and excited for the possibility that your channel may be more competitive than you thought or that it does not lead where you want to go. You can absorb failures by having a mindset of blind-spot discovery and a reliable, incremental mechanism to test your discoveries. Failures then become one more channel checked off the list of options, getting you closer and closer to finding the right one.

I have seen this most exemplified in my own experience of starting a private practice.

I’ve never been much of a salesman. I struggle with the requirement or perception of requirement to direct a person’s decision toward something. Even in my practice of medicine I try not to be the decision-maker. It involves too much bias and confounding factors. I value honesty and autonomy. Neither of which are the hallmarks of sales.

Ironically, I was actually a very successful salesman in a former life. Prior to medical school I worked at a student travel agency. This came after I had completed a semester abroad in college and a 5-week solo trip around Europe. With that experience, travel sales then allowed me to help people access something I was already passionate about. I didn’t pitch. I didn’t hide opportunity or influence decisions. I merely provided people with the information.

Something about that exchange worked very well for people. I had a high conversion rate. I sold well in all channels (air, land, and insurance). I didn’t take the most inbound calls in the office. I didn’t have the shortest average call time. I did create a relationship with every person I talked to about travel. Come to think of it, that may have been my least competitive channel- an honest salesman.

In my first year I achieved the top tier of sales achievement. Maybe the first person from their call center to do so in year one. I won an insurance sales competition without changing my on-phone habits. I was selected to represent the company as in-person travel support for the San Diego cast of MTV’s The Real World when the show went to Greece. More important than the numerical achievements, I did this without any compromise of how I think people should be treated.

This approach has carried over my practice of psychiatry. My least competitive channel is my status as a psychiatrist who does therapy and is conservative with medication. I don’t generally push people’s care in any direction unless legally required. I haven’t started someone on a sleep medication once in my practice. I’ve never prescribed an atypical anti-psychotic to someone without a psychotic disorder or Autism. I don’t schedule appointments for less than 30 minutes. In 3 years I have been able to grow to being 100% private practice (average is 5 years). No more side jobs. More importantly I love what I do and am very proud of the way I do it. I found a least crowded channel that was consistent with my values as a person. 

This year I found another least crowded channel: Performance Development. I couldn’t find another psychiatrist who is focused on Performance Development. I love it so I had a go. This blog and my work as a consultant for Equinox Fitness’ personal training department is a the yield of that effort.

I have also seen channels hit a dead end. My original dream for the practice was to grow and expand to be a large multi-site organization. The Whole Foods or REI of mental health- quality, value, and a sense of belonging. Over time I came to realize that was a channel I did not want to pursue. The process of expanding my practice did not resonate with my core values. It was maybe the most exciting day of owning my practice when I decided to ignore even the slightest though process regarding expansion. What a gift! Staying put never felt so good.

You will forgive me taking the opportunity to use this space to toot my own horn. I do so not to influence consumers of mental healthcare. Rather I want to illustrate to others who may be aspire to be mental health providers. Mental healthcare is itself a least competitive channel. There is a huge need. However it is not as turn-key as many think. There are niches to be found and you can absolutely do so on your own terms.

I’ve known many trainees and friends who have turned away from a career in mental healthcare due to the assumptions associated with the field. Professional stigmas often. Many assumptions are driven by misrepresentations of our field. “You have to see 20 patients a day,” “you can’t take insurance and make decent money,” “you are a med-pusher,” “all you do all day is work with (insert disorder you don’t think you are good at working with),” “it’s too emotionally taxing.” I haven’t found any of these to be true.

By allowing myself to explore what an ideal mental healthcare practice looked like to me and ignoring the crowded channels, I was able to find an uncrowded channel that was a perfect flow for me. Then I looked deeper in that channel and found another channel within THAT! This really is the greatest job in the world and I hope more people choose to join. We need it!

You don’t know the answer, ask for help. 

Tim was able to get an idea of where his least crowded channel would be without having to go through trial and error. He did this by taking advantage of others’ trial and error. His query asked authors what they would dump more money into if they had to launch today. Their answer was blog authors. His resulting actions were game-changing. Without using an advisory board, by trying to figure it out on his own, he likely would not have found this information. The fact that these authors didn’t think to maximize bloggers indicates it wasn’t a common sense answer. 

The use of an advisory board is one of the most consistent recommendations I’ve seen across personal and professional development texts. Tools of Titans, The Art of War, Good to Great, Think and Grow Rich are the first places I heard of it. The advice is written elsewhere: parenting, education, apprenticeship learning models, athletic coaching, and even psychotherapy. When people want to achieve something we are much more likely to do so in league with others who can quickly fill in the gaps with high-quality information. 

I have always felt the best illustration of this was from Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. He uses the story of Henry Ford to explain his concept of the Mastermind Group. Ford was not a businessman. He was a tinkerer with a skill for machines. Yet he would go on to contribute some of the most significant innovations in business. He maximized the assembly line. He created what we now know as the weekend when he moved to a 40 hour work week. His product was getting the best out of people and solving problems. 

Ford’s method focused on getting help from people who were better than him at certain disciplines. He would hold meetings with these people regularly to get their counsel. In this way, their collective knowledge represented more expertise than any one person could ever achieve through education or experience. As I said, this idea tends to be written into every how-to for running a business or achieving goals. By using a mastermind group you can guarantee that if an idea is to be found, a problem solved, or a skill to be learned you will have access to it. I will repeat:

Every great person or company who consistently operate at a high level utilitize the mastermind group concept in one way or another. Every single one. 

You need to figure out how to do this. Now. 

I know what you’re saying “if everyone does this, why haven’t I heard of it. If something this a valuable exists the whole world would be using it. It would be part of human culture like eating food.” Yes, I agree. You would think. 

However, the use of a mastermind group requires one very huge step that most people are not good at- humbleness. To use a mastermind group effectively you, the group leader, must be present with the idea that you are flawed. You are not good at something. You will intentionally identify another person as being better than you at something. That idea is so foreign we tend to only engage it in compulsory relationships- parents, teachers, bosses, and the legal system. 

The largest swath of people will never know intentional advisory relationships in their lives. Some will identify a mentor. Some have a friend who plays this role. Maybe even a romantic partner. However despite our social nature, our culture does not explicitly emphasize collaborative models at this point. 

Set your initial goals at an achievable level

Tim’s goal was to go to the Seagate lounge and just talk to people. He wasn’t there to pitch. He wasn’t there to sell his book. In fact in a different part of the book he discusses that he had an exact method to his conversations: play dumb and ask questions (more Art of War), if the opportunity presents then put a minimal amount of information out there, only provide more to people who have asked for it. 

The story really is beautiful on so many psychological levels. It’s a similar story to how we do higher level psychotherapy. We start with our initial evaluation which is effectively an hour or more of all questions. Then over the course of therapy we utilize a subtle technique called interpretation. Interpretations at their best are intentionally vague, broad statements designed to speak to one’s subconscious and avoid their Ego security system. I can say to someone “you keep messing up all your relationships, it’s not their fault it’s yours” or I can wait until we are talking about losing our car keys and discovering they were always in our hand to say “it can be amazing how often the solution to a problem was in our grasp the whole time but a frantic state keeps us blind to our role in losing the key.”

Tim is using a similar mechanism. By asking questions he navigates their defense system. Everyone at CES is either there to pitch or be pitched. By asking questions he is different. He set his goal low and achievable by telling himself he wouldn’t pitch. The pressure was off. He also set a goal not to start a pitch the second someone asked. Instead decided that when someone inevitably asked him about himself he would simply respond “I’m writing a book”. Not “I’m trying to sell a book.” This uses the same subtle technique of whispering a suggestion. In this model, Tim only ends up pitching to people who have completed three levels of engagement. 1. They let him in on the conversation 2. They asked him about himself 3. They asked him about his book. He doesn’t actually pitch anyone. Effectively they approach him.

The net risk:reward assessment on this gets totally flipped. He has very little to lose from a motivation standpoint. His goal is simple and statistically specific (as opposed to being statistically sensitive). He can easily meet his goal of staying true to his mechanism. The goal isn’t about any result other than his own discipline. Very high yield. 

Attack Your Enemy’s Flank 

One more check mark in the “you should do this” category: this plan is an indirect, flanking technique as recommended in Sun Tzu’s Art of War. In addition to recommending having advisors, he speaks directly to the importance of spies and attacking enemies weakness. Tim asking other authors their advice allowed him to spy on the publishing industry and understand their weakness. That is what a least crowded channel is. It is the undefended supply line. It is the outpost holding a strategic position that is undermanned. It is the spot in the enemy’s front line held by a battalion with an ineffective leader. Knowing this information is not only valuable but essential to ever achieve victory. Sun Tzu says. 

Summary

One of the hardest aspects of any endeavor is the competition with other people. By rule of statistical probability, if you have an idea so has someone else. In that setting, the ones who succeed tend to be good at succeeding. They know methods and tactics to getting ahead of the pack. Thomas Edison didn’t invent the light bulb. He was at best the 23rd. Michael Jordan isn’t the greatest basketball player of all time. He is the best person to play in the NBA. Muhammed Ali isn’t the greatest fighter of all time. He’s the best professional boxer. However all these people are historic icons due to their ability to also be elite in managing the complexities that others could not. 

Using the least crowded channel is the type of strategy used by people who consistently operate at a high level. When looking at people like Edison, Jordan or Ali our minds don’t contemplate that idea. We only see “they were born with a gift”. They weren’t. They learned it and you can too.