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. 

Use Your Bank Statement as Self-starter Radar

Use Your Bank Statement as Self-starter Radar

In Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans he lists 17 questions that help him Test the Impossible. We already covered doing the opposite. This week we will look at his idea to maximize your innate ability to activate. Already find yourself saying “I have no innate ability to activate”? Let me prove you wrong. 

2. What do I spend a silly amount of money on? How can I scratch my own itch?

Tim offers this question as part of an exploration he did after leaving a start-up job. He wanted to create something and get in on the excitement of our little Manifest Destiny here in Silicon Valley. He goes into this idea more in 4 Hour Work Week. There is so much value to derive from this exercise. 

Scratch Your Own Itch

This is hugely important for those with entrepreneurial aspirations. Much of the game in small business ownership and start-ups is hustle. You are going to work a lot. You are going to live, eat and breathe this dream. That means you better like it. A lot. 

For this reason, scratching your own itch makes sense. Why not engage a passion you already have? Tim recommends looking at your bank statement and figuring out where most of your free money goes. Chances are that industry is in your wheelhouse. You likely don’t need to self-motivate much to engage it. You may naturally read about it in your free time. You may loiter at its stores or venues. That part that already gets you off the couch is a big part of the fight for a business owner. Watch Shark Tank and you’ll see how this works. Investors care about the product but they care about the person more. To a man, every deal on the show hinges on the Sharks trusting the passion of the person. 

If your itch still isn’t clear enough for you, consider a few more questions:

Which industry would you happily attend its trade show

Not just the big ones like SXSW or Consumer Electronics Show. I mean a conference at the El Paso airport hotel in July. No glamour. No upgraded suites or mixers at a wine bar overlooking the city. I’m talking about spending 15 hours on your feet jawing about this topic and then swinging by Long John Silver’s on the way back to your motel room on the outskirts of town so you can get back and watch the only channel available which of course plays constant marathons of Everybody Loves Raymond (maybe I will expand on my disdain for that show another time).

If you won the lottery but your doctor told you to keep a job to stave off death, which job would you take?

Money is no longer an issue. You have so much money you don’t even need to be qualified. You could pay them to hire you if you wanted. Where are you going? Maybe spend some time thinking about what your 9 year old self dreamt of doing. It’s not to say that job will be your direction but it may give you ideas on an industry to lean toward. 

Once you have an idea of your itch, we can start using the idea as a Petri dish for your personal development model. 

Applying a Minimum Effective Scratch to find wellness 

I like to steal from this idea when working with clients. Particularly with anyone struggling with motivation. Like I said, the hardest part of doing many things is getting started. Why not ride the wave of something you already are motivated to do? 

This allows you to use something easy as grounds for learning your own unique motivation equation. Once you perfect that equation you can port it over to other aspects of your life. Maybe even things you wish to become a passion. The prerequisite is knowing your process of creating action. That process likely is a constant. The variables however are interchangeable. 

I apply this to ideas of learning your Minimum Effective Dose (MED) for wellness. Call them buckets or Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we all likely have some subconscious and conscious sense of where we are out of balance at any given moment. The burnt-out tech workers may have an internal sense of needing to experience fun again. Stressed out students may find themselves envious of other people’s normal, everyday life. The person in a dead-end job may need to know there is an out. In each case, scratching a MED itch may be just the trick. 

Humans tend toward very all-or-nothing answers. If my job sucks I will focus on needing a new one. If my career is stagnating I feel a need to go back to school (another topic to dissect eventually- how the college and post-graduate education system is promoting a stagnated workforce). If I feel overworked, I decide I need a weeklong or multi-week vacation. All those big ideas negate the value of a MED scratch. They mortgage acting now to meet a need for a perceived homerun “it would all be better if…”. That’s low yield and not sustainable. 

Scratching our itch is very restorative for wellness. Any human who can say they routinely engage their passion is likely to have a better quality of life than someone who wishes they did. Better yet, any human who feels they engage their passion in exactly the amount they want to at that given moment may win the game. How much value would it bring to your life to say “I play video games every single day”, “I exercise every single day”, or maybe “I am always working on a really cool project”? Doing something daily isn’t necessarily about discipline as it can be about intelligent planning. 

This builds on the idea of taking Just One Embarassingly Small Breath. Take your itch and think about the minimum interval possible to engage it on a daily basis. Again, look for an answer that seems silly. If it seems too easy or insignificant, it likely flanks your anti-motivation habits. Think surfing every day would change your life? Cool, I agree. If by tomorrow you aren’t surfing every day, maybe you should buy an Andy Irons video and watch it every morning instead. Or better yet swing by your local board shop on your drive home and browse for 5 minutes every day. I guarantee within a few weeks someone who does surf every day will introduce themselves to you. Share with them what you are doing and you’ll be a “hey, you should meet me at the beach tomorrow” from surfing every day. 

Can I convince you that one minute a day thinking about your passion will get you closer to actualizing your goal than “I have to spend every free moment making it happen”? You know that guy who lives, eats, and breathes the invention he is pitching on Shark Tank? That guy is trying just as hard as you. Here’s why. 

Newton’s First Law of Success

An object in motion stays in motion –Newton’s First Law of Motion

Borrowing from prior discussions of George Combe’s The Constitution of Man, all forms of matter in the world are little success machines. A rock is REALLY successful at being a rock. It does its job. Constantly. The moment it stops doing its job, it is no longer a rock. It loses its rock-ness. It becomes sand, lava, etc. Humans’ human-ness is debatable but I’m going with love and innovation. A human without love becomes a non-human. We are the only species with a concept of love (sorry pet owners, it’s not love, it’s a pack behavior to recognize your dominance). A human who does not innovate, progress, or micro-evolve, is not a human. Again, that is the behavior of non-humans. Lions today are not dramatically different than ancient lions from a behavioral perspective. They aren’t sitting around on Pride Rock talking about “dude, can you believe 100 years ago they used to take springbok down from the front. Thank god we realized it is better to do it from behind. Those cretins!”  

We have to keep pursuing love and development to survive. Your itch likely is a medium in which you naturally engage both. However engaging isn’t easy to do. Or so we think. Enter Newton’s law. 

Let’s go back to our old friend the rock. He’s sitting there, happy he’s a rock. “I got this sweet moss growing on my south side (clearly a Southern Hemisphere kind of guy), I’m diverting this water over there so it forms a brook, dudes walk on me to keep their feet dry. I’m a really useful rock”. 
But then tragedy strikes. One day a smaller, more agile rock goes flying past our friend. Catching only the blur of this young buck as he zooms by, or friend is left with one thought “how does he do that? He makes it look so easy!” Our friend is immediately self-conscious. “Why can’t I do that? Here I am stuck in this deadend spot, a bunch of crap growing on me, wet all day, so unimportant people walk all over me. That other rock, people were getting the heck out of his way, I wish I was like him.” 

Our friend decides he wants to have a go at this rolling thing. He tries pushing off. “Drat, no muscles. I can’t move. How does he do it? He must be a different rock. He was born with it.” 

Time goes by and eventually our sad rock friend notices a new neighbor. 

“Hey it’s you, you’re the guy I saw rolling down that hill! How’d you get up here?”

“Oh a bird picked me up to crack open some food and dropped me here when he was done.”

“You got to be a tool!” 

“Yeah it was great. You should try it some  time.”

“I’d love to but I don’t have what you do. I will never be special like that.”

“There’s nothing special about me. I just take things as they come.”

“So how do you do it?”

“I just wait for the right moment and if something happens I go with it.”

“But you make it look so easy. You were flying down that hill.”

“Yeah the getting started part is hard but once you get going it’s easy to keep it up.”

“You’re saying that once I get going it will actually get easier?”

“Oh sure, all rocks are the same way. Did you ever hear about that rock slide last year? My buddy was in it. He said it was the most fun he’s ever had. So simple. Kept calling it something like Flow.”

“Maybe I should try it.”

“Definitely, you’ve got the perfect set up. That brook you’re redirecting is just waiting to erode your seat and once that happens… look out!”

“Huh, I guess I should spend some time enjoying my moss and brook again. Knowing that I can leave eventually makes me want to appreciate what I have more.”

Summary 

Scratching your itch is a really high-yield way to explore your unique equation for motivation. By starting action in your wheelhouse with something you already do, you will increase your chance of engaging. Engaging in change and discovery is maybe the most important thing a human can do. It can be hard to get started but once you are rolling the rhythm becomes routine. You’ll never know where you’ll end up and what you may learn about yourself. 

“Good”: How to Create Immunity to Negativity and Adversity

“Good”: How to Create Immunity to Negativity and Adversity

Predictably overcoming adversity is a skill you can learn. It is an investment that pays dividends in many ways. It insulates you from the natural ebb and flow of life’s challenges. Additionally you can utilize it to intentionally test the boundaries of comfort and bring qualities to your life you never thought possible. Adversity adaptation then can be as protective as it can be liberating.

Jocko Willink’s chapter “Good” in Tools of Titans outlines a very high-yield way to approach learning this skill. I feel that it is one of the most, if not the most valuable section in the book. I’ve said that about One Small Breath and Meditation as well. However, the value in “Good” is unique because it is more disruptive. For many, saying “take small steps” or “go meditate” is already in their wheelhouse. Fewer people I would argue have “Good” in their arsenal of life tools. Additionally, as Jocko does, he breaks his idea down into very concise, very clear directives. It’s portable, applicable, and user-friendly.

To get the full Jocko experience I recommend not only listening to his full interview on The Tim Ferriss Show but to also listen to his own podcast about “Good”. It’s moving.

His idea is that when adversity presents itself, you should have one response. “Good”. Car accident- “Good” it’s a chance to learn to drive more defensively. Bank account overdrawn- “Good” now you have the motivation to figure your budget out. The person you’re dating breaks up with you- “Good” now you can learn about yourself to improve your quality as a partner OR learn what didn’t work between you to make a stronger choice next time.

One word, “Good” is your passport to a lifestyle of predictable, intentional improvement. You guarantee yourself a net positive trajectory for the rest of your life.

“When things are going bad, there’s going to be some good that will come of it.”

The backbone of “Good” is effectively a Growth Mindset. The Growth Mindset was developed by Carol Dweck Ph.D, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. She identifies two ways people can approach the idea of human ability. In the Fixed Mindset our success is related to inherent, static qualities we each have. In this way, a successful person is destined to their fate. Those who feel they are unsuccessful are right where they should be. Alternatively a Growth Mindset allows for our success to be the product of change and modifications that are within our control.

Jocko sells hard on a growth mindset. Many of the concepts he speaks to in the book, his interviews, and his own book Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win are the result of his experiences in the military. His background as a combat leader and then trainer of combat leaders has given him a perspective on approaches that are more high-yield than others. In his world, an ineffective technique could mean people die.

By intentionally investing in a paradigm that looks for the positive in any situation, you set yourself up to have the greatest chance of finding growth and change. A person who laments and broods on their misfortune usually only finds change when it surprises them or crisis inspires them to a unique solution. For many people, their lives jump from crisis to crisis. They almost create a system that promotes crisis because that will be the only mechanism where change will occur. That is not a very sustainable system, despite its tendency to sustain for a very long time. Sometimes even among generations or throughout entire cultures.

Finding “Good” in Adversity

Tim nor Jocko are prescriptive on how to find what positive outcomes may be on the table. Tim gets into it a little bit with Fear Setting and Fear Rehearsal. 

Here I turn to professional development text, namely Good to Great by Jim Collins. A hallmark of many successful businesses is the ability to adapt and to avoid assuming they have achieved perfection. He illustrates this in a number of the qualities of great companies he explores. Implicit in them all is a very clear focus, a commitment to a slow, progressive process, and an openness to self-evaluation and critical-thinking.

This offers an understanding of how to engage your life after “Good”. Almost as a trust fall, feel confident that eventually you will remember this moment of adversity happened and will be able to see how it became a growth point. You know that because you are a person who finds growth points. By making a pact with yourself to be of that mindset you can release your hamster-wheel of anxiety and know that it will all work out.

Now this confidence won’t come easily. You likely need to create a plan of testing the waters out before you get there. Try test it with something very low stakes. When something negative happens, don’t rush to correct it. Instead buy into the mindfulness approach: just let it be. Try to use the opportunity to be present and experience what your mind, body, and world do with the information. Like the episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza decides to do the opposite of his usual intuition, what happens when you try something new.

An example I will share from my own life was having my order messed up at a restaurant recently. I’d gone to a place where I really enjoy the burgers. There model is focused on allowing you to build your own burger. The ideal burger, every time. I ordered my masterpiece- medium-rare burger with mustard, mayo, lettuce, pickles, tomato, and cheddar cheese.  My mouth literally just starting watering! My burger arrives. I’m brimming with excitement. Memories of Fourth of July barbecues, family reunions, and backyard birthday parties flood my mind. Amazing that you can access all that for a somewhat reasonable amount of money.

Except it wasn’t amazing. The patty was medium-well at best. They forgot the pickles. It was American cheese. There would be no further nostalgia today. Memories blocked. Frustration building. Every part of me wanted to go into the kitchen Gordon Ramsey-style, throw the patty on the counter, grab some pickles, stuff it down the cook’s shirt, and call them a donkey. Well maybe not that big, but SOMETHING. Then it occurred to me, I had been given an opportunity.

This burger was not my ideal burger. However it was something different. This exact burger is probably somebody else’s ideal burger. That actually may be how the mix-up happened: there likely is someone in the room hating their pickled, raw, orange-dyed cheese mess. I could exercise my sense of justice here and send it back. They would not care. However I would not grow.

Instead sitting here and eating this error-burger would offer many opportunities to learn something.  For one I would learn how this particular burger tasted. I could officially confirm it is not in the running for ideal burger. I could just as likely learn that some aspect of this version is really good! Who knows, maybe a life-changing experience is ahead of me. I’ve been surprised by those before. Eating my same burger would offer me no chance of that discovery.

Additionally, playing to my emotional side rather than my intellectual side, I could use this as an opportunity to practice not reacting to disappointment. Disappointment strikes regularly. We probably all experience it of varying intensity at least once a day. Practicing tolerance can be hard in a moment when you are REALLY disappointed. Maybe, by sitting here and eating this other person’s burger, I can allow myself an opportunity to improve my tolerance for when big disappointment happens.

When I decided to do this it opened up another door. I realized that to truly pay respect to sitting with disappointment, to wholly say “Good” to this burger, I needed to also avoid indulging in justice behaviors. Part of me wanted to tell the waitress “I wanted to let you know they messed up my order. I’m fine with this but in case you wanted to know.” Maybe she had other problems with the chef and this would be another data point to prove her side. My mind also contemplated sharing with people at the table that I had my order messed up. However that would not be “Good”. That would be “hey everyone, look at what I’m doing, see how special I am for tolerating everyone’s mess” or “I’m really not “Good” but I’m trying to be. Instead I’m “Good” with reservations of “Bad”.” I decided I would be most proud of this accomplishment if I could leave the room and continue my life without anyone but me ever knowing about the mistake. Well… until I just wrote this. Damn. That didn’t quite work out as I planned it.

Don’t be “Mr. Smiley Positive Guy”

Jocko makes a very valuable point to note that this isn’t a license to manufacture some falsely positive personality. That doesn’t pay respect to the challenge you are facing. Minimizing the challenge is not part of the prescription. The idea is to create a change. To learn. To grow and progress thanks to this opportunity.

I think there are two additional disclaimers here. One is that people may not be comfortable finding a silver-lining in their challenges. For some that belittles the adversity they have endured. Survivors of abuse may fall into this category. This sentiment is taking a larger and larger role on the center stage of our media and popular culture. Some people find it revolting to consider changing themselves in response to the harms brought to them by others.

I don’t have a great answer for this. Those people are right. All thoughts we have are right for us until they are not. If applying a growth mindset to something negative in your life doesn’t sit well you probably shouldn’t use that lens right now. There may be some aspect of your life that needs you to be present with adversity for now. My only urging is to try to stay aware of what your current mindset is costing you. Make sure you can sit and confidently say “I am voluntarily experiencing that cost to create a greater good in my life.” Spend regular time checking in with his because that act will make sure you don’t get swallowed up by adversity and find yourself in regret.

The power position for any person is to be able to allow themselves exposure to adversity for the sake of intentional progress so long as they have the knowledge that they will pull out of adversity if needed. That last part is the hardest. That is the muscle I am proposing you exercise when making something like a burger grounds for growth practice. Improving your ability to sit with the present and familiar with what are the factors that signal your need to eject. 

The other piece to speak to is that there are two voices here. Justice and “Good” are not misaligned. We all need to have a clear understanding of our personal moral and ethical boundaries. When those are compromised, we have to be ready to hold the line. In that way it is possible both to recognize the breach of our ethics, act to identify or correct the source of it, but also take the time to find our own “Good” in it as a growth point.

Someone broke into my car a few weeks ago. We left the doors unlocked overnight and one of the kids had turned the overhead light on when leaving the car. It was a beacon in the night for the neighborhood burglar (yes, it appears we have one). Justice did need to be served. Police, HOA, and neighbors needed to know. What was done was wrong and violates my internal values of how you treat people. After attending to those justice points, I chose to leave that muscle behind. I instead looked for my growth point. It led to a very provocative internal monologue about safety, progressing human morality, income disparity, the cost of addiction, the role of a parent, and the naivety of perceived safety. In the end I found an answer that I felt represented the most important of those ideas for me to grow. It was the one where I felt the most provocation and distance between where I was and where I wanted to be.

Today your life is going to give you an opportunity to engage “Good”. You may have to ask for it. Are you a person who gets excited for progress reports? If you have a job, when is your next performance review scheduled? Why isn’t it today? If you are in a relationship, when is the next time your significant other will let you know how you are doing? Will it happen on a Hallmark-sponsored holiday when good news is the only allowable topic? Will it happen during your next fight when emotion creates the necessary collateral to earn “honesty”? Why isn’t it today? If you are someone who has money, when do you next audit your budget and finances? Is it during our annual financial stress test every April? Is it planned for the moment your card gets declined? Why isn’t it today.

Each of these represent an opportunity to test-drive your ability to engage good. Maybe one of these ideas today has left you uncomfortable with the idea of a Growth Mindset. Maybe you have evaluated your progress and are feeling nervous. Maybe you are completely disregarding all my words because it doesn’t pass muster for you.

“Good.”

I look forward to your feedback.

Meditation Tips from Tools of Titans

Meditation Tips from Tools of Titans

The word meditation shows up 78 times in Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans. You may remember that much of the inspiration for this blog was to be able to share the lessons within the book. Both in statistical volume (an estimated 80% of Titans interviewed have some mindfulness practice) and in qualitative value, Tools of Titans is a great handbook on meditation. Here are all the references with annotation from me (“KS:”) as I explored them. I’m intentionally forgoing other derivatives of the word for brevity’s sake.

Jason Nemar– “oftentimes before meditation, I’ll just open it randomly to page. I read about something and then just have that be what I steep in.”

KS: this is further proof to me of the variable, less dogmatic nature of meditation. Here I see Jason using meditation as a playing field for mindful training. He’s kicking a ball around a field. The process of meditation is more important than the specifics. These tricks can be key for meditation new-comers. Try it! I recommend finding something you are interested in improving and reading something totally unrelated. Then try to let your mind “steep” in how an unrelated item can inform your desired area of improvement. This indirect learning can be extremely valuable and a great way to experience a form of meditation.

Peter Attia– he found the ability to achieve a regular meditative practice through Transcendental Meditation (TM).

KS: you are going to see TM pop-up over and over. It’s like the Toyota Prius of meditation.  Everyone knows it and assumes it’s good. That’s not to say it’s bad by any means. As Tim speaks to in the book, if you can afford it good on ya. However if you want to use a random word generator to find a mantra and say that over and over you won’t be far off. So long as you are meditating. I’m all about low-cost, available to all options and resist things that may be popular because they are well marketed. I have no experience with TM. Many very successful people like it a lot. Heck, Arnold recommends it. That alone is worth giving it a go.

Dan Engle– promotes Flotation Tank as being “like meditation on steroids” especially 2-hour sessions

KS: I really want to try this. It sounds so incredibly boring to me that I have to assume my subconscious is trying to protect me from some tremendously valuable experience that will reshape my thought pattern. Plus Homer Simpson did it so it has to be cool (results may vary). There is a theme I’m starting to encounter where people, intentionally deprived of their usual system for extended amounts of time, experience massive gains. Fasting, sweat lodges (with a touch of delirium), silent retreats, floating, sauna, cold exposure, and even endurance sports all may tap into this same dynamic. When multiple things achieve the same end it leaves me wondering if there is some common undercurrent we are missing. Maybe it is important for humans to have routine exposure to sensory restriction? Or at least input restriction?

Tim’s Morning Rituals– he meditates every day and prefers a duration of 20 minutes as the first 10-15 minutes are him working out the monkey brain

KS: I went through Tim’s morning rituals extensively before. In meditation, I have yet to hit the 20 minute mark so I can’t speak to this point. However, the way Tim writes about his meditation, it seems that he does more than just focus on the breath. He actually allows his thoughts to run and observes them, letting them do work for him. This is a very cool idea. It can add an extra layer if you are able to learn the patterns in your thought process. This likely will give you personalized tips on how to enter a Flow state. An example of a pattern is starting with identifying problems, then predicting negative outcomes, then poking holes in those ideas, then accepting them and finally getting creative and solving them. To get to Flow quickly you would look for that jump point where you went from negativity to acceptance and try to create that consciously. It can be even higher yield if you can identify the emotions you have at the jump or the environmental factors that make it more likely. Outside v Inside. Quiet v Loud. Morning v Night. Home vs Work. Etc.

Mind Training 101

Tim recommends meditation as a way to observe thoughts rather than affected by them (KS: ah ha! There it is). He found that men tended toward TM and women to vipassana. He also recommends apps like Headspace or Calm. His preferred, non-app guided meditations are those by Sam Harris or Tara Brach. If you can afford it take a TM course. If not do the free version of TM and use mantra by repeating a two-syllable word for 10-20 minutes. He also doubles-down on Chade-Meng Tan’s ideas in the book.

KS: I also like Calm. I haven’t done a guided meditation with Headspace yet. The most consistent thing I hear people use to decide between them is host. Female vs male. American vs Australian accent. Calm has a really cool breath measure function where you can time a pulsating bubble to your breath. Then if you need a cool down in your day you can throw on the app and follow it. This could be hugely valuable for panic attacks.

Tim recommends a 7 day cycle of meditation to really see results. He notes the Dalai Lama once said that 50 hours is a magic number for “life changing effects”.

KS: this gets into minimum effective dose. There probably is a magic number of repetitions for each of us that takes a thing from being an exercise to a routine. I’ve heard people getting a similar “numbers = efficacy” from push-ups, Foundation Training’s “Do a Founder”, headstands, and diets.  When multiple disciplines utilize the same function it is likely the function that is important rather than the discipline. Yeah so stick with something for 7 days and try to do it for over a month. Try to pay attention for your unique equation for when efficacy turns on. It likely is applicable to other things you want to turn on.

Again he focuses on 20 minutes as the most effective duration of meditation. However he allows that Tan’s idea that one breath constitutes a successful meditation so don’t obsess over being good at it. This is where he quotes Tara Brach “the muscle you’re working is bringing your attention back to something.” If you are getting frustrated your standard are too high or your sessions are too long.

KS: I LOVE this idea! 20 minutes is great but 1/60th minutes is good enough. I wrote about this in our article on taking small steps but still having a bigger goal on the table. Meditation is such an easy way to start testing out this idea that small is the best place to start and if you ask something of yourself and you don’t do it immediately you have asked too much. Failure to execute is most often the result of poor planning. Here we are saying that you can practice bypassing your status-quo-maintenance mechanisms and experiencing an extremely valuable lesson along the way. Just by learning how to take small steps toward learning how to control your internal attention.

He also shares results. He feels that on days he meditates he gets 30-50% more done with 50% less stress.

KS: before you get all “like anyone can know that Napoleon” on me. When time gives stats, he has done the stats. While he doesn’t reference it, I guarantee he has assessed productivity and tracked it relative to meditation to get these numbers. You can create similar assessments for yourself with some simple planning.

Three Tips from a Google Pioneer

This is Chade-Meng Tan’s chapter. Make about 7 copies of it and position them around the house so they constantly invade your mind. It’s so good.

  1. Have a Buddy– Tim also mentioned this in Mind Training 101. Keep your accountability up by doing it with someone else. Even if it’s not in person. He recommends a 15-minute conversation every week with this buddy talking about two topics- How am I doing with my commitment to my practice? What has arisen in my life that relates to my practice?

KS: this tip is really high yield for ANYTHING you want to make a habit. Accountability is likely a huge part of most things we do regularly- work, social relationships, school. We tend to be more comfortable disappointing ourselves than others. I’ve met few people who would say “I don’t want to be good at meditating.” It should be pretty easy to set up a buddy. Call them on your drive to work once a week. Done. Then go and set up a buddy for your goals in fitness, finance, career, etc. In theory most of our weeks offer the opportunity to engage 10 separate buddy systems. Two a day, 5 days a week. This is similar to the mastermind concept in Think and Grow Rich and other business development books. Imagine that: you could set up 10 aspects of your life to be virtually guaranteed to be on a more positive trajectory than they are today.

  1. Do Less Than You Can– if you can sit for 5 minutes without it feeling like a chore, don’t sit that long. Sit 3-4 minutes. Maybe use that ease to allow you to do it more times a day. Any practice that is experienced as a chore is not sustainable.

KS: there’s a reason this idea pops up in so many places- fitness, investing, psychotherapy, education. It is essential! I might even sell this as the most important part of any developmental goal. Endurance athletes are all-in on this one. It’s the base work idea I talked about last week. Focus on building a consistent easy habit. Then when you need it you can go max effort to try to improve your overall system. Do not try to learn something by max effort or even more-than-easy effort. It is a set-up to fail. Crash diets are maybe the best proof of that. Meditation is supposed to be a restorative and fulfilling experience. Do what it takes to do it. Whatever that means. Get good at it later.

  1. Take One Small Breath– your commitment for any day is to take one small breath. This speaks to his value of momentum and sustainability. Being able to do it every day is important, whatever it takes. He also notes that the execution of intended meditation is itself a meditation. By merely doing executing your plan to meditate you have made a big step, so try to execute your plan a lot.

KS: I won’t belabor the point too much as this section was largely the inspiration for the whole post. I will only say that this point is so important you really want to absorb it. If there are ANY “I wish I could”, “if only I”, etc this is the way to make them reality. This method is a time machine that can allow you to become skilled at predicting the future.

Meng’s Exercises

Just Note Gone– Tan really likes this one: “This is no doubt one of the most important meditation practices of all time.” Train your mind to notice that something previously experienced is gone. Such as the end of a breath noting that the breath is over. “Gone”. Notice a thought ending. “Gone”. Here it may not be so much that you make it end or make it go, but that you get very good at recognizing “gone” happening.  “Whenever all or part of a sensory experience suddenly disappears, note that.” He recommends using a mental label, similar to a mantra you say when you notice “gone”. He notes that this practice can be very helpful in crisis or extreme scenarios of emotion as well as everyday challenges. The ability to intentionally bring relief taking note of “gone” rather than each new arrival of stress can be very valuable.

KS: this is very powerful. Much of the process of anxiety is the intentional perpetuation of an emotion or stressful situation. You may not intend it, but the anxious mind certainly does. It thinks this system of rumination is what is going to save your life. You’d be much better off if you instead expended your mental energy on being aware of when the present state you want to change is gone. Also, by focusing on “gone” you are telling your brain “this will eventually end”. It is accepting “gone” as a realistic outcome. Anxious thinking does not offer this idea. Link this up with some radical acceptance or Jocko Willink’s “Good” and you have a recipe for immediate termination of anxious crisis.

Loving-Kindness and the Happiest Day in 7 Years– when he does talks on wellness he likes to include this exercise. He asks the audience to identify 2 people and think to themselves “I wish for this person to be happy”. This underlines the value we personally gain by helping others. Even if only in metaphysical thought. He extends this to the workplace: “randomly identify two people who walk past you or who are standing or sitting around you. Secretly wish for them to be happy. Just think to yourself, “I wish for this person to be happy”. He also recommends a more formal version where you are sitting and identify someone in your mind and offer them happiness. If it brings you joy stay with the joy and recognize it until it is “gone”. Once that happens let your mind rest for the completion of the minute of this cycle. Repeat the cycle three times. Tim prefers a single 3-5 minute session at night and thinks of three people he hope to find happiness. He breaks this into two current friends and one he hasn’t seen in some time.

KS: another super high-yield idea! If you’ve ever been to a Catholic Mass (I’m sure other religions do this too) there is a moment where they stop and ask everyone to turn to the people around them and offer them blessings. You generally shake hands with strangers and hug or kiss family. It may be the best part of the service. Regardless of your religious beliefs, there is something this exercise unfortunately evokes. We don’t engage people like this very often. Tan’s exercise is an exercise because that lack of appreciation and interpersonal connectedness is our reality. Personal development and self-improvement is a very isolating process. You need that to some extent because ideally the gains are irrefutably your doing. However, it is so valuable to build some process in that allows you to connect and appreciate others. Even if only in your mind.

 

Arnold Schwarzenegger- he speaks to doing TM for one year when his acting career started taking off. He did 20 minutes in the morning and evening. After about 14 days he could “really disconnect my mind and stay and find a few seconds of this connection and rejuvenate the mind and learn how to focus more and calm down.” Though he doesn’t practice now, he sees this as a skill he learned that still pays dividends today. He also speaks to using his workouts as meditation.

 KS: he elaborates more on the idea of using workouts as meditation. I suggest reading it as more data to support my claim that meditation can happen anywhere. Even in settings the mindfulness and meditative community might not support as true to the practice.

Matt Mullenweg– he uses Calm for his meditative practice

 KS: he’s another person that I tend to buy into anything he’s selling. He has such a rich sense of analysis that you can even hear it in how he experiences language in conversation. Very similar to Rick Rubin. If he likes an app, odds are it is worth your time.

Tony Robbins– almost all of Tony’s section could be read as information on meditation. He speaks instead to a priming exercise he does every morning. Cold water plunge for 30-60 seconds. Then 3 sets of 30 reps of a breathing exercise or doing breath walking. He then does a 9-10 minute exercise that he finds helps him ready for the emotions of the day. This includes feeling grateful for 3 things, experiencing the presence of God, and finally “Three to Thrive”- the 3 things he is going to do today.

KS: I really like experiencing Tony in interviews. The written word doesn’t capture him adequately. I find I can’t listen to a whole interview in one sitting. It’s too much information and there isn’t a casual moment to digest. That’s his intent and it works. As his Netflix special suggests, I don’t buy-in that he is some unique guru. He is a fantastic showman. He has an amazing ability to create energy and connect with people quickly. That said it is undeniable how much passion he has. He operates in an extreme of energy and endurance. Therefore when he offers an idea the best approach is to look for ways you can adapt it to your life. His meditative ideas and morning routine aren’t that different from Tim’s in structure. They do in energy and kinetics. Underneath the hood, his ideas are some of the best in the business. Some people, myself included, need to brush past the pitch to find that.

Chase Jarvis– quoting Maya Angelou, “Creativity is an infinite resource. The more you spend, the more you have.” He gave this quote as a comparison to meditation.

KS:  there are so many different thoughts this little quote evokes. Instead of riffing on my usual “everyone needs creativity” I  will instead speak to it as a societal component. I read an article recently that talked about the rise of robotics and the effect of automation and artificial intelligence on the future of man. What distills down is that the unique human qualities that hopefully will never be automated are caring and creativity. We hopefully will never cross the uncanny valley and bond with computers like  Joaquin Phoenix in Her. We also should not underestimate the value of our brains’ ability to create things that don’t exist. This doesn’t have to only be art or invention. However it likely will become increasingly important that we foster those abilities from an early age. Most of our academic system is based on memorizing. We cannot memorize better than a computer. So stop trying. Instead try to think how you could bring more creativity to your life and how you might raise your kids to be experts as creation and caring.

Ed Catmull– he practices vipassana meditation for 30-60 minutes a day.

 KS: that’s a long meditation. Respect.

Justin Boreta– practices 20 minutes of TM every morning and afterward does kettlebell swings

 KS: I’ve not done this but I think that the idea of incorporating the two is extremely important. Like maybe revolutionary levels of important. I will get to this more another time. For now let me point out that meditation is something the mindful people are saying is one of the most important single exercises you can do. Kettlebell swings are something the fitness people are saying may be one of the most important single exercises you can do. Hmm.

Will MacAskill– his most gifted book is Mindfulness by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. He likes its introduction to meditation and 8 week guided meditation course.

 KS: I don’t know this book but definitely need a resource to be able to tell people how to quickly get the ball rolling on meditating. I will have to give it a look.

Sam Harris– this is another chapter to dive into for so many valuable insights on mindfulness. He speaks to meditation as a way to achieve self-transcendence. He also condenses a description of the very popular vipassana meditation as “paying exquisitely close, non-judgmental attention to whatever you’re experiencing anyway.” He also advocates meditative retreats and specially silent retreats as a way to take your mediation to a much higher level. His final recommendation is to take any opportunity you can to meditate while looking at the sky, ideally with the horizon in sight as well. 

KS: Naval Ravikant also speaks to the value of looking at the horizon. Particularly given our current trajectory of our plane of focus moving closer and closer to our nose. We’ve now seen a few different people speaking to the value of being outside. We are pack animals so it makes sense that being isolated inside four walls isn’t to our natural state. His description of vipassna meditation sounds similar to Naval’s walking meditation and Tim’s experience of being an observer of his own thoughts. I like that!

Rick Rubin– his interview is far more valuable than his section in the book. Not to discount he book. That’s how good the interview is. He talks about the role of sauna and ice baths in his wellness practice. He talks about standing in the sun to help with his sleep. It’s just great.

KS:  I really want to advocate for someone to take a recording of Rick’s interview, edit out Tim (no offense 🙂 ) and set it as a sleep aid. His voice is a case study in cadence and prosody. We treat seasonal affective disorder with light therapy. Sit in front of a light of a certain lumen for X time and you may feel better. Rick is doing that with the sun. Highly recommended. Just like you are thirsty when dehydrate, you may notice a craving for warmth and sun around February or March. There may be a physiological reason for that.

 The Soundtrack of Excellence- Tim notes that the remaining 20% of people who don’t feel they meditate have some mediation-like activity. He noted a lot of people utilizing listening to a single song on repeat.

 KS: is a mantra in TM that different from listening to Radiohead’s Paranoid Android over and over again? Probably not. There is value here for background noise during productivity sessions. Sounds like you need to find your song.

Amanda Palmer– practices vipassana meditation “basically sitting on earth as a human being and paying attention to your breath and your body and letting thoughts come and go, but really trying not to be attached to the drama that comes visiting.”

 KS: another vipassana person doing a wonderful job describing their practice. I am liking this idea of it being more about awareness than a specific focus. I might have to amend my recommended meditation routine to use this as the cool down or maybe even the base work.

Eric Weinstein– he speaks to a practice he uses to engage extremely creative work. He sends his mind a shock by repeating a 7-second phrase of obscenities. His hypothesis is that this engagement of taboo opens up his mind to a new space that it doesn’t usually enter. Almost like a key saying “it’s okay to go where you don’t usually.”

 KS: there are similar practices I’ve heard from actors and singers. A cathartic session to get things warmed up. Not necessarily obscenities. I really like the idea of intentionally breaking down your Ego defenses and seeing what is on the other side. Especially in today’s culture of minimizing people’s experience of offense (good thing) I’m concerned it may create inhibit our willingness to mentally explore that space (bad thing) if only for learning.

Rainn Wilson- for better or worse Rainn identifies that he is plagued by internal monologue. It helps in many ways to achieve success but is also a burden. To counter this he will meditate or exercise. His goal is just to find “normal”.

 KS: another person advocating the use of exercise as a component of mindfulness! I love the concept of seeking normal. Much of what people experience when they first enter the space of mindfulness and meditation is this unrealistic idea of being perfect. Floating two inches off the ground in a lotus position and being totally incapable of any judgment or reaction. Why not first shoot for “normal”. Whatever that means to you. Maybe even leave it intentionally ambiguous like that. Where you are going is less important than it is a place you want to go.

Tara Brach- her chapter is microscopic relative to the value of her interview. Despite this micro-scale size, it has one of the most valuable ideas in the book. As part of her meditative practice she does an exercise she calls Inviting Mara to Tea. The short version is that this is an exercise of taking the part of yourself that you wish was different and having an accepting time where you meet with that person. You experience them and find a way to have that version of you exist without it plaguing you.

KS: The act of suppression or phobic avoidance creates problems. Acceptance and intentional management go hand in hand. It is often the process by which people achieve lasting real change in psychoanalysis and psychodynamic psychotherapy. Many people think change involves doing the opposite. They feel that by simply identifying a desire to change they have targeted a problem. Instead, people who tend to operate in a very stable, positive place are able to allow for the ambivalence of it all. “My present state is no better or worse than the state I hope to achieve. I am not creating change to compensate for failure. I am creating change because “over there” is where I want to go at this point. In a while, I may not want to be their either. I may come back to where I was initially. Who knows. We will see when it happens.” That to me is what Inviting Mara to Tea is about.

 

Josh Waitzkin- he sells the idea that if you want “to turn it on, learn to turn it off”. He finds that meditation and interval training (HIIT, Tabata, etc) are good for getting your mind strong in this ability.

 KS: well look what we have here! Josh thinks interval training is important. Even mental interval training. Just like last week’s post Meditate Like It’s CrossFit . Anxiety is a state of the mind being on more than off. Most people who work in productivity or inter-personally driven jobs are likely on more than off. Jobs will spend lots of resources teaching people to get their highest level of productivity. Then send you home to figure it out. Josh is another one whose interviews are so awesomely dense it deserves it’s own book. If you are keeping score, those people now include Naval Ravikant, Matt Mullenweg, Tony Robbins, Rick Rubin, Laird Hamilton/Gabby Reece, Tara Brach, and Josh Waitzkin. Josh is so extremely cerebral it is almost intimidating. The net effect of this for me is that, similar to Tim, if he says it is a good idea it likely is the result of a LOT of thought and testing.

John Favreau- he found the idea for his movie Chef in the middle of a meditation. It would be interesting if Tim were to go back and quiz his guests about how many of their defining moments have occurred during meditation.

KS: I like closing on this note. You never know what you might find until you try something new. John found an idea that led to a very successful movie. Particularly if you have never practiced meditation, imagine what you may be missing.

Fear-rehearsal: Train Yourself to Withstand Anything

Fear-rehearsal: Train Yourself to Withstand Anything

Fear is a perception relative to one’s confidence that everything will be okay.

On one end of the spectrum are Phobias, while daredevils exist on the opposite side. The only difference between them is the relationship between past experience and future expectation. To a person with a phobia of driving, every person hauling to work across the Golden Gate Bridge is Evil  Knievel. Alternatively Jimmy Chin is not overly concerned with sleeping in a basket on a granite cliff-face, in a storm, after climbing for 4 days in a row.

Fear-rehearsal, as introduced in Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans, is what we therapists call Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy. In the last post we discussed the first step in ERP: defining your fear. The method here is that if you can progressively introduce yourself to a fear-trigger you can eventually overcome it. Along the way you are honing your skills for distress tolerance, mindfulness, and coping. It’s kind of like saying you want to bench your body weight so you start increasing the weight on the bar by 5 lbs a month. (Look! It’s that small steps thing again. That must be really important.)

The best example of fear-rehearsal in Tools of Titans is Rolf Potts’ section and his book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to World Travel. Rolf is committed to sharing the value of testing assumptions and expanding our portfolio of experiences. Similar to Andrew Zimmern and food, Rolf doesn’t want us to miss out on all the world can offer.  Not only for the experience but for the growth-potential as a human.

What I love most about Rolf’s approach to travel is that it is developed to allow any human to do it at any moment in time. It’s a method you can adapt to your opportunities. You can vagabond this weekend for a single day without question. I get a little frustrated when self-help guys (which Rolf is not) offer answers that the general person cannot afford. “Find wellness inside this cryotherapy device that costs thousands of dollars.” Gee, thanks. For me, don’t even talk about those ideas. Tell me how to do it in my home tonight.

Another reason I think that Vagabonding is a great prescription for fear-rehearsal is that in our society money is a very significant component of a wide-array of fears. Work stress. Being a provider for one’s family. Projecting future prosperity. Engagement of fun, leisure and wellness. Money can have some impact on each of these and many others. If we can insulate ourselves from that fear we can find freedom and power.

In America’s capitalism-driven society we tend to answer any question involving money with the idea to make more. While that can work it creates a “have to” mentality and exposes us to not being able to retreat. I love how The Art of War informs this in emphasizing how important it is that a general not fear retreat. You are the general of your life. If you refuse to retreat you will lose the battle.

Vagabonding and Tools of Titans then are both emphasizing the need to practice retreating. Fear-setting is exactly that. If I lost my job tomorrow what would my life look like? Can I go practice that? Rolf has found more value in his travels walking around looking for a cafe full of old locals than he has on organized tours or site seeing. He also loves the experience of getting lost in a city with no agenda or plan. The best part is that both of these ideas are free and they can be done in Paris just as easily as they can in Fresno.

Rolf sells big on the idea that taking sabbaticals is a great way to achieve vagabonding. However I challenge that day-long sabbaticals are a great place to start. They are called “days off” and we have them every week (hopefully). What I will do now is work through how a person might approach setting up a vagabonding sabbatical for one day. I will do this through the character of Ellen.

Ellen is very unhappy with her life and feels trapped. She isn’t quite sure what would bring joy to her life. However she is fairly certain her job keeps her from it. When talking with her family about her situation she often finds herself saying “I just wish I could…”.

What follows from there is an idea that is then quickly defeated by “…but I can’t.”

Ellen did her fear-setting exercises. She is worried that if she leaves this job she will have to start at the bottom again. She has student loans to pay, a hefty health insurance payment, not to mention an emotional debt to herself for “failing”. Ultimately there is also a movie playing in the background of her mind that this job is the only think keeping her from joining Viggo Mortensen on “The Road”.

Effectively Ellen’s fear of these catastrophic outcomes is stronger than her disdain for her quality of life. For some reason it is easier to trade her own happiness to avoid an unrealistic, imaginative scenario. However, in her mind it is realistic and actual. So great, let’s call her fear’s bluff.

Ellen’s fear-assumptions exist in two spheres:

1. “It’s Not Possible For Anyone” Assumption– financial burden of health insurance and loans is not modifiable.

To beat this Ellen could contact her health insurance company to learn the income qualifications for state-funded insurance. She can contact her student loan provider to understand the requirements for low-income repayment plan.

Doing this she may find that if she lost all her income and got a minimum-wage, full-time job she could qualify for health insurance at $1 a month after tax credits. Sure she may end up with out-of-pocket costs that exceed her income, but she may be able to negotiate that down. Regardless she’d have health insurance.

Her student loans are similar. If she got that minimum-wage job at a  non-profit or government job she could make income-based payments for 10 years and be done with them. At 10% of a minimum-wage salary it would be tough but not the end. She may decide that a few years of no payment due to economic hardship may be worth the accrued interest if it really came to it.

Now she has some solid numbers. If she lost her job she would be looking at living off around $17000 a year after taxes.
2. “I Can’t” Assumption- I need my current lifestyle.

Now with some parameters in front of her, Ellen can set off on testing what she really “can’t” do. This part involves intentionally getting a little bit uncomfortable. Almost any lasting gain achieved in life comes on the back-end of tolerable, planned discomfort. This is the foundation of fitness training. It is why rags-to-riches stories happen. Chris Sacca talks about this “sweet and sour” in Tools of Titans. Rolf Potts and Tim Ferriss intentionally create it. Though Rolf’s is less directly therapeutic in design.

What Ellen needs to do is figure out what life on $17k is like. What is life on $1400 a month like? What is life on $50 a day like? One thing is for sure, she will likely be leaving the Bay Area. If she held to the tenet of spending 20% of income on housing she would be looking for a $350 a month room. Well now hold on… that’s an assumption.

Ellen should start with finding out how to sleep on $50 a day in SF. Take out the cash, clear the calendar on a Saturday, leave the cell phone at home, grab a photo ID, and go live. It’s funny how the idea of doing this in your home town may sound silly but if I said to do it in Madrid it would be novel. We often overlook the opportunity to be a tourist in our own space.

As Rolf Potts advocates, find ways to be a tourist without using money to create opportunity. Couchsurfing could allow Ellen to see what free housing may mean. How would she transform meals if she needed to eat for under $10? Would Rolf’s idea of meeting strangers offer opportunities to expand her people-skills? What amazing things could she find if she just got lost in her home town?

As we said, one reality Ellen may find is that the Bay Area is not a place that helps people “get by”. In this regard Ellen should research lower cost of living places. Once she finds it, take a vacation there. Go vagabonding. Start in the city center and walk concentric circles around the area. Spend the time observing the subtle things about her surroundings to learn what it would feel like to be a local here. Contrast that life to her own and explore what differences are tolerable and intolerable.

This will open up new questions. What does she really NEED to get-by in a place she lives? Maybe she decides it’s access to open water. “I could sit by the beach every day for free!” Where could she live near an ocean or lake and not be subject to being broke? Maybe she wants to be able to work somewhere that affords her benefits like free travel or recreation. What would being it mean to be an Amtrak employee or work at a ski resort? How about a gym? Each of these are questions she could answer by practicing them for a day or two. Even practicing an entry-level job can be figured out if you set your mind to it.

You’ll never find out without trying it. You’ll never know what you’re missing until you do.

A few notes need to be made here. One is safety. Obviously we aren’t saying that facing your fears means that you need to expose yourself to danger. Be very careful how you set your plan up. You don’t win any points for taking this more aggressive. The goal is not to endure hardship but to realize it’s not as hard as you thought. “Too hard” means not sustainable and will likely further entrench your fear. While spending a night on Skid Row could test some assumptions, it could go very bad as well so it’s not worth the potential upside.

The other is that our example of Ellen is used to illustrate how you can go about breaking down a fear and practicing it. It’s not so say everyone needs to rough it on $50 to be happy. We used vagabonding as a framework. Use her example as an equation- take your fear, break it down into components, then get out there and test them. Small incremental steps.

On the back-end of this exercise you will confidently be able to tell your mind- “you’re wrong, I can do this.”

Fear-setting or Why Yoda Was a Terrible Therapist

Fear-setting or Why Yoda Was a Terrible Therapist

I sometimes like to imagine that characters in movies are my patients. How would I get Will Hunting to work through his stuff without having the “you don’t want to hear that Skyler” conversation (because you know after his little meltdown the moment he showed up in Palo Alto she said “not another stalker!” and called campus security)? Or maybe where would I start with Frank Berkman (Squid and the Whale) to undo the impact of a being raised by a “filet” of a father and a brother who was so narcissistic he would start his own social media empire and then become a super villain?

In that way, how could I help Luke so he leaves Degobah a Jedi rather than needing to sacrifice his arm and letting Han Solo get all Teeglo Carboned.

The missed treatment moment happened on Degobah. It was Yoda’s fault. Hopefully we all remember the greatest scene in Empire Strikes Back. Maybe the only legitimate “I got the tingles” moment in all the movies.

Let’s set the scene. Luke happens upon his X-wing deep in the bog of Degobah. His new boy, Yoda, is like “dude ain’t no thang, I lift X-wings out of bogs in my sleep.” Luke, as he does, is like, “green dude, chill. First you ate my food but I let that go. Then you made me eat that nasty soup and bump my head. Then you creeped me out with that maniacal ‘you will be’ look.”  So Luke has a go. He fails.

“You ask the impossible.”

Yoda doesn’t need to hear that noise. He sets out to show this young buck what’s up. Not only does he pull the X-wing out of the water but he also conducts a sweet orchestral overture at the same time.

“I don’t believe it.”

“That is why you fail.”

Luke’s failure was a concert of poorly executed techniques by old Master Passice Voice. What Luke needed was some serious Fear-setting and Fear-rehearsing.

Tim Ferriss introduces Fear-setting and Fear-rehearsing in two separate chapters in Tools of Titans. This week we will tackle fear-setting and next week we will do fear-rehearsal

Fear-setting is the process of really identifying what you are afraid of and breaking it down. In psychotherapy we call this naming or bringing the subconscious into the conscious. Generally if we are anxious (anxiety being the cognition of an overestimation of a threat or underestimation of your resources to handle the threat) there is something we haven’t realized. Something important lies in our unconscious, running the show. Outside of frank psychotic disorders and organic brain impairment, we only do things that work for us and make sense. Even our anxiety is a manifestation of some tried and true method at work. If you can name your fear then you can work with it.

The question is do you want it to work that way? Do you want it to continue?

Tim’s fear-setting is broken into 7 questions. He recommends verbose, cathartic writing on each. The more you spew the more likely you are to find the thing you didn’t realize.

1. Define your nightmare

He has a number of other smaller questions but I think the most valuable is “what is the worst case scenario?” It’s like a Rude Goldberg machine. Work your way backwards and you’ll find the origin of your fear. Look for unproven assumptions because your anxiety is likely hiding behind them. We often call these assumptions “absolutes” or “all-or-nothing statements”. Words like “can’t”, “won’t”, “must/have to”, “need”, “always”. Use your own language as a radar for assumptions.

Another way I like to approach it is to assume that all fear is either a conscious or unconscious fear of death. If you follow any worry you will find a death end point eventually. That step is important because you may need to assess your pattern of death-avoidance. This will be important later for fear-rehearsal. For example, if money is the root of your anxiety, somewhere down the line is likely a fear of starvation which can cause death. If public speaking makes you anxious there is likely a fear of embarrassment which is then a fear that all those laughing mouths of teeth will try to kill you.

Our perceived weakness activates our fear of being terminated. It’s all very Maslow Hierarchy of Needs. When a need is perceived to not be met or forecasts a future of unmet status we react. It’s also evolutionary as other species generally see such “weakness” as a deal-breaker for mating. For non-human organisms, there is no other purpose than to propagate your gene pool. When your mind thinks death is on the horizon it may turn on your fight-or-flight system. At an extreme we call that a Panic Attack.

So sit down and try to be honest with yourself. There’s no point in censoring your fears on the paper. It’s not going to judge you. If you can’t name it, it won’t get better. Keep following the fear-logic until it makes sense. If you haven’t reached a death-nightmare outcome you aren’t on the right track yet.

2. What steps could you take to repair the damage?

Ah ha!  Now let’s assess the part of your anxiety that is an “underestimation of resources to handle the threat”. This process may again involve a lot of “I can’t” or feeling that repair isn’t possible. That’s your anxious mind hiding answers from you so that it can maintain control of the situation. Anxiety is also a habit of inserting the worst case scenario into ambiguous situations. Your anxiety likes things remaining ambiguous. That’s it’s wheelhouse. You likely developed your anxiety as a compensatory mechanism for not have a more effective way of tolerating ambiguity. Remember, your mind thinks it is saving your life. It doesn’t want to stop.

One way I like to motivate this creative process is to put some collateral on the hypothetical table. If the worse case scenario happened and you had to repair it in 24 hours what would you do? If you don’t repair it, you will die. Another approach is to consider that $10 million awaits if you can repair it in 24 hours.

This requires you to believe anything is possible. When your mind finds things impossible, behind that you are unlikely to find something you never considered. You need to believe in unicorns. This mindset is present in all of the Titans in Tools of Titans. 

3. What are the more probable outcomes?

This is a really cool exercise. We use it a lot in Cogntive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Your mind has latched onto the worst case scenario. It is assuming “as long as that bad thing doesn’t happen we will be okay”. Sure. True. Your anxiety won’t let you forget or ignore the potential of the worst case. If it did, so it thinks, it would welcome ruin through the front door. How can you distract your mind away?

Again, unless you define your answers you risk it only living in your subconscious. Task your brain with generating other hypotheticals. What other outcomes are on the table? What does it take for you to find these other ideas? You may need to get really silly and creative here because to this point the answers are being hidden from you by your subconscious defense mechanisms. Saying “go write them” is almost pointless. Again try externalizing it by pretending it’s someone else, ask other people for ideas, look for analagous examples on your life, or if all else fails just free associate on a page. It’ll come. 

This analysis is usually a big moment for self-exploration in therapy. Why the hell does your brain only offer you the worst and totally neglect the likely? Where did you learn to do it that way? Why does it persist and optimism fade away? I want to put about a 100% guarantee that if you look back through your life you will find a person or a time when life gave you a reason to buy into this system.

There is also a very big mindfulness opportunity here. In mindfulness, the worse case is as important as the best case is as important as the mid-level case scenario. So why not get REALLY good at controlling which one your mind focuses on? Why not focus instead on the wind on your face, the sound of your air conditioner or even your breath.

Yep we are talking meditation here. We will talk more about it eventually. For now- DO IT!

4. If you were fired from your job today, what things would you do to get things under financial control?

This isn’t only useful for job related worries. By answering this question you will create a risk-management plan. It’s good to have that in your back pocket. Can I convince you that you can improve anxiety by knowing which state or county in your area has the highest unemployment payment relative to cost of living? When we get to fear-rehearsing, can I convince you that going on vacation to that place and living off that amount of money will help you mitigate the worst-case avoidance?

The gift of being able to say “I will be alright, no matter what” may be the best anti-anxiety treatment there is.

5. What are you putting off out of fear?

This is probably the toughest question so far because it is really asks you to tap into your subconscious. If you are lucky, you have an answer: “I’ve been meaning to ask my boss for a raise but I’m too afraid he’ll say ‘no'”. However you may not have this kind of luxury of realizing you are doing it. Instead it will be marked by thoughts of “I have no idea how to…” or “It’s not even possible”.

In this space I like to externalize the problem solving. Try to find a similar scenario in your life and compare your problem-solving approach. This will flank your subconscious because it won’t realize you are solving your first problem by proxy. A more valuable action step would be to let other people solve it for you. I recommend not telling them it is your problem. People tend to go easy on us when we ask them for direct help. However “I have a friend who is really unhappy with his job and wants to move but doesn’t think it’s possible” should get you some raw answers. The use of advisors is also a near 100% factor for the people Tim has interviewed. It’s also in every classic personal/professional development book. It’s one of the reasons therapy works.

All problems are completely modifiable if you are willing and open to exploring all avenues. Including your own role in enabling the problem to continue.

6. What is it costing you- financially, emotionally, physically- to postpone action?

This is where it gets real. You are going to be exploring how much of your unhappiness is your fault. So to speak. You need to assess how much self-loathing you can tolerate. You may want to keep this to objective measures. Money, time, etc. That’s usually the most emotionally palatable landscape. However it is also a defense mechanism we call Intellectualization.

If you want to see change, you need to get uncomfortable. There’s a reason all athletic performance training requires some process of going past your current barriers to see improvement. It’s also the driving force of evolution- adaptation to stress. So yeah, try to test your emotionally comfortable limits on this one.

A less masochistic approach would be to get in touch with your Future Self. I like to think about this in terms of the Many-Worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Somewhere out there, according to the theory, there is a version of you that has solved this problem. What is their life like? Who are they? How are you different? Try to get very specific with this. The more excited and emotional you can get about this future version of you, the more you will engage that childhood-dreaming mechanism that is so powerful. Kelly McGonigal does a great job of exploring this in The Willpower Instinct. 

7. What are you waiting for?

I’m so glad Tim closes with this. So far this exercise has created some challenge but in and of itself it has not taken you to your goal. Only one thing will do that- doing SOMETHING.

You may notice that this is not a thought exercise. It is almost a rhetorical question. However there is a process here if you like. It may be somewhat helpful to define the cognitions that you are using to delay action. There is certainly another pattern in there somewhere.

I first latched onto this idea after reading Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. He focuses on an idea of taking action RIGHT NOW and give it everything you’ve got. Tony Robbins has a similar method where he likes to utilize the system shock of getting out of your head and creating physical motion. There’s a reason two of the more prominent self-help guys have a similar approach. It works.

This doesn’t mean you need to fix the problem now. That’s too much pressure on yourself. Remember, one small step is all you need. But a step is needed.

What can you do today? What can you do in the next 30 seconds that will take you one step to your goal? If you just answered “all the steps I need to do take longer than 30 seconds” you are missing the point. Break it down. Make it small. Do something. Now.

Can I convince you that opening and closing up your laptop one time with the verve and optimism of your Future Self achieves more progress than you have seen otherwise?

Let’s go back to our case study: the burgeoning Jedi and his frustrated and bruised teacher.

When Yoda meets Luke he spends some time assessing his fear-setting capability. Luke fails, big time. “If we could get our ship out we would, but we can’t.” “I don’t know what I’m doing here. We’re wasting our time.” It almost cost Luke his training. Good thing Obi-wan was there to normalize the situation.

Yoda is no stranger to fear. We’ve all heard his lecture on Advanced Fear Psychology. “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” That’s a pretty awesome breakdown of anxiety and suboptimal coping!

It would have helped for Luke, after being eeriely told he will be afraid, to sit down and talk through what fear was there. We already know Luke has the emotional maturity of a 5 year old (“but I was going to go to the Toshi Station to pick up some power converters”). He needed kid gloves. Or whatever gloves a three finger Jedi Master wears.

Luke is an orphan. He spat on the grave of his dead foster parents by following that crazy old man on some damned adventure. Everyone he gets close to dies (mom, dad, foster mom and dad, Obi, Biggs, evil step-grandpa, Yoda, Han). He kissed his sister (okay he didn’t realize that she was his sister yet, and she kissed him, but you’re telling me two Force-aware beings can liplock and not notice anything? Especially the twin offspring of a being derived by the Force. Ever notice Luke took the news of going to Degobah pretty easily. I guarantee he knew he needed to get out of there quick after that kiss. Plus Han claimed his territory and had a good 25 pounds on Luke. Ask me sometime about my theory that Rey is the accidental love child of Obi-wan and Sabé).

It stands to reason Luke has some cognitive distortions to work through. By naming his fear, his assumptions about his lack of skill with the Force (dude kept dropping things, including his master), and what might happen if the worst case came true he might have been better off. You’re telling me that in 800 years of training Jedi Yoda doesn’t have a few tips on how to return from the Dark Side?

Yoda needed to help Luke do some fear-setting… er, some setting-fear with Luke, Yoda needed.

Yoda did try some fear-rehearsal when he sent him into the Dark Side Cave. A little heads up might have been helpful. We will talk more about setting up a fear-rehearsal next week.

For now, suffice it to say, don’t seek out a Jedi master for therapy.