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. 

Achieve Goals by Learning From a Procrastinator.

Achieve Goals by Learning From a Procrastinator.

Most of the effort we put into our goals is useless. The greater part of our gains come from a few discrete, high-yield efforts. What if you decided to only do the high-yield stuff? What if there was no other option?

Tim Ferriss’ fifth question in Tools of Titans explores this idea. 

5. What if I could only work 2 hours per week on my business? What would I do?

He used this question to investigate the possibility that he needed to get out of the way of his company’s growth process. Like an overbearing parent, he worried that his commitment to his company’s development was actual stifling its growth. It certainly was weighing on him. 

He chose the 2-hour framework because it was provocative. Not because he actually thinks you should only work for 2 hours (though you’d probably be surprised how little you’d lose if you did). 2 hours a week. 24 minutes a day. 12 minutes twice a day. Can you make your time so effective you don’t need more than that?

This is not only applicable to business. It is translatable to any situation where you are trying to produce an optimal state. Simply take the Tim’s 2 hours and make it a percentage of a typical 40-hour work week: 5%. How could you get to your goal by only doing 5% effort? 

Want to lose weight? Don’t focus on a fad/crash diet. Change 5% of your eating habits. Do 5% more physical exertion. Seem silly yet? Good. That’s how you know you are on to something. The perception of silliness is your subconscious’ way of diverting you from discovery and change. 

Let’s stay with weight loss for a second. How would you change 5% of your eating habits? Let’s take a 2000 calorie diet. Can you cut 100 calories a day? If you eat 3.5 meals a day 7 days a week, how would you create weight loss by only changing 1.25 of those meals? 

The sell here is that this type of planning is more likely to create an action you are guaranteed to do. Guaranteed action is way more valuable than an idealized action you wish you could do. It also flanks your existing conscious ideas of what works. Your marriage to your existing ideas is why you are here in the first place. They work great for achieving the current state, not a change state. 

Pareto’s Law: Planned Efficiency and Efficacy

Part of what is driving the engine under the hood of this exercise is Pareto’s Law. This is a Tim Ferriss specialty. Think of it as a hypothesis that the Minimum Effective Dose of any action is all you will ever need. The law states:

80% of our outcomes are created by 20% of your efforts.

Like I said, instead of 20% we are shooting for the value of being provocative by using 5%. We’ve talked before about the idea that provocation is a great tool for exploring your blindspots. It allows you to take your growth beyond your outside edge of comfort. If you never do that you are very unlikely to find change. 

The application of Pareto’s Law exists in the subtlety of our culture of change. Many industries are built on the law without realizing it. Think of strength training in fitness or speed work in running: short bursts of maximal effort with plenty of recovery in between. In nutrition it is exhibited by intermittent fasting or small daily changes rather than sustained arduous diets focused on deprivation. Tech has its planned sprints, specifically in software development. They all illustrate ways people have naturally and maybe unintentionally created applications of Pareto’s Law. Their best outcomes are generated by small but intense volume. 

Procrastinators: Efficiency Machines

My favorite example however is a serial procrastinator. They are the absolute best users of Pareto’s Law. In the next month and a half, millions of people across the world will subject themselves to the largest mass, stress wave outside maybe tax season. It’s academic FINALS. Other than maybe New Year resolutions, this will also be the most concentrated time of self-reflection in human existence. 

Most(?) of those people will finish their finals season and sit with negative self thoughts. “I should have started earlier.” “If I’d done better on my midterm I could take it easy now.” “Why do I always do this?!”

Well I will tell you why you always do this…because it works. You discovered it because it solves a problem or met a need at a time. Since that point nothing has happened to indicate that the cost outweighs the benefit. You may not be present with the idea that this monkey on your back is a problem. That’s okay. If you realized it you would have stopped it. 

I am writing this on a Monday at 7:45am. Right now a serial procrastinator 30 miles south of me is asleep. These glorious 2 hours of sleep are his reward to himself after an all-nighter. The last 24 hours have been a roller coaster of negative emotion. Why don’t we go ahead and meet this guy. Let’s call him Jeff and pretend it’s finals week at Stanford. 

At about 4:45AM, Jeff finished cramming for his 10:30AM organic chemistry final. “As long as I have a power nap I should be fine.” On waking Jeff will take a shower (“cold water always gets the cobwebs out”) and drinks a cup of coffee (“as long as I drink it 30 minutes before my exam I can get the benefits before the jitters set in”). He then will mosey into his exam, full of stress and adrenaline (and caffeine…and probably a 5-hour Energy because “it can’t make it worse”). Jeff, our Last-Minute Hero, will take the test and perform EXACTLY to the level he intends. He won’t be happy with the score because it won’t be what he thinks he needs. But it will be 100% in line with what he wants. Subconsciously. 

Jeff has big goals and high expectations of himself. He wants to go to medical school at Stanford. He wants to be a trauma surgeon and work disaster relief in developing countries. Jeff knows his ability and his potential. It is limitless. The top quintile in his class is not unreasonable. In fact, he expects it. However Jeff will not make that quintile despite his best efforts. 

Jeff’s goal is not actually to be in that quintile. Jeff’s goal is to be exactly where he is right now. His score on his exam will be within 5% of the exact score he needed to be right here. He will also be extremely disappointed by this. Jeff has a disconnect between what he thinks he wants and what his behavior indicates he actually wants. 

Jeff is the prototypic procrastinator. However what Jeff doesn’t realize is that he has set himself up in a position to ALWAYS ONLY observe Pareto’s Law. His procrastination guarantees that he never does excess work because there is no more time in which to do it. In this space he also guarantees he can never do better on exams. He can continue to do exactly how he is already doing. It is completely done out of subconscious design. 

This gets into the other half of the puzzle of Pareto’s Law… Parkinson’s Law. Tim Ferriss is big on this as well. Parkinson’s Law states:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

It is basically an application of the Ideal Gas Law. I could riff off metaphors for PV=nRT but it would take too much time. Maybe in another article. I do still like the gas analogy as a whole. Here’s why. 

Let’s say I sit Jeff down and we decide to fix his procrastination. “Its holding me back. I keep getting subpar grades and I know I can do better.” We analyze his study routine. “I started studying at 1AM. I meant to start right when I got home from class at 3PM. I had the whole day planned out. But then I decided to play Fallout because I figured I needed a little priming before I went hard studying. Figured I’d play for maybe an hour. That didn’t end until about 7PM. Then I was hungry so I had to go get food. When I got to the place I ran into my friend, Ashley. She’d been studying all day and was taking her break. We ended up talking for about an hour. Then I got my food and came home to eat. I always watch Sportscenter while I eat so I turned that on. Next thing I know it’s 9:30PM and I haven’t started studying. I realized the problem is that I kept getting distracted at home. So I decided to go to the library. I’m out the door at 10PM. I was all ready. I get there and forgot it closed at 11PM. It wouldn’t even be worth getting my stuff laid out to start. I pack back up and come home. Now I know I’m in for an all-nighter so I stop at Circle K for snacks and coffee. It takes me about an hour to clean off my table, get things situated, and decide what to focus on. Of course sprinkled in this whole story are 5-10 freak out sessions that each last 10-15 minutes.”

It’s a typical story but here’s the fun part. Jeff studied for his exam for about 3.5 hours. What if I told Jeff at 3PM when he was leaving class “hey, just do 3.5 hrs. Then you’ll be done and you can go play Fallout the rest of the night. Maybe even meet Ashley for dinner”? Would he take it? No way! That’s Parkinson’s Law. 

If Jeff had actually started when he planned he likely would have studied until 4:45AM anyway. Consciously or unconsciously he knew he did NOT need to study 13 hours to get the grade he wants. Said differently- the grade he wants doesn’t require 13 hours. It requires 3.5. Remember:

“All voluntary human behavior is done for exactly the outcome it creates. Even the most self-destructive behaviors exist for some perceived net positive gain. No matter how bizarre or obscure that gain may be.” – Kory Stotesbery, His Office, A Few Times a Week

Work expands into open space. Tim’s challenge question of 2 hours a week take the gas and compresses it. Procrastinating does the same thing. 

Procrastinators don’t have a problem getting started. They start at exactly the time they are supposed to do. Instead they have a problem restricting expansion. They are bad at setting limits on the back end. Instead they use artificial limits like time deadlines or the physical inability to stay awake. If you take a procrastinator and get them very good at saying no to themselves you can unlock amazing ability. Remember the litany of “as long as I” rules Jeff had around his study habits. Those are reflective of just how great he is at figuring out his personal tricks to bring effective and efficient.

Sure there is also a conversation about why Jeff is so blind to the fact that he is just fine getting the grades he gets and that his life would be MUCH happier if he accepted that and didn’t wish for a single percentage more. If he really wanted to change it he would. We all would. It’s what humans do. Imagine his day had he planned from the beginning to start studying at 1AM. 

Summary 

As easily suggestible, cognitive beings we are prone to maintaining beliefs with no factual basis. We call them assumptions. Pareto’s Law says we drastically overstate what is necessary to achieve a goal. Potentially by 80%. Parkinson’s Law underlines that our overestimation of need is likely a function of the system not being restricted enough. By asking yourself “what would I do if I could only work for 2 hours” you break down both limitations. No one is better at this than procrastinators. Every serial procrastinator has developed a tried-tried-and-true method to achieve their goals. They may just need a little work to give themselves a break and learn to love their skill set. If they ever want more sleep they just need to practice restricting their system. This would allow them to take their Minimim Effectice Dose of work and move it to a more socially and physically palatable time. 

Can You Predictably Recover from Setbacks?

Can You Predictably Recover from Setbacks?

Knowing everything will work out in the end may open up opportunities that you’ve only dreamed about achieving. 

Last time we explored a thought exercise used to evaluate what you really want in life and testing if you actually already have it. This week we will look at the fourth question on Tim Ferriss’ 17 Questions to Test the Impossible. 

“4. What are the worst things that could happen? Could I get back here?”

Fear-setting/fear-rehearsal…do it.

We covered this in a prior article on working through Fear-setting and Fear-rehearsal. Take something you worry about, dissect it to find your real vulnerability, then get out there an evaluate it. I am still selling hard that this is one of the most therapeutically valuable ideas there is. It is the backbone of the Exposure Response Preventiom therapy we use to treat phobias and OCD. Of course makes a fear-based thought exercise would look like anxiety treatment! In fact, you might even consider fear and anxiety to be on a spectrum of each other. 

Fear/shyness/hesitancy/worry are all normal everyday experience. Anxiety is a diagnosis word that connotes a pathological level of symptomatology. They are probably the same mental process but one is less held in check by positive mechanisms. Improve your checks and you may not be pathological anymore. 

Can I do more than survive?

One concern I have with fear-setting and rehearsal is that it may perpetuate an unhealthy status quo. If I can build up a tolarance to adversity I can withstand most anything. That’s a great strategy to be able to navigate micro-adversity. It allows you to put the worry out of your mind and get through today. However, long term tolerance of macro adversity may not be somewhere you want to stay. 

I’m going to call macro adversity the a long term challenge that will not resolve itself without some effort by those involved. This problem won’t blow over with time. Macro adversity involves a degree of personal perspective here. Losing your job may be macro for one person and micro for another. Maybe I am confident I will get a job in a week: micro adversity. Maybe instead I am confident I have almost a year of job hunting ahead of me: macro adversity. Many variables can contribute to that difference. The least of which being a persons own sense of resilience. 

I would not want to tell someone “take this risk, it may lead to years of hardship but it’s okay, you’ve proven to yourself you can handle years of hardship.” I would want to say “take this risk because we’ve identified the worst case scenario and developed a plan for how you can get back to today in a reasonable amount of time.” That’s a bit of next-level fear rehearsal so let’s dive in to see if we can extract more meaning. 

Being Stuck

I work with a lot of people that would describe themselves as being stuck. It seems more common as people get older and worry about not being competitive in the job market. They feel that the quality of having kids and a mortgage will make companies not want to hire them. Therefore they live in a system of “stay here at all costs.” 

I don’t have a sense of what degree of cognitive distortion this may be. Age-discrimination is probably something for our society to address. Is it true that if the average business considers two people with the same skill set they would hire away from the older, person with a family? That’s a great recipe for sealing the fate of our mid-life demographic to functional decline. 
People also seem to feel stuck if there is a dream out there they cannot access. Today may not be so bad necessarily. However that may not matter if the grass over there looks SO green and includes a pool and cabana with drink service. Our discovery last week may have unearthed just such a conflict. 

If these stuck people knew they could take chances because they were confident in their recovery ability what would they do?

Getting Back

Here’s how to work through planning your Get Back System. It’s a lot like the classic stories of dropping bread crumbs to find your way home. If you were on a hike and thought “I bet there’s an amazing view two peaks away, but there’s no trail” would you just set off and figure out how to get back later? What if I could guarantee you will return to this exact point, now would you go? 

Step 1- Where are you getting back to?

There’s no point in developing a plan to get back if “here” isn’t where you ever want to be again. Though I will argue, if you are “here” today we can reasonably assume it is somewhat workable. Of course that won’t be accurate for everyone. Regardless, answer these questions to help evaluate where you want to get back to being: 

How will I know when I am back? What does it look like? What are my definitions of here?

It may be income, a home, maybe even a family or relationship. There are no parameters of expectation. You are deciding the future so you have total control over what you decide constitutes getting back here. 

Step 2- Where are you going?

Going back to the hiking analogy, if you want to bust off-trail and walk randomly into the woods, cool. However your ability to get back is going to be significantly limited compared to a person who says “I’m going over there.” In fact, you could argue that guy who says “I’m just going to go and see where I end up” will still actually be making a number of smaller directionals decisons. In that way why not increase your likelihood of having a good experience by setting some sense of your goal. 

Now I know many people will still answer “I have no idea where I am going.” That’s probably an assumption brought on by some internal resistance to listening to your own desires. I really believe we all know where we want to go at all times. We just vary in our ability to hear that voice or to trust it when we do. 

Step 3: Define the Space in Between

As with going off-trail on a hike, what does the terrain look like on the way to your destination? Are certain routes there easier than others? Where does your path need to go to get there? 

For example, maybe you really want to have a go with acting but worry that if you drop everything for LA you’ll never make it back to a six-figure career. If you could guarantee you’d have that exact job jack would you go? Anoehrt question would he: knowing what you know now, how would you get your job again? Maybe you can talk to your employer and understand what the terms of return could be. You may be surprised by how much a company will extend themselves to bring back someone who is good at their job. Recruitment is expensive. 

There may also be steps involved. If your acting career flamed out, does an intermediate job get you out of waiting tables and into a positive income trajectory? Is there a training piece that would need to be in place or maybe a license you need to maintain?

I will warn here- if your recovery/get back plan starts with “I can just go back to school” I would highly recommend reconsidering your timing. I’ve mentioned before that for some people, getting degrees represents this way of spinning wheels to avoid having to commit. You often mortgage time and money from future-you to achieve this. Worse is the reality that very few jobs need a specific degree and many people can achieve their industry-specific learning by working. I might argue you have a better chance of the same job by of working your way up in four years than you would competing as a new hire in an open-market hiring process. 

Step 4: Go Practice

This is fear-rehearsal all over again. If there’s a part of your recovery plan you think is integral and you aren’t sure you can do it, go try it for a day. If you would need to move to a lower cost of living area and live in a smaller home, go rent an AirBnB there. If there’s a job you will need to save the day, can you volunteer or shadow in that industry for a day and get a sense of it? If it’s money, can you set out to use your current skills to increase your current income by exactly the rate you’d need to “get back”. 

If your recovery plan involves proving you can make money, I wouldn’t try to use your current job to increase income. Doing overtime isn’t the same as working from scratch. I would want to see you get a side gig that can at least show the promise of making X income if you carried it out. Lyft, Uber, and TaskRabbit are just a few examples of part- time work you can do to get a feel of the hustle of making a living. 

I highly recommend focusing on remote work here as it can give you a minimum overhead opportunity with a high degree of flexibility. If I’m starting out with nothing you better believe I am renting a room in an apartment in a cheap city with no state income tax but then trying to access work remote work from companies in high COL areas. Leverage. 

Summary

Knowing where you are is great. If you are like most people, where you are is a temporary condition on your way to something else. Part of the challenge of going from here to there is being sure you won’t get lost. There are ways to formalize that concern and mitigate your risk. By defining it and creating a system for recovery you may be able to set out on the journey of a lifetime. 

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. 

Go in the Opposite Direction to Unlock Change

Go in the Opposite Direction to Unlock Change

Tim Ferriss has a list of 17 questions in Tools of Titans he uses to Test the Impossible. I am going to explore one a week. 

1. What if I did the opposite for 48 hours?

This question is presented in context of Tim’s relative rags to riches story after he left college. He was toiling away in a job he hated and struggling. As existential moments go, he suddenly found clarity in a simple idea: do the opposite. 

Doing so brought remarkable success in his sales position. By working at a time of day when his colleagues and competitors were not he found something impossible. Prior to that decision the thought hadn’t occurred to him. It resided in a subconscious blindspot. The lesson is not about working when others are not. Rather, it is a statement on the value of rebuking convention. Even if it your own convention. 

This is a great place to start when developing a Growth Mindset. If I am doing X, maybe the opposite of X (-X) will offer dramatically different results. Particularly if I don’t like the way things are going, why not?  You don’t have to be Dr. Phil to ask yourself “how’s that working for you?”  

It’s a plan even George Costanza would love. 

Bracketing: Live life like a photographer

Even if the opposite doesn’t solve the problem, by establishing limits on either end of your investigation you can be sure the best answer is somewhere in between. This is similar to bracketing in a photography. Back in the days of film you didn’t know if a shot was lit well enough until you developed it. To compensate you’d take additional shots on either end of the lighting spectrum. Find the shot you think will work, then take shots a stop above and below your light reading. One or more with more light and one or more with less. Chances are a good shot will be in there. 

By doing the opposite you have tested two hypothesis and are now far closer to the perfect solution you desire. 

The Definition of Insanity

Somebody smart once said:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” -Many Different People, allegedly

It doesn’t have to be the opposite, but if you are hoping for change, something different sure would be a good place to start. Even though it is totally intro level psychotherapy to say “if it hurts when you hit your head stop hitting your head,” it can be a good place to start. If you continue with X it will NEVER change. You then need to be very okay with what the consequences of X are in your life.  

If you are experiencing your life and have assessed that there is something you don’t like or wish was different, your highest-yield approach is to try something significantly different.

I like considering doing the opposite because it often explores a space your mind will find absurd. You can’t get more different from X than -X. We’ve talked before about the role of flanking your Ego defenses. It allows you to get past a set of cognitions designed to prevent change. Your emotions will let you know you found that space. The opposite will seem impossible. It will feel risky. It will seem like a waste of time. If you find yourself saying, “I could never do that!” Bam! You’ve found a new space to test out. 

If you think about it, the opposite is the opposite because you are really invested in the not-opposite. If you are kind-of a Raiders fan, becoming kind-of a Patriots fan isn’t really the opposite. It’s more an equally “meh” idea. That’s less valuable in terms of potential for exploring change. 

I think politics is a better example here. Take the Democratic and Republican National Convention. Maybe nowhere else in America do more people come together to have the same idea. Not only that, they share in their disagreement with the opposite. Their investment in their ideology is exactly the reason they are there. It’s not the Kind-of-Republican-But-Sometimes-Not Get Together. Everyone at that convention is passionate about X. And they hate -X. Their dogmatic support of X is a beacon for how much they should consider -X. They have a HUGE blindspot. How much would both parties benefit from trying the opposite for 48 hours?

It is ridiculous to believe that you will create change in your life or the life/beliefs of those around you without having tested the validity of the ideas you hold true. 

X: “You should eat Chinese food with chop sticks.”

-X: “Have you ever eaten it with a fork?”

X: “No, but I know it’s terrible.”

-X: “I don’t agree with you.”

X: “Nuh uh, I talked to all my friends who use chop sticks and they agree we are right. We also agree you are stupid for using a fork.”

-X: “I’m not stupid. Please don’t call me names.”

X: “Well you have to either be stupid or hate chop sticks and that’s why you won’t use them. Anyone who can’t see that chop sticks are the best is either stupid or hates chop sticks. It’s science and I saw it on Twitter. Here’s a meme that explains my idea.”

This dramatization is as much a commentary on how people often interact as it is instructive on how our subconscious engages internal conflict. Anxiety, anger, judgment, fear and even sadness can be the ways your subconscious shames the part of your mind that wants to explore new things. It has to, that’s what Ego defenses do. Until you teach it not to do so. 

Ethnocentrism: Live life like an anthropologist

In anthropology we have a similar idea. It is called ethnocentrism. You cannot study a different culture unless you first learn how to abandon all thought that your culture is better or right. It’s not to say you have to do the opposite of your culture. You do need to be open to the idea that different may be just as valid, if not better than yours. 

An island of cannibals do not deserve the moniker “savages” or “primitive” any more than we do for our slothy way of having burritos delivered to our door and having a stranger carry us from place to place in their car. “Better” is the result of having tested at least two methods and identifying one as superior in achieving a desired outcome. Remember that the next time you find a judgment word for someone with different beliefs than you.

Summary
If you can create a culture in your life that routinely asks, “What if I did the opposite for 48 hours”you stand to more reliably execute a life that has explored blindspots, tested assumptions, and somewhat scientifically made choices. The steady-state of your life will comprise a higher percentage of planned intent. Planned intent is what I will sell is the most effective path to wellness. 

How to Challenge Your Mental Limitations and Unlock Doors

How to Challenge Your Mental Limitations and Unlock Doors

“Take a temporary break from pursuing goals to find the knots in the garden hose that, once removed, will make everything else better and easier.” -Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans. 

The chapter on The Dickens Process is a great exercise to help explore our mental blind spots. Tim summarizes the exercise which is part of Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power event. Tony can be a polarizing figure but regardless of your opinion, he has lots of ideas. Trying things is always a good idea. You should try this one.

The rub of the Dickens Process is that we  may unknowingly be paying a high price for certain ideas we hold to be true. As with Ebenezer Scrooge and his visit from three ghosts on Christmas Eve, your beliefs may come at cost today as well as in your past and future. In keeping with my recommendation of living a life of intent, I love the idea of sitting down and assessing cost to make sure it is something you are okay with continuing.

What are your Core Beliefs?

Tim doesn’t explore how to find your limiting beliefs. He does it a bit in the chapter on Fear Setting, but that assumes your belief is a fear. As I wrote about before, you generally can explore limiting beliefs by turning on your radar for Absolutes. We call them All-or-nothing cognitive distortions in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Cognitive distortions act as a treasure map to find your limiting beliefs, which we call Core Beliefs.

One approach to find your limiting beliefs is to examine your language for these absolutes. One place they often live is in our self-assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. I recommend writing them out. What can you do? What can’t you do?

This will be very hard at first. You will likely do better at “can’t” than “can”. Heck, right there you may find a “can’t” – “I can’t come up with my strengths.” Like creative writing, keep at this process with discipline. It will crystallize eventually. Ideally you do this in a very private way that will promote you to explore vulnerabilities. You are trying to make the subconscious conscious. If it were easy I wouldn’t have a job.

Another strategy is to create or use an existing list of words that define human qualities. Here’s one. Then go through the list and circle ones you identify with and cross out those you don’t. When you’re done you should start to see a pattern of where your confidence and discomfort with yourself lie. Try to coalesce these into a basic statement about who you are and what you can or can’t do.

A final core beliefs survey exercise is to think about your goals and your dreams. What do you wish of yourself? What are your “if I could just ____, then I know things would be better”? Is there a dream career, partner, lifestyle you would love to wake up to tomorrow? When identified, ask yourself “why don’t I have them” and more importantly “what about me will keep me from achieving them by the end of the year/week/day?”

The more uncomfortable you can get with this exploration the more likely you are to find something that has been hiding in your blind spot. Remember, you are looking to expose subconscious ideas. Your Ego defense system has been working very hard to keep you from realizing these uncomfortable things. If you stay in your comfort zone your are unlikely to find something new in your self exploration. Like a parasite, these limiting beliefs may continue to hang on and steal your wellness.

The Dickens Process
Now that you have your 2 or 3 most limiting beliefs, let’s explore them. Tim has a script for this. Remember to try to push into some uncomfortable space.

Past

What have these beliefs cost you in the past? What has it cost the people you love in the past? What have you lost because of this belief?

I will add that a provocative way to approach this is to write your life narrative. Getting your story down on paper can make a big difference in understanding the connected nature of our history. It’s one of the core components of the evaluation process in psychotherapy. We ask you about your life- where you’re from, who comprises your family, how school went, early memories, etc. That narrative often proves to be the most valuable sources of information about why you are the person you are today.

This references back to Melanie Klein’s Object Relation Theory I touched on with George. The experiences of our past, mostly childhood, set up a basic rubric or lens we will always reference for all future experiences. By writing your life narrative you will find the costs of your beliefs and the origins of the patterns that created that belief. Again, try to explore uncomfortable space.

Present

What is each belief costing you and the people you love in the present?

I like to expand this again to a CBT process- journaling. With your limiting beliefs in hand, go through a week and task yourself to experience the cost in living motion. Write this down. The easiest way to do this is to text message yourself right as it happens. Assuming you don’t text yourself very often, it creates an easily accessible log you can audit later. You can also email yourself which would allow for categorizing.

For example, a person with a limiting belief that they aren’t good at their job would look for evidence at work and home of this thought. “A position opened up above me, but I won’t apply.” “My annual review is Friday and I’ve been stressed all week.” “I don’t have lunch with coworkers because it’s too uncomfortable.” “I was up late last night thinking about going back to school so I can change my career.” Each of those ideas is a quick text to yourself.

Another option can be to really examine your current whole-life avatar. For better or worse, modern human life is increasingly asking us to consolidate our identity into a few lines and a picture. As social media goes, we tend toward showcasing the best of ourselves. Instead take a moment and contemplate what your profile would look like if no one would ever see it but you? Who are you? Where are you? What do you do? If a camera crew followed you around for one day what would we see? When you have a sense of that assess how the you-of-today is affected by your beliefs. If those beliefs were different would you live somewhere else? Would you have a different job or career? What would your selfies look like if you didn’t have these beliefs.

Okay one more cool way to use social media as a mental tool- social media stalking! Get on your portal of choice and start looking at everyone’s most recent posts. Maybe focus on the last week. What are they doing? Where are they? What assumptions do you find yourself making about their lives? Your Ego defense’s wheelhouse is attaching seemingly logical value to the myriad of ambiguous inputs social media offers.

As an aside, I’d like to petition Instagram to change their name to “I think you’re better than me-agram.” I was kind of hoping Google Glass would work out. I would have created a new social media platform that automatically took pictures in places people tend to not share on social media. Isn’t it amazing how nobody on Instagram EVER eats at McDonald’s yet they serve millions every day? There’d be some sort of filter that if the camera detected kale in the visual field it locked out camera use. Same deal for national landmarks, beaches, and any burger that costs over $5. Instead it would use GPS to identify when you haven’t moved in over an hour, any time you haven’t showered in 48 hrs, and if you have streamed more than 2 episodes in a row of any show where the actors are more than 10 years younger than you. This app would dramatically change who we let people think we are. Alas, one can have dreams.

I wonder what belief is limiting me from creating that anyway? Maybe it’s my belief that this is all Google’s fault for not  designing Google Glass into some Ray Bans.

Future

What will your beliefs cost you and the ones you love 1, 5, 10, or 20 years from now?

Get out your crystal balls because it’s time to predict the future. Some people have a real problem with this from either a logistics or policy standpoint. “I have no idea. I’m not good at coming up with that stuff” (oh look it’s a limiting belief!) or “I don’t think people should fixate on the future” (another one!).

I really like thinking about the future as a creative process. It is remarkably informative about who you are and how your mindset engages the world. Odds are that if you have a negative assumption about where you will be in 20 years you also have a negative assumption about 20 minutes in the future. Or vice versa.

I also think our ideas about the future are less influenced by our Ego defense mechanisms. Anxiety or depressive disorders aside, there is a certain amount of time in the future that we experience as so far away our minds allow anything to be possible. I will argue there is likely a mathematical equation that can determine this using our age and some quantification of our personal risk tolerance. One way to assess this for yourself is to think about silly futuristic dreams. If you had $1 million and had to bet it on a year by which we will be guaranteed to have invented flying cars what would it be? What year would you feel confident saying we will have been to Mars by that time?

This may seem arbitrary but the next step is where we find value. Now that you have your year, and let’s assume you are still alive, write a story about your life then. Are there parts of that story where your beliefs still live? Is your Facebook profile in 2050 still living where you are now? Are you happy? Are you successful? How is 2050 you defining that?

You may notice here that I am selling hard on the creative process. So much so that I will argue that creative writing and acting should be consistent components of education at all levels. The mental muscles they each develop are so important to effective execution of human life. I will jump on my soapbox here a bit.

Our current education system is on the verge of a renaissance and I’m not sure it realizes that. The old/current system that focuses on memorization is as antiquated as the feather pen. Memorization and regurgitation will soon be unnecessary. With that change, or because of it, we will also see a redefining of the role of humans in the world. Robotics promise to make many aspects of our lives and more importantly many jobs obsolete. There will need to be a shift away from humans doing things and toward our unique abilities as a species.

An article I read recently posited that the unique abilities humans have is to care and to create. Very little of how we educate our future generations is instructive on either. Instead the arts are a dwindling force and mental health skill-building is restricted to those with pathology. A simple exercise like the Dickens Process could easily be part of an elementary school curriculum. It would teach creativity, problem-solving, and emotional interpersonal connectedness.

100 years ago education was a luxury. Maybe in 100 more years mental healthcare will no longer be restricted to those with pathology. Until that becomes a reality, give the Dickens Process or some other wellness training a try in your life. Then share it with your kids.

Pay Your Price with Intent

One addition I would make to Tim/Tony’s plan is that maybe the costs of your limiting beliefs are worth it. There is a trend in pursuing health and wellness that the best idea is always this phobic reaction to anything negative. Like Chris Sacca talks about in Tools of Titans and we explored last week, maybe we need a little sour to go with the sweet. I think the goal is to be able to say that you have intentionally allowed the sour. In medicine we call this informed consent. If you are of sound mind and have been made aware of the risks and benefits of your decision you have the autonomy to do as you please. So as you explore your limiting beliefs and assess their cost, finish it with an honest self-discussion of “am I okay with that cost.” If not, change. If so, stay the course. There may be consequences so be prepared. You do give up your right to complain in such a case.

If you focus on living a life of intent you can afford to hold as many limiting beliefs and your budget allows. 

Closing

I like to compare our experiences of mental health to that of physical health. In physical health we have the fitness industry. It has crossover with diet and many other aspects of life. There is a basic structure in the lives of people with good physics health. They often spend time trying new things (fad diets and workout routines). They have periodic objective assessments of progress (checking weight, competing in sports, completing events that utilize their discipline). This system works very well.

We need to develop a culture of having similar systems for our societal mental health. Exercises like the Dickens Process are the TRX straps or Paleo Diet of mental health. Try it. See what it brings. Eventually find something else. Just keep trying and progressing. Always.