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.

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. 

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. 

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.

Tools of Titans: Our Textbook

Tools of Titans: Our Textbook

Why Tools of Titans?  

In my last post, I went into the story of how I came to be so enamored with Tools of Titans, or more appropriately, The Tim Ferriss Show. It was an evolution of discovery as I gathered insights into being intentionally effective. 9 years of medical training hadn’t provided this much consolidated value. The impact was immediate on my personal and professional life.

Within Tools of Titans are more how-to’s than even Tim realizes. There are the literal tips – wake up and make your bed, have a go at intermittent fasting, take cold showers, start your process with extremely small steps. Then there are the tips buried in metaphor and symbolism – begin with a win, intentionally create adversity, shock your system, climb mountains from the flat part. An already affordable book, its value is at least 2 for 1.

The nature of the guests is also an important topic we should explore. People often regard elite performers as having something they do not. “They were born with it.” “They’ve got that something special.” “They are gifted.” It is a defense mechanism we mobilize to cope with the jealousy and self-loathing we experience watching them. This is partially why have highly emotional reactions when we meet celebrities. It is easier to palate the dream of a mythical person who can be an elite surfer, an inventor, and a great husband all at the same time. “Well, I know I’m never going to be like Laird Hamilton. But it’s okay, he only exists as that collection of pixels.” However when we meet them we are flooded with all the suppressed emotions our defenses were holding back. It can be adulation one might associate with meeting God, “my hero is real, it is possible that I could be the same!”. It can be shame, “my hero is real, please don’t talk to me or you may see and I may admit how far from you I am.”

However, as we will see over and over again in Tools of Titans, these people aren’t born with any especially unique genes that predisposed them for success. You don’t meet Jamie Foxx. You meet Eric Bishop, an adopted kid from rural Texas who found his success model in the love of his grandmother. You don’t meet billionaire Chris Sacca. You meet a boy whose parents had resolved to give both their children a personalized and balanced upbringing that naturally conferred the skills necessary to create two top-level performers. It isn’t a story of Casey Neistat who ran his bike into a car and got lucky. It is a story about a man who loves what he does so much that it sounds effortless to work for 18+ hours a day, every single day of his life. Tim doesn’t interview Naval Ravikant, founder of Angelist and successful investor. He interviews a guy who takes as much pleasure in discovering a Teppanyaki grill for his family as he does in discovering Uber and Twitter.

For each person, their success was created. We are all an executed plan away from achieving it ourselves.

As was my initial reaction to Think and Grow Rich and Tony Robbins, some may take issue with Tools of Titans focus on success or elite performance. They should. It is a marketing mechanism. He can’t buy a billboard in Times Square to promote a book called Tools to be Used: Some Things People Do. Still, Tim talks about his discomfort with being part of the self-help genre. He pursued his podcast with a goal of learning for his own interest (“scratching my own itch”) and discovered so much that he wanted to share “the book [he’s] wanted [his] entire life”.

Try to see the ideas in the book as pieces of information. I’m going to steal a lot from Mindfulness here. Tools of Titans is a book that contains a lot of information. The value of that information is for you to determine. You can assess that value by taking the information in, considering it, maybe even testing it out. The experiences of Tim and the guests in the book represent a body of support that testing the ideas may be more likely to produce a result than not. Notice my intentional use of ambiguous language – change, value, result. I don’t want you to assume an expectation of any outcome such as success, better, improve, gain, achieve, etc. By eliminating your assumptions, biases, and ethnocentrism (here comes the anthropology) you can experience Tools of Titans with a minimum level of Ego resistance.

I will dive into the structure of the psyche (i.e. Id, Ego, Superego) another time. The short version is that if there is something in your life you hope to do and are not, there is a part of your mind that has become very efficient at making sure it stays that way. The straight dish is that few human beings have an Ego structure ready to tolerate change. Those people have adopted a growth mindset. A culture of change.

The idea of change is a scary void of space. It is the closest we can get to the future. Status quo isn’t the future, it is the present. To change is to put in motion a hypothetical scenario. At baseline our Ego fears what may happen. It has an arsenal of defense mechanisms dedicated to managing your outcomes based on its perception of your ability to survive. Consider the first time you read or even heard about Tools of Titans. What happened? How did you feel? What thoughts immediately came to mind? Congratulations, you just met your Ego. The pattern of efficacy in your life affected itself upon the book and your experience of it. That pattern is a valuable tool to understand. Doing so dictates your ability to manipulate your Ego and thereby your outcomes.

The final question to consider is this – is your life on the trajectory you want?

My completely biased, marginally expert opinion is that it would be a valuable idea to join me in exploring Tools of Titans to discover what the information may bring to your life. Hopefully we can take your outcomes in the direction you want them to go.

Thank you for your attention and that of your Ego.