Don’t Tell Your Kids to Behave… Teach Them How.

Don’t Tell Your Kids to Behave… Teach Them How.

Updated 5/2/17 to reflect a writing style less influenced by a desire to meet a self-imposed deadline!

From employees to children, we have to take any opportunity to get out of the way if we want them to achieve their full potential. A tree can’t grow if the pot is too small. A muscle can’t develop if it’s never tested its limits. A mind can’t flourish if it never has to think.

In the past few weeks we have been exploring methods to help you unlock your own potential. Now we will turn the tables and focus on how you can best help others. Helping yourself is important but helping others unlocks exponential gains. At the very least we will help inform the structure of  effective parenting.

Tim Ferriss’ 6th question in his “Testing the Impossible: 17 Questions That Changed My Life” from Tools of Titans explores his role as a boss.

“What if I let them make decisions up to $100? $500? $1000?”

He presents this in the context of his past realization from question 5 that he was the bottleneck in his company’s workflow. As it’s owner and founder, he knew knew the right way to deal with any situation. Therefore he set himself up to be the only one able to make decisions. It worked but at a terrible cost to him. The cost was so much that it threatened to squeeze the life out of his company. He was the head and the head was dying.

Tim realized the fix was to release some of the control. As he does, he started with small experiments: give them total control over $100 with the edict “make our customers happy”. Sure, losing $100 many times could sink a company. However it would be difficult for that to happen. He had run the numbers. Losses in $100 increments didn’t kill the company. Nor did $500. Nor $1000. Soon Tim saw his role dwindle. His baby learned to walk on its own.

Parent like you are running a business?

There is a great analogy between a business leader and a military leader in war. I won’t do it justice so I won’t try. Instead I will tell you to immerse yourself in Jocko Willink. Do it all day. From 4:25AM until you pass out on your bed.

I will however talk about being an effective parent. As a child psychiatrist I have some relevance. That said, I will offer complete transparency: everything I know about parenting I learned from Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer. Best behavior modification coach in the world! My use of an indirect muse shouldn’t be a surprise given that I learned more about psychotherapy from The Tim Ferriss Show than I didn’t from 5 years of psychiatry residency.

The first step in effective parenting is releasing yourself of the guilt of creating adversity in your child’s life. You absolutely must regularly be the vector of challenge. I am not saying you should abuse your child. In fact I argue that it is possible to effectively raise a child without ever creating physical pain in the child’s life. Pain creates change by emphasizing that the consequence of a behavior should be feared. An effective parent never uses fear as a motivator. Rather you should motivate your child by helping them access positive reinforcement through achievement. The promise of reward is always a more potent motivator than the fear of consequence. Overcoming challenge is the water your plant needs. You have to give your children water every day.

This was Tim’s ah-ha moment in his company.

“People’s IQ seems to double as soon as you give them responsibility and indicate that you trust them.”

The same is true of children. Any lesson they can teach themselves is infinitely more valuable than a lesson you can teach them. That same mantra is the basis of good psychotherapy. There’s a reason for that. Buy it and make it the backbone of your system.

Take advantage of humans’ natural design

Maybe we should start with a conversation about child development. I think it’s important to analyze our pre-cognitive phase to understand the prime state all humans share.

Everyone’s life begins with one consistent experience- trauma. It’s brief but it’s the first time. Prior to that point, our lives have otherwise been a climate-controlled day at the spa. Then we are squeezed or pulled out into life.

The next thing we do is breathe. There are many ways to analyze the first breaths of life. While not all babies’ first breath is a cry, it often is. One may see that breath as a reflex designed to give us a string of really solid, high-quality oxygenation. Another theory would say the cry is a vestigial reflex from our primitive lives when “hey, don’t forget your baby” may have been an important communication. Regardless of why it happens, what seems certain is that the cry will happen until they newborn perceives that it has returned to an attachment similar to its prior uterine state.

This attachment doesn’t have to be to mom. We assume it to be so based on some studies. We also prefer it be so, thus making it important to maintain that narrative in human culture. However there are studies where it is shown that the newborn may only be looking for attachment. Even if it is a faux-momma chimp made of blankets. Regardless, after leaving the wonderful confines mom’s personal day spa, Utero Relaxo, the newborn want to get some of that back NOW!

To further emphasize my point here- our very first act of life involves being taken away from comfort, then using crying to get back to it. File that away for later.

After some modern luxuries like a bath, Apgars, and umbilical snip we recover from our first trauma. We don’t respond again until our next built-in need goes unmet: food. Remember we just spent 9 months at an all you can eat buffet. This going-without thing is not cool. Again, to get what we need we use the only communication tool we have. We cry. It works. We eat (hopefully).

Let’s say at this point we are 1 hour into the first day of our life. Already we are 2 for 2. In terms of productivity and efficiency, we are the best there is in the world. We needed two things and we got them. We used crying to get both of them. The ROI on this engagement is infinite.

This dance of having needs met via crying will continue for days and weeks after. Crying will likely not be beaten as an effective tool for many months. Maybe even years depending on a parent’s degree of patience. Imagine if I gave you a tool that offered 100% efficacy in goal achievement. Then in 6 months I told you, stop using it and didn’t explain why. You might have a problem with that. You SHOULD have a problem with it because to this point you have not been shown a reason to abandon crying.

Human culture has assigned a negative value to crying. It shouldn’t happen. It is regressive, child-like, not ideal. However if there were an annual conference of the Society of Newborns their keynote speaker would likely be extolling the virtues of crying. “It’s the best! Do it all the time. If you need something, let if fly.” The audience would be raucous with cheers (or cries I guess. That’d be a fun conference.) To your child, at that moment in life crying is the absolute best thing ever. It will continue until you teach them otherwise.

The process of unlearning crying is the first real rearing moment a parent is tasked to perform. Our initial engagement of the less is to give into the cry. Food, diaper, sleep, snuggles. Whatever. Our darling child gets it ALL on demand. It is actually an important dynamic because it teaches nascent human what it feels like to go from A to B. They see that change is possible. One can go from upset to okay. It shows that the concept we later will call wellness is achievable and discomfort isn’t permanent. It’s almost like a mini-Cognitive Behavioral Therapy session. Problem occurs, create intervention, observe change and decide if you want that to happen again.

At the end of your first day of life you have been shown that perfection is possible but it will end. However imperfection is not terrible and you have ways of intentionally getting back to something similar. You now know what sour and sweet taste like and how to get either predictably.

The next global phase of our behavioral maturation involves many years of the child trying to find applications of this first-day lesson. However that requires testing. We call it the Terrible Two’s. Fresh off their landmark birthday win, toddlers are on a mission to see if it is repeatable. If you’ve ever used a VR headset you know what they are going through. Any of the 5 senses that can be engaged will be as much as possible. Any limit must be challenged. No cupboard can be unturned.

However their small size and limited mobility keeps them from truly testing our ability as parents. By and large we are capable of exerting our will upon them. This makes us happy and we can tolerate much of what they do. Plus we don’t expect much of them. “Oh well, they are babies” we will say when they get into the pantry and spread flour all over the house.

Then a funny thing will happen. They will grow. They will use words. They will get faster and stronger. More importantly- they will look more like us and they will enter into a phase in life that we still remember from our own past. This creates a very dangerous but valuable judgment: expectation.  From this point forward we have a script they should follow. We expect them to shed their infantile behaviors and show us they are moving toward our way of life. The crying, pooping, sleeping and eating tenant has been served an eviction notice. This building will only house mature humans henceforth.

However, while we were born with some instinctual script on how to get through our infant stage, we have none to guide us through this adulting thing. Our only guide, the guide every mammal uses, is to learn by example. Unless we see it or discover it by trial and error we will NEVER learn it.

Luckily, we are blessed with the best central processing unit in all of life. We can take in any data, analyze it, and convert it into consequent action. FAST! Be it the creation of a memory, the execution of a voluntary or involuntary physical action, or the generation of an emotion, if we can experience it our brains can handle the data and respond. It is the main function of our design.

This should allow us to efficiently develop through trial and error. It just would take time. Unfortunately we don’t have the time necessary to allow natural selection to work. From that first day we have about 18 25 35 years to learn to man the ship on our own. We cannot wait for the average Homo sapien to figure it out. We need them contributing to the tribe as soon as possible.

Humans also are the most social animals on the planet. We don’t want our fellow Homo sapiens to suffer. It wouldn’t fly for trial and error to be the only means of learning how to be an adult. That is mainly because such would mean those with more error than trial would die. We can’t allow that.

So it is that we developed the longest rearing phase of any species. There are no angsty 17-year old orangutans telling their parents they hate them but refusing to go hunt for themselves. We are unique. We are in it for the long-haul because we have decided that a parent is the best source of life training.

Here you are, parent, tasked with the most important job you will ever have. ‪A job for which you have no training other than that whole learn-by-example thing again. It’s fine though. No single moment will define your success at your job as a parent. But then again a single moment can totally impact the rest of your child’s life. No pressure.

Let Them Fly

Today somewhere in Redwood National Park a momma bird is holding court over her nest high above the ground. Her skill and ability as a bird and homemaker have allowed her to place her nest higher above the ground than any other bird momma. Up here, her babies are at less risk than any other babies in the forest. They are quite privileged and lucky to have a mom able to offer them this opportunity.

However, today is a different day. Today is flying day. Mom is going to get this show on the road. Baby bird A and B have got it. They’ve been doing some flutters into the air and down the branch their nest sits on. Baby C, not so much. Mom doesn’t care. A, B, and C are all going to get a nudge over the edge today. She has to. Momma bird’s one goal is to advance her genes through the gene pool. Her actions are those of a species trying to filter the strong from the weak.

Of course our society can’t and shouldn’t work that way. We have created enough survival privilege that our genes don’t need to be filtered that way. Healthcare, education, government assistance. We have developed systems that allow us to support all members of our species. Who knows, maybe Baby Bird C would have become the best bird in Redwood National Park history. Mom’s impatience may have prevented that.

However despite our innovative advantages we should not think that our methods of individual development have changed. We still learn from challenge. Baby C would certainly have never learned to fly if Momma Bird had decided “it’s not right for me to let Baby C die because he can’t fly yet, I’m going to move this nest to the ground”. What’s worse, if she did that Babies A and B would likely have seen their flying gift diminish for lack of need.

If Momma bird wanted to develop her child rather than fly-or-die she would need to recognize Baby C’s deficiency and devote more time. Take it slower. Smaller. Clearer. Get Poppa Bird to take A and B out for the day while she put in some quality time with C. Of course in this survival-of-the-fittest world of hers, she can’t afford to devote that kind energy to a single offspring. Especially when the next batch will be due next year. Imagine if all reproducing females had a child (or 3) every year. We’d have a very different society.

When Tim Ferriss decided to test the waters and give his employees more responsibility, he was engaging this dynamic. He chose to sacrifice his ego for the good of their growth. He created challenge and decided to absorb the responsibility of teaching.

However, this step also required him to be adept at the most effective ways to modify behavior and lead his team.

Don’t tell your child to “be careful!”

This phrase and a few like it have always bothered me. “Be careful” offers no instruction. It is vague and useless. Unless you have sat down and delineated what a careful way of being looks like you have done nothing to help your child. Instead it acts as a marker for your child to engage anxiety. How many parents have said “be careful” and then noticed their child looking at them from the jungle gym as if to say “is this it, is this careful?”

That moment is very dangerous for child development. When a child stops trying to make its own moment-to-moment assessments it has leaned on an unsustainable resource. You won’t always be there. You shouldn’t. You can’t. “Be careful” sends a message “you are close to making a mistake, luckily I warned you.” Over time that message gets consolidated to “my parents know when I’m about to screw up, I don’t, I need them around to be sure to tell me what to do.”

There are a number of similar phrases.  “You’re not listening” asks a child to read non-literal communication. Thanks. “What are you doing” asks them to understand a rhetorical question. Imagine their confusion. “Pay attention” asks a child to adhere to a verb that doesn’t have meaning to them and an action that can only be internally derived. Would you ever tell a kid “be happy”? No, you’d say “smile”.

Don’t become white noise

While it may seem trivial, these are the micro-manager analogues everyone hates in our adult lives. “Do a good job”, “be a better teammate”, “show people you love them”. Super low yield if not stifling in their ability to create growth. When a child is consistently exposed to this kind of ambiguous direction they may move those words, and you, into the white noise realm.

Imagine I take a child to the playground. While there I tell the child to be careful every time peril is near. They climb high up,”be careful”. They stand near a ledge, “be careful”.  They run from point A to B, “be careful”. Two things have happened.

One, that child does not have to mentally assess safety at any point. You’ve got it covered. The kid has a built-in external alarm system. He doesn’t have to think at all. You will often see this in highly impulsive children. Their external alarm has allowed them to never need to learn internal risk assessment. Particularly because this alarm is always going off!

That brings us to the other function at play. Part of effective interpersonal communication and teaching methods is establishing a recognizable pattern. We use these patterns to understand the meaning behind each other’s subtle variations in tone, intensity and word choice. A parent who uses “be careful” has decided to give up on that phrase having any meaning. Much less the meaning the phrase intends: “DON’T DIE!” In this case pattern recognition will not differentiate your tone of caution from “eat your vegetables”.

It is extremely important for parents to have a way of communicating emergency. “Be careful” parents often will instead use volume, anger, etc to communicate emergency. Those are dangerous but necessary because the simpler forms of alert have been watered down.

How to teach Careful

The process of learning how to teach careful is beautifully wrapped up in Tim’s idea to release control over his employees. As with everything I talk about on this blog, you have to start with slow, comfortable increments toward a larger uncomfortable goal. That was Tim’s choice to start with $100. Let it go and see what happens. Know what your markers are that the experiment has failed and be ready to jump in if necessary. If failure does occur, regroup and plan again. Next time make the step smaller.

Field Test: Find your Closing Speed

I recommend finding a place to take your kid that you feel represents safety. I really like large, open, grass fields for this so I will use it as our example. Take your kid to the center of the field. Put them down and let them do their thing. From that point forward your goal is to not use sound to guide your child and protect them from danger.

Many parents call this “zone defense”. You let your kid do their thing while you stay within “closing distance”. It’s derived from sports where a few people can be used to guard a large area. You never let your assignment get far enough away you can’t close.

This does require you to know your “closing speed” and your kid’s “escape speed”. If “escape speed”>”closing speed” we have a problem. I recommend using our field test to find your answers. Let your kid go and chase them down. Over time you will develop a natural sense of when YOU need to “be careful” and move closer to your kid. You will develop an intuition of when a given distance FEELS too far.

Field Test: Know Your Angles

In most sports there is an objective assessment of the individual’s skill at the discipline. A basketball player’s shooting skill. A pitcher’s arm strength. A sprinter’s speed. There is also a deeper understanding of their grasp of the process of their sport. This tends to be an “it” factor. Something that is not often taught due to the abstract complexity of the content. Some will talk about it being a god-given talent or natural ability. I will argue there are no significant god-given talents. “It” factors can all be learned.

The analogue to use here is shot blocking in basketball. To steal from Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the fixed mindset is going to say that being tall and jumping high are the essential components to shot blocking. However the growth mindset will say that those qualities should not be the focus. Rather the teachable quality is what is important. In shot blocking that teachable quality involves angles.

The great shot blockers know how to unconsciously assess a shooters position and body language to know the most likely shot vectors. The elites take it another step and learn how to use their own body to influence the shooter into vectors that are weaker for the shooter and stronger for the blocker. If I am a right-handed blocker defending a right-handed shooter I want him to take left-handed shots to my right side all day. In a moment I will use my light speed mental processor to guide him toward the baseline (where the bounds line can act as an extra defender). However I will also leave enough space that he THINKS he has room to get off an easy left-handed fade. That is until he realizes that I have been studying his left-handed fade for a week and know that he always shoots it as a cross-over from a right-handed dribble. The second I see his right hand crossing the ball to the “open” left I gave him, I am closing on the angle to start my block at the point of attack I know works best for me.

I should mention I have never intentionally blocked a shot in this manner in my life. I learned about it by reading about shot blocking. Not because I’m ever going to block shots. Rather to learn how to plan for effective parenting. Value in metaphor.

Now let’s turn this into some direct parenting technique. I’m going to use my kids’ favorite place as our basketball court: the fountain at Broadway’s Plaza in Walnut Creek.

Image result for broadway plaza

As you can see there is a lot to love here. A fountain. A circle (perfect for running around). Benches (perfect for racing toys across). Stairs (perfect for climbing). There’s also bus that comes by designed to look like an SF Cable Car (as we do here) which they love.

Parents will see something different. Water in which to drown. A sidewalk with nothing barricading it from the street. Cool stuff on the other side of the street. It’s a darting and dashing nightmare. Right?

Wrong. Let’s break it down to unearth the game plan and find our vectors. The two biggest vectors of harm are the fountain and the street. Let’s start with the fountain. The water is about 12-18 in deep and maybe 6-8 in below the edge. This single spot is the location of the most “be careful” parenting in all of downtown Walnut Creek.

It is not a vector of harm. My toddlers will not drown in it. They may fall in. They may get wet. That will suck. 24 hours later it will all be fine. So we remove the fountain from our minds. It is Shaquille O’Neal at the three-point line. It is Tim giving his employees control over $100 decisions. I did my field test. I know my rate of closure. I know if they go in I will be there fast enough that harm will not occur.

Now I am left with one vector of harm and one angle I need to be able to attack- the street. Streets are a big one as they are probably one of the most significant vectors of unquestionable harm possible. As such, my wife and I have spent a good deal of time training to streets (remember the analogy in basketball of watching tape of a shooters habits?). The kids now know “yellow bumpies” mean “stop”. They don’t need to be told.

Image result for yellow bumps on sidewalk

By practicing stopping, reinforcing it with positive emotions (the best reward you can give a kid) we showed them to “be careful” without words. Now we can say “stop at the yellow bumpies” and they know how the “be careful”. Over time we lengthened the gap we give them ahead of us when walking. In doing so we never gave them any instructions other than “stop at the yellow bumpies”. We have never let them go ahead of us a distance we haven’t already seen them master.

Initially this gap was always ONLY a distance we knew would allow us to be on them in a few steps. The second we saw their lead foot go off the bumpies and toward the street we swooped. It happened maybe twice. They never actually made it off the bumpies. As Cesar Milan says all the time, if a dog/child makes a mistake it is not their fault, it’s yours. It was your responsibility to be prepared to prevent the mistake using behavior and not words. By reserving our “emergency” voice and behavior for those two moments they understood in a second this was different and learned quickly.

With this information I now know I can stand at the white posts you see in the picture above and prevent any access to our one vector of harm. My angle to the fountain is good. The only escape vectors are the sidewalks in the four corners of the plaza (2 not pictured) on our side of the street. If one of the kids moves toward those vectors I change my angle, shrink the zone, and move closer to that point. I’m constantly looking for a sign one of them will bolt down that pathway. It’s never happened but I don’t assume that will continue.

The caveat here is that while you may not yet intuitively know your closing speed or angles, your kids know it exactly. You probably have seen this in elite form if you’ve ever tried to catch a dog. Both instinctively know how fast you can come and when you can and can’t catch them. Conversely they also use that information to know how far away from you to go. Going back to our field test, you probably can come up with an exact distance where you kid’s internal “too far” meter kicks in. (Hint: the more you use “be careful” the further that distance will be).

In that space if there is a vector you want to avoid, make sure you both start out far enough away that it is not within your kid’s internal “too far” distance. For example, ideally Broadway Plaza is big enough that I actually stand on the other side of the fountain (to the right edge of the picture) so the kids never extend their range of play beyond “too far”. That said, in this case I feel much better standing at the posts- it guarantees my hypothesis isn’t wrong.

Another caveat. All of these ideas are generally based on happy kids with their executive functioning intact. Sometimes all it takes is a skinned knee, a lost car, or a denied ice cream and executive function is out the door. That’s the b-line for the street I want to prevent. Again, it’s never happened for us (they always stop at their “too far”) but we are always ready for it to happen. When emotions are clearly getting high, we shrink the zone and decrease the closing distance. Use body language and positioning to create safety, not verbal language and volume. Like a gazelles on the savanna, when your young are injured, keep them close to the center of the herd. You don’t see momma gazelle yelling, “hey the lion is coming, get your ass over here”. Momma moves into the best position to prevent compromise.

Summary: learn how to parent from animals and athletes.

Effective Parenting is a Commitment

This conversation does require some degree of disclaimer. This is not an instruction to let your kid run wild and free and see what happens. In fact what I am advocating for is actually a more hands-on attentive approach than the “be careful” or helicopter parents achieve. Our kids should never be allowed into a setting where we have not already done the diligence to assess the risk. It is our job to protect them. However, in that voice we must also hear that it is our job to find ways to give them allowable, intelligent risks.

In that way, I do not recommend most people try this on their own. I recommend you seek a Behavior Modification specialist and consult with that person on planning. Don’t trust my ability to clearly convey the point without the opportunity to ask questions. I am effectively saying that you should let your kids walk toward a street with busy cars and not stop them. That’s REALLY dangerous. You have to KNOW your kids will stop because you’ve proven it. In the same way you have to know your kids will leave a party when drugs come out. That they will take an Uber home when their romantic partner decides it is time to show each other how much they love one another. Kids do not get the benefit of the doubt.

To be an effective parent you have to be on point constantly. It is exhausting. You can’t go to the park and check your Facebook feed. You are a professional basketball player in the middle of a game. You can’t take a break to get off your feet while the kids are off playing. You are a field general and it does not relent, ever. Playgrounds become an exercise in observation, prediction and action. Stores become a dance for line-of-sight. Unless you can commit to this, do not consider any of my ideas.

If you can commit to this you will offer your children the opportunity to develop beyond anything you could teach them with words. They will derive their own internal sense of boundaries. They will learn internal cues of safe vs unsafe, right vs wrong. Eventually it becomes second nature for you both and isn’t as difficult as it was in the beginning. You’ll remember the basketball analogy where a shot block becomes unconscious muscle memory. It can happen here too.

Like Tim Ferriss found in letting his employees make decisions in incremental, allowable steps, you can unlock potential and release yourself of the stress of needing to be the external brain. Whatever you do, “just be careful.”



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.

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. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding “Good” in Adversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be “Mr. Smiley Positive Guy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I look forward to your feedback.

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.