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It’s time for an epic reading assignment.
In the next week I will be reading one book each day. 7 days. 7 books.
You should too. Here’s how.
Because everyone is dumb and getting dumber. The world is constantly changing and most people cannot keep up. Maybe the pace of machine learning is outpacing human learning. Who knows. The point is, you aren’t learning fast enough. It’s time you absorbed a ton of information, all at once.
There are whole fields of information and wisdom you know nothing about. Religion. Computer science. Business operations. Neuroscience. And guess what? You’re way fucking behind! I went too Foocamp a few weeks back alongside Tim O’Reilly, Hank Green, Kathy Sierra, and others, and guess what? I feel dumb. So I’m going to compensate.
Huge, impossible challenges are healthy. I literally have no clue if I will have the focus and dedication to do this, and you probably don’t either. Your self-esteem would be helped by stretching what you think is possible. That won’t happen unless you set yourself up for a massive goal. Consider this the book equivalent of running up Mount Kilimanjaro– or whatever works for you.
Are you serious? Dude, just do this. You’ll feel awesome after.
Ok, I just finished the first book a minute ago: The E-Myth Revisited. Clocks in at 292 pages. So this isn’t a joke. You’re going to need some serious planning, some technique, and some serious straight up putting-in-the-work time.
Choose your books in advance. Basically you need to be organized enough to know immediately what you’re reading and not doubt it. If you can, choose books that stack on top of each other so that you learn successive, stacking topics.
Here are some of the books I will be completing over the next few days:
Religion For Atheists by Alain de Botton.
Quiet by Susan Cain.
The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander.
All these stack up in my head for a bunch of learning I need to be doing. Try for the same.
When I first started reading a lot I read very slowly. In this case, slow reading will not work. So your first technique will be to use a tracer, such as your finger or a pen, for all of your reading. Try this technique right now with the pic above. Use your finger to trace right under the words in the pic and you’ll see that you immediately stop subvocalizing. This should double your reading speed pretty much immediately.
Once you have stopped subvocalizing and are using your tracer, make an effort to stop going back for “missed material” and remember to take breaks in between.
In case you’re wondering, I learned these technique from Emerson Spartz, a home-schooled child genius (lol) that read a biography a day for a year.
Read for information and trust in your brain to absorb. So please, for the love of God, do not read War & Peace or Moby Dick. Choose books you will learn things from but know that they contain some filler, as all books do. How do I know this? I was once told one of my books needed to be a certain width because it needs to be wide enough to be seen on the bookshelf. Fact: the size of a book is based partially on marketing and not entirely on content.
By the way, since I started reading faster– I absorbed more.
Anyway, find something you want to learn and focus on that as you read. This was one of Marshall McLuhan’s techniques– to come to a book with a question– and he claims to have gotten more out of reading from it.
Ok, I believe I spent about 5 hours reading this book today, more or less. You can choose faster books! I have a free and quick one right here if you really want to get a head start. But the point is not to let anyone (including you) pass judgment on which books you should read. Choose what’s manageable. Don’t go crazy.
Don’t kid yourself though. This requires some serious time. So use every possible moment. I did this between sets while on the gym and read in bed in the evening. I read everywhere. But most importantly, I still made time for work and phone calls. Most of what I got rid of was my social media time!
Fact: you can easily cut into your Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook time and get this done.
This is probably not sustainable. But it is epic. So do it. You know you want to.
Please share this. Thanks.
Imagine that you were running a race on one of three escalators. Which race would you rather be in?
1. An escalator that is helping you up.
2. A broken one that is not moving at all.
3. An escalator that is going down while you head up, making it harder to reach the top.
Lots of people are racing, and you want to win. Which race do you choose?
Everybody talks about it. Nobody does it.
If I’ve learned anything about the world by my age, it’s that most of the world, myself included, is composed of talkers, not doers.
There are very few exceptions to this rule. The good news is, you can be one if you want.
The ability to act is not something you’re born with. Change is a skill you can learn– as long as you have the guts to actually do it.
I’ve changed a lot in my life, but it’s not because I’m special. I just created special circumstances. Whatever you want is usually easier to get than you think, as long as you are willing to adapt and do what is necessary.
Now, most posts of this nature will give you little tips, maybe even 100 tips, in the hope that you’ll be impressed by how large the list is and just tweet the hell out of it. They do this because it works (my last one is currently getting 40,000 visits a day from Stumbleupon actually), but writing of that type also usually appeals to those who want simple answers, and that’s not what I’m interested in right now.
So I’ve decided to make this post ridiculously long instead. It weighs in at almost 5,000 words. You may want to go make some coffee.
By the way, I’m also going to say that I’m not going to be writing about this stuff for much longer. I’m starting to get referred to as a “self-help” guru, and honestly, I don’t like it at all. I also began to realize that once you start to talk about success, instead of be successful, you become a talker, and not a doer, which is counter to what I’m trying to do in life.
I’m starting to figure out that the way your time should be spent is largely like a pyramid, with a wide base of learning, with a smaller level of acting on top of it, which is directed by the learning, and then on top of that, an even smaller level of writing about it. If you begin to live your life differently than the pyramid should be built, it becomes unbalanced and topples over. But that’s another subject entirely.
Anyway, the point is, I can’t just snap my fingers and change you– nor would I want to if I could. But what I can do is give you guys a real primer on how change is done. This would be the learning part, as said above, but then you’ll need to go ahead and act in order for any change to occur. So I added in homework assignments. As long as you know this, and you’re willing to actually do them, then we can go forward.
Take the following as one guy’s experience, along with the proverbial grain of salt.
The entire human brain is a complex pattern-recognition system that, at one point, was largely there to help you survive and reproduce. Patterns were recognized to help you react properly to a new stimulus, which kept you alive long enough to have as many kids as possible (after which, you could basically die as far as your genes were concerned).
The problem is, that’s no longer our biggest priority, at least as far as the conscious mind is concerned. Now we want to write books, and we want six-pack abs with only 4 hours of gym time, blah blah. We want to know ten languages and have a gorgeous, smart and successful significant other, etc. etc. Oh yeah, and we want to be happy.
The problem is that our whole brain is still largely designed to keep you alive until puberty, and then, when that moment happens you’re like “I’m a man” or whatever, your brain’s job is to get you to reproduce as often as possible, doing your part in the long-standing, subconscious war to stay in the gene pool.
In other words, your conscious brain is trying to do one thing, while the rest of your brain is trying to do another. Our brain is now maladapted to our goals, and its patterns are hard to break because, 100,000 years ago, learning about the world meant just surviving, which was fairly easy, and once that was under control, you could stop learning entirely because the forest you lived in wasn’t going to be changing anytime soon.
Now, our world is changing all the time, and in order to change ourselves, we need to ease into and embrace the coming chaos. Those that are most comfortable with change for change’s sake will adapt better to the future, and you can only get good at change by trying to do it, in small ways, on purpose.
In other words, you have to try and break your patterns and build new habits around them, constantly, because that’s how the world now works. You also have to gather infrastructure around you that helps you do this, because your brain is simply not built for it.
This, by the way, is central to my thinking about challenge, and how your reactions to any bet or dare will shape your future. You need to get good at challenges– in other words, at reacting to unexpected stimulus– if you are going to be capable of change.
Now, I know that some people would say that people’s problem with change is fear– I know that some people would argue that it’s the number one thing stopping most people– but I don’t actually think that’s true, on a conscious level. I think most people’s primary problems is that they literally forget to keep doing the thing they wanted to do. “Dammit,” they think, “I wanted to write today. I forgot. Oh well, tomorrow’s another day.” And then they forget tomorrow and they day after, and it’s all shot to hell until next New Year’s. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.
So while fear is a problem, building a habit of doing things that need to be done, whether you like them or not, is often a good first step. Let’s start by listing some ways to do that.
Find the moment where you have the most energy. For me this is usually early in the morning. I have a dog, so I may walk him, or my girlfriend may, but I keep all the lights turned off, launch Freedom on my computer (as it is on right now) and then write for one hour. I have no goal but to sit down and do it. This takes the pressure off. I know that if I don’t do it before I do anything else, it just doesn’t happen. I learned this the hard way.
Do the hardest things first. The way life works is that easy things will get done anyway. You look at your list of stuff and think, “what is going to be the most difficult thing to do?” If you work on this one first, you’ll discover that your day will get easier, and the rewards will get better as time goes on. So the first thing is hard, but next is easier, and then easier still, and so on until you have the most fun doing the easiest things on your task list.
Have a list of 5 things you want to do, maximum. Don’t start with 5 world-changing acts, though. Begin with one and do it for as little time as you can so it gets done. I know that Zenhabits recommends you start with 5 minutes a day, but I’ll often start with 15 or 30 minute chunks. It’s how I started drawing again, 10 years after dropping out of art school.
The goal is not to succeed. It is just to sit and do it. As I’ve said before, ugly is just a step on the way to beautiful. If you sit down and expect anything, you will freeze up. So just sit down with no expectations. Like the gym– the goal is just to go and do your best, not to deadlift 500 pounds, but to lift just a little more than last time. And even if you failed at that, it’s fine, because you’ll be doing it again next week. No rush. Just sit down and begin.
Homework assignment 1. I know you guys like homework, so here’s something for you to do right now. List the 5 most important things you can do to improve your day. Then, place them in order of difficulty, starting with the hardest. Next, set your alarm right now at one hour earlier than you’re used to waking up, and begin tomorrow morning with the hardest task you have.
DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS.
While you are building habits, it is 100% certain that you will be failing, not just a few times, but often. This is because you’re doing new things, and new things are by definition hard to do.
But the point is never to look back at past failures, and even not to sulk in current ones, but to say “I’m going to start again right now.” In other words, it’s not about this current attempt and its success and failure. It’s about the process of doing it again no matter how horrible the previous attempt was.
I’m sure you know from experience that one of the most difficult things to deal with when making new habits is the realization that you have screwed up. A few days ago I was going out for a friend’s birthday and I was thinking “Ok, well I only have one more thing to do. I still have time though, I’ll do it later.” God, it’s amazing how often I still believe my own bullshit.
I know that, from reading this blog, some people seem to think that I am some paragon of industriousness. This is so far from the truth that it’s laughable. I’m actually one of the laziest people I know. I have the most excuses, among the most horrible habits of anyone I know, and I am sure that, in an alternate universe somewhere, I am either homeless, a janitor, or dead. I am not exaggerating. That I’ve gotten through all this is somewhat of a miracle.
I say this because I want you to know that I am not unlike you, and that you are not alone in your horribleness. We’re pretty much the same, I just happen to be observant enough to have learned a few lessons. One of the big ones is that I am no longer as concerned with failure.
The only real difference between you, the one that does nothing, and you the super successful multi-millionaire, is that the other guy gets up over and over again, like a boxer in the ring that needs to win the fight.
In life, you can just get knocked down and stay down forever with no real impending deadline. In sports, you can’t. There is a timer, and you can hear it as you are failing, and the only option is to get back up again. Since life does not work this way, I have taken an alternate stance, which is that no one is watching or even gives a damn. My failure is inconsequential and silent, so I can fail over and over again in my little cave while no one is watching, and then as I get better, I can get more public about my efforts and do better.
Produce horrible material on purpose. Whatever your work is, perfectionism is a killer. You just sit there thinking “I’m horrible at this,” totally paralyzed, unable to continue. *****
Give yourself several chances in a day. I read the book 18 Minutes earlier this year and it gave me a great tip to help me get up over and over again. I set up a timer now using the RE.minder app for iPhone that pings me once an hour to ask “Are you being productive?”
Realize that there are no consequences. Almost everything that sucks stays in the draft stage anyway, and the stuff that doesn’t (and is public) has almost no social consequences at all. I have a friend who’s one of those dating coaches, and he always says that the perceived social consequences of talking to strangers is always WAY worse than actually doing it. Whatever errors we make are diluted into the fabric of society, so the larger the fabric is, the smaller the error seems.
Homework assignment 2. Carry around a smartphone, or alarm, that reminds you every hour (9 to 5) to get your ass back to work. Sit down first thing in the morning and write, draw, go to the gym, or create something, no matter how bad the result is. Do it for a given time period, begin before you stress out about it, and continue until the anxiety has subsided.
DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS. SERIOUSLY.
Ok, we’ve gotten past the basic stuff.
You’ll notice so far that what we’ve been talking about is largely an issue of philosophy. The first assumption is something along the lines of: “You are naturally weak. If you want to become strong, use society’s infrastructures and your own willpower to strengthen the structure around you.”
The second conclusion you come to is: “If you fall, the environment you fall into is safer than it has ever been. If life was at one point nasty, brutish, and short, it is now long, diplomatic, and peaceful. Failing is therefore easier. So is getting back up.”
If you follow these, the next conclusion must therefore become “I have a structure around me to make things easier than they’ve ever been. And even when they are hard and I fail, nothing much happens. So there is really no reason for me to be afraid at all.”
I’ve actually written a whole free book about this (that you should download!) so I won’t elaborate, but one reason that many people can’t change is because they simply can’t handle the flinch– a reflexive almost physiological response to exiting the safe zone. This may happen even though they know, consciously, that their safe zone is huge. In this case, it’s not the conscious mind that matters. It’s the emotional one.
So you have to start convincing your emotional brain that beating the flinch is no big deal, and you can only really do this by having visited the other side. In other words, the intellectual part of the equation will only get you so far.
You can’t just think it. You need to feel it.
How do you do this? Each person’s methods will differ. I can tell you that having epileptic seizures, getting tattooed, pierced, and branded over and over again from the age of 18 until now (32), helped a lot. I can tell you that learning to talk to strangers helped a lot, as does (badly planned) travel, which helps me deal with unexpected circumstances as they arise. The more you leap into the unknown, the more you discover that the unexpected is rarely something you need to actually worry about. You ease into surprises and learn to deal with them as they come instead of reflexively avoiding them.
As you discover this, you’ll see that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, a virtuous circle that builds confidence upon confidence in layers, like armour or calluses.
But each type of armour is actually quite specific. You don’t lose your fear of getting jumped unless you prepare for getting jumped beforehand, and you don’t lose social anxiety unless someone teaches you what to do, and what not to do.
So losing the flinch isn’t just about jumping into the unknown; it’s also about learning what technique works in the new environment you’re leaping into. Swimming helps you deal with being in the water, but nowhere else, while fighting helps you learn to deal with fights, etc.
Write down the worst case scenario. I picked this one up from Tim Ferriss. While you’re in a safe place (i.e. not under pressure), look at what’s going to happen and ask yourself what the worst possible conclusion is. You ask someone out, they say no, or worse, maybe they laugh. You’re embarrassed, and in a few days you’re over it and laughing with your buddies. Or, you ask for a raise and your boss says no.
Recognize that pain evaporates quickly. The brain is wired to associate pain with death. Most pain, however, is insignificant and doesn’t last– either it vanishes quickly or, in the off chance where it’s longer-lasting, it’s dull and can easily be ignored. Realize that pain is a temporary, vestigial reaction created by evolution in an environment where a single scrape could mean death by infection. Then recognize that we have antibiotics and move forward anyway.
Deal with discomfort as it comes; don’t predict it. As I write this I have turned my internet connection off with an app called Freedom. I do this because it makes me more productive, but I also notice that being disconnected from the web feels awkward, and it makes me way more nervous than I should. I keep thinking “when is my hour up,” or “I’ll just check my phone,” etc., because this process of writing for one hour (minimum) per day leaves me struggling to find things to talk about. But it also means that I’m getting better at discomfort, every day, the same way you adjust to a cold shower after a few seconds of being in the water. And as the hour finishes, I can feel myself internally saying “thank God it’s over.” Now think about this: if I can’t deal with that tiny discomfort, how will I deal with anything else that happens out in the real world?
Homework assignment 3. Find several daily practice that makes you uncomfortable. Go to the gym and put yourself (safely) under as much weight as possible. Meditate every day for as long as you can stand it– no email, no phone, no clock– until your alarm says you can get up. Start with ten minutes and do it right after your biggest task of the day (as discussed above).
YEP… DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS.
I’m going to guess that, in your social circle, you don’t have that many people you hang out with that make you feel like utter, worthless garbage. I don’t mean a psychotic ex or something, I mean someone that is working harder than you, has more money than you, is happier and better with people than you, all that stuff.
A lot of change has to do with watching your blind spots. Returning to old habits is easy when you have no one watching you, calling you on your bullshit when you fall back into your old ways of thinking. You need someone, or many people, who’ll call you on it, who will tell you the truth when you need to hear it. If this is someone you hire, that’s fine, and if it’s someone close to you, like your spouse or friend, that’s fine too. But they have to be able to both tell you the truth, help you raise the bar, and be in your corner at the same time. This is not an easy person to find.
About a month ago my friend Mitch and I got together for sushi. He told me that it’s rare, for people at his level (and mine) to have someone call him out, to tell him he’s wrong. I feel the same way. People around you don’t want to rock the boat, but if you’re like me, you’re surrounded by supporters and no one is telling you you’re not good enough– which is actually what you want to hear. This, by the way, is why I love that I’m going to TED this month. Simply put, I know that five days of feeling like garbage about my accomplishments will do wonders for me.
Anyway, the point of this was that, the next day after I called him on his BS, as he had asked, he produced a 15,000-word book proposal. It was almost instantly sold to Hachette by our agent and became this book.
So the question is, what would it take for you to produce that much amazing material, that fast?
Stay in over your head at all times. If you’ve ever wondered why my blog has the name that it does, you now have your answer. “In over your head” should be the state you are always reaching towards– not knowing entirely what you’re doing, having taken on too much, being too ambitious because you’ve made ridiculous promises, etc. All these things are good because they will make you extremely resourceful. You need to find ways to over-promise so that you begin to freak out, at least a little.
Have regular meetings with people way above your level. I just got introduced to Paulo Coelho via my co-author Chris Brogan. I love his work, as many do, but unfortunately doesn’t make me feel like garbage because he is so above my level that I can’t even relate to his experience and success. So while I’m extremely pleased to be speaking to him (stay tuned for that), in terms of raising the bar, it doesn’t quite cut it.
What you need are people that are close enough to your level, in age, intelligence, and resources, but who have done much more with them. When I remember that Gary Vaynerchuk is only 35, for example, now that makes me feel like garbage. When Mitch gets more speaking engagements than I do, same thing. When Greg is flying to New York (again) to meet high-up VCs to get his company sold, and I suddenly remember that he’s fucking 23 years old, that makes me feel like garbage. So find people like this. Buy them lunch if you have to, whatever it takes.
Incidentally, I’d like to mention that accomplishments alone can’t carry you. After a while, I have a feeling you’ll get burned out on them– that the bar will get raised so high, and you’ll have done so much, that you simply don’t care anymore and just want to produce good work. That is a good thing, of course, and you shouldn’t just be driven by accomplishments, but it genuinely does help me, so that’s why I’m telling you that.
Expose yourself to ideas you don’t understand. People often write or produce ideas and then don’t draw them to their logical conclusion. You can often see people trying to emulate the Seth Godin style of post, for example, because they think that style works since he’s the most popular marketing blogger, etc. But the reality is that these people are having simple ideas, writing them down and going “wow! I’m done,” when they’ve in fact just begun.
Ryan Holiday wrote a post a while ago which is relevant here (see How to digest books above your level). This is important because pushing things past their usual end point is the only way you will ever come across conclusions that others haven’t yet had. Last week I spoke to Gad Saad, who basically invented evolutionary psychology as it relates to consumer behaviour, by combining ideas that had been discussed elsewhere but had simply not been put together before. His work is considered a breakthrough in the understanding of how human beings make buying decisions.
Homework assignment 4. Start reading more. Read biographies of people you have heard of and respect– not necessarily Nobel laureates or geniuses, but people who are like you that you respect. If you’re from Iowa, pick someone else from Iowa. If you’re a web entrepreneur, find people at your level but that have done more with it.
DO NOT CONTINUE TO READ UNTIL YOU HAVE DONE THIS.
We’ve come almost full circle at this point. You’ll notice that once your bars get raised, and you can build habits that help construct new skill sets to help you reach them, you will continue to expand your horizons exponentially compared to where they were used to.
I wrote this post, by the way, by using the exact set of things I wrote about here. I could not have written 5,000 words about this without having a daily writing habit. I could not have finished it without being ok with seeing this post fall flat (which it might). I’m ok with it falling flat because I have seen posts I have worked hard on fall flat before, and besides a little disappointment, I did not die… I was fine.
But you can definitely see the process, now, of how normal people become extraordinary through changing their behaviour alone. Then, after behaviour changes, the mind usually changes with it, leading to more confidence, which expands your reach even further, etc, all in a giant cycle.
The sad part about all this is that some people simply are not willing to put themselves inside the system to make it happen. Most people feel as if they are doing it, but they often are not. What they really need to be doing is stop listening to themselves as if they knew what was best for them. The reality is, they don’t. Only when you recognize this can you make change happen.
Ok, this is all fine and good, but the final question is, what should you really be changing towards? Maybe you’re not happy with where you are, and you want to go somewhere else, but why do you even want to go there? What’s the goal, and will you be happier when you get there? You don’t know, so you may not want to change.
I suspect that the real answer to this is that it simply does not matter where you go. Remember, you’re not looking to be perfect. You’re only looking for a small improvement over your current state, and as long as you’re ok with fumbling on your way there, you should just start moving immediately and deal with the decisions as they come.
With that in mind I should say that I really don’t know how to finish this post. It’s by far the largest post I’ve ever written, practically like a mini-book, and I’d just like to finish it so I can go ahead with my drawing, cleaning out my inbox, and everything else I need to do today before I can go out and see my friend Justin without any guilt on my mind.
So thank you very much for reading all the way through. I hope this helps. Please leave me a comment if you have any questions and I’ll do my best to answer all of them. Oh, and please subscribe using the form below. Thanks. :)
For most, the man needs no introduction. But in case you do, here’s one anyway.
Leo Babauta is the founder of ZenHabits, a massively popular blog that is considered by Time Magazine to be one of the top 25 blogs in the world. This is already enough to make him interesting, but actually, there’s more.
The connection to The Flinch seemed natural. If you read it, you’ll definitely love this.
They say if you have to ask, it can’t be explained. And so of course I’ll try to explain it: if you hear about the challenge — 12+ hours of grueling physical tasks with a 55-lb. backpack on your back — and you think it sounds like fun, you’re probably right for it.
It’s kind of like getting a taste of what the Special Forces guys do in training, but without the weapons. Weighted pushups, lunges, bear crawls, hiking, running, carrying logs, carrying your teammates … this is the kind of thing I wanted to try. I’m not into the military aspect, but I am into physical challenges, and especially into mental challenges. This was, at its deepest level, a mental challenge: you have to find it in you to not quit when it sucks really bad, to help your teammate when he’s falling down, to motivate your team to meet its missions. I found out a lot about myself.
I know they say “it’s all mental,” and I know from Crossfit, walking the Camino, etc, that it’s true, but there’s also real physical challenge there. How do you know you can do it?
You don’t know, and that’s the scary part. You should be able to run/hike with a weighted backpack (let’s say 30-lbs.) for a couple hours at least. You should be able to do a bunch of pushups, squats, lunges, and bear crawls. You should be able to sprint and run up hills. It requires strength, so practice carrying people on your back and shoulders.
If you can do all that, you should be OK physically. But it will still suck at times, and you’ll want to quit, no matter how physically prepared you are. You have to make it through the suck. You have to embrace the suck.
Now we’re talking. Ok, describe the moment where the suck occurs. How does it feel when it happens? How do you convince yourself to go on?
You’re cold and wet and you’ve been crawling on the sand for hours with your heavy pack biting into your shoulders and your knees are bloody and your shoulders want to collapse, and you don’t know when this will end. Your mind has been complaining constantly, “Why are we doing this? What’s the worst that would happen if we just quit and walked away? What are we trying to prove? Is it worth it? You could go home and sleep. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
And it’s incredibly tempting to give in to your mind, because it is very convincing. We are very very good at rationalizing, especially in the face of pain. It’s painful, and you want the pain to end, and you want to just rest. This is what happens when it starts to suck. And that was just the beginning of the suck — there were many other such moments along the way.
I would convince myself to go on first by being aware of what my mind was doing. I would watch my mind as an outside observer, and laugh at my mind and its rationalizations. Then I would pay attention to the ground in front of my face, the waves on the beach washing up near my body, the incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge lit up at night, and think, “I am incredibly lucky.” I would feel the pain and the tiredness, and think, “What a wonderful thing it is to feel.” And then I would say, “Just one more step. We can re-evaluate after one more step.” Then I’d repeat that after that one step. It also helped that I had a team relying on me, and that I couldn’t just quit or I’d let them down.
I lived in a Japanese temple for a while where I did that. To delay the decision to stop meditating, I would say, “I will decide in exactly 30 minutes.” And then after that time: “Well, that wasn’t that bad, I could do that again.”
True, it works for anything. It helped me too when I started marathon training — you inevitably want to stop running, but if you just go a few more steps, you’ll be fine.
What I’m trying to figure out is how to make people resistant to the BS of that inner voice. To do it, you need a certain distance from yourself. How did you learn to do it? Were you born that way?
I learned it when I wanted to quit smoking, and the urges would be so strong and the rationalizations would nearly always beat me. I would tell myself, “Just get past this one urge.” I didn’t even need to go the whole day, just that one urge.
Before I learned this, I would give in to any urge. But when you realize the urge is there — you become self-aware — you learn that you can watch it, and listen to your inner voice. The inner voice is extremely intelligent, and the worst part is that we are usually not aware that it’s speaking. We just listen to it without being conscious of it. And it is talking all day long. Most people don’t realize how persistent and powerful it is.
Running really helped me to learn to listen to it, but not heed it. I run without an iPod, which means it’s just me, the outdoors, and my mind. So I pay attention to the nature around me, but also I have nothing to listen to but my mind. So I listen. And it talks, constantly.
Meditation helped strengthen this skill. Meditation is the same as running — you have nothing to pay attention to but your breathing, your body, and your mind. And your mind is very active. So you watch it, and you learn to be this observer, and it’s fascinating if you stick with it.
I’ve started to think that people should be doing difficult things on purpose, if only to train them to be able to push past their usual habits and internal programming. Do you agree? What other internal walls have you been able to push past?
I haven’t found this to be necessary myself, though I’m not saying you’re wrong. I do things in baby steps, so that change is easy. I find it much more sustainable than trying to do things that are really difficult.
I also think people are already doing difficult things in their routines — it’s incredibly unpleasant to be in a job you hate, to be overweight and unhealthy, to be deeply in debt. I know because I’ve done those things, but I felt stuck in this difficult life. The baby steps helped me to get out of the routine, to change my internal programming with micro changes.
As for other internal walls … one that I’ve been exploring is giving up goals. I’m very much programmed to be goal-oriented, and I think a lot of us are. When I first considered giving up goals, I thought it was impossible and stupid. But slowly I’ve been learning that it’s a much better way of thinking, at least for me.
Explain “giving up goals.” Did it help you complete the Goruck or was that something separate?
As I looked deeper into what’s necessary and what’s not, I started to question the need for goals — are they really essential? What would happen if you gave them up? Are they really the driving force behind what we accomplish? I’ve found that they are unnecessary — without goals, you’ll still work on things you’re passionate about, and do fun fitness activities and other things that excite you.
Goals take credit for our accomplishments, but our passion and interest is what really make things happen. Goals also add a lot of administration — goal setting, tracking, making sure you’re sticking to the goal, finding next actions, etc. Goals stress us out — if we’re not on track or don’t reach them, are we failures? Goals also fix us on a certain path, when in truth there are many possible paths and staying on one predetermined path with a fixed destination is an artificial limitation that’s completely unnecessary and unnatural.
When you remove this limitation, you are freed to do anything.
When I did the Goruck Challenge, I didn’t have “finish challenge” as a goal. I just wanted to have fun doing a new challenge. It didn’t matter to me if I finished or not. However, when I felt like quitting, I decided to stick it out through the urge to quit, to explore what that’s like. I think it’s a really interesting experiment, pushing past these urges to quit, and so that’s what I did. So yes, it did help me to finish.
“Free to do anything.” That is the perfect final sentence.
Last question: After all this progress you’ve made, is there anything you still feel any anxiety about? What do you still have problems with, if anything?
Sure, I have all the same insecurities as anyone else. I get anxious about unfamiliar social situations, public speaking, will people like my writing, am I good enough to write fiction? I have fears, about financial security and being alone and whether my life is meaningless.
The key I think is whether I let those insecurities and fears stop me from doing the things I love. I’m learning to watch those feelings, like an outside observer, and realize that they are not a part of me, but just something that happens. They are natural phenomena, like the sun rising or leaves changing color, but they are not who I am. So I watch, and let them happen, and don’t let them define me or what I do.
The list for what has never been done is very short.
If you’re looking for something new before you even begin, you may as well abandon the quest. You will probably fail.
Everyone has a voice now. Everyone has a camera, too. Every picture at every monument has been taken better by someone with better equipment. You’re screwed.
The picture itself is no longer interesting, because it has been taken already. Objectivity is not useful.
I just recently came face to face with the fact that almost everything I’ve ever done has been done better, before me, by someone else. Has this happened to you yet? If you ever do anything interesting, it will.
When it does, you will be faced with a moment of doubt that may crush you and prevent you from continuing– unless you have faced it before and seen that you can win.
But this fight is one that you can subvert and avoid entirely if you realize that the information is not what is interesting to most people– the story is.
The story is something that people can relate to. The subjective and personal is human. Human is relatable. Information is not.
The best storytellers are translators of information. They take an experience and create layers on top of it, like an onion, that get peeled and reveal deeper insight.
But the depths, of course, are dark. They are hard to map. They contain secret tunnels. They don’t reveal themselves to you instantly. They need time.
But time is not what most people have. They want quick and immediate insight. They want the information so they can move on.
Avoid the temptation to talk about information. Information is the realm in which the how-to rests, and the place where machines can easily replace humans.
If you want to stay valuable, you cannot stay where machines can replace you. The experience you provide has to be uniquely human.
But do you even know how to do that? If not, how will you learn?
You will not achieve anything unless you are capable of this fundamental act.
As a child, you excelled at it. You snuck out at night, smoked when you weren’t supposed to, and made out with someone you weren’t supposed to.
None of this killed you. In fact, the more you disobeyed, the more interesting you became.
As time went on, your patterns became more rigid. You disobeyed less. You started “figuring things out.” You stopped falling and getting hurt, and started standing tall– perhaps a little too tall.
Disobedience, in the beginning, creates independence. But the later acts of disobedience that most of us perform don’t creating anything. They’re small and pathetic. They are useless acts of control performed to create an illusion of agency that no longer exists.
What you need now is a big act of disobedience.
Life is a series of decisions, one after another. When put together, they make you who you are.
Each decision is a bet. Some are made consciously; others not. Each bet you win shows you what you’re capable of, and what your next bet should be. As you win more bets, you get more ambitious. This is a good thing.
Here is an ambitious bet I just made that I think will interest you: in May, for 30 days, I will be quitting the internet.
Instead, during this time, I will be walking an 800 kilometer, thousand-year-old pilgrimage route in Spain– one that many people have walked or dreamed to, from Paulo Coelho to American President John Adams.
It’s something we’ve been planning for almost six months. It’s pretty cool to be on the cusp of a big trip like this.
But this post isn’t about my personal quest. It’s about yours.
Do you have something to quit the internet for?
Our brains are not wired to be made happy by the internet. Our emotions, like fear and joy, are based in a primal understanding of the world. This is something we can’t escape.
Saying the web is important to your life is like saying that television is important. It might be social, sure, but it’s still media. It can help connect but it also divides in a very fundamental way.
Touching a screen isn’t the same as touching a person.
The best stuff happens outside the web. Outside is new and frightening, not comfortable. Encountering pain helps transform your vision of yourself and forces you to grow.
And there is very little that is new and frightening on the web. The biggest realizations happen when you are in free-fall, not when you have a safety net.
Happiness is not related to Twitter feeds, blog posts, or even books– although books do get closer. What happiness is connected with is unique human experience, often untranslatable into any other medium. Much like Jacques Derrida’s ash or Zen, the quiet and the sacred have no way of speaking for themselves other than personal experience.
So, personal experience is what we must seek out. It’s personal and rare, so unlike what’s easily accessible (the web), it’s valuable.
But your life needs one. Your existence needs a purpose. For now, I have one. It helps me think about the future and will give me time to think and consider what’s important.
You should have a quest for the same reason. You should feel like you’re a part of something bigger, and that you’re going somewhere. You should feel like you have challenges to overcome, things that might even feel insurmountable.
It may interest you to do something like what I’m doing– or you may find it boring. You may have some inkling of what your quest should be, or you might have no idea. It might be crazy and amazing to others, or it might be entirely mundane to them. No matter, because it’s your quest, not theirs.
It doesn’t need to impress anyone but you.
Paul Nicklen goes to the coldest, most miserable parts of the world to photograph and document the animals that live there.
Brett Rogers makes documentaries about rivers by traveling down them in non-motorized craft.
The examples above are just from TED conferences I’ve attended this year, they weren’t hard to find or anything.
But isn’t it interesting how the examples I mentioned all came from people going to tough natural environments? If you’ve been here a while, you probably already know this about me. I love nature, earthworks and endurance. It’s all right up my alley.
You probably have stuff that’s similar. Do you remember what it is? Often, ideas like these are so buried that you have no idea what you actually care about anymore. Or, you do remember, but don’t realize how long it’s been since you thought about it.
So how do you find something you care about so much you’re willing to take a break from your regular life? In the end, that’s what this is about– finding something that’s so great, you want to take a break from your regular life to do it. Work, the web, your neighbourhood, whatever it is, if you feel like you’d love it more (or as much), you’re on the right track.
You can do this by performing certain exercises– removing boundaries like money, dependents, or the amount of possessions you have. Some people say you should write ideas down until you cry.
But this isn’t about finding your one great idea. It’s only about taking one single step forward, which is much easier.
Quests in movies always go the same way. The hero is seeking enlightenment, or vengeance, or peace. He has to find someone to teach him. He seeks out this person on the top of a mountain or desert– that is to say, a hard place to find. This is a metaphor for how we find clarity and learn new things. It’s hard.
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. The stories in our lives inspire us because they are foundational to who we are. And we learn from them what steps we should take in own quests, and where we should go next from where we are.
Joseph Campbell listed a these steps in the Hero’s Journey. Have you ever seen them?
Where are you in here? Do you recognize yourself? Most people get stuck around number 3. Some are later, but not many. Are you one of them? If so, why are you refusing?
Are you stuck at number 7? This is your darkest hour, when you feel that you should give up and quit. It’s another major departure point from the quest, but in order to complete it, you have to go forward. It’s also what Seth Godin calls The Dip, but it’s universal. Have you been tested? Did you succeed?
Some people are at number 1 and have never considered anything outside the corridor they have lived in. Do you know any of them? Well, here’s a secret– most people who seem this way are in fact not here at all. Almost everyone is actually on a quest; they’ve just refused it, or have forgotten it. A temporary sidetrack.
Oops, it’s backwards. Ha, the message actually works better that way.
Look, your life has patterns, or corridors, that you need to know in order to become better. You feel pain when you leave the corridor because it is the unknown. In fact, pain might even be a signal that you are on the right track. But in order to see, you need to know what your patterns are– both good and bad.
If you have nothing better to do than spend time on Facebook or hang out at the old bar, your life may need some serious adjustment. If you don’t care about what you’re doing from day to day, or if every day seems like the last, then your whole life will be like this. You have refused the quest. You are done.
With growth and flexibility comes life; with rigidity comes death. This is a truth that expands to all living things. Your body knows this, so you should too.
The easy is not worth doing; only the hard is. It is your exposure to the new should become the norm, and your return to the old should be comfortable, but brief.
Seth Godin recently told me by email that the most important time in any project is the point at which you decide, unequivocally, that it will ship. Before that, it’s just an idea you toy around with.
Think of a relationship. Things are beautiful and perfect when they are new or aren’t real yet– but that’s precisely because they don’t exist. Once they become real, they get messy. That’s what happens when something goes from the imagination to actual existence.
Ideas, in fact, aren’t worth much. Everyone has them, even geniuses, but only those who deliver have an impact, and only those who know themselves are able to deliver.
Act as if you are stupid. Read in order to learn something, then act as if you’re stupid again and read more to make see if you’re right. Then go out into the world. Assume you will fail, but accept it, because it will make you less stupid.
Think this paragraph is funny? Well, it is, but it’s also true. What we know is vastly dwarfed by what we do not, but we act as if the patterns we recognize are all that life is or can be. This is wrong– this is actual stupidity.
If you want to be smart, you have to begin by being stupid. The hard part is staying that way.
A few months ago, a friend pointed me to this essay from Julian Assange’s old website. I remember thinking a lot about it. He had a quest, and in a way, it doesn’t matter what it was. It only mattered that, when he really looked at himself, he was doing what he thought was best for the world.
Good for the world, but not the way that people think Reaganomics is good for the world. The way that children think it.
Because, if you have a quest, then all of the suffering makes much more sense.
If you have a goal, then a lot of the actions you need to take become much clearer.
Even if your goal isn’t perfect, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s better– even 5% better.
You feel like you are a part of something. You feel like you will come back and be transfigured, and that people will see you differently.
But in fact, you will be more yourself than you ever were.
This is my 1000th post on this blog. I’m pretty proud of it.
I remember when I started in 2003, I didn’t think I was a writer at all. I did podcasts because I considered myself a verbal person. Well, I’ve changed.
When I began, I wrote bullshit, self-interested posts that were based on people thinking that my life and myself were interesting. On my show, I played a bunch of hip-hop music. It turned out that what people wanted to hear were my opinions. So I talked more.
The result, I guess, is where I am now.
This blog is now about growth. I’ve said I’d like to be unrecognizable in five years. I’d also like the same for you.
So I’d like you to subscribe. Why? Because quests are important. Top 10 and Twitter posts are not, but they are loud, so they seem that way. Often, the stuff that’s important is quiet. It isn’t obvious.
Your quest is quiet but important. So is mine. Hopefully, we’ll learn something, chat about it, and help each other along.
You may think you are strong, or that you have willpower. But do you, really?
A few years back, I remember watching a bunch of old Survivor episodes. I would download them off iTunes, eventually watching all the old seasons. I remember thinking, like many viewers probably, “I could totally do that.”
During this time, I could not do 10 push-ups in a row, nor even do one single pull-up. I had difficulty even focusing my will enough to work on a single work day. I definitely wasn’t fasting once a week like I am now, nevermind being stuck on an island with little food for 39 days.
Still, I thought I was strong. I was sure of it. Though now I realize what was probably obvious to everyone. I thought I was strong… but I never tested myself.
I was like the kid in school who says “Oh yeah, I could totally [get that girl/climb that tree/ace that test]. I just don’t want to.” The kid we know is total bullshit. The kid we think is a joke.
Don’t think that’s you? How would you know?
The answer is, you wouldn’t. Our minds keep our self-esteem at a decent level whatever our personal situations. If you were paralyzed in a hospital bed, you would base your self esteem on something else than your body. You would have to– as I was before I could lift my own bodyweight. The same could apply to you being smart but not working hard. You’d base your self-esteem on your intelligence.
It’s not that we need to stop ourselves from doing this. Nobody wants to be weak. But it’s like basing all your self-worth in your work– it’s an unstable confidence that is easily toppled and leaves you vulnerable. Are you like this?
I have a suggestion for you instead.
Look yourself in the face, and make your confidence broad.
I’ve told you one story, but I could’ve told you any number of them. I used to be really selfish, for example. I used to steal. Still, I made excuses for myself and thought I was great. I’m ok laughing at this now, because I know what things were really like. Ask my oldest friends, and they’ll tell you.
A few years ago, I started to derive my self-esteem from my ability to grow. I always believe that tomorrow will be better than today, and I’m working today to make that happen.
You’re probably wondering when I’m going to deliver on the promise in the title– how it is you should test your strength, to see if you really are strong. Well, the answer is easy.
What it takes is putting yourself in situations, and testing yourself in ways that are just at the edge of your reach. Not too easy (because that’s boring), and not too hard (because that’s discouraging). Find that sweet spot, over and over again, in every domain. Have people challenge you on it. Essentially, look at yourself from the outside in, and test yourself as if you were someone else.
This is particularly valuable if you learn new skills, specifically in areas you used to think were difficult or impossible. This gives you proof that what was beyond your reach can be made possible with enough work. It tests, and proves, your ability to grow, and shows you that tomorrow really can be better than today.
The thing is, tomorrow will only be better if you work, if you strive today to make it happen today. Like Benjamin Franklin, who rated himself every day on his thirteen virtues. You have to be prepared to look at yourself straight on.
If you don’t do this, tomorrow will be the same. That is why you need to test your strength, and your intelligence, your drive and your compassion. If all of them are exercised, all of them will grow.
I’m guessing you probably have your own ways to do this. I’d love to hear them. Email me, or leave a comment. I want to know. I have a feeling I could learn something.
I did a quick interview the other week with Chris Garrett, which he posted here.
The comments got me thinking. The people who read Chris Garrett’s blog are not our tribe, they’re a different kind of people. Seekers maybe. Maybe more pro-blogger types. Either I didn’t express myself properly, or my message is not what I want it to be to the outside world.
The statement which was the most repeated was “fear is not pointless.” Of course it isn’t– it is a real phenomenon that needs to be thought about. You and I know that fear isn’t stupid, but it doesn’t stop us from being anxious even though it might not make sense to feel it.
Let’s be honest here. We live in the lap of luxury. Our world is safer than it’s ever been, even with the false specter of terrorism, and the somewhat distant threat of global warming, in our vicinity. The things we’re anxious about have more to do with what our boss will say on his yearly report than anything really risky.
This sort of anxiety, the kind we feel everyday about going to a party where we don’t know anyone, or about quitting the job we hate– this fear isn’t real the way that being chased by a bear is real. It’s imaginary. It’s an illusion. If you’ve quit a job before, or you’ve walked into a few parties, you know this. You realize the core of it: in almost all circumstances where we feel anxious, we’re actually going to be totally fine.
This is why we need to not give into this kind of anxiety. It’s clear that it isn’t comfortable, but if we don’t get past it, we’ll feel it next time, and the time after that. Next thing we know, we’ll be like Pavlov’s dogs and be afraid to even step next to the thing that we’re afraid of. We’ll get even more distant than we were, because we’ll try to avoid the feeling itself. This is automatic. It’ll happen even if we don’t think about it.
The alternative– the “safe” alternative in the sense that it understands the illusory nature of much of these threats, is to move through the fear like a waterfall, get a bit cold in the process, and emerge at the other side. Doing this as often as possible means that we’ll understand the nature of these emotions and be able to assess them realistically instead of jumping to conclusions. We realize we’ll be able to handle it because we’ve been through it before.
This is the “risky” path. It feels risky, and it is different than what most people do. But it isn’t stupid. It doesn’t say “ignore all fear. Jump off the cliff, fuck it.” Instead, it helps you come to grips with what really happens when you do this, and learn from it instead of taking it on faith.
We, as seekers, do not take the stupid path. We do take the risky path. There is a huge difference– one is insane. The other is logical and extremely sane. We know this, and because we do, we carry on.
With no experience yesteday, I carved my first pumpkin.
I used this website, found through Google, which teaches you the how to, best practices, what to avoid– everything about pumpkin carving. They even let you print out over 240 stencils for $10. I was instantly sold, and silently noted that somebody was likely making a good living off it. Amazing.
There’s a website out there for pretty much everything you want to do. If there isn’t, there’s probably a book. I just bought about 4 real estate books, on Maya‘s advice, and I’m learning about that now. This week I’m also teaching myself to juggle and slowly watching Khan Academy‘sFinance playlist.
Those of us with growth mindsets believe that, given the right tools, we can do anything. For us, the web is the most amazing thing ever. It increases our competence and knowledge every day we open our curiosity to it. It’s incredible. And once you have the how-to, the skillset, and the drive, everything is stupid and easy to do. Nothing is impossible.
When I was a kid I was afraid to look stupid and make mistakes. But if I had the web I would have a lot more skills than I have now.
If someone in your childhood had given you a book titled How To Do Anything, what would you have done? Everything, right? Exactly.
You have this book in front of you right now. Learn everything. Do it now.