Gateless by Sebastian Marshall and Kai Zau is sort of a self-development book. But unlike most books of that genre, this one is actually really interesting and very practical.
The authors came up with a simple yet brilliant framework to help you develop yourself professionally, financially, and socially. The framework is comprised of four elements, which they called currencies: Capacity. Network. Signal. Assets. And there is a final part called Meaning.
Capacity is about your general ability to get things done. And Capacity is comprised of four levers itself: The biochemical lever, which is about how what you consume affects your thoughts, emotions, and energy levels, and what you should do to optimize that aspect of your life.
The cognitive lever, which is about your philosophy and perspective. The authors advocate for deliberateness and initiative when it comes to these—most people wait until they’re in a really bad position before they start to rethink the way they see and think.
The Action lever. This is about the way you work and operate. You want to be highly strategic about what you spend your energy on and how you do it.
And the environmental lever, which is about creating an environment that facilitates your ability to be productive and make things happen.
Network, the second currency of the framework, is about building relationships with excellent people in order to excel yourself. It also delves into building character, which is the most important requirement for successful relationships. Again, the theme of deliberateness is strongly present and advocated.
Signal, the third currency, is about how you appear in the world and what you’re known for. You want to build credentials and artifacts that position your favorably in people’s minds. There are also some thoughts on how to deal with issues such as discrimination and stereotyping that some people might experience.
The fourth currency is Assets. This introduces different habits and strategies you should adopt to better manage your finances and assets.
The last part of the book is called Meaning, and it’s generally about finding and deciding on what you want to do in life.
Lots of examples, strategies, techniques, and mental models from all kinds of different fields were introduced throughout the entirety of the book to make it maximally practical.
There is a degree of redundancy in certain sections, but it’s really the type of book that you wish you read early on in your life.
The following summary of Gateless by Sebastian Marshall and Kai Zau is meant to be concise, reminding me of high-level concepts and not trying to recreate the whole book. This summary is basically a bunch of notes and lessons paraphrased or quoted directly from the book and does not contain my own thoughts. Some of the lessons are quotes by other people that the author chose to put in his book.
• The premise of Gateless is rather simple. It comes down to four points:
1. Traditionally, people inherited many of life’s resources — identities, skills, friends, credentials, livelihoods, and so on — from a mix of formal and informal institutions. Most of these are intangible but essential to having a thriving life.
Religious worship used to tie communities together, and it was where a lot of your friends and business contacts would come from. Alumni communities were closer-knit then, and the company you went to work for would provide more of your skill-development, pension fund, and so on. Within an industry, these standards were all clearly known and could be counted on.
Today, many of these institutions have entirely dissolved, many are in the process of dissolving, and the remaining ones are rapidly reinventing themselves to better fit into modern life.
You need to manage your own resources now. You can’t count on your educational institution, employer, or the social groups you happen to mix in with to take care of you.
2. After years of observations and hundreds of discussions with top performers, Kai and I converged on a universal framework for managing your resources. There are Four Currencies:
- Capacity: Your generalized ability to get results and make things happen. In this transitionary era where the lines between disciplines are blurred and opportunities are plentiful, everyone needs a generalized strategy for getting results.
- Network: The sum of your friendships, collaborations, and mutual regard with others. You absolutely do need to consciously ensure you have excellent people in your life. Being a helpful idealist isn’t enough, but the pseudo-sociopathic path certainly isn’t the answer either.
- Signal: How you appear to the outside world. We cover the most effective types of credentials in terms of opening doors and getting opportunities — the disparity between the various types is staggering. We also wade into some unpleasant territory about what to do if you’re judged or stereotyped — gender, age, nationality, etc.
- Assets: Your tangible resources (we primarily cover the financial ones). We cover the unintuitive and frequently-mistaken aspects of it — how to avoid the biggest, misery-causing blunders and strategies for spending money effectively so that you actually get what you want.
3. Deliberateness is a theme that recurs throughout the book. Most people leave all this stuff to chance, which is a terrible plan.
4. We also speak of ensuring that you’re consistently finding meaning in your life. In the end, we give some operational guidance if you already know what you want to do, and — just as importantly — ways to thrive and excel and keep going forward even if you don’t know what your plans are.
• Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain the weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully.
The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
• Your consciousness is the same type of consciousness that led to our ancestors building this grand and glorious world we live in. It is a majestic power that operates inside your mind — and one that is often difficult to control.
• “Capacity” is your ability to consciously shape the effects you’re creating around you. You are creating effects, intentionally or not.
• To understand Capacity, imagine a large problem happening and different people you know saying, “I’ve got this under control.” There are people who, right away, you’d think: “Oh, phew, they’re on it. It’ll get fixed.” Those people have high Capacity; they can fix things.
There are other people who, once they’ve pledged to get it done, you’d think, “They said they’ve got it under control… hmm… there’s a 50/50 chance it’ll get done. I’ll have to pay attention.” Those people have a lower Capacity, but a decent one; they are unreliable in their results, but can sometimes produce. This is most of us.
And of course, there are people who, after promising to get it done, you’d feel no reassurance at all. You’d still be looking to get it fixed because you know they’re not going to get it done. Low Capacity.
• A lot of the things that go towards “Capacity” are things that wouldn’t normally get lumped together. A greater ability to function when stressed, fatigued, or in distress means higher Capacity. An ability to spot opportunities as they emerge — higher Capacity, again. Putting together novel connections to produce better results? That does it. So does being able to concentrate more. Being able to speak clearly helps; so does being able to understand the point another person is making. Being able to understand numbers well is often useful.
• In a world with less defined careers and less clear paths, the simple ability to get a job done is incredibly prized and valuable.
• A case could be made that this generalized effectiveness has become the most valuable trade. Specialist’s knowledge still reigns in medicine, law, and architecture, but even these very-established fields are seeing a greatly increased need for people who can learn quickly, adapt flexibly, and produce results; that is, people who can consciously make effects happen.
• Health, productivity, meaning, thinking, creating, consistency, training, thought processes, attitudes and affinities, beliefs, prejudices, skills, physical characteristics, mental characteristics, habits, knowledge, and so on — all of this goes into Capacity.
• Increasing your Capacity is similar — there’s an infinite many sets of levers to pull. There are tips and tricks for managing short term goals, best practices for dealing with in-the-moment emergencies, and long term training regimens for permanent gains. So, how do you improve your ability to affect results? We’ve divided these “levers” into four categories as a useful starting point — Biochemistry Cognition Action Environment
The Biochemical Lever
• Everything you consume affects your biochemistry to some extent; so do most environments and a great many of your own thoughts and actions.
• We separate out biochemistry as something you can adjust, but it’s worth noting that thinking (“cognition”) and your body’s biochemistry are not actually separate things. Your thoughts are transmitted through biochemistry, little electrochemical reactions rippling through your brain and body.
• No matter how smart, conscientious, brilliant, creative, ethical, friendly, cooperative, industrious you are in the “highest and best version of you” — if you go without food long enough, all your thoughts turn to food. It happens faster with water. Opiates — heroin included — can sometimes change a person’s perceptions and desires so incredibly much that they’re effectively different people.
• It’s rare for a person to accept too much personal responsibility. But it’s also naïve.
• There is something to mind over matter. We’ll talk about cognition next. But neglecting biochemistry is ignorant. A dehydrated athlete is literally incapable of the physical and mental performance of a hydrated athlete and is more likely to get injured.
• Many people neglect biochemical factors in their own life. If you’re dehydrated, you can’t run as well or as long or as fast. You can’t think as fast and you’re not as crisp mentally. Yet, many people don’t look at what’s going on with their own biochemistry if they find themselves unable to concentrate, if creativity isn’t coming, or if they feel unhappy.
• To hit the highest levels of performance, you need to manage biochemistry. If you’re dehydrated, performance suffers. If you have a bacterial infection, performance suffers. If you have shin splints from stress fractures in your lower legs, running will be much less pleasant, more painful, and more stressful. It will be harder to keep running. Mind over matter helps and it’s part of the puzzle, but not the whole part. You’d do well to stretch, strengthen, and hydrate.
• In the Industrial Age, there was not that much benefit to the average man to having a higher capacity to effect results. Of course, in theory there was a tremendous benefit. But if you had any “cog in the wheel” type job, extra levels of creativity or heightened concentration wouldn’t make a big difference.
• Nowadays, though, the vast majority of us benefit from a boost in thinking and deciding faster, being mentally tougher and more resilient, being able to withstand setbacks better. Professional sports players stand to gain millions of dollars by learning more about how their bodies and minds work. You stand to gain at least tens of thousands of dollars, perhaps much more, at a minimum.
• We’re leaving a time where higher mental and physical ability didn’t make a tremendous difference. Single-digit percentage points of concentration, creativity, or persistence can be worth immense amounts in breakthroughs.
• We call the sum total of your ability to affect results “Capacity,” and biochemistry plays a huge part of it. Schools don’t teach it — yet. We can look hopefully to a future where they will.
• Your body produces adenosine as a natural signal to you that you should start thinking about sleeping. Caffeine molecules are shaped similarly to adenosine and bind to the adenosine receptors without activating them. Thus, caffeine blocks out your body’s signal to get sleepy.
• Caffeine stop working so intensely over time because caffeine tolerance builds up rather quickly … that if you drink coffee regularly, pretty soon you start producing more adenosine in response; thus you need your caffeine dose just to get up to your normal level of brain activity, and you’re dopey if you don’t take it. That’s part of the process called homeostasis — the body tries to regulate itself.
Basically, simplifying, your body doesn’t want you to refrain from sleeping. So if you start having this adenosine-blocking caffeine thing regularly, your body stops having the novel dopamine/adrenalin reaction to caffeine (the situation doesn’t seem to be a big deal), and your body starts producing larger amounts of adenosine so that you get sleepy. Thus, you start needing caffeine to counteract the higher amounts of adenosine. That’s where the tolerance, addictiveness, and withdrawal — if you quit caffeine — come from.
• Dr. Narayanan writes of two ways to use caffeine — reinforcing usage and antagonistic usage. Again, caffeine works by suppressing adenosine (which normally makes you tired) and sets off a minor chain reaction of other hormones in the body.
• Let us examine the way that most people take caffeine — when they feel sleepy (I will call this antagonistic consumption.) This changes the attention level from the green line to the blue line (i.e, it smooths out the fluctuations.) This works great for many people (say, someone that has a data entry job) because maximum productivity is limited by external constraints. Other jobs where antagonistic consumption is essential include assembly line worker and truck driver, where mistakes can be disastrous but there is little to be gained from peak concentration.
• Alternatively, you can do “reinforcing caffeine usage” — which means taking caffeine when you’re most awake and alert already to maximize your alertness and try to make breakthroughs. Narayanan concludes, “But other jobs, often characterized by a low level of repetition, have a markedly different attention-productivity curve. Academic research, for instance, involves generating ideas that no one has come up with before. … [in these situations] reinforcing consumption helps maximize productivity. According to this strategy, the best time to drink coffee is when you are already very alert.”
• Over the long term, consistent caffeine consumption is as good for productivity as non-consumption, because of (you guessed it) tolerance. Is there a better strategy? Of course, there is. Periodic abstinence lets adenosine levels return to normal. With complete abstinence, it takes 5 days to reach adenosine normality; conservatively, and with imperfect abstinence, a week or 10 days may be required.
• Most people drink coffee, soda, tea, energy drinks, all sorts of stuff without knowing what it’s doing in their body. If they spent an hour or two learning what the stuff did, they could use it better and have better lives.
• Studying a little basic biology and chemistry is difficult at first; there is so much potential information. But over time, it becomes easier — and your life gets better.
• Most people follow the moral fashions of their day.
• It’s difficult for a person to abstain from doing harmful things when all of their neighbors smoke, eat sugary junk food, or get drunk regularly. Behaviors get copied; people follow the flock.
• The value of breaking free from your nation’s moral fashions in terms of consumption and biochemistry is enormous.
• If a drug came out that adversely affected over 1/3rd of people who took it, and the only payoff was a little bit of pleasant taste and a little sugar high, there is no chance it would be authorized to come onto the market. Yet, there are soft drinks. Meanwhile, if you mention that you were working with a performance-oriented doctor and he prescribed that you take ephedrine hydrochloride mixed with caffeine, that would seem like something “serious and scary” to someone… while they scarfed down a candy bar and drank a soda.
• You need to do research and learn how your body works, think critically, and not follow along with the masses. Soda is socially acceptable now, but it’s very likely that future generations will look back and see it as barbarically backwards.
Ephedrine hydrochloride is restricted right now; it’s very likely in the future that a great many people will carefully take it while working with their doctor for its performance benefits, metabolic boost, and other positive effects. Think critically. It’s how you gain advantages.
• Abstract and far-future benefits are generally bad at motivating people. “Good health 30 years from now” appeals to only the most long-term of thinkers, and even the most long-term of thinkers are still motivated by seeing progress right now.
• Map out what types of physical sensations and states you need in order to live and do the things that are important to you, and then recognize that you can, with practice, train and tune yourself for those states.
• Athletes have long trained to alter their biochemistry favorably for performance. Marathoners eat different meals, lift different weights, and do different training than boxers. But at any competitive level, both marathoners and boxers know they need to get their bodies’ chemistries as favorable to their endeavors as possible.
• Training and tuning your chemistry for athletes is nothing new, but it’s been much slower to transition to general life situations. Most work in medicine and biochemistry is built for people who are sick or deemed sick; healthy people wanting to be healthier, stronger, and more effective is relatively rare.
• An increase in your capacity to create effects makes a small gain or no gain when doing straightforward routine tasks, like working faster on assembly line or completing routine paperwork on an insurance policy. But if you’re on a path where you’re doing non-straightforward tasks to advance your life, then gradually building more Capacity produces huge gains, both economically and in turns of getting what you want in life.
• “Exercise” is too broad and bland of an admonition, it is a shame to prescribe it as a chore, and the far future benefits aren’t enough to entice most people. But the idea of being fiercely creative, being in a thriving peak state more often, having more endurance, being able to react faster and more decisively to crises — these are immeasurably valuable.
• When feeling lazy and indolent, “not getting heart disease later in life” might not get you off your butt — but knowing “if I go put my exercise reps in, I’m going to get smarter, more focused, sharper” — that might do it. Thus, the first prescription for you in regards to managing your biochemistry is to figure out the “what for.”
• Spend time thinking through what best serves you from the broad groupings of emotion, physical performance, and internal sensations and pressures.
Some workplaces, hobbies, and goals call for being more aggressive — and there is a mix of diet, physical training, structuring your environment, and possibly supplements and intentional and conservative pharmacology that will get you there.
Other workplaces, hobbies, and goals call for steady and enduring concentration — and there is, again, a mix of diet, training, environment, and possibly supplements and pharmacology that lead to having greater wells of concentration at your disposal.
• People who have RDS (Reward Deficiency Syndrome) are not able to feel pleasure as easily as others.… [They] are not as able as those who don’t have it to reap the pleasurable benefits of dopamine.
• People who have RDS are more apt to turn to both the good and the bad ways excessively, because moderate ways don’t produce as much pleasure as they do for other people.
• While someone more normal would feel good from putting in an honest day’s work and going home to enjoy time with family, the RDS’ed artist only gets satisfaction from creating masterful works — and the rest of the time, blunts the numbness and boredom with drugs, alcohol, over-eating, getting into arguments and fights and conflicts, and so on.
• This is why you need to study biochemistry and test with yourself. It is a long-term process. If you, dear reader, “can’t get no satisfaction” — well, it’s very good to know that in advance. In that case, you could start being aware of the origins of desperate cravings.
• How long does it take to discover how to fine-tune your unique mixes of genetics, chemistry, your body and its various advantages and damages you’ve sustained over the years? Well, here is the good and bad answer — A long time. It takes a long time. Perhaps a decade. Perhaps longer.
• It would, of course, be superior to have maxed out performance-optimal chemistry in two weeks if we could get it. But many interventions to tune one’s biochemistry take weeks or months, even years, to show the true depths of their effects.
• Most people have no idea of what their minds are capable of. The authors don’t know — but have seen rare glimpses through a mix of training, diet, meditation, and the occasional pharmacology.
• Thought is transmitted through the electricity and chemicals that make up our bodies; optimizing the electrochemical reactions taking place leads to a greater capacity for thought across the board.
• Different people store incoming nutrients as fat more readily than others — some people bank calories into fat more easily, some people burn it off and have more energy. A terribly unfair thing: with no difference in behavior, some people get chubbier and simultaneously have less energy.
• People that tend to have slow metabolisms tend to also eat more, and often eat more junk food, and thus build up “insulin resistance” — which also makes them store more fat! It’s a vicious cycle.
• The foods that make us fat also make us crave precisely the foods that make us fat. … The more fattening they are, and the more predisposed you are to get fat when you eat them, the greater the cravings. The cycle can be broken, although it requires fighting these cravings — just as alcoholics can quit drinking and smokers can quit smoking, but not without constant effort and vigilance.
• Most people don’t realize that biochemistry is one of the monarchs reigning the kingdom that is their body and mind. “I want cake” — who is this “I”? It is biochemical-you. Some deep animalistic part of you is transmitting its demand into your thoughts.
• If you’re in “I want cake” mode, some mix of the insulin levels you’re secreting, your muscles’ insulin sensitivity, your current feeling of your energy levels, your levels of glucose in your blood, how recently you’ve eaten, your brain’s reward center — all of this is working together to come up with King Biochemistry’s Commands.
• A cognitive bottleneck can only be overcome when the attention level exceeds a task-dependent, typically very high threshold. Clearly, then, antagonistic caffeine consumption results in worse-than-normal productivity, because it flattens the attention level curve and decreases the fraction of time spent at peak attention level. Instead, reinforcing consumption helps maximize productivity. According to this strategy, the best time to drink coffee is when you are already very alert.
• Committing to no coffee and no caffeine a week or two to reset tolerances sounds like hell to many people. You again have short-term vs. long-term considerations. Periodically cycling off caffeine gives you a more powerful tool to use for breakthroughs, but you’ll feel bad in the short term if you do so.
• One potential solution would be to research other stimulants that have low side effects and work well within your body. There are very many safe stimulants if taken with smart research beforehand and under a smart medical practitioner’s guidance.
• Fitness, stretching, hydration, everything you ingest, and much else about your environment affects your biochemistry. The temptation is almost always to do short term measures that are socially normal and morally fashionable, even if those measures are very stupid.
• Examine what states you want over the long term, start researching and testing ways to get there more often.
• At the end of the day, working on long-term biochemistry offers more advantages than just taking short-term biochemistry fixers. Interventions, training, diet, all the substances you ingest, pharmacology — the ones that give you higher baselines of performance permanently are usually superior to trying to get short term benefits from a quick hit of something. That might be appropriate from time to time, but even then, you’ll want to do research and figure out the most effective, cost-effective, and lowest-side-effect way to get your needs met.
• Committing crimes and eating huge amounts of milk chocolate are probably inferior ways of getting dopamine than fitness, healthy competitive endeavors, and an active love life with your partner. Crimes send you to jail and mass quantities of candy make you fat — but very few people think, “I’m feeling bored, listless, restless, and somewhat depressed — I wonder what’s going on in my biochemistry, and healthy ways to solve that instead of the stupid impulse I just had?”
The Cognitive Lever
• There’s no “gap” between biochemistry and cognition. This is a subtle, but important point. Your thoughts are transmitted through chemicals and electricity in your body; it would seem to be accurate to say your thoughts more-or-less are chemicals and electricity.
• There is no distinction between pulling a cognitive lever and pulling a biochemical lever.
• We break apart the pieces of the universe to study and understand them. But the universe knows no distinctions between “chemistry” and “thought.” These are human labels and boxes we draw to try to make sense of the world.
• Different mixes of chemicals in your body make you think differently. And thinking, like if you get quite afraid, changes your chemical mix.
• You’ll very likely operate most of your life without too much free-ranging active cognition. The periods of searching actively, intensively, desperately for answers to open questions are rare for most people. The default way is to find basic paths to walk, and then decisions become individual and tactical and not-too-leveraged.
• Most people do not begin actively seeking out answers to the deepest questions during good times. They tend not to dive deep into philosophy, challenge the doctrines they’ve been operating under, and look to re-architect their life when they’re thriving.
• Most people do not make dramatic life-altering shifts very often, and when they start searching for a dramatic life-altering shift, they’re usually in a bad place to be doing great thinking. Most deep investigations into a better life are only triggered by a built-up set of dissatisfaction and unhappiness, which is perhaps not the easiest or best place to make improvements from.
• To really pull cognitive levers — to really use your thinking to expand your ability to make an impact on the world — you must get into the reflective state. There have been many centuries when the ability to stop and think was such a rare and precious thing — you have the ability, and thus should seize it.
• Reflection is a luxury. It was tough then, but it’s easier now. Even still, it’s worth noting you have to carve out the time in your day to do it; it does not happen automatically.
• One of the most important and valuable mental states is something we call “Reflective Control” — a state where you’re reflective, but simultaneously not dissatisfied or beaten-down.
• “Reflective Control” can be seen as short of a control center of life. It’s when you’re fully activated in your conscious reasoning systems, and have largely turned off and tuned out the various autopilot patterns that become carved out in our lives.
• We’ve identified three characteristics of Reflective Control. It’s where a person is… firmly off autopilot, in a high-positive and high-willpower state, and is able to take action.
It happens automatically; conscious reasoned thinking is not activated. “Reflective Control” is being “off autopilot” — flying, so to speak, by really feeling the controls in your hands and observing the instruments yourself.
To be “reflective” is difficult enough, but being reflective while in solid control of your actions is something else. True Reflective Control lets you say, “I know I should exercise more… okay, what do I need to do to give myself the best chances of exercising more? … okay, let me get started with that.” And then, you start.
Hence, “able to take action” — there are many dreamlike reflective states, and these can be very informative about how to live. But it’s when you’re able to dream but then immediately go about building those dreams as you shift from thinking to action, this is where life is architected.
• It’s not always easy to become reflective. Like anything else, it improves with practice. The hardest is getting the first glimpses and tastes of it, if the ability has been buried for a while.
• One of the authors has a private theory that a lot of mid-life crises are actually people getting reflective for the first time in too long, and not liking what they see.
• It’s distasteful to us to think that, perhaps, there is a spectrum of how much in control we are, and sometimes it’s lower than others. If you’ve got biochemical deficiencies, you’re less in control. If you’re dehydrated, over-stressed, maximally fatigued, haven’t slept in 5 days straight — then you’re not going to be able to concentrate and will yourself to do difficult things.
• When the flashes of reflectiveness start coming, you need to start architecting and building and winning the control over. That means getting mental and biochemical things in order, as much as possible, searching and learning where they might be broken and improving them.
• It is not an exaggeration, it is not untrue, and it is not elitist to say that most people do not experience Reflective Control very often.
• If you are not regularly reaching Reflective Control, seek to reach it more often. Carve out space to be reflective and break free from autopilot, get yourself into places that naturally lead to more free thought and escape from routine, and work on your biochemistry so that you feel good, have energy, and can think clearly.
• “Short-term cognition” is about learning a series of techniques to think better. There is perhaps an infinite number of these. Some are specific to a particular domain, as the concept of using “personas” when doing design. Others are universal, techniques that benefit anyone trying to do anything.
• Certain inner states are known to strongly imperil goal attainment. For instance … desire-related thoughts (cravings) for unhealthy foodstuffs imperiled the goal of self-regulating eating behavior.
• A key factor in such self-regulatory failures is desire thoughts (cravings) for unhealthy foodstuffs that overwhelm people’s good intentions … The elaborated intrusion theory of desire … proposes that the intrusive effects of desire result from the interplay of automatic and deliberative processes. External cues trigger spontaneous thoughts about the target that are perceived as intrusive. These intrusive thoughts are the result of learned cue-target associations and place little demand on cognitive resources. However, when the intrusive thoughts elicit a strong affective reaction or provoke the experience of deprivation, then the thought will become elaborated, which requires controlled processes.
• Elaboration alters the prioritization of attentional and working memory processes, making it likely that additional internal/external cues are accessed and that further intrusive thoughts are generated. In other words, that first cue — “Maybe I want some cake” — isn’t what does the damage. It’s the repeated negotiation and fighting with yourself that takes over your thinking.
• The processing priority that is accorded to elaborating thoughts about the target explains why progress toward superordinate goals (e.g., the dieting goal) often is undermined during craving episodes.
• In a particular study, they had two groups each commit to cutting down on eating their favorite type of junk food. One group decided to cut down. The other group decided to cut down, and additionally were given the following instruction — ‘Please tell yourself: ‘And if I think about my chosen food, then I will ignore that thought!’ Please say this line to yourself three times and commit yourself to acting on it. When you have said the line to yourself three times, tick this box.’”
The group that was given the “if I think, then I will ignore it” had about double the reduction in eating junk food. They repeated the if/then style setup with tennis players. Half of the tennis players committed to playing well. The other half did that, but also sought out their specific worries or anxieties about performance, and created an “If (that negative thing), then I’ll (do positive thing)…” such as — “Participants were asked to choose those negative inner states from the list that occurred most frequently and had the most detrimental effect on their performance during tennis matches… [such as] negative cognitive (e.g., “not concentrating enough”), motivational (e.g., “feeling self-abandoned”), physiological (e.g., “feeling exhausted“), and emotional inner states (“feeling angry”).
Next, participants were asked to identify responses that were suitable for controlling the selected negative inner states [such as] “. . . then I will risk something and play courageously!”, “. . . then I will calm myself and tell myself ‘I will win!’” … By selecting negative inner states and coping behaviors on their own, participants could compose their if-then plans in an individualized manner … Altogether, each participant arrived at four individually chosen if-then plans that had to be written down on a sheet of paper.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it worked. The players who constructed if/then statements to fight off common problems rated themselves as playing better, and were rated by objective tennis experts as playing better.
• Negative inner states can successfully be used as initiating conditions for goal-directed responses… The consequence is that goal-shielding responses can be triggered by internal cues and thereby increase performance in competition situations.
• Cognitive techniques like “if/then statements” can be installed, but only when you’re reflective enough to stop what you’re doing and analyze why things get off track.
• When you’re in your Reflective Control base, you might start asking yourself, “Why do I sometimes skip going to the gym?” You might answer, “Sometimes I feel kind of sore and have a little headache, and I talk myself out of going.”
You start thinking about how you can do better in that circumstance. You remember this “if/then statement” thing you learned. And you put down an if/then statement — “If I feel sore or have a headache, I’ll then take one Tylenol and go to the gym to at least do a warmup. I’m allowed to stop for the day after warming up if I still feel bad.”
How about if you rationalize and talk yourself out of going? You could if/then that, too, with something like, “If I start rationalizing myself out of going to the gym, then I’ll say to myself, ‘Shut up, I’m going to the gym’ — and I’ll immediately start heading towards the gym.” This will increase the frequency you go to the gym.
• A certain pragmatism is necessary when installing cognitive techniques. Short-term techniques like using if/then statements give significant boosts, but not magical always-works boosts. Instead, all of these factors work in harmony to each make you a bit more effective at doing what you find meaningful and important to do, and letting you consciously bring about effects in the world.
• The most useful short-term cognitive techniques are the ones that work broadly in many situations — ones to calm yourself down, or perhaps psyche yourself up, ones to evaluate situations clearly, ones to break through if struggling to get started working, ones to push your pace faster, ones to enjoy what you’re doing more, and so on.
• The goal with cognitive techniques is to periodically get to your base of Reflective Control and analyze what’s working or not out of what you want to be doing. Then, you note down areas where problems seem to be coming from. Then, you start searching.
Talking to elite performers is always a good idea, both in the specific field you’re trying to excel, and just elite performers in general. Searching the internet, and specifically looking for published research papers offers a wealth of techniques. This can be a bit unnatural to start; most people do not do this.
Once you start the process though, it becomes easy and effortless. You start getting hooks into the subject matter, and it becomes second nature. As you learn who is doing research on various types of techniques, you learn good sources to look for inspiration. As you start asking around about elite performance, you start building a better network of people that know these things and enjoy discussing them.
• Insulin plays many roles in the human body, but one critical role is to keep blood sugar under control. You’ll start secreting insulin (from the pancreas) even before you start eating — indeed, it’s stimulated just by thinking about eating.
• When dealing with precarious ground — people that have been in traumatic and dangerous situations — going back and getting exposure to the situation itself, in reality, isn’t a practical idea. But if you’ve got a negative association with cooking that’s holding your life back — something as simple as “I can’t cook” or “cooking isn’t for me” — that’s much easier to fix.
• It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that every time you think, your biochemistry shifts — sometimes mildly, with just a simple regular transmission of information — and other times radically, as is the case of someone running an event that was great or terrible in their mind.
• If you think of food, and especially sweets, you start producing insulin. Higher insulin has a chain reaction and affects the storage and metabolization of energy in your body.
• It’s harder to see that things “that we just sort of dislike” are often that way because of the cognition-biochemistry loop.
• Irrational dislikes don’t always link clearly to a particular event. There’s a lot of professions that start as “kind of sort of disreputable for civilized people like us” — to the great detriment of the United States, there’s been a broad trend that says upper-middle-class people shouldn’t get into skilled trades and become electricians or plumbers and the like.
A lot of kids from upper-middle-class families (and middle-class families looking upwards, and lower-middle-class families looking upwards, and…) that are working white-collar jobs stuck in cubicles that they hate, that are poorly paid and not adding so much value to the world — but they’re good with their hands and good at seeing connections between stuff, and hell, if the skilled trades aren’t an honorable and important profession, then what is?
• While these types of flaws will likely counteract themselves over decades and centuries, it behooves you to think through things faster. During reflective times, periodically investigate dislikes that might be irrational, and see if there might be something underpinning that.
• This is helpful in understanding why people will neglect to do behaviors obviously beneficial to them. If attempting to do something that you’ve got that kind of mental association with, you go through an intense series of biochemical reactions that come with its own attendant mix of oft-unpleasant emotions.
• Actively search out skills and skillsets you don’t have, and at least put a “mental asterisk” (*) by it. Instead of saying “I don’t care about the numbers” or “I’m not a numbers person — if we’ve got a great product and the customers are buying, the numbers will work anyways” — you shift that gradually to, “I haven’t been good at the numbers, but I see most successful entrepreneurs have some sense of them… let me put an asterisk by that in my thoughts, let me put a question mark by that.”
• When your thoughts are “Negotiating? Yuck” or “Numbers? Yuck” or “Cooking? Yuck” — you’ll almost automatically shut down new sources of information and opportunities to pick up those skills. Just searching out and putting that “mental asterisk” by the skill or activity opens you up to seeing opportunities in that space. That subtle mental shift from “I can’t, and it’s useless anyway” to “I’m not good at it, but maybe I could get better…” — it’s a huge gap.
• Unless you’ve found your true calling in life and have already immersed yourself in that, it’s very likely that you know absolutely nothing about some of the most impactful skills and abilities you could develop.
• You find these skills by seeking feedback from talented people in your field and in unrelated fields, by doing blue-sky type research (Google for random things like “engineers who built successful companies,” “how highly prolific artists do great work,” and so on), and reading biographies and case studies of successful people to extract what they did.
• You should regularly search for new skills and abilities to study and add to your life. If your life is going phenomenally well and you’re having an immense amount of development in your effectiveness, you should still do this at least annually, devoting a good chunk of time to identifying new skills and seeking out feedback.
• Search for new skills. Be very aware that your mind will try to shut you down from going into unfamiliar or unfashionable territory. Strike off into that territory anyways, identify things worth learning, and start learning them.
The Action Lever
• We must not fetishize all action; learning and being enriched by theoretical learning is good too. But then — once we wish to bring effects into the world, it is time to convert cognitive knowledge to conative, to go from theorist to practitioner, to enter the realm of action.
• Too many of us, having a fear of something bad in our life, immediately throw the entirety of our energies at it in a single sprint… without any plans, logistics, support, or structures to sustain a long march towards the goal.
• Many of the obstacles you’ll face can be easily overcome with a patient, attritional style of wearing down the obstacle and repeatedly taking small gains. In doing it this way, you gain morale, insight, small victories, and build up strategies and operations to sustain yourself.
• The mighty “DO IT NOW YOU CAN DO IT!!” might have value for animating a person, but how much better is it to measure that your capabilities are able to take on a task and succeed by overcoming every setback, adjusting as (inevitably) necessary, and letting the force of your will gradually overwhelm the various little roadblocks in the way.
• As you repeat patterns of action in your life, the thinking turns off.
• When you first reason and act your way through decisions, your brain is lit up with energy and attention, consciously thinking. But after you’ve repeatedly done something, you stop thinking through it. Thinking gradually turns off.
• Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make almost any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.
• The habit formation process is good because it means patterns can be built into your life, making a formerly very difficult task into an automatic one. It’s bad, because if you don’t pay attention, you’re living your life on autopilot far below what you’re capable of and not achieving the things you find meaningful.
• When we consider action, before we consider minor individual actions — getting yourself to make the right calls on a particular day — we need to first look at the longer-term campaigns of life. Choosing to learn a new skill, go into a particular line of work, and so on.
• The “thought going off” thing happens to every one of us, all of us. You will get into patterns and get onto autopilot. You can resist this to some extent, looking to hit a state of Reflective Control often, but even then it’s not undesirable for the thought to turn off.
Being able to show up at the gym and have the “thought turn off” for between 30 and 90 minutes and walking out feeling great, having had a fantastic workout — this is a good thing.
• When you’re in that off-autopilot, high-positive/high-will, action-capable state, you’ll want to very pragmatically assess your options. It’s during these times that you can break free from the worn footpaths of your life, and navigate to new ones.
• When you’re sitting there with your maps and guidebooks and research and you’re very positive and reflective and smart, you want to actually plan to make it onto worthwhile paths, but then to navigate them successfully. That means being deliberate about what you want, and being pragmatic as to what you need to get there.
• Don’t act before thinking. Take the time to come up with a game plan. Take at least a few hours to think through your plan. Those hours will be virtually nothing in relation to the amount of time that will be spent doing, and they will make the doing radically more effective.
• We’ve spoken of thinking in terms of how short-term thoughts affect your ability to do things, the feedback loop of thoughts turning into more thoughts, the feedback loop of thoughts affecting biochemistry, how biochemistry dictates thoughts to a great extent, how there is a rare valuable “Reflective Control” state of thinking and being that lets you make great changes, and how negative associations with a certain stimulus can shut you down from even considering certain worthwhile thoughts.
• Sometimes it might make sense to just “jump into action” — many people are far too risk-averse, and simultaneously they’re content to fritter away time on entertainment activities that they don’t even enjoy very much while being afraid of doing things that they might fail at.
• “TAKE ACTION NOW! YOU CAN DO IT! YOU WON’T DIE! REALLY, IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL AND YOU SHOULD TAKE SOME ACTION!” This is fine advice. It’s often correct advice. It’s worthwhile advice in many circumstances. For people with not-too-much going on, it is perhaps the most important advice and encouragement they could get.
But once you’re already on the path, really looking to excel and gain advantages and thrive and do things, once you’ve already got some good things going on, a base worth protecting and expanding — now it is time to set aside “You can do it” as an operating mantra, and integrate regular intense thinking/planning sessions into your life.
• You will be much more effective if you focus on diagnosis and design rather than jumping to solutions. It is a very common mistake for people to move directly from identifying a tough problem to a proposed solution in a nanosecond without spending the hours required to properly diagnose and design a solution. This typically yields bad decisions that don’t alleviate the problem. Diagnosing and designing are what spark strategic thinking.
• We should identify thinking and planning as a useful action to take at the start of any serious campaign. This is where you ask questions like:
- What am I trying to achieve here?
- Why am I trying to achieve it?
- How will I know I’m successful?
- When do I want this to be complete?
- How much time do I estimate this will take?
- What’s my budget in time and money for this?
- What are the most likely pitfalls?
- What key advantages can I build for myself early?
- What scares me the most that would make me unlikely to finish?
- How good am I at achieving and finishing things like this in the past?
- When will I check-in and see how it’s going on waypoints?
- Who can help me stay on track with this?
- What other types of allies, friends, and support do I need?
- If I hit major setbacks, what will I do?
- Under what circumstances would I quit, abandon, or change this plan?
- How much effort and time do I want to make under this plan before reviewing and considering changing it? And so on.
• Here is a question you need to answer honestly about yourself — “If you got a big new opportunity kickstarted in your life, do you have the operations, structure, and ability to sustain it, keep it going, and grow it?”
• Ray Dalio has billions of dollars in personal net worth, Bridgewater has expansive cashflows and profits and reserves, they’ve got amazing operational ability, and a veteran well-trained highly loyal and excellent staff. If Dalio or one of his top people discerns a new opportunity or new pattern in the world, they can charge after it rapidly after getting their plans together.
• Most young people — not all, but probably a majority — haven’t figured out their working cycles, don’t have great personal operations, don’t have much capital and finances to seize long-term developing opportunities, and don’t have a trusted cadre of staff, partners, and advisors to help them sustain great things they have going.
• If you have the ability to keep growing and expanding opportunities as you seize them in a sustainable way, then speed becomes paramount. If there’s no cost and no danger in taking new opportunities, speed of implementation basically determines the rate of your growth.
• If the advantages you’re gaining slot in nicely to your already well-running life and amplify and multiply and synergize with what you’re doing, you can seize those edges rapidly. But no-one is always in that position.
If you currently have somewhat shaky habits, have never yet thought about and consciously designed your workflows… and if you lack the physical resources to scale up opportunities as they come at you… then it really behooves you to slow down and make sure you can actually capture and benefit from the gains you’re trying to get.
• A rule: if you’ve recently been able to have great things happen (met wonderful new people, getting job offers or sales or clients in your career/company/contracting, have learned new things and started putting them into place, found new highly fulfilling hobbies, etc), but you find you keep abandoning plans that are working for no good reason, then you need to slow down and spend more time in planning, including figuring out how you are going to consolidate your gains.
If you’re in a place where you can rapidly add gains and scale-up without taxing your resources, then speed becomes the name of the game.
• When you know you’re going to succeed, motivation abounds. When you think you might not be able to accomplish a goal, then motivation suffers. Fail once, lose some confidence and motivation, try less, fail again, and repeat until there’s no hope left.
It’s easy to start sliding into this hole, you fall fast, and once you’re at the bottom, it seems as if there’s no light by which you start crawling back up to the surface…
• Success begets confidence and motivation, which begets more success, and pretty soon you’re fearless… And with a little planning and a lot of motivation, you can climb as high as you want.
• At this early stage, it’s worth getting a plan on paper that includes realistic targets. Many people recommend starting with small, very achievable targets and growing from there. You also need to analyze where things could go wrong and when you will re-assess.
• If you’ve not gotten great results in the past with the approach you’ve tried and you’re not sure why, it’s very worth researching what successful people do in that area and making plans to do that.
• If you’ve fallen off from a core thing you want to do in the past after getting success, now is the time to start planning if/then statements and mentally readying yourself for those things to happen.
• Picking specific “stake in the ground” dates is useful at this point — times when you’ll evaluate whether what you’re doing is working or not.
• If you’re looking to make a habit for more-or-less permanent, you want to set things up so that it can become one of those automatic just-happens-now-things that Charles Duhigg talks about in The Power of Habit — “This process [of habit building] in our brain is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if the particular loop is worth remembering for the future.
• You want your life to have pragmatic time slots that respect your biochemistry and cognition in what you want to do, and this is doubly true if you want to do something more-or-less forever.
• It’s worth being pragmatic about your biochemistry. Judgment is almost always compromised with fatigue, and people very rarely realize that their judgment is compromised. So if there’s anything you’re trying to do regularly, it’s a risky gamble to do after the 10th hour you’ve been awake, and once you’ve already done a lot of cognitively or physically demanding tasks in the time.
• The other type of key action-taking is large-scale once-off pushes to get gains — you can call them “campaigns” or “projects.”
• The world gets more project-heavy each and every year. Technologies and entire industries are being obsoleted rapidly. Established older industries have established processes and need less initiative, planning, dreaming up new projects, and getting them into place. But those industries are being disrupted now, and it’s largely project-driven.
• Most social circles (and project initiations) still get clustered in an unnecessarily close geographical area. This will change — oh, it will change. It has to change. The people that stick to linear close-by geography exclusively are going to get heavily disrupted. It’s already happening.
• You better get good at starting, managing, and concluding projects. It is a project-centered world we enter. Much of the very big opportunities available to you will be projects to complete.
• Marshall came up with a five-step model:
- Dream and Define
- Clarify, Assign, and Initiate
- Produce, Manage, and Police
- Debrief and Consolidate
• If you’re doing something reasonably complex that’s going to take around 100 hours, spending 3-5 hours really planning it out well, or even longer, will almost always save you more time than it costs.
• It is a very common mistake for people to move directly from identifying a tough problem to a proposed solution in a nanosecond without spending the hours required to properly diagnose and design a solution.
• We all love action, but complex multi-week or multi-month projects almost always benefit from foresight, looking for solutions, clarifying exactly what you want to get out of it, and so on.
• When projects get near completing, pressure generally starts to mount, especially if it’s a project that hasn’t been done before. For whatever reason, a general weight starts to set in and “things start to go wrong” — in reality, “things starting to go wrong” are usually unforeseen problems or unplanned-for needed resources… but it feels like things regularly go wrong at the end. Hence the famous joking quote, “When you’re 90% done, you’re half-finished.”
• Perfectionism seems to be a defense mechanism that people use to protect themselves from a fear of rejection. When you release imperfect work into the world, people can judge you, which feels bad to most people, but specifically very, very, very bad to some people.
• It’s not clear exactly when a campaign moves into “finishing mode,” but at some point it’s time to start closing the loops, checking the boxes, getting the details cleaned up, compromising on some of the stuff that just ain’t happening in this version, and getting the thing out the door.
• Projects almost always fall short of the idealistic best-case scenario.
• A technique for finishing projects — an overwhelmingly useful, incredibly helpful, incredibly powerful technique, maybe the most powerful single technique in this book even though it sounds simple — is to bring in an expediter/finisher/ally with no preconceptions at the end of the project.
• All manner of athletes, executives, and increasingly high-performers in many fields have coaches and advisors. Someone that has enough domain experience to know what’s “good enough” and what isn’t, and with enough credibility and trust to say, “Shut up, you’re making a big deal about the wrong thing. Get it done.”
• Manage your biochemistry. Enough sleep, doing physical training, doing de-stressing activities, planning a vacation for immediately after the final push so you know you’ll be allowed to recover
• When it’s finishing time, it’s time to clear the decks. Postpone secondary projects, don’t open new threads, and give yourself enough space to push through and finish.
• Lastly, keep asking, “What’s the minimum standard we need to get this out the door? How do we get there as quickly as possible?” when the pressure is on. Study finishing, learn how to scope down, learn how to satisfice
• Completing a project shouldn’t be the end. Obviously, celebrate after winning. But then, don’t settle.
• Jeffrey Gitomer, an exceptional sales trainer, recommends regularly studying every successful sale, great account, and great client or customer you win over. He notes that salespeople brood and reflect over failures and think and ruminate when things are going badly, but that most of the biggest gains come from looking at what went well and ensuring that happens systematically. You want to explicitly debrief your successes.
• You want to extract noteworthy events and make the best practices repeatable. You’ll also want to consolidate the relevant gains in terms of network, signal, and assets.
• Explicitly make time not-so-long after a project concludes to harvest all the gains. Debrief it with smart people; they’re almost always happy to do so. Get feedback on how you can leverage the newfound success, and do it.
• What is “character”? It seems to be a feedback loop between a person’s long-term cognition, habits, and decision-making — people come to see themselves as “the kind of person who is reliable” by repeatedly being reliable, and suddenly decisions fall into place to always do the reliable thing.
• You can explicitly work on your character, and create projects to improve your character.
• Training in character traits means repeatedly making decisions and taking actions in support of that trait. Eventually, you don’t have to push yourself anymore.
• Occasionally think through what you’d benefit from installing, discuss it with others, and implement a training regime as a project. Pick a character virtue and explicitly focus on improving for a period of time.
• Character is expensive to train but then frees you from a thousand difficult decisions at weaker moments.
• There is one final piece of the puzzle of action: actually getting yourself to do, in the moment, what you want to do consciously.
• Buddhism does not have any sort of monopoly on this, but mindfulness meditation is one of the oldest, most known, most proven ways to get a better understanding and mastery of your thoughts and impulses.
• In traditional mindfulness meditation, you simply sit down, pick a single thing to focus on, and try to do nothing except focus on that thing. Focusing on your breath, for instance, is a common one.
• The best way to let go is to notice the thoughts as they come up and to acknowledge them. “Oh, yes, I’m doing that one again” — and without judging them, return to the clear experience of the present moment.
Just be patient. We might have to do it ten thousand times, but the value for our practice is the constant return of the mind into the present, over and over, and over.
Don’t look for some wonderful place where the thoughts won’t occur. Since the thoughts are basically not real, at some point get dimmer and less imperative and we will find there are periods where they tend to fade out because we see they are not real. They will just wither away in time without our quite knowing how it happened.
• Thoughts arise; sometimes they’re desirable, sometimes they’re unpleasant, but in the end, they’re just thoughts.
• Fatigue, injury, fear — or anything where you’re “punched in the face” — means potentially a loss of reflectiveness, and maybe even a loss of an ability to think clearly at all.
The Environment Lever
• Some of the largest short-term payoffs will come from better organizing your environment. This means reducing costs to getting things done, setting up positive multipliers and inspiration, setting things up so that good habits and best practices happen automatically, and otherwise reducing friction to doing what you want.
• Yes, being in a cloud of secondhand cigarette smoking with rock music blaring is not the most conducive environment to play Chess — but you can’t control what tournaments will be like, so you better be ready for when life throws curveballs at you.
Long-term biochemistry, long-term cognition, and excellent patterns of action come with you as you go through your life; environments, less so.
• Distractions sap cognition.
• In order to improve your environment, you need to recognize what stimuli are dangerous triggers for you.
• We all spend so much time on computers these days that it’s absolutely necessary to master the computer — so it doesn’t master you.
• Periodically analyze what distractions are setting you back, and set to fencing them in, or eliminating them temporarily or permanently.
• It’s worth being strategic picking where you live as well as temporary bases on vacations and other travels. If you can situate a healthy cheap restaurant and your gym on your normal daily walking path, the odds of eating healthy and doing fitness go up tremendously.
• If you have some activity you want to regularly do, consider “chaining” it into a routine, marked by physical locations where that activity always happens.
• There is an advantage to having a nearly infinite surplus of whatever basics you need. If you ever miss a gym session because your gym clothes are dirty, if you ever eat a poor quality meal at a restaurant because you were out of decent food at home, if you let your schedule get interrupted by demands to get new printer ink or printer paper or dealing with mundane concerns — this might be a sign to build a larger surplus of what you need.
• No matter how determined you are, it’s hard not to be influenced by the people around you. It’s not so much that you do whatever a city expects of you, but that you get discouraged when no one around you cares about the same things you do.
• Normative behavior means that if you’re around a place where most of the people don’t like to work too hard, don’t like to work too fast, and try to get maximum profit while putting in minimum effort — somewhere like Morocco, for instance — it makes you feel like that’s normal and acceptable behavior.
• The places you go and the people you associate with have dramatic effects on your behavior. It’ll sink into every ounce of your being, in many ways both overt and subtle. Choose this especially carefully.
• Start analyzing how you can improve your environment by removing costs, drains, and constraints — but simultaneously train your biochemistry, cognition, and patterns of action in order to not need a perfect environment to produce.
• Capacity — “the ability to consciously affect outcomes in the world.” This is, even just in the abstract, one of the most desirable skill sets, and one of the most highly paid ones.
• Your general Capacity determines how well you’ll be paid.
• Higher Capacity means being better at just about everything — not just work. It makes you more able to take up a fitness regime, take up a hobby, be a useful and effective figure in your community, deal with and get results in stressful situations, champion worthy causes, and perhaps even have more fun in the process.
• Capacity in the abstract is hard to build because there’s no set curriculum.
• There’s many general “best practices” and useful skills and tactics to be learned, but there’s no general curriculum on how to be able to affect results. It depends tremendously on your personal genetics, background, the skills you already have, your preferences for workflows, the types of things you’re doing, and so on.
• People who don’t believe they can evolve feel immense pressure to always succeed and not fail. It turns out to be a recipe for growing a lot less
• Children with a fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with a growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It’s about becoming smarter.
• No one likes failure, especially failure for events we’ve trained for and worked hard to succeed at. But the ability to convert failure into motivation to grow more becomes an incredibly useful technique, something to focus on during dark times when feeling lost and afraid. Growth is possible, and more work in developing will pay off.
• Many people don’t like ambiguity and confusion and work. They like things wrapped in a neat little package that tells them precisely what to do. But, all our bodies respond slightly differently. The only way to know is to try different ways of living and working, and see what works for you.
• Measuring helps. Being precise helps. But even doing things informally and mentally checking in with how you feel can be huge. Playing with different technologies and different environments to see how that interacts with your workflow and production is obviously always smart. So is learning different disciplines and hobbies — meditating, trying different types of fitness and sports, trying different dietary modifications, reading about different systems of ethics and decision-making, and so on — and then trying them out.
• You must experiment and test different ways of living and working to find what works best for you. There are best practices and universal principles, but even these will differ in how much they affect you.
• It may take multiple attempts to establish something important in your life. If you think it’s likely worth it, keep at it. Results will come.
• There are skills and methodologies in the world that you do not know about yet, that will set you free the way the language broke through to Hellen Keller.
• Don’t leave your network to chance.
• Networks are necessary for monumental tasks.
• We hurt when things are taken away from us. But the fact is, your life — right now — could have a lot of brilliant, exceptional, fantastic people, with great character, who can be greatly helpful to what you’re doing. And if you haven’t taken the time to go get those people into your life, your life — this very day, this very moment — is worse for it.
• The cost of not seeking out great people in your life is incredibly high.
• There are some basic prerequisites to being successful at expanding your network, but they all boil down to this: it’s a lot easier to meet people if you’re both likable and useful.
• You can automatically be likable and useful by building elements into your character of being magnanimous, kind, cheerful, forgiving, optimistic, and pragmatic.
• To really thrive in building fantastic relationships and an excellent, reliable network — you will have to develop your character. The following are a selection of mindsets and virtues worth developing:
- Radical Personal Responsibility
- Be Service Minded Without Being Servile
- A Celebratory and Expansive Attitude
Radical Personal Responsibility
• The victim sees himself or herself as acted on by outside forces. They say things like: “He didn’t give me the job. She’s unfair. I’m depressed because the weather is terrible. My boss is an idiot. I can’t put in good work when management doesn’t support me. I’m getting bad grades because the professor hates me.” And so on.
There are two problems with this way of thinking. The first is that it disempowers a person from being able to change anything. The second is that it’s incredibly unpleasant and unenjoyable for other people to listen to.
• Radical personal responsibility is a near-delusional worldview in which everything — from the idiot boss, to the hateful professor, and even the depressing weather — is your responsibility.
• Asserting personal responsibility to a radical extent creates options, but more importantly, it’s almost always appreciated.
• Most people complain to feel better about themselves and accept their lot; you don’t.
• Almost always in the first conversations with people you meet, you’ll be asked what you’re working on. In second conversations, if the person likes you, you’ll be asked what your current challenges are. This is where help is about to arrive — but what will you say?
• If you assert responsibility and refused to accept badness from a victim’s perspective, you’ll be a magnet for help.
Be Service Minded Without Being Servile
• A genuine desire to help other people goes a very long way. Being “service-minded” means thinking and scanning for ways you can help people, being genuinely interested in their deep concerns, being willing to go out of your way to help. This is key.
You likely have already heard it before. Most smart advice on networking says something like “give value first” — but the key here is, you must avoid being “servile.”
• Humans are pattern-matching animals. Once they match you to a pattern, they fall into a similar pattern of how they act in response to you.
• A very bad and common mistake made by people who are young or new to sales or entrepreneurship is coming across servile instead of helpful.
• You want to be service-oriented and genuinely aim to be helpful. But, to give you a mental picture — nothing in your tone or demeanor should suggest you’re on your knees holding up whatever service you’re doing as a gift that you’re begging to be accepted.
• There are a few good places service can come from that aren’t servile. One is from specialization and expertise in a particular area. If you have knowledge, skills, or experience that others consider valuable, you can present that as a trusted advisor to whoever you’re speaking with. Certainly, a business mogul’s attorney is lower in the hierarchy than the mogul, and yet the attorney speaks with knowledge and expert status about the law.
• Alan Weiss is one of the top-earning solo consultants in the United States, and he constantly emphasizes to young consultants that “peer status” with the client is critical. That means engaging who you’re speaking with as more-or-less an equal. It’s especially important when meeting with people whose time is especially in-demand.
• Note this because it’s important: if you act as a peer to people who are further along than you are, you will with 100% certainty alienate some people. Some people don’t want to be treated as a peer by someone they see as less established or more junior than them. The tradeoff is that you have the chance to become genuine friends with people when you do this, without the pretenses and hierarchy and nonsense that dominates most people’s interactions once they’ve reached a high level. It’s a tradeoff to make carefully, but worth considering.
• At times, taking a clear subordinate role is the way. If you do this, think in your mind of being a “most trusted lieutenant” or something along those lines. Someone’s right-hand-man is not someone who bows and scrapes; they act with dignity.
A Celebratory and Expansive Attitude
• The act of celebrating wins is a powerful, necessary, and yet, sometimes forgotten part of the journey. If someone helps us make the meal, they need to be invited to the feast. Take the time to share your victories with friends and collaborators — be generous with gratitude and respect when the wins happen.
• Follow-up news of recent victories with excitement and details about the next goal. This lets other people volunteer ways to continue helping, setting the stage for a virtuous cycle of growth and progress.
• The person who graciously shares credit and who always makes the people around him or her look good — that person is never short of friends or opportunities. The person who projects an exciting trajectory and an aura of inevitable success — that’s the kind of person other excellent, high-achieving people want to know and spend time around.
These things naturally make you more positive, optimistic, and almost certainly help you become more well-liked by others. Become celebratory and expansive in both your mind and conversation.
• Sincerity is rare and precious. Most people are, intentionally or not, insincere. They mix in with lots of people they “feel just okay” about, gossip about them behind their backs, complain, and then act nice to their face.
• A person with a love of gossip has something defective about them and can’t be trusted.
• The only way to be truly sincere is to work very hard and spend a lot of time making it so you’re around people who you’ll always benefit from being sincere with.
• A rule you could consider adopting — never ask for favors from someone you wouldn’t be happy to help equally as much. Again, it’s difficult. You might have opportunities to take a job or financing or something valuable from someone you genuinely dislike or don’t respect. Try not to.
• Your goal must be to associate with people for whom you have genuinely high regard, who know it, who trust you, who you trust, and to have such goodwill that if things do get into a situation of friction or conflict, you can talk about it openly without risk.
• Do not waste people’s time. This is a cardinal rule. It is especially important when meeting people who are busy, and the most talented and exceptional and best-intentioned people are very often busy.
• Before you meet anyone, take time to research them. Know the basics of what they stand for and what they’ve done. If it’s potentially an important meeting, call mutual acquaintances and ask about the person. Get to know them.
• If you’re in sales, freelancing, contracting, or looking for a job, you should learn the recent innovations at the company you’re talking to and get a rough idea of their culture and their numbers. If you’re working with people in academia, journalists, or others with public writing, read a few pieces — try to find some best-ofs and recent work.
• The less you waste of other people’s time, the more others become open to helping you.
• How much character improvement is enough? How do you know if it’s working? These are all good questions. Here is a topic that throws it into stark understanding — Introductions.
Introductions are one of the fastest and most consistent ways to building an excellent network. Excellent people tend to mix with other excellent people. If you meet and get along with a single person who is fantastic, the odds are they could introduce you to a lot of other people who could be excellent friends, colleagues, clients, and generally important people in your life.
But it’s not equally easy to get introductions for people. There are three basic thresholds of whether someone will introduce you or not, and it all comes down to a subtle assessment of character:
- People don’t want to introduce you: In this first tier, the person you’re meeting doesn’t like and trust you enough to make introductions. After all, every introduction is an implied “vouch” for you — if someone introduces you and you’re inconsiderate or the person you meet has a bad time, that reflects really poorly on the introducer. In this instance, you’ll see that it’s usually how the other person perceives your character and what you’re doing that potentially holds you back.
- People are willing to introduce you if there’s a good reason: This crosses an important threshold — once here, people will introduce you if there’s a particularly good reason. It means you come across like a decent person, trustworthy, considerate, with basic social graces, etc. But even here, your network grows slowly. Most people are in this place. They’ll get introduced if there’s a good reason to introduce people — and these are helpful — but the next threshold is very good to cross.
- People are excited to introduce you as much as they can: Once you cross this threshold, the amount of “work” you’ll have to do to meet new people when expanding your network starts to fall off dramatically. Once here, people will introduce more people to you than you can handle, and you’ll see exponential growth in the number of people you know. Why do people do this? Because you consistently — always — make them look good.
• If you’re always prepared, have smart things to say, and just come across as a standup guy or gal, it becomes easy to get introductions. And this is where working on your character (plus a few other considerations we’ll cover) makes all the difference.
• Types of people you need in your life:
- Nearby Influences
- Project Partners
- Clients, Customers, Employers
• It’s practically unavoidable. The more time we spend with someone, the more we subtly become more similar to them.
• The top five people you spend time with have a disproportionate impact on your life. Note — these aren’t your five closest friends or your five most important contacts. These are just the people you happen to be spending a lot of time around — at the moment.
• If you admire someone’s character, spending more time with them means that their character will eventually rub off on you. If you genuinely dislike someone’s character, well, their character can still rub off on you.
• Periodically figure out who you would like to spend more time with, and look to find opportunities to spend that time. Simultaneously, if there are people that are making you a worse person by being around them, it is crucial to reduce the amount of time you spend with them.
• The key to turning “friends” who are actually just friendly acquaintances into actual, real, sincere friends — is mutual time and shared experiences.
• The person who isn’t deliberate in friendship winds up with fewer loyal friends and, overall, has a less enjoyable life.
• When you meet someone, ask yourself privately and in your own head and heart, “Do I want to be friends with this person?” If so, go out of your way to create possibilities for mutual time, shared experiences, and even shared burdens — “eating salt together” as Aristotle would say.
• It’s difficult to get things off the ground on your own. Having someone to partner with on a creative project, business idea, event, or other civic/community activity greatly increases the success rate.
• If you’re doing anything non-traditional in terms of career — any sort of freelancing, consulting, contracting, entrepreneurship, or creative endeavor — it’s incredibly valuable to establish a vetted set of people you can do projects with.
• The key here is to start small. When you’re young and inexperienced in business, everyone seems great. Most people are not, in fact, great people to work with. Only a small fraction of people are actually good at follow-through when not directed or pushed, which is why most people join other organizations and don’t self-generate their own projects, don’t self-study, and take minimum initiative to innovate within their organizations. That’s not a negative judgment; it’s a fact.
• Of that fraction of people who do naturally pioneer, innovate, invent, and take action — not all of them will be a good compliment to you or fit with your personality, goals, and working style. That’s why it’s key to start with a small project. You want to do something of a rather small scope, ideally something that can be finished quite quickly, with not so much money or importance tied up in it.
• To find good project partners and collaborators, look for someone who has a good history of finishing things. Look for a track record of good performance — in other words, investigate their Signal closely. Look for Artifacts of successful past performance, and third-party endorsements and references.
• A mentor is someone who is further ahead of you in an area you aspire to improve in and who takes an interest in helping you.
• Successful people regularly get asked for advice. However, very few people actually put aside their own preconceptions to listen to the advice. Even fewer people listen to the advice and execute on it promptly.
The number of people who listen, execute, and then follow-up with a gracious thank-you? It’s incredibly rare. And because of this, it’s actually relatively straightforward to meet mentors. Reach out or otherwise meet people who you admire. Ask for a small, relevant piece of advice. Then execute on it immediately, follow up, and say thank-you.
• Similar to a budding friendship, look for more opportunities to spend time together and do activities together. Establishing mentorship takes a while and is hit-or-miss, but is not fundamentally difficult.
• In your own life, you want to seek out and get involved with people who are exemplars of virtues you want to develop more of in yourself. A love of learning, loyalty, critical thinking, excellent communication skills, innovation, courage — these are all qualities that are absorbed by being around people that have them.
• Before you fill in any other aspects of your Network, look for people who are Exemplars of virtues you want in your own life. A good place to start is writing down who you want to be and the key parts of yourself that you’ll need to evolve to be that person, and then seeking out those who embody those characteristics.
• Skilled connectors usually have a mix of hyper-humanitarian idealism mixed with a sheer strict pragmatism.
• To get in with a connector, you want to mix the group ethos of being giving and socially savvy along with being genuinely useful.
• “Super connectors” are people that know dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people well. They make lots of introductions and help many people. They’re incredibly useful to get in with, and once you meet a connector that you really admire, you should go out of your way to stay in touch and build a relationship with them.
• Most connectors naturally have a very strong humanitarian/helpful ethos. When you have a hyper-public reputation and strong social ties, you basically have to be a good person to maintain that. You’ll see that the vast majority of hyper-connected people are good people, and strongly weight being courteous, helpful, and humanitarian in turn.
• Paradoxically, connectors also have a firm mechanical understanding of human relationships. After someone like a Sorock or Roderick respects you, the next thing to remember is that they’ll be mentally classifying you by what you can do for other people. A journalist, a venture capitalist, or someone with a specific domain expertise all have obvious connotations and are easy to remember, but if your points are more subtle it’s important to point them out and demonstrate them.
• Hyper-connected people are busy. So be prepared and keep it to the point, while being a good person at the same time.
Clients, Customers, Employers
• If you’re traditionally employed, you want to be making relationships with other hiring managers, owners, and executives in your industry or that use your specialty regularly.
• Good work environments can turn into bad work environments with a single bad manager or external event. Sometimes jobs stagnate, or perhaps you master every skill you’re using there. Already knowing many people with a demand for your skills means you’re not going to be trapped.
• If you’re in an independent role where it wouldn’t be seen as a conflict of interest, it’s very useful to go in and offer to do something small for a company. Many people take lunch meetings, but offering to sit on a sales meeting, operations meeting, design session, or anything else — if you’re respected enough — is a great way to win trust and regard. In a session like that, mostly just listen and ask questions. Make any valuable suggestions or feedback that you can.
• You can do small projects with people in your industry/specialty but off of work time. If you meet someone at the local Chamber of Commerce, if your kids go to the same school, if you’re part of the same church — offer to do something jointly in one of those places,
• Tools and strategies:
- Choose a Lens
- Follow Up Systematically
- Intimacy, Relevancy, Character
- Online Surface Area
- Going to Events
- A Genesis Contact
Choose a Lens
• One of the biggest things that hold back young ambitious people is that they have nowhere to focus their efforts.
• A Lens is a core activity that you can filter everything you learn and do through.
• Your Lens doesn’t have to be directly related to your career — it could be a creative project while you’re just holding down a job to pay the bills. Again, it would give you a primary way to look for lessons and give you something to think about, and it would give you a reason to reach out to people.
• You can change your Lens; you’re not married to it. You might make your primary Lens being an officer at a club on campus or writing a nonfiction book for a year, and after that’s finished, make it something career-oriented or entrepreneurial.
• It is recommended that you present just one at a time, two at most. If you have only one thing you’re doing, it becomes easy to ask for and get introductions and establish a clear Signal to people you meet. If you have more than two, people are less likely to help since you’ve given them too much to think through, and the default is to just refrain from the thinking.
Follow Up Systematically
• Here is a system that Derek Sivers uses that he learned from a successful publicist: The publicist advises that you secretly give everyone in your phonebook an A, B, C, D, or F. That’s your A-list (call every 3 weeks), B-list, (every 5 weeks), C-list (every few months), D-list (twice a year), and Friends.
Sivers goes on to describe how there are many people he would have lost contact with had they not been diligent in following up, and recommends generally reaching out unselfishly and saying hello periodically.
• Human memory only goes so far, and using some kind of organization and deliberateness actually makes you more courteous and more sociable — it ensures you’re reaching out regularly and not losing touch with people that you’ve found meaningful in your life.
Intimacy, Relevancy, Character
• To figure out how well your network fits with what you want to do in the world, evaluate along three lines:
- How relevant each person in your network is to your goals and life.
- How intimate you are with each person.
- The character of each person.
• A “higher quality network” is one where you’re more intimate with people of excellent character who are relevant to what you want to do in the world. The model that Derek Sivers learned from the publicist does this implicitly — rating people A, B, C, D based on how often you ought to be in touch.
But for greater insight, you can break it down more precisely.
To start, write down on a piece of paper the 50 to 150 people you know most well. Then, write down next to their name how “Relevant” each person is to what your current core goals and purposes are on a scale of 1 to 50. Be sparing putting someone down as “Relevancy 5” — that might be only a few people who are real trailblazers and key people in the field you’re in.
• There’s a way to make ranking your contacts( in terms of intimacy) more objective. Try this:
- The person only vaguely knows who you are, and might or might not remember you.
- The person knows who you are, but won’t always take your phone call.
- The person will take your call every single time you call, and call you back if you miss each other.
- The person will actively help you if you ask, even if there’s nothing explicitly in it for them.
- They’ll “tell you where the bodies are buried.”
This maps from almost strangers at 1 to acquaintances at 2, then starting to become friends at 3 (they respect you enough to consistently take your calls), to friends at 4, and really close confidants and intimate friends at 5. It’s a pretty objective scale.
If you write down numbers 1 to 5 on Relevancy and Intimacy, you start to get a really good picture of your network. Ideally, you want to be close with lots of people who are very relevant to your life.
• If you take nothing else, remember this: Character is more important than anything else. The attitudes, habits, world views, politics, personality — even the way you speak and language you choose — this is hugely affected by the people you have in your life.
• You should be constantly looking to become closer only with people of excellent character.
• You’ll almost certainly have opportunities in your life to advance yourself by mixing in with someone of slightly bad character. Maybe they’re a little sloppy, or a little dishonest, or whatever else. Avoid it.
• Navigating relationships with people who are highly relevant to your life or are gatekeepers or stakeholders — but who have poor character — is an important skill. But be very careful not to nurture and develop those relationships with people with poor character. You become like the people you’re around.
Online Surface Area
• When you know what you want — make sure you’re passively broadcasting it on all your online profiles.
• Most websites give you the opportunity to do a short description of yourself or an “About” section, and most people waste it by listing: “I’ve been an HR professional for X years, blah blah blah.”
Much better to write, “I work as an HR professional, and lately I’ve been training in how to ensure a higher volume of highly qualified applicants come into the company automatically. If you’re in HR, a business owner, or have experience on the topic, message me and let’s compare notes.”
• It can be good to add to your email signature something like:
“Currently training in Project Management: Coordinating multiple people, resources, timetables, technology, communications, un-sticking things, setting requirements, managing inputs/outputs/deliverables, etc. If you’re performing at a high level in one of these areas, message me and let’s talk. If you know someone who is, forward this to them and I’ll be grateful.”
Going to Events
• There’s not much to be said about events that hasn’t been said elsewhere ad infinitum. Here are a few brief points if you’ve only rarely (or never) sought out events:
- It’s a skill like any other skill. If you haven’t gone to events before, you start just by looking up online or asking around what’s happening and showing up. You can largely figure the rest out. There’s usually no downside; if you don’t connect with anyone there, nothing is lost; if you make excellent friends, it’s worthwhile.
- Go with a friend or acquaintance of yours if you don’t want to go alone.
- Go to things that you genuinely enjoy and appreciate, and it’ll be easier and more enjoyable.
- Some events you’ll go to will be lame. Feel free to leave early. It’s not the end of the world.
A Genesis Contact
• A “Genesis Contact” is someone who helps set you up entirely in a city or industry. Some people, for a variety of reasons, become happy to take you under their wing and show you around to places.
• If you’re introduced at a number of events and to a number of people by someone and you do something impolitic, that reflects pretty badly on the person who took you under their wing.
• It’s not to say be cautious or inauthentic. But remember, when someone decides to take you to a variety of places and introduce you, especially if they do it multiple times, you become like an ambassador for them. You need to raise the bar on being gracious in this case.
• Being “salesy” means you’re doing sales wrong. Salesy feels inauthentic, disingenuous, insincere, inimical to real and meaningful dialog.
• People don’t trust salespeople, and salesy salespeople are the least trusted of all.
• A lot of the products and services in the economy are complex enough that they still are primarily sold through… sales. So what’s a salesperson to do?
Well, the good ones train themselves to not be salesy. The best salespeople almost universally genuinely regard their product or service as excellent, refrain from selling to someone who the product isn’t a good fit for, and conduct themselves in a way where they’re sharing useful education, getting to know a person’s goals who might want to be and helping that person evaluate if it would be a good fit for them.
• Your Signal is everything you’re consciously and unconsciously broadcasting about yourself. You are broadcasting an immense amount of things about yourself, as is everyone else who isn’t a hermit in the mountains. If you’re interacting with other people, they’re constantly forming opinions and judgments of you.
• The judgments and opinions people form of you are hugely important for everything you want to do in the world. Everything from simple things like how welcoming and friendly people are to you will be dictated by your signal, all the way to if you get a competitive job, are able to get a meeting with someone, and whether people will collaborate with you.
• Signal affects who will want to meet you, and who will come into your life without you looking for them. It has a huge impact on how easy or difficult is it to get resources or cooperation — the most effective people, and people that control a large amount of resources are almost always busy… before anyone introduces you, they’ll mentally check to themselves if you’ll be taken seriously.
The most desirable companies to work with look for people who have particular characteristics on display. And it subtly affects how much time someone allots if they go to meet you, how excited and prepared they are, and quite literally thousands of large and small factors… that are rarely explicit but always present.
• As you move through your life, everyone is matching you against patterns they already have in their mind. Do you seem trustworthy? Skilled? Competent? Like “their kind of person”? And so on.
People usually don’t give this much conscious thought, and these judgments are often snap judgments — and possibly quite unfair, often prejudiced, and always greatly simplified.
The totality of you is never examined; people’s minds are lazy and opinions do not shift easily once formed.
• You can think of your own Signal similar to building a new television channel. You’re broadcasting something all the time. The most prominent programs and events you run will affect your signal the most, but people won’t tune in equally.
2. Claims of what you can do: One of the lower credibility aspects of Signal. Better done with another method when possible. If needing to use claims, look to make them accurate and process-oriented rather than state-oriented. 3. Opinions of third parties on you: The most surprisingly credible and impactful aspect of Signal. Often underestimated by smart people, references and testimonials go incredibly far to build your Signal. Learn how to get these; it’s not that hard to learn and very useful. 4. Observations people make when seeing you: Hard to control, but given an extremely high weighting by most people. This can be obsessed over to your detriment — once it’s “Above the bar,” switch to building Character, Capacity, etc. Revisit and tweak occasionally, but this has the least bearing on your actual ability and is the least useful in isolation (and it’s the most over-invested in societally). 5. Context in which you first come across each other: Surprisingly confusingly important. Not entirely controllable, but look to get into contexts that the people who you want on your side are receptive, trusting, and open to connecting with people. Introductions rule here; so do organizations and events that just being there means being valuable. 6. Biases the other person brings to the table: Study which ones might apply to you. It’s hard to get people to be honest about these, because no one wants to admit they’re prejudiced. Get feedback, listen to stories from people with a similar background who found a way to thrive, and experiment to learn what works. Figure out how you can deal with what you’re up against in a way that harmonizes with your values. It can be uncomfortable, but try not to bury your head in the sand on this stuff. You should win at life, and there’s many ways to get there — you can find one that works for you.
• The Elements of Signal:
- Artifacts of what you’ve built and done: One of the highest credibility aspects of Signal. Use liberally. If you have claims to make, put them into action and get artifacts out of it.
- Claims of what you can do: One of the lower credibility aspects of Signal. Better done with another method when possible. If needing to use claims, look to make them accurate and process-oriented rather than state-oriented.
- 3rd Party Claims: The most surprisingly credible and impactful aspect of Signal. Often underestimated by smart people, references and testimonials go incredibly far to build your Signal. Learn how to get these; it’s not that hard to learn and very useful.
- Observations people make when seeing you: Hard to control, but given an extremely high weighting by most people. This can be obsessed over to your detriment — once it’s “Above the bar,” switch to building Character, Capacity, etc. Revisit and tweak occasionally, but this has the least bearing on your actual ability and is the least useful in isolation (and it’s the most over-invested in societally).
- Context in which you first come across each other: Surprisingly confusingly important. Not entirely controllable, but look to get into contexts that the people whom you want on your side are receptive, trusting, and open to connecting with people. Introductions rule here; so do organizations and events that just being there means being valuable.
- Prejudices and the biases the other person brings to the table: Study which ones might apply to you. It’s hard to get people to be honest about these because no one wants to admit they’re prejudiced. Get feedback, listen to stories from people with a similar background who found a way to thrive, and experiment to learn what works. Figure out how you can deal with what you’re up against in a way that harmonizes with your values. It can be uncomfortable, but try not to bury your head in the sand on this stuff. You should win at life, and there are many ways to get there — you can find one that works for you.
• People in the visual fields instinctively know the value of Artifacts. Portfolio, work samples, and the design of their own websites show off their aesthetics, taste, and judgments.
• Excellent case studies turn Claims into Artifacts. If a marketer sketches out precisely the cost, tools, and revenue growth from a campaign, it’s massively more powerful than just claiming to be a skilled marketer.
• Awards? Artifact. Before and after photos? Artifact. Sketches, blueprints, schematics? Artifacts. Something that shows your writing and editing process along with the finished product? Artifact. A copy of an operating manual you wrote? Artifact. Build and accumulate artifacts.
• There’s something funny about making empty Claims — they fool the people that aren’t worth fooling. Claiming to be a writer impresses people who don’t know better. People actually involved in writing, for real, are not so impressed by an empty Claim. What impresses them more? Making it accurate. “I’ve been daydreaming about being a writer, but not getting started yet” actually goes a much further way to winning over good allies. “I’m an entrepreneur” — by someone who is just halfway dabbling — goes over less well with people doing business than “I’ve been fascinated by entrepreneurship, I’m learning right now, experimenting a little bit, and looking for an opportunity I want to commit to.”
• In addition to being accurate, go for “process” more than “state.” “I am a writer” is likely to prompt, “What have you written?” That’s the other person saying, “Ok, show me the artifacts.” Don’t have any? Pfft. Saying “I’ve started writing 500 words per day minimum, and done it for 40 days straight now” potentially works better.
• Finally, don’t make Claims if you can just show what you can do. An easy way to win business as a consultant or freelancer is to occasionally hold 1 hour to 3-hour little mini-workshops or jam sessions with people who are potential clients. Get to know them, and deliver some real value to them in a few hours. If you can do good work with them right there, you have no need to make Claims. They did it with you, which is much better than hearing you can do it.
3rd Party Claims
• The opinions of credible third parties is one of the most valuable things in the world.
• A key skill to learn — and it’s simple and quick, but does need practice — is asking to get testimonials and feedback after work. This is possibly the single-most critically underused tool among people that have intangible work like management or back-end programming.
• Most people don’t like to write, and writing a testimonial or feedback feels both important (so it should be gotten right with lots of attention) and it feels like paperwork (because, well, it sort of is).
So ask for verbal feedback first — “How did the project go? How did work go? What’s it like working together?” Et cetera. Once you get feedback, then simply say, “Can I quote you on that?” Most people will say yes (a few people will say no for confidentiality or privacy reasons).
Then you write down what they said, and send it to them via email so they can double-check the quote.
• If you’re doing a good job, most people are happy to help, but it won’t occur to them unless you ask.
The absolute best time to ask is after you do an above-and-beyond-the-call-of-duty job with a client, employer, or partner. Take something that isn’t in your scope or job description, block out time to do it clearly an extra, and do it collaboratively. Really deliver.
It’s a good practice anyway, but in the ebbs and flows of a working relationship, you’ll of course get better quotes if you ask during a flow of great and powerful work.
• If you have someone who is a massive advocate for you, a client you delivered the best work ever for, etc — they might be willing to help by sitting down with you and writing 10 or 20 variants of a testimonial that address every aspect of your work separately. For instance, getting something in both formal language and informal language goes a long way, as do aspects emphasizing personality or emphasizing work quality.
• You absolutely must work to harness third party opinions. Do good work, solicit opinions, and get them written down or permission to use them as a reference. This is not optional; it’s the single most under-invested thing for people whose work is hard to show off visually in Artifact form.
• There’s a hierarchy of what people tend to trust: they trust a biased party (your own opinions of you) the least, they trust a third party who seems objective more than that, and they trust their own intuitions and judgments the most.
• Most people don’t scrutinize or question their own thoughts much. If their first impression is that “you look professional” — they’re likely to stick with that unless something drastic changes.
• People form many snap judgments based on their observations. You can’t control their snap judgments, but you can control what they observe.
• Get feedback from others on how you appear and adjust accordingly.
• To a large extent, improving your Character helps more than tweaking these details. If you can generate results and don’t obviously “not look the part” of the role you want to be in the world, then you don’t need to obsess over the details. But it does make sense to solicit opinions from trusted neutral third parties at least once a year as to how you seem to them and adjusting if something isn’t serving you.
• The Context in you meet someone has huge ramifications for your first impression, and consequently, everything else about you.
• Align your interests in a way that you’ll be able to make friends, acquaintances, and meet important future colleagues and partners. This sounds obvious, but most people don’t do it.
If you’re new to a city and don’t know anything about the social clubs and organizations there, you’d do well to choose one that you gain standing with fellow members simply by being a member.
Some strict requirements to participate or annual fees might be worth paying if it demonstrates that everyone onboard is serious and the members start with higher regard for each other.
• You can’t entirely control where your work is shared and discussed, but you can choose to water some plants more than others. If you find your work was shared or forwarded by someone, reach out and thank them. If it shows up at an online community you like, go join in commenting there. If it shows up somewhere that you don’t really want to nurture, don’t spend any time.
• Biases and prejudices of other people are a huge part of your Signal.
• The fact is, certain aspects of people that should have no bearing on their performance are still weighted heavily by people. This isn’t even talking about political hot-issues like race and gender. Characteristics like being tall or “looking like a winner” will help a person get hired as a senior executive.
• It’s important to know the general stereotypes — potentially favorable and unfavorable — that you’re working with, to choose how to operate based on them.
• If you’re an anomaly in your field — an expat in another country, someone in a field dominated by the other gender, younger or older than the norm, or if there’s biases against you based on race — you’re best off aware of them, and acting on them to achieve your goals.
• If you were Nigerian and working on an e-commerce site, you might want to make light or make a joke of it, might want to explicitly explain that it hurts that this happened and what you do to work against it, it might make sense to write something explicitly explaining the good sides of the technology culture, or it might make sense to describe yourself as from “Western Africa” or register your corporation or address elsewhere nearby just to avoid the Signal.
• If you think you’re “pretty normal” for your field and don’t have to think about it, you might think again. People have assumptions of you, and by directly looking to understand them and either enhance or mitigate those assumptions, you make gains to Signal.
• If you’re in a position where you lack a degree from an elite university or a prestigious credential, or are lower in age than most people of the type of role you’re competing for, or aren’t from the normal background, you could emphasize, “I’m probably younger than anyone else who applied here. I understand that the burden is on me to demonstrate I can perform, not just equally, but even greater as a result of that. Commit more, win respect, and deliver real results. I don’t intend to make age an issue past this, but I do intend to win everyone’s respect with my work, service, and results.”
• Most people who aren’t deliberate don’t wind up on the beach surfing all the time; they wind up in relative poverty, high stress, and with things just not going the way they want.
• The questions to ask to get deliberate about Signal are, “What am I broadcasting about myself right now, intentionally and unintentionally? How are others perceiving me? How are the people I most want in my life responding to my Signal? How can I change what I’m broadcasting (and still in line with my values) so that the type of people I want in my life come into my life?”
• If you want publishing houses and acquiring editors interested in you, the Signal of “expert at marketing and connecting with an audience and has a big platform” goes further than “truly dedicated pure artist.”
If you don’t have a type of people in your life that you want in your life, it makes sense to study what characteristics they look for.
• Any signaling of victimhood invites criminals and exploitive people. People who broadcast victimhood announce two things, both harmful.
First, that they don’t feel personal responsibility for their own lives, and thus are able to be led astray by someone who says “I’ll save you, I have the answers”, etc — busy and successful people with fantastic personal responsibility don’t, as a rule, talk like that or have time to save people who don’t take responsibility.
Second, any talk or representation of victimhood shows that you accept bad conditions in your life and/or have allowed bad things into your life in the past.
• Keep analyzing what you want. Skilled designers will periodically redesign their portfolios to get a different type of client; ideally more interesting, nuanced, more meaningful, higher-paying, or with people they like and respect more.
Just like that, by tweaking the portfolio, their Signal changes. You can do that too — your Signal might be hard-working student with a serious interest in X for a while, rising star overachiever for a while, and then move into being highly involved civically in the local community — or whatever.
You’ll wear many hats in your life, and changing your Signal is part of that.
• Don’t forget to work especially hard to understand what you were unintentionally broadcasting.
• It’s useless to try to build a Signal that doesn’t rest firmly on solid character. Crowds are notoriously fickle, and all but your closest friends will gain and lose appreciation for you due to the tides of life rising and falling. If your have character flaws, they will almost certainly eventually get you.
• You can control all the resources in the world, but if you don’t control your character, it will unmake you. And if you build strong character, you have at least a chance to weather nearly any storm. Don’t try to look good; be good. Work on yourself constantly.
• Entrepreneurs and executives certainly fall in love with their own services, and overrate them. But you know what we overrate far more than products and services? Ourselves.
• You should operate with the assumption that you’re going to need to dramatically improve to get the kind of quality of life you want, and that the improvement will sometimes be painful, but always satisfying and worth it.
• You’re going to need to stop saying “Yeah, I’m a pretty good person” and patting yourself on the back, and start saying, “Okay, how can I be a better friend? How can I be more thoughtful? How can I deliver better results? How can I be more useful? Do I waste people’s time ever? How can I do less of that? How can I think more clearly, make decisions more effective, and use good judgment and goodwill towards other people more often. How do I do more and produce more?”
• Get the people who are the best at what you do to review your work and make suggestions. Get that friend of yours that’s blunt and will always say what he thinks with minimal tact (we all have one friend like that, right?) and ask what’s the most aggravating thing about you.
• You want your Signal to match the results you can deliver. One of the hardest things for young people who strike off on their own is they don’t know exactly what’s possible. Thus, it’s easy to wind up in a position where you’re trying to sell yourself on a role that you can’t perform.
• If you don’t know if you can do something, don’t market or advertise or brand or represent yourself as excellent at it. Instead, show people the Artifacts of what you’ve done in the past, and generalize from there.
• If you don’t have any skills you can deliver and don’t have interesting Artifacts under your belt, don’t worry. Billions of people — literally billions — have started from that position and overcome it. There are many ways, but the gist of it is to start doing projects or work of any sort and documenting the results into Artifacts and testimonials, with only the occasional process-oriented and modest claim. You can promote yourself more aggressively as you achieve more things.
• Set up your life and Signal so good things passively happen to you without active effort.
• At least once a year, go through and look at everything people are seeing when they check you out. This covers all the details and Building Blocks of Signal.
• If you’re evolving quickly, audit more often. Look for what you’ve done in the world; identify Artifacts that you can lead with instead of claims. Discard aspects of Signal and communication that no longer serve you and your goals. Add things that do.
It helps to do this with a friend, going through literally everything you can think of. Your away message on your Instant Messenger is the kind of thing no one thinks about but has a hint of a shadow of an influence on your Signal. Update it accordingly, and everything else.
• An excellent reputation and narrative make resources come to you easier and, at some points, effortlessly.
• If you really do genuinely start to feel stuck in a way where your skill is too low to do something, it’s painful not being able to do it, but genuinely would hurt to be seen by people who look up to you as bad at it — then you need to create some time and space for yourself to get trained and practice.
• But be careful, especially as you get praised and lauded for achievements, that you don’t implicitly promise things you can’t deliver. If people are making “Halo Effect” assumptions that you’re good at everything, set them straight and let them know what you can and can’t do well.
• When you can ground expectations of you firmly in the possible, you can deliver those and then some. If your promise is of something impossible, you can deliver something good and still run into people being disappointed.
• Don’t obsess over this. But give it some thought occasionally. Are amazing people coming into your life regularly? If not, could some aspect that’s constantly praised about you by some people actually be getting in the way?
• If you don’t know what you want, it’s not a problem. Pick something, anything, you know is good for you, and start going for that. Most people sit too long and let time pass. Preferences emerge from action, testing, and feedback loops. Pick anything, be deliberate, and get started.
• The Japanese have a proverb that goes: “Getting money is like digging with a needle. Spending it is like water soaking into sand.”
• As with any exhaustible resource, having money sitting around, ready to be deployed towards the goal of your choice is, well, good. But the real benefit of having money the bank is optionality. We like to call this measure “dry gunpowder.”
Stocking up on money means you can start turning down job and client offers you don’t want, hold a harder line in negotiations, and self-insure instead of paying a premium for insurance.
• Mistakes around money can be so sneaky: picking bad investments, being over-leveraged, rationalizing decisions, and the fact that people selling expensive things are not necessarily looking out for your best interests.
• A lot of being good with money comes down to not making some mistakes. We need to get good strategies in place based on our most important goals and priorities. But just as importantly, avoiding bad habits and common pitfalls gets you very far.
• Mistakes to Avoid:
- Trying to Buy Stuff That Money Is Bad At
- Being Afraid of Money
- Not Learning Money Management
- Undeliberate Autopilot
- Following the Class-Based Scripts
- Automatic Lifestyle Inflation
- Not Giving Drowning Enough Priority
- The “Monied Person” Identity
- Ignoring the Numbers
- Not Fighting Learned Helplessness
- Fighting off Symptoms Instead of Fixing Underlying Problems
- Purchase Relativity
- Not Respecting Tilt
- Making Bad Threshold of Misery Decisions
- Strategies That Only Work During Good Times
- Money as Endgame
- Not Making the Most of Your Current Situation
Trying to Buy Stuff That Money Is Bad At
• If someone loves you — in friendship or romance — only for the pleasure of being around you or the advantages you bestow, then your relationship is on shaky ground.
• Do not try to buy friendship or love with money; it’s inefficient and puts you on dangerous ground. Money buys some things very well and others poorly — know which is which and buy the former.
Being Afraid of Money
• If you’re afraid of getting your mind around your money situation, take actions where you progressively and slowly do that. The fear fades with time, and you can improve your situation.
Not Learning Money Management
• Study money management. Get good at it. Resist the temptation to think “I should know that” — just being around something doesn’t make you good at it without some study and practice.
• You could, quite literally, re-architect just about any aspect of your life to be more enjoyable, meaningful, and interesting for you. But to do this, you need to start observing and noticing changes. You need to “get off autopilot.”
Later, once you make decisions you really like, you can get back on autopilot… and live much healthier and happier.
But if you’ve never sat down and consciously looked at all the places your money goes, all the choices you’re making with it, then you’re shortchanging yourself and your life greatly.
Following the Class-Based Scripts
• The key to architecting a life that gets you what you want is to discard class-based scripts.
• If you’re following class scripts for your spending, you’re doing some insanely wasteful and harmful things to yourself. You’re overspending on stuff you don’t actually like and care about by a lot, and underspending on other stuff that could bring you much better results.
Automatic Lifestyle Inflation
• You should identify what spending, saving, and investing will best serve your life, and do that. Once you’ve done that, greater amounts of money shouldn’t just mean “slightly more of everything” — most people who start making more money just gradually upgrade everything a little bit in their lives without thinking about it.
It’s very likely that there are one or two areas in your life that would benefit overwhelmingly more than others to have your money deployed towards. This might be letting your money pool up in the bank and in financial investments. This might be buying higher quality tools you use regularly. It might be investing in some kind of credentialing or skill development to further grow income. It might be any number of things, but it’s unlikely to be “a little of everything.”
Not Giving Drowning Enough Priority
• When things are very bad, the mind’s inclination and bias are towards short-term activities.
• We could call a state where your finances are in the red and your cash flow is negative “beginning to drown.” If this happens, give every effort possible to making that the biggest priority for a while.
While drowning, it’s almost impossible to think clearly. It is similar to real-life drowning — many times, a potential victim of drowning grabs frantically at someone who tries to rescue them, causing even more problems.
• A good general rule would be to stabilize as quickly as possible. Certainly, the best time to do this is if you’re potentially on the verge of getting towards that drowning state. Then, if you can cut your expenses and focus on getting out of that, it would be a wise decision.
What does this look like practically? It would mean cutting all discretionary spending for a time that’s possible to cut, and looking to work part-time for any decent pay on the weekend or after work, and then taking most of that money to pay off debts and accumulate savings.
• Purchasing the clear-headedness that comes from having additional runway and breathing room is worth near infinitely more than any individual pleasure.
The “Monied Person” Identity
• As you get wealthier, stay modest. Buy public luxuries when the impression it gives will be useful for what you want to achieve. Look to get Assets and levels of wealth that suit you; in public, keep it more modest to suppress jealousy and unnecessary problems.
Ignoring the Numbers
• Understanding percentages, how compound interest works, and the general “basic math of money” is hugely important.
• Little tiny differences — the difference in something that costs 10% more or 10% less, add up to huge amounts. Most people don’t shop on their major purchases enough and wind up getting bad values on homes and automobiles. Most people haven’t gotten their mind around how a different interest rate pays hugely different amounts.
• The thing is, none of the math is hard. It just takes a gradual practice and getting-to-know it. Figuring out savings rates, cost of living, how tax rates affect you, and so on — none of this is incredibly interesting on the surface, but it gives you almost a set of superpowers.
Not Fighting Learned Helplessness
• It’s quite possible you’ll have setbacks even as you try to learn and apply the principles of money. If “the money seems to keep disappearing” even after you try really hard to manage it, it can be painful. Many people give up at this stage.
Fighting off Symptoms Instead of Fixing Underlying Problems
• Stop and ask yourself, “What do I keep spending on because of some underlying problem? How can I repair that problem?” If anything springs to mind, fix it. Fix underlying problems instead of spending on alleviating symptoms.
• When you buy something like a house, every 1% cheaper you can negotiate stands to save you thousands of dollars in immediate equity and savings in future interest payments.
• People usually feel they’ve done well if they “pay 10% less than asking price.” But if you’re shopping for a home or a large-ticket purchase, getting an extra 1% off could be worth thousands of dollars. It might make sense to spend many, many extra hours to find the best possible deal that suits you and yours.
• Don’t “negotiate everything a little bit” out of a sense of a middle-class script. If thousands of dollars are at stake, treat it accordingly.
• Pay attention to absolute dollar amounts; it’s better to save 11% on the purchase of your house and 0% off your toothpaste than 10% of each.
Not Respecting Tilt
• There are times in your life when you’re on tilt. You’ve been embarrassed, frustrated, gotten bored, or whatever. You’ve got two choices — stabilize very quickly or get up and walk away.
• When you recognize you’re not in emotional control of yourself, minimize your exposure to money and decisions you’re making with money.
Making Bad Threshold of Misery Decisions
• After a certain amount of loss in poker, people stop caring about how much they’ve lost. They’ve crossed the “Threshold of Misery” where the pain doesn’t go up from losing. They’re so totally miserable that additional losses don’t hurt.
• You’ve got to remind yourself that even though things don’t seem to matter now, there will come a time when they do matter. So, make good decisions.
Strategies That Only Work During Good Times
• Whatever you’re doing in regards to cash, assets, investing, and spending, you want to make it a strategy that you can sustain when things go wrong. An exercise to help with this is to look at historical events and ask some “What if?” questions. “What if there’s a lot of inflation and cash becomes worth a lot less? What if there’s a real estate crash? What if this line of business is regulated? What if I can’t keep a position at this pay level? What if our investments lose half their value?”
Money as Endgame
• It would be unwise to cultivate and gear all of your life around the acquisition of money to the detriment of everything else because success at this goal would then render your own chief source of motivation and delight moot.
Not Making the Most of Your Current Situation
• Periodically, test whether the things you’re buying are actually adding value to your life.
• Multipliers are the areas where putting some money into them gives you greater impact in the world, making you more effective, and makes things easier, and more meaningful.
• Remember that multipliers multiply, and you have to conservatively calculate out your current impact and very conservatively calculate speculated impact to see what could make sense.
• You can always consider greatly minimizing certain categories of expected spend, down to your constraints, and pour what’s left into what matters to you.
• When considering where to put your spending and investing, and how to earn, it’s worth asking the question, “Does this make me more committed to what I’m currently doing, or less?’ It’s a surprisingly valuable question:
- Long-term lease — more committed.
- Recurring expenses on the top of your budget — more committed.
- Develop skills where you can work remotely — more freedom.
- Income is from labor that happens in one place — more committed.
- Work full-time — more committed.
- Income comes even partially from dividends (or rents managed by a good property management company) — more freedom.
- Buy a full home surround system — more committed.
- Lease a car — more committed.
- Buy a car outright in cash at a good price that can be re-sold at a profit — more freedom than the leasing route.
- Hire a virtual assistant who can take up some work for you — more freedom.
- Get help putting together a useful portfolio and case studies — more freedom.
- Buy physical stuff you need to store — more committed.
- Have experiences that develop you as a person that you can take with you — more freedom.
The more things you own, the higher your overhead is, and the less job flexibility you have (or the more you love your work, or earn incredibly well from it but it’s the only option) — well, the more committed you are to one place.
• Being in one place means you can build a very deep social circle, probably somewhat deeper than the types of distributed social circles across cities and countries that people who travel a lot can build. To be sure, there’s lots of advantages to both. It’s harder to move around with a great set of knives to cook with, but those make a chef’s life go so much better.
• You choose the meaning of your own life. Even if you had a path that you knew with complete certainty was the right path — serving as a member of your religion, or taking care of particular family members, of serving your nation or culture — even then, that rarely offers a complete answer to the question of meaning.
• You pick and choose the meaning of your life. Your religion, culture, family, or nation may shape this tremendously, but even then, you’ll choose what your expression of your devotion is.
• At the end of the day, all of your resource-getting and using resolves to meaning. There is some meaning itself in doing anything and doing it well, but it does behoove you to pick something meaningful to be doing.
Even if the meaning you’ve chosen is just “enjoying the journey,” it does make some sense to do this explicitly so you don’t have that gnawing sense of worry that something else ought to be happening.
• Getting serious? It’s when you pick something, you make it an overriding first priority, and you give it a long time horizon. Being an overriding first priority means that most of your time goes to this one thing and that its importance trumps everything else. You start turning down things that you’d like to do, just because it gives you more time for your first priority. Not direct schedule conflicts, just more time.
• Being serious is a way of living, not the following of a few steps. It’s easy to say you’ll stick with something for five years, but much harder to know that you’ll actually do it.
• Study the nature of what you are signing up for, and begin to cut things that don’t fit with it. For defined paths, you can usually see to some extent how much freedom and leisure you have, whereas for an inventor, artist, entrepreneur, scientist, statesman, or any role with potentially infinite challenge, it’s harder to know where the lines ought to be drawn.
• Pragmatism includes not assuming benevolence on the part of other people without proof and not assuming that good intentions will always produce good results.
• In more individualistic endeavors, it’s likewise key to look at all possible advantages and look to see how others who have succeeded in the field have done so.
• Study all the finer points, every place where an advantage can be had. Pragmatism is the way.
• A corollary of being pragmatic — You must search your own thinking and judgments to see if you’ve got any hidden parameters for your successes that could un-do you.
• Most people don’t realize they have hidden parameters. They just feel a lack of affinity or an aversion to activities that might be a required part of success in their chosen field. It would behoove you to study what successful people in your field have done, paying very close attention to the areas you’re not doing and asking why.
• Hidden parameters are especially dangerous because you can’t easily reason through a hidden requirement that you’re not consciously aware you have.
• Something you’re making active steps on every day has a chance of happening. If something is the most important thing to you, it’s worth making the time for almost every single day. Regular action is what ensures progress and wards against idle fantasizing.
• There are generally two ways to set up and approach clear-meaning-of-life type goals.
The first is to set things up so that you can’t lose, and to dig yourself in for the long haul. These are endeavors where you can fail repeatedly, learn, adjust, and keep going.
Looking to do breakthrough work in a particular field falls into this category — if your first research doesn’t lead to anything groundbreaking, you adjust, take your lessons, and keep going.
The second category is the “…or die trying” type activities, where you’ll either succeed or fail in a given period of time, and not have another shot at success in things in that particular way.
Looking to establish yourself as the premier athlete in your sport, for instance, is usually the “…or die trying” type of activity. You have your prime years in the sport, and if you don’t reach the top in those years, you can adjust and find something else meaningful, but you can’t just keep at it. If the meaning you’d set to your life was being an ace Major League Baseball pitcher and you’re 18 years old, you can’t just chip away at it for the next 30 years and eventually get there. It’s not pleasant to say and we all love stories that glorify the exception to this rule, but that type of goal — practically speaking — will have to be realized rather quickly, or will have failed.
• The ability to do things gracefully, slowly, and with no mess is not available if you’re actually committed to “…or die trying” type successes.
• It’s worth knowing what game you’re playing. If you’re in marathon mode, you’d do well to pace yourself, take good care of your health, lay an excellent foundation, and not take unnecessary catastrophic-downsides-possible type risks. You won’t need daring maneuvers as often, and might not have to go to the brink of your conscience and sanity to win. On the other hand, “…or die trying” type endeavors often do require that sort of action.
• Sometimes, you have a choice between staying in marathon mode, or making something a desperate win-or-die-trying type sprint. If you’re committed to entrepreneurial success, for instance, some business models, markets, and types of financing mean you can go at your own pace and gradually succeed. Other types become a desperate rush to succeed or die in the process.
There are times when taking venture capital means a technology company has now changed its parameters for success and needs to hold or increase its growth rate while running a deficit and losing money… and ensure it hits those growth numbers fast enough to get the next round of financing before the whole thing explodes.
Some companies have the option of not taking financing and looking to grow slower while controlling their own destinies. In this case, it’s an interesting question. What precisely do you want, and how do you want to play this out? Sometimes the choice is there.
• It’s easy and common for people to get lost and stall out if they’re intensely committed to a particular cause if that cause doesn’t dictate an exact path to walk. A path to meaning like “see that the oceans and marine life are protected and preserved” offers 10,000 different large-scale approaches that could be taken. Oftentimes, a person committed to a path like that will bounce around, not bringing enough endurance and effort to a single initiative to make a tangible difference.
• Everyone likes winners, and bringing wins to the table gets you more resources. Being broadly “interested” or “committed” — without any wins — usually doesn’t lead to an increasing accumulation of the ability to get the job done.
• Wins are important. Bringing any win to the table of a cause you care about gets you momentum and new resources. Even if the win you bring isn’t the biggest, bestest, most theoretically amazing possible win, it is a win. You can build on it. Thus, someone with a hazy path to meaning would do well to learn how to set proximate objectives.
• One of a leader’s most powerful tools is the creation of a good proximate objective — one that is close enough at hand to be feasible. A proximate objective names a target that the organization can reasonably be expected to hit, even overwhelm.
• You can’t look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.
• If you want to work on big things, you seem to have to trick yourself into doing it. You have to work on small things that could grow into big things, or work on successively larger things, or split the moral load with collaborators. It’s not a sign of weakness to depend on such tricks. The very best work has been done this way.
• The number one thing you have to do before you set out on any other goal or course is to define your expectations. #1 thing. On the outset of any project, record, tour.
• Define your expectations. Everyone wants to make it, but the real question is how you would recognize making it. What is ‘making it’? What do you want to be? What does making it look like?
• Once your expectation — your objective — is set, it starts defining the things you have to do. If you want to sell two million albums in today’s climate, you basically have to keep the song shorter than four minutes, get to your chorus fast enough, be willing to compromise artistic stylistics with current demand, and in general — play the game.
• The magic of setting a proximate objective. When you set a precise objective, it starts dictating its own objectives to you. What to do becomes clear. The possible options go from innumerably infinite and unfathomable into manageable.
John Mayer’s expectation-setting, for example, transforms the vague unclear ‘be an artist’ path into the more-manageable ‘make music that can possibly become popular and sell many copies’ — which dictates its own constraints and requirements.
• Choose shorter rather than longer proximate objectives, if possible. Project success of any sort can be built on; people like wins, and support people who win. Set a shorter manageable goal and achieve it. If your premises or assumptions turn out to be wildly wrong, you’ll find out sooner.
• The planning fallacy shows that people consistently greatly underestimate the time it takes to do things. Basically, everything almost always takes longer than expected.
• You want to choose things with impact, but you’ll almost always underestimate how long it takes to do new tasks you don’t have experience doing. You’d thus do well to start small, picking a task with high impact you could complete reasonably quickly (by the standards of your field), and building on top of it.
• It’s possible to have no idea what you’re building towards, but yet to select intelligent things to do that are clearly wins, and to do them cheerfully, and to trust that when you do eventually find a sense of meaning (almost all people do, eventually) — you’ll then be better and more well-equipped for it for the cheerful actions you’ve done now.
• You don’t need to know what you’re doing early. Many people don’t. Even worse, many people who don’t know arbitrarily make bad decisions and commit hard to do them just so they can answer the question. A great alternative — Resource Mode.
Stack up useful resources. They will aid you greatly when you inevitably discover a great sense of precise meaning, which you don’t have to be in any hurry to do.
• When it comes to Resource Mode, the first thing to consider is areas where there are thresholds worth breaking through. Sometimes, by getting over a threshold just once in your life, it makes the entire rest of your life better.
Consider getting introductions. There are broadly three thresholds of introductions, as we discussed before:
- People don’t want to introduce you: In this first tier, the person you’re meeting doesn’t like and trust you enough to make introductions. Since every introduction is an implied “vouch,” if you seem like you’d be risky to vouch for, it’ll be hard to get introduced.
- People are willing to introduce you if there’s a good reason: This means you’ve crossed to a threshold where people will introduce you if you have a good reason. It means you come across like a decent person, trustworthy, considerate, with basic social graces, etc. Most people never get past here.
- People are excited to introduce you to as many people as they can: People will want to introduce you to as many people as they can if they’re 100% sure you’ll always represent them well, and the introduction will always be seen as a great favor to the person you got introduced to.
Once you hit that third threshold, you’re well on your way to having as many good people in your life as you can handle.
If you’re shy or introverted, it’s well worth studying the basic books and getting some guidance, mentorship, and practice around people to make it to threshold #2. We offered some guidelines in both the Network and Signal sections on this topic.
And then, it’s worth constantly reflecting on how well you come across to people and how valuable you seem. Once you break that third threshold, you suddenly have effectively an infinite number of people in your life you want to meet.
Now, even if you don’t know precisely what you want to do with your life, it makes immense sense to go through getting the sets of knowledge, attitude, behaviors, and traits that’ll take you up that threshold.
• Having “more than enough” very good friends you greatly admire is a very good place to be. Sometimes a person will have only a single very good friend, but that’s empirically a little bit dangerous. What if your friend is away? Loneliness ensues. And if you drift apart in values, it can be catastrophic.
Having enough good people that you can get multiple varied smart opinions on a course of action you’re thinking of taking is incredibly valuable, too. What’s the exact number? It’s hard to say. But you’ll know.
Once you’ve met more people that you really like and admire than you can even stay in touch with constantly, you’ve got more than enough great people in your life.
Still nurture those close one-on-one relationships and small groups, but it makes infinite sense — even if you don’t know precisely what you’re going to do with your life — to meet some high-character people that you really harmonize well with. This, by itself, is highly worth sorting out.
• Taking the time to learn about how your body works and what leads to peak performance with you gives you a lifelong roadmap. Even if you don’t know precisely what you want to do with your life, learning about that is great.
• You want to be confident in your ability to lead a project and keep it on track. Once you go from “umm… I don’t know… this is scary…” to “yeah, I’ve led projects before” — a great threshold is passed.
• There is a danger of not capturing possible resources when you feel like “it’s not your calling” — resist. Improve your Capacity, Network, Signal, and Assets. This makes it easier to get where you want to go when you inevitably eventually discover where that is.
• A very important rule: do not allow yourself to quit things that are 90% complete. A lot of people, at the finish line, realize that what they’re doing isn’t what they want to do. This is a bad time to stop and not finish. You must not self-destruct at the finish line. It creates a terribly bad habit.
• Even as late as 75% into completion of something, it might make sense to quit and abandon and change gears. But anything that’s on the verge of finishing must be finished. Do not allow yourself to go into “existential questioning mode” when almost complete.
• For many people in the Western world, “making a living” isn’t even the biggest risk or worry. For many Westerners, “making my life make sense to others and fitting in” seems to be the primary driver and function of work life.
• Winter offers a variety of his favorite goal-setting exercises. One of them is particularly novel — “Make a list of every crazy goal you can think of. Then rate each goal on three factors: how much the goal excites you, from one to ten; your probability of success if you tried as hard as you could; and how long it would take in hours. Then sort the goals by excitement times probability of success divided by the time required and pick some of the most efficient goals.”
In other words, Winter is saying that if you don’t know what to do, go after the things that are most exciting that can be done the quickest.
• A full-on search for what’s meaningful almost always includes some mix of theorizing and thinking about what could be good, and then trying it out.
• Flow happens when the Challenge Level and Skill Level of what you’re doing match up. If your skill is vastly greater than the challenge of what you’re doing, you’ll likely wind up bored (or at best, relaxed). If the challenge is considerably greater than your skill, it’s typically stressful.
• It’s not that Flow isn’t worth pursuing (it is) — but far more importantly, you can’t accurately gauge how much you truly like an activity until your skill level is high enough to actually get good feedback and grip with the interesting challenges in the field.
• Plenty of activities that are awful to learn the foundations of are incredibly stimulating and enjoyable once you reach higher levels of skill and take on real challenges. Likewise, many activities that are pleasurable enough to learn and participate in become drudgery once reached.
• If you’re searching, you’re actively placing bets that something might be meaningful, but you need to be aware that you might be wrong, and won’t know until you’ve reached some commensurate level of skill to actually see what it’s like truly being there.
• The following is an exercise somewhat commonly written which is uncommonly effective but rarely known outside the literature of goal-setting and personal development. It’s the “Player 1” exercise.
“Player 1” says this — imagine you got to take over someone else’s life, take an inventory of their skills, abilities, situation in the world, things they owned, and so on — and then could start doing whatever you wanted with their life. You woke up as them one day. You’re you, but you can do whatever you want.
In that case, if they’re doing something particularly dumb, you would just stop doing it. If you woke up as a career petty criminal always doing dumb things and getting arrested, you could just stop doing dumb petty crime. If dumb petty crime always happens when this person hangs out with Cousin Ernie, you just stop hanging out with Cousin Ernie.
Of course, you don’t actually get to wake up as someone else. But you can do this as yourself. You imagine that it wasn’t you that made the decisions that got you here today. You’re not even you. You’re Player 1. You just took over this person’s life. What dumb stuff are they doing that you can stop doing?
Sometimes people start overspending and going deeper into debt to impress people. They keep doing it because they’re afraid to lose the impression they set. You “Player 1” this scenario and realize that this debt thing is dumb and should be stopped immediately. You stop doing it. Done. If you, Player 1, need new friends afterward, you go make new friends. If you don’t have the skill, character, and life to get the kind of friends you want, you go make those friends.
It is a useful exercise. People attempt to be consistent with what they did in the past, at the expense of getting stuck doing things they dislike. “Player 1” exercises are worth exploring.
If you have an incredibly honest and thoughtful friend or mentor, you might also ask them to help you go through the Player 1 exercise. Their suggestions will probably point out the dumber things to stop doing, skills you should leverage more, and weaknesses you should fix.
• As a lower bound [to how much you should love your work before you settle on this as the thing you do], you have to like your work more than any unproductive pleasure.
You have to like what you do enough that the concept of “spare time” seems mistaken. Which is not to say you have to spend all your time working.
You can only work so much before you get tired and start to screw up. Then you want to do something else — even something mindless. But you don’t regard this time as the prize and the time you spend working is the pain you endure to earn it.
• If your work is not your favorite thing to do, you’ll have terrible problems with procrastination. You’ll have to force yourself to work, and when you resort to that, the results are distinctly inferior.
• Theorizing, studying the world, setting up experiments, doing science, reading, synergizing thought — this brings me the highest degree of pleasure and is a high-leverage activity for me.
• Sometimes I’ve inadvertently organized my days such that I have to go full-on with reasonably mundane and linear duties that perhaps allow for incremental improvement and exploration in that regard, but do not offer the opportunity to invent, create, think in a free and clear way, etc.
Thus, I think it is necessary to set up most of my days so that I may start by doing science, planning, controlling, and theory in the mornings.
Ideally, I do this with a particular lens at that moment, a focused campaign, and translate this into direct improvements.
• Towards the early-middle of the day, I need to shift into production mode to turn good ideas into good realities.
I do not wish to be a theorist or a pure scientist; I wish to make Planet Earth run better, improve people’s lives, and gain for myself and others the benefits of doing so. That means it should be relatively infrequent to spend a whole day doing pure theory or pure reading, without translating it into production.
• In the late-middle day, shift to taking care of habits and sustaining — especially if big things are happening that would make it beneficial to neglect those things!
Physical fitness, taking a walk, taking a nap, processing administrative tasks, etc. Calls should also be around this time, perhaps a little before or a little after, but not at the start of the day usually. It’s always tempting to neglect these habits during periods of expansion, but it is a fool’s bargain — things only go well because one is healthy and able to capitalize on this state of health.
• The late part of the day is a challenge — my judgment and assessment of my own abilities are usually flawed in the evening, and I’m prone to staying up too late doing things that are not useful nor proceeding quickly… yet, it’s also the most convenient time to get the (necessary) socializing with brilliant people like Kai. The end of days deserves some care and regular analysis to make sure I get what I need, but sleep early enough.
It’s unfortunate that staying up too late at night compromises the morning. There is perhaps no way around that — you either wake up later and lose morning-time, or you wake up with less sleep.
• Marshall likes to spend the morning just thinking, drawing up plans, and trying to figure out what’s possible in the world. After a few hours of that, shift to doing intense work with the sharpest of one’s mind. Then take care of admin and habits.
Try not to screw up the end of the day too badly. Marshall came upon this by studying his own life. He tended to make bad decisions in the evening (bad food choices, aimless web surfing, and just spinning his wheels while getting nothing done). This was never actually satisfying at the moment.
Likewise, he used to tear into his administrative work and necessary phone calls early. He doesn’t do that now — he found that he likes socializing and collaborating via telephone and meetings, but not first thing in the day, ever, if possible.
Everyone has different tastes. That’s one example. It took a lot of thinking and analyzing to figure out even that simple script for a day. It takes more effort to start living it.
• Remember the difference between cognitive knowledge — intellectual thinking knowledge — and the experiential knowledge that comes from firsthand doing things. Doing pure philosophy can let you cognitively reason yourself into what’s meaningful. It might be valuable, but anecdotally speaking, it seems that more people find what they find deeply meaningful through action and trying things than they do through pure philosophy.
• Pure philosophy can be good, but take it in dosages and keep healthy amounts of action up in the process.
• People sometimes take this “meaning” stuff way too seriously. Here is a good rule of thumb — if being stressed, anxious, or miserable is going to help you achieve what you want to achieve, then be stressed, anxious, or miserable.
But, generally speaking, these things are counterproductive to meaning. So, lighten up if you can! At least, add “lighten up” to your list of things worth trying. It’s perfectly acceptable to not know precisely what you want to do right now, and if so — going into research mode, going through the process of searching for meaning, or just ignoring the whole thing entirely and doing what you want to do — these are fine outcomes.