How To Achieve More Than You Think You Can Cover

How To Achieve More Than You Think You Can

Justin Timberlake should not be as successful as he is. Looking at it from the outside, little of how his career has progressed seems to make sense.

JT’s not someone you come across in headlines a whole lot, yet he sits on over 160 awards, a 200-million-dollar fortune, and one of the most respected reputations in the history of entertainment. At 36 years old, he’s had a globally successful band, four platinum solo albums, starred in smash hit movies, and is considered a fashion icon.

But that’s not what common sense tells us, is it? Though some caveats have been added to the famous 10,000 hour rule, the message remains the same: you need lots of deliberate practice and years of time to get good at one thing.

So how can someone like Timberlake switch music styles, industries, even to a completely different skill set, like acting, time and time again, yet still succeed?

What part of the picture are we missing?

Learning to Unlearn

Every lesson in life comes at the expense of unlearning another.

When you learn to be confident, you unlearn to be shy. If you react with humility, you have forgotten your ego. When you’re comfortable taking risk, you ignore other’s opinions, and so on.

In Chinese philosophy, the idea of yin and yang suggests that life consists entirely of dualities. It is only through the completeness of these dualities that we achieve unity. So no matter how contradictory two sides seem, they’re ultimately connected.

For each new piece of knowledge you acquire, you have to let go of an old one. Foggy clouds of ideas make way for facts, which make way for better facts, only to be replaced by new clouds, and so the cycle continues.

What most of us do when we try to improve is resist this cycle. We want every next answer to be the answer to everything. A different diet, a new sleep schedule, a tweak to your marketing — if only we stick to it, it may last us forever. Of course, nothing ever does.

That’s because the underlying skill of acquiring and abandoning knowledge, the unity, lies in change itself. What you’re really learning is how to unlearn.

Justin Timberlake is a master at it.

The Unimportance of Being Right

There is a famous line in a Walt Whitman poem called Song of Myself:

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.”

The next time someone accuses you of being inconsistent, say this line. It’ll instantly take the wind out of their sails, because you can’t argue with someone who accepts being wrong. Especially without making an attempt to defend themselves.

Most people stumble over this idea, because one of our biggest innate desires is to be consistent. Add to that our tendency to spend more time on what we’ve already sunken energy into, and you get a high level of resistance to unlearning.

People like Justin Timberlake, however, practice something cryptocurrency expert Nick Szabo calls quantum thought:

“In law school, they teach a very different way of thinking in that you need to take both the defendants and the plaintiffs side of the issue and run down the arguments as if each one of them is true. They contradict each other, of course, or at least the conclusions, and so I compare this to Schrodinger’s cat — maybe it’s alive, maybe it’s dead. Maybe the defendant’s guilty, maybe they’re not, and you have to keep both of these in your mind at once.”

When Justin went from child actor to boyband singer, from solo artist to actor, from show host to comedian, from R&B to Soul, and from commercial star to voice actor, he was in no way convinced he’d be good at all of those things.

He just managed to hold the possibility of two different truths in his head at the same time. Thanks to this skill, Timberlake is never afraid to be wrong, since he is always free to unlearn one thing for another. He has a frictionless mind.

It’s a mental model he likely acquired at The Mickey Mouse Club.

A Child With a Grown Man’s Work Ethic

Even someone as talented as Justin Timberlake isn’t always right. He bought a golf course for $16 million, only to sell it for $500,000 seven years later, and some of his films were really bad. He works incredibly hard too, which we can’t neglect.

However, all that pales compared to the genius of a child that resides in him, which we often lack. Neil deGrasse Tyson explains:

“There’s a spelling bee and you have to spell the word ‘CAT.’ One student spells it ‘C-A-T.’ The person got it right. The next person spells it ‘K-A-T.’ That’s wrong.

The third person spells it ‘X-Q-W.’ You realize that is marked equally as wrong as the ‘K-A-T,’ when you could argue that ‘K-A-T’ is a better spelling for ‘CAT’ than ‘C-A-T.’ Dictionaries know this, because that’s how they spell it phonetically!

And so we’ve built a system for ourselves where there is an answer and everything else is not the answer, even when some answers are better than others. So our brains are absent the wiring capable of coming up with an original thought.”

As adults, we spend all of our time in this system, so it’s almost impossible not to fall prey to the same thinking. But when we do, when we resist the process of constantly updating our view of the world, we block our own path.

Children aren’t burdened with this problem yet, because they’re still unfamiliar with the idea that “this is how we do things around here.” As Sir Ken Robinson recalls about the time his son was in the nativity play:

“The three boys came in, four-year-olds with tea towels on their heads, and they put these boxes down, and the first boy said, “I bring you gold.” And the second boy said, “I bring you myrrh.” And the third boy said, “Frank sent this.”

What these things have in common is that kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong.”

What we really see when we look at someone of Justin Timberlake’s caliber, is a child with a grown man’s work ethic. Having traversed the long road of unlearning, he reaps the rewards of unencumbered thought: Originality, adaptability, and the courage to exercise both at a second’s notice.

If nobody told you what you can and can’t achieve in a 20-year career, how much would you dare to try?

Chances are you’d act with an open mind and, like Justin Timberlake, embrace the next line in Whitman’s poem:

“I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Why Life's Biggest Limitation Will Make You Happier Cover

Why Life’s Biggest Limitation Will Make You Happier

One of Gandhi’s most popular quotes is this:

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

Once we’ve gotten some much needed distance to whatever our education system forced us to remember, most of us rediscover the joy of voluntary learning at some point. Whether you like to research stocks, tend to your garden, or read books, self-improvement has many benefits.

Beyond satisfying our curiosity by regularly spending time in flow, we can use it to become better people, get what we want and solve problems. It seems so universal a tool that its usefulness feels limitless.

But that’s not the whole story. No matter how much we’d like it to, self-improvement isn’t a magic wand we can wave to cause whatever change we want to see. That’s because no amount of reading, learning, or even discipline can ever change that life still consists entirely of tradeoffs.

It’s like that line: “You can have anything you want, but not everything.” Choosing one thing always means not choosing another, so even if you’re the most dedicated person in the world, you still have to decide what to dedicate yourself to.

No idea highlights this problem better than The Four Burners Theory.

Two Out of Four

Imagine a stove with four burners on it, which represent the big aspects of your life:

  1. Family.
  2. Friends.
  3. Work.
  4. Health.

Now, the theory says that in order to be successful, you can only turn on three burners at a time. If you want to be exceptional, it’s just two.

The second you hear this theory, you know it’s true. Take a moment to think. Which burners have you cut off? For me it’s friends and health. If I had to put percentages on it, I’d say work is at 80%, family at 15%, and friends get a crippling 5%. Almost out of oxygen. Ouch.

This theory explains why we’re frustrated, no matter how much we improve. Sooner or later, we find out self-improvement isn’t the universal remedy it is often claimed to be, and we want answers. Why can’t I have everything? Why?

Of course we never could, we’ve just fooled ourselves into believing we can over time.

The Four Burners Theory was originally just mentioned in passing in a New Yorker article, but James Clear popularized it. He also offered different views on what you can do about this problem.

  • Be imbalanced. Sacrifice your health, or friends, or work and say “screw it, that’s just what it is.”
  • Be mediocre. Do turn up all burners, but just enough to get by. As a result, you’ll go long in life, just never far.
  • Outsource stuff. If you make more money, you can hire a chef, or a trainer, or pay a nanny to take care of your kids. All of these have limitations of their own, of course.
  • Set constraints. “I’ll work 70 hours a week on becoming a millionaire, but not a single one more.” “Monday night is date night.” And so on.

All of these feel like weak attempts at bypassing the problem. If you’re a dedicated self-improvement nerd like me, you want a solution. Luckily, it seems there is one.

A Life for All Seasons

James says our default in which burners we turn up is to imitate the inspiring figures in our lives. If your boss is a workaholic, you’ll likely turn into one too and if your fellow students mostly hang out with one another, so will you.

That’s nice if those burners happen to match the ones you would’ve chosen, but if not, you have a problem. Life forces you to choose either way, but if you’re not the one picking, you’ll end up with a lot of regrets.

Besides starting to make the choice, Nathan Barry suggests living your life in seasons. Yes, it sucks to compromise, but no one said you have to stick with one compromise for the rest of your life.

In high school, my friends and family burners were turned up all the way. In college, that shifted to friends and work, then work and health and now, I’m on work and family. Next year? Who knows.

It’s a little tweak to that line from earlier, but it makes all the difference: “You can have anything you want, maybe even everything, just not all at once.”

Right now, I’m laying the foundation of the rest of my working life and spending what little time I have with the people I care about the most. In exchange, I can’t see my friends every day and I might not be in perfect shape.

I can be okay with that. And that’s the whole point.

Half of Happiness

When you work hard in your career, on your body, for your relationships, you can achieve a lot. You should. But if all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

Don’t expect your dedication to becoming better to absolve you of all problems. Self-improvement, like all tools, is imperfect. Embracing the Four Burners Theory can make you happier, because it allows you to not fret over what you’re temporarily missing out on.

That’s the solution, I think. We don’t need to look for a bypass. We can just accept the problem and that’ll do.

Half of happiness is being okay with what you don’t get.

Sometimes, it helps to remember that, in spite of what Gandhi said, tomorrow will be another day.