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.”

3 Simple Words Will Set You Free Cover

3 Simple Words Will Set You Free

When Robin Williams died in 2014, the world lost a legend. No scene better encapsulates his brilliance than what must be one of the greatest monologues in entertainment history: the park scene in Good Will Hunting.

After being horribly verbally assaulted by his patient and boy genius, Will, therapist Sean makes one last attempt at getting through:

“So if I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seen that.

If I asked you about women you’d probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.

You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, and you’d probably — uh — throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath, looking to you for help.”

What Williams’s character is doing, though it may not seem like it at first, is giving Will a chance. A chance to say “I don’t know.” An opportunity to admit that he’s scared and talk about his feelings.

We can see that it’s working, because Will, for an on-screen eternity of four minutes, does not say a word. He just sits there, petrified. Here is a scene in which the main character doesn’t do a thing, yet it is pivotal, not just in the movie, but also for our lives.

Whether you show this scene to someone born ten years before the movie came out, or ten years after, they can relate. We, too, have been given plenty of chances to say “I don’t know” in our lives so far.

But, like Will, we keep missing them. This makes us miserable deep inside.

Why?

The Shattered Self

Maybe it happened after you graduated college. Or entered. Maybe when you started your first job, or even after high school. But at some point, you had a terrifying epiphany:

“I don’t know anything about life. I have no clue what to do and I can’t see how the hell I’m going to figure all of this out.”

It’s one of those moments where you can feel the metaphorical glass shattering, because your view of the world forever changes. The shattered self is something all humans go through, but, according to Simon Sinek, there is a group that experiences this traumatizing, but important event very early in their lives: millennials.

The reason my generation stands out is not because of our age, but because of how we react to this event.

We choke.

A Different House of Cards

As Sean continues his speech, Will’s expression hardens more and more.

“I look at you; I don’t see an intelligent, confident man; I see a cocky, scared shitless kid.”

Terrified Will Hunting

He gulps. He can’t even look at Sean now. In an instant, the house of cards that was his sense of confidence collapsed. For many of us, entering the real world feels exactly the same.

Once we’re burdened with the full weight of responsibility for our own lives, we quickly realize we have no confidence. I see two reasons:

  1. We haven’t accomplished much worth being confident about.
  2. All of our lives, we’ve been told the exact opposite by our parents.

The first cause is normal. A history of achievements needs history as much as it needs achievements. But the second one isn’t. More and more, helicopter parents keep sheltering their children and it turns them into incomplete adults.

I’m not saying those were your parents, or my parents. The point is there are parents who do these things to their children and, worse, they think they’re making the right choice.

Having not had enough time to build it, and with no foundation for our confidence to rest on, it only takes a brief, lonely moment of clarity as we grow up for it to crumble. Faced with reality, we’re forced to unlearn what’s not true and feel like an impostor, mortified at the idea of being found out.

Unfortunately, unlike Will, we don’t all have a therapist to catch us as we fall.

ICQ

What compounds this suffering of low self-esteem is that we suffer it in silence. Not only did we not learn confidence, we also chose the wrong coping mechanism to deal with the fact that we have none.

Going through adolescence, we untie our self-worth from our parents and attach it more to our peers. This is an important change that helps us integrate in the real world: we learn to rely on our friends.

Enter technology.

When I was 13, everyone in my class started using a service called ICQ. It was the first standalone instant messenger and instantly, we messaged. Outside of school, I spent more time on ICQ than anywhere else. Most of us did.

We chatted more than we called, more than we hung out in person, more than we went outside. Teenagers enjoy chatting less, but because of its dopamine-inducing nature, they get addicted anyway. So no, we did not learn to rely on our friends. We learned to rely on technology.

You can replace ICQ with many other things — Facebook, Snapchat, Netflix, WhatsApp — the year changes, the outcome remains the same. Instead of learning to control our mood with serotonin, or what it feels like to be loved with oxytocin, we go on a dopamine-only diet. Gambling, alcohol, sex, most addicts find their drugs as teens. So did we, it just didn’t have the label on it.

Thus, when our self is shattered, we have no one to turn to. We’re alone with our devices. We look at our peers through 4″, 12″ and 50″ screens and all we see is everyone’s highlight reel.

“They’re doing so well and I don’t. I can’t talk about that.”

So we gulp. We swallow. And we remain silent, staring at the letters. ICQ.

You know what it stands for? “I seek you.”

What Kind of Choice?

Seeing Will crack, Sean must twist the knife:

“And if I asked you about love y’probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone could level you with her eyes. Feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel and to have that love for her to be there forever.

Through anything. Through cancer. You wouldn’t know about sleeping sittin’ up in a hospital room for two months holding her hand because the doctors could see in your eyes that the term ‘visiting hours’ doesn’t apply to you.

You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.”

The result of all this, the lack of confidence, the false images, the weak technological replacement for true friendship, true love, is that we keep spinning in circles.

As we reach the end of our 20s, and 30s, then 40s, we begin to live in a world in which everyone is too scared to admit that they’re scared and so we all remain lonely and clueless about feeling lonely and clueless.

When we constantly grab our phones, we don’t do it to procrastinate. We do it because we’re terrified of being alone. Every day, every second. We’re not even chatting just to chat, we’re chatting to feel less discomfort.

We fundamentally lack the ability to express our feelings in the company of other people.

The third most common cause of death for people aged 15 to 24 is suicide. One in ten adolescents is depressed. 64% of millennials feel overwhelmed at work every day.

The best way we can express how we feel is a two-word cry for help: “I’m fine.” Our careers, our love lives, our friendships, it’s all fine, and then we die.

What kind of a choice is that?

Like a Freakin’ Rainbow

Social media, digital communication, online entertainment, these things aren’t bad, it’s just our usage that’s off. We depend on devices, not people. It’s not solely our fault either. Technology found us way too young and we could never let go.

What we can let go of is our fear of opening our mouth and speaking our truth. Yes, we still don’t know jack shit about life. That fact will never change. Not at 20 and not at 85. But all the irrational fears surrounding that fact? Those are imaginary.

It’s okay to say how we feel. Anywhere. Any time.

Even right here, right now. Try it. Say it. “I don’t know.” See? You’re free to express who you are. You don’t need anyone’s permission. The rest of us is just waiting for it too.

This does not make our challenges any easier, just easier to bear. We must remember why we use technology to communicate.

  • What’s this app for? Who do you talk to with that? Why?
  • Does this platform build your confidence? Or destroy it?
  • Is what you see real? Or are you just assuming it is?
  • If you can’t say it in person, is it worth saying at all?

We also need to put boundaries on digital communication.

  • When you sit at a table with other people, even ones you don’t know, who deserves your attention more? The Facebook friend you don’t really know far away or whoever is right there?
  • If you go out with your friends, why do you need a phone? Take one phone. Or no phone. You’ll be fine for a few hours.
  • Yes, that video you sent your friend was funny, but how much more fun would it have been if you’d waited until you could watch it together?

None of these will be easy, but through all of those trials, you can show us your true colors. We’ll adore you for it like a freakin’ rainbow.

Why Are We Here?

Every time you swallow important feelings, you rob the world of the chance to learn something from you. But that’s the main reason we’re here. We’re all waiting for it.

Even though everything Sean has thrown into Will’s face is true, he’s still willing, still curious, to learn from his fellow human:

“I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. And I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t wanna do that, do you, sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.”

Usually, it’s not a therapist sitting next to us on the bench. Just some random dude. Or a young mom with her child. But isn’t that enough? What if, unlike Will, we didn’t let them walk away?

Go back all the way to that moment. Back to that shattered self. How did it feel? What if you hadn’t swallowed it? What if, in that minute, you’d had the guts to reach out and say: “I have no clue. Can we talk about that?”

While that first one may have defined much of who we are today, the truth is that, in life, we all have many of these moments. Again and again, we realize we’re scared, lonely and we don’t have the answers.

Neither do our phones. Or Twitter. Or our coworkers. So in reality, we’re free to admit it any time. We know this is good for us. One of the most popular quotes in the world is a 2,000 year-old line from one of the wisest men ever:

“I know that I know nothing.” — Socrates

Imagine how liberating that must’ve felt. Every single thing you’ve ever been dying to say, but never dared to — every feeling, every thought, every question, every idea — it all starts from here.

You don’t need to look so tough. You can tell us how you feel. Because we don’t know anything either. We have no opinions. We, too, don’t want to be judged.

When you want to be curious, let yourself be curious. Say “nice shoes” or “what’s that mean?” or “how’d you do your hair like that?” If you feel like laughing in the middle of a crowded place, laugh. And when you don’t know what to do, let us know.

The man who taught us this lesson, Robin Williams, lived it both in character and in life. He played jokes on live TV in front of millions and talked openly about his problems with alcohol and depression.

Like Will, he leaves us with three words that carry all the hope in the world:

“Your move, chief.”

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.

6 Unwritten Social Rules Everyone Should Know Cover

6 Unwritten Social Rules Everyone Should Know

When you drive into Area 51, past the sign that says “Restricted Area,” you know what rules you’re violating. You’re trespassing on secret government property, you can be searched, photos are forbidden and boy, you better not launch any drones.

But there’s also a set of unwritten rules of Area 51. Nobody knows exactly what they are, but they’re what leads to all the rumors and myths surrounding the place.

  • Will you never come back?
  • Will you come back, but not be the same?
  • Can you ever talk about what happened?

Every place on this earth is like Area 51. There are rules, written and unwritten, and they depend on the time, the people, the country, the culture, the politics, and a whole lot of other values.

Following these rules as best as you can is less a sign of being a blind follower than it is a gesture of respect for others. Adapting can be a way of being kind. That said, sometimes you can also lead by making your own social rules and hoping others will follow.

  • When you enter a quiet room, be quiet. When you enter a lively room, be lively. Read the room.
  • When your opposite is talking to you, don’t use your phone. Don’t even touch it. When your opposite is on their phone, don’t be on your phone also. Maybe you can bring them back.
  • When people pass you in the street, acknowledge them. Look, nod, be part of the world. Don’t stare at the ground. Don’t be an antibody.
  • When you love someone, don’t tell them all the time. Just show them. Look at them, be attentive, listen. They’ll understand, even without words.
  • When you disagree with someone, ask: “Does it really matter that I disagree with them?” Is it worth starting a fight? Most of the time, it’s not.
  • When you can help people without really going out of your way, do it. Including, but not limited to, holding doors, standing up and giving exact change.

These are some of the ones I try to follow. So far, I haven’t ended up in Area 51.