Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse Cover

Self-Improvement Has Made Me Worse

When Batman meets Superman for the first time in Dawn of Justice, you instantly know who’s in charge and who’s in trouble.


After crashing the Batmobile and interrupting Bruce Wayne on his rogue mission, Superman tells him to ‘bury the bat’ and let it go, putting mercy before justice. Of course Batman doesn’t, swearing revenge.

Lately, I feel a lot like Superman in this scene. With a stern look on my face, I swoop in to try and fix other people’s mess, but don’t get much credit for it. This is a cause for concern, but not about those other people, about me.

A lot of us strive to become superhuman, but this pursuit has a shadow. It looms ever closer and if we don’t watch out, it’ll swallow us whole.

Despite our best intentions, self-improvement can make us worse.

When Mindfulness Isn’t Optional

Over the past three years, I’ve gotten really good at noticing things. Not just about myself, but others too. In fact, I now can’t not notice things.

I notice when 10 out of 10 people on the subway are on their phone, when the dude in front of me is switching only between his sports betting account and Tinder and when the guy four seats over wastes all his time instead of working. I notice people who are always late, always behind and always broke and I can pinpoint exactly what needs fixing.

Now, I finally noticed that all this noticing is driving me nuts. I’d love to say “I don’t mind” and mean it, but it’s never true. I do mind. I mind everything.

Mindfulness is a gift when it’s directed inward, but outward? Not so much. It’s a good thing to realize you’re biting your nails, but constantly observing other people’s behavior? That’s a curse.


Comparison Is the Road to Madness

Mark Twain remarked that “comparison is the death of joy.” But, and this is worse, it’s also the birth of misery.

Comparing ourselves is an instinct as fundamental as survival itself. If Gronk can outrun the bear, pick the right berries and get the pretty neanderthal lady, maybe you should be more like Gronk. In a modern society built mainly on and for individual freedom, however, this is useless.

And yet, every notice is a new chance to compare. He eats well, I should eat better. She wastes time, I’m more productive. Even if we rationally estimate our own abilities, comparing still hurts us, an Oxford study suggests:

“The findings potentially have implications for social interactions in the workplace as well as clinical disorders such as depression.”

Interesting, right? Confidence and clinical depression can have the same source: comparing yourself to others. Most of the time, the results of your comparisons don’t even matter.

You’ll land in a bad place anyway.

Judgement Is Never Just

Most people make poor choices. They don’t want to worry about money, or getting up early, or if what they do matters. They, however, would never consider these choices poor. That label is pure judgement on my part.

The problem is that with so much mindfulness, millions of mini comparisons, judgement itself becomes a habit. This is a common side effect of self-improvement. Since it’s all about getting better, you’re left with only two opinions of other people:

  1. They’re better than you.
  2. You’re better than them.

Whichever one you settle on, you lose. This is self-improvement’s dark secret.

The Price of Self-Improvement

When you constantly compare yourself and decide you’re worse, you spiral into depression. But what happens when you think you’re better?

Imagine you’re Superman. You don’t need to compare, you have actual proof: you can’t die, you know everything and you’re physically stronger than anyone. You’re the ultimate success in self-improvement.

Unlike most of us, Superman didn’t choose his superiority, but he paid the same price: loneliness.

Sebastian Marshall perfectly described it in an essay 6 years ago:

You know what I think it is? You won’t be understood once you step off into the abyss. The more you do it, the more people won’t understand.

The second guy I mentioned, the effort guy? He’s got coworkers right now he can commiserate with who understand him. The business idea I mentioned to him doesn’t exist right now and there’s a demand for it. His income is such that even with a low price point he could still make 2x-3x what he’s making now and fulfill a market need.

But then what? Then he’s the only guy doing this thing. No commiseration. People won’t understand him as much. And the more you do that, the more people don’t understand. If you keep taking all those edges that no one else will, pretty soon your neighbors don’t understand you, can’t understand you.

It’s just you.

The higher you climb on the mountain, the thinner the air gets. More success, fewer fellow climbers, until you’re left with only one truth:

You’re the best, but you’re alone.

The internet is full of posts telling people how they can become the best. Be more creative, more productive, more aware. But once you achieve that, once you’re better, faster, stronger, how do you blend back in?

Even if you become superhuman, you’ll still spend your life among mortals. How do you deal with that? I see no posts about this issue.

We’re so worried about acquiring power — over our minds, our bodies, our time — that we forget learning how to use it responsibly to serve the world we live in.

And so, often, by the time we get it, we’re victims of our own success.

Running From Mediocrity, But Where To?

It all happens slowly, of course. One day you opt out of binge drinking, the next you tell your friends to get their shit together and two years later, you run your own dev shop while they extended yet another semester.

You notice, you compare and through the years, you silently collect millions of judgements until you conclude you’re alone. You might succeed in self-improvement, but fail in being human.

This is the dangerous path many of us are on. I know I am. I must find a way to turn off my comparison machine, because it’s been running too long already. That’s the big, wicked twist of the story.

In that scene from the beginning, I’m not Superman. I’m Batman.

A lot of us are. The frustration from the loneliness of our path makes us bitter, impatient, and angry. So we abandon our true mission, one comparison at a time, until we can retreat only into our lonely cave of judgment. Not despite, but because we come out on top.

You may feel you’re ready to pay the toll of self-improvement, but you still might not like who you turn into. We think we’re improving ourselves, when actually, we’re becoming the villain of our own story.

If you run away from mediocrity, but right into malice, what good does it do?

On Sweeping

For Clark Kent, the option to compare went out the window when he was a child. The moment he pushed the first school bus out of the river, any doubts were gone: if he goes rogue, we all die. Lucky for us all, before putting on his cape, Superman turned his powers inward.

That’s what we must do and it’s much more important than how much power we have. The problem is neither other people’s indifference to, nor our obsession with self-improvement. It’s the comparison that stinks.

Be better for the sake of being a better you, not better than everyone else.

There’s not much to gain from Pomodoro timers and dollar cost averaging for the people who enjoy their lives precisely for the lack of those things. It just so happens that because I care about self-improvement, I care about you-improvement too. Because then we could nerd out together. But we can’t and so I feel lonely.

It is my duty to deal with that loneliness and make sure it doesn’t drag me down. There is no ‘other people’s mess’. Just my mess. Nothing to swoop in for. The dirt is in front of my own doorstep, waiting for me to sweep.

You have a dirty doorstep too. Only if we all sweep will our streets be clean.

Superman Is Dead

When the world asked him to, Superman turned himself in. When the world asked him to, Superman appeared in court. Knowing full well the rules did not apply, he abided by them anyway, for the sake of the greater good.


In a sick twist of fate, meeting the renegade bat led to his doomsday. As the ultimate of human evolution, Superman paid the ultimate price. It’s what makes it so hard to get out of the trap: You can be a saint and still lose.

That’s why the movie is beloved by hardcore fans, but commercially, far from the success it should have been. We don’t want to see the hero do everything right and then die. We know life’s not fair, but we hate to be reminded of this reality.

And so, as he tries to build a new team of heroes in a post-Superman world, Batman is too late when he realizes it was never his turn to judge:

Alfred: “You’ve got a team here!”

Bruce Wayne: “Superman could bring this team together better than I ever could. His strength…”

Alfred: “Doesn’t matter how strong you are or what abilities you
might have…”

Bruce Wayne: “He was more human than I am.”

— Silence —

Bruce Wayne: “He lived in this world. Fell in love, got a job. Despite all that power. The world needs Superman.”

Finally, Batman learns a true hero is not defined by the superiority of his power, but by the times he chooses to wield it. This moment is called a Harajuku Moment. Coined by Chad Fowler, Tim Ferriss defined it in The 4-Hour Body:

“It’s an epiphany that turns a nice-to-have into a must-have. There is no point in getting started until it happens. No matter how many bullet points and recipes I provide, you will need a Harajuku Moment to fuel the change itself.”

We all need such a moment in our quest for self-improvement. You have to acknowledge you’re not a hero to start acting like one. I had mine when I read this quote in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday:

“When philosophy is wielded with arrogance and stubbornly, it is the cause for the ruin of many. Let philosophy scrape off your own faults, rather than be a way to rail against the faults of others.” — Seneca

Superman is dead. We must become our own heroes, or his sacrifice was in vain. I don’t know where you’ll find your Harajuku Moment, but you need one. Until then, until we learn to use our powers, the best we can do is ask:

What would Superman do?

Most of the time, he would probably just keep sweeping.

How to Find Passion for Work Cover

How to Develop Passion for Your Work

It was almost dark. The white Chevy was rattling along the road. I don’t remember who was driving. In the dusk, two road signs emerged. One said ‘Cancun,’ pointing straight ahead, the other ‘Aeropuerto,’ directing to the right. For some reason, we took the right when, actually, we needed to just drive on.

“Sh*t, we have to turn around. And our gas is low.”

In Mexico, there are few exits off the highway. Hence, they have something called a ‘Retorno.’ It’s a U-Turn, right on the highway. But they only show up every few miles.

Not sure whether we’d make it, we kept driving until we found one. We turned around, and, after a 25-mile detour, barely made it to the next gas station.

What’s the lesson here? We occasionally miss the forest for the trees and get lost. That’s okay. But it also means that sometimes, we have to turn around 180 degrees to get to our destination.

Today is about making such a turn, but one that’s much more important than the one I made five years ago in Mexico. It’s a turn that, once you make it, will fix the relationship you have with your passion and your work.

Stuck in Passion…

From 2010 to 2014 I was extremely passionate about entrepreneurship. I also made zero dollars as an entrepreneur. I generated hundreds of business ideas.

There was the lunchbox that heats up your lunch, the site that matches self-made lyrics with self-made beats from different people and the bakery that’s open nights. The vitamin popsicles for babies, the How I Met Your Mother sightseeing tours and of course the restaurant that runs on iPads.

Sometimes, I even took the next step. Like when I asked Milka if they let me resell the broken chocolate that never makes it out of the factory.

They didn’t.

We could have been so great together.

What was the problem? Besides passion, I had not much to act from. Always enthusiastic, never productive. I made the same mistake — the only mistake — all people driven solely by passion make:

I stopped. Over and over, I stopped.

Seth Godin calls this “thrashing” in Linchpin:

“Thrashing is the apparently productive brainstorming and tweaking we do for a project as it develops. Thrashing might mean changing the user interface or rewriting an introductory paragraph. Sometimes thrashing is merely a tweak; other times it involves major surgery. Thrashing is essential. The question is: when to thrash?”

When it comes to projects, any project, really, thrashing early is a good thing. You argue until every detail is set. Then you work until the deadline comes and ship. Thrash too late and you’ll never ship on time, sometimes not at all.

“The habit that successful artists have developed is simple: they thrash a lot at the start, because starting means that they are going to finish. Not maybe, not probably, but going to.”

There’s only one problem: You can’t thrash your way to your passion.

It’s just an idea we’ve been sold on so much that we never dared questioning it. In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport calls it “the passion hypothesis:”

“The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”

This is a great problem to spend your time on, because you can do it forever. Unlike the user interface design for your food scanning app, it’s unsolvable. There’s no passion meter in our brains that tells us “yup, I’m 7 degrees more passionate about this abstract idea than this one.”

That’s why so many of us spend years, in my case four, being stuck in passion, and it slowly drives us insane. Ryan Holiday calls it “the passion paradox” in Ego Is the Enemy:

“If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then passion is a form of mental retardation — deliberately blunting our most critical cognitive functions. The waste is often appalling in retrospect; the best years of our life burned out like a pair of spinning tires against the asphalt.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we’re stuck at work too.

…Stuck at Work

Throughout my four years of passion thrashing I didn’t just not make progress, I also paid another, more subtle, but even more severe price: I was constantly unhappy with what I was doing at the time — studying for college.

“This isn’t what I want to do. I need to find my passion or I’ll be stuck in this career path forever,” I would tell myself. Of course it’s exactly this self-induced pressure that kept me stuck.

That’s what makes the passion hypothesis so dangerous, Cal says:

“The passion hypothesis convinces people that somewhere there’s a magic “right” job waiting for them, and that if they find it, they’ll immediately recognize that this is the work they were meant to do. The problem, of course, is when they fail to find this certainty, bad things follow, such as chronic job-hopping and crippling self-doubt.”

The result is Resistance, as Steven Pressfield labeled the invisible force that keeps us from getting things done in The War of Art. Constant Resistance against our current stop in life, against the people we work with and against the jobs we’re tasked with right now.

It happens to the best of us. Sometimes we’ve long found our passion, but are so busy thrashing that we can’t see it. We don’t hear our calling and so no work gets done. Take George R. R. Martin, for example. Brilliant guy, but, talking to Stephen King, he can’t help but admit his capitulation to Resistance:

“How the f*ck do you write so many books so fast? I think, ‘Oh I’ve had a really good six months. I’ve written three chapters.’ And you’ve finished three books in that time.”

This particular manifestation of Resistance is one of its meanest tricks. It tells us we’re the victim. Steve notes in the book:

“A victim act is a form of passive aggression. It seeks to achieve gratification not by honest work or a contribution made out of one’s experience or insight or love, but by the manipulation of others through silent (and not-so-silent) threat. The victim compels others to come to his rescue or to behave as he wishes by holding them hostage to the prospect of his own further illness/meltdown/mental dissolution, or simply by threatening to make their lives so miserable that they do what he wants.”

That way, we can continue complaining about the misery of our current line of work, without really having to do anything about it. “Yeah, work sucks, but…gotta pay the bills, right? I hope I soon find my passion.”

Damn. That’s one giant quagmire we’ve maneuvered ourselves into here. How the hell do we get out of that?

What If You Did the Opposite?

Maybe, like me and my friends, driving on that lone road in Mexico, all we have to do is turn around. Take the retorno. Drive in the opposite direction.

What if, instead of thrashing through different passions, you just picked one and treated it like a profession? What if, instead of moaning at work, you just pretended it’s your dream career?

What if you made a U-turn from passion to profession and vice versa? A P-Turn, if you will.

The great minds we learned from so far think it’s a great idea. And so do I.

Treat Your Passion Like Your Profession…

As we’re thrashing through our passions, we inevitably reach a point of confusion with each one. Welcome to The Dip. At this point, we’ve done all the brainstorming, the convincing and maybe even some planning or other busywork.

But then, we look at what lies ahead…and we poop our pants.

Let’s…not do that.

That’s why most of us are serial quitters. It’s like constantly switching lines in the supermarket: with each switch, you lose time and start over, ultimately taking longer than whoever just stuck with their queue. Seth says this isn’t limited to grocery shopping:

“There are queues everywhere. Do you know an entrepreneur-wannabe who is on his sixth or twelfth new project? He jumps from one to another, and every time he hits an obstacle, he switches to a new, easier, better oppor­tunity. And while he’s a seeker, he’s never going to get anywhere.

He never gets anywhere because he’s always switching lines, never able to really run for it. While starting up is thrilling, it’s not until you get through the Dip that your ef­forts payoff.

Countless entrepreneurs have perfected the starting part, but give up long before they finish paying their dues. The sad news is that when you start over, you get very little credit for how long you stood in line with your last great venture.”

But what’s the opposite of serial quitting? Turning Pro, if you ask Steve Pressfield.

“When we turn pro, everything becomes simple. We now structure our hours not to flee from fear, but to confront it and overcome it. This changes our days completely. It changes what time we get up and it changes what time we go to bed. It changes what we do and what we don’t do. It changes the activities we engage in and with what attitude we engage in them.”

The distinction is so clear that even the choice itself turns into a vivid memory, Steven says:

“I can state absolutely that the term of my life can be divided into two parts: before turning pro, and after.”

What’s more, we’re all pros already. Where? At the very same jobs we now hold and despise so much. How so? Steve made a list:

1. We show up every day. 
2. We show up no matter what.
3. We stay on the job all day.
4. We are committed over the long haul.
5. The stakes for us are high and real.
6. We accept remuneration for our labor.
7. We do not overidentify with our jobs
8. We master the technique of our jobs.
9. We have a sense of humor about our jobs.
10.We receive praise or blame in the real world.

Imagine what might happen if you just picked one of your many ideas, just one thing you like, and treated it like your paycheck depended on it. How much more likely would you be to finally make it through the dip — any dip — that brings you closer to your goals? A lot.

You might even start to like your job.

…and Your Profession Like It’s Your Passion

The attitude of a detached professional is in stark contrast that of the passionate amateur. Cal Newport calls it “the craftsman mindset”:

“I’ve presented two different ways people think about their working life. The first is the craftsman mindset, which focuses on what you can offer the world. The second is the passion mindset, which instead focuses on what the world can offer you. The craftsman mindset offers clarity, while the passion mindset offers a swamp of ambiguous and unanswerable questions.”

This mindset is exactly what you teach yourself when you work on your passion like a pro. And with it comes motivation. Lots of it. Daniel Pink knows why. In his TED talk, he explains why the carrots and sticks approach to motivation is dead:

“Our business operating system — think of the set of assumptions and protocols beneath our businesses, how we motivate people, how we apply our human resources — it’s built entirely around these extrinsic motivators, around carrots and sticks. That’s actually fine for many kinds of 20th century tasks. But for 21st century tasks, that mechanistic, reward-and-punishment approach doesn’t work, often doesn’t work, and often does harm.”

It’s true. We don’t like our jobs if all they do is pay the bills and that’s why we chase passion in the first place. We. Want. More. But what more? Dan knows that too. He proposes a new model, which he calls “Motivation 3.0,” in his book Drive:

“That new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses.”

Easy as A-M-P.

What makes these three elements so powerful? Well…


Besides annual hack-a-thons and Google’s 20% time, companies embracing a ROWE — Results Only Work Environment — really take autonomy to the next level, Dan says:

“In a ROWE workplace, people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time or any time, for that matter. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, and where they do it is up to them.”

What happens? According to Dan:

“Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”


If you’ve ever played a mind-numbingly simple video game, you’ve experienced the power of mastery firsthand within minutes. Take Tiny Wings, for example:

Tap…aaaand hooked.

The only thing you have to do is tap and hold the screen. And yet, the first time you lose, you must get better. To the pro, attempting to achieve mastery feels as natural as breathing, Steve notes:

“The professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them. The professional dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.”


The reason purpose overpowers passion is that passion pertains to what you want, while purpose emphasizes what you’re willing to give up for it. Ryan makes the distinction clear:

“Passion is about. I am so passionate about ______. Purpose is to and for. I must do ______. I was put here to accomplish ______. I am willing to endure ______ for the sake of this. Actually, purpose deemphasizes the I. Purpose is about pursuing something outside yourself as opposed to pleasuring yourself.”

Since purpose knocks out our ego, it allows us to approach our work with a sense of realism, some distance and a healthy dose of intimidation from what we’re trying to do. In a nutshell:

“Passion is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.”

Which One’s the Unlock?

This is it. The foundation of the work ethic we all want so badly. Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what help us push through the dip — and part of the reason why we’ve fallen for the passion hypothesis in the first place. It dangles autonomy and purpose right in front of us, but it hides the most controllable aspect: mastery.

Mastery is a gateway to autonomy and purpose.

The assistant who masters scheduling may soon join business meetings. If she keeps doing well, she’ll get promoted. Suddenly, she has a team to care for. A task bigger than herself. Autonomy and purpose have naturally followed from mastery.

Wait a Second…

Did you catch it?

While this new model of Motivation 3.0 is built-in when you chase your passion like a pro, there is something else about it worth noting: None of these things indicate the type of work you choose. It doesn’t matter what you work on.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose are all about how you work, not what you do.

In Cal’s words:

“Working right trumps finding the right work.”

Or, in Seth’s:

“Transferring your passion to your job is far easier than finding a job that happens to match your passion.”

Since no job will magically shower you with passion and motivation can be found entirely in how you work, not what you do, you can find autonomy, master and purpose not just in your favorite job, but in any job. Even the one you have right now. And you can use mastery to unlock those you don’t already have.

As it turns out, turning pro works. Everywhere and always. Chances are, you don’t need a new job. You just have to do the one you have like you really mean it.

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

I don’t remember the day, but I remember the decision. “I’m going to write at least 250 words each day.” I did that for six months. Then I wrote 1,000 words every day for a year. And then some more.

It was only when my passion for entrepreneurship degenerated into a daily writing habit that I finally started making progress. What’s more, it allowed me to stop complaining about college and take responsibility. Not just for studying, but for whatever my task is. No matter how menial.

When you’re a craftsman, all work serves a purpose.

Passion, profession, it all blurs together, because you always see work for what it truly is: an opportunity to get better. That’s the real power of making the P-turn. Unlike me in Mexico, you can turn around whenever you want to.

So why not make it right now?

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This Framework Will Make You Better at Changing Your Habits

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

We always tell each other to just “be ourselves.” Have a presentation or talk to give? Just be yourself. A job interview? Just be yourself, you’ll do fine. A party or date to go to? Just be who you are.

Just. I hate that word. Nothing easy ever follows it.

The reason we constantly have to reassure one another that it’s okay to be ourselves is that it’s the hardest thing in the world. It’s based on two lofty assumptions:

  1. You know who you are.
  2. You’re comfortable expressing it in any setting.

Most of us can say neither for ourselves. At least not to the degree we’d like to. I hope what follows alleviates some of that pain.

What You Should Know About Yourself

Soul-searching is a great hobby. You’re never done. The question is: where does self-exploration stop being useful? For me, the following framework marked a clear milestone.

When I first started coaching on, Tony Stubblebine graciously sent us a book that influenced my coaching a lot. It’s also helped me understand my own behavior a lot better. The name of that book was Better Than Before.

Gretchen Rubin, a former lawyer turned researcher, author and human behavior aficionado, wrote it in 2015, to much acclaim and success. One of the key ideas, if not the centerpiece of the book, was a personality framework called “The Four Tendencies,” which she later expanded upon in its own book of the same title.

Using this framework will help you understand how you deal with your internal and external expectations. This’ll allow you to better manage your life and work. What’s more, you can try to spot other peoples’ tendencies, which’ll help improve your relationships.

Here’s what it looks like:

Where Does This Idea Come From? Well…

When we’re babies, no one expects us to do anything. Our parents celebrate it when we eat, clap when we poop and let out a huge sigh of relief when we finally fall asleep.

As we grow up, this changes. Fast. It starts with “clean your room,” soon turns to “you need to contribute to the household” and ends with “you have to take care of yourself now.”

Most of us aren’t ready for all the expectations the world piles onto us, let alone the internal ones we have of ourselves that add to the pressure.

And yet, somehow, we deal with them. We learn, we struggle and over time, hopefully we get better. All of this, our approach to dealing with our internal and life’s external expectations, is formed subconsciously.

The Four Tendencies framework helps you identify this approach and trust me, there’s a lot to discover. Each tendency is linked to a specific strategy for dealing with the two kinds of expectations we face: resisting or meeting them.

Here’s a little cheat sheet you can use to identify yourself, remember what’s distinctive for each type and how to deal with them better:

1. Upholders

Upholders meet inner and outer expectations. They love rules, having a clear plan and are self-motivated and disciplined. Clearly tell them what needs to be done and they’ll lead the way.

2. Questioners

Questioners meet their own expectations, but resist outer ones. They need to see purpose and reason in anything they do. Make it clear why what you want from them is important.

3. Obligers

Obligers meet other peoples’ expectations easily, but struggle with their own. The must be held accountable by a friend, coach or boss to get things done. They thrive when they have a sense of duty and can work in a team.

4. Rebels

Rebels defy both outer and inner expectations. Above all, they want to be free to choose and express their own individuality. Give them the facts, present the task as a challenge and let them decide without pressure.

It’s pretty easy to recognize yourself based on those descriptions alone, but if you’re not sure, you can take a quiz Gretchen designed specifically to help you find out.

How Can This Help You Change Your Habits?

Expectations are a huge determinant of what we do. You juggle all the hopes people have for you, mixed with those you have for yourself. Based on that mix and your tendency, you determine the right middle ground.

Meet…or resist?

Is this still okay? What’s a no-go? Who must I live up to? Who do I disappoint? How much? How often?

Constantly faced with this stressful tradeoff, we default to what our tendency dictates. Meet inner, resist outer. Resist inner, meet outer. And so on.

Knowing what your default is makes it a lot easier to adjust your environment in a way that makes the default lead to the outcome you want.

For example, as an Obliger, forcing yourself to meet a friend at the gym will make it easier to actually go there. A rebel needs the freedom to choose to work out without pressure, and a Questioner might want to keep a list of health benefits ready.

Know your tendency, know your goal, adjust expectations. That’s the idea.

A Word of Advice

It’s easy to get carried away with this stuff. That’s dangerous. When you chisel your tendency in stone, you might know one thing more about yourself and you might even accept it, but you’ll also turn it into an excuse and stop believing that you can change. That’s not the point of this exercise.

Instead of putting yourself in a box, use this concept to get to know yourself better. Identify your strengths, weaknesses, and improve your relationships with others. Be mindful of their tendencies, not just your own. And remember that human behavior is fluid. No personality test can pigeonhole you. Unless you let it.

After all, no matter how much we learn from them, life isn’t lived in frameworks and books, but in the real world, among people. People like you and me, figuring out who they are. Searching, so they can start being themselves.

If you treat them right, maybe they’ll let you do just that.

4 Quick Tweaks That Will Make You More Productive Cover

4 Quick Tweaks That Will Make You More Productive

In 2008, Simon & Schuster wrote a $200,000 check for Emily Gould to finish a book she’d already started. For the next two years, not much happened. Her husband knew why:

“You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,” he said, over and over again. But there was one thing he wouldn’t tolerate, and that was all the time I spent clicking and scrolling. He didn’t buy the line about it being a form of creativity. He called it an addiction.

Procrastination is the creative’s curse and today, all jobs require creativity. One of the most common ways we procrastinate is by looking for ways to procrastinate less. Over the past three years, I have too.

I even tried lots of stuff. Only to arrive at the disillusioning, yet oddly satisfying realization that just four productivity hacks have stuck — because they’re all I need.

Here’s the 80/20 of productivity hacks that will make you focused. Not all of the time, but enough of the time. So you may do your work and do it well.

1. Choose one, non-negotiable task that must get done each day.

Until 1900 the word ‘priority’ was rarely used in the English language. That’s because it stems from the Latin ‘prior,’ which means ‘first’— and there can only ever be one ‘first’ of anything. Multiple priorities are a paradox.

Hence, James Clear suggests picking an anchor task:

“One of the major improvements I’ve made recently is to assign one (and only one) priority to each work day. Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done.”

Your anchor task is your life’s mission, if only for a day. Unless your office burns down or your laptop spontaneously disintegrates, you MUST finish it.

Choosing your anchor task should hurt. If it doesn’t, it’s not important enough. For example, my anchor task today is to send out a newsletter. If I fail to finish this post, that would really suck, but the newsletter is the most important thing.

The easiest way to consistently pick an anchor task is to use the Momentum extension. When you first open your browser, it automatically prompts you:

2. Make checking your email a conscious choice that’s only possible at certain times.

An email is a to-do sent by another person. It’s not a phone call, so it’s never urgent. Checking our inbox is part of the dopamine chase Gould’s husband described. We’re not doing it to work. We’re doing it to get our fix.

We talk about “cleaning our inbox.” That’s literally what it is. Digging through the dirt, sorting, organizing. As with your home, if you sweep once a day it’s a soothing, transformative experience. Sweep all the time and you’re OCD. A neat freak.

The calmness I feel from ignoring my email for 23 out of 24 hours each day is unprecedented. The tool I use to do it is Inbox Pause. It adds a little button to your Gmail that says ‘Pause.’ Press it and no new emails will show up in your inbox until you say so. Now, sweeping is a conscious choice.

I have two rules for un-pausing:

  1. Never do it before 11 AM.
  2. Only do it once a day.

It doesn’t always work, but it’s made my life a lot better.

Note: With the paid version, you can even set a schedule by which your email is moved to your inbox automatically.

3. Make sure your phone is actually silent when you set it to be and hide it from view.

Apple’s official name for the toggle switch on the side of your iPhone is Ring/Silent. Then why isn’t my iPhone silent when I press it?

The only difference between a ringing phone and a vibrating one is that the latter is less annoying for the people around you. For you, they’re equally distracting. It only takes one adjustment in ‘Settings’ to fix that.

Go to ‘Sounds’ and uncheck ‘Vibrate on Silent.’ Done.

You can now eliminate your phone’s audible attacks on your senses at the switch of a button. If you also remove your phone as a visible distraction itself, you’ll be golden. How?

Place your phone somewhere hidden from view. It could be in your desk drawer, backpack, behind your laptop or in your jacket. As long as you can’t see it, you won’t grab it.

Welcome to iPhone heaven.

4. Set up places to store your distracting thoughts.

This last tweak to your environment will address the most powerful distractor of all: your mind. In the torrential storm of up to 50,000 thoughts that passes through our brain each day, it’s normal for a lot of them to be unrelated to your current task. The problem is letting them pass through.

The Zeigarnik Effect is what keeps sending distracting thoughts to the top of your mind. The way to beat it is to externalize these thoughts. Just like Dumbledore stores some of his memories in his pensieve.

All you need to pull this off is a go-to place where you can store these thoughts as they occur. David Allen calls these places collection buckets in Getting Things Done. While his system captures everything that’s incomplete, it seems daunting to set it up.

So here’s the trick: Set up just one collection bucket. It can be a note on your phone, a physical storing tray, a notebook or a collection of post-its. Now, whenever you remember you need to buy milk, or a movie you want to watch, or to call Tom for his birthday, you can drop it in there and the thought will stop pestering you.

Over time, you’ll automatically add more buckets as needed. For example, I started with a single note in my phone for administrative to do’s, like taxes and paper work, which slowly developed into a bigger system to manage my income, expenses, college classes, writing and projects.

The Path to Perfection

As she told her publicist to, the Amazon description of her book calls Emily “the voice of her generation.” With 8,000 copies sold after three years, that’s hardly the case. Even a master chef’s stew tastes stale when it boils too long.

Right this second, people are tweeting about working on their novel, which means they’re not working on their novel. I get it. Them, Emily, me, you. We want it to be perfect.

But sometimes, the only path to perfection leads right through ‘good enough.’

Now go do some work.

How To Fight Anxiety Cover

How To Fight Anxiety

We spend all of our waking hours chasing goals. More money, more leisure, more everything. In doing so myself, I recently stumbled upon an insight that stopped me in my tracks.

In 1951, Alan Watts wrote in The Wisdom of Insecurity:

“I have always been fascinated by the law of reversed effort. Sometimes I call it the ‘backwards law.’ When you try to stay on the surface of the water, you sink; but when you try to sink, you float. When you hold your breath, you lose it — which immediately calls to mind an ancient and much neglected saying, ‘Whosoever would save his soul shall lose it.’”

But isn’t that all we do? Struggle to stay afloat? We set goals we think will make us happy, then we dive in. And so we sink. A lot. Back then, Watts said about the book:

“It is written in the conviction that no theme could be more appropriate in a time when human life seems to be so peculiarly insecure and uncertain. It maintains that this insecurity is the result of trying to be secure, and that, contrariwise, salvation and sanity consist in the most radical recognition that we have no way of saving ourselves.”

If Watts thought 1951 was uncertain, I wonder what he’d say in 2017. The book’s subtitle, ‘A Message for an Age of Anxiety,’ may be even more appropriate today than it was when it came out.

Watts’s message sounds gloomy, but reveals valuable lessons, if we dare to look closer.

Setting Goals Makes You Sad…

All is well, you go to work, live your life and nothing too crazy happens. That’s baseline happiness, according to NYU social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. In The Happiness Hypothesis, he explains that no matter how far we deviate from this baseline level, we always regress back to the mean:

“We are bad at “affective forecasting,” that is, predicting how we’ll feel in the future. We grossly overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions. Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics have both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

Imagine you’re at this base level. Now, you set a bold, new goal. You want a Ferrari. Or more confidence. Or a girlfriend. Looking at your happiness mathematically, the following happens:

You, at baseline happiness = 0.
You, after reaching your new goal = 0 + X.

To close the gap between now and the future, you have to solve this equation: 0 = 0 + X

Subtract X on both sides and you get:

You, currently in lack of your new goal = 0 – X.
You, after you attain X and fill the hole = 0.

All you’ve done is made yourself worse off than before. A lottery win is a sudden amplification of your happiness. A big goal is an expectation of the future that reduces your contentment with the present.

In order to desire, you first have to acknowledge something’s missing. It’s this intent focus on what we’re lacking that makes us miserable. We’re placing ourselves in front of artificial trenches that separate us from mostly made up needs.

Since we price the expectation of reaching our goals into our present state, the best we can hope for is to end up back at zero, but not before feeling bad for lacking what we ‘should already have’ for a long time.

…While Being Sad Makes You Happy

However, there’s also a good side to the law of reversed effort. Per Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck:

“What’s interesting about the backwards law is that it’s called “backwards” for a reason: not giving a fuck works in reverse. If pursuing the positive is a negative, then pursuing the negative generates the positive.

Everything worthwhile in life is won through surmounting the associated negative experience. Any attempt to escape the negative, to avoid it or quash it or silence it, only backfires.”

Instead of desperately wanting more and then feeling bad for staring into the abysses of our own shortcomings, what if we just accepted them? What if we let our lacks, our mistakes, our flaws just wash over us and be done with it?

Louis C. K. thinks that’s a great idea:

“I started to get that sad feeling and I was reaching for the phone and I said: “You know what? Don’t. Just…be sad. Stand in the way of it and let it hit you like a truck. And I let it come and I pulled over and I just cried. So much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You’re lucky to live sad moments. I was grateful to feel sad and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”

Louis was lonely, his goal was connection. To avoid the sadness, he could’ve messaged 50 people until someone wrote back. He would’ve succeeded in connecting but remained miserable deep inside. Instead, he faced his sorrow and had a meaningful experience.

That’s the ironic twist Watts referred to. To avoid real life adversity, we subject ourselves to imaginary pain by chasing false gods. Yet, it is right behind said adversity where true happiness awaits.

If there’s so little to gain from our aspirations and so much from facing our fears, then what’s the way to seek out one over the other?

Everything Is Better When You Care a Little Less

My grandpa ran a little clothes shop in his village for 50 years. While I would’ve freaked out every single day no customer came in, he didn’t try to explain each tiny problem away. Not because there were fewer potential reasons back then, but because finding them rarely solves anything. Sometimes, the best you can do is shrug and clean the counter, because people don’t always need new clothes.

Imagine this: Some days, our grandparents’ only communication with the rest of the world was to walk to the mailbox and pull out nothing but bad news. A relative missing in the war. A whole village being moved.

What did they do? They moved on and went about their day. That’s called detachment. Part of life is that life sometimes sucks. To accept that and not be swayed by it is a skill.

Detachment is great, because no matter where you stand, whether that’s far away from your goals, on top of the highest mountain, or down in the deepest trench while it’s raining, it allows you to do one thing: go on.

But today we don’t go on. We go on Facebook. And Instagram. And Twitter. In search of answers we don’t need, hoping to get a quick fix. Because we care too much. Yet, all we see on highlight media is everyone having ‘the time of their lives.’

And we’re right back to staring at our ditch.

What Detachment Is Not

Detachment can be summed up in three words: I am enough. At least for now. You might have a crooked nose, been single forever or not enough money to buy your dad a cruise, but you know what? That’s okay. It’ll do for today.

I don’t believe detachment will absolve us from chasing goals. That’d be naive. It’s human nature. But don’t put detachment on the other side of the next ditch. “If only I could be more detached, then I’d be happy.” No.

Detachment is not a recipe for happiness. It’s a way to go on living while you wait for happiness to come back.

Detachment is taking care of your shit while your partner figures out their own. It’s not letting your boss’s feedback tear a hole in your self-image. Not adding more suffering in imagination to what you endure in reality.

It is not “I don’t need this.” It’s “I’ll be fine if I don’t get it.” Not right away, anyway. Because every path is longer than we think, with more obstacles than we’d like.

The journey may be the best part, but only if you’re okay with arriving at the wrong end.

Success Has Nothing To Do With Self-Improvement Cover

Success Has Nothing To Do With Self-Improvement

Tʜɘ ɔloƨɘɿ you looʞ, ƚʜɘ lɘƨƨ you ƨɘɘ.

Charles Bukowski was born about two hours from where I grew up, in Andernach. Sadly, his resting place is a slightly longer trip, for it holds the bigger lesson, chiseled into his tombstone.

“Don’t try.” In the first chapter of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson decodes some of the hidden meaning of Bukowski’s final message:

This is the real story of Bukowski’s success: his comfort with himself as a failure. Bukowski didn’t give a fuck about success. Even after his fame, he still showed up to poetry readings hammered and verbally abused people in his audience. He still exposed himself in public and tried to sleep with every woman he could find. Fame and success didn’t make him a better person. Nor was it by becoming a better person that he became famous and successful. Self-improvement and success often occur together. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the same thing.

…and he’s right.

Some days, I choose self-improvement. Like yesterday. I was behind on work, but took an hour long walk anyway. Because it was good exercise. Some days, I choose success. Like when I send an email to thousands of people, hoping they’ll click the link and buy.

When I’m aware of it, this distinction is liberating. It allows me to strike a balance. The problem is I often lack this awareness. Because we’re so busy looking closer, digging deeper — for books and gadgets and quick fixes and articles like my very own — we profoundly confuse self-improvement and success.

What We Really Mean When We Say Success

One reason we keep missing the forest for the trees is that we’ve come to use the word ‘success’ as an umbrella term for all our goals, when 99% of the time, we use it as a synonym for ‘get rich.’ Success sounds nicer. Less greedy. More tolerant. But we don’t consider the stay-at-home mom successful for staying at home and nurturing a family, unless she also drives her kids to school in a Cayenne and runs Spanx from her kitchen table.

If good habits were paid in Bitcoin, I could buy a Lambo right now. Yet here I am, struggling towards my first $10k month. Because I’m too nice. Too shy to ask for the sale, too bent on enjoying what I do, too rebellious to work for a boss that might make me rich. But as long as I say “I’m working hard to become successful in my own way,” I still get to feel good about myself. It’s less painful than acknowledging “yeah, I kinda suck at making money.”

Of course the real kicker is that if I actually defined what success really means to me, my excuse to chase ‘success’ would evaporate entirely. What do I really want? A life in which I can write every day, work from wherever and manage my own time.

I’ve been doing that for three years now. With a little bit of flexibility, I can keep it up for the next thirty. So why complain? I’m already successful, it would seem. I just want more money. My guess is I’m not alone. You do that too.

Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that’s what’s happening.

What We Choose Not To See

Another reason we confuse being better with being richer is that we fall prey to survivorship bias. It happens in two ways.

First, we choose heroes that are both, rich and good people and then ignore their flaws. Warren Buffett eats like a 6-year old and drinks Coke every day? Haha, that’s funny! Mark Zuckerberg may have stolen his initial business idea and booted out co-founders? Come on, that was a long time ago! That’s just a natural side effect. The rose-tint in our glasses.

A more extreme variant is that we completely pass over people like Charles Bukowski. People, who are extremely successful, yet show little to no efforts in self-improvement. Tony Stark. Billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, superhero…and a conceited, self-destructive, derogatory asshole.

His real-world counterpart shares a bit of the same struggle: Robert Downey Jr. found success way too fast, spiraled into drug abuse, then later got his shit together and found real success in his forties. For him, self-improvement was a way to get back and then finally maintain the success he had already had before, not the means to achieve it in the first place.

There is no shortage of examples of people who are wildly successful, yet couldn’t care less about their behavior, morale, integrity or waking up at 5 AM and journaling each day. Charlie Sheen, Miley Cyrus, Dan Bilzerian, Charles Bukowski. All successful, but hardly inspiring. Donald Trump is the president of the United States, for fuck’s sake!

Even in the self-improvement space, most of our heroes are anti-role models in many respects. Tim Ferriss has always struggled with depression and even contemplated suicide. Tony Robbins is on his second wife. James Altucher is both: divorced and often depressed.

This is neither good nor bad. It just is. If these people had spent all their time fixing their flaws, they never would have worked enough to get to where they are. Foregoing self-improvement in some areas of their life is the price they paid for their worldly success. What we must realize is that that’s a thing.

What’s the Lesson?

Work is the variable of success. The more you use whatever talent you have, the faster you’ll make more money.

Time is the variable of self-improvement. You have to read, think, monitor your behavior, get better at recognizing it and ask thousands of questions you don’t know the answer to. All of that takes time. Time you could spend working. But the rewards are plenty. Integrity, health, feeling better about staying true to yourself, you name it, it’s in the cards.

Thus, self-improvement and success sometimes conflict one another. They correlate, but the nature of this relationship isn’t always proportional. Charles Bukowski didn’t try for either.

“Somebody asked me: ‘What do you do? How do you write, create?’ You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality.”

You can now give in to the backfire effect and write off Bukowski as the nihilist he probably was. Or, you’re a self-improvement junkie like me and complete the sentence.

  • Don’t try to hide wanting more money.
  • Don’t try to get better if you don’t care.
  • Don’t try to be what you’re not.

That’s also self-improvement. Realizing when self-improvement itself gets in the way. Neither wanting to be better nor rich is a problem on its own. Cause for concern is desiring either one when it’s not you.

Remember this: Chasing success and striving for self-improvement are two different games.

And you have to know which one you’re playing.

When You Know What To Do, Don't Change Course For No Reason Cover

When You Know What To Do, Don’t Change Course For No Reason

For the past three years, I’ve been chasing the same vision: sustaining an entire human life with nothing but a laptop and an internet connection.

My life.

Work anytime, anywhere. No boss, no boundaries. All expenses and safety paranoia considered, that adds up to a $10,000/month goal. If you asked me how to accomplish such a goal, I would give you a simple, rational answer:

  1. Find a way — any way — to make $10,000 in a single month online.
  2. See if you like it.
  3. If you don’t, adjust until you do.

I knew that answer three years ago. But when I look back on my past choices, that’s not what I see.

I see a young man who’s passionate and motivated, but whose hotheaded ambition often dissipates into thin air. His heart is in the right place, but his thinking is erratic. And so after three years of hard work, he yet has to make $10,000 in a single month.

I learned a lot, but I could have reached my goal a long time ago. Why is that?

For one, I dealt with a lot of crises. Most of which were fickle, because I made them up entirely. The breakup with the girl I was never meant to be with. The artificial overwhelm I forced upon myself. The routines I used to paint myself into a corner. Collapse was always imminent, but rarely necessary.

We all do this. The old adage is old for a reason:

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”

 ― Mark Twain

But beyond an opportunity to examine your own capacity for imaginary drama, there lies a lesson. A lesson about the double-edged nature of imagination itself.

Adversity is real. A loved one dies. The global economy tanks. Your thrift shop is foreclosed. Imagination is our greatest shield against it. A springboard we can use to recover from any setback.

It’s the backbone of humankind’s accomplishments. The Dark Ages made way for the Renaissance. The European Union emerged from the ashes of WWII. All because people imagined something better.

Necessity is the mother of invention. We all face different necessities at different times, and so we all imagine different solutions. It’s this collective, creative power that civilization is built upon. And it’s nothing shy of awe-inspiring.

At the same time, when we leave necessity behind, we begin to overindulge in our imagination. Soon, it bears poisonous fruit. What if our hard-earned prosperity was taken from us? How could that happen? And off we go, into the dark corners of our mind.

The path ahead may still be clear, but our vision isn’t. We get busy preserving the status quo from imaginary demons. We fight windmills while treading water. Life happens, we say. And it does. But just as often, we happen to ourselves.

We dream up a crisis for a lack of drama, not a lack of real-world problems. We get hung up on past adversity instead of focusing on future aspirations. Because we let go of the reigns. And our imagination darts way too far across the finish line. Right into the wrong direction.

Imaginary problems are a fairly obvious inhibitor of growth. It’s easy to see how they interfere with our goals. But there’s a second, more subtle way I sabotaged myself in my quest for independence. And it’s also an outgrowth of imagination.

Ideas. I love ideas. I love having them. I love chasing them. But I’ve reached a point where new ideas often do more damage than good. I think many of us have.

I was always a dreamer. I built my own Lego creations, I made my own video games and I could fill books with business ideas. And for years, dreaming was all I did. When I finally set out to take action, I thought this excess creativity would subside.

I now realize I was wrong. It got worse. I didn’t just think of solutions to problems that were not there, I would now also go out and build them. That’s how I’ve wasted a lot of time.

Saying “no” to my own, possibly good ideas is the hardest “no” I’ve ever had to practice. And I needn’t even say a word. We like to think we’re clever in our ability to spot opportunity. The excitement tricks us.

How many of your ideas are actual shortcuts to the same goal? How many are really just detours? We can never truly know, but deep down, inexplicably, we still do.

New paths are tempting. Before long, momentum fades all the same. Yet, it’s enough to abandon our efforts in forging the opportunities we need along the path we’ve chosen in favor of the ones we drew out of our own hat.

All it takes is a new idea. A spark of imagination. And off we go. Into the wrong direction, once again.

I may have lost a lot of time running from my imagination’s dark conjectures, but it pales in comparison to the fuel I’ve burned chasing its illusionary treasure.

Ideas are our fear of success’s prettiest cloak. We know what to do. What’d get us there — there being different for each of us. But we change course to follow the sun instead.

“I know every single step I have to take to get to $10,000/month.”

I said that at the kitchen table yesterday. Mostly to myself. As if that’d somehow cement it in reality.

“Now all I have to do is remember to take them.”

Looking back as clearly and honestly as I can, I see no good reason as to why I haven’t so far. Only a real one: I sabotaged myself. I chased ideas and conjured crises for no cause other than stalling my own progress.

We like to think we’re the captain of our own ship. Often, it’s imagination that is actually at the wheel, steering right towards the iceberg of self-sabotage.

But if we take control for just a second, we can at least think of a question:

How is your imagination ruining your course today?

10 Cognitive Biases and How To Fight Them Cover

10 Cognitive Biases and How To Fight Them

Irrationality rules the world. Quite literally, these days.

Global leaders behaving like little boys, threatening each other with their oversized toys. Fake news spreading like wildfire. Needless technology receiving millions in funding.

It’s a great time to be alive, but sometimes I wish Plato were still around to remind us of one of his big ideas: Think more.

Frustrated by the tendency of his fellow Greeks to act mostly on impulse, he always prompted them to examine their own lives. The goal was to think for yourself and be less trapped by doxa — the Greek word for common sense or popular opinion.

This is why we love Elon Musk so much. We see someone, who can objectively look at the world, build their reasoning from the ground up and then make decisions grounded in reality — and we think they’re a genius.

Actually, he’s just doing what we were supposed to all along: think for ourselves. It’s that we do so little of it. As Tim Urban notes on Wait But Why:

“We spent this whole time trying to figure out the mysterious workings of the mind of a madman genius only to realize that Musk’s secret sauce is that he’s the only one being normal. And in isolation, Musk would be a pretty boring subject — it’s the backdrop of us that makes him interesting.”

So how do we get back to rational? How can we think more and more clearly?

It is here that Musk and Plato agree, though one learned from physics, the other from philosophy: we must start with a clean slate. Plato’s old friend and mentor puts it in a nutshell.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”  —  Socrates

It’s a process of getting back to square one so you can start fresh, this time from your own perspective. The way we begin this process is by ridding ourselves of our modern-day version of doxa: cognitive biases.

They fall into different categories and are shortcuts our brain uses to deal with too much information, figure out what to remember, fill in gaps in meaning and act fast when we need to. At the same time, these cognitive design flaws silently ruin our lives, one decision at a time.

There are many of them and some are worse than others. Here are the ten we must try to fight the hardest — and one way to do the fighting.

Belief: The Backfire Effect

You’ve probably heard of confirmation bias, which is our tendency to seek information that confirms our opinions, rather than form those opinions from the best information available. While troublesome, I’m much more worried about its bigger brother: the backfire effect.

Also referred to as belief perseverance or the continued influence effect, it says we react to disconfirming evidence by strengthening our previous, wrong beliefs.

For example, if you’ve agreed with me in the intro that Elon Musk is awesome, you’ll likely have felt a tad of cognitive dissonance at Tim’s statement that in isolation, Musk would be a boring subject.

This is why corrections in the news world don’t work. They never get as many views and only enhance the previous idea. The facts are gone, the feeling remains.

As you go through the following biases and catch yourself thinking: “that’s definitely not me,” you know what’s going on.


Great poker players are less affected by mental biases because they’re probability machines. Not only can they estimate the likelihood of events with more accuracy, but the habit of constantly trying to estimate alone comes with a lot of benefits.

Out of all the biases around probability, the following two continue to drive a huge wedge between us and our personal success.

Ambiguity Effect

The ambiguity effect is our impulse to avoid options for which we don’t have enough information to make a good probability guess. It stops us from chasing our big goals, because we’re not considering what’s realistically possible.

We’d rather spend $100 on lottery tickets than on stocks or cryptocurrencies, because the information required to gauge the probability of making a profit is easier to obtain.

If we did our homework, we’d often see our probabilities are better than we think and we control them more than we know.

Survivorship Bias

When we don’t know our chances, we default to following those we can see. Tim has a successful blog. Tim writes this way. I want a successful blog, so I’ll write like Tim.

This logical fallacy is called survivorship bias — the trend to focus on the elements and people that remain at the end, thus neglecting probability.

There may have been hundreds, thousands or millions of people who started blogs and wrote like Tim, but didn’t make it. Therefore, using Tim as a proxy is in no way playing it safe. It’s just playing copycat.


Risk is often lumped together with probability. However, while the chance of a bad event occurring is important to consider, risk has another component, which is just as easy to misjudge: its magnitude.

But don’t worry, we suck at estimating both.

Zero-Risk Bias

This bias indicates we prefer to eliminate whatever little risk is left completely, rather than opting for an overall greater reduction with some remaining. It’s the reason we get a heart attack when the phone rings and the caller ID says it’s our boss’s boss. Our brain blows the magnitude of the worst-case scenario way out of proportion.

“All anxiety is is experiencing failure in advance.”  —  Seth Godin

The zero-risk bias explains why insurance companies can charge a premium for full coverage and why we’d rather give up cereal completely than eat more vegetables — the latter might reduce our risk for diabetes more, but the former feels safer.

Neglect of Probability

In our aspirations we might fail at probability estimation, but when it comes to risk, we often abandon the effort altogether. Neglect of probability leads us to respond only to the magnitude of an event, not its likelihood.

Since we’re so bad at estimating that magnitude, however, we end up ignoring small risks, like falling down the stairs, altogether, while assuming certainty for great ones — if any plane were to crash, it must be ours.

The combination of these two biases explains most of our misplaced fear.

“We’re more afraid of public speaking than texting on the highway, more afraid of approaching an attractive stranger in a bar than marrying the wrong person, more afraid of not being able to afford the same lifestyle as our friends than spending 50 years in meaningless career — all because embarrassment, rejection, and not fitting in really sucked for hunters and gatherers.”  — Tim Urban, Wait But Why

When we look at the people we consider bold risk-takers, the great entrepreneurs, investors and artists of our time, most of them just turn out to have an accurate understanding of risk and probability.

It’s what allows Warren Buffett to buy when everyone’s panicking and sell when others fall for the hype.

“We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”  —  Warren Buffett

Social: The Bandwagon Effect

In the Iraq War, a U.S. army major managed to prevent riots by keeping food vendors away from large squares and social gatherings. This way, there was no fuel for peoples’ undirected anger and they turned home, rather than into a mob.

The forces at play here are herd behavior and group think, where a large group takes action without explicitly agreeing on a direction and everyone joining in to not conflict with the group. The bandwagon effect is a specific, everyday life version of it. It’s why we believe and do things solely for the reason that many others also do.

A classic example is when you have to choose between two restaurants and go with the one that’s more crowded, because hey, it must be good, right? But if everyone before you went by the same logic, inevitably the first guests chose at random between two empty restaurants. Similarly, you’re more inclined to like a tweet that already has 1,000 likes. On the internet, it’s extra hard to think for yourself.

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”  —  Mark Twain

Memory: The Spotlight Effect

The spotlight effect is a social bias that manifests itself in our memory. It’s the belief we hold that everyone is watching our every move, all the time.

The reason is simple: we are the center of our universe. We live in our own heads, 24/7. Therefore, it’s natural we overestimate our role in everyone else’s life too. But you’re not the only one who can’t imagine the world without you — everyone else is just as focused on themselves, which means they don’t really have the time to, well, watch you.

This imagined spotlight that puts us center stage is turned on in high school, when all we care about is who did what with whom at what time. Inevitably, it spills over into adulthood and leaves us too cautious to publish that honest blog post, say what we think or try something unusual.

We’ve learned about seven cognitive biases so far. Imagine not just one, but all of them are influencing your thinking right now — because that’s exactly what’s happening. That’s the environment we’re supposed to make decisions in.

So what do most of us default to? Right. More of the same.

Decision-Making: Irrational Escalation

Success often hinges on doing things differently — you know, in our own way. It doesn’t guarantee we’ll land a hit, but it improves the odds. Sadly, that’s exactly what our mental biases hold us back from.

They lead to what behavioral scientists call escalation of commitment. We continue down the same path, even if it’s an irrational one. To stay safe, we do more of the same. What’s always been done.

This irrational escalation happens in several ways and it destroys our growth.

Loss Aversion

When nobel prize winner Daniel Kahnemanl handed people mugs and told them they were worth $5, he found out in spite of knowing the value, nobody was willing to sell the good at the same price. This is known as the endowment effect. We value goods more, simply because we own them.

This leads to loss aversion. As soon as we have something, we have something to lose — and losing hurts up to twice more than winning makes us happy.

So we spend most of our days preserving what we have instead of going for what else we want.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

Funny enough, while we’re trying hard to avoid losses, when we’re losing, the sunk cost fallacy makes sure we lose big. When a path of action becomes irrational, we continue on it solely to be consistent with our previous actions.

How many times have you left the theatre when the movie was bad? Do you go to events you paid for, even if you don’t feel like going the day of? When you’ve invested time or money into something that doesn’t work out, it’s hard to face that failure, man up and move on.

But wasting more time and money, just to avoid that realization, is much costlier in the long run. If we thought of buying ourselves options, not obligations, we would remain free to make the best decision — no matter the sunk cost.

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality

You might be familiar with Parkinson’s Law: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Coined by the same Parkinson is the Law of Triviality, sometimes also referred to as bike-shedding: In an effort to avoid the cognitive discomfort that stems from dealing with all the above and solving complex problems, we spend disproportionate amounts of time on trivial issues.

When you start a blog, designing the logo, choosing the colors, optimizing your menu and link structure all seem really important. It’s easy to get lost in those details for weeks when really, all you had to do was write.

There’s Something on Your Windshield

It’d be nice if we had to deal with just one cognitive bias at a time. We’d open our cognitive bias playbook, flip to page 19 and take the specific steps needed to handle the culprit. But that’s not how it works.

There are dozens of cognitive glitches, working against us every second of every day. Me, while I’m writing this. You, while you’re reading this. Almost 200 of them are listed on Wikipedia. And those are just the ones we’ve identified so far.

While they’re so omnipresent they’re just a part of life, you can think of them like raindrops on your windshield. A few speckles here and there won’t completely cloud your vision, but if they fill every inch, you might as well drive in the dark.

Since there are way too many to fight each one explicitly, we need one tool to deal with at least a decent bunch of them. A bias against biases, if you will. To our best knowledge, that bias is awareness.

It’s not the perfect wiper, but at least you’ll see if you drive on the right road.

The Solution: Your Stress Response

Most of our mental biases date back to a time when quick decisions determined our survival. The tool we can use to fight them is just as old.

Even today our initial reaction to most stressors is to treat them like potential death threats. You know, just to be safe. The reaction that plays out is called fight-or-flight response. Our body releases a cocktail of adrenaline and cortisol, which increases our heart rate, dilates our pupils and triggers tunnel vision. But hidden in this physical power stance lies our golden arrow.

In his book, What Every Body Is Saying, ex-FBI agent and body language expert Joe Navarro observes a third component of our stress response: the freeze reaction. Neither fight nor flight are viable options in school or at the office, so we default to first freezing in place, like our ancestors did when a T-Rex walked by.

“One purpose of the freeze response is to avoid detection by dangerous predators or in dangerous situations. A second purpose is to give the threatened individual the opportunity to assess the situation and determine the best course of action to take.

This second purpose is our holy grail. Our chance to ask: “What’s really going on? Is my brain tricking me here?”

Thanks to our ancestors, the basics of the freeze response still remain intact, but it takes a more conscious effort make it our go-to reaction. Due to all our biases, an internal conflict arises with each external threat. Our goal must be to use the break we catch with the freeze response to shift our attention to what’s going on inside.

In her book, The Willpower Instinct, Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has dubbed this better version of our stress reaction the pause-and-plan response.

“The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action.”

The moment you acknowledge a mental bias it loses its power. Thankfully, McGonigal also shares what that moment looks like.

“The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.”

Breathing. You’re doing it right now. But taking a deep breath? Please, do it right now. It’s amazing how shallow our most important survival mechanism becomes without us even noticing. Breaking that pattern is our escape from the grasp of doxa. Our fresh start with a clean slate.

Every decision is better after a single, deep breath.

More breathing, more thinking. Deeper breathing, deeper thinking.

“The heaviest penalty for declining to rule is to be ruled by someone inferior to yourself.”  —  Plato

Plato was referring to politics with this quote, but it extends to all of life, really. The first place we must rule then, is our own mind. The goal isn’t to think perfectly. It’s to not let others do the thinking for you.

Among the long list of mental biases, there even is one describing our tendency to think of ourselves as less biased than we actually are. It’s called our bias blind spot.

If nothing else, I hope it’s now a smaller raindrop on your windshield.


[1] Philosophy — Plato

[2] Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet

[3] Seth Godin’s Exclusive Linchpin Keynote

[3] The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce

[4] 14 Warnings From Trust Me, I’m Lying

[5] Why You’ll Soon Be Playing Mega Trillions

[6] The Power of Habit Summary

[7] The Spotlight Effect: Why No One Cares About That Thing You Did

[8] What Every Body Is Saying Summary

[9] The Willpower Instinct Summary

This Is Life's Worst Trap Cover

This Is Life’s Worst Trap

Most of the time, life looks like above.

No matter where we stand, the grass is always greener on the other side. It’s that little patch of green across the horizon, where the sun always seems to shine.

  • A better job.
  • A beautiful woman.
  • A million dollars.
  • A Louis Vuitton handbag.
  • A sixpack.
  • A surfing vacation.
  • A new home.
  • A better habit.
  • A few more fans.
  • A piece of insight.

So we spend our days chasing the light at the end of our tunnel vision. We fight, we struggle, we complain, we throw others under the bus and we forget ourselves completely in the process.

We don’t turn around and we never stop and just stare. Stare at the green all around us. When actually, most of the sunshine falls along the way.

And when we finally arrive, we reach the top of the hill, we throw our fists in the air. We breathe for a second and enjoy the view, but just long enough to realize life now looks like this:

Life’s biggest traps are the ones we assemble right around us.

We build our cages with desire and ego when we could just as well build airplanes made from gratitude, service and being present.

But there is one, true ray of light at the end of the tunnel: we’re free to abandon one for the other at any moment.

How To Improve Your Writing With 6 Questions Cover

How To Improve Your Writing With 6 Questions

A writer’s job is to bring order to chaos. It’s our duty to descend into the cluttered world of ideas and then structure whatever insight we manage to wring from its hands.

Therefore, writing is by definition a messy process. The goal of this post is not so much to get you to adopt my version of it — although I will give you the tools if you wish to do so — but to get you to examine your own.

When I recently did, I found I constantly ask myself six questions about writing. Before, after and during. All the time. They’re definitely not a checklist. More of a blurry circle my mind spins in.

I want to show you those questions. Show you you’re not alone. Seeing my lose structure should help accept your own. Then, you can set out to find the little that’s there. So you can build on it. That’s the plan.

Let’s go.

1. What Do I Care Enough to Say?

When I’m staring at a blank page, which is often, this marks my starting point. I think about the last few days and weeks.

  • What was important?
  • What did I think a lot about?
  • Did anything life-changing happen?
  • What have I learned?
  • What’s an issue worth addressing?
  • What made me angry?

This keeps me from talking about topics only because they’re popular. I find I end up there often enough, even if I don’t do it on purpose. This time, I noticed myself in front of the same writing questions over and over again.

I’m rarely alone with my problems. The people who have the same ones usually show up once I start talking.

Plus, if I care, it’s easier to get others to.

2. Is It Real?

I don’t always ask this second, but I should. The sooner I can catch myself structuring a fake idea, the better. What do I mean by fake?

If it’s not an idea I have truly lived, experienced, or researched deeply enough to publish my own account of it, then I won’t share it. Period. The process I’m sharing with you today is what I actually go through.

Why self-publish if you’re not gonna be yourself? It’d defeat the whole point of giving us your unique perspective.

People can smell fake stories from the headline, because they already stink when you write them. How honest you are correlates to how easy it is to write.

This is a one-strike policy. If only I always caught myself before it’s too late.

3. Is It Useful?

Ironically, a piece of advice from a billionaire helped me obsess less about becoming one. In an interview, Elon Musk said (emphasis mine):

Well, first of all, I think if somebody is doing something that is useful to the rest of society, I think that’s a good thing. Like, it doesn’t have to change the world.

Then, talking about his own story, he proceeds:

You can get a doctorate on many things that ultimately do not have practical bearing on the world. And I really was just trying to be useful. That’s the optimization. It’s like, “What can I do that would actually be useful?”

And, to help estimate the usefulness of your aspirations:

Whatever this thing is that you’re trying to create, what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art times how many people it would affect?

That’s why I think having something that makes a big difference, but affects a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes even a small difference, but affects a vast number of people.

If you want to serve the greater good, usefulness is the optimization. But that doesn’t mean you have to serve a single, great good.

Think about how microscopically deep the change you cause can run. Yesterday someone emailed me about restarting a practice from one of my posts he’d picked up a year ago.

  • Is what you’re sharing practical, even at a subconscious level?
  • Can you coach people through the process in an empathic way?
  • Even if it’s a small change they might not immediately realize, how much could that amount to?
  • Can you be okay with never finding out?

The questions I ask about writing could be useful in shaping yours. Hence, this post was worth a shot. Even if I can never measure its full impact.

One more benefit of being useful? It’s the ultimate antidote to being fake — because it’s really hard to give practical advice when you don’t know what you’re talking about.

4. Will This Inspire the Reader?

People think rationally, but act on emotions. If you can take a useful idea, attach it to an arrow of inspiration and send it right into the reader’s heart, change is more likely.

I could have just talked about the usefulness of being useful, but I told the Elon Musk story instead. Usefulness determines how far people read, inspiration what they do after they stop.

You can tilt the balance to one side, but having both increases the probability of your seeds falling on fertile soil.

5. Has This Been Said Before?

Everything’s been said before. The question is how and how often.

I see many step-by-step-writing posts on Medium, but few that talk about the mayhem of their process and even fewer that dig deeper into it.

Being different doesn’t guarantee being original, but there can be no originality without difference. So I’ll take my chances.

Similar to inspiration, being original makes it more likely to be noticed. Again, writing is a game of probability.

6. Will This Entertain the Reader?

Now would be a good time for a joke. Luckily, making people laugh isn’t the only way to entertain. Entertainment is really just another word for engagement.

Can what you write hold the reader’s attention? Or, in Seth Godin’s words:

In a world with infinite choice, where there’s always something better and more urgent a click away, it’s tempting to go for shorter.

In fact, if you seek to make a difference (as opposed to gather a temporary crowd), shorter isn’t what’s important: Dense is.

Density can be of many kinds. Of emotion. Of insight. Of mystery. Seth puts it in a nutshell:

Long isn’t the problem. Boring is.

If you found the string of insights I presented so far useful enough to read until here, then I guess you’ve been entertained.

How Can You Remember This Model?

I didn’t number the questions because I never answer them in sequence. But lists are so much easier to remember! How can I structure this fuzzy model just enough so you won’t forget?

Six questions, six corners. That’s a hexagon. So much for the visual. My favorite mnemonic device is the acronym. Sometimes you’ll be lucky and the letters form a normal word. This time, I wasn’t.

Thus, meet your new favorite Youtuber: iCuber. His or her videos are inspiring, full of Care, Useful, never seen Before, Entertaining and Real. Here’s their logo:

Imagine the kind of videos you’d like to see from iCuber. By the time you know what he or she looks like, you’ve already remembered the symbol. Now you can walk along the edges and pick up the questions when you want to.

There. A little less mess.

The Real Takeaway: Question #7

That’s the beauty of chaos: no rules. Each writer can come up with their own. Has to. The goal of sharing my process isn’t for you to adopt it. It’s to start observing your own.

The real idea is to begin asking this question:

What goes on in your mind about your writing?

Descend into the chaos. Grab an idea. Structure it. Bring order.

You’re a writer, after all. That’s your job.