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History is filled with tales of great men and women and their triumphs. But rarely do we get a look into one of the largest factors that made them great, their struggles. Specifically their internal, lesser-known struggles, that shaped how they saw the world around them and thus, allowed them to approach changing the world in a unique way.Read More
The most legendary fighter pilot to ever walk the face of the earth knew what it took to thrive in the chaos and uncertainty of war. His life is one of the greatest largely untold stories of the last century.
This man’s name was John Boyd. But John Boyd went by many names in his life. During his time as the premier instructor at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis (the Navy later copied this school and named it “Top Gun”) he was known as “40 Second Boyd” because he never lost a single dogfight and would take less than 40 seconds to defeat any opponent.Pilots from around the globe flew to Nellis to challenge him. All went home defeated.
Later, when Boyd would go on to confront the entire Air Force establishment, and fundamentally change the way the United States military fights and wins wars he would earn the nickname “The Mad Major.” He literally wrote the book on air-to-air combat with his Aerial Attack Study, combined the concept of entropy from physics to create the “Energy Maneuverability” theory that transformed how militaries around the world evaluate aircraft performance. Boyd is known as the father of the F15, F16 and (along with Pierre Sprey) the A10 Warthog.
That was just Boyd’s warm up act. Fed up with military bureaucracy he retired and immersed himself in a massive deep dive of everything from psychology, to philosophy, to creativity and much more. Boyd earned his final nickname “Ghengis John” when he merged the knowledge across all of these disciplines — along with a complete study of every recorded conflict in human history — to formulate a theory of war called “Patterns of Conflict.”Patterns transformed US warfighting doctrine, reshaped the US Marine Corps, and was the impetus behind one of the most devastating and rapid military campaigns in military history — the 100 hour allied victory in The Gulf War.
In short, John Boyd was a man of many talents. The lessons Boyd discovered scorching through the sky at the speed of sound are the tools that will make you someone who thrives in a chaotic and uncertain world, too.
The Biggest Lessons From Studying Every Major Conflict in Recorded History
Patterns of conflict was a massive undertaking — so much so that Boyd “condensed” these learnings into a 14 hour briefing and refused to give the briefing to anyone who wouldn’t sit through all 14 hours. Once being ordered by a General to give him a shortened briefing, Boyd told the General to “get fucked.” That General never got to see Patterns of Conflict.
There were several core ideas within Patterns. You’re probably not fighting a war anytime soon (if you are — you can get the full slides of the briefing here, though without Boyd delivering them, they are missing a lot of context) so I’ll spare you the 14 hours and give you a few key ideas below.
Here were the key themes of Patterns of Conflict:
· Fluidity of Action
· Strength Against Weakness
· Attack with Multiple Thrusts
· The Power of Ambiguity
These are the major commonalities Boyd discovered when studying every successful military campaign in recorded history — especially with a focus on examining situations where an outnumbered or disadvantaged army won the engagement.
These principles form the core of the concept of “Maneuver Warfare” which Boyd was a staunch advocate of. These are the same themes that led to the stunningly rapid US victory in the Gulf War.
The key idea of these principles is to disorient and confuse your enemy, to cause them to unravel before you even engage in combat.
That’s all well and good and believe me I love a good military history as much as anyone (after all I did read Boyd’s massive biography) — but what I really care about is applying these principles to my life and business.
After all, business and war are very different. While in warfighting the idea is to destroy the enemy, in business that is not always possible and you also have to proactively build your own business and grow your sales.
There is a major shared thread between these two domains however. A thread that, once pulled, can lead us some major insights into how we can use the lessons of Genghis John to thrive in chaos and uncertainty.
How To Thrive In Chaos, Like a Fighter Pilot
This common thread, between the military and business, is that in both cases groups of people are working together under immense pressure and stress to try and create results.
Looking under the hood at some of the greatest military victories of all time, Boyd uncovered several key ideas around organizing people in tough situations that are directly applicable to business and life. These are the cornerstone of thriving under uncertainty.
Fight The Enemy — Not The Terrain
Boyd’s most well known idea is the concept of the “OODA” loop. OODA Loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. This is framework designed to explain the process of collecting information, interpreting it, deciding what to do with it, and then taking action.
Much has been written about the OODA loop (here’s a great in-depth explanation of it) but I want to focus on one particular aspect, the piece that Boyd thought was the most important — Orientation.
It’s easy to skip over Orientation or think it’s essentially the same as Observation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Orientation is about your relationship to reality and the observations you’re seeing.
Orientation is about confronting your cognitive biases, your ego, and your own limited perception of the world — peeling back those layers so you can get a clear picture of reality as it truly is, not as you wish it to be.
In tough, confusing and uncertain situations we often get stuck — frozen in what was — not accepting things as they are because we don’t like them or we wish that they were different.
This is one of the most devastatingly sinister cognitive biases and can put you in serious jeopardy.
Boyd sums this up beautifully with a simple quote:
“Fight the enemy, not the terrain.” — Col. John Boyd
Don’t get stuck in your conceptions of what “should” be — don’t fight the terrain — fight the enemy as they are, not as you want them to be.
This is a lesson not only uncovered in Boyd’s deep dive into human conflict and the path to victory, but shared by world champions and financial traders.
World champion martial artist and international chess master Josh Waitzkin sums this idea up powerfully as well:
“While I learned with open pores — no ego in the way — it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. When [our teacher] made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked up by the need to be correct…[They] got stuck, like the guys doing [martial arts] who don’t learn from their mistakes and practice with a desperate need to win, to be right, to have everything under control. This ultimately cripples growth.” — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
If we fail to properly orient ourselves — to see our own weaknesses, biases, flaws in our thinking and much more, we prevent ourselves from growth and we invite disaster.
Trader Jim Paul describes the same danger of getting stuck in your ego — and losing sight of the best course of action — in his book “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars”:
“Taking either success or failure personally means, by definition, that your ego has become involved and you are in jeopardy of incurring losses due to psychological factors. Having tied your self-worth to the vicissitudes of factors beyond your control, you will be primarily concerned with protecting your ego rather than trying to determine the appropriate course of action.”- Jim Paul
You must be aware of your Orientation and consciously work to sweep away ego distortions and cognitive biases so that you can get a crystal clear picture of reality.
A tool like Charlie Munger’s Psychology of Misjudgment (a list of mental models that cause people to make bad decisions) is an excellent starting place for this. Once you’ve done that it’s often easy to Decide what to do and Act on it.
Agility & Rapid Tempo
Boyd constantly preached the importance of “Agility.” It’s critical to understand that Agility does not mean speed, but rather speed of decision-making.
The ability to rapidly move through “decision cycles” (Boyd’s OODA Loops) is what distinguished victory from defeat.
Here’s how Boyd himself put it:
“In order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries — or, better yet, get inside [the] adversary’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop … Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries — since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing, as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns, they are competing against.” — Col. John Boyd
This quote also underscores the power and importance of building clear and accurate mental models, which reinforces our need to Orient properly.
If you’re working to grow and improve yourself — the faster you can run through decision cycles (OODA Loops) and break away from the biases and errors that will keep you frozen in place, the faster you will grow. This rapid iteration and execution of OODA loops is how you see some people quickly advance while others seem to be stuck in place.
In life and business — this principle applies to both competitive threats and opportunities. The more rapidly you can Orient yourself to what’s really true, accurately collect information about the problem, the market, your product, etc — the faster you can make the correct decision.
Over time this slightly incremental speed advantage generates massive results. Without a rapid decision-making and analysis tempo, you’re leaving yourself at risk for external forces (competitors, markets, etc) to move away from where you think they are — and your understanding of those dynamics will be flawed and incomplete, leading to a poor Orientation.
Pronounced “Shh-where-punked” — the notion of Schwerpunkt is the single most important organizational principle to come out of Boyds work in Patterns. Schwerpunkt is a vital tool for working with others and thriving under chaos and uncertainty.
Schwerpunk is one of those words that doesn’t fully translate from German to English. The meaning is rich with an idea that a single definition cannot express. The definition of Schwerpunkt is something like center of gravity, crucial focal point, point of the main effort, key goal, or commander’s intent.
This guiding principle explains another one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history — the Blitzkrieg of WW2. German forces operated under a largely decentralized decision-making structure that was imbued with mutual trust and the ability for unit commanders in the field to make the key decisions — in alignment with the overall Schwerpunkt of the campaign.
This focus on decentralized organizational structures — where the core goal, key focus, and commander’s intent (aka Schwerpunkt) is communicated and understood by everyone — is a cornerstone of the most successful military campaigns in history.
When you let decisions happen on the “front lines” — you’re empowering people to make decisions not only much more rapidly but with much more accurate and real time information.
More importantly for you and me — it’s also a highly effect management tactic and organizational structure for modern day organizations.
Books like The Outsiders have studied companies that massively outperform over a long period of time and the concept of a highly decentralized organization that pushes decision-making to the lowest level possible is one of the cornerstones of those businesses. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is a classic example of a highly decentralized company.
You Can Become Someone Who Thrives In Chaos and Uncertainty
The powerful toolkit of Orientation, Agility, and Schwerpunkt will allow you to thrive in any chaotic or uncertain environments. These ideas are literally battle tested in the most unforgiving crucible imaginable — war.
Boyd explains how all these concepts fit together neatly and why they are so powerful for thriving under adversity and under stressful and chaotic situations.
“War is ever changing, and men are ever fallible” -Col. John Boyd
I like to adjust that slightly to:
“Life & Business are ever changing, and people are ever fallible.”
Cognitive biases and the inherent biological limits of the human brainconstantly cause people to make mistakes. If you are properly orienting yourself, not getting frozen in your past conceptions of reality, and rapidly iterating through your decision-cycles — you will be running circles around your competition and aligned with market demand and expectations — setting yourself up for success.
John Boyd was the ultimate bad ass. He lived an incredible life, fought in three wars and transformed the way our military fights and wins.
The lessons Boyd uncovered in Patterns have the power to transform you into someone who thrives under chaotic, uncertain and adverse conditions.
As Boyd would say, what are you waiting for, Tiger?
Learning More About Boyd
If you want to learn more about Boyd here are a few resources.
I also highly suggest reading his Biography “John Boyd The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War”
If you want to dig into the source material, here is a catalogue of all of Boyd’s work in a military archive.
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No matter what your job is — no matter what you’re working on — creativity and resourcefulness are the cornerstones of building a successful life.
I’m sure you’ve heard the quote:
“It’s not the lack of resources, it’s your lack of resourcefulness that stops you.” — Tony Robbins
History is filled with examples of people who’ve achieved epic things thanks to being resourceful, despite having a lack of resources.
One of my favorites is the story of how Peter Diamandis launched the creation of a spaceship. He did this with no money and no engineering ability but got it done purely through the raw power of resourcefulness.
Peter wanted a spaceship. Pretty ambitious, right? To start, he didn’t have the money, he didn’t have the technical ability — he didn’t have any real resources at all to help him build that spaceship.
And yet — through sheer creativity he created the X Prize– and found a sponsor to fund it — effectively leveraging some of the smartest people in the world to create dozens of space ship designs and ultimately produce the SpaceShipOne.
So if Peter can create a freakin rocket ship out of thin air — is it possible you could get a bit more resourceful and creative towards achieving your goals?
I’ve been there too. I was stuck in the same rut in my life — feeling frustrated and thinking that nothing I could do would make a difference in my life and business
But then I broke out of that rut by beginning a daily creativity practice that has helped me get super focused and incredibly creative.
It’s helped me begin building my own rocket ships and it can do the same for you, here’s how.
How To Build Your Creative Rocket Ship
The way I execute this is simple — every morning (at least three times a week) I force myself to brainstorm ten ideas.
This could be ten ideas for a new business, ten ideas to fix a problem in my current business, ten ways to get more customers, ten possible pivots for my business, ten ways to get more free time — any challenge you are facing in life or other areas where you want to improve and move forward.
I always keep a list of topics created ahead of time, that I add to on the fly using Evernote, so I don’t spend my time thinking “what should I journal about today?” — I always have a steady list of topics I want to apply this method to.
I’ve found this to be incredibly powerful.
In a company where I’ve recently taken over as CEO, I was facing a major challenge and I could not figure out how to solve it. I kept thinking of one or two solutions but was telling myself (in my internal dialogue and self talk) “there aren’t many things I can do to solve this problem.”
So I added that challenge to my list of topics to journal on.
When I set out to brainstorm 10 ways to solve this problem — I ended up finding 18 possible solutions — none of which I had implemented or executed yet.
It is much easier is it to face that challenge now, knowing that I have a tool kit of 18 possible solutions that could work to resolve it. It took less than 30 minutes to come up with those ideas.
So how do you do it? It’s pretty simple.
· Use a tool like Evernote to keep a running list of challenges or topics you want to brainstorm on
· Make sure you are distraction free when doing this exercise
· Set aside 15–30 minutes in the morning, a few days a week. A time constraint is good as it keeps the exercise from becoming overwhelming and also forces the brain to be creative.
· Brainstorm ten ideas or more on how you could solve this challenge in your life or business.
· Here’s another secret — don’t worry if they are good ideas or bad ideas — there is a distinction between idea creation and idea selection — you can’t be as fully creative as you need to be if you’re in selection mode — so throw off the shackles of judgment and just throw ideas out there. The more bad ideas the better.
Woah There’s Science That Backs This Up Too?
You bet there is! — there is a bunch of science that backs this idea up.
There is some fascinating research that has been written about this. Much of it popularized by Dr. Adam Grant in the book Originals. He also shared this insightful example in a recent interview:
“I was reading [Dean Simonton’s] research and he said, in a nutshell, that the more bad ideas you have, the more creative you are. I read that and I thought, “What? How could this be true?” I thought I always had this vision of creative people as dreaming up there masterpiece and then going and executing on it… What Simonton shows very clearly in his data and now we have experiments also showing that it’s s true for ordinary people, not just sort of outlier original thinkers, is a huge part of creativity is the volume of ideas that you generate…
So if you look at Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, one of the things that differentiates them from their peers as they produced not just a few more, but hundreds more compositions, into the 600 and 700. At least in Bach’s case, I think about a thousand, when most of their peers we’re in the sort of below a hundred range. And there’s a really nice linear relationship — number of compositions that you do in a lifetime and your eventual greatness… We see this in all kinds of domains.” — Dr. Adam Grant on The Science of Success
Looks like it’s time to get out there and generate some bad ideas.
Forming this habit was hard at first, but now it’s so much fun coming up with new, creative and whacky ways to look at, think about, and solve challenges in my life.
I find my brain is actually addicted to it — when I don’t do the journal in the morning my brain keeps going “hey when can I do some brainstorming? When can I unleash my creativity on something?”
It’s like weight lifting for creativity and resourcefulness. Try it for a week and you will be amazed how powerful it is. And maybe, just maybe, you can start pulling some rocket ships out of thin air, too.
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In my conversations with some of the world’s top experts I kept hearing this one idea come up again and again.
It seemed as if almost every guest I interviewed on The Science of Successkept bringing up the same key skill necessary for success in today’s world.
That skill is self awareness.
In fact, I kept hearing self awareness crop up so frequently in my interviews with experts, neuroscientists, and psychologists that I sought out a leading research psychologist who specializes in self awareness — Dr. Tasha Eurich.
She called self awareness “The Secret Weapon of the 21st Century.”
Self awareness underpins nearly every other skill. If you’re self aware, you can grow, improve, learn, and get better. If you’re not, you usually plateau and end up stuck.
Here’s how Dr. Eurich puts it:
“The reason self awareness is the meta-skill is basically our self-awareness sets the upper limit for so many of the skills that we need to be successful in the world right now. Things like communication skills, influence, emotional intelligence, collaboration. We can only be as good at each of those things as we are self-aware. The other thing I call it sometimes is the secret weapon of the 21st-century. So many people think they’re self-aware, but they actually aren’t. So people that work on it are the ones that really I’ve seen reap the rewards time and time again.” — Dr. Tasha Eurich
Are You Self Aware?
According to Dr. Eurich’s research — 95% of people think they are self aware, but only 10–15% of people actually are.
That’s pretty scary stuff. The even crazier thing is that those who have the least self knowledge are often the least aware of it.
The good news is that research also shows that self awareness is an “infinitely learnable skill” according to Dr. Eurich.
So what happen when you don’t have self awareness?
- You don’t see yourself objectively.
- You don’t understand your own strengths, and much more importantly your own weaknesses.
- You aren’t aware of your own cognitive biases.
- You aren’t aware of the thought patterns and mental addictions that prevent you from achieving what you want.
- Deluding yourself.
- You reject criticism and feedback because you don’t like it
- You reject ideas because you don’t like them.
- You make blame and excuses for your failures instead of taking responsibility for them
- You don’t know your own limiting beliefs.
- You don’t recognize patterns of self sabotage that repeatedly manifest in your life.
Developing Self Awareness
You have to know your own strengths and weaknesses.
Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater, created an incredible book called Principles that teaches the philosophy of how he views the world. Self knowledge and the search for objective truth are the core ideas of his work. For some bonus points you can also view his TED Talk here.
Here’s a sample:
“Let’s imagine that your goal is to have a winning basketball team. Wouldn’t it be silly to put yourself in a position that you don’t play well?If you did, you wouldn’t get what you want. Whatever your goals are, achieving them works the same way. If you see that you are not capable of doing something, it is only sensible for you to have someone else do it. In other words, you should look down at you and all the other resources at your disposal and create a “machine” to achieve your goals, remembering that you don’t necessarily need to do anything other than to design and manage the machine to get what you want.
If you find that you can’t do something well, fire yourself and get a good replacement! You shouldn’t be upset that you found out that you are bad at that — you should be happy because you have improved your chances of getting what you want. If you are disappointed because you can’t be the best person to do everything, you are terribly naïve because nobody can do everything well. The biggest mistake most people make is to not see themselves and others objectively.” — Ray Dalio
Accepting When You Make Mistakes
We’ve heard it from a billionaire, now let’s see what a research psychologist who’s studied tens of thousands of people has to say. Here’s a paraphrased passage from one of my favorite books of all time — Mindset by Carol Dweck.
“Instead of trying to learn from and repair their failures, people with a fixed mindset simply try to repair their self esteem…by assigning blame or making excuses…You can still be in the process of learning from your mistakes until you deny making them.” — Carol Dweck in Mindset
That last line is extremely important. The only way to learn from your mistakes is to actually accept that you made them. To be self aware enough to say “yeah, I screwed up” and to take responsibility for it.
Without self knowledge, you are constantly ignoring feedback from reality. Carol Dweck explains this further in a recent interview.
“If you’re looking to repair your self-esteem, maybe you’re looking for people who did worse, maybe you’re looking to place the blame, maybe you’re looking to deny the failure, in any of those cases, you’re not going to be better off going forward.
Neuroscience research shows that when people are in a fixed mindset, the part of their brain that processes errors is hardly active. They are just turning away from that error as quickly as possible. As a result, they’re not correcting the error at the next opportunity as much as people in a growth mindset.
In a growth mindset, that area of the brain is on fire, it’s just super active, they’re looking at the error, they’re processing it, they’re learning from it and they’re correcting it.” — Carol Dweck
The resounding lesson taught by everyone from Navy Seals to ancient stoic philosophers is clear — take responsibility for your own mistakes — be self aware that you screwed up and own it — that’s the only way to create a learning opportunity.
Tools To Build Self Awareness
So what can you do to improve your self awareness?
Here are a few simple evidence based strategies you can use starting right now.
- Meditate. Yeah, everyone says meditation. That’s because there is a ton of science about how it really does work. One of the first things meditation teaches you is how to be aware of your own thoughts and biases. That’s a key step in the journey of self awareness and self knowledge. This podcast “The Skeptic’s Guide To Meditation” is a great place to start.
- Develop a Growth Mindset. Carol Dweck touched on this earlier — and goes much more in depth in this interview as well as in her book. Developing a growth mindset gives you permission to look at your own mistakes and shortfalls without ego or defensiveness getting in the way. A growth mindset gives you the ability to objectively judge your own abilities. This is a cornerstone of self knowledge.
- Journal. Journalling helps put thoughts on paper, clear up your thinking,develop self awareness, and lets your return later to assess your thought process.
- Read up on rationality and cognitive biases. Check out people like Charlie Munger who speak about mental models and cognitive biases so you can learn to spot them in your own thinking.
- Check out this interview with Dr. Eurich to learn more. She’s an expert in self awareness after all. Listen to that episode, check out some of her work, and learn the strategies she recommends for becoming more self awareness.
So there you go — this is the first step on the journey towards rationality and clear thinking — start developing your self awareness!
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I was recently asked “what one sentence has changed your life?”
This was my answer.
“You cannot learn from a mistake if you deny that you ever made it.” -Dr. Carol Dweck
Pretty simple — most people make excuses, blame others, and do everything they can to refuse to admit that they made a mistake — but the reality is that when you do that, you rob yourself of the ability to learn from that mistake and grow.
This is a huge reason why we have such a hard time even agreeing on what’s objectively true.
That single quote is also one of the biggest things that distinguishes people who achieve their goals and are very successful from those who plateauand can’t figure out why they are stuck.
This is based in hard psychology science from an acclaimed Stanford psychology professor Dr. Carol Dweck.
Here’s what Dr. Dweck said about the robustness of the research in a recent interview:
“We’ve been doing research on the fixed and growth mindset for about 35 years. We have actually, and others have hundreds of studies with people of all ages. For example, in some of the studies, we might measure people’s mindsets about their intelligence, ask them to answer questions like this, agree or disagree. Then we look at say in students, we look at their achievement over time and we have often found that students endorsing that growth mindset, achieve more in terms of grades or test scores or going on to college or graduating from college. Achieve more over time. Recently we did a study with all the 10th graders in Chile, 168,000 students. Those who held more of a growth mindset, achieved substantially more at every level of family income.” — Dr. Carol Dweck on The Science of Success
You See… It’s all about Your MINDSET
The above graphic (which was created originally by Nigel Holmes) summarizes the essential lessons of having a “growth mindset” (which is what Dr. Dweck calls it).
One of the key items here is to understand that when you’re in a “Fixed Mindset” you care about appearances — you care about demonstrating how great you are, showing everyone how smart you are — but you’re secretly terrified to ask a dumb question or look dumb.
OK — but what does that mean — the fixed mindset and the growth mindset?
Dr. Dweck’s recent interview goes much deeper on explaining this topic, but here are a few key lessons and highlights that may help explain the core idea behind Dr. Dweck’s work.
What Exactly Is a Mindset?
“Well, when I say mindset in the sense that it’s used in my book, I mean people’s beliefs about their most basic abilities and talents. When people are in a fixed mindset, they believe their basic abilities, talents, personal attributes, personalities. That these are fixed traits, you have a certain amount, you have a certain type and that’s it.
But, when people are in more of a growth mindset, they believe that, people differ but everyone can develop their talents, abilities and personal qualities.Again, it doesn’t mean everyone’s the same or everyone will go to the same place ultimately.” -Dr. Carol Dweck on The Science of Success
What Does It Feel Like To Be In A Fixed Mindset?
Being in a fixed mindset sucks. I should know, I was incredibly fixed mindset before I read Dr. Dweck’s book.
If you are worried about looking dumb or think that being eager and asking basic questions will somehow hurt you, instead of helping you, you’re probably in a fixed mindset.
Dr. Dweck goes on in this interview to explain the pain of having a fixed mindset in your daily life:
“When you’re in a fixed mindset, you think, for example. My intelligence is just fixed, I have a certain amount, I can’t do anything about it, I really value being intelligent. The goal of my life becomes to look smart at all cost and all situations and never look dumb.
When you’re in that fixed mindset, a voice in your head says, maybe you shouldn’t do this, maybe you’ll mess up here. Hey, do this, people will think you’re really brilliant. When someone else is looking really smart, you feel threatened by that, when you’re working on something hard and maybe struggling a little, you get really anxious, you think, maybe I’m not as good at this as I hoped I was, as I want to be.
When you hit a setback, that’s a calamity, that’s a real condemnation of your natural talent. If you are so talented, would you have had that failure? Would you have plunged into this mistake like that? Will everyone know it? Will you be unmasked, will you be found out finally? The fixed mindset system is kind of this fear based system, kind of fear alternating with arrogance because if you’re going around thinking it’s fixed and you have this arrogance you feel, I’m better than other people who have less of it but if you’re struggling or having setbacks, then you’re feeling really kind of insecure.
But, what we found in our research whether you’re in the arrogant phase or the un arrogant phase, you’re not primarily a learner. You’re not looking always to grow your skills to create teams that will help you develop and so forth. You’re primarily about showing you’re smart.” — Dr. Carol Dweck on The Science of Success
What Does It Feel Like To Live In a Growth Mindset?
Having a positive outlook and a growth mindset can massively transform the way you live your life, think about yourself, deal with setbacks, handle criticism, and much more. Dr. Dweck continues:
“The growth mindset as I mentioned is a place where you believe your abilities can be developed. Again, it doesn’t mean you saying you’re Michael Jordan or Mia Ham or Yoyo Ma but you understand that abilities can be developed through hard work, learning good strategies, pushing out of your comfort zone as often as possible.
Just keep pushing that limit and getting lots of great input and mentoring from others. It’s a place where if you’re not pushing out of your comfort zone, something’s wrong. If you’re just feeling smart but not feeling you’re getting smarter, something’s wrong.
When you get feedback rather than being threatened, you try to learn from it. If you see someone who is really better than you at something you pride yourself on, instead of thinking, maybe they’re the ones with the talent, you think, I wonder how they got there? I wonder what they can teach me? I wonder how I can get as far as they got or maybe even further.
The focus is, not on looking and feeling smart all the time or being perfector beating out the competition for smartness all the time. But, it’s about becoming smarter, growing, learning. Again, pushing out of your comfort zone, using mistakes and setbacks as opportunities to learn. It was a long time before I could really get in to the idea that setbacks were welcomed, setbacks were inevitable because it’s so different from a fixed mindset place.” — Dr. Carol Dweck on The Science of Success.
Want To Learn More About Mindset?
There is a tremendous amount of research, information, and actionable insight from Carol Dweck’s work, and going much deeper is beyond the scope of this article. To that effect, I wanted to provide you with some additional resources to follow up, check out, and absorb if building a growth mindset is something that interests you.
If you want to learn more about developing a growth mindset and implementing the things Dr. Dweck mentions above, you may enjoy checking out the following books, interviews, and podcasts:
- The book Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck
- This interview with Dr. Carol Dweck on Mindset
- Dr. Carol Dweck’s Ted Talk “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve”
Moving into a growth mindset is a critical piece of putting on your rationality oxygen mask. It helps you move ego out of the way and accept things as they are, so that you can move forward and grow.
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What does science say about the best way for you to deal with difficult or negative emotions?
Dealing with negative emotions was a very personal challenge for me and so I set out and tried to find as many experts as I could to interview on that subject.
In fact, negative emotions are a topic I cover a ton on The Science of Success and something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and working on personally.
These are the core lessons I learned from talking to them.
What Do Negative Emotions Mean?
Let’s start with two core ideas about emotions and what they mean.
(1) Emotions are unavoidable.
You cannot avoid experiencing negative emotions — and by trying to or by pushing them down, ignoring them, and distracting yourself — you are actually causing these emotions to intensify and become greater. Trying to avoid experiencing negative emotions, paradoxically, makes you experience them more frequently and with more intensity.
Tal Ben Shahar — who taught the most popular class in Harvard’s history which was on Happiness — famously says that only two types of people never experience negative emotions — psychopaths and dead people. He has also shared a number of paradoxical strategies to embrace and accept negative emotions and improve your happiness.
Emotional perfectionism — or the idea that you should always be in positive emotional states — can cause some serious problems — and worsen the experience of going through negative emotions. Cultivating self compassion and a more realistic perspective that negative emotions are inevitable and natural helps tremendously (more on Emotional Perfectionism and Self Compassion in minute).
Your emotions are messengers trying to send you information. The sooner you accept that and listen to what they are saying, the better off you will be.
(2) Emotions are data, not direction.
Negative emotions provide you with meaningful and relevant information that you can use to make decisions, prioritize, and understand that something is going on in your life. Listen to that message. But also know that emotions aren’t necessary correct or right — they don’t mean you have to go in that particular direction, but they are providing you with incredibly useful information that you should listen to and incorporate into your behavior.
In fact, when you look at high stakes performers like stock traders and professional poker players — they don’t try to remove emotion from the equation — they leverage their emotions to improve their decision-making process.
Two Reasons To Handle Your Emotions
It seems to me that there are two obvious reasons you want to better handle your emotions:
- Peace of Mind
Here are the key strategies for doing each of those (and there is a lot of overlap between these strategies as well).
Mastering Your Emotions For Peak Performance
I would suggest studying someone like Josh Waitzkin — a multi-time national chess champion who then became a multi-time world champion martial artist. This guy knows what it takes to master both mind and body at the highest levels of global competition, and he wrote an amazing book about it called The Art of Learning.
Here’s an awesome quote from The Art of Learning that gets at the core of how you can work to master your mind and emotions:
“My whole life I have worked on this issue. Mental resilience is arguably the most critical trait of a world-class performer, and it should be nurtured continuously. Left to my own devices, I am always looking for ways to become more and more psychologically impregnable. When uncomfortable, my instinct is not to avoid the discomfort but to become at peace with it.” -Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
You can practice the ability to embrace discomfort in, as Josh puts it later on in that passage, “the little moments of our lives.” It’s all about expanding your sphere of discomfort day by day and getting past what makes you uncomfortable.
Mastering Your Emotions For Peace Of Mind
Now — lets look at the two primary tools for mastering your emotions to create peace of mind.
The first is meditation. Meditation is proven again and again in the science to be one of the most effective paths of dealing with anxiety, stress, and negative emotions.
In a recent interview I did with Dr. Rick Hanson, author of the book Buddha’s Brain, which is about the neuroscience behind meditation, he shares a number of insights into how meditation helps deal with stress and anxiety.
The second strategy for mastering your emotions is self compassion. This helps combat emotional perfectionism and build an understanding that it’s OK to experience negative emotions.
The Importance of Self Compassion
Self compassion is at the root of taking better care of yourself both mentally and emotionally. We often reserve the most brutal and severe self talk for ourselves — we say things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to a close friend facing the same challenge, and we expect things of ourselves that we would never expect of anyone else.
Self-compassion is not woo-woo or soft — its very much grounded in psychology research. For example, Dr. Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist and author, discusses self compassion at length in this interviewincluding the below statement:
“The idea of being self-compassionate can seem very woo-woo and very soft.People might think, for example, that being self-compassionate is about being lazy or it’s about being weak or it’s about going easy on yourself. In fact, the research shows the opposite. The research shows that when people create a self-forgiving and safe psychological space within themselves, that those individuals tend to be more experimental, more able to take risks and to take chances, because they recognize that if they fail, that they still save their self-face. That individuals who are self-compassionate tend to be less weak, less lazy and, in fact, more honest with themselves and are able to get through setbacksand transitions more effectively.” Dr. Susan David
Dr. Susan David goes on in that interview to discuss specific strategies for implementing self compassion in your life, beyond just the intellectual acknowledgement that it’s important, including the following passage:
“Recognize how you might speak to yourself, because, of course, we all speak to ourselves. We all have inner dialogue. Some studies show that we have something like 16,000 spoken thoughts every single day and many, many, many, thousands more course through our minds. So many of these thoughts are about ourselves. We will have a dialogue with ourselves where we will say, “You’re such an idiot,” or, “You’re being a fraud,” or, “You are not cut out for this.” A lot of our language is lacking in self-compassion, where we would not use that language with people who we truly love and yet we use it with ourselves. A first aspect of cultivating self-compassion is simply become aware. Simply start noticing the language that you use to actually attack yourself, and that’s really critical.
A second part of creating this felt experience of self-compassion, there are many different ways, but one of the ways that’s frequently very powerful is when you’re going through a setback or a difficulty and you’re starting to be really hard on yourself, is to imagine yourself as a very young child running to yourself as, you, the adult and saying, “Oh my goodness! This happened to me today,” and imagine in yourself how you would treat that very young child, that three or four year old who’s failed at something, who’s done wrong at something and to imagine the kind of love that that child actually needs and the experience that that child actually needs of someone reaching out and giving a hug. That can be really powerful.” — Dr. Susan David
One of the biggest things working against self compassion is emotional perfectionism. This is the mistaken belief that you need to be in a positive emotional state all the time and can actually worsen your subjective experience resulting in behavior like “getting anxious about being anxious” or “being angry about being angry” etc.
One of the most profound and personally impactful conversations I’ve ever had about smashing emotional perfectionism was this discussion with Megan Bruneau. We discuss how perfectionism creates an illusion of control and distorts your reality, how to become aware of the critical inner voice at the root of your pain and unhealthy habits, the incredible power of self compassion, and much more.
Cultivating Self Compassion & Mindfulness
Dr. Ronald Siegel, another psychologist with Harvard Medical School, he discusses proven strategies for cultivating mindfulness and self compassion (one of the cornerstones of which is meditation). He share this insight:
“When we are hurting, when we notice that we’ve had a disappointment, we’ve had a failure, something hasn’t turned out well, which [it] inevitably will. Inevitably, we’ll have these moment of defeat, that we can just be nice to ourselves and give ourselves a hug, feel the feeling of vulnerability, feel the feeling of failure, and trust that that’s okay too, that it’s just part of the cycle and we don’t have to identify with that or believe in it. Because as it turns out, none of us are so great and none of us are so terrible.” Dr. Ronald Siegel
Meditation, along with loving kindness practices, can be powerful tools for cultivating and building self compassion. So if you want to take better care of yourself mentally and emotionally, start with the simple act of being more loving and compassionate to yourself.
One More Tool… Emotional Intelligence
One last tool is building the skill of Emotional Intelligence.
Emotional Intelligence is at the cornerstone of managing both your own emotions and understanding what’s going, emotionally, with others. Dr. Daniel Goleman is credited with popularizing and sharing the concept. In this interview titled “How To Master Emotional Intelligence & Why Your IQ Won’t Make You Successful” Dr. Goleman discusses a number of critical ideas including the four pillars of emotional intelligence, how to development emotional intelligence and how to cultivate emotional self control.
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