You Don’t Really Know What You’re Capable Of

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

This week, I’ll be celebrating four years of sobriety, so I’ve been doing some reflection about how much I’ve changed and what lessons that story might have for you.

Let’s flash back in time a little more than four years ago.

For a long time, I had wished I could change. I was depressed, in part because my way of life had been taken away from me by injuries, and in part because I was self-medicating with marijuana. I hated myself for being an addict, but I felt completely incapable of choosing sobriety. I tried – and failed – to quit many times.

I knew I wasn’t living up to my potential, so I was perpetually disappointed in myself. I convinced myself that I was lazy, and then proceeded to prove myself right by acting lazy. I was disorganized. I was a procrastinator. I wasted lots of time on television, video games, and social media. I looked at people who were working 60 hours per week and felt certain that I could never match their work ethic.

Then one day, something changed. Something in my brain snapped. I decided I was done. I got rid of my pot and resolved to never use drugs again. Something I had felt was impossible had happened: I had become 100% committed to be clean and sober for the rest of my life.

And it was so much easier than I’d imagined. Even when I resolved to quit, I was sure that sobriety would be difficult and miserable for a long time before it got better. That “long time” turned out to be two weeks. Very quickly, sobriety became routine. And shortly thereafter, my depression faded away.

So here’s one lesson to take away from my experience, and one that is backed up by psychological research: We’re terrible at predicting our future emotions.1

Now let’s flash forward two years from that time.

I was by then fully settled into my new identity as someone who didn’t drink or use other drugs. My work ethic had surpassed anything I had ever imagined I was capable of. I was working 60 hours per week, and I was teaching a weekly class on mental health, and I was launching this business. My injuries were getting better because I was going to three medical appointments per week, and I was doing about seven hours of physical therapy at home each week. I had an established morning routine that included daily exercise, wisdom, and meditation.

The big lesson here is that I had no idea I was capable of all that. In fact, I had spent years being sure that I wasn’t. And I was wrong.

You have to take the plunge.

“You never know how strong you are until being strong is your only choice.” –Bob Marley

What are you sure you’re not capable of? And what if you’re wrong?

It might just be that you have a great deal of mental strength that simply isn’t revealing itself because it doesn’t have to. Until you put yourself on the line and really go for it, you won’t find out what you’re truly capable of. The only way to discover and unleash your incredible human potential is to risk failure. You have to take the plunge.

And whatever the challenge is, whatever change you need to make, approach it with realistic optimism. Expect it to be hard. It will be hard. But also expect that it will get easier over time. Your future selves have the potential to be much, much stronger than your current self – probably far stronger than you can imagine.

So if you’re thinking that something, some change, is impossible for you, consider that you might be wrong because you don’t really know what you’re capable of.

1 Gilbert, Daniel. Stumbling on Happiness. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

 

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Posted by Chris Loper in Behavioral Change

The Power of Unconventional Priorities

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

There’s a story from Jim Afremow’s The Champion’s Mind that I’d like to share, as related by Anson Dorrance, who is the women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina:

“He was driving to work early one morning, and as he passed a deserted field, he noticed one of his players off in the distance doing extra training by herself. He kept driving, but he later left a note in her locker: ‘The vision of a champion is someone who is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion when no one else is watching.’ The young woman, Mia Hamm, would go on to become one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.”1

I’d also like you to consider bestselling author Cal Newport. In addition to writing incredibly insightful books like So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work, Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University. In other words, he’s a very busy guy. How does he do it all? Surely part of the answer is that he doesn’t have social media.2

Lastly, let’s look at the story of my own brother, Nick Loper. Fresh out of college and working a well-paying job for Ford, Nick opted to spend his nights and weekends building an online shoe business. Eventually, this became the launching pad for his online entrepreneurial empire: Side Hustle Nation.

So what do these three examples have in common?

Last week, Seth Godin offered an answer:

“Remarkable work is usually accomplished by people who have non-typical priorities.”3

While her teammates were prioritizing comfort and sleep, Mia Hamm prioritized becoming a better soccer player.

While most people prioritize keeping up with the newsfeeds from Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Cal Newport prioritizes doing “deep work” – the sort of mental labor that leads to innovative ideas and completed manuscripts.2

And while most people in his position would have prioritized relaxing or having fun after work, my brother decided to prioritize earning his freedom.

Conventional priorities are reflected by conventional behaviors: television, junk food, scrolling through newsfeeds, alcohol, keeping up with the Joneses. These may be the norm, but they won’t help you get where you want to go.

Reflection

What Godin and others have noted is that ‘not having enough time’ to do something is almost always code for ‘not making it a priority.’ And if we’d like to accomplish something remarkable, we’d be wise to examine our priorities. Here are some questions you might ask yourself:

What do my choices say about my priorities? How much time am I really spending on the things that matter most? And how much time am I spending on things that aren’t really important to me?

What am I doing to move forward on the things I care most about? Am I aiming for the intersections of the Ikigai diagram? Am I doing my shoulds before my have-to’s?

What does my calendar say about my priorities? Paraphrasing from Brendan Burchard’s High Performance Habits, Nick Loper notes that “If you can’t discern from your weekly or monthly calendar what major moves you’re working toward, you’re not optimizing your time.”4

What does the layout of my home environment say about my priorities? Are books, musical instruments, art supplies, or athletic equipment taking up prime real estate? Or is a big, flat-screen TV the centerpiece of my home? Am I using the surprising power of 20 seconds to make what I care about easier to do?

And if I truly believe that something is important, but I’m not doing it, what’s getting in the way? Am I afraid of being weird? Am I letting the short-term, seemingly urgent things take priority over the long-term things that actually matter?5

Distractions

One of the most insidious things that gets in the way is distractions, and the modern world has no shortage of them. If you allow distractions to permeate your life, you’re sending a clear signal to your brain that you don’t really care all that much about the important work you’re struggling to do.

And the pace at which these distractions are offered is astounding. How many TV shows are there for you to binge? How many social media platforms with endless newsfeeds to scroll through? How many sensational news stories come out each day? How many movies came out this year? How many new video games? How many new styles of junk food came out this year (available for a limited time only!) Did you try them all?! You can never hope to keep up, but, if you’re like most modern people, you’ve experienced some anxiety about everything that you’re missing out on.

However, as Brian Johnson recently pointed out, the fear of missing out (FOMO) can be replaced the joy of missing out (JOMO).6 If you know that skipping all those “normal” but unhealthy options allows you to do meaningful work, then you get to feel happy about not participating. Let’s embrace JOMO as we remember this:

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” –Krishnamurti

The simplest way to avoid a huge chunk of these distractions is to spend more of your time in airplane mode. That way, you’ll at least have to choose to engage with them rather than being bombarded by distractions at all hours. If you find it hard to let go of the desire to ‘stay on top of everything’ – the news, social media posts, the latest episodes of popular shows – then consider that getting to the bottom of things is actually a better priority. This doesn’t have to mean skipping out on those things entirely; it just means that you don’t start there, and you choose to do your important work first.

My Unconventional Priorities

At the foundation of my personal program of becoming better is an unconventional priority that I wish more people would adopt: brain health. I’ve come to understand that my brain is my #1 asset, so taking good care of it is among my highest priorities. This is why I don’t drink alcohol or use other drugs. This is why I avoid sugar. This is why I start every day with a self-care routine that includes exercise, wisdom, and meditation.

I also try to prioritize my future well-being over my present enjoyment. For example, instead of choosing entertainment, I often choose self-education in order to accumulate career capital. This isn’t easy to do because virtually everything about our instant-gratification culture encourages us to prioritize how we feel in the here and now. But if we want to accomplish anything great, we’ll need to put our current desires aside and do the work we don’t feel like doing. You might find it helpful to remember that your future selves are many, while your current self is just one.

I make time for creative projects, such as Ngaej.com, that don’t have a guaranteed payoff but which might produce huge results. If my priority was a sure thing, I would just put in more hours at work, but it’s not, so I take the risk. People who start businesses and write books take the same sort of risk.

So what do you want more?

Choosing between the conventional and the unconventional really comes down to choosing between what is easy and what is hard. Do you want the pleasure and comfort of doing what most people do? Or do you want the extraordinary results that can only come from choosing the road less traveled?

 

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Works Cited

1 Afremo, Jim. The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train, and Thrive. Rodale Books, 2015.

2 Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

3 Godin, Seth. “Time and money.” Seth’s Blog. March 7, 2019. https://seths.blog/2019/03/time-and-money/

4 Loper, Nick. “My 5 Favorite Books of the Year and My Top Takeaways from Each.” Side Hustle Nation. February 14th, 2019. https://www.sidehustlenation.com/favorite-books-of-the-year/

5 Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Fireside, 1990.

6 Johnson, Brian. “JOMO vs. FOMO.” Optimize +1. https://www.optimize.me/plus-one/jomo-vs-fomo/

Posted by Chris Loper in Purpose

Two Quick Reminders About Confidence

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes

Exploring Twyla Tharp’s book, The Creative Habit, I came across this gem:

“Confidence is a trait that has to be earned honestly and refreshed constantly; you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them. This means vigilant practice and excellent practice habits.” –Twyla Tharp1

While you can pretend to be confident, false-confidence won’t get you very far. What really works – what we all want – is true confidence, and true confidence can’t be faked. When she says that it has to be “earned honestly,” she’s hinting at the notion that true confidence is self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is your belief in your own ability to handle life’s challenges. It is the reality-based belief that you are an effective person, resilient person. And the recipe for increasing your self-efficacy is simple: Acquire knowledge, skills, and experience. Such things are, of course, pragmatically useful. But they also stack up in the mind as evidence of your effectiveness, and that is what creates true confidence.

The second reminder Tharp offers is that the skills, knowledge, and experiences that lead to self-efficacy have to be “refreshed constantly,” or they’ll slip away.

When she notes that “you have to work as hard to protect your skills as you did to develop them,” Tharp is highlighting the neuroscience principle of “use it or lose it.” In short, this means that knowledge you don’t use will be quickly forgotten, and skills you don’t practice will be quickly lost.

So, having honestly earned true confidence, you must then maintain it through regular practice.

1 Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. Simon & Schuster, 2005.

 

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Posted by Chris Loper in Foundations

Learning Deeply and Broadly

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Creativity, especially in the professional realm, is a common goal for people working on becoming better, and for good reason. Innovation is a way to bring more value to the table at work; it’s a way to create value where there was none. This can lead to financial benefits or simply the satisfaction of contributing something new and important.

We know from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research that serious, professional or academic creativity requires expertise. Beginners don’t come up with groundbreaking innovations; experts do.1 But the same research also showed that the most creative people are those whose knowledge extends beyond the confines of their chosen domain.1 Interdisciplinary studies lead to a cross-pollination of ideas:2 knowledge from outside a domain often helps experts within the domain solve difficult problems.1

So if you want to be more innovative, you should pursue both types of knowledge. You should learn deeply within your domain, and you should learn broadly outside of your domain. That way, you’ll cultivate expertise while simultaneously accumulating a large bank of varied ideas to draw upon for inspiration. In other words, if you want to be more creative, practice relentless learning that is both related and unrelated to your profession.

Learning Deeply

My chosen domain is self-development, and my approach is to find practical applications for time-tested wisdom and modern psychology. Every day, I read, watch, or listen to something that deepens my understanding of the human condition. I take this learning seriously. I take notes. I run little experiments to see what works. And once in a while, ideas I’m learning today combine with ideas I learned in the past, resulting in a creative insight.

Here’s an example:

Years ago I learned about the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which is a version of life/career advice similar to “follow your passion” or “find your calling.” Although I found it compelling, I didn’t fully buy into the Ikigai philosophy, but I did store it in my memory and my notes. Later, I read Cal Newport’s career advice in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, which argues for developing your passion through hard work rather than simply discovering it. Then I reflected on my own experience and combined these ideas into this synthesis, which is more useful than either of those concepts in isolation.

Learning Broadly

I also study a smattering of subjects that, at least on the surface, have nothing to do with self-improvement, such as biology, history, and physics. One reason I do this is simply because I enjoy it – these subjects are interesting to me. I also do it to strengthen my brain muscles. In particular, learning broadly exercises my curiosity, which is essential for both creativity and mindfulness.

But from the standpoint of professional innovation, learning broadly outside of my domain provides my mind with a huge bank of ideas to draw upon for combinatorial creativity. Seemingly random information from unrelated academic domains will occasionally combine with knowledge from the deep learning I’ve done within my domain, leading to insights that would have been impossible had I confined my learning exclusively to self-development.

Here’s an example:

My studies of history and biology taught me the explanatory power of feedback loops. This, in turn, combined with my knowledge of self-perception theory (a psychology concept), leading to a new understanding of the dynamic interplay between thoughts, emotions, and actions. This synthesis is now at the core of my approach to behavioral change and mental health.

Make Both a Habit

Learning deeply and learning broadly are both included in my morning routine. I study self-development and get my daily dose of wisdom right before meditating; then I study other things while eating breakfast.

Yesterday, for example, I listened to this episode of Hidden Brain while riding my exercise bike. Then I watched three quick Optimize +1’s while drinking a cup of coffee. Then I did my meditations (loving-kindness and breathing). Finally, I ate breakfast while learning about Azerbaijan and Bearded Dragon lizards.

Patience

None of the things I learned yesterday resulted in immediate innovations. This is normal. Creativity is unpredictable. But I am sure that deepening my expertise and broadening my knowledge base increased the likelihood of future insights. This type of learning isn’t about immediate pay-off; it’s a long-term commitment.

So, what about you? Do you want to be more creative? If so, commit to learning both deeply and broadly. Become an expert in your field and maintain a wide-ranging curiosity that fills your mind with ingredients for innovation.

 

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This curated list includes recommended books and book summaries, essential blogs and excellent articles, helpful videos and talks, and free online courses, sorted for your convenience into these categories: Mental Health & Happiness, Purpose, Mindfulness & Meditation, Social Skills, Behavioral Change, Productivity, Creativity, Entrepreneurship, Effective Learning, and Brain Exercise & Curiosity.

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Works Cited

1 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial, 1997.

2 Ridley, Matthew. “When ideas have sex.” TEDGlobal 2010. https://www.ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex?language=en

Posted by Chris Loper in Foundations