“It’d be nice to be locked in a prison cell,” I thought.
I sat in my condo in Boulder, Colorado, facing a television set. Tuned to some blaring nonsense. Papers were strewn about my floor. Outside chirped a world full of distractions.
I was pondering productivity. Going deep – mastering something.
“If I were locked in a prison cell, I’d have nothing to do but focus on just a couple simple tasks. Writing. Meditating. No distractions or obligations to interfere with my progress.”
This was a bullshit assumption for a couple reasons (both obvious and not-so-obvious ones) which I’ll cover in a moment. But there was also a grain of truth.
The most pervasive bullshit often has some wisdom mixed in. That’s how it survives and reproduces.
A couple years after thinking this, I called my cable company and switched off my service. Then I donated my television set to Goodwill. After two days of withdrawal, I noticed how much calmer I felt. I stopped compulsively checking to see if it were 7PM, or 8PM, or whatever time my favorite shows were on – a habit which took a while to subside.
I used my freed-up time to meditate. And write.
I never went out because I was too broke and shy. For several years, I didn’t see a single movie. No travelling except sometimes for Thanksgiving. All savings went towards business.
This was when I discovered a prison cell isn’t a panacea. Prison sucks because you can’t leave. It’s dangerous. And it’s not a meal ticket to productivity.
Because you can eliminate all your distractions and still steer clear of what you want to accomplish.
Think of it like a piece of paper for a writer or a canvas for an artist. If it’s already filled with writing or drawings, it’s useless for creating something new. But a blank page, or canvas, can be just as useless if you’re intimidated by it.
An inspired writer with fortitude can compose a novel during lunchbreaks. Or transform a line at the bank into a writing nook. A devoted artist can make a napkin worthy of framing.
But wannabes who’ve freed up all the time in the world, and eliminated distractions by going on a retreat? They can still fail to create. Just like someone can waste away in a prison cell, even with all the time in the world to practice mindfulness and meditation.
They’re both shackled.
If you can free yourself – and you’re on your own, there – then time restrictions or clutter are mere trifles.
With that in mind, here are three ways to deal with them:
Before you do, list out all the positives and negatives of this action. On the positive side, you’re eliminating an expense and saving money as a result, you’re eliminating a source of disheartening and fear-inducing misinformation, you’re deleting a major distraction to more fulfilling activities, and you’re creating a more peaceful environment in your home. On the negative side, you’re… uh… well maybe you can think of some negatives.
I know it’s fun to read about sports or politics or gossip or whatever you humans enjoy. Arguing about them is even better. It triggers pleasurable brain chemicals in just the right way to keep you addicted. If you’re okay with being an addict, have at it. Otherwise, go clean and reap the benefits.
There’s rarely a need for some self-important “I’m only checking email once per day” message. Just check it only once per day. Observe how nobody cares.
Take a moment to consider how much of your daily time is eaten up by a cycle of checking your email… your social media pages… reading about politics and current events… arguing about politics and current events on said social media pages… and checking email and starting the cycle all over again. While your television is blaring in the background.
Actually, instead of just taking a moment to consider this, measure it in real-time. Write down how many hours (I bet it’s hours) you devote to this cycle. Then write down the benefits of engaging in this daily cycle.
Is this how you want to spend your life?
In the past, I meditated for 3-4 hours per day. Right now, I’ve cut back to just 1 hour. For now. I also write. Both marketing and a journal and various personal-development notes and this blog and correspondence and plans for my business. And research. And work with clients. And exercise every day. And read. And travel. And, more recently, go on dates. And I’ve got plenty of free time to relax.
Not having a spouse or children helps. So much so, that I’d feel funny preaching productivity tips to those raising a family, without acknowledging that damaging admission. So there you go. Still, if you have a family to take care of, then consider whether television, websites, or your emails are more important than cherishing time with them.
When you say, “I don’t have time” make sure you’ve already thrown your television in the garbage, stopped visiting useless websites, and check email only once per day. But that excuse will be dead to you anyway. Because you’ll be too busy experiencing the richness of life, for you to devote any energy to bullshit excuses like “I don’t have time.”
*Bonus tip: In the past, I’ve read articles like this and then stewed about how they didn’t apply to me because I had [insert seemingly special reason here].” I wonder how much time I wasted with those complaints?
Back in 2009, I remember driving from Boulder, CO to my relatives in Massachusetts for Thanksgiving. Past endless corn fields, elegant New York woods, and plenty gas stations in between.
I was broke and scared
Both the conscious and subconscious parts of my brain were wired for fear and panic. Creatively, I was completely shut down and pervasively ruled by my ego. This ego was so adept that I had no idea it was in control.
As I rolled across the country, I played the audiobook Think And Grow Rich in my Nissan Altima’s CD player.
Over and over again, I’d listen to self-development audios like this, and read the usual books. Sometimes they’d jazz me up. Sometimes not… but I always felt like it was a good habit. Something that, whether I felt was immediately useful or not, it’d nourish my future.
I fell into a trap millions of desperate people are caught in. Years later, I still couldn’t quite put my finger on it… and I’m still trying to suss it out.
As I began to truly crawl out of the financial hole I’d dug myself into, books like Think And Grow Rich loosened their grasp on me. I began to wake up and realize, “Hey wait a minute, this stuff isn’t the end-all, be-all, and merely listening to it does NOT help… and, come to think of it, taking action on it doesn’t help either. Wait, what action do these books even recommend taking?”
This was when the veil began to drop.
“Well, wait a minute,” I said to myself, “Maybe the reason you feel this way, is because you graduated from these books, and you internalized their lessons.”
I’ll play nice for a moment, and argue as if that’s true.
Fine. Then why does there exist a culture that obsesses over self-help and positive-thinking books touting how to make millions, treating these materials like endless companions? Aren’t they just one little stepping stone, something to quickly hop over before you really get to work? (And if you used them with success as a stepping stone – that’s wonderful – and I’d wager the success had everything to do with you, and little to do with the book.)
More to the point…
Don’t these people realize that by immersing themselves in such material, they’re preventing themselves from growing into and beyond it?
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you want to master the game of tennis.
So you pick up a couple books on the mindset of tennis. Aha! Because that’s where the real key is. You spend time every day reading about overcoming fear of tennis… how you’re secretly self-sabotaging your tennis efforts… and how it’s important to develop the success habit of playing tennis.
Whenever you’re feeling down, you grab your trusty tennis books, and the mere act of reading triggers pleasure hormones to gush through your brain. Ah, much better! You’re back on track.
You seek out other books on tennis and devour them. You build – with pride – a whole library of tennis books.
Perhaps you even attend seminars on the inner game of tennis. They claim they’re going into more depth than the cheaper books. Good – it’s always beneficial to attend seminars proclaiming to go in-depth into things.
You worship the presenters at these seminars and the authors of these books. Not in a crazy sort of way, of course. You just know – deep in your soul – that following their teachings is the way to success. The only way. So, to stray outside of them is stupid. Insane. And anyone who doesn’t follow their teachings is stupid and destined for some cataclysmic failure that you can’t quite identify but you’re sure will befall them.
Meanwhile… completely outside your awareness… your next-door neighbor has taken a different approach
He also developed an interest in tennis.
So he grabbed a racket, and joined a club. He devoted hours to playing. Working with coaches, teammates, and entering competitions. Always making little tweaks here and there. Sometimes suffering humiliating losses. Far more than you’d think. Then, eventually… growing and competing at higher levels.
You never meet your neighbor. For one reason or another (perhaps relating to your methods of learning and growth), you just never enter the same social circles. But – outside your awareness – he’s actually got a couple acquaintances in common with you.
He knows the authors of the books on tennis you worship. In fact, he’s been approached by them to do interviews and speak at events. But he turns them down. He thinks the whole industry is a little silly. He’d say something like, “I mean… it’s pretty simple. You practice. You find people who can help. You play with those at your skillset. And you help others who aren’t as far along the learning curve. Then it’s just a matter of how obsessed you can be while remaining open to improvement. You have to customize your own lessons based on your self-awareness.”
The authors and presenters plead with your friend to teach this wisdom. “That’s great stuff! Yes, please come share at our events how important it is to take action on what we sell!”
“But…” he replies, “I don’t think that’s the real problem…
“I don’t know if the issue’s the kind of customer you attract or the culture you create. Maybe it’s both. But, somehow, you keep people stuck. Your entire paradigm of learning is actually non-learning. You’re actively preventing mental growth while verbally affirming mental growth is necessary, and getting your audience to nod along with you. Maybe they never have a chance to succeed at what they want so desperately, but you sure as heck aren’t their key, even if they do have a chance.”
For a while, as I turned this idea of self-help books being bullshit over in my mind, this was all I could come up with. Something was missing. Probably more than one thing. I know there’s more wrong with this paradigm.
Another piece of the puzzle fell into place when I stood inside an old building in Baltimore, on the phone with a man who teaches businesses how to grow, and sometimes invests in the companies.
He explained to me how he wanted to advertise people who wanted to start businesses, and deliver them training online.
It’d been seven years since my cross-country trip where I bathed in the soothing self-help affirmation, and after actually accomplishing what those books preach… I’d developed a more skeptical mind.
“I’ve seen businesses in the ‘make money’ niche establish themselves online. And from what I’ve seen, they attract a customer who isn’t really capable of building a business. The marketing itself acts as a filter, only attracting the wrong type of customer. That’s my perspective, but I’d like to hear yours.”
He understood my concern
He replied with a few good points. One of them became another piece of the puzzle for me:
He doesn’t teach how to make money, or even emphasize that aspect. Instead, his focus is on teaching how to build and grow a business.
If an advertisement (or a culture, or a paradigm, etc.) emphasizes making money or getting rich… who is attracted? Those who feel the most frustration surrounding money, and are most desperate for it. Most of these people are not ready to actually create and build a business. They’re still too bogged down in psychological pain surrounding money, commerce, and selling.
But what if an advertisement emphasizes building a business?
Who is attracted? Those who have already gotten over their frustration surrounding money. Or are at least in the process. They are ready to create a business, because they understand it’s the next logical action-step. They’re over their inner pain. Or perhaps they never felt it. And as far as riches are concerned… it’s automatically implied that building a business will generate income. To emphasize that point would be ridiculous… crass… laughably-obvious… and perhaps even a creepy signal that someone hasn’t reached the necessary level of psychological development required for building a business. I wonder if there’s a single word for what I’m trying to get across?
Whatever it is, that word would be kryptonite for anyone in the bullshit self-help space.
Another piece of this puzzle fell into place when I read the Albert Einstein quote:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”
A book about some law of attraction, or explaining how to set goals, keeps you stuck at the same level as your problem. Most of the time, the author is stuck at the same level. Or they’re a sociopath who understands they can make the most money – within the limits of their skillsets, ethics, and behaviors – by keeping you stuck at that same level. And never telling you to put down the book.
Close to midnight. Thursday, October 12, 2017. Feeling melancholy.
I sat on the light rail at Denver International Airport, headed downtown. Finally coming home after almost a month of straight travel.
… and back.
On the flight from Cabo to the layover in LA, I talked with a nice woman on her way home to Vancouver. She was reading a book by Ray Kurzweil. We talked travel, introversion, career…
One of the first things I asked her was “Any suggestions where I should move?”
“Well… who are you?”
“Hmmm… I’m a marketing-obsessed, capitalist pig who’s into health and meditation.”
“Ha! … New York?”
After landing, we navigated the international check-in.
“How close is Vancouver to Seattle?” I asked her.
We almost made it to the gates. Then I saw the TSA-pre line. Time for us to part ways.
“I’m sure we’ll run into each other on the other side,” I said.
We never saw each other again. It would have been nice to say goodbye.
A couple hours later, I sat on the light rail as it rested on the track, reading an article on my phone, waiting to go home. A kind-looking man sat down next to me, and asked a couple questions. I nodded.
He kept asking about the light rail, and making comments. I could tell he wanted to talk.
Years ago, I would have kept to myself and hoped the person would get a hint. More recently, I’d still keep to myself, but always with a vibe of love and respect. Even more recently, I changed again:
“Nate, I know you can be perfectly content sitting in silence, but this guy sat next to you for a reason. Listen to him. Whether you hear something amazing or you simply lend someone your ear, it’ll be worth it.”
I asked him if he had visited Colorado before, and listened.
He told me a story of perseverance. Near the end I took notes.
“By the time I got to the Denver Mint, tickets were completely gone…”
The man was visiting from Texas, just 10 miles from the Mexico border. He wanted to tour the Denver Mint… and wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
When he found out tickets were gone, he moseyed into the gift shop. And asked about tickets.
“I knew they’d say no.”
They did. So he asked where people with tickets were supposed to wait. They told him… and affirmed he couldn’t get in.
So he set himself up where all the ticket-holders were, and began asking everyone in line if they had an extra ticket. Nope.
“I did the same thing at a Paul McCartney concert in Scotland. I managed to get tickets for me and three friends.”
Finally, he spoke to a manager. He explained why he couldn’t get there early enough to get a ticket that morning, and asked if he could get in if someone didn’t show up.
The manager said everyone was there.
He said he noticed someone didn’t show up. He had no idea if this were actually true. They let him in.
“I told them a story. I was very nice. They turned away a dozen people before me. But they let me in.”
He got to see the Denver Mint.
For the rest of the light rail ride, we talked about travel, commuting, crime, empty buildings in China. Then we arrived at Union Station. Before parting ways, I properly introduced myself to him.
Then I walked home.
By this time, it was Friday, close to 1AM, October 13th, 2017. I meandered across the quiet city of Denver, thinking about the man on the light rail. Thinking about the woman on the flight from Cabo. And wondering where I’d call home in a few months.
On Sunday evening, I sat at a 334-year-old restaurant in Cabo, hoping I wouldn’t throw up my meal.
Not because I worried about the food. Instead, it was because I’d puked earlier in the day. Right when I was supposed to be doing a consultation for my business.
It happened about five minutes after I was escorted to a private conference room, to meet a new mentor. We didn’t know each other. The woman showing us the way asked me, “Are you okay?”
We cancelled the meeting… and I stumbled into the bathroom
That night, I sat next to the same person I’d cancelled on earlier. Things were going much better.
We talked about advertising on the internet. He said, “I don’t use Facebook at all. I got sick of trying to make health offers work and getting banned. You get tired of pulling your hair out and crying. I’m serious.”
Later in the evening, the man sitting on my other side introduced himself to everyone. He mentioned he advertises online using only Facebook.
So I sat there between two guys, who both found success using opposite approaches.
This was going to be fun.
The man on my right said to the man on my left, “I admire you. You stuck with it and make Facebook work. I just gave up!”
The man on my left said to the man on my right, “No I was just stupid enough to stick it out. You made the right choice to find something better.”
Who was right?
Was anyone wrong?
It reminded me of a question on a Facebook Live interview the night before. Someone asked me: “I criticize myself harshly and I’m dealing with a lot of fear as I try to start my own business. What should I do?”
My answer, paraphrased below:
“Well, keep in mind that it might not be fear. Sometimes we have powerful gut feelings, which are pointing the right way for us to go, or pointing out the wrong path to take. But we mistake them as fear because we’re dead-set on doing one certain thing, even if it’s a mistake. Start paying attention to the difference between a gut feeling and a genuine fear. You’ll know the difference because you can plow through fear very quickly. You can evaporate fear in five seconds, with movement. But gut feelings will stick with you longer. And I can tell you can make this distinction because you mention criticizing yourself. Actually, being able to step back and analyze your actions is a wonderful gift, and it shows some self-awareness. It’s only a problem when it becomes too harsh and irrational.”
What’s the right choice?
Give up? Or keep doing something that scares you and brings you pain?
Don’t pay attention to fear. Plow through it.
Listen to your gut. Do what it says.
And learn to tell the difference.
Both guys sitting at that dinner table made the right choice. I’m sure each of them had a gut-check moment. One realized he needed a different platform for building his business. The other realized he needed to stick it out. I was honored to hear both talk about how they did it.
I kept the meal down. Even the scoops of vanilla ice cream I had right at the end.
And today I hope to get another chance at that consultation. Just to be safe, I’ll skip breakfast.