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What I’ve learned from billionaires

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Subtitle: Self-reliability is a super power

Bite the Bullets

  • Self-reliability is a trait I’ve observed in the most successful people I’ve met. It’s defined by taking aggressive responsibility
  • Many people, especially in my generation of millennials, look around for the adult in the room
  • You can gain a lot by stepping up and seeing yourself as this adult
  • You can gain even more by taking stock of your life, understanding yourself, and acting on that understanding (explained below)
  • When you understand yourself better, you can more efficiently help others
  • You can make more of an impact if you’re not constantly second guessing yourself or hitting walls because of your unconscious baggage

Intro

I’ve noticed a common thread amongst my most successful friends: 1) they don’t dwell very long on things that go wrong; instead they move quickly forward to the next thing. 2) They don’t make many excuses for why they’re unable to do something; instead they focus on whatever they can do. I found this really interesting and wanted to figure out the root cause. In Silicon Valley, this trait is often described as being relentlessly resourceful. I find that lacking. Instead, I prefer the term self-reliability. Rather than focusing on how quickly people use what they have at their disposal, I want to look at the upstream effect that makes someone decide to take action in the first place.

For some credibility: these people that I’ve met or known have gone to speak at TED talks, start companies and sell them, gone to top colleges (Stanford, Harvard, MIT etc.), they’ve made careers as professional artists and some have gotten super rich. Here is what I’ve been able to learn from these people. The root trait that they all have in common: they aggressively take responsibility for themselves. They are all high in self-reliability.

Heads up: even for things that affect you in a professional setting, it takes a lot of personal digging. Let’s explore what that looks like.

People tend to look around for who the adult in the room is

If you’ve been in any bad situation; you can relate to a phenomenon that occurs. People immediately look around for someone to save the day. The bystander effect describes this well. That’s the idea that people tend not to jump into action because someone else will. People often don’t stand up and say “I can help” because immediately after something bad happens, people start casting blame. No one wants to have the finger pointed at them. People who are self-reliable, don’t worry about this. They can trust themselves to take responsibility and succeed at being helpful in a bad situation. 

Be the adult in the room

Remember that we’re all made from the same stuff. If someone could stand up and start directing people out of a bad situation, it could be you. I’m not saying to tell the pilot you’re a doctor if you’re not, but if you’re capable of adding value to a situation you should do that without hesitation. This extends beyond emergencies. 

Taking responsibility at any time that requires a quick decision is a very powerful maneuver. It might seem daunting when you start doing this. You’ll quickly realize this is just how leadership feels.

Responsibility: A Super Power (How to be self-reliable)

Being decisive and leading is rooted in knowing your strengths and weaknesses. In fact, it’s not enough to know them, but to master them. This is what I mean by self-reliability. There are three key components:

  1. Taking stock of your personal baggage and past
  2. Understanding how it effects you today
  3. Changing yourself to take action in line with what you’ve learned

The trick to each of these requires a rare form of honesty, and making enough space in your life to do this hard work. In short, it’s not easy and it takes time. Here are some techniques:

1) Taking stock of your personal baggage

This is always the hardest part: the first step. The way I recommend starting is to search through your past for trauma, or stories you tell yourself about why you are how you are. This is hard mainly because revisiting the past can be painful and it takes a lot of time. This is like sitting at a dinner table and eating a pile of raw onions. I know it’s not fun, but you’ve got to do it. 

To work up the discipline, remind yourself that at the end you will absolutely be better for it. Don’t do all of your past in one session. It’s going to take at least days, probably weeks to months. The process should repeated on the scale of years too. We’re dynamic creatures.

2) Understanding how your past affects you today

Once you have a few things that you can point to and say: “this probably is hanging around today,” it’s a good time to now debug how they actually change your behavior. This might show up in a certain kind of irrational reaction to reasonable circumstances. For instance, people get into disagreements all the time. I know more than a few people who are extremely non-confrontational. This is to the point of damaging their relationships. I would make a safe guess that this is from something like an overly-confrontational parent or some series of schoolyard issues.

The discovery of how these past events connect to present behavior is a bit of cowboy science. It requires a certain kind of self awareness that’s hard to come by. I do believe it can be learned. One technique is to take some very boring notes for a couple of weeks. Document the things that made you feel emotional throughout your day. If you’re not an emotional type, then document the times you: 1) found people reacting to you in a way you thought was strange or unfair and 2) found yourself reacting in a way that was strange to what others might describe as normal circumstances.

3) The most important step: Changing yourself to take action (own the behavior)

 This is the step where the hard work pays off. It’s also the easiest step! Here’s where you actually flesh out your self-reliability. Once you have a stock of behaviors tied to memories or events in your past, you are well enough equipped to change your practices around them. In some cases it’s as simple as reminding yourself to pause and reflect when you feel the impulse to run away.

There is not much advice I can give you on changing your behavior, since this is the most specific to you. But you are now equipped to figure this out yourself. You go in with the mindset: “this happened, but it’s no longer going to be an excuse or a blocker for me to do what I want to do.” You let go of whatever part of yourself that’s a victim because of these things. You let go of the inevitability of the past guiding your future.

In my case, it’s taken some practice, but I’ve learned to pause in the moment I’m about to lose. I reflect on what is happening in that exact moment. That beat gives me the space to let my reaction run through me, rather than taking over me. Now almost all of the times I experience something that “triggers” me: I feel the reaction rise, I let it pass, and then proceed as if it never happened.

This is what my path to self-reliability looks like. It’s revisiting my past and taking ownership over my current behavior. This ownership can be complex like starting a new kind of cognitive behavioral therapy, or it can be as simple as taking a breath. The action I have changed myself to take is to pause and not to take immediate action.

You can help others more efficiently

The next level of self-reliability is realizing the impact is not limited to just your life. Everyone around you benefits from having another person with this super power. Think about what a relief it is to be around someone who is able to step up to challenges. With even a little practice, you can be that person.

In fact, you may already be that person. If that’s the case, then this is a reminder to keep being that person. It’s not a single day or a single moment that you become self-reliable. It’s a process you repeat over and over. Every moment you have the chance to take responsibility for yourself and your behavior is a step down that path. This shouldn’t be viewed as a chore, but a delight. The more you understand yourself, the more fun and interesting the world becomes. It’s become a total cliche from Spider Man: With great power comes great responsibility. No one tells you the secret that it also works the other way. With great responsibility comes great power.

Make “Rest Time” Benefit the Rest of Your Time

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Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • Shows we watch and books we read are stories that help us simulate real life situations
  • Take advantage of the “simulations” you put in your mind to level up your desired skills
  • Most people simulate more events than they live, and it’s time to flip the ratio

Savor the Summary

You can hear the drum-roll of your heartbeat in your ears. Your hands get clammy, as if their being slippery will help you escape doing what you know you must… Entering the dark room to catch a killer who is lurking in the shadows. 

At least, that’s what your mind is telling you as you watch your favorite show. As Jonathan Gottschall describes in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, all stories serve as examples that we can learn from “without the potentially staggering cost of having to gain this experience firsthand” (28). In the previous example, watching a crime show can simulate how to safely enter a dangerous room without the actual threat of possibly dying.

This ability to simulate real life situations in a low risk manner is an evolutionary marvel. Whether told by your friend, the TV, a song, or a book, gaining experience through digesting stories has helped us survive life-threatening events, avoid shame in social situations like pursuing a mate, and learn other valuable skills before we need them most (note that for the purpose of this article, “stories,” “TV shows,” etc. will all be synonymous with “simulations”).

But we’ve taken advantage of this gift by gorging ourselves on the simulated feelings the practice gives us until we are stuffed, leaving little room for testing these experiences in real life. What we are implicitly saying when we do this is “Why put in effort when you can feel all of life’s greatest neurological and chemical rewards with a click of a button or a swipe on your phone?”

Of course we all need mental breaks now and then and watching an episode of Spongebob can do just that. But imagine how different life could be if we consciously selected the stories we consumed with the goal of improving our lives? 

I recently asked myself the following questions and found it to be a great first step towards taking back one of our evolutionary superpowers:

  • What experiences am I simulating?
  • How many experiences am I simulating versus living?
  • How can I align the simulations with my goals? 

What Experiences am I Simulating?

Considering that reading novels and watching TV are two of the most common types of “simulations” we run, what experiences are you simulating most in your life? 

Given that it is the time of year when soccer, football, baseball, basketball, AND hockey are all being played in the U.S., it is highly likely that you are watching a lot of sports right now. Specifically, a Statista report revealed that sports fans watched an average of just under eight hours of sports content per week in 2014. 

Now most of us aren’t watching sports to become better at them, and many people have never even played the sport they love watching most. Consider the origins of why stories are valuable.

In children’s pretend play and the dreams of people from all walks of life (Westerners, Asians, hunter-gatherer tribes, etc.) the focus is one thing, trouble (34/81/82). The most basic need is survival, so it makes sense that our minds would prioritize these types of simulations in preparation of knowing when to run versus fight. 

But these days we are mostly simulating events we will never encounter. If this is the case for you, it is worth revisiting what shows you watch and what you are rehearsing for.

And while you are at it, think about how much you are simulating events versus living them.

How Many Experiences am I Simulating Versus Living?

Have you ever asked yourself, “How much am I truly living?” The Storytelling Animal opens by sharing some frightening statistics that address exactly that:

  • “By the time American children reach adulthood, they’ll have spent more time in TV land than anywhere else, including school” (8/9).
  • “The musicologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin estimates that we hear about five hours of music per day” (9).

While many of these simulations are helpful, without putting the simulated skills to use all of this time is wasted. And it is potentially a staggering amount of time wasted.

Combining TV and music, the average person participates in more simulations than real life events during their most formative years. The quote regarding the children is particularly scary given how much of a child’s development occurs before they turn 18. Knowing that certain feelings can be obtained through a screen can prevent these children from seeking the same feelings through genuine human interactions.

But in the right hands, this information can inspire an equal amount of hope. What if TV became the new “after school learning program?”

How Can I Align the Simulations with My Goals?

Everyone has a certain kind of story that captivates them, and these can be harnessed to provide more value than only entertainment. The Storytelling Animal described an individual who could be any of us saying, “I liked the film because it soaked my brain in the heady chemicals associated with wild sex, fist-fights, and aggressive humor, without the risk of earning those chemicals honestly” (30). 

Take advantage of these chemical rewards to simulate skills you want to develop. If you find it too hard to stop watching certain types of shows, try to align them with something that’ll be useful in your life. For example, if you have a goal of learning a certain language, watch shows that interest you but in that language. This way you’ll still get the normal rush you expect from your favorite entertainment (adrenaline, pleasure, fear, etc.), but now you’ll also be getting exposed to a language you want to learn. 

This specific example has been working great for me. I’ve been wanting to learn Korean and I like crime investigation shows, so I started watching them in Korean with subtitles and have slowly started developing my vocabulary while also getting my entertainment fix!

Conclusion

Stories started out as an evolutionary miracle, for example allowing us to practice how we might act when we encountered a poisonous snake before actually encountering one. But as with many of the genetic tools we are blessed with, we’ve hacked stories to make them “just a drug we use to escape from the boredom and brutality of real life” (29). 

It is time to reclaim stories for their original purpose of improving our quality of life! Thinking about our goals or the skills we want to develop and then making sure they are demonstrated in our favorite forms of entertainment can marry learning and relaxation. In this way, we can keep on growing while we are resting!

And as always, if you want to take a deeper dive into what prompted this article I strongly suggest giving The Storytelling Animal a read.

Navigating Crucial Life Moments Masterfully: Part 2

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Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • The Fool’s Choice is the belief that often we have to choose between two undesirable options.
  • There are always more than two possible solutions in these situations.
  • When in these moments, recalling what you want for yourself and the others involved can lead to a more desirable outcome for everyone.

Savor the Summary

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when Stakes are High” is a book that has added so much value to my life that I found it impossible to summarize all of the “key points” in one article (Part 1 here). As I mentioned in Part 1, I assumed the focus would be on mastering conversational skills, but I learned so much more. 

In Part 1, I summarized some of the tools Crucial Conversations provides that can help you reshape your reality and a few real-life examples where these tools are most useful. I refer to some of these tools as “superpowers” because I believe they can completely transform lives.

This article adds to the list of superpowers and gives you some more examples so you can start using the tools today!

Fool’s Choice

One of the main topics covered in Crucial Conversations is an idea called the “Fool’s Choice.” Author Stephen Covey describes the Fool’s Choice as people believing they have to “[choose] between two bad alternatives” (21). For example, when faced with giving someone feedback people often believe they have to choose between A) being respectful and not saying anything, or B) being honest and hurting the other person’s feelings. 

What these options are really saying is that this person thinks the only options are A) “I don’t want to offend them so I won’t say anything” or B) “tough cookies, I have to speak my mind whether they like it or not” which is more venting their frustrations than it is giving feedback. 

This is referred to as the Fool’s Choice because it is foolish to oversimplify the realm of possible solutions down to these two options. In this example, taking an extra 15 seconds to think “how can I be 100 percent honest … AND 100 percent respectful?” gives your brain the opportunity to create other options, many of which will be better than saying nothing or being brutally honest (22). 

As mentioned in Part 1, the ability to pause in the moment and consider alternatives to the options that immediately come to mind can be a superpower. Take a moment to think of a problem in your life that you believe only has two solutions and reevaluate the assumptions you are making.

A common problem I see many of my friends and colleagues facing these days is after they get off of work they have to choose between exercise, sleep, and family/fun time. Almost everyone believes at best they can only choose two out of the three. But taking a minute to think of alternative solutions, a few options that make all goals possible come to mind: 

  1. Make exercise a fun activity that you do with family/friends to achieve two goals at once.
  2. Reconsider how much time you need to exercise to get the benefits (not all workouts need to be 1.5hrs), so you can have more time to spend with family and sleep.
  3. Reevaluate the assumption that how much you work can’t change (whether you work 8 or 14hrs, there will always be more work to do the next day so pace yourself and make your life schedule more sustainable).

This exercise took me under a minute to think of additional options to the ones initially laid out, and could save days to years of time while also improving my quality of life. But applying this once immediately after reading this versus making it a lasting habit is easier said than done. So a simple reminder I use to overcome the Fool’s Choice instinct is saying to myself “A or B isn’t the way to ‘C’ the world.” 

I’ve found that having practiced this saying a few times has made it hard wired to come to mind when I hear “this OR that” with no extra effort required.

What Do You Want for Yourself and Others?

An approach to overcoming the Fool’s Choice mentioned in Crucial Conversations is asking yourself “what do I want for myself [and] … others?” (43). Think back to the first example of giving someone feedback where the Fool’s Choice was choosing between A) being respectful and not saying anything, or B) being honest and hurting the other person’s feelings. 

If being honest when asking yourself “what do I want for myself and others?” the options might translate in to “do I A) want to vent out my frustrations or B) provide constructive feedback that will make things better?” 

Explicitly addressing what your original goal was prior to making a decision will often shine light on the fact that the first two options that came to mind wouldn’t help achieve that goal. And the superpower of pausing in the moment to recall your original goals or think of other options can make all the difference in the world.

If unable to escape the thought structure of the Fool’s Choice (thinking there are only two options), pairing it with this question of “what do I want for myself and others?” will at least help you understand the true implications of the two options. In doing this, the best parts of the two original options can combine and make a better third option (e.g. being respectful and honest).

Conclusion

Crucial Conversations is a book that has provided me with some of the best skills that I can apply to all aspects of my life. From changing my internal narrative about the world to pausing in a situation so I can expand the realm of possible outcomes, the tools provided are true mental superpowers that have brought me a ton of value and I hope they do for you too!

You are Killing Yourself and the Planet!

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Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • We all have “reasons” (or excuses) for the poor habits we invite into our lives that work against what we say are our goals
  • We tell ourselves that a few “good” acts allows us to get away with “bad” ones, which over time leads to the “bad” outweighing the “good”
  • This article starts with a general example and halfway through focuses on sustainability. Feel free to skip around but please at least read the questions at the end

Savor the Summary

How often do you find yourself preemptively justifying a decision before you make it?

You just finished working out for the third time this week and you think to yourself, “I earned this” as you order a double cheeseburger with french fries and ranch dipping sauce (or whatever your guilty pleasure food is). And you feel great about it. 

You tell yourself, “I’ve been working really hard and I deserve a treat” and likely a few other cliches but in your heart of hearts you know that these treats happen all too often to really be considered a “treat”.

What’s worse is that you tell yourself the goal of exercising is to look better, feel better, and be healthier, but in actuality working out has simply turned into a reason to eat worse food and feel better about it. 

At the same time, you are actually downgrading your health by forcing your body to process large quantities of these dense/processed foods.

This is just one example of a broader concept called “moral licensing,” which is a fancy way of saying “I did something good so I can get away with something bad.” Moral licensing rears its ugly head in all of our lives, sometimes to our own detriment but it can also impact those we care about. 

The key to overcoming the cycle is to catch when you make excuses to yourself and own up to the fact that:

  1. your actions aren’t in line with your values, or 
  2. you aren’t being honest with yourself about what you value more

In the previous example, the person would likely reveal that they value delicious flavors more than improving their health or looks. 

Sustainability Focus

In my line of work, consulting in the clean energy industry, moral licensing shows up in a way that runs counter to our core value of combating climate change.

Many people in the clean energy space have chosen the field because they are passionate about fighting the good fight against climate change by reducing the carbon emissions of their clients. However, when it comes time to take ownership of their own contributions to climate change the decision-making process differs.

For example, I’ve heard colleagues say things like “I feel better about taking longer showers because I am a vegetarian” (the moral licensing here being that not eating meat does reduce emissions, but taking long hot showers wastes both energy and water). 

Similarly, working as a consultant often means we have to travel by airplane to visit clients which results in the greatest amount of emissions an average person can generate from a single action. 

And given the working conditions of consulting (typically long hours) and the lifestyle it affords in terms of salary, it is common for people to use their time off to again, fly somewhere for vacation.

The combination of emissions generated by consultants in both work and life brings them to the top of the heap in terms of individual contribution to the world’s emissions. 

So I ask you:

  • General Audience:
    1. Are you using moral licensing in a way that runs counter to your goals? And
    2. If you answered “yes” to #1, how much do you value your goal?
  • Sustainability Audience:
    1. Are you using moral licensing in a way that runs counter to your sustainability goals? And
    2. How can we work with clients to mitigate our emissions generated while working on a project, in addition to those saved from the results of the project?

Swarmwise

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birds in a swarm at sunset

A Summary and Critique of Swarmwise by Rick Falkvinge

Bite The Bullets

  • A swarm is a new type of self-organizing structure to get a large group of motivated people to act together to accomplish a world-changing goal
  • The benefit of a swarm over a regular style of organization is the speed and [cheapness] that it can act
  • In order to start a swarm, you need to formulate your goal in a way that is “tangible, credible, inclusive and epic” otherwise “your swarm will fail”
  • In order for the people in a swarm to do things you need to have an initial action to point them towards, in the book the example is handing out flyers
  • Once the swarm begins to grow, it’s important to create a hierarchical structure so you—as the founder of the movement—can manage the growth
  • The sub-groups should be organized in 7s, 30s, and 150s. 
  • The most important theme of the book: Leadership is earned by inspiring others. This is done by standing up and doing what needs to be done without permission, and leading by example.

Savor the Summary

Swarmwise promotes a new concept of building an organization which the author, Rick Falkvinge, calls a swarm. A swarm is defined by its self organization and ability to allocate responsibility and authority to people who are capable of accomplishing tasks. The key difference between a swarm and a conventional organization is the way that authority is managed: it’s not. Rather, leadership emerges from people doing things without needing to ask permission, and therefore leading by example. This applies to the creator of the movement as well.

This is a counterintuitive form of governance, but allows for a larger organization to maintain agility because political bottlenecks [remain] at a minimum. The way to allow for this [chaotic-sounding] form of group action is by making values and targets very clear. For example, the entire concept of a swarm comes from the author winning 225,915 votes in the European elections in 2009, spending less than 1% of the budget of their competitors. 

The book covers many tactics, but reminds the reader of the most important mechanisms of a swarm:

  1. Creating a goal that is credible, tangible, inclusive and world-changing. 
  2. Making very clear that permission is not only needed, but discouraged for making important decisions and 
  3. Leadership from the top to the bottom of the swarm is derived from acting on good ideas consistently. 

Below I’ve summarized the sections of each chapter. I’ve purposefully excluded the specific tactical sections and templates such as how to create a swarm org chart. If you would like those specific pieces of the book, you can get them from the free online version. Or, if you’d like to support this site, you can buy the book on amazon through our referral links. 

Part I: Building the Swarm

Understanding The Swarm

The difference between a “swarm” and a conventional organization is that in a swarm emphasizes radical openness and inclusivity: “Perhaps most significantly, focus in the swarm is always on what everybody can do, and never what people cannot or must do.” This means that you encourage members to try things that they think are good ideas. If those ideas work, they attract more members of the swarm. The swarm is open and inclusive to the max, even including financial transactions. The goal here is to “provide trust and confidence” to the whole organization.

Leadership in a swarm stems from people stepping up and doing what they can do and communicating that to others. “I’m going to do X, because I think it will accomplish Y. Anybody who wants to join me doing X is more than welcome.”

There is a crucial point that’s mentioned throughout the book: “When you are setting a goal for the whole swarm, it must be credible, tangible, inclusive, and world-changing.” Don’t discuss the goal in abstract concepts, break it down into measurable outcomes and number of people needed. For instance, for the political movement it was a crucial number of votes to get a seat in parliament for the Swedish Pirate Party.

Launching Your Swarm

This section discusses the necessary elements to get off the ground. The most interesting part is taken directly from the text:

A goal should be:

  • Tangible. You should have an outline for the goals you want to meet that you post to the whole swarm.
  • Credible. You need to sell the goal as something that is achievable. 
  • Inclusive. Everyone who is interested is allowed to participate, and should know that as soon as they hear about it.
  • Epic. Set out to change the entire world for the better. It’S Got to have an impact. 
  • Bonus points if no one has ever done it before.

As soon as you announce the swarm, be prepared to create a focal point for self organization. This can be as simple as a sign up form. As people sign up, you need to have a direction for self organization. They should be divided into self-subsistent groups. The author recommends creating a forum or a wiki to help with this. Specifically, thirty groups max to start with, divided geographically. As people generate interest, the direction for them is to go to their specific sub-group, introduce themselves and select a leader for their group. How they select a leader is up to them.

Keep people motivated by making it clear what the achievable goal is, and updating progress every day. As the creator of the swarm, focus on creating opportunities for people to meet and being welcoming of new people. This is because, as the author mentions, “the organization consists only of relationships between people.

Getting Your Swarm Organized: Herding cats 

The author also advocates three important numbers: 7, 30 and 150. The argument is that 7 is the smallest “magical group size” and the largest is the Dunbar number, the maximum number of social connections a human has capacity for. 

The swarm grows through one conversation at a time. In this sections he also mentions that it’s Important as the figurehead of the organization to take care of yourself since people will copy you. It is also vital to communicate trust. “…even if they choose a different way of doing so than you would have chosen, and even if you can’t see how it could possibly work”

I found one interesting method for consensus on action within a swarm is the three-pirate rule: If three activists agree that something is good for the organization, you have a green light to act in the organizations name.

Control the Vision, But Never the Message 

The author poses that he does not believe in a leaderless organization. By the authors accounts, the point of leadership is to empower people to action not to restrict them from performing certain actions. The way to do this is to constantly communicate your vision and let people translate it into their own words and contexts. The golden rule of the swarm is: “If you see something you don’t like, contribute with something you do like.”

Part II: Leading the Swarm

Keep Everybody’s Eyes On Target, And Paint It Red Daily

The take home of swarmwise leadership: accountability and authority go hand-in-hand. From that stem three core values to communicate all the time:

  • We can do this.
  • We are going to change the world for the better.
  • This is going to be hard work for us, but totally worth it.

The vehicle for inspiring and motivating people to action in this way is to make targets visible and show progress on them. This can be reduces to: measure things that are important publicly. Things measured in public will be improved by people trying hard to improve it. So make sure you measure the right things.

Screw Democracy, We’re On A Mission From God

No person has a say over what any other person can do is part of any swarms core values. The way to make this work is to make it clear that each person should go where they feel they can have the most impact. Tell people in the swarm that they are expected to make mistakes. This is a high risk high reward environment. Crazy ideas should be rewarded.

Surviving Growth Unlike Anything The MBAs Have Seen

This section was filled with mostly highly specific tactical advice. One piece of this was how to create a values docuement. The core of this is to remind the swarm of organizational values regularly. This is to reinforce the message with old activists and introduce the message to new activist.

In addition: having fun is important! This is a way to grow the activist base. Another piece of growing rapidly is to communicate to leadership and take formal responsibility within the organization. And at the end of the day, “sometimes you just have to grind.” 

Part III: Delivering with the Swarm

Using Social Dynamics To Their Full Potential

Here, many concepts are explored such as sending a weekly letter that includes news from the organization, overcommunicating external news that is relevant with examples of rhetoric to use when talking about the swarm to others. He calls this the “heartbeat message.”

It’s also important to keep track of how people join the swarm and their path through the swarm. This is the “activation ladder:” the steps that each activist takes from first hearing about the swarm to participating. The important metric is the number of people that can be moved to take action in the swarm.

The author makes the point that optics are also important; even if you have a strong moral reason for existing. (Maybe, especially if you have this). That means you want to look and feel like the winning team. The argument here is built on the idea that ”perception is reality.” One trick here is to be distinct: wear the same color, or logo on the streets.

Respect anonymity of activists. This is for two reasons: 1) the more information you ask from people in the swarm, the less people in the swarm you’ll have. 2) You don’t need to know who the activists are, you just need them to talk about the swarm and do things as a part of it.

Reward people for discussing your topic. This includes positive and negative comments. For example, if a small blog mentions your topic, drive your audience to that blog. That is much more likely to get them to write about you again. “Attention is a reward, unexpected attention is a great reward.”

Managing Oldmedia

“Oldmedia” is anything that is not social media: radio, newspapers, and television. The best way to get featured in oldmedia is to be useful at the right time, rather than thinking of them “running your story” as a favor to you. For example, say there is a tweet about your swarm that is newsworthy. Giving the reporter comments and quotes about the story right at that time the tweet gets attention is valuable to the reporter. You have thirty minutes to get these quotes to them to be useful at the right time, since they will publish in an hour from the tweet being posted.

In addition, you need to be somewhat sensational for having strong opionions. “If you’re not making somebody angry, you’re probably not doing anything useful.”

When dealing with oldmedia you need to own the issue. This means that any time they come across a story on the topic, they will call you for comments. Chasing news and PR isn’t useful: oldmedia won’t mention a the swarm unless it does something significant. That means you should optimize for doing significant things and being useful to reporters when they get attention. “Just existing and having opinions is not interesting”

(This section comes with a template for press releases which I’ve converted to an editable document linked at the end)

Beyond Success

This section can be summarized simply in the final quote: “Don’t shoot for the moon! That’s been done already. Aim Higher. Go for Mars!”

Criticism

Some of the core concepts are really interesting and I’m excited to try them out here at Sophonaut and with the blockchain startup I’m a part of. Some of the advice in the book seems specific to politics. For instance, the concept of activists and rallies doesn’t necessarily apply to a product or service directly. That being said, they map well to similar concepts. The idea that any organization is only as strong as the relationships that constitute it is very important and easily forgotten. 

I’m also torn about the idea of having and needing a figurehead for an organization. I don’t like the idolization and fetishism of heroes in society. Once a person becomes a legend in society, it seems that the person no longer exists. Only the idea of them exists and is owned by culture. I feel like it’s more interesting for an organization to exist without a figurehead. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t leaders.

I love the concept of leadership by action here. I think this is how leadership should be conducted in every organization: people who stand up and do the most right things should lead; the ones that people tend to copy because they’re chock full of good ideas. This comes from the ruthless dedication to enabling people to do the right thing without permission. It seems like this is the biggest mistake conventional organizations make. They fail to get the most out of their most motivated employees simply because they get in their way. This is the secret weapon I’m most excited to bring to my personal and professional projects.

Press Release Template Here

Why Do People Like Sports? – Part 1

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Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • Sports give us a way of identifying with others
  • Watching sports is a way we escape reality, which depending on our reason for watching can improve or impair our lives
  • Parts of our brain make us feel like we are the ones playing the game

Savor the Summary

“We’re going to the Super Bowl!” say many fans as their team wins the NFL’s AFC or NFC conference championship games. But why do they say “we” as if they are a part of the team and why such excitement about the victory? Getting at the heart of the question, why are people sports fans at all? The three most likely reasons have to do with identity, a need for an escape from reality, and relating to the players in the game.

We Identify with Our Favorite Teams

There are many layers to how we develop our identities, one of which is our identity within a group. Identity is the answer to the question “who am I?” and when it comes to being in a group we want to feel like we belong, so having similarities to those in the group is a necessity. Obviously being raised in a certain region we grow to define ourselves by local traditions and ways of thought, but also by the local sports teams. 

For sports fans, there is a strong likelihood that they support the team from their hometown, or if they have moved to somewhere new they somewhat support the local team but still have a special place in their heart for the hometown heroes. Being born in southern California I grew up a L.A. Lakers fan, but after living in Boston for a few years the Celtics grew on me (as blasphemous as that sounds). This is because I identified with the regions I was living in, and wanted to share the experiences of the group that was supporting the team (wearing purple and gold in a sea of green doesn’t help make friends).

If trying to be a part of a local culture, being a fan of a team is an easy identity to assume. Given how easy it is to become a fan of a team, it is no surprise that being a sports fan is one of the most common ways people identify with their local culture. Simply living in a part of the world that has a local sports team grants you access to thousands or millions of potential acquaintances. 

And although it is easy to become a fan, people identify with their sports teams much more than I would have expected. For people who are fans, “being identified with a favorite team is more important than being identified with their work and social groups, and … religion.” Meaning, some people may be active in their church, run an after school program to help develop children, but above all want to be known for loving their football team.

Although identity plays a strong part in why people choose to become sports fans, needing a little stress relief is also a contributing factor.

It Distracts from Other Worries/Responsibilities

Another reason why people are sports fans is because they need a break from the stresses and responsibilities of life. This distraction from life’s worries is also known as “escapism.” As with all things there are levels to how much people relate to a given idea, but at the base level almost everyone participates in some form of escapism. Whether it is watching TV, reading novels, or going to the opera everyone has something they do to transport their mind to another place and relax. 

Watching a story unfold that is similar enough to other games you’ve watched doesn’t require much mental energy. But, since this exact game has never been played before, it is different enough to be entertaining and provides an easy means of escape.

What I find interesting is that the motivations behind watching the sport and how someone “escapes” can tell a lot about that individual. Frode Stenseng, a Norwegian psychologist authored a paper in which he defines two separate types of escapism as self-suppression and self-expansion. Self-suppression is where someone participates in a leisure activity (such as watching sports) in order to avoid negative thoughts about themselves or their life, while self-expansion is associated with attempting to have an additional positive experience (i.e. not an effort to avoid negative feelings). The results of the studies his paper summarizes support the conclusion that self-expansion is related to positive feelings and general well-being, while self-suppression is related to negative feelings, “poor psychological adjustment, and intrapersonal conflicts regarding the resources invested in the activity.” 

What all this means is that there are different feelings people seek when choosing to watch sports, and if you are someone whose inner monologue is along the lines of “it’s been a hell of a week, my boss is a jerk, traffic has been horrible, but at least I get to watch the game on Sunday,” the game is likely only delaying feeling bad once again and it is likely worth spending that time trying to address the things complained about in the monologue. On the other hand, some people look forward to watching their favorite player slam a fat dunk in order to add to the other good things going on in their life. It’s still escaping reality, but it’s through the addition of positive feelings.

Aside from trying to identify with others or enjoy some sort of escapism, many people watch sports because they truly feel as if they are the ones playing the game.

We Feel as if We are Playing

Mirror neurons are things in our brains that make us feel like we are performing an action simply by watching someone else perform the action. In this way, we can watch someone score a touchdown or make a game winning shot, and our body will react as if we scored. Specifically, scientists who monitored spectators watching and athletes performing a certain action see the same parts of the brain activate. As a basketball player, whenever I watch the NBA and see a defender block someone off of the backboard I get pumped up and feel as if I was the defender.

Similarly, watching our favorite team win a game makes us feel some sense of accomplishment as well, as if we won the game ourselves. Depending on the level at which you identify with a team, you may feel this much more strongly or not at all. 

Conclusion

In short, there are many reasons people are drawn to sports or any type of relaxing activity for that matter, but it is usually because people seek a sense of belonging through sharing a group identity, wanting some form of escape from their current reality, or because it makes them feel as if they are the ones playing the game. Given how complex these facets of human behavior are, this article only scratches the surface so if you get an itch to dive deeper, stay tuned for the sequels! 

Navigating Crucial Life Moments Masterfully: Part 1

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Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • “Any set of facts can be used to tell an infinite number of stories” is a foundational truth which, if subscribed to, enables you to consider the perspectives of others, resolve issues more quickly, and grow as individuals (111).
  • Knowing yourself and how you typically respond or behave in crucial moments will help you address your weaknesses and also catch and correct yourself when your bad habits rear their ugly heads in the moment.
  • Being able to pause in a crucial moment for even 5-10 seconds to reassess the story you are telling yourself can break the string of adrenaline-fueled responses for just long enough to regain your composure and remind yourself of the desired outcome.

Savor the Summary

When I first picked up the book “Crucial Conversations:  Tools for Talking when Stakes are High,” I assumed the focus would be on mastering conversational skills, but I learned so much more. Even the authors admit near the end that “what we were most interested in was not writing a book on communication. Rather, we wanted to identify crucial moments … when people’s actions disproportionately affect their organizations, their relationships, and their lives” (222). 

While they built their narrative around conversations as a type of crucial moment, the following will be what I found most valuable in terms of generic tools that will drastically improve how you a) perceive the world and b) act on these new perceptions to create a better world for yourself.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Perception)

In life there are facts and then there are the stories you apply to facts to create meaning. It is these stories you tell yourself that makes a world of difference in the actions you take in life, your mental state (e.g. happy/sad), and general perception of the world. The authors define this process as the “Path to Action,” where 

1) you see and hear something (facts) which is followed by 

2) a story you tell yourself to apply meaning after which 

3) the story makes you feel certain emotions which 

4) lead you to taking a certain action (109)

For example, below is an indisputable fact that would be the same to all viewers, and then two different stories that could be applied to the fact to create meaning:

Fact: The sun rose today. 

Story 1: The sun rose today to blast me in the eyes and punish me for staying up late last night (victim).

Story 2: The sun rose today to give me light so I can gaze upon this beautiful world once more (victor).

As you can see, the stories you tell yourself can dramatically impact your life experience. The person telling themself Story 2 is much more likely to have a positive day, having started it off by telling themselves a story that leads to gratitude and positive feelings.

On the other hand, the person telling themself Story 1 is arguably going to have more negative feelings about their day by playing the victim in their story, and is less likely to accomplish something beneficial that day. The good news is, stories can be rewritten to put you back on a better path. I think the authors said it best: 

“Don’t confuse stories with facts. Sometimes you fail to question your stories because you see them as immutable facts. When you generate stories in the blink of an eye, you can get so caught up in the moment that you begin to believe your stories are facts” (115). 

I must have read this line at least 10 times because it applies to all facets of life and can be the difference in whether you succeed or fail in a conversation, goal, career, or relationship. And oftentimes, the stories we tell ourselves shackle us to failure but are subtle in the way they do this.

Three common types of stories that are sinister in this way the authors describe as villain, victim, and helpless stories (117-119). Imagine the fact that you had to work late and you were not happy about it. Below are three stories you may tell yourself that apply to that fact that lead to no or negative action:

  • Villain: I had to work late because my boss is a lazy jerk and pawned one of his projects off on me.
  • Victim: I had to work late when everyone else gets to leave on time. Why me?
  • Helpless: I had to work late and will need to work late every night this week because there are crazy deliverables due this week.

In each of these stories, an excuse is made for why you are in an undesirable situation, none of which give you the power to fix the situation or prevent it from happening again. You are either putting the blame on someone else (villain), excusing yourself of any blame (victim), or coming up with excuses for future events that are “impossible” to prevent (helpless).

While it is very difficult to prevent yourself from telling these stories initially, an arguable superpower to have is being able to notice when you are telling this kind of story so you can rewrite it with one that is more empowering like the following:

  • Empowering: I had to stay late because I said “yes” to helping my boss out even though I was already overloaded. 

This subtle change in the story where you assume responsibility puts the power back in your hands to prevent the situation from happening again (e.g. “since it was my fault, in the future I won’t offer to help out when I am already busy”). More generally, it is this ability to pause and consider alternatives to what you see as the current “truth” that will undoubtedly enrich your life.

Pause in the Moment

Have you ever wanted the ability to alter reality? What if I told you all it takes is 5-10 seconds for you to change your whole world? When in the middle of a crucial moment like an argument with a loved one, taking a few seconds to gather yourself and reevaluate the story you are telling yourself about the moment can completely alter your reality for the better.

For example, I was recently arguing with my wife and the energy was only getting more negative with each minute that passed. Both of us believed the other person was at fault and were trying to force our stories on to each other which never works out well. Luckily there was a few seconds of silence during which I happened to remember I was reading Crucial Conversations and decided to put it to the test and challenge my story.

I asked myself, “what if I am at fault?” Even if I wasn’t, taking the time to consider that another possibility exists made me soften and become more open to hearing her side of the story. This completely changed the direction of the conversation and allowed us to right the course back towards an amicable resolution. 

Conclusion

The stories you tell yourself determines the “reality” in which you live, and since you apply these stories to events almost as they happen you can’t tell the difference between your story and the factual event. This split second meaning has the power to shape how you react to anything from a single event to how you live your entire life, and so it truly is a superpower to be able to pause in a moment and challenge the story you are telling yourself to reshape your reality.

I urge you to try this out as it has reshaped my life and that of many others for the better, and if you find it valuable and want to learn how to take that skill to the next level, dig in to the details of Crucial Conversations and check out Part 2 of this blog series!

The Real Secret to Work-Life Balance

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a lady balancing with the sun shining behind her
You need to have faith in yourself enough to know that taking a break is not going to cause your career to halt, but in fact will give you the space to make better decisions about your priorities. Click To Tweet


Bite the bullets (a quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • We have a running meter of needs we balance every single day
  • These needs, unlike Maslow’s Hierarchy, do not progress from bottom to top, rather in the order they deplete
  • The primary categories of these needs are physiology, security, relationships, cognition, and tranquility
  • If we ignore these needs, they will affect our behavior in dramatic ways decreasing the amount of control we have over ourselves and our lives
  • Life is a balancing act, but it’s not just balancing “work” and “life”.
  • You’ve got to remember that working on yourself, and prioritizing your needs is what will eventually lead to total balance. Not just balancing a career and a personal life.

Even easy lives are hard

Maybe one of your days looks like this: Get up. Go to work (or school). Realize you’ve got more to do than you had planned. Feel stressed. Get a text from someone in your family. Oh shoot, you haven’t called home in longer than you’d thought! Think about something that’s been bothering you. Get home. It’s later than you thought. You’re too tired to do anything so you watch Netflix. Answer emails from work. Mindlessly scroll Instagram (or any other infinite scroll app) in bed. Sleep. Repeat.

There’s an underlying current to why your life is out of balance: priority. If you think of your life in terms of two simple categories: “work” and “life”, then you’re limiting your choices of what to prioritize. Here, we’re going to explore the many pieces of your life that you can choose to focus on and why it’s important to take time to do so.

Head up! The next few sections are a deep dive into some psychology and biology. It’s fine to skip them if that doesn’t interest you, but I would recommend two things if you do:

  1. Think of your life in broader terms than just “career” and “personal life”.
  2. Look at the section on power levels to get a feel for the categories in your life and consider which of them you’re strong at feeding and which you regularly neglect
If you think of your life in terms of two simple categories "work" and "life", then you're limiting your choices of what to prioritize. Click To Tweet

Our biology plays a role

Have you ever been hangry? If you haven’t heard the term, it means what it sounds like: hungry + angry = hangry. When some people don’t eat for a while, they get grumpy, snippy and even confrontational.

A study from Jonathan Levav of Columbia Business School, conducted in Israeli prisons in 2011, found that judges were more likely to dispense unfavorable sentences in parole hearings (I.e. denying parole) the closer they got to a meal break. The authors argue that the hungrier the judges became, the more likely they were to drift towards an easier decision of saying ”no” rather than weighing the harder option of granting parole.

Deciding what to eat and getting into a fight with your significant other is an uncomfortable experience, but imagine having to decide the fate of a person standing before you while on an empty stomach. The weight of the decision is much higher. Whether we think about the time we snapped at a friend, or a judge doling out justice, there is an arrow pointing to a fact of our existence: our basic biological needs affect our behavior.

Our basic biological needs affect our behavior. Click To Tweet

Addressing our needs as priorities: Maslow’s take

The concept that we have needs that change how we act is an old idea. If you’ve taken an intro to psychology class, you’ve no doubt run into good old Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The idea is: we have needs stacked like a pyramid we fulfill from bottom to top in order to reach a state that Maslow described as “self-actualization.” Self-actualized people, like Einstein, go on to do great things with their lives.

There are some glaring flaws in this model—which I’ll get into in a second—but before I do, let’s walk through the pyramid from bottom to top:

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
The original pyramid derived from Maslow’s published theory of motivation.

As you can see, you’ve got physiology at the bottom, those are things that you need because your body needs them: food, water, sleep, sex, a thing called “homeostasis” (the body’s natural chemical balancing forces) and excretion. Once those basal needs is the need for security; essentially a safe place where you won’t get sick or hurt. Next is love, which encapsulates our relationships and need for affection. After that is “esteem,” which is a need to prove one’s self, both socially and to themselves (e.g. achieving self-confidence). Finally is the fabled “self-actualization,” originally described as a “a new discontent and restlessness” to “become everything one is capable of becoming.”

These ideas sound great. You work your way up the pyramid and then you reach the top and presto, you are creating the next Mona Lisa. But we all know that doesn’t seem to happen a lot. Tom Cruise would be self actualized by these standards, but the media doesn’t shy away from how hard his personal relationships have been. This is true for a lot of celebrities. On the other hand, we’ve all met someone who is content with a simple life, unburdened by a “restlessness” to be everything they can be. It’s really easy to criticize this model and there is a reason for that.

These ideas were originally published in Psychological Review in 1943 in a paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.” That’s right. Motivation. Not a theory of greatness. Not a theory of behavior. In the work, Maslow says directly that this is a model to guide future research, not a research study itself. It was a skeleton to develop further understanding of what motivates people. It was never intended as a way to live life. On top of that, the pyramid visualization that has become synonymous with the hierarchy of needs didn’t show up until much later. We can do better!

Meet the POWER LEVELS: Our priorities change every day

Here is a new mental model to guide your thinking about prioritizing your life. It works well for me, and you can test it yourself. It’s not a theory of motivation as much as a theory of well-being. There is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated.

There is a strong case for the idea that when you’re well, you’re more motivated. Click To Tweet

First, I want to wholly dismiss the concept that you need to work through a static pyramid from the bottom to the top. Human needs don’t work that way.

We need to drink water every hour. We need to eat a few times a day. We need enough sleep every day. We need social contact at least a few times a week. We need to pay our rent or mortgage every month. Each of these requires constant maintenance, and regular attention.

Your need can’t be solved once, they need to be maintained over time. Not only that, they each have different rates for resetting.

Here I present these needs as power levels that contribute to your overall well-being. If they are not met, your ability to do good work, to make decisions, to learn, to be a good friend or significant other is lowered.

It looks like this:

As you can see, the basic ideas of a hierarchy are hidden in there, but these are hopefully more useful in a day-to-day sense.

Now let’s flip it on it’s side:

There are five high level categories broken into fourteen sub-categories.

Each sub-category contributes to the overall level in its parent category, and each category contributes to the overall level that is you; your sense of well-being.

Here’s the kicker: these need attention in a dynamic way. Because they deplete at different levels, the priorities of each category (and even subcategory) change over time. That means you need to pay attention to your mind and body to stay happy.

They deplete like so on each of their respective timelines:

I want to highlight one major modification before digging in. I’m going to ask you to buy into an assumption. Transcendence and self actualization have been replaced by a more humble term: tranquility.

Tranquility is a concept stolen from a stoic philosophy; you can think of it as an overall chill-ness with whatever is happening. I’ve found this is a great ideal to strive for, because it is attainable both when happy and sad. It’s also much more maintainable than just trying to be happy 100% of the time. The world hits you with good stuff and bad stuff, it’s better to be tranquil and still feel what emotion you naturally feel. In short: Shoot for happiness, miss it for contentment and settle for tranquility.

As I mentioned before, you go through life and the “levels” in each of the subcategories deplete over time or based on events that happen in your life. The good news is you’re probably already taking care of a lot of these things. When you get hungry, you eat; thirsty, you drink. But then problems arise, or maybe you are having trouble getting something that you say you want. What gives? Below is a breakdown of each category and sub-category. I’m going to skip ones that are self explanatory.

Really important note: rather than focusing on working your way from most basic to complex, this is a dynamic model. That means the order of importance of each of these is based entirely on their level. For instance, you might be having a rough time financially, and need to solve difficult problems to fix that. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you have been neglecting your friends to focus on this problem it’s probably time recharge that level. What will surprise you is that you’ll probably have a clearer head when you come back to it.

The simplified version of Power Levels

If the breakdown of each subcategory is overwhelming, just remember that the top level categories deplete over time and that you need to watch how that process happens:

Physiology

  • Sleep
    • Affects mood, cognitive clarity and decision making.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Sex
    • Varies by person. Lack can cause irritability.
    • Depletes: varies by libido
  • Food
    • Low blood sugar affects mood and mental clarity.
    • Depletes: every few hours
  • Water
    • Even mild dehydration can impair cognitive function and decrease mental performance.
    • Depletes: hourly
  • Exercise
    • Regular exercise improves memory, mood and thinking skills.
    • Depletes: daily

Security

  • Physical
    • Having a physically safe place to live decreases stress
    • Depletes: depends on geographic location
  • Financial
    • Obsessing about money (or a lack of money) causes stress. Can also affect entire physiology category if you can’t afford food.
    • Depletes: weekly/monthly

Relationships

  • Interactions/ face time
    • Every person needs some amount of social interaction. This has less measurable but important effects on thinking and mood.
    • Depletes: varies by person
  • Challenges
    • When you have a conflict in a relationship it affects other aspects of life.
    • Depletes: based on conflicts in relationships

Cognition

  • Interest (in whatever you’re doing)
    • Disinterest in whatever your task at hand will mean that you need to exert more effort into whatever you’re doing at any given time. This can take away focus and effort from other parts of life.
    • Depletes: based on what you’re spending your time on
  • Stimulation
    • We need a certain amount of mental stimulation in our week. The type of mental stimulation goes hand in hand with interests.
    • Depletes: weekly

Tranquility

  • Mindfulness
    • Mindfulness has a ton of benefits. They range from better mental performance to lower blood pressure.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Gratitude
    • Gratitude is the antidote to anger.
    • Depletes: daily
  • Comfort
    • Important to manage but not over optimize.
    • Depletes: based on situation

How does this relate to work-life balance?

In order to maintain total well-being, you need to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize what needs attention. It’s easier to think of each of these as a part of a whole. It takes a lot of patience and practice to master when to re-prioritize.

Within the power levels, you need to ruthlessly prioritize whatever needs your attention. For example, if you notice your lips are dry, drink some water. If you notice that you’re starting to act irritably, maybe it’s time for snack. If you haven’t done something that makes your heart sing for quite some time, it may be time to go to a movie.

You need to have faith in yourself enough to know that taking a break is not going to cause your career to halt, but in fact will give you the space to make better decisions about your priorities. When you prioritize things that need your attention right when they need it, your overall well being improves. And when your well being improves, you get better at prioritizing what’s important! Positive feedback loop.

The best place to start is with some simple mindfulness. Remember that your needs operate on a sliding scale. When you recognize needs are dynamic, life becomes more interesting than “I have too much to do.” Suddenly, you gain control over what you choose to do. If you choose to work late because that’s your priority and it’s nourishing you, then all the better. But if you find that you’ve been working late too many days in a row. It may be time to take some of those “important tasks” and ruthlessly re-prioritize them against your whole life.

Do you know your greatest enemy?

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Hint: It’s not either of these guys!

Bite the Bullets (A quick summary if you don’t want to read the whole article)

  • Human behavioral biology is a multidisciplinary field that describes the fundamental biology behind what we do
  • There is a balancing mechanism in our bodies we cannot escape called homeostasis. Almost everything our body does is dictated by it.
  • All we eat and do affect us on many different biological levels, which in turn affect our behavior and thinking in a “homeostatic” way.
  • How we think affects our biology, which in turn affects how we think in a feedback loop
  • That’s why when we make decisions, it’s important to keep that in the back of our mind. It informs the context in which we make decisions.
  • For all these reasons you are your greatest enemy, but you can be your own best friend!

The great contradiction

There is a devilish problem in our society. It tricks even the smartest of us into making easily avoidable mistakes. It’s one of the reasons we get mad in our cars, why we get into fights and it’s very simple. It was the thing that our current president constantly exploits. The great contradiction is: we are irrational but we make decisions as if we are not. It’s not a terrible thing by itself, that we don’t act rationally most of the time. However, pretending we do means that we are often wrong without even knowing it. How can we limit how much our biology is exploited?

Enter behavioral biology!

This field describes the patterns of our decision making in a way that can help us deal with the fact that we’re irrational. In order to get clear on how our brains are manipulating us, we need to go through some of the building blocks of our brain itself. There are three crucial systems that are important to know to understand the symphony that is our behavior.

These fellas work together to make you who you are! It’s going to seem like we’re walking away from the core concept at first. Really, we’re on a grand journey that gives us a big picture understanding of what’s going on when we do and feel things. I promise it’s worth it!

We are irrational but we make decisions as if we are not. Click To Tweet

Homeostasis means balance

Yin and Yang: the elegant fight for balance of the universe. It turns out that the concept of yin and yang is spot on for describing a very important facet of our behavior as it relates to our biology: homeostasis. The break down of the word is homeo meaning “similar to” and “stasis” meaning balance. When you read homeostasis, just think balance.

For every action in your body, there is a reaction that serves as a balancing force. There’s a really interesting example of this: temperature. Under normal conditions, we sweat when we’re hot, and that cools us down.

That’s homeostatic or balancing process. Something in our brain senses a change that puts our body’s temperature out of balance. Then, it sends signals to regain balance. The Yin of being hot, the Yang of sweating to cool down. As you can imagine, there are countless more processes just like this! All of them in a constant state of organized chaos.

Just a taste of how complex this gets: when our body balances the acidity of our blood, it causes an imbalance in our temperature, so we sweat. That causes an imbalance in the amount of salt in our blood stream and that causes us to get thirsty. When we happen to drink a beverage that is acidic (like soda), the whole thing starts over. This goes on and on for as long as we’re alive.

It’s this beautiful and complex orchestra playing inside of us, balancing and counterbalancing all the important systems in our bodies. That’s important part of homeostasis: if you change something in one place, it changes something else somewhere entirely different. These systems are all interconnected, all following a similar pattern. For every Yin there is a Yang. This process, of course, affects our behavior.

The squishy squirty thingies in your head

What actually happens inside of you when your body gets hot and needs to cool down? There is a thermometer inside the part of your brain known as the hypothalamus (don’t worry about what it’s called). It senses heat and then tells other glands to send the message to parts of your body to cool down. That process is mediated by hormones in your bloodstream. (For the curious: this system of sensing something and then sending out some hormones is called the endocrine system).

That thermometer accepts signals from other regions of the brain and connects to this system through a weird little sack dangling off of it called the pituitary gland. In this analogy, this is like an A/C unit. That’s what sends the signal to cool you down.

Here’s all you need to remember: one part of your brain tells another part of your brain to squirt some hormones to some other glands that then cause your whole physiology to change. It’s just like a thermometer tells the A/C unit to turn on and start pumping cool air through the vents to change the temperature of the house.

There are little blobs in your head, squirting hormones in your bloodstream right now as you read this. It’s the same reason you feel your heart race when you get on a roller coaster, or get those butterflies in your stomach when you hold hands with that special someone. Utterly crazy.

There are little blobs in your head, squirting hormones in your bloodstream right now as you read this. Click To Tweet

The child in your head

We now know about homeostasis: things stay in balance for the most part and when they get out of balance, a bunch of things happen to balance them again. We also know that there is a system of glands squirting hormones around telling our bodies to react to help maintain that balance. What’s kicking off the process?

There is another collection of brain blobs are together known as the limbic system. Most of our basal emotions and, just for fun, where some of our learning happens, occurs in the limbic system [1]. The important part for us to explore at the moment is that the limbic system on a whole covers a lot of stuff from emotion to learning to consciousness.

It’s a long list, but the thing to remember is the gross oversimplification that it regulates emotion by telling the first gland (hypothalamus) in that process we covered above to kick things off. It’s the kid in you that just wants to go after things impulsively, or gets irrationally scared in the dark. That kid is stomping on the sack triggering your hormone releases.

It’s also important to remember specifically the piece that’s telling you to specifically excrete fear and arousal hormones. It’s called the amygdala and we’ll see it again in a bit.

The monk in your head

Whew, that was a lot of brain blobs that we just covered. There is one final blob we need to get through for this crash course. That’s the most interesting and important blob of all: the frontal cortex! I’ll steal the description of what it does straight from Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave. He describes the function of the frontal cortex as “doing the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do.”

In this case, “right” doesn’t mean morally right, but what’s the right thing in the context of what’s happening. What will offer the most utility in a situation. Lying is a great example, because it requires a ton of suppression of other parts of your brain, and thus a lot of work on the part of the prefrontal cortex. It’s usually not the morally right thing to do, but it’s the harder thing to do and you are telling your brain it’s the thing that’s happening. That’s what we mean by “right” in this case.

For our purposes, the calming of the kid in our brain is what the prefrontal cortex does. It’s like a very meditative monk that can drop the wisdom on the kid before she’s about to stomp around and release a bunch of hormones into your bloodstream. This is mediated by a lot of systems working together, but we’ll keep things simple for now [2].

“I know you’re afraid of the dark, but this is your home and there are locks on the door. There is nothing to be afraid of.” Remember how I just mentioned the amygdala? Quelling your fears is an example of the amygdala first telling you there is something wrong and then your prefrontal cortex telling your amygdala that all is quiet and well.

All together now

We’ve covered the building blocks of what causes our rationality and decision making to totally fall apart. It all comes down to these systems that we just explored working together in harmony (or disharmony if you’re trying to get something difficult done).

Imagine a scenario: you see a cutie that you’d like to chat with. What’s actually going on in your head? First the visual sensory information flows in. It bounces around the processing centers and you might get a little initial hit of arousal from the amygdala telling the hypothalamus to squirt some excitement hormones in you. Then the prefrontal cortex comes in!

It starts to go over all the terrible things that could go wrong in the hypothetical situation of you talking to this stud muffin across the room. It also tells the amygdala to trigger, but this time it’s a fear response! Now your endocrine system thinks you are in physical danger, so you start sweating in a classic fight or flight response.

Maybe you end up talking to this person and saying some completely silly stuff that you normally wouldn’t say. Now it should make a lot of sense why it’s so hard to accomplish such a simple task! Your prefrontal cortex, limbic system AND endocrine system are doing a lot of work. With all that extra burden, how can you expect to be clever?

A vital part of this interaction is seeing that the effects are a two-way-street. That is to say: you feel and think things because of your biology, which in turn causes your biology to change. You can think your body into having a physiological reaction and you can calm your thinking by say, slowing your breathing [3].

Of course, I’m leaving out a lot of steps in this process, but that’s the basic ping pong that happens in your brain any time anything happens to you. This is the beauty of human behavioral biology and how this affects you is really extensive. Think about every time you make a decision, try to convince someone of something, or need to get some important work done. There is a cocktail of context that you might be neglecting: your biology.

There is also a wealth of information in observing your own behavior with this tinting your self-reflection. The thing that I’ve mentioned several times on this site is the example of people getting irritable when they’re hungry, which is a pretty common occurrence. Taking that concept further, and knowing everything is interconnected, imagine how your thinking, attitude and mood are affected by something like chronic stress.

When things don’t go exactly as planned, you end up with a lot of valuable and actionable insights about your body specifically. Your personal internal interactions are worth getting to know intimately, because no one on earth can feel what physical responses you experience to certain stimuli. It sort of muddies the lines between the quirks each of us have individually. Every action has a reaction, which probably tugs on some string in another part of the unravelling sweater of systems inside of you.

The simple bow on these very complex systems and information is this: it’s useful to remember specifically how human you are in a biological context. When you’re trying to learn a new behavior or a habit, your strategy might start with how you’re going to navigate the interactions between the parts of your brain. When you’re getting impatient with yourself or reacting, let the fact that this is a symphony of hormones remind you to slow down and take a breath. Your body has to balance a whole lot after all.

When you’re getting impatient with yourself or reacting, let the fact that this is a symphony of hormones remind you to slow down and take a breath. Click To Tweet

Who is your greatest enemy? YOU ARE! You’re brain is constantly out to get you. The good news is, you can learn to become your best friend. Mastering your biology is a step towards overall self mastery.

Notes

[1] Parts of the limbic system and what they do:

  • The amygdala, which means almond.
    • Responsible for fear, arousal and motor outputs.
  • The hippocampus, which is latin for seahorse.
    • Does a bunch of things and still isn’t fully understood, but at least tackles emotional processing, memory consolidation and spatial cognition (i.e. remembering where your house is).
  • The septum, a term for any structure that’s the “midline” of something.
    • In this case it’s the midline of the brain. Connects a bunch of parts of the limbic system.
  • The thalamus, the thing above the hypothalamus.
    • It relays sensory input such as pain.
  • The ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens.
    • Cores to dopamine transport.

[2] Speaking of complex systems, dopamine is another super interesting topic that we don’t have time in this overview to dive into. Since you’re here in the annotations, I’ll tell you the most interesting counterintuitive tidbit about dopamine. It’s not so much of a reward hormone as it is an anticipation hormone. That is to say, dopamine peaks in our bloodstream when we anticipate we’re going to get a treat rather than after we get it. We’re most excited and elated to get the new shiny and it’s all over as soon as we get it. Tragedy of the human race, isn’t it?

[3] Before any of you come at me with pitchforks: I’m not saying you can cure a serious illnesses by just thinking. Additionally, don’t take this to your friend with major depression and say “look, thinking can change your physiology!” This is a much more complex mental illness and I’m not endorsing the concept of “just think your way to being happy.” If you must connect this concept to something like mental illness, the place to look is in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is the same physical mechanism, and backed by supporting scientific evidence. Here’s a place to start: https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/cognitive-behavioral-therapy/about/pac-20384610

The Greatest Drug In the World?

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A cup of milk on coffee beans and a cup of coffee on milk beans

The fiend and the friend

Let’s take a deep breath: in through your nose, count to four, out through your mouth, count to four. Okay, let’s begin. This is going to be hard for both of us. We’re drug addicts after all.

Within six inches of my left hand is a cup of hot brown bean juice. Not just any bean; little crushed-up, dried-out beans from a warm part of the world. It tastes bitter, and most people find it unpleasant when they first experience it. Obviously, we’re talking about the “C” word: coffee!

When I started drinking it—similarly to the beastie boys—I liked my sugar with coffee and cream. Now I’m thoroughly addicted to the hot brown liquid: I all but mainline it. Spending twenty-two dollars on a bag of specialty beans handpicked on a fair-trade certified-organic farm in Ethiopia. Milk in my single origin specialty? Are you a monster?! I drink it black; each cup poured by hand with precisely weighed beans, a timer, and 200-degree water. That or an espresso pulled from a fancy machine at a local shop. I’m aware of my depravity. But I feel justified!

You see, I’m in good company. After all, 85% Americans drink a caffeinated beverage every single day. On top of that, we regularly read of all the benefits. (Thanks caffeine informer.) Caffeine seems to lower the risk of depression, diabetes, and overall increases livelihood and productivity. That must make it the “perfect drug”. I’m skeptical.

I know what I feel like when I take in too much caffeine. Or if I drink coffee on an empty stomach. Or when I am sleep deprived and try to compensate with a caffeinated beverage. It’s not so magical when I’m tossing and turning at 1 a.m., and I’ve got to get up in 5 hours.

Here, I’m going to outline how to boost positive effects and limit the adverse effects of caffeine. We’ll look at how caffeine works in the brain, what the potential long term effects could be, and most importantly, how to use it like a pro.

Caffeine Makes You Less Sleepy

Caffeine has a ton of effects on our bodies. There have been studies that show it can increase athletic performance, the military has done studies on how to create the perfect dose for soldiers, and there are even more studies on how it improves academic and professional performance. The best-understood chemical pathway is what it does to prevent sleepiness: it works by tricking you into feeling less tired.

I don’t know if they still teach this in grade school, but I remember learning: “mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell.” That is to say: mitochondria are where our cells get their energy from. Most of us stop there, but to understand how caffeine tricks our brains it’s helpful to revisit what that actually means.

See, mitochondria create energy for our body in the form of ATP. That stands for Adenosine Triphosphate. Not too surprising to find out that’s made of a molecule called adenosine with three phosphates attached to it. Throughout a few different chemical pathways, those phosphates get cut off and are used to power various things in our cells. As the ATP that the mitochondria produce gets chopped up for the phosphates, adenosine builds up as a byproduct outside of cells [1].

Adenosine is one of the things making us feel sleepy. When it builds up outside of cells after the phosphate has been used, it attaches to “adenosine receptors” that poke out all over the surface of each cell. That triggers another long chemical pathway, which eventually tells your brain it’s time to go to bed, and you get that sensation of fatigue.

What does this have to do with caffeine? Caffeine is a trickster that looks just like adenosine to those receptors. It goes and attaches to them, blocking a *real* adenosine that would have done so. Instead of a message that reaches your brain and muscles saying “I’m tired,” you get one that says “all systems go!!!” That feeling of fatigue goes away. Problem solved, I’m no longer sleepy. But wait! There’s more!

Caffeine Has Side Effects

Anyone who’s had too much coffee could tell you some of caffeine’s less mild symptoms: rapid heart rate, fidgetiness, mild anxiety, insomnia to name a few. It seems clear from the research [link to compound study] that the effects of regular caffeine use are not harmful to our health, but I often wonder about a more nuanced story.

When doctors say that daily ingestion of coffee and caffeine are totally fine, they are talking about a dose of about 400 mg for the “average person”. What does that actually mean? Well, 400 mg is usually described as “four cups of regular strength coffee.” It turns out that’s not accurate at all.

For example, a single Grande (roughly 16oz) of Starbucks brewed coffee contains a whopping 310 mg! That’s for a single medium-sized cup of coffee. (Just for reference: one spoon of instant coffee is about 60 mg of caffeine). If you have one of those in the morning, that’s 77.5% of your total daily limit. If you spring for a Venti instead (20oz), you’re ingesting about 410 mg of caffeine. When you finish that cup of joe, you’re already 10mg over the *daily* recommended dose. That’s precisely where things get tricky: dosage.

The short term side-effects of caffeine are utterly dependent on the dose of caffeine you’re ingesting. You drink more than 400 mg in one go at “average body weight,” you’ll experience that fuzzy feeling of being over-amped. That’s a minor caffeine overdose. Specifically, if you feel those adverse effects I mentioned earlier—anxiousness, sleeplessness, high blood pressure—you are experiencing an overdose.

This is all for the “average consumer,” but what about high caffeine sensitivity? What about people who are below average weight? The standard recommended dosage goes out of the window. This is the part where it’s important to know ourselves better than a doctor’s general recommendation. That way we can build a caffeine dosage that serves us rather than hurts us.

How to dose like a pro

Remember a good rule of thumb is an actual “average” cup of coffee is going to contain about 300 mg of caffeine (~5 small spoons of Folger’s instant coffee powder). That’s one good measure to remember because if you’re drinking about half of that, it’s one-hundred-and-something milligrams of caffeine and if you’re drinking twice that it’s closer to six-hundred-and-something milligrams.

With that in mind, there are three easy to remember categories for caffeine sensitivity: hyper (high) sensitivity, normal sensitivity, and hypo (low) sensitivity.

  • People with high caffeine sensitivity experience the effects of an overdose around 100mg of caffeine. That’s about one shot of espresso or half of small coffee.
  • People with normal caffeine sensitivity experience overdose at over ~400 mg of caffeine. A medium cup of coffee to two cups of coffee.
  • Finally, people with low caffeine sensitivity don’t really feel the wakeful effects of caffeine at a normal dose. They may not experience even a mild overdose at any level. (This represents about 1 in 10 people; rare, but not extremely rare.)

These numbers are super helpful to get a benchmark, but the best thing to do even if you’re not a heavy coffee drinker is to take a couple days where you actually write down how much caffeine you’re consuming, and how it makes you feel. I can quote the recommended dose and the genetic factors all day, but you’re going to know yourself and what works for you best. You will only have to do this once or twice to get your personal benchmark.

The other side of caffeine sensitivity is something you’re probably much more familiar with: caffeine tolerance. It’s been shown that the timeline for tolerance to build and/or decline is shorter than you might think. You can develop “near complete tolerance” in as few as one to four days.

You can think of tolerance like this: your body sees that adenosine receptors are not doing what they are supposed to do. Your brain is good at compensating for imbalances like this, so it produces more than usual. You notice the effect of this pretty quickly because now one cup of coffee doesn’t cut it, and change your behavior: you drink more coffee. Boom. Now you’ve got a caffeine tolerance.

If you’ve been guzzling cup after cup for a few days and immediately stop, your tolerance disappears in about a week. One week of detox will get you back to feeling like a rockstar after just one dose. More on tolerance.

This leads us to the idea of a “dosing schedule.” To make your own dosing schedule, figure out where you fall on the sensitivity spectrum (you probably already know) and try staying within the boundaries of overdose. When you experience the sensation of tolerance, rather than increasing your dose, decrease it. This will give you sustainable benefits rather than a series of peaks and valleys.

The High-Risk Coffee Drinker

We’re going to finish with a bit of somewhat dismal educated speculation. It calls back to that skepticism towards the idea that “caffeine is a perfect drug.” One of the primary and well-studied side effects of caffeine is high blood pressure. It’s often presented with the caveat that the effects wear off as caffeine does, after a few hours. I’ve seen little research about what that means in terms of daily dosing for years.

A quote directly from Mayo Clinic on the complications of high blood pressure:

The excessive strain on your artery walls caused by high blood pressure can damage your blood vessels, as well as organs in your body. The higher your blood pressure and the longer it goes uncontrolled, the greater the damage. Source

   Why is it so bad to have damage to your blood vessels? For a lot of reasons. It causes a laundry list of health issues: risk of aneurysm, metabolic syndrome, and even dementia. One of the best-understood causes of arterial plaque buildup [5] is, you guessed it, damaged arteries. That’s the precursor to heart disease and heart attacks. Not so fun.

    The short version of how this works: Prolonged high blood pressure causes inflammation and damage to the arterial walls. “Bad” cholesterol [6] tends to stick in parts of arteries that have damage or inflammation. The areas where the plaque builds up can eventually break apart and lead to heart attacks and/or strokes [7].  

    I want to make it clear that I’m not building a narrative against caffeine entirely, but highlighting the lifestyle that leads to long term adverse health outcomes. I call the person that’s prone to this “the high-risk coffee drinker”. The hard thing for me to accept is: I am this person.

    It goes something like this: I’ve got too much to do and not enough time. My intuition tells me that if I want to get all this work done, I need to make time. In response to this demand, I stay up late and get up early. That next day, I’m exhausted. I still have things to do, and I need to be bright for the day, so I drink a few cups of coffee to compensate for the lethargy. My blood pressure goes up, and I’m stressed so I eat crap food to comfort myself (probably high in bad cholesterol). The cycle continues.

I know I can get away with that for a while, but it’s vitally important to me to not fall into a habit of getting stressed, messing up my sleep and using caffeine as a workaround. Caffeine is a really potent stimulant, and it can help improve performance on a lot of tasks. It’s also usually weaved into tasty beverages which are fun to share with friends. That’s why the problem isn’t measured in cups, it’s measured in prolonged habits over days that turn into years.

Coffee isn’t going to kill you by itself, but it’s better to use it effectively than mindlessly. Come up with a dose that works for you. Be honest with yourself when you’ve gone too many days relying on stimulants to get things done. If you’re like me, and you constantly have a cup on hand, try taking a break for a week and see how you feel. You might like the peace and quiet in your mind.

Notes and addendums

[1] I’m oversimplifying a lot of things so that we can understand this at a high enough level to be useful. This is going to happen a bit in this post so I won’t disclaim it anymore after this note.

[2] Caffeine Informer has made an absolutely excellent tool for exploring this: https://www.caffeineinformer.com/the-caffeine-database

[3] For the nerds: caffeine sensitivity is affected by two core things. The first and most important is how fast you metabolize it in your liver. This is expressed by two specific genes: one well understood called CYP1A2 and the gene that regulates it called AHR. These directly affect metabolism.The second is to a lesser extent and can be roughly categorized by how many and what type of adenosine receptors you have in your brain. People with less adenosine receptors on average are going to be more sensitive. People with the “wrong type” are going to be hyposensitive. Additionally, the adenosine receptors play a larger role relating to tolerance: when you drink a lot of caffeine for an extended period, your brain compensates by popping more receptors on the outside of your cells, reducing sensitivity.

[4] Fun fact: Echinacea, yes the cold-remedy, actually increases the blood concentration of caffeine when taken in conjunction. If you’ve got a cold and you’re taking supplements with echinacea while drinking caffeine, you could be increasing both positive and negative effects.

[5] This is also called atherosclerosis.

[6] Bad cholesterol: Low-density lipoproteins (LDLs). This as opposed to “good” cholesterol: high-density lipoproteins (HDLs).  LDLs are found in things like avocados, olive/vegetable oil, and nuts. HDLs are found in animal fats like bacon, lard and milk products. [https://medlineplus.gov/hdlthegoodcholesterol.html]

[7] Final nerd aside: That mechanism is from two big problems. The first is hypoxia (low oxygen) to the places that the blood is flowing simply because with a narrower artery, the blood can’t flow as well. The second problem arises when the plaque breaks from the wall of the artery and causes a blood clot. A blood clot blocking blood flow to the heart is what causes a heart attack. Blocking blood to the brain causes stroke. They are actually the same thing in different places in the body.