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How to See the Future and Win Before you Begin!

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Man looking through binoculars

There are many moments in life that can be defined as “crucial.” Whether it is simply your next day, week, year, an argument, negotiation, etc. what determines the outcome of the moment is how well prepared you were.

In this video, Tyler discusses the three pillars to successfully navigating crucial moments. The video was motivated by Tyler’s reading of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High and the article he wrote summarizing what from the book influenced him the most.

Read the “Navigating Crucial Life Moments Masterfully” here.

Buy the book the video and article was built from on Amazon here.

Out With the Bad, In With the Good

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Man wearing gas mask with red smoke in the background.

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

  • Take stock of negative influences in your life (people, shows, news, etc.) and limit your exposure to them
  • Amplify what is good in your life (people, shows, etc.)

Savor the Summary

There are some books that have too many nuggets of knowledge to summarize them in a single article. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make us Human by Jonathan Gottschall is definitely one of them. In my first article relating to The Storytelling Animal (check it out here!), I discussed how the shows we watch and books we read are stories that help us simulate real life situations. And that we can take advantage of the “simulations” we put in our minds to level up our desired skills. 

Beyond this, what resonated most with me was when Gottschall discussed the types of stories we are most drawn to on both conscious and subconscious levels. After hearing this and reflecting on how my days/weeks/years have gone when I ingested certain types of stories, it gave me a new energy to take control of the types of stories I consume so I can live my best life.

The following is a summary of how different story types can shape our lives and how being picky regarding our diet of stories can seriously improve our mental health and outlook on life.

Out With the Bad

Francine wakes up to the chiming of her alarm. After two deep breaths Francine gets out of bed, plays her favorite Monday morning jam, The Rascals’ “It’s a Beautiful Morning,” and sings along in her perfect shower voice as she is getting ready for the day.

In the other room, Francine’s twin sister Stacy is jolted awake by the buzzing of her alarm. Rolling around in bed she checks her social media and news feeds for fifteen minutes. “Great,” she thinks to herself. “Another day, another international tragedy, murder, and sour economic forecast. Happy Monday…” she groans sarcastically to herself as she rolls out of bed. 

Can you guess who is more likely to have a positive experience that day/week? If you guessed Francine, you are correct! But if we know this and we all want to have positive days, why do most of us live like Stacy’s?

Because as Gottschall mentions, “Trouble is the fat read thread that ties together the fantasies of pretend play, fiction, and dreams, and trouble provides a possible clue to the function they all share: giving us practice in dealing with the big dilemmas of human life” (83).

Whether we are awake or dreaming, we are drawn to stories of danger, death, and destruction like moths to a flame. As part of our evolution, real threats have always been a primary focus because we needed to avoid them to survive. Even stories of threats (e.g. most of what’s in the news) captivate us because it taps in to the same survival instinct. Now the media focuses on this making trouble seem more prevalent than it truly is. 

The main problem with overindulging in stories of “trouble” is that most of the trouble we read or hear about is NOT a direct threat to us. However, it still dominates our internal narratives of how the world is, keeping us in perpetual states of fear and pessimism. Even if it is a low level of fear or pessimism it is enough to alter the confidence with which you approach the world. At higher levels, these stories support a mental environment of depression.

But it is NOT all doom and gloom. Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, we have complete control over what we put in our minds. And, just like with our diets, the stories we consume impact our mental states. 

I am lactose intolerant, and if I put milk in my body I am going to have digestion problems for at least the next four days. In the same way, the stories we consume are the diets for our mind. So, if you know you have an intolerance to certain stories and they make you feel bad, why would you consume them?

In the previous story, Stacy has a clearly negative reaction to reading news first thing in the morning. So, it isn’t hard to see that Stacy’s outlook on life could drastically improve if she removed those negative morning stories she was consuming. But anyone who’s tried dieting where you simply “stop eating the bad stuff” knows that this approach won’t last without some healthy and tasty substitutes.

In With the Good

Just as it is hard to crave candy after you eat a bunch of healthy and sweet fruit, replacing the negative stories with positive ones will prevent a relapse into consuming negative content. In the previous story, imagine Stacy is unable to break the habit of immediately looking at her news feed first thing in the morning. Similar to many of us, dopamine addiction has gotten the best of her and she believes she can’t control her need for screen time. 

A way to make the best of this situation would be to start downvoting, disliking, or choosing “show me fewer of these stories” when presented with negative sensationalist news. At the same time, upvoting, liking or choosing “show me more of these stories” when seeing stories she likes (possibly artistic, funny, or triumphant stories) will shift what fills her plate for her morning mental breakfast. This simple change has the power to completely shift the trajectory of a day which, when done consistently, can compound into a better week and great year!

And this isn’t only relevant to news or TV shows. The same applies to people and places as well. Interacting with your surroundings is the live action story of your life, and if being around certain people or places reinforces a negative narrative you have about yourself or the world, remove those sources of negativity from your life and replace them with positive influences!

Now I know you might be thinking:  “I enjoy hanging out with certain people sometimes,” “They are family and cutting them out of my life is impossible,” or “Being aware of what is going on in the world is essential.” In these cases, limit your exposure to what you know are negative influences. Ask yourself, “what is the minimum effective dose I need to be aware of world events or to stay connected to my friend/family member?” 

At one point in my life the friends I surrounded myself with all drank a lot, so I drank a lot. On top of that, their views of the world were generally negative and defeatist. On the other hand, they were very caring and loving individuals so there is no way I was going to simply leave them behind. But limiting my exposure to events where there would be drinking and not indulging in conversations of bleak futures gave me back a positivity that good things are possible and the confidence to pursue those things.

The double bonus was that after limiting my exposure to these negative influences, I had extra time to bring in positivity. I had more time to study, resulting in better grades and improved confidence. Not being hungover allowed me to wake up earlier and exercise, completely shifting my health. And all of this combined to support my refreshed and positive narrative that life IS beautiful and all things are possible!

Conclusion

Stories exert a commanding force on our lives and mentalities. Just like food, our diet of content influences our mental and physical wellbeing. Francine singing “It’s a Beautiful Morning” to start her day is much more likely to kickoff a great day as opposed to her sister Stacy reading apocalyptic news in the morning.

And whether we admit it or not, we DO have control over our lives. So why not take control of the stories you consume to alter your reality for the better? Even if you believe the “reality” of things is negative, ask yourself what is the harm in not being reminded of it all the time? “As the philosopher William Hirstein puts it, positive illusions keep us from yielding to despair” (174). 

Stop gorging yourself on negative stories and start consuming the superfood of positive ones. Out with the bad, in with the good.

Peter Thiel’s Zero To One – Summary and Criticism

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

  • What important truth do very few people agree with you on? This question can be applied to almost every part of business to find secret success.
  • The Power Law: A tiny amount of effort in the right place can outweigh all other efforts. This pattern applies strongly to when making decisions.
  • The magnitude of the power law is often misunderstood. For example, the last year of an exponential curve will be worth all other years combined.
  • Sales is often underrated and underrepresented in successful companies. Good sales and distribution is enough to gain a monopoly.
  • There are seven vital questions a company must get right to succeed. See them below under seeing green.

Quick link:

Savor the Summary

In Peter Thiel and Blake Master’s short and potent Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, the reader is constantly prodded to reflect on widely accepted conventions through a contrarian lens. The core of the book rests on the question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” The authors propose that the answers to this question in different categories lead to the discovery of new industries and better choices in existing businesses. Some of the contrarian lessons of the dot-com bubble: It is better to risk boldness than triviality; A bad plan is better than no plan; Competitive markets destroy profits; Sales matters just as much as product. 

In the book, monopolies are celebrated and defended again and again. Here, a monopoly is defined as: a company so good at what it does, no other firm can offer a close substitute. The characteristics of a good monopoly are: Proprietary technology 10x better than its closest substitute; Network effects; Economies of scale; Branding. Companies should leverage the power law and not ignore the importance of sales.

The concepts in the book are best summarized in the seven questions a company must get right to succeed: Can you create breakthrough technology (10x better) instead of incremental improvement?; Is now the right time to start this particular business?; Are you starting with a big share of a small market?; Do you have the right team?; Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?; Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?; Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

What you can take from this book

Don’t follow the crowd

At the core of this book is the concept that you should trust your original thoughts even in the face of a mass of people who disagree. The question comes up again and again: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

A good answer sounds like: Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x. Copying things that work and making them more is termed globalization in this book. The title of the book comes from the idea of new inventions. The concept of going from zero to one. This is how the author defines technology.

“How much of what you know about business is shaped by mistaken reactions to past mistakes?”

The business version of the core question is: what valuable company is nobody building? This is what is explored throughout the book.

Another concept that’s really hit hard is that competition is bad. The author argues that in perfect competition, no company makes a profit. He goes further to say that monopolies are a good thing. The definition of a monopoly in this book: a company so good at what it does, no other firm can offer a close substitute.

Characteristics of a “good” monopoly

  1. Proprietary technology that is 10 times better than it’s closest substitute.
  2. Network effects. E.g. If all your friends are on Facebook, you’re more likely to use it too.
  3. Economies of scale. It gets stronger with size.
  4. Branding. A brand should be built on a strong foundation, it’s not enough to just polish and design on top of a shoddy substrate.

How this applies to you: In whatever you create, you should aim for a 10x improvement on the “competition.” Your “proprietary technology” is actually what you bring to the table that is special and different. For instance, if you are an artist, your objective should be to create art that is 10 times better than your favorite inspiration. If you’re a real estate agent, you could create an experience for your clients that is 10 times better than the agents in your area.

Sounds hard? That’s because it is. This is a grounded way to take what you’re doing more seriously and get attention for whatever you choose to create. It’s a good tool to try to think bigger when you are limiting yourself.

The concept of a “network effect” is valuable as well. Another way of thinking about this is “community effect.” It’s not enough to make good things, you are going to eventually rely on the network or community that consumes that thing. If you do something so awesome that people tell their friends about you, that’s a network effect. (Even if it’s just the best kickflip someone has ever seen, if they tell their friends you’ve created a node in a network. It’s that simple.)

The concept of economies of scale is valuable too. The idea is: the cost per unit of something decreases when you do or make more of it. This applies less to other fields than business, but is a tool to remember as you start to “scale out” of a given role. If you’re an artist, and people start buying so much of your art that you can’t keep up, it might be time to stretch into a different medium that more people can consume; like digital media or video.

Finally, branding is the thing that only you are capable of adding to whatever you do. Brand makes whatever you work on stand out. It makes it memorable. When you’re completely honest and bring yourself to a project, that adds brand. No amount of expensive design can make something have a brand. It’s got to be built in from the core.

Luck and the future

Is success due to luck? Not according to the author. To break this question down, there are four perspectives you could take on the future:

  • Indefinite pessimism. 
    • The future is unpredictable and probably bad. This is the nihilist/hedonist mentality.
  • Definite pessimism. 
    • The future is predictably bad. This is the doomsday prepper mentality.
  • Definite optimism. 
    • The future is within our control and can be made good. This is the engineer’s mentality. 
  • Indefinite optimism. 
    • This is the prevailing attitude of America today and the mindset that chance wins most of the time.

The way to build the future is to be a Definite Optimist when making decisions. In practice, this looks like making a plan based on hard thinking about what the future holds, and having the confidence that our actions can impact that future. If you have a strong idea for why something is good and are able to act on it, that’s a stronger stance than just hoping things are going to turn out well.

Definite optimism is trusting in yourself more than you trust chance or fate. If that sounds bold or heretical, maybe you don’t believe in yourself as much as you could.

The Power Law

Everyone is an investor. Whether you’re investing time or money, you need to make choices in the hopes that those choices will lead to positive future outcomes. Sometimes, you can leverage a small amount of input to have a huge return. This is the concept of the power law. The thing that’s hard to grasp is the magnitude.

The example in the book is that investing in startups is hard and counterintuitive because it follows a power law. A single startup in an investor’s portfolio can outweigh all of the other investments combined. That’s how powerful power law returns are.

The take-home: When you’re choosing what to do, don’t try to do everything and hope something works out. Instead, focus heavily on the causes and effects of each decision, and invest time in the decisions that can outweigh all others.

Secrets

According to the book, the trick to answering the core question is to look for secrets. There are two kinds of secrets: ones about nature and ones about people. Secrets about nature are found by pursuing things like a deep understanding of physics. Secrets about people are underrated. These are found by interrogating basic conventions. For instance, you might ask: “what are people not allowed to talk about?” When you find a secret, tell only who you need to tell and no more. 

The author presents a “secret” later in the book that most people are average and fall into a normal distribution. Creators seem to fall into an “inverse normal distribution” also called a “u-shaped curve.” This means they have seemingly opposing traits. For instance, extremely smart, but unable to drive a car. The valuable piece of this secret is that you should focus and lean into your strengths rather than worry extensively about your weaknesses.

“A great company is in a conspiracy to change the world; when you share your secret, the recipient becomes a fellow conspirator.”

Sales

Most of this section applies to businesses. If you’re not interested in selling a product, skip it.

Before reading this for the first time, I thought of sales as an icky business. Here, a strong argument is made that sales is an important skill for everyone and great sales is a hidden superpower. Superior sales and distribution can be enough to win when creating something. This is not true for a good product without good sales and distribution.

The king of sales and distribution decisions is Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) compared to Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC). Easy to remember: a CLV greater than CAC equals profit.

According to the author, there is a continuum of distribution from viral marketing to complex sales. For scale: viral marketing sits at an average price point of about $1 to $10 per unit. Complex sales hits seven figures or more. 

Here are the categories broken down:

  • Complex sales
    • Requires extremely high touch and perhaps the CEO of the company to navigate the entire sales process. However, this is possible because you may only need to sell one unit per year and grow at a rate of 50% to 100% each year.
    • You need to cater each sale to the individual customer with this sales process.
  • Personal sales
    • Average deal sizes between $10,000 and $100,000 are not complex, but will require a process and a sales team.
  • Dead zone
    • A product that is priced ~$1,000. The reason is that it requires a high touch for people to buy it and the price doesn’t justify the effort to sell it.
    • Don’t price products in this range as a small business.
  • Regular “marketing and advertising” distribution
    • Works for low priced products that can’t be distributed virally. This could be physical product that’s sold in stores.
    • Word of warning: no startup can match big companies’ budgets for marketing and ads. 
  • Viral Marketing
    • Defined by a product that leverages users as distribution, by sharing it with friends. Facebook is a key example of a product that did this well because when it was shared with friends they in turn shared it with their friends.
    • “Whoever is first to dominate the most important segment of a market with viral potential will be the last mover in the whole market.”

How it applies to you: it’s important to recognize that one of these methods of distribution will have a power law impact for your business. Figure that out and focus on that one. In addition, it’s vital to sell yourself, your business and your message. Every moment you interact with other people who could benefit from what you do is a chance to get better at sales.

“Look around. If you don’t see any salespeople, you’re the salesperson.”

Seven questions a business must answer

According to Thiel, every business must answer seven crucial questions correctly to succeed.

  • The Engineering Question: Can you create breakthrough technology (10x better) instead of incremental improvement?
  • The Timing Question: Is now the right time to start this particular business?
  • The Monopoly Question: Are you starting with a big share of a small market?
  • The People Question: Do you have the right team?
  • The Distribution Question: Do you have a way to not just create but deliver your product?
  • The Durability Question: Will your market position be defensible 10 and 20 years into the future?
  • The Secret Question: Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?

The author states that if you can answer all of these questions correctly, you will be able to build a successful company. If you fail to answer these, you will almost certainly fail. 

“Above all, don’t underestimate your power as an individual.”

Criticism

I’ve read this book several times and it took me an embarrassing number of attempts to put this summary together. It’s because I have a love-hate relationship with the concepts within. The single best thing I’ve taken from this book is the specific flavor of hard thinking to determine “first principles.” This is something that Elon Musk has specifically advocated in interviews. Since then, it has become somewhat of a mantra in Silicon Valley (where I work). I’ve found that many people are excited about the idea of first principle thinking, and in the next breath go and copy something someone else is doing. The contrarian perspective is really powerful in determining what to focus on.

The next best concept is a strong understanding of the power law. This distribution is all around us, but when misinterpreted it seems to cause sadness and anger. When you hear about the 1% owning more than the other 99 you can get upset or recognize that it’s due to a straightforward principle. I’m not saying it’s fair, in fact, I’m saying that this the truth about how things become unfair.

One of the more frustrating parts of this book is the very simple model of competition and monopoly. Sure, it’s contrarian to say that competition is bad and monopolies are good. To say that “competition is an ideology” is sort of like saying “age is just a mindset.” Yes, in a lot of ways it’s true, also when you get old enough, you die. What’s expressed here is not the colloquial definition of Monopoly. No one would disagree with someone claiming that a company should build something so good that there is not a close second. Conventional monopolies of the past weren’t from geniuses inventing a new whizgig, but someone finding all the oil in one place. These types of monopolies are ignored in the book.

Not to get too philosophical: competition is a structural part of our universe. It’s a pattern that, at least to me, isn’t good or bad. It’s an agent of change. Competition is never good for the competitors, but is the force behind why we have consciousness. You could think of chemical reactions as competition between atoms based on concentrations of substrate. This is a business book, so of course it deserves a lot of leeway.

Overall, I find that the book leans heavily on armchair thinkin’ rather than well grounded facts. It’s hard to listen to a privileged billionaire who went to Stanford tell you that luck doesn’t have anything to do with success. However, that doesn’t take away from the core strengths. A friend and colleague called this book a “good mind expander for when you’re not thinking big enough”. I hands-down agree. It’s inspiring and provides valuable heuristics; especially if you’re exposed to them for the first time. 

Once again, the two most valuable tools are: 1) the contrarian question as long as it’s used wisely and 2) the basic understanding of the power law. Once you really get this pattern, you start to see it everywhere and it’s a huge advantage in decision making. If you read only one chapter, I recommend the chapter on sales. In my opinion, it is a glowing example of positive alternative thinking and a useful of tactics for building up a business.

The essential first step is to think for yourself.

Make an impact on an audience

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Captivated Audience in Auditorium

This is not a conventional article, this is a quick cheetsheet for working a room. This works for any presentation or performance. This is specifically for a format where you (one person) are presenting to a larger group (multiple people). The core concepts can be applied to musical performances too though.

Relax! (here are some tactics for learning to relax in front of a group of people.)

  • Practice doing a few things that make you uncomfortable outside of the presentation.
  • Try out saying this to yourself before you: “I know what I know, they want to know what I know”
  • Go to a public area and give a 10 second presentation now why today is a good day. Just make it up. The point is to get to that feeling of “people are looking at me, and I don’t know what to say.” Then you get over it.
  • Yell your name in the mirror. If you practice saying your name loudly, it won’t feel as strange to say to an audience

This is a performance first and informative second.

  • Whatever you are trying to get across to the audience, the important thing is to make it engaging first. This is not entirely just conveying info.
  • If this was strictly for the information, it would be better as a written document. Remember that the fact it’s live and you have people to get engaged is the strength of the format. 
  • Audiences are more engaged after you say something funny or tell an entertaining story.

If you’re casual, the audience will be casual

  • This works in the reverse as well. If you are very formal, the audience will follow your lead. Talk how you would talk to a friend, and the audience will feel much more comfortable.
  • If you’re trying to keep things casual, just remember what your style is. If you’re not sure of your style, imagine how you would tell a story about something that happened in your life to close friends. That’s how you should present.

Don’t practice what your thing is word for word! (Don’t memorize words)

  • I don’t recommend you practice the presentation beat for beat. Instead, you should have a conversation for the length of time that the presentation goes.
  • It’s much harder to remember all your talking points for a presentation. So if you can be convincing without the aid of cue cards or slides, it will seem so easy it feels like “cheating on the test” when you do have reminders of where you are in the conversation.
  • The fancy word for this is “extemperaneous” which just means, partially made up on the spot.

Know your facts and highlight them. (Do memorize the facts)

  • 30% of presentations don’t require the use of numbers. The remaining 70% of presentations absolutely do. 
  • I made that up, which you should actually not do. But citing a specific number and putting that as the highlight of your point is very convincing. It’s best if you know every single fact in your presentation.
  • Use as few words as possible on visual elements.
  • This advice has been given time and time again (you know Steve Jobs? He said this.) It’s rarely actually used.
  • If the audience is expected to read stuff, then send them an article you wrote and tell them the presentation is cancelled. Images on a screen are much more engaging than a wall of text.
  • Instead of sentences, only put bullet point facts and fun or informative images.

These are just the basics that I use day-to-day to own presenting and performing to people. You can go so far beyond this with your own spin and flavor.

What I’ve learned from billionaires

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Man helping another man climb a mountain

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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Child watching TV

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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Plan A and B crossed out, plan C underlined

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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A hand holding melting ice cream

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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A University of Texas football fan with face painted

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!