How do we utilize the part of us that holds us back?
An insidious part inside everyone of us prevents us from pursuing our dreams and living up to our true potential. Steven Pressfield called this the Resistance. We all have it. It takes various forms – procrastination, rationalization, a tendency to quit good habits and slide down the slippery slope.
It starts, however, as that familiar lurch in the stomach that happens when we sit down to do our work. It is this discomfort that causes us to put work off in the first place. It returns every time and retreats only when we stare down the barrel of a deadline.
The Resistance is useful because it is one-sided. It happens only when we reach for something meaningful. It doesn’t bother to show up when we do the familiar, the comfortable or the trivial.
When we take a step in the right direction, the Resistance shows up. Therefore, it can serve as our compass.
‘People would never trust strangers in their homes’, they said. But AirBnB was born, and people did.
‘A phone with just one button? Wouldn’t work’, they said. But Apple invented the smartphone and it worked.
‘Sending huge rockets to space? Only governments can do that, not startups’, they said. Yet, SpaceX, which would barely turn into an adult next month, operates Falcon Heavy – the most powerful rocket today.
Imagine a world with COVID – 99, if the Coronavirus pandemic had struck 20 years back in 1999. It could easily have.
The spread of information would have moved at the bureaucratic pace of televised news. Countries would have been slower to respond, with politicos covering up crises. The virus would have spread farther and deeper.
You could not have spoken everyday to separated partners, aged parents back home or to siblings in another continent. You could have only imagined how they were getting along. The virus would have found an ally in a potent mental health epidemic.
Forget about Netflix and Youtube. People would have run out of books to read. Overnight, a handful of cable channels would have become the overlords of our leisure.
No e-commerce would have meant more people at shopping complexes, supermarkets, grocery shops. More shortages and more chaos. All good for the virus.
You, you and you would not have been able to work from home, worsening the pandemic’s economic impact. The millions who would have been laid off could not have found jobs using LinkedIn or posted their online certifications there.
Schools and colleges would have shut down, with kids and teenagers huddled indoors (and offline). It would have felt more like imprisonment than vacation.
A 100 years back, the 1918 flu epidemic killed 3 out of every 100 persons. But we don’t need to go back a century to think about a different era. 20 years ago is living memory for most people reading this.
The internet gave us COVID – 19. It’s deadlier cousin, COVID – 99, reminds us of how much we have to be thankful for.
Disturbances in our telephone lines are annoying. If this keeps happening, we lodge a complain with the telephone company, which then examines our line for faults.
Our mind is a line that carries several signals – our thoughts, our ideas, our feelings and every experience that we perceive. When we close our eyes and observe, we listen in for disturbances in this line.
If a tiny noise in the telephone line is enough to drive us crazy, what about the noise inside our minds?
Our life is filled with choices on what is worth pursuing in the long term. The key question here is whether incremental amounts of whatever we pursue diminish or compound in value.
Economists have long known that consumables diminish in value with increase in quantity. Suppose I have just eaten an apple, I am less likely to appreciate eating a second apple. $1 million dollars is more worthy to a pauper than to a person who already has $10 million. A person who has 50 formal shirts clothes is less likely to value the 51st that his son gifts him.
The curve between consumption and well-being has an inverse relationship. The more of something we consume, the less satisfaction it brings us. That is why people who base their success on consumption feel empty even when they succeed beyond their wildest dreams.
Not all pursuits diminish with quantity. Some of them compound. This is true of expertise. A person with 10 years of domain experience is worth more than 10x of an amateur. It is also true of physical fitness and mental stability – athletes with 10% slower heart rates are in leagues of their own. Besides, the accumulation of expertise and proficiency is an endless of joy, far into one’s advanced years.
To chase something that diminishes in increments is to feed a demon who gets hungrier with each meal. The only sustainable long-term pursuits are the ones that compound in value.
But brilliant gags such as these are losing their charm now. It isn’t because the good ones have all been done. It is because of how the internet has changed.
The credibility of the internet is at an all time low – April fool’s day or otherwise. The same facts are morphed into numerous articles, each with a more slippery hold on them. ‘Fake news’ a term that would have been an oxymoron a decade back is reality today.
If the internet fools people every single day, April fool’s day doesn’t hold the same charm anymore. But we can change that if we wished to. That would depend on how we behaved on the internet on the remaining 364 days of the year.
Here is hoping that we can bring April fool’s day back to the world wide web.
The psychologist Amos Tversky was known to do exactly what he wished to and little else.
If he went to a movie with his family and didn’t like it in the first 20 minutes, he would promptly drive back home and do whatever he liked instead. After the movie was over, he would drive over to pick up his wife and kids.
When asked about this peculiar habit, Tversky replied, ‘They have taken my money. Should I give them my time, too?’
Tversky’s behaviour seems peculiar because we are prone to sunk costs. Once we have invested in a movie ticket, we feel like we have to tolerate the movie no matter how bad it is. But that is only leading us to amplify our losses.
When something we pay for doesn’t deliver what we expected, it has already taken our money. Why give it our time or our peace of mind as well?
Our current crisis has broken several of our habits – both good and bad. As things go back to normal, it offers us a unique opportunity to curate them.
In early 2017, we honeymooned in New Zealand for 21 days. For ten years before 2017, I fervently followed Indian politics. I was also an ardent Arsenal fan during this time.
Our New Zealand trip gave me a break from these two worlds. It was too much of a hassle to stay updated with what was happening in Indian politics and English football from a corner of the Southern Hemisphere. But during the trip, I realized how I did not miss them. Besides, I had breathtaking views such as the ones below to keep me occupied.
Since 2017, I have stopped following politics and haven’t watched a single Arsenal game. This has freed up several hours to pursue other things I really wanted to.
The global lock down prevents us from exercising several of our habits – visiting parties, following sporting events, relying on in-person meetings and hanging out with a bunch of our usual friends. Here’s the key question – which of those things do we really miss in their absence?
Sure, our lives are constrained now. But most of us reading this are privileged enough to utilize this crisis to redefine habits that we unconsciously follow.
The mark of an expert is to make the difficult look simple. Like the cook who whips up a delicious dessert while skyping with a friend, or the guitarist who composes a solo with her eyes closed.
Observing these experts leads us to two conclusions.
The first one is that they are naturals. They must be culinary or musically talented individuals who were born to do those things. This conclusion is easier because it lets us off the hook. Either you’re born with it, or you are not.
The second one is not to think about how people ‘are good at things’, but to ask how they build their skill. The key questions here are:
– What do they do differently?
– How have they gotten there?
This alternative is difficult, because now the onus is on us to bridge the gap. But it is also rewarding, because it shows us how we can be experts too.
The ease with which an expert executes hides behind it thousands of hours of deliberate practice. The easier somebody makes something look, the harder they have practiced it.
At a writer’s conference, when Stephen King finishes his speech, somebody in the audience inevitably raises his hand to ask him what kind of pencil he used.
An answer on Reddit tells me that King used a Blackwing 602 #2 pencil. But how does knowing that help me?
We often see successful people being asked about their morning routine.
‘What do you do, first thing after you wake up?’
‘I drink coffee.’
‘What kind of coffee? Dry roasted? Colombian? And how strong? Do you take it plain or with milk?’
You catch the drift.
In a bid to emulate the greats, we often get distracted by details that do not matter. They distract us from the most essential facts – like how King unfailingly wrote 2000 words every single day, or how he had so many rejection letters that a nail driven into a wall couldn’t hold their weight.
Even worse, those irrelevant details keep us from doing our own work and making our own art.
Sloppy work, carelessness and forgetfulness all arise in a disorganized mind before they happen in real life. Structure, order and brevity are the results of clear thinking.
Our mind often associates a state of tension with any activity we wish to do. We are loose about casual things – about what we say at a dinner conversation with friends. We feel tight and tense about the important – presenting on stage or showing up to an interview on time.
The optimal state, though, is firmness. Our language reflects this too. A loose person is unreliable. Tightness is tension in excess – a result of striving too hard. But firmness comes with positive connotations: having a firm handle on things, making firm commitments and being firm in one’s conviction.
In our fear of appearing loose, we often over-correct and swing over to the sight of tightness – by micromanaging our teams or by sounding too conscious on stage.
What we need instead is a mindset and a posture of firmness – just the right amount of tension.
Interval training reduces your physical recovery time – the time it takes for your heart rate to go from its elevated state to normal. The intermittent periods of exercise and rest are meant to speed up this recovery.
We also have a mental recovery time. When we receive bad news, we are instantly filled with emotions. This can elevate our blood pressure, increase our heart rate or cause us to perspire. The time it takes for us to regain our composure is our mental recovery time.
Mental recovery is also a muscle that can be trained.
With over 350 million copies sold and 61 novels, Stephen King is an extraordinary writer.
Behind King’s success was his unforgiving daily habit of writing 2000 words. He seldom misses a day of writing – Christmas and New Year’s included. While his achievements are extraordinary, his system is quite boring.
Scott H. Young is an extraordinary learner – an ultralearner. He finished the four-year MIT Computer Science undergraduate program by taking online courses for one year. He also routinely masters foreign languages in six months.
While learning a new language, Young has a simple rule. He travels to a place where this language is spoken and from the first day, he does not speak any language but the one he is learning. He follows this rule everyday, until he is fluent in a new language in six months or less. Young’s language learning abilities are legendary, but his system is boring.
The conventional way at looking at people like King and Young is that they are ‘gifted’. We focus on the persons and not on the systems they use. Doing so lets us off the hook. We can never be those people, so why bother?
Yet, take apart the achievements of every ‘genius’ and you will find habits, rituals and systems that are more ordinary. And the reason they are extraordinary is because they have a massive tolerance for a boring daily routine.
It is less about the kind of person you are. It is more about how doggedly you can follow a boring, but effective system.
Immunity is testimony to the incredible nature of our body to adapt and prepare for crisis. A tiny measure of weak, microscopic organisms injected into our bloodstream is enough for our body to be completely immune against a deadly disease.
With immunization two factors stand out. Firstly, even an attenuated version of a crisis is enough to build immunity against the same crisis in full strength. Secondly, immunization is widely applicable beyond the world of diseases and microbes.
A fire-drill serves as immunization against several disasters that require people to keep calm and do the right thing. One fact that stood out even as the twin towers of the World Trade Center came crumbling down was how well trained firefighters saved thousands of lives amidst that tragedy.
Mountaineers routinely acclimatize for a high altitude climb by letting their bodies get used to lower levels of oxygen in the air. Just a few days of acclimatization allows them to climb the tallest Himalayan peaks.
Stoic philosophers practiced austerity to abolish their fear of becoming poor. They periodically ate the simplest food, wore tattered clothes and lived the lives of a slave. This allowed them to speak their minds and be true to their ideals. When they were exiled to poverty, they accepted with a smile and often refused to return.
What is the crisis that you fear most in your life? How can you design a vaccine that can make you immune to it?
The pleasure hormone drives much of our daily behaviour – from checking our phones to deciding what we buy at our supermarkets. I would wager that it is the single most potent chemical that drives human behaviour in the 21st century.
Having said that, corporations currently uses all of this dopamine as a lever to fuel consumerism – to make us consume stuff, to always crave for more and to hollow us out inside.
The more dopamine we consume today, the more of it we will need tomorrow. The only way to break this cycle is to go on dopamine detoxes – days where we refrain from surges of dopamine by opting for low stimulation activities.
If a dopamine fueled lifestyle doesn’t feel fulfilling, set aside a few no dopamine days where meaning can take the place of pleasure.
We often think of competitors as rivals – as enemies in some cases. In reality, a worthy competitor is our teammate.
Our real enemy lurks within. It is the part of us that causes us to withdraw in fear, procrastinate and avoid doing important work. It causes us to shake in fear when we speak before an audience. It comes up with the most compelling excuses to destroy a passion project which we have worked so hard. We call it by different names: William Irvine called it his ‘other self’, Steven Pressfield dubbed it the Resistance while Seth Godin refers to it as our lizard brain.
Our competitors might be our rivals in a race that is external to us. But we fight this internal battle on the same side. Our rivals push us to work harder, get better and prevail over the inner voice that holds us all back from striving for excellence.
If you looked back at your life after a few decades, what would you resent more? Would it be a worthy adversary who raised your bar? Or would it be the voice in your head that sabotaged your attempts at making a meaningful contribution?
A microscopic entity is wreaking havoc across the face of the earth. In the process, it has revealed how interconnected we are as a species.
This crisis may well reveal another truth – about how our workplaces need to be reconfigured. The factory world of fixed qualifications, job descriptions, CVs and rigid hierarchies are on their way out. The economic shock the world is staring at might merely hasten its exit.
Inadvertently, the virus has given us a taste of what our future looks like. Going forward, most individuals would work autonomously on remote gig jobs. Our work environment would be uncertain, given its rapid pace of change. Further, every individual would be forced to cope with these conditions by constantly retraining themselves.
This disruption of a few months to our structured lives is merely a taste of things to come. I won’t deny the tragedy and the suffering that this virus has unleashed in its wake. But it also offers a window to embrace a new kind of workplace, create new business models and develop skills that are future proof.
Concretely, this shift from external to self management involves
Learning to lead remote, self-managed teams
Dealing with flexible working hours that span across time zones
The use of online courses and education
Improving written communication through clear memos and emails
The digital world had already nudged many of us on this course, but our current crisis puts the need to acquire these skills on overdrive.
Along with its hardship, every crisis brings to us the opportunity to reinvent ourselves and become a more resilient people. I hope to see more of us taking up this challenge and turning into linchpins rather than resigning to Netflix on the couch.