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How we’re held back by untested assumptions

Originally published on on April 17.

Have you ever heard of Ramit Sethi? If not, you should look him up. He has a simple idea which I’ve been putting to the test lately with some startling and delightful results, and I really recommend you give it a go.


He advises you to challenge your assumptions. Ramit’s thinking: we all have things we assume to be true without having any factual basis for believing them:

  • There’s no way I can find the time to start my own business.
  • I could never run a marathon.
  • I don’t have the skills it takes to make a career change.
  • If I ask for a raise, my boss will never agree to it.
  • She / he would never go out with me.
  • There will be so many applicants for that job, I don’t really don’t stand much of a chance.

The list goes on.

We often assume things such as these to be true without any factual basis for those beliefs. Because we don’t believe we can run a marathon, we don’t even find out what it takes. Don’t ask any questions. Don’t quiz the runners who are in our offices (these days, there’s a super fit road fiend in every office) and never begin the training that it would take to achieve that goal.

We just let the assumption guide our actions, because for reasons we have never challenged, we decide that assumption to be the absolute truth.

It’s nuts!

And I do it too. So do you. We all have assumptions we should put to the test to check that they’re not just nonsense.

Ramit challenges you to take a 48-hour challenge which you can read about on the link below. I really recommend you do it. It’ll give your system of beliefs a badly-needed shake up.

The way it worked for me was simple enough: Last week, I needed some assistance with contacts for a project I am working on and the best place to get that information was from some pretty heavy hitters in the publishing and media fields that I didn’t know very well (or at all in several cases) and who didn’t really have any obligation to get back to me.

The assumption that needed challenging was that they’d be too busy or I would be too unimportant for them to take time out of their schedules to return my email with the advice that I needed.

It needed challenging, so I called it outside for a fight.

And guess what? The assumption lost.

Ten emails to ten virtual strangers and EVERY SINGLE ONE of them came back to me and eight out of the ten offered some genuinely valuable and thoughtful advice.

Amazing. There wasn’t anything in it for them. This wasn’t a business transaction. No, instead, it’s just a fact that people are generally nicer, more generous and more willing to help out when they get a direct request than we think they are. That was an assumption that was well worth giving an ass-kicking.

Anyway, check out what Ramit says here.

Forget the goal. Focus on the process

Originally published on on April 15.

They say failure is good. That if you try new things all the time, you’ll inevitably fail at some of them and therefore your failure is like a merit badge for your sense of get-up-and-go.

Maybe so.

But I heard something interesting today from a personal trainer at the gym who as so often happens, said something blindingly obvious but heavily-laden with genius sense. Not common sense, because if it was common, I’m guessing even someone like me might have hit upon it. Genius sense.

He said “Forget about the results. Focus on the process.”

By which he meant, don’t make it your goal to lose 5kg or pack on 5kg of muscle. Make it your goal to get to the gym and push some weights four days per week. And when you’re there, make it your goal to push to your limit with perfect form. Inevitably, if you do so, you’ll get results. But you can’t get them faster than you can get them, and since that’s different for everyone, there’s not a lot of point in obsessing about the end result.

Now goals get you focused of course and they give you a clear indication of when you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve.

But no creative writing coach will tell you to aim for an 80 000 word novel in the next 180 days. They’ll tell you to write every single day. The book will come.

No Alcoholic’s Anonymous sponsor will tell you to stay off the bottle forever. They’ll tell you to stay off it today. And then do it again tomorrow. Control over your addiction will also come.

The inevitable result of focusing on a giant goal rather than focusing on the individual steps to getting there is that it’s simple to get disappointed by your progress. Which is why you end up quitting.

Anyway, I thought that was kind of interesting.

On how to use your value system

Originally published on on April 21.

I was in my late-20s before I realised I had a value system.

That isn’t to say I didn’t have one before. It’s just that I had never thought through the reasons why I was delighted or outraged at things. I just, sort of, was.

Not realising your value system may sound like flakiness, but I tend to think of it as a sign of extreme good fortune. For the most part your value system is only of any worth when you have to pick between two lousy choices. It’s only then that you can really know where your own personal line in the sand is.

For the most part, I’ve been spared those. But some time around the onset of undeniable adulthood, the world became more obviously treacherous and I had to be a lot more alert about the reactions I get to the things I say and do. That’s where my value system started to kick in, because I began to use it to determine whether I gave a crap about other people’s reactions.

I guess I’m something of an oddball. And you can’t be serious about being one of those if you’re going to go around seeking acceptance. Of course it is better to get it, but when you do, you know it’s coming from someone who likes the way you are, even if they think you’re a flap-eared fruitbat for thinking they way you do.

Those are the sorts of people you should keep around you. The rest of them have their own social networks that have nothing to do with yours.

But only those determined never to have any friends at all can tell you that they really do not care about how other people react. We all do, and so we should because ultimately, caring what other people think of us is what enables us to be liked.

But you can obsess about it, you know?

You can get too carried away and lose yourself in the process.

That, I think, is what people refer to when they speak about emotional intelligence. It is striking the right balance between anarchic contempt on the one side and people-pleasing neediness on the other. You need to do a little of each but you need to strenuously resist the extremes.

Just a random thought.

You can have it all, but how much do you want it?

Originally published on on April 28.

I’ve always been interested in what makes truly successful people tick.

The category is broad, so there are massive differences between them, considering they are young and old, male and female, from countries and ethnic and cultural backgrounds all over the world and have achieved success in a wide range of fields.

But they share the commonality that they’re all driven by a very well-defined set of priorities.

When you get into it, it’s breathtaking to discover how many hours successful people from movie actors to business leaders to sportsmen and women, put into their work. And how little time they take off.

Generically, we’re inclined to view excessive amounts of time spent on work as workaholism, and we either frown upon that as unhealthy and obsessive, or we laud it as the only really serious way to be if you want to get ahead.

Super achievers on the other hand don’t tend to take much time off because they don’t regard their time on as time ‘on’.

Time is just time when you’re following your priorities in pursuit of a goal you badly want. And you can double that attitude when you enjoy how you spend it and recognise that there really isn’t all that much of it to go around. People at the top, and people on the way up, tend not to waste it.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, suggested that it takes around 10 000 hours to become an expert at something. Logically if you sleep nine hours per day and spend another five in front of the television, you’re going to need twice as long to get to that expert level as someone who practices in their spare time and won’t go to bed until they get it right.

Those are your super achievers, almost without fail.

As far as they’re concerned:

  • Saturday and Sunday are just two of the seven days available in any week. They’re not different otherwise.
  • Evenings are just an extension of the working day.
  • Sleep time is best limited to only that which is absolutely necessary. You can play catch up every couple of weeks if you need to.
  • TV is the worst waste of time ever invented. Or maybe the Internet is.
  • Parties and alcohol damage your ability to work tomorrow.
  • Having a plan for the day, every day will gain you an extra hour.
  • Lunchtime is valuable people time.
  • So is dinner time.

If super achievers are to be role modelled, these seem to be rules for living. That’s what it takes.

But nobody said success was supposed to be easy.

Arresting the hand basket: why we may not all be screwed

Originally published on on April 19.

I spent time recently with some people in their early-20s who are completing some pretty neat university degrees with courses such as ‘entrepreneurial studies’, and in speaking to them I was suddenly struck by something pretty profound.

For the first time we may have a generation coming through the ranks who are determined en masse to leave the world a better place than they found it.

If you want to recklessly divide the world into uneven groups of people, there have always been those bystanders who are convinced the whole place is going to hell in a hand basket and that things just get worse from generation-to-generation. Things weren’t like the generic ‘this’ when they were younger and we didn’t have the same social problems then as we have now.

Perhaps not. But we didn’t have the same sort of opportunities either.

Then there are the people who actively couldn’t care less. They’re out to make a buck or have a good time and all the buzz about warming and pollution and hunger and over-population are best ignored. They’re someone else’s problem or they’re problems that are just too big to comprehend. And anyway, on a daily basis they tend not to affect individuals in the west at least, so what’s the big deal?

But there has always been a third group. There was a time when they were hippies. They were environmental lunatics who got in the way of progress by chaining themselves to trees or attacked whalers on the high seas in rubber ducks. They were suspect and they were weirdos and they were a real buzz kill.

And yet, this third group may be the only ones who have really evolved. And how!

What struck me with these guys, not for the first time, but harder than ever, is the extent to which global awareness, outrage at excess, ignorance and idiocy and an unwillingness to sit by and watch it happen is becoming part of the mainstream. I’m 41. They blamed me and everyone my age and upwards for the state the planet is in today.

Maybe they’re right too.

But these aren’t people who are determined to devote their lives to protest. They’re people who intend to build businesses, pursue careers and live their lives according to a set of rules that says turning a blind eye is for jerks. They’re involved. And they want to be more so.

It’s unsurprising I suppose. We’re already at a point where when they start having children ten years from now they may have to raise a generation who only know of polar bears from picture books. They’re right to be pissed off about that.

But they’re sort of inspirational for the way they’re directing all that youthful energy towards finding solutions to the mess we keep making. They don’t drink much, they sure as hell don’t smoke, they look after their bodies like they expect them to last (the total opposite of how we were when I was their age), and they’re convinced they’re going to make a difference.

If these young adults (it seems rude to refer to them as kids when their opinions are so much more mature and well thought out than mine) truly represent their generation, I think it may be safe to make some bets on the future.

Your beliefs could be killing you

Originally published on on May 17.

Are you living like a spider monkey?

Chances are you are; it appears to be a very human condition.

Apparently, to some natives of the Amazon, spider monkeys make good eating even to this day. And they’re popular because they’re so easy to catch.

All hunters have to do is drop heavy containers on the ground around the jungle floor, putting some fruit or nuts or whatever it is the spider monkeys like to eat, inside.

There is only a very narrow hole on these containers for the monkey to get its hand into and it is too narrow for it to get its hand back out of, once it has gathered the contents within.

Since the container is too heavy for the spider monkey to cart off, it has a dilemma, which based on its behaviour

appears to go something like this:

I need food in order to live. I have food in my hand. If I let go, I will no longer have food and if I can’t find food elsewhere, I will die. Therefore I better hold onto what I’ve got rather than run the risk.

Now of course, I don’t know what goes on inside a monkey’s head really (no, really!), but time and again, the hunters go back to their traps and there will be a monkey, hand stuck inside, struggling as it has done for hours, to get its hand out without letting go of the food.

So ironically, it is the very food the spider monkey believes it needs in order to live that guarantees its death.

As a broader idea, it’s one that bears examining. How many limiting beliefs do you hold onto that you’re afraid to let go of because of the apparent security they provide, which actually only serve to stop you doing something great?

We all have them. We’re all spider monkeys.