Category Archives: Psychology

The Cold Shower Experiment

It’s good to have a little torture in your life.

Not a lot. Just a little bit. It helps cultivate toughness and resilience. And it turns out that if you do it right, torture can help you get in shape too.

For the past week or so, I’ve subjected myself to cold showers.

The first time, it was awful. I was gasping for air and lasted about 10 seconds before I got out.

The second time, it was a little better.

The third time, I really tried to control my breathing. I concentrated on controlling my breathing. I slowly counted to 20. And then I went for a little longer.

Today I did a minute, then switched back to hot water for 20 seconds, then switched back to cold for another minute.

It feels fantastic. Now it’s my favourite part of the day.

The benefits:

  • It wakes me up so much faster. I’m instantly alert and ready to face the day.
  • It cultivates resilience. I feel more able to take on challenges.
  • It cultivates mental toughness and discipline. This morning, I REALLY didn’t feel like having a cold shower, but I did it anyway, and for longer than I ever have done. Now I feel great.
  • I haven’t seen this too much yet, but there’s good evidence that it helps with fat loss.

That’s a lot of benefits in exchanging for 30-60 seconds of mild discomfort. Try it yourself — for at least a week — and see how you feel. My guess is that you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Focus on the fundamentals

Spring, 1995. San Francisco. It’s a wet Saturday morning, and any sane person would wake up, look out at the weather, and swiftly decide to get back into bed for a couple more hours.

Jerry Rice isn’t one of those people.

Right now, Rice is feeling pretty good about life. He’s the star wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, and he’s coming off the back of winning Superbowl XXIX a couple of months earlier. In that game, he scored three touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 149 yards, despite separating his shoulder.

The 1994 season was one in which Rice racked up just under 1,500 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. He became the all-time leader in touchdown catches, in his tenth season in a league where the average career length is just 3.2 years. He’s already had a career that marks him out as one of the best.

But Rice isn’t resting on his laurels. On that wet Saturday morning, he’s up and out at 7am. He’s lifting weights. He’s doing drills. He’s sprinting up a notorious local running route known only as “The Hill”. All told, he works out for 4–5 hours. And he repeats this workout 6 days a week. All summer long. With a separated shoulder.

And when he comes back for the 1995 season, it’s his best ever. Rice makes 122 receptions for over 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns. After that he plays another 9 full seasons, playing almost every game, before retiring at the age of 42, having set a number of records that look unlikely ever to be broken. ESPN names him as the #2 NFL player of all time, and in 2010 he’s inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

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This looks like the classic tale of hard work leading to huge success. But it’s not. It’s much more interesting than that.

Yes, Rice worked hard — but he worked on the right things. His success came from a laser focus on the fundamentals.

Specifically, Rice makes sure that a) he’s in great physical condition; and b) he can run his routes inch-perfectly. These two things combined mean that he can play as many downs as possible, in every game of the season, for 20 years. And on every play, he’s exactly where he needs to be, when he needs to be. A perfect wide receiver.

Rice isn’t the only athlete to recognise the power of focusing on the fundamentals. The San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich does the same. Spurs Assistant Coach Ettore Messina says:

“[O]ne of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the “we can’t skip any steps” principle… At the beginning of the training camp we went over the fundamentals of offense and defense. Passing, catching, pivoting, sliding, moving without the ball — it was as if we were a junior team. That’s one of the major messages coach Popovich sends out to his players: techniques are much more important than tactics. You have to master the fundamentals.”

The result? The Spurs have won five championships under Popovich, and he holds the record for the most consecutive winning seasons in NBA history.

All from a relentless focus on the fundamentals. And the great news is that this doesn’t just apply to sports: you can do the same in your own career, and achieve huge results.

In fact, it’s much easier in a non-sporting context. You don’t have to work nearly as hard as Jerry Rice to see huge benefits. Think about it: he’s competing against other professional athletes who are also running routes, lifting weights, doing whatever they can to get better.

But your own colleagues or competitors: what are they doing? What percentage put any meaningful effort into improving their own ability? How many really, truly, deeply, have mastered the fundamentals of what they do? If you look closely, you’ll probably find that it’s actually not that many people.

That’s fantastic. It means that there’s a huge opportunity for you to stand out — if, and only if, you focus on the fundamentals.

(One other aside: think again about Jerry Rice’s workout. Note that in all his off-season workouts, he didn’t actually play a single down of full-contact football. So the way to get better at football isn’t repeatedly playing football, but rather mastering specific skills. Yet how many of us, when asked how we were making sure that we improved at our jobs, would say that we get better by doing our job over and over again?)

*****

Here’s an example from outside of sports. In Talent Is Overrated, author Geoff Colvin describes how Benjamin Franklin would take great essays, and write down the key point of each sentence. Then he’d re-write those sentences in his own words, and compare them to the original. He’d cut out each sentence, and put them in a drawer, leaving them for weeks until he had forgotten the original content, and then try and put them back together again to practice structure. He’d re-write essays in verse, and then re-translate them back into prose, again comparing them to the original. Again and again, he practised specific essay-writing skills. Over time, this deliberate practice turned Benjamin Franklin into an incredible writer.

And one more “knowledge-worker” example: me. Personally I’m not an essayist (although I play one on the internet). I’m an accountant. So what would my training scheme look like if I were to focus on the fundamentals?

Well, like many other professions, all accountants have to pass a series of exams to become qualified. But having passed them all, most people stop learning, never again consulting their textbooks.

Here’s an obvious win — I can take a few exercises from each of my textbooks (literally titled “Fundamentals of Accounting”) and run through them periodically. If I do one chapter from each of my textbooks at the start of each workday, that would only take about 15 minutes, but it would mean I could run through all of those textbooks in about 3 months — and then I could just start again from the beginning, always repeating these exercises and staying sharp.

The result: I would be able to run quickly through a trial balance and a list of adjustments, and create a balance sheet and profit and loss account, just using a paper and pencil. I’d be able to calculate variances, overhead allocations and absorption rates in my head. I could test myself on any number of technical definitions, and get the answers write every time. I can already do all of these things to a good standard, but if I practised, I would truly master them. I would have testable fluency in the basics.

(In fact, I could go even more fundamental, and run through all the maths exercises on Khan Academy to make sure that my mental maths ability is as sharp as it can be.)

That sounds incredibly simple and easy, and it is. But it’s a big win, because no-one else bothers to do it. It takes humility to admit that you need to brush up their skills at such a basic level.

That takes care of the conditioning aspect — the accounting equivalent of Jerry Rice’s hill sprints. But as well as running and lifting, he was also doing drills, and practising the exact routes he needed to be effective in the 49ers offense.

The equivalent for me would be:

  • to understand every aspect of my company’s balance sheet and income statement deeply, and how they interact and affect each other
  • to do the same with all our industry competitors
  • to be technically fluent on our accounting system and know every function, report, shortcut and display
  • to be a real Excel pro: again, understanding the majority of functions and formulae (not just the five common things that every accountant uses), know all the keyboard shortcuts, and be able to automate common tasks using macros or VBA

Again, none of these are particularly difficult or time-consuming: 30–60 minutes per day would be more than enough to master every one of these in fairly short order. It wouldn’t be five hours of intense workouts like Jerry Rice, but it would easily be enough to accelerate my ability far beyond where it currently is.

If you’re like me, it’s exciting to realise how little work this would be, and the huge impacts it could have on your career. I can’t wait to get started.

Further reading:

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

How to handle a down-market (and 3 book recommendations)

If you’ve been following the business news the last few weeks, you’ve probably seen bad news story after bad news story: a slowdown in China, the US market is down, the price of oil is down and oil companies are losing money, etc. etc. etc.

We’ve heard it all before. The most important piece of advice is: don’t sell. Turn off the news, stop refreshing your portfolio, and go do something else. Take a walk outside, meditate, read, write, exercise, spend time with your family.

(As an aside, I read an interesting paper today that says most investors who invest in mutual funds actually get WORSE returns than the funds they invest in due to bad timing: they pull their money out when the market falls, and buy in after it has already recovered. As economist Matt Yglesias says, the stock market is the only market where things go on sale and all the customers run out of the store.)

Anyway, while I was ignoring the financial news this week, here’s what I was reading instead:

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow

This is an epic, 800 page biography of an incredible industrial titan. One of the wealthiest men in history, Rockefeller’s net worth was estimated to be around $200bn in today’s money. What struck me from this book is his intensity of focus, and his stoicism — he accepted the reality he had to deal with, and just got down to work, with incredible results. (And thanks to Ryan Holiday for his post on the joy of reading long books, which drove me to finally pick this book up, having had it on my wish list for some time now.)

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

This had also been on my wish list for a few months — Chernow’s book got me in the mood for more biographies, so I grabbed this and tore through it in a couple of days. I actually learnt a ton about SpaceX from this book — I’ve been a Tesla fanboy for a couple of years now, but the story and accomplishments of SpaceX are actually more impressive from an engineering and innovation point of view. Reading this, I’m struck by the same thought that I had when I readWalter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs: this guy is a real dick, and I would hate to work for him. I understand why people would want to, because if you can deal with a high-pressured working environment, you can create things that literally change the world — but I don’t think I would like it, and I don’t think I’d do well in that situation. I’m not sure what that says about me though. Something to think about a little more.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Cal’s previous books helped me hugely when I was at university (How to Become a Straight-A Student) and in the early stages of my career (by becoming So Good They Can’t Ignore You). Now, in his latest book, Cal outlines his philosophy of Deep Work, which he defines as complex, cognitively taxing work that is difficult, but creates real value — as opposed to shallow work like reading and responding to email, which tends to be straightforward, and feels productive, but doesn’t usually create much value. Cal argues that by maximising the amount of deep work we do (and consequently minimising shallow work) then we’ll not only be more productive, and do better in our careers, but we’ll be happier too. This book had a big impact on how I view work as a whole, and I’m genuinely excited to put the ideas in this book into practice. My friend Kevin did a great summary of this book too, if you want to check that out.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Why don’t billionaires quit their jobs and start spending their money instead?

Someone asked this question on Quora, so I answered it there, and thought I’d repost it here.

This question is based on a false premise.

Elon Musk doesn’t sit down at his desk every day and think, “Have I made enough money to quit and travel the world yet?”

Warren Buffett doesn’t get to Berkshire Hathaway head office in the morning and check his portfolio and say, “Can I afford to pay off my mortgage and live off dividends for the rest of my life?”

The answer, obviously, is yes. Elon could retire tomorrow. Warren hasn’t had to show up to work for 50 years. But they do anyway. Why?

Because money isn’t money when you’re a billionaire. It’s just points on a scorecard.

When you’re a billionaire, your problems don’t go away, but your money problems do. You never need to worry about credit card debt, paying the mortgage, putting money into your 401(k) or anything like that.

You’re focused on bigger things.

You’re focused on questions like:

  • Is my business the best it can be?
  • Does anyone in my industry have a better business than me? If so, why?
  • Does anyone in any other industry have a better business than me? If so, why?
  • What impact have I made on the world?
  • Do I have a legacy that will outlast me?
  • Have I done the best in terms of investing and re-investing my wealth as I could have?
  • How much wealth should I give away to charitable causes?

So Elon isn’t focusing on whether he has enough to retire on. He’s wondering whether humanity will become an interplanetary species.

Warren isn’t sat in front of a spreadsheet, calculating if he can afford to live off dividend income for the rest of his life. He’s wondering if he truly is the best allocator of capital of all time, whether his deployment of capital has led to the greatest good, and how he should give away his money when he dies.

In both cases, these billionaires aren’t thinking, “Do I need more money? Should I quit working?”. They’re thinking, “Have I made the most positive impact on the world that I could have?”

And in both cases, Elon and Warren care much more about building something fantastic than they do about cashing out and travelling the world. They prefer work to relaxation.

Which, coincidentally, is the fastest way to get rich. Don’t focus on how much money you’re earning. Focus on what impact you’re having, and how much value you’re creating for other people. As Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help enough other people get what they want.”

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

The number one way to increase your productivity, get healthier, and become a happier person

There’s a magic bullet in life. You might be ignoring it – even though I know of it, I go through phases where I refuse to use it. But if you’re looking for the keys to the kingdom, they’re right here.

Exercise: every single day.

If you’re already about to close this tab and go back to “inspirational” pictures on Instagram to avoid actually taking any action, you’re an idiot. If you’re about to stop reading because you know this already, then I ask you: do you actually exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY? 99.9% of people don’t. If you’re in the 0.1% then congratulations, but I’m guessing you’re not.

Days I worked out this month

“Yep, I’ve penned in my workout on the 21st, two weeks from today. I fully understand this post and need no more information. Cheerio!”

Pay attention here: I’m not just telling you to exercise, I’m telling you to do it every fucking day. Every day. No days off, no excuses — every single day. It’s Christmas? Fuck you, exercise. Hungover as fuck? Fuck you, exercise. Rushed off your feet all day, finally got home, and you’re just too tired? Fuck you, exercise.

I’m going to go ahead and assume that you know about the health benefits of exercise. Here you go. Literally thousands of results. That’s not what I want to talk about in this post. Instead, let’s look at:

The psychology of daily exercise

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls exercise a “keystone habit” – it’s the lead domino that, if you get it right, spills over in to every other area of your life.

When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. (emphasis added) “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

There’s a great reason for this. While it’s tempting to think that you can change your life just by changing your attitude, it’s usually not the case. How many times have you tried to “get motivated” — maybe watch Rocky a couple times, look at some amazing pictures with inspirational quotes on them, and then ended up doing nothing?

Not pictured: inspirational music and self-loathing viewers.

Not pictured: inspirational music, subsequent self-loathing

One of the most self-destructive things you can do is describe yourself as lazy, unproductive, or any of those type of negative terms. If you do — even in a joking manner — it forms a small part of your identity, that becomes very hard to shake. It’s a pernicious form of self-destruction and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But what you can do is change your behaviour first, and your attitude will follow. If you exercise every single day, you will soon start to think of yourself as “someone who exercises”. If you also describe yourself as lazy, that creates cognitive dissonance — you hold two conflicting ideas at the same time. Your brain hates doing that, so it will push one of them out of the way. By maintaining the regular exercise habit, you force yourself to shed the idea that you are lazy.

And bingo! You slowly stop identifying as a lazy person, so you shift away from lazy behaviours like not doing the dishes, or binge-watching Friends for hours on end, getting up only to pee or fetch more beer, and you start doing things that fit with your new identity of a healthy, regular exerciser, like posting ab selfies on Instagram. I’m kidding, that part is optional.

There’s one more powerful reason behind exercising every day:

It creates a small win that means you accomplished something. Even if the rest of the day was crappy in every single way imaginable, hey, at least you exercised.

I can’t overstate how important this is. Look, we all have shitty days where we feel like crap, lounge around the house, and put off things we know we have to do. That’s life — it happens.

But if you exercise EVERY SINGLE DAY, then at the end of that crappy day you can say “Well, at least I exercised.” Retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal and bestselling author Tim Ferriss talk about exactly this principle in a recent podcast.

That creates a small win in your life. You got something done today. It’s something to feel good about. The rest of your life might be going to shit, but you’re making strides in at least this one area.

Exercise every day.

What type of exercise should I do?

Whatever you’ll stick with.

I tried to create a regular running habit last year, but I failed (for a lot of reasons). One of the biggest was that I simply don’t enjoy running. I do like lifting weights, so I do that.

If you like cycling, jump on your bike If you like jogging, lace up your shoes and hit the road. If you like boxing, join a boxing gym.

"OK, good. Now chase this chicken around for 45 minutes."

“OK, good. Now chase this chicken around for 45 minutes.”

What I will say is this: don’t do the same thing every single day, and don’t work out to full intensity every single day either. That’s a recipe for fatigue, burnout and injury. You have to work up a sweat — you don’t have to set new PRs every day.

Mix in a variety of different types of exercise, as well as a variety of intensity levels. Here’s what a typical week would look like for me:

  • Monday: Lift weights
  • Tuesday: Push-ups and sit-ups at home for 15-20 minutes
  • Wednesday: Lift weights
  • Thursday: 2 mile walk at good pace
  • Friday: Lift weights
  • Saturday: Push-ups and sit-ups at home
  • Sunday: Play tennis

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are always the days I lift weights. On the other days of the week I find something to do that I enjoy and want to do. If I haven’t done anything all day and I’m really pressed for time, I’ll do a quick bodyweight workout at home, some combination of push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, bodyweight squats. Whatever I feel like doing to work up a sweat.

How do I make sure I stick with this?

There are a few different things you can do. I recommend a combination of all of these.

1. Make it easy to win to begin with

Don’t expect yourself to run 10 miles a day, 7 days a week. Not going to happen. Start off just working in some short workouts each day, like push-ups and sit-ups. You can do this in 5-10 minutes when you wake up in the morning. Slowly build up the habit, and create momentum.

2. Be accountable

In my company we have a chat channel called #daily-intentions, where we each post what we plan to accomplish each day. When we’re all done with work for the day, we go down our list and say what from that list we got done, and what we didn’t get done — and why we didn’t do it — as well as our goals for the following day. This works for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it keeps us accountable. I HAVE to write down a daily to-do list, and I HAVE to go down that list each day and track my progress. Secondly, it’s public. Having to explain to someone why you failed at a goal is a powerful motivator – an idea I got from Legacy by James Kerr. But we also help celebrate each other’s successes. There’s positive and negative reinforcement.

3. Play for stakes

A recent addition to our company’s #daily-intentions was the idea of the “fun jar.” If there’s a big item that I’ve been putting off for a couple of days that I really want to get done today, I’ll tag it as a “fun jar” item. If I don’t do it that day, I have to put $50 into the company’s fun jar, that gets spent on fun stuff at our regular company meetings. It’s a way of adding stakes to daily life — and again, loss aversion is a powerful motivator.

4. Track it

Lastly, you want to be able to look back and see all the good work you’ve done. You can use the Jerry Seinfeld calendar method, that works pretty well. I used an app called Streaks that is perfect for tracking up to 6 regular habits that you want to maintain. Or you can use an old-fashioned notebook, whatever you want. I also created the Daily Practice Journal to track this and a couple of other things. But long as you have a visual record of your progress, that’s fine.

 

Summary

Working out every single day will literally change your life. Just remember everything I’ve taught you here:

  • Exercise is a keystone habit that will spill over into other areas of your life, which is why it’s so important.
  • Doing it every single day gives you a small win — no matter what life throws at you, at least you exercised.
  • Make sure you’re doing activities that you enjoy, and vary the intensity all the time.
  • Create systems like accountability, playing for stakes, and tracking, to make this easy and fun.

If you do this for 6 months — exercise 180 days in a row — then I guarantee your life will be better in so many ways.

Any other advice on how to build the regular exercise habit? Have I missed anything? Do you disagree? Leave a comment below!

 



Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Why your New Years Resolution will fail – and what to do about it.

I completely failed. I set a goal and fell so far short of it that it’s embarrassing to talk about. And Nike decided to rub it in my face.

I did what you’re supposed to: I set an ambitious goal that was a SMART goal: it was specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. I wrote it on an index card that I kept close to me at all times. I read a lot about the topic and knew exactly the steps I had to take to reach my goal. I tried to stay “motivated”.

And still, it didn’t happen. Not even close.

I wanted to run more, so I decided to run 3x per week, with the ultimate goal of being able to run a 10k race in less than 50 minutes.

How did I do? Well, here’s how.

nike 2014

Thanks for the reminder of my failure, Nike. I really appreciate it.

I ran an average of 0.28 times per week, aka less than 1/10th of what I wanted to do, and the fastest 10k I did, I didn’t even break an hour, let alone 50 minutes.

So what did I do wrong, and how can I fix it?

Mistake #1: Made a huge, unsustainable change

I went right out of the blocks trying to run 3x per week from the beginning, which was a) a huge increase in the amount of exercise I was doing at the time, and b) a huge increase in the amount of sweaty laundry I created, both of which were an added hassle that I had to deal with. It was unsustainable, such that I’d run 3x per week for 1-2 weeks, then not run at all for a few weeks, feel shit about myself, get motivated again, then run 3x in one week, then take another month-long break, and so on. This cycle repeated itself a number of times until I just gave up.

What I should have done instead: eased into it by starting off exercising 1x per week, to make it easily winnable to begin with, so I’d feel good about myself, and begin to create a habit of running. Then slowly increase the frequency until eventually I was hitting the goals that I wanted to hit.

 

Mistake #2: No accountability

I wrote down my goal on an index card, and put it in my wallet. That’s what people recommend, right? That should be a daily reminder of my goal, right? No, not when you put it in a hidden part of your wallet that you never look in. And I didn’t tell anyone about this goal, so I didn’t have any skin in the game. There was no pain or forfeit if I didn’t make it. So it wasn’t a big deal.

What I should have done instead: told multiple people about my goal and had them check in with me on a regular basis to ensure that I was following through. Or even better, put some money on it and have friends and family bet against me achieving the goal, which provides a carrot (I win money and get to show off to people that I hit my goal) and a stick (I have to pay out and everyone knows I lost).

Mistake #3: I tried to do it alone

Not only did I not tell anyone about this, but I was always running alone. And I was the only one chasing this goal. I didn’t talk to anyone about it, I didn’t have a running partner to motivate me to go out, and I didn’t join any sort of running club. No-one would miss me if I didn’t lace up my shoes and head out the door.

What I should have done instead: joined a running club or found a running partner, or at least someone another runner I knew that I could talk to about running that would keep asking “Been running recently?” which would make me embarrassed to keep responding, “No, I’m a lazy shit”, so I’d actually go running.

 

Mistake #4: I picked something I hate doing

I don’t like running. It’s boring, it’s always cold and raining here in England, and you step in dog shit all the time. You have to avoid cyclists and old people and you’re always out of breath and you get injured all the time. Running sucks. I chose it as a goal because running is what you’re “supposed to do” if you want to get into shape and lose few lbs, right?

What I should have done instead: pick an exercise activity that I actually enjoy, like lifting weights, or cycling, or football, or boxing. Any of these would have been good as I would actually look forward to doing the activity, rather than dreading it.

This is how I felt on every single run I ever did.

 

So, I picked a goal and an activity where I:

  • tried to do too much too fast
  • on my own
  • with no accountability or stakes
  • at an activity that I don’t like doing

I don’t think I was ever really going to succeed.

So this year, with the same aim of exercising more and getting healthier, I am going to:

  • start off slow and build the right habits
  • in a group or community setting
  • with some stakes or public accountability
  • at something that I like doing

Basically, I’m going to start doing Crossfit.

For more on building the right habits and making positive changes, check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Willpower by Roy Baumeister and Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink. All fantastic books.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

A lesson on the power of incentives

As an Econ grad I love stories like this.

The story of the Honduran railroad epitomises life on the isthmus. In 1870, the government hired an engineer named John C. Trautwine to lay track from Puerto Cortes on the Atlantic to the Bay of Fonseca on the Pacific, but made the mistake of paying him by the mile. When the project went bust in 1880, Honduras was left with sixty miles of track that wandered aimlessly here and there through the lowlands.

That’s from The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen. Fantastic book.

Never forget the power of incentives. There’s a reason that Warren Buffett himself puts together the incentive schemes for Berkshire Hathaway managers – it’s hugely important and he doesn’t trust anyone else to do it.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

Self-awareness is useless on its own

People pride themselves on self-awareness, but it’s bullshit. You can do all the personality quizzes, introspection and discussions with coaches and mentors – you can do as much of that as you want.

But it’s ultimately worthless if you don’t ACT on that knowledge. You know you talk over people too much? Get people to call you on it. You have a tendency to flit from project to project when things get difficult? Strap yourself to your chair and force yourself to finish something for once.

If you’re not using that self-awareness to improve yourself, your life, your relationships, and your decisions, then it’s all just masturbation.

Want to turbocharge your career and boost your earnings? Check out my upcoming book, The Career Superpower.

What I learnt from two years of online poker

I wrote this a couple of years ago on a poker forum I used to visit. Since then I have probably played poker a max of five times – but throughout university I regularly played at least 3-4 hours a day, pretty much 7 days a week. While it did keep me from having to get a “real” job while I was a student, I finally decided that online poker would ruin my life if I didn’t stop. Having said that, I wouldn’t change it, because the decisions I made along the way helped shape the man I am today. Here’s what I learned on my two year journey through the world of online poker.

I got my feet wet in poker just like anyone else: around 2005-2006 a few friends and I would get together on a friday night, drink some beers, and play poker. We were all 16-17 at the time, so we didn’t go out on the town as much as we do now – we just got our parents to buy us beer and give us a ride round to whichever unfortunate friend had been designated to host our night of rowdiness. Cue much drinking, beer spilling, chip-splashing, and the occasional hand of poker.

We played £5 entry, winner takes all, usually 5-6 of us. I remember one week when so many people had got wind of our fun that about 15 people turned up. We all sat around the same table to start with, and each hand took about 20 minutes. Then someone had the bright idea of splitting it up into two tables, by which time I had already busted out through my arrogant, aggressive playing style, and had to sit and watch everyone else for about 4 hours. Hey ho.

Back in those days, we all thought we were pretty good, but the best player was undoubtedly Omar*. Omar used to push us around on the table, winding us up until our 16-year-old adolescent pride couldn’t take it any more, and then we’d shove our weak pair into his nut flush. He would always say things like “this is such a waste of time, I could make more playing online than I could playing here”. One time he actually brought his Mac to the table, wearing his cherished Pokerstars hoodie, and played 3 tables of 1/2 limit hold ’em while simultaneously taking our pocket money. 
He bragged to us once at school how he had started with $50 on Pokerstars, and ran it up to $3,000, before his parents found out and made him withdraw everything except the initial $50. Then he did it again. And again.

I always wanted to be like Omar. It was my dream to be able to walk into bars and think nothing of buying drinks for all my friends, and then go out the next day and buy some sick new trainers, or a PS3, or a Mac.

But then we all turned 18 and drinking, not gambling, became the first concern for most of us on a friday and saturday night. Now that we could go out of the house and legally drink, we did. A lot. And life was good. I earned my money during the week and spent it on the weekend. I studied hard in school and got into a good uni, where I continued to drink and study hard and enjoy life and get good grades. And life was good.

Then, in the summer of 2009 after my 2nd year of uni, I was working some shitty temp job cold-calling people to do telephone surveys. It was soul-destroying, mindless, uncreative work, the kind of work that makes people strangle themselves with their own telephone cord, which I would have done, except for the fact that we had to wear wireless headsets.

I thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to make money than this.” And then I remembered Omar, and his Mac, and his trainers, and the rounds of drinks he would buy for everyone. So I posted on a forum that I used to frequent, saying “I want to be good at Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Where do I start?” And someone gave me a link to the TwoPlusTwo poker forums, and to a couple of strategy guides, and I was off down a path that would lead me on an emotional rollercoaster.

I devoured forum threads like they were crack. I read more poker theory than you can imagine. I heard about guys beating the $50 no-limit games and thought “woah, these ballers, how can you ever play for a $100 pot?” I deposited my obligatory $50 on Stars, and set to grinding the lowest possible stakes, 1c/2c blinds. I bought some software that tracks all your hands, and I was ready and raring to go. I started playing full-ring games (9 handed) until someone on TwoPlusTwo told me to play 6 handed tables instead because they were “more profitable”. Oh, how wrong he was.

But it started out well. I managed to turn my $50 into about $120, at which point I started playing the 2c/5c cash games. Then I went on a downswing, and it was boring. I had about $105 left in my account when I went out for my friend’s 21st birthday. We had a fantastic night in this great club, we got drunk, threw up – everything you’d expect from a 21st birthday party.

Then I got home at about 4am, and fired up some tables. In my drunked recklessness I decided to play what I thought were “high stakes” – the 5c/10c tables. I remember being really nervous that there was a 10c chip being used as a blind. Woah. Surely this wouldn’t end well.

But it did. I went on the biggest 4am drunken heater of all time, and won about $200 in less than 20 minutes, instantly tripling my bankroll. Boom. Now I was really playing with the big boys.

I continued to grind 5c/10c games for a month or so (joining DC during this time), until I spent all my money on booze and takeaways and needed to cash out my winnings. Being the genius that I am, I emailed one of my friend’s housemates, who I knew to be a good midstakes player, and asked him to stake me. He would provide the money for me to play with, and accept any losses. Any winnings we would split 50-50. I showed him how I had crushed the lower stakes games and wanted to move up. He agreed, and gave me $750 on Full Tilt to play with.

I then proceeded to lose $500 over about 2 months. And life was bad. I got stressed. I would stay up all night trying to grind back my losses. I remember getting into bed at 1am as I had lectures at 10am the next morning, and firing up a couple of tables. I lost some money, and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to deposit $100 on Pokerstars to play tournaments. I played in a bunch of $1 tournaments all night until about 7am, when I fell asleep, still playing 3 tables. Total profit from 6 hours play: $0.30. I missed all my lectures.

My grades slipped. I was unhappy.

I so wanted to be like Omar. I wanted to have the money and all the stuff the money could buy. $500 was a lot of money to me back then. My constant losses were a blight on my soul, a constant reminder that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It was hard to deal with. I spent hours and hours studying poker, reading books, reading strategy threads, and even got a coaching session or two.

But over time, I gradually turned into a breakeven player, and then a (very) marginal winner. I got a couple of nice “frequent player” bonuses from Full Tilt Poker. I won back all I had lost and more. I received my first paycheck from my backer, who I think was as relieved as me that I had stopped texting him at 2am saying “Still losing. Can’t figure out why. Sooo frustrating.”

I would still get stressed out by poker. The losses were still bad, but winning was a relief, a break from the constant emotional stress of being a breakeven player. It didn’t help that I was still spending all of my money on booze and takeaways, and not doing a lot besides playing poker and Call of Duty. My grades slipped a bit more.

There were some times when I would lose so much, and keep losing, to the point where I was literally in tears (times I’ve cried due to poker: 3). But I didn’t want to stop playing, so I fired up 12 tables of 9 handed games and played monotonically, soothed by the constant alert and chip sounds of the game. I had barely ever played 9 handed games before – I looked down on those who did. Everyone played so tightly. It was boring. There was no action. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop playing, so I played 12 tables, playing fairly tight preflop, and extremely tight postflop. And funnily enough, I would usually win back all my losses from the 6 handed games. Of course, I moved back to 6 handed straight away, because it was “more profitable”.

I talked with my backer, and he agreed to boost my roll up to $1500, so I could play in the 25c/50c games. Now I was ready for the big time. And then I promptly lost about $700. And I got stressed, and life was bad again. I would stay up all night trying to recoup my losses.

I remember the summer of 2010, when I was working night shifts at my local supermarket. I would finish at 7am, and then come back and play poker. I thought it would be a good idea to play some heads-up poker, one on one. The players were aggressive, the variance was ridiculous, but I didn’t care. I knew I could take them on.

I remember losing $250 in about 30 hands. I got stressed, and punched a lightswitch, then broke my desk chair. My parents weren’t happy, but they didn’t understand. I was tilted! I didn’t have an anger problem, it was this guy’s fault for sucking out on me with his combo draw.

One of my friends pointed out to me “Lynch mate, you’re an idiot. You lose money in one-on-one and 6 handed games, but make money in 9 handed games. Why aren’t you just playing 9 handed?”

I made some excuse about how those games were boring and how I was developing my game faster by playing in aggressive and getting in tough spots that made me think. He said, “No, that’s bullshit. You play poker to make money. You make money playing 9 handed and you don’t playing 6 handed. Simple as.”

I took his advice, and switched to 9 handed games. And something clicked. And I made a lot of money. I paid for a holiday to Greece in September 2010 purely with poker profits. I bought a computer, and some new trainers, and drinks for all my friends in a bar. I was Omar.

I liked being Omar. It felt good to have money for once. I started to play more and more poker – it’s not a gambling problem if you’re winning, right? I played 16 tables for 5-6 hours at a time. Why bother going to lectures when my hourly rate was so good? My backer was pleased, and moved me up to the 50c/$1 stakes. So I started playing that, and broke even for a bit, then moved back down to 25c/50c because it was easy money, and I like easy money.

I played 120k hands of poker in October. I won some good money. But I didn’t do much else other than play poker. My girlfriend got annoyed. But she didn’t understand – this was my job! I didn’t have a gambling problem. She just worried too much.

I played 90k hands in November. I made some decent money. My girlfriend cried because I played so much poker and never talked to her. So I promised to cut down the amount of time I played. Then she went to work, and I played 16 tables all night while she was out. She came back, and I told her I had been doing some reading for uni.

December was going OK. I had broken even for most of the month, and tried to play some higher stakes, but always got knocked back. Then one day I sat down at some 50c/$1 6 handed tables, and lost a hundred bucks. Never mind. Then I lost another hundred. Then I won three hundred.. Then I lost a grand. I moved back down to lower stakes to try and grind it back again, and lost another two hundred. In total that day I lost over $1100. And I cried, and I shouted at my parents, and I punched the wall, and I broke some CD cases.

I didn’t play again for a few weeks. I tried meditating, and practicing Buddhist things like mindfulness. I became happier. I did some serious introspection and self-analysis. I came to a couple conclusions:

– I definitely had some emtional problems
– I might have a gambling problem

Why did I force myself to go through all of this? It all comes back to Omar, and how much I wanted to be like him. I was so desperate to have the money, and the Mac, and the trainers, and the drinks for all my friends. I thought that would make me happy. And I thought that poker was the way to achieve that. I wanted so much to be able to fly to Vegas (which Omar did one summer, and came back $50k richer). I wanted the lifestyle. I dreamed of being a baller, with stacks of bills, and a limo, and a concierge. I thought that would make me happy.

And in pursuit of that, I made myself so unhappy that often I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning. I literally sat in bed all day playing micro-stakes, thinking that if I could just get a good run of cards, I would be on the path to happiness. I could quantify exactly how I felt about myself – all I needed to do was look at my results.

Poker was good to me in some respects – after everything I’ve been through, I’m still a winner lifetime – but in other ways it has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. I love the game, and the online community, and the rush you get from winning a big pot or making a sick bluff. But none of that is worth the 18 months that I sunk into poker almost full-time to the exclusion of everything else. As in poker and life, balance is critical. Doing one thing to the exclusion of everything else will seriously fuck you up, and it’s just not worth it.

And then my backer said he needed his money back, so now I couldn’t afford to play stakes that would be meaningful to me, so I stopped playing altogether. I became much happier, more productive, and more optimistic about life almost overnight.

So what did I learn?

– A lot of poker coaches stress the importance of emotional control. They’re not being paternalistic, or trying to make the world a better place. They’re doing it because it makes money. If you’re not evaluating your own emotions and mindset, you will make bad decisions and lose money.

– Never do what other people are doing just because you think it’s more glamorous, or will make people think more highly of you. Stick to your circle of competence.

– Losses always felt worse when I desperately needed the money. Having plenty of cash in the bank felt brilliant because I knew even if I lost one day, I wouldn’t go hungry the next. James Altucher talks about this a lot.

– Poker can be great fun, but it can be a cruel bitch. A common poker saying is “one day you will run worse than you ever thought possible.” I would add to this that poker led me to feel worse than I ever had before. When your self-worth is so wrapped up in your results as mine was, a big downswing can destroy you mentally.

– Never measure yourself against anyone else, only against yourself. One problem for me was that whenever I improved my game and moved up a level, Omar did the same. I bought myself some trainers with poker money, he’d buy a car. I bought a holiday to Greece, he went to Vegas for 3 months. I was constantly comparing myself to his success, and coming up short.

– Poker was a fun hobby, but should have stayed exactly that: a hobby. Once I was relying on it for income, it became my life and I played, studied and talked poker to the exclusion of almost everything else. But poker will be around tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Enjoy it, but don’t ever let it become your everything.

Poker gave me some great highs, and some horrible lows. But that’s all in the game, yo.

* name changed for subtle reference to The Wire

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Why you shouldn’t care at all about the Eurozone crisis

If you’re an individual or a small business, you don’t need to worry about the Eurozone crisis. You don’t need to think about the ongoing recession. It should be the last thing on your mind.

Why? Is this not the worst recession since the Great Depression? Could this not be The End of the Eurozone?

Yeah, maybe. But ask yourself this:

Can you do anything to change it?

You can’t set fiscal and monetary policy. You can’t force Greece or Portugal (or the US) to cut spending. You can’t force companies to invest more.

So stop worrying about it. It’s out of your control.

What should you worry about? I’m glad you asked.

People: get your finances in order. Stop overspending. Look at earning more money through a second job or freelancing if you need to. Start eating healthily and exercising regularly. Take time every day to be grateful for the good things in your life. Think how you can do your job better: make a list of ideas and pick the best two, and start doing that.

Businesses: stay focused on your customer. Always think what they would want you to do. Even in this economy there are opportunities – Groupon is the fastest-growing company in history by revenues, and was formed in November 2008. There is money to be made, and people will fall over themselves to give you their money, if you can give them what they want or need.

In other words, focus on things you can control. Forget about things you can’t.

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