Why I stopped pretending that I’m a robot and other insider musings about the human performance industry.
This is nominally a reaction to Will’s excellent piece about what’s broken in self-improvement.
I used to think this way:
The assumption baked into the guru’s pitch is that their way is the “right” way. We just need to follow their one-size-fits-all program. Failure is supposedly a reflection on us. If you created a “vision board” after reading The Secret and nothing happened, that’s apparently your fault because of some pseudoscience baloney.
Now I don’t.
This quote undersells the emotional work that goes into decision making (it’s not all rationality, not even close) and then uses that to undersell people’s ability to choose which approaches are right for them.
The Secret wasn’t written for the author of that quote. And I doubt he ever came close to buying the advice within it. If you think The Secret is crazy, but you still want the impact that The Secret promises, then you should read Get Lucky.
That’s a book, backed by science, and written by science-loving startup veterans, Thor Muller and Lane Becker, that is tuned for the emotional makeup and subconscious biases that are commonly found in tech people, science lovers, and worshipers of rationality.
I’m projecting a love of data, science and rationality on to the author of the quote— all reasonable things. And I’m assuming that most people reading on Medium are in a similar cohort. Let’s call this the rational cohort (oh how horrible we all feel about the people who aren’t in this cohort with us!).
Here’s a nugget about luck for the rational cohort. Luck is improved by a change in mindset (research backs this up). An explanation that makes scientific sense focuses on priming of the brain to make better use of the opportunities already in our world. Essentially, mindset changes our batting average when it comes to the fortune that’s already around us.
Now, if you’ve ever taken at least one Physics class, the explanation given in The Secret, that there are actual beams of positive energy that you control with your thoughts, is obviously a complete falsehood. Calling the explanation false doesn’t even do justice to how ridiculous that book is.
But that’s not the same as saying that the book is worthless to the 19+ million people who did buy it. If they do believe the fake-science and then do put that into practice, then I do believe the book will have the desired effect. (And, I really doubt that those 19+ million people chose the book as a replacement for other normal things that people do, like go to the hospital when you’re sick.)
Now, here is the point where most arguments about The Secret shift from being about efficacy of self-improvement to being about enforcing rationality as a mindset. Totally fine to be pro-rationality. But when you do that you stop being a person who’s trying to give immediate help to whoever walks in your door. Essentially you say, “I know exactly how to make you luckier, but I refuse to tell you until you adopt my worldview.”
I think that’s a totally dick move, which I’m trying to stop doing. And, it turns out, your rational worldview creates a huge bias that you, yourself, are actually rational.
A simple manifestation of that bias is that you start to think in terms of finding the optimal advice rather than in finding the packaging of that advice that actually motivates you. It’s almost always better to find steps that you’ll actually do.
I experienced the power of speaking to my subconscious while reading a book about morning routines: The Miracle Morning.
The author, Hal Elrod, is a top notch sales person: he’s in the Cutco Cutlery sales hall of fame.
The advice in the Miracle Morning is super simple. It’s just a morning routine to get your mind and body right: meditate, affirmations, visualization, exercise, reading, writing. It should take about an hour. It works.
The above paragraph isn’t going to change your life. Although, in essence, that’s a full and thorough summary of the information in the book.
Instead, the first half of the book is entirely focused on selling you on the idea that the information is going to work. Hal, the author, literally doesn’t tell you what the Miracle Morning is until much later in the book.
The rationalist in me hated this. “Just give me the info.”
I only finished the book because I was a guest on the author’s podcast.
But then I found myself getting up early and quoting the book and jokingly telling people about my new vision board. It turns out that all the writing Hal did to sell the information actually mattered.
Tim Ferris has an excellent interview with Tony Robbins (both investors in my company). Tim makes the mistake of calling Tony a motivational speaker and Tony disagrees strongly.
I was shocked. Of course Tony Robbins is a motivational speaker.
But what Tony said instead is that he considers himself a strategist and advisor. The things that people perceive as motivational speaking is just the packaging and sequencing of his advice so that people actually put it into practice.
Once I became clear that marketing was an essential part of the human performance landscape (not just to get customers but also to achieve impact), the whole industry finally made sense.
Even the most rational among us needs to spin a story. For example…
Rob Rhinehart, the founder of Soylent, bragged about laughing at his coworkers as they went out to lunch. He could just chug his Soylent and get an extra hour of work in.
Rob’s fantasy is that productivity will make him happy. That’s the story he spins. And if you’re someone who’s attracted to that story, then maybe Soylent is going to be a life changing purchase.
Here’s where I get optimistic. I believe that a community-loving, crystal-wearing hippie will never be disappointed by Soylent because they will never buy Soylent. They’re smart enough to know that they don’t buy the story.
Likewise with my science loving friends and The Secret.
In the end, Human Performance advice is in service of a way of life that’s individual to each of us.
So, for the most part, I’ve stopped calling things snake oil and started looking at who they market to and whether they’ll be helping those people. Quite often, the things we consider non-sensical advice or explanation, actually are playing an important role in the target market.
Likewise with myself. The performance hack I’m using is to pay more attention to the emotional resonance of advice I’m taking.
- The way I nailed my morning routine was by making it fun.
- I start my work day with writing because I love it. That gives me a boost that lasts all day.
- I focus on reading books over articles — books have room to work on your emotional level.
- I have a vision board. And affirmations. It almost feels as radical as switching political affiliation, like I’m betraying my rationalist roots.
That emotional resonance comes from the story that packages the advice. A good story matters. And when I’m at the end of my life, I’m hoping that all of these stories I’ve bought into will add up to an epic story of my own life.