Book Crunch: “Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Matthew Syed

Bounce, Matthew Syed
9 MINUTE READ

Bounce, Matthew Syed

“Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Matthew Syed
Also available as: “Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success”
Print length: 410 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You believe “I am not a Language/Athletic/Math/etc… person”.
  • You, or someone you know, wants to become the best, or even just better at anything.
  • You’re fascinated by the psychology of learning; be you learner, teacher or parent.

“Bounce” is a book for anyone who believes they are “not a Language / Athletic / Math / etc… person” and never will be.

Matthew Syed, a top ranked table tennis champion and journalist, has two clear messages:

  1. There is no such thing as “Natural Born Talent”; and
  2. Becoming an expert at anything is primarily a question of:
    • Mindset;
    • Motive;
    • Practice; and
    • Opportunity.

To be clear, Syed doesn’t discount the role of genetics entirely. Instead, he argues that:

  1. It is simply not as important as we often believe; and
  2. This slight shift in perspective makes all the difference.

Syed’s athletic career adds depth and colour to his conclusions. His evidence base is full of cutting edge research, interviews, and historical fact. His suggestions are immediate and practical.

In short, if you like what you read in this crunch:

  • Whether learner, expert or teacher;
  • Be you academic, athlete or professional;
  • Whatever your age, size, gender or nationality;

then “Bounce” is be a compulsory addition to your already bursting bookshelf.

Its insights will surprise, entertain and inform you. They may even change your life.

Overview

  • In learning, people tend to adopt either a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.
  • The “Growth Mindset” more accurately reflects what we know about learning today.
  • And yet we still use the comfortable “Myth of Talent” to make sense of the world around us.
  • Even though it is based on partial and inaccurate information.
  • And grossly distorted by our cognitive biases.
  • This is important because our expectations have great consequences for ourselves and those around us.
  • In fact, there are four main ingredients to learning:
    • Mindset: a “Growth Mindset” gives us a love of learning and a resilience to failure.
    • Motive: an “Internal Motive”, once sparked, sets intention and sustains drive and motivation.
    • Practice: “Purposeful Practice” with enough quantity, quality and feedback, is the bedrock of ability.
    • Opportunity: “Good Luck” in Where, When, What, Who and How separates the top 10% from the top 10.
  • Managing “Belief” is a final “X Factor” in balancing conflicting demands of “Learning” and “Performance”.
  • In conclusion: Your most basic abilities can be developed to extraordinary levels through dedication and hard work.
  • Do not let the “Myth of Talent” hold you and the people around you back.

Detail

In learning, people tend to adopt either a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.

  • In a Fixed Mindset:
    • People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.
    • They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
    • They believe that talent alone – without effort – creates success.
  • In a Growth Mindset:
    • People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
    • They understand that brains and talent are just the starting point.
    • This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
  • It’s interesting to note that this mindset can and does change:

The “Growth Mindset” more accurately reflects what we know about learning today.

  • Learning relies on chunking and habit formation; a basic physiological process.
    This is true in all individuals and across all skills and learning types (e.g., perceptual, cognitive and motor)
  • Ability/intelligence is actually highly domain specific.
    Chess masters are good at chess but novices at general memorisation tasks.
    Reaction times in one sport (e.g., table tennis) do not generalise to other sports (e.g., tennis).
  • The main differentiating factor in performance is practice.
    I.e., the 10 year / 10 thousand hour rule.

And yet we often use the comfortable “Myth of Talent” to make sense of the world.

  • e.g., Experts and “Child Prodigies”
    Child Prodigies “Do not have unusual genes, they have unusual upbringings.”
    e.g., Polgár Sisters, Mozart, Williams Sisters, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, David Beckham  etc…
  • e.g., “Black Athletes”
    There is no evidence for meaningful genetic differences at a racial level.
    In fact >90% of genetic variation occurs between individuals/small populations.
    Instead mostly a combo of environmental, social, political and momentum factors.

Even though the “Myth of Talent” is based on partial, inaccurate information due to e.g.,:

  • Iceberg Illusion.
    We can only see/consciously understand a fraction of the work it took to become an expert.
    We fail to spot the accumulated impact of many small factors or one small factor over time.
    See “Combinatorial Explosion” below.
  • Expert Amnesia.
    The subconscious nature of expertise means we can only describe and report a fraction of it.
    See “Combinatorial Explosion” below.
  • Expert Delusion
    Sometimes to boost performance (e.g., in deliberately eliminating doubt to improve performance)
    Sometimes to mislead (e.g., lying about performance and effort to others)
    Sometimes unintentionally (see Expert Amnesia)
  • Linear vs. System Dynamics.
    We assume linear relationships where complex systems and feedback mechanisms are at play.
    We miss the compounding impact of many small factors or one small factor over a long time.

And grossly distorted by our cognitive biases:

  • Combinatorial Explosion
    We are terrible at visualising exponential functions.
    E.g., How thick is a piece of paper after 103 folds? 93 billion light years (as thick as the Universe). 
  • Confirmation Bias
    We give more weight to information that confirms existing stories.
    This makes it hard to shake pre-existing biases.
  • Attribution Error
    We misattribute or find causation where there is only correlation.
    We mistake the direction of causation (which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies)
  • Availability Bias
    We are better at remembering surprising or extreme examples.
    We tend to confuse how easily memorable something is with how likely it is.
    As a result, we weight extreme examples over “normal” ones in our mental models.
  • Halo Effect
    We extrapolate results from small to large populations without regard to sample size.
    We extrapolate performance between one or many domains (e.g., chess >> general memory).

This is important because our expectations have great consequences for ourselves and those around us.

  • Mindset: “Natural talent” based praise induces a fixed mindset in others. “Effort” based praise induces a growth mindset.
  • Motive: The “Myth of Talent” denies us/others the opportunity for self-improvement: “Why bother if I have no ‘natural gift’?”
  • Practice: In a “Fixed Mindset” we seek confirmation of our innate gift through easy tasks and risk avoidance. So we do not learn.
  • Opportunity: Our biases create self-fulfilling prophecies through both positive and negative discrimination (e.g., black athletes).

In fact, there are four main ingredients to learning:

Mindset:
A “Growth Mindset” gives us a love of learning and a resilience to failure.

  • In a Fixed Mindset:
    • People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.
    • They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
    • They believe that talent alone – without effort – creates success.
  • In a Growth Mindset:
    • People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
    • They understand that brains and talent are just the starting point.
    • This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Motive:
An “Internal Motive”, once sparked, sets intention and sustains drive and motivation.

  • Motive must be independent and internal: “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”
  • Anything can spark it but “Motivation by Association” (e.g., through a shared local or national identity) is a powerful example.
  • Once sparked, motive must be “sustained” either internally or by virtue of its own momentum (see Learned Industriousness).

Practice:
“Purposeful Practice” with enough quantity, quality and feedback, is the bedrock of ability.

  • Quantity: “10 year / thousand hour rule”. Consistently proven as biggest single differentiator of ability across all domains.
  • Quality: Practice must be constantly challenging. If something feels easy or subconscious, it is not improving (e.g., driving to work).
  • Feedback: “If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right”.
    • Must be timely (quick to follow the action), objective and attributable (See “Kaizen“).
    • Try to look for or design feedback loops in your practice (e.g., by standardising procedure).

Opportunity:
“Good Luck” in Where, When, What, Who and How separates the top 10% from the top 10.

  • Where: In the right place. Determines Who and How. E.g., “Reading” for UK Table Tennis; Eldoret for distance running.
  • When: At the right time. Timing, at the start of an up-cycle, is everything. E.g., Hockey players born early in season cut off. Reading in the early 80s for Table Tennis.
  • What: Genetics, injury. Some genetic factors make a difference sometimes. Injury/burnout can unravel even the most promising career.
  • Who: With the right people. Ourselves, peers, parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, judges – all influence the course of our journey.
  • How: And the right facilities. Tightly linked with Where and When. E.g., It’s hard to be a tennis champion with no tennis court.

Managing “Belief” is a final “X Factor” in balancing conflicting demands of “Learning” and “Performance”.  

  • Our beliefs have a profound and physical impact on our experience and actions (see the Placebo Effect).
  • And it turns out it doesn’t matter what they are (e.g., divine, scientific) so long as our beliefs are sincere.
  • But “Learning” and “Performance” place conflicting demands on belief:
    • Learning: Openness to criticism, understanding of our own flaws.
    • Performance: Unwavering self-confidence and belief.
  • And believing the wrong thing at the wrong time can greatly disrupt both.
  • So, the ability to believe in and appropriately manage two conflicting realities is critical to optimising growth.

In conclusion: Your most basic abilities can be developed to extraordinary levels through dedication and hard work. 

  • Our ability to improve our intelligence and abilities is more in control than we ever imagined.
  • Luck and genetics do play a role but this is much less significant than we assume.

Don’t let the “Myth of Talent” hold you and the people around you back.

  • Get out there and take more responsibility for your own destiny!
  • Don’t let a few weeks of half hearted effort at some skill confirm your false beliefs.
  • Purposeful practice is not easy, it is hard, but it is also mostly available to everyone.
  • Understanding this will not only change you, it will also change those around you.

Related Reading

“Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell: Heavily referenced by Syed and for good reason. Gladwell’s pursuit of the truth is relentless. His book deeply debunks “The Myth of Talent”, including many deep and widely held biases, across a wide range of domains. Incidentaly, his new podcast “Revisionist History” is also fascinating.

“Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential”, Carol Dweck: Another primary source for Syed. Dweck’s decades of experiments and insights into the psychology of learning have deeply influenced today’s thinking on the topic. The idea and evidence behind “Growth” and “Fixed” mindsets began and come from here. A fascinating read.

“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, Joshua Waitzkin: Waitzkin’s book tells the story of his rise to both International Master at Chess and a World Champion in Taichi Push Hands. His first hand insights of mastering not one but two domains to a World Class level make for fascinating reading. A wonderful and insightful book.

“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Cal Newport: In this fascinating book, Cal Newport guides us into the requirements, benefits and importance of “Deep Work”. His concept overlaps almost perfectly with the idea of “Purposeful Practice”. For anyone looking for more practical tips on single minded progress, this is a must read. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg: If you’re looking for more on the power of the subconscious then try this book for size. An amazing insight into the importance of habit in every aspect of learning. Also full of practical tips. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

“A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science”, Barbara Oakley: My final reading suggestion is another fascinating journey into the physiology and psychology of learning. Barbara’s book is as deeply practical as it is informative. If you’re looking for more on Chunking, Discipline and Creativity then look no further. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

How to: Engaging With Art – from Appreciation to Criticism and Connoisseurship

The Black Square, Malevich
18 MINUTE READ

The Black Square, Malevich

“The Black Square”, Kazimir Malevich

Perfect for you if:

  • You need two hands to count your gallery/museum memberships on.
  • You’re art-curious but have never really worked out what it’s all about.
  • “Leonardo” and “Michelangelo” are Ninja Turtles aren’t they?

N.B., To keep things tight this guide is skewed heavily towards a single format: painting. It can, however, be applied to almost any art form. From dance to architecture to hardcore German rap – whatever floats your boat, you’ll hopefully find something here to help you think about art in new ways.

I like art. I grew up with the Tate, the V&A and the British Museum. In my travels, I’ve visited hundreds of galleries and museums across dozens of countries. I’ve even read a couple of books on the topic.

And yet, if I’m honest, I still don’t really have a clue what it’s all about. I can recognise a Hirst, a Banksy or an Emin. I can nod knowingly at a Warhol or a Weiwei. I know that Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Picasso were important. I’m aware that impressionist art fetches tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars at auction.

But could I tell you why? I mean really give you a good explanation? The short answer is No. No I can’t. I don’t have a clue. Despite decades of engaging with art I still walk in and out of galleries and museums feeling like a fraud. Despite hundreds of hours of exposure I’m still constantly troubled by the same two questions:

  1. What the hell am I supposed to think about this?
  2. Why is this piece of art more important/valuable than that one?

“Enough is enough,” I decided, “I’m going to solve this once and for all!” And here, mis amigos, are the fruits of my labour.

What I discovered is this: there are no easy answers.

Art is a language and fluency takes years of hard, purposeful practice.

At the top end of fluency are two disciplines: Art Criticism and Art Connoisseurship.

Art Criticism is about placing and evaluating art in the context of other works. Which are more influential? More beautiful? More powerful? Your opinion is part of a group effort. The degree to which you are “right” or “wrong” is judged against the most common currently accepted ideas of art theory and history.

Art Connoisseurship used to be a technical role. The kind of person who could spot a Caravaggio from 1,000 paces based on brush stroke and technique. That’s still true to some extent. These days though, connoisseurship is more about placing artworks within a contemporary hierarchy of taste. Unless you’re one of a handful of influencers your opinion means very little here. Instead, connoisseurship means understanding changing trends and tastes in society. The accuracy of your opinion is weighed in cash. You may not like a piece of art, that doesn’t mean someone else won’t buy it for $300m.

Whatever the art form, these hotshots pretty much dictate what is accepted today as important and unimportant art. And that power extends into the past, present and future. Their decisions have surprisingly far reaching consequences for the development of our society and culture as a whole. That’s important because their judgement hasn’t/doesn’t always live up to the standards of objectivity and inclusiveness that our societies look up to today.

Though it takes a lifetime of dedicated work (and a good measure of luck) to reach those lofty heights, there’s also some good news:

  1. Anyone who wants to can become more fluent in art; and
  2. You don’t need ninja levels to transform the way you engage with it.

In fact, with a little thought, you can make more progress in a few weeks of purposeful practice than in a lifetime of walking aimlessly around galleries and museums.

So how does one practise art purposefully? It all starts with learning…

How to Appreciate Art.

Art Appreciation is all about you. You and a single work of art. Everything starts here, without it neither criticism nor connoisseurship are possible.

There are no right or wrong answers in art appreciation. Just your personal perception of and response to the facts.

To appreciate art you must first learn to…

Step 1: Experience it.

The first step in art appreciation is to take at least a couple of minutes to experience an artwork as mindfully as possible.

Slow down and take your time. If you have 30 minutes, you will get far more from engaging six pieces of art than sixty.

If you’re in a museum or gallery try this on your own, before you read any accompanying information. This is your opportunity to engage with art on your own terms. Enjoy making the most of it before you consider the perspective of the curator or other external sources.

If it’s a painting, don’t simply look. Try to see. If it’s a piece of music, don’t use it as a backing track to your thoughts. Really listen.

Take the whole thing in. Then isolate the details. Then soften and expand your observation back out to the whole.

As you do so, keep a gentle eye on your immediate and changing sensations, emotions and thoughts:

  • What physical sensations are you aware of?
    Scan down your body: what is your first impulse / instant reaction?
    Did your shoulders tighten? Did you cross your arms? Are you frowning or smiling?
  • What emotions do you feel?
    Confusion? Joy? Sadness? Repulsion? Frustration? Anger?
    Is the emotion strong or weak? How does it change?
  • What thoughts come and go?
    Are they pleasant or unpleasant? Related or unrelated?
    Don’t analyse or intellectualise at this stage, there’s plenty of time for that later.

Stay curious and open minded towards your own reactions. There are no right or wrong answers. Isn’t it interesting what does/doesn’t come up?

It is totally O.K. if you catch your mind wandering off. Simply make a note of what you were thinking about and bring it gently back to the artwork.

Mindfully experiencing a piece of art like this is emotional rather than analytical. It is surprisingly difficult to do without getting lost in internal narratives or judgements.

Stick with it, it does gets easier with practice. Learning to find that balance of focus is the first step to getting more from art than you ever imagined.

Step 2: Place it.

The second step in art appreciation is to place the artwork in your mental art map.

Read the accompanying placard (or ask someone else) to get a sense of “What”, “Who” and “When”.

Whatever the art form, this taxonomical information will sound something like:

  • This is a [Movement/style] [Sub-format] [Format] called [Name] created by [Creator] in/on [Date]
  • e.g., This is Fauvist oil painting called “Dance” created by Henri Matisse in 1910

This information is only a tiny part of the puzzle but it’s a useful way to organise art in your head.

If you’re serious about learning the language of art, write this information down and make a conscious effort to memorise it (there’s more on this in the tips you can send yourself at the top of the page).

Over time you’ll begin building up a sizeable mental art library that is essential for understanding art in its wider context.

Step 3: Understand it.

The final step in appreciating art is to try and understand it.

“Textual details” are those you can’t get from simply experiencing a piece of art. Instead you’ll need prior knowledge or external sources.

Don’t be afraid to look up more details on the spot. This one tip alone will totally change the way you experience your next gallery or museum visit.

You would be amazed at the scandal and gossip behind even the most forgettable portrait of a 17th Century noble. And the life of many artists or your average Greek myth contains more violence, sex and betrayal than an entire season of Game of Thrones.

In the case of much contemporary art, textual detail is often not just a bonus, it is essential. The experienceable artwork itself can be more like evidence at a crime scene: irrelevant and meaningless except in the context of the action or thought that created it.

When trying to get to the “Why” of an artwork there are thee questions you must ask:

  1. What?
  2. Who?; and
  3. What for?

Even if the message of a piece seems straightforward, you’ll soon discover that the full story is “rarely pure and never simple”.

Depending on the work / your levels of interest, you may also find it interesting to ask:

  1. Where?; and
  2. How?

Let’s cover each of these questions in more detail now.

i. What?

The first question to try and understand is “What?”

An artist’s intentions for any given work can range from stunningly simple to bewilderingly complex.

Consider the whole work and also its details. Ask yourself to what extent they are:

  • Representational/figurative
    Who/what/where are the subjects? What are their stories? Why were they included? Common figures in Western art range from characters in popular Greek and Roman myths to Biblical and political figures.
  • Abstract
    What elements of the photo are partly or totally devoid of references to the physical world? Why has the artist chosen abstraction? To express or elicit an emotion? To test an idea? To challenge the viewer’s preconceptions of art?
  • Metaphorical
    What obvious/hidden metaphors is the artist employing? Are the metaphors common or unique? How have they used the specific to comment on the general? Have they subverted the metaphor in some way?
  • Symbolic
    What traditional/subverted symbols has the artist included/omitted? What animals? What plants? What objects? Why? See Living Arts Originals and this Dictionary of Symbolism for  great introductions to symbolism in art.

Read the placard. Look it up on your phone. Ask a guide or gallery attendant. Contact the artist if they’re still alive!

Stay patient and curious. You can’t solve every puzzle in a single sitting.

Especially since many of the pieces are likely to be tied up in…

ii. Who?

In today’s art world, the artist almost always takes centre stage.

And yet, the truth is you will always find five important stakeholders behind any work:

  • The Patron commissions and pays for the artwork.
  • The Artist (and/or their workshop) creates the artwork.
  • The Collector owns the artwork.
  • The Exhibitor makes the artwork available to the viewer.
  • The Viewer experiences the artwork.

What do you know about these stakeholders today/historically?

  • Who are/were they?
  • What sort of time did they exist in?
  • What are/were their wider goals/motives?
  • If they’re an institution; who funds or owns them?
  • How and why have they changed over time?

Don’t underestimate the importance of this piece of the puzzle.

Without it you’ll find it much harder to fully understand…

iii. What for?

“What for?” ties together “What?” and “Who?”. It is the critical piece of the puzzle.

The two most immediately relevant “What for?”s to think about are:

  • Why was this artwork originally created? and;
  • What is the exhibitor trying to achieve by showing me this artwork today?

You might be surprised at how different the answers to these two questions are. What does this tell you?

Put yourself in the shoes of each stakeholder. Keep asking Why? – Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?

  • Why did the patron commission this work? Why from this artist? Why in this format?
  • Why did the artist take on the work? Why did they choose to realise their idea in this way?
  • Why did the collector acquire this piece work? Why have they lent it to the exhibitor?
  • Why is the exhibitor displaying this work? Why now? Why in this collection? Why in this way?
  • Why are you here? Why are other viewers here? Why was this work important to the original viewers?

Remember: Artworks are tools. They serve different purposes for different people at different times.

They record and tell stories. They express and elicit emotions. They communicate or comment on the balance of power and authority. They attract money, fame and prestige.

Understanding these purposes will uncover new levels of meaning within an artwork. They will reveal hidden as well as public motives.

Perhaps most importantly, they will prompt you to challenge, rather than simply accept, the work as it’s being shown to you today.

iv. Where

Many artworks are commissioned and created with a final exhibition point already in mind. This spatial context has probably influenced the artist’s choice of content, format and technical approach.

This is important because exhibiting an artwork outside of its intended context can deeply impact its meaning. The power and authority of a work can disappear or even be reversed entirely by simply changing where and how it is presented. This is especially true for religious and political art.

Some things to consider include:

  • Location
    Was the artwork originally destined for a gallery? a church? a palace? a house? outdoors?
    Was it meant for a specific location? Was intended to be public/private?
  • Space
    What kind of space was the artwork destined for? Was it prominent? Or supporting another work?
    Was it meant for a stairwell or a corridor? On a wall? Above a door?
  • Lighting
    What kind of lighting was the artwork designed for? Were the levels of light high or low?
    Was the source natural? candles? an electric bulb?

Take a moment to think about the artwork in its original space.

Ask yourself:

  • Why has the exhibitor chosen this new context?
  • How could this have changed the way I relate to the work?
  • Is/how has the meaning of the artwork changed with the context?

You may learn things about both the artwork and the exhibitor that surprise you.

v. How

As of writing, Wikipedia lists the following formats under its article “The Arts“:

Some items may seem strange to you. You may feel outraged that others haven’t featured at all.

Where are calligraphy? Or metallurgy? Or textiles? Or gastronomy? Or any other number of creative forms of expression?

It is worth noting that the formats we traditionally consider as artistic vary considerably between individuals, societies and time periods.

One thing though is certain: whatever the format of a piece of art, learning more about that format will give you new meaning and perspective on the artwork.

If you’re interested in a specific format: start by reading or watching a good video on it (e.g., this superb video on sculpting in stone).

Even better, do a basic course in it. Nothing will give you more appreciation for oil paintings than learning the basics of the craft. Or for a killer guitar solo than learning to play the guitar.

Ask yourself:

  • Why the artist may have chosen this format?
  • What were the benefits? And the tradeoffs?
  • How has this work been influenced by their skill or experience in other formats?
  • How could/have others presented the same idea in different formats?

Do this and you may find the insights you reveal both surprising and rewarding.

How to Criticise Art.

Art criticism is the process of evaluating a work of art in the context of art theory and art history.

The most important word in this definition is “context”.

  • Art Appreciation requires no knowledge of art beyond the work being examined.
  • Art Criticism demands it.

There are many different ways to approach art criticism. All of them rely on building a deep and wide base of knowledge.

The good news is that the longer and more diligently you appreciate art, the richer and more meaningful your criticism will become.

Here are a few steps you can use to get started:

  1. Make the work part of a wider collection.
    If you’re in a gallery or museum, why not start with the collection the work is currently being presented in.
  2. Take a moment to consider this collection as a whole.
    What story is it telling? Not telling? What else could be included? What omitted?
  3. Now come back to the piece of art. How does it compare to the other works?
    In its ability to fulfil its function? In its influence? Aesthetically?

When art is displayed in galleries/museums, collections are commonly filtered and ordered in one of four ways:

  • By format – e.g., painting, sculpture
  • By/through time – e.g., Roman, 16th – 18th Century
  • By movement/style – e.g., impressionism, fauvism
  • By artist – e.g., as a biographical retrospective

Challenge this presentation and ask yourself: “If I could wave a magic wand, what other works might I compare this one to?”

You can create an infinite number of imaginary collections using any one or more of the following lenses:

  • Who – remember the patron, artist, collector, exhibitor and viewer.
  • When – what other works were being created at this time?
  • What for – how does this work compare to other e.g., political works across any other lenses?
  • Format – how does this work compare within its format? how about with works in other formats?
  • Movement / style – what explicit/implicit broader cultural movement was this work part of?

Go crazy. Consider works of the same size, shape or colour. Compare works that are similar or at different extremes of a spectrum.

As you go through this process it should hopefully become clear how deeply subjective and infinitely varied the field of art criticism is.

The stories commonly told in galleries, museums or text books are not “the” way art should be collected and interpreted. They are simply “a” way.

The fact of the matter is that there is no single best lens or right answer. There may be a number of “most currently accepted” answers but like all inter-subjective realities these too change over time. Don’t be afraid to challenge the assumptions and choices behind the collections you’re being presented.

In the meantime though, the idea of a “most currently accepted answer” brings us neatly to…

How to Become an Art Connoisseur.

What is an Art Connoisseur?

An art connoisseur is someone with excellent judgement in placing artwork within a hierarchy of taste.

In English, that means they’ll tell you not about how good or bad an artwork is but about how good or bad other people will think it is.

In particular, art connoisseurs busy themselves with the tastes, trends and theories of elite and educated segments of appreciators and influencers.

Art connoisseurs come in many forms and with a variety of different motives:

  • Advisors, auction houses, agents, brokers, fairs/festivals, galleries and the like are mostly financially driven; meanwhile
  • Artists, collectors, curators, museums and publications have motives than can be more complex and opaque.

An artist or collector might be driven to create or collect by money, prestige, aesthetics or even some political or social motive.

A curator might be driven by fashion, theory or the desire to make a name for themselves.

The Danger of Museums and Public Galleries

Museums and public galleries are an especially important type of connoisseur for two reasons:

  1. They are how most of us experience the majority of traditional art forms.
  2. Their claims of greater objectivity can create a dangerously false sense of security.

Though museums and public galleries may genuinely aspire to educate objectively, the truth is more complex. For example:

  • Many (e.g., most national) museums were set up specifically to promote artists of a particular nationality or format.
  • Most museums simply do not have the resources to collect and display the best of the best.
  • Every museum is curated by individuals with their own opinions and biases.
  • Every museum needs visitors and prestige to attract funding.

The result is that museums tend to display artworks:

  • That are similar to things we already know and like,
  • In ways that we feel comfortable with; or
  • That overhype the value and importance of their own collections.

This can, in turn, perpetuate a status quo which feeds back into narrow acquisition and exhibition policies.

Don’t get me wrong, museums and public galleries are great – many work extremely hard to do the best they can under conflicting pressures.

Just always remember: no matter where you are, you are never experiencing fact, you are experiencing someone else’s judgement of value.

The Path to Connoisseurship

People say you’re either born with “good taste” or you aren’t: that’s a load of rubbish. Like anything, “good taste” is a learned skill.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Good luck and “Who” as well as “What” you know play an even more important part in connoisseurship than in art criticism. If you work out a reliable formula for either of these then come back and tell me.

For now; here are two things that you can do to set off in the right direction:

First: Learn as much about the art market as possible.

  • Learn the mechanics: From artist and agent through to high-street gallery, art fair/biennale, major gallery and auction house. A superb book for this is Don Thompson’s “$12m Stuffed Shark”.
  • Stay up to date: Stay on top of latest art news. Follow auction schedules and results at major houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s. These will all help you develop an understanding and intuition of “Who” is buying “What” and maybe even “Why”.
  • Get to know the people: Meet as many other fledgling and experienced connoisseurs as possible. Visit galleries and shows with them. Ask them for tips. Ask them for insights. The most rewarding and enlightening sources for learning about art are the people who think, live and breathe it every moment of every day.

Second: Make art and art appreciation as full time as you can. 

  • Appreciate as much art as possible. When it comes to connoisseurship, a working fluency of art is a given. Getting there will mean appreciating as wide a range of art, exhibited in as many ways a possible, as often as you can. Don’t let geography limit you. Do this online or through books and catalogues as well as in person.
  • Read around the topic. Read. Read. Read. Try to understand current theories of Art History. Try to understand the History of Art History. Develop an extensive database of textual details that you can call on whenever required.
  • Learn continuously. Take courses in art theory. Take courses in art practice. Ideally both. Take up drawing, or ceramics or photography. Join a dance school or improv class. Understanding the struggles and limitations of your own creativity will give you new found respect for the works of others. You might even make some new friends!

I know this list sounds intimidating. The good news is that it’s not an all or nothing deal. Start somewhere and keep chugging along. As long as you’re motivated and excited by the world of art, your growth will come steadily and naturally.

And remember, with art, as with pretty much anything in life, the more you put in, the more you’ll get out.

Conclusion

I wrote this guide as a way to help me engage more thoughtfully with art when I encounter it. I hope that it’s encouraged you to do the same.

There’s a tendency to view continuously investing in art literacy as an indulgence that’s only accessible and relevant to a select few.

In reality, I don’t think this can be much further from the truth.

Art – be it painting, sculpture and architecture or music, film and dance – permeates and shapes every aspect of our culture and society. It impacts every moment of our day to day lives through the beliefs and attitudes that it reinforces.

What art is harmful and what art is helpful? What art is good and what art is evil? These are the questions that art literacy helps us to answer.

When we engage actively with art we begin recognising and challenging “truths” as they are presented to us rather than just accepting them.

  • What kind of message does it send our children that the Western Canon (the list of artworks recognised as influential for all art) is almost exclusively White, Western and Male?
  • What impact does it have to listen to music that continues to objectify women in way that no other part of our culture will accept?
  • What does it imply to perpetuate art theories that label anything pre-16th century or non-European as “primitive”?

If we don’t make those decisions ourselves then someone else will make them for us. History is full of examples where the few have dictated an unquestioned truth and that path is not one littered with inclusive or benevolent outcomes.

What’s at stake here is not just a nice afternoon wandering around a gallery or museum.

  • It’s our say on what kind of art outlasts us and becomes part of our past.
  • It’s our choice about what kind of art, society and culture we want in our present.
  • It’s our decision as to what kind of step we choose to lay on the path towards the future.

Perhaps you agree. Perhaps you think that’s all a bit melodramatic. In either case, that’s what inspires me to keep going back to art, even if I continue to have very little idea about what’s really going on.

In any case, I hope you’ll agree that with a little bit of work and thought, the world of art can, at least, become a much more interesting and meaningful place.

Thanks for reading. Good luck, enjoy and have fun!

P.s., There’s a very good chance I’ve missed things out and got other things totally wrong. Wherever that’s the case, please tell me! I love being corrected.

Further Reading

“The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art”

“The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty”, Michael Findlay

“A Very Short Introduction to Art History”, Dana Arnold

“The Story of Art”, Ernst Gombrich

“Art: Over 2,500 Works from Cave to Contemporary”, Iain Zaczek, Mary Acton

Book Crunch: “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie
13 MINUTE READ

How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie

“How to Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie
Print length: 360 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You have a deep desire to improve your ability to deal with people.
  • You’d like to improve your relationships at home and at work.
  • This isn’t the kind of book you would normally read.

“How to Win Friends and Influence People” is a treasure trove of practical tips for building better relationships.

If you asked me for just one book that you should read this year, this would be my recommendation. Its timeless wisdom will change your life.

Think that’s an exaggeration? Consider that:

  • It has sold over 30 million copies since its first edition in 1936.
  • It is consistently voted among the most influential books in American history.
  • It still, to this day, sells hundreds of thousands of copies each year.

So why haven’t you read it yet?

There are two reasons why I almost passed over it when I first picked it up 10 years ago.

  1. To me, the title sounded like a manipulative book on Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP).
  2. I didn’t think I needed advice from someone else on how to make friends or influence people.

Neither of these points could have been further from the truth.

I’ll use Carnegie’s own words to answer the first point:

“The principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.”

Or perhaps you’d prefer something from Henry Ford:

“If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.”

Neither of those statements entails manipulative shortcuts. As you’ll see, it is impossible to apply Carnegie’s tips without genuinely becoming a kinder, more thoughtful person.

As for the second: If you feel uncomfortable reading books on self-improvement, I hear you. The question to ask yourself though is, “What have I got to lose?”

Carnegie’s wise words on the topic are:

 “Nothing will work in all cases – and nothing will work with all people. If you are satisfied with the results you are now getting, why change? If you are not satisfied, why not experiment?”

And it’s an important argument that authors like Timothy Ferriss are are still using today:

“Much of what I recommend will seem impossible and even offensive to basic common sense – I expect that. Resolve now to test the concepts as an exercise in lateral thinking.”

A bet with minimal downside, and a high upside, is one that you should take every time.

And how big is the upside? It’s high. According to the late John D. Rockefeller:

“The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee, and I will pay more for the ability than for any other under the sun.”

Convinced? The good news is that this book is not only good on “Why” and “What”, it’s also great on “How”.

Carnegie ran his popular self-improvement programs for decades with participants from every conceivable walk of life. His book is full of their stories. Stories about how they applied these principles. Stories about the huge changes they made in their own lives.

Reinventing the wheel is an extremely difficult and masochistic past time. You may remember these wise words from Seneca: tutor to Roman emperors and (at one time) one of the wealthiest men alive:

“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.”

Read this book. Learn from it. Keep it handy. Refer back to it often (I wish I had followed this advice more faithfully).

It will make you a better person. It will improve your life. Most importantly, it will improve the lives of the people you love and the people you meet each day.

And remember:

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world… as in being able to remake ourselves.”
Mahatma Gandhi

N.B., this feels like a bit of a cheat book crunch as the material is already extremely well organised. You’ll notice a lot more direct quoting than usual. Mainly because “If it ain’t broke…”. Enjoy!

3 Fundamental Techniques in Handling People

  1. Don’t criticise, condemn, or complain. “Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes him strive to justify himself. Criticism is dangerous because it wounds a person’s precious pride, hurts his sense of importance and arouses resentment.” Put as much time and space between emotion and action as possible. Empathise and forgive. Do not measure others by the standards you set for yourself.
  2. Give honest and sincere appreciation. “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” Be “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise.” but avoid hollow flattery. Instead, make your appreciation heartfelt, sincere and unselfish. Flattery is easily detected and universally condemned.
  3. Arouse in the other person an eager want. “The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it… you may want to persuade somebody to do something. Before you speak, pause and ask yourself: ‘How can I make this person want to do it?'”

6 Ways to Make People Like You

  1. Become genuinely interested in other people. “You can make more friends in two months by being interested in them, than in two years by making them interested in you… If we want to make friends, let’s put ourselves out to do things for other people – things that require time, energy, unselfishness and thoughtfulness”. Make it a priority to keep an eye out for things that might improve other people’s lives.
     
    A great practical tip from Carnegie is as simple as follows:

    1. Take the time to find out the birthday’s of friends and acquaintances.
    2. Make a note of them in your calendar.
    3. Take the time each year to send a physical card.

    This kind of thoughtfulness costs very little but has a huge impact.

  2. Smile. “The expression one wears on one’s face is far more important than the clothes one wears on one’s back.” Smile in everything that you do. Smile sincerely, “An insincere grin… doesn’t fool anybody. We know it is mechanical and we resent it.”. Don’t feel like smiling? Consider Abraham Lincoln’s remark that “most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Still struggling? Fake it until you make it. Force yourself to smile and the mind will often follow.
  3. Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language. “The average person is more interested in their own name than in all the other names in the world put together.” Remembering a person’s name is a question of effort not ability. Ask a person’s name. Pay attention. Make sure you’ve heard it. Spell it out if need be. Repeat it several times. Build a mental picture. Write it down. Don’t then become the weirdo who thinks repeating the other person’s name after every sentence will make them like you. That’s not how it works, be cool.
  4. Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. “Exclusive attention to the person who is speaking to you is very important. Nothing else is so flattering as that.” Doing so will soften and subdue even the most violent critic and you may also learn a thing or two. “To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that the other person will enjoy answering.” And remember: “A person’s toothache means more to [them] than a famine… which kills a million people.”
  5. Talk in terms of the other person’s interest. “The royal road to a person’s heart is to talk about the things he or she treasures most.” Take the time to understand or even research a topic you know is of interest to someone else. Ask them about their past: “Almost every successful person likes to reminisce about their early struggles.” Doing so will not only improve your relationship, it might enlarge your life.
  6. Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Obey this golden rule “All the time, everywhere”. Use little phrases like “I’m sorry to trouble you,” “Would you be so kind as to – ?” “Would you mind?” and “Thank you.” “Almost all the people you meet feel superior to you in some way, and a sure way to their heats is to let them realise in some subtle way that you realise their importance and recognise it sincerely.”

12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking

  1. The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lost it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” because “A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still”. Instead try to:
    1. Welcome the disagreement: This might be an opportunity to avoid a serious mistake.
    2. Watch out for and distrust your first instinct to be defensive.
    3. Control your temper.
    4. Listen first.
    5. Look first for areas of agreement.
    6. Be honest about and apologise for your mistakes.
    7. Promise to think over your opponent’s ideas and study them carefully.
    8. Thank the other person sincerely for their time and interest.
    9. Postpone action to give both sides time to think through the problem.
  2. Show respect for the other person’s opinions. Never say “You’re wrong.” It’s “tantamount to saying: ‘I’m smarter than you are.'” Instead, consider that “you will never get into trouble by admitting that you may be wrong” and see the above point. Even if you know you are right, try something like: “I may be wrong. I frequently am. If I’m wrong I want to be put right. Let’s examine the facts.”
  3. If you are wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically. “By fighting you never get enough, but by yielding you get more than you expected.” Have the courage to admit your errors. Let the other person take the role of a collaborative and benevolent forgiver rather than an opponent.
  4. Begin in a friendly way.  Friendliness begets friendliness. Glow with it. Overflow with it. Remember that “a drop of honey can catch more flies than a gallon of gall.” and see also Aesop’s fable “The Wind and the Sun”.
  5. Get the other person saying ‘yes, yes’ immediately. “Begin by emphasising – and keep emphasising – the things on which you agree… that you are both striving for the same end and that your only difference is one of method and not of purpose.” Try to begin with questions to which the only conceivable reply is “Yes”. This will help things get off on a collaborative foot. And remember, “he who treads softly goes far.”
  6. Let the other person do a great deal of the talking. “Let other people talk themselves out. They know more about their business and problems than you do. So ask the questions. Let them tell you a few things… Don’t [interrupt]… They won’t pay attention to you while they still have a lot of ideas of their own crying for expression”. Don’t waste air boasting about your own achievements: “If you want enemies, excel your friends; but if you want friends, let your friends excel you.”
  7. Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers. “You have much more faith in ideas that you discover for yourself than in ideas that are handed to you.” Allow others to design and become invested in their own solutions. Consult with them, collaborate on and influence a half finished idea rather than presenting a final solution. Avoid self-importance, instead remember “The reason why rivers and seas receive the home of a hundred mountain streams is that they keep below them.”
  8. Try honestly to see things from the other person’s point of view. Take the time to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you can, sit down with a piece of paper and a pen. Set a timer for 10 minutes and begin with the words: “What X is probably feeling now is…” Keep writing from their perspective until the timer goes off.
  9. Be sympathetic with the other person’s ideas and desires. Begin always with “I don’t blame you one iota for feeling as you do. If I were you I would undoubtedly feel just as you do.” Be honest about your own flaws and idiosyncrasies. It will help you be more sympathetic with those of others. Remember “Three-fourths of the people you will ever meet are hungering and thirsting for sympathy. Give it to them, and they will love you”.
  10. Appeal to the nobler motives. “People are honest and want to discharge their obligations, the exceptions to that rule are comparatively few”. They “will in most cases react favourably if you make them feel that you consider them honest, upright and fair”.
  11. Dramatise your ideas. Present your ideas in an interesting, creative and dramatic way that captures attention. Think laterally; how can you present tabular data in a creative way that encourages interaction and engages more of the senses than just sight? Take your inspiration from television and advertising – they’ve been in this game a long time.
  12. Throw down a challenge. “The way to get things done is to stimulate competition. I do not mean in a sordid money-getting way, but in the desire to excel.” Pay is not enough to motivate people. Instead the work itself must be motivating and exciting. Make performance metrics public. Let people enjoy a challenge. “That is what every successful person loves: the game. The chance for self-expression. The chance to prove his or her worth, to excel, to win.”

9 Ways to Be a Leader and Change People Without Giving Offence or Arousing Resentment

N.b., the judgement and skill behind the “How” in this section is more advanced and subtle. Carnegie illustrates them with some superb examples that are well worth reading in full.

  1. Begin with praise and honest appreciation. “Beginning with praise is like the dentist who begins with his work with Novocain. The patient still gets a drilling, but the Novocain is pain-killing.”
  2. Call attention to people’s mistakes indirectly. A great tip given here is to use the word “and” whenever you feel like using the word “but”. This avoids devaluing the initial praise and move feedback to a “good to greater” mindset.
  3. Talk about your own mistakes before criticising the other person. “Admitting one’s own mistakes – even when one hasn’t corrected them – can help convince somebody to change his behaviour.”  Call attention to or remember back to when you also struggled with whatever it is you are giving feedback on. Be open and specific with your examples. Talk about how you (wish you’d) worked through them instead of criticising directly.
  4. Ask questions instead of giving direct orders. “Asking questions not only makes an order more palatable; it often stimulates the creativity of the persons whom you ask.” N.B., this doesn’t work with obviously leading questions. Instead, see “Let the other person feel the idea is his or hers.”
  5. Let the other person save face. “I have no right to say or do anything that diminishes a man in his own eyes. What matters is not what I think of him, but what he thinks of himself. Hurting a man in his dignity is a crime.” It’s also a quick way to shutting down collaboration completely. Even if you must correct or criticise someone, never do it in front of someone else. “Even if we are right and the other person is definitely wrong, we only destroy ego by causing someone to lose face.”
  6. Praise every improvement. “Abilities wither under criticism; they blossom under encouragement.” Can you look back on your own life and see where a few words of praise have sharply changed your entire future? Be specific and sincere. Remember, “we all crave appreciation and recognition, and will do almost anything to get it. But nobody wants insincerity. Nobody wants flattery.”
  7. Give the other person a fine reputation to live up to. “If you want to improve a person in a certain respect, act as though that particular trait were already one of his or her outstanding characteristics.”
  8. Use encouragement. Make the fault seem easy to correct. “Be liberal with your encouragement, make the thing seem easy to do, let the other person know that you have faith in his ability to do it, that he has an undeveloped flair for it – and he will practise until the dawn comes in the window in order to excel.”
  9. Make the other person (as) happy (as possible) about doing what you suggest. Even when the task is irreparably undesirable. Try the following approach:
    1. Be sincere. Do not promise anything you can’t deliver. Forget about yourself and concentrate on the benefits to the other person.
    2. Be clear. Know exactly what you want the other person to do.
    3. Be empathetic. Ask yourself what the other person really wants.
    4. Consider the benefits the other person will receive from doing what you suggest.
    5. Match those benefits to the other person’s wants.
    6. Convey the request in a form that highlights those benefits.

Extra: How to make the most of the book

I’m including Carnegie’s own list of tips for making the most of his book because they’re solid advice for reading and self-improvement in general.

  1. Have a deep desire to learn and a determination to increase your ability to deal with people.
  2. Review each chapter quickly. Then go back over it thoroughly.
  3. Stop frequently to reflect and recall.
  4. Highlight and annotate as you read.
  5. Reread and review frequently.
  6. Apply the rules at every opportunity. See this post on the Power of Habit.
  7. Make a game of it. E.g., offer a 1 USD bounty to your friends and family if they catch you breaking its principles.
  8. Conduct a weekly review. Set aside 30 minutes. Ask yourself, what mistakes did you make? Successes? Lessons? What actions can you take to improve?
  9. Record your small wins. Write them down, be specific, review them often!

Start as you mean to go on! These points are worth dwelling on and putting into practice.

Book Crunch: “The Mysterious Stranger”, Mark Twain

The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain
3 MINUTE READ

The Mysterious Stranger, Mark Twain

“The Mysterious Stranger”, Mark Twain
Print length: 88 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You’ve yet to read something by Mark Twain.
  • Your glass is half-empty and you’re seeking company.
  • You’re feeling on top of the world and need some perspective.

I’ve come across so many good Mark Twain quotes in great books that I wanted to crunch something by him. I decided on “The Mysterious Stranger” over something like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer / Huckleberry Fin” because, based on quick research, it promised (and turned out) to be dark and philosophical.

“The Mysterious Stranger” is an unfinished novella that explores themes of morality, mortality and religion. Twain worked on many versions of the story during a “dark period” of grief, financial difficulty and depression towards the end of his life.

In 1916, after Twain’s death, Albert Paine – an author and biographer who kept sole, private control of Twain’s papers – published this version after what was later discovered to be extensive editing. Nevertheless, it’s a quick and excellent read. I’ll definitely be coming back for more Twain, including hunting down some of the other variations of this story.

This version is set in a quiet village in 16th century Austria at the height of a wave of early modern witch hunts. The plot revolves around a discussion between a young boy and an angel, Satan – the sinless nephew of his more well-known uncle – as events in the village unfold into nightmarish chaos.

Twain uses the story’s characters and the contrasting innocence of the boy and angel to make some blunt observations about humanity.

It’s hard to wrap up philosophy in bullet points but for me it went something like:

  • We can distinguish good from evil,
  • And yet, despite claiming many good qualities for ourselves,
  • We “nine times out of ten” choose evil:
    • Because we are cowards;
    • Because we are selfish; and
    • Because we are shortsighted.
      • Both wilfully and ignorantly.
      • Across time and space.
      • To our benefit and to the cost of others.

And yet:

  • Our entire life is just a subjective illusion.
  • And we have no real control over our fate anyway.

Oh, and by the way:

  • Religion is a lie,
  • There is no afterlife, and
  • Our existence is fleeting, inconsequential and purposeless.

As I mentioned, a “dark period”. And yet the story’s unfolding chaos is as inescapably compelling as an accident at the side of the road or a public celebrity meltdown.

It’s hard not to read Twain’s struggle with conflicting duality without confronting your own. “Not me”, you can’t help but think, “I wouldn’t act like that”. And yet you can’t deny seeing your own failings in some of Twain’s characters without feeling guilty of the hypocrisy of others.

All in all, “The Mysterious Stranger” is a book that surfaces more uncomfortable questions than it answers. You can feel Twain’s struggle to make sense of it all. To make one truth from many. To deal with the frustrating reality of multiple conflicting truths††.

It’s a book that I’ll need to come back to more than once to fully un-puzzle.

In the meantime, have a read and let me know what you think!

Footnotes

† For more on shortsightedness when it comes to consequences here’s a wonderful Chinese parable:

塞翁失馬,焉知非福
sàiwēng-shīmǎ, yān zhī fēi fú
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse, how could one have known that it would not be fortuitous?

It can be difficult to foresee the twists and turns which compel misfortune to beget fortune, and vice versa. There once was a (father), skilled in divination, who lived close to the frontier (with his son). One of his horses accidentally strayed into the lands of the Xiongnu, so everyone consoled him. (But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this is not fortunate?” After several months, the horse came back from the land of the Xiongnu, accompanied by another stallion, so everyone congratulated him. (But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this can not be unfortunate?” His family had a wealth of fine horses, and his son loved riding them. One day (the son) fell off a horse, and broke his leg, so everyone consoled (the father). (But) the father said, “Why should I hastily (conclude) that this is not fortunate?” One year later, the Xiongnu invaded the frontier, and all able-bodied men took up arms and went to war. Of the men from the frontier (who volunteered), nine out of ten men perished (from the fighting). It was only because of (the son’s) broken leg, that the father and son were spared (this tragedy). Therefore misfortune begets fortune, and fortune begets misfortune. This goes on without end, and its depths can not be measured. (Wiktionary translation)

Liu An The Huainanzi

†† For more on conflicting truths here’s a superb poetic version of an old Indian parable:

Based on the Indian parable:

It was six men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear,
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approach’d the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” -quoth he- “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” -quoth he,-
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said- “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” -quoth he,- “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

MORAL,

So, oft in theologic wars
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean;
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

John Godfrey Saxe

TANQ entries for “The Mysterious Stranger”

TANQ is WhyWhatHow’s growing central library of thoughts, anecdotes, notes and quotes.

“There is a sort of pathos about it when one remembers how few are your days, how childish you pomps, and what shadows you are!”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“In any community, big or little, there is always a fair proportion of people who are not malicious or unkind by nature, and who never do unkind things except when they are overmastered by fear, or when their self-interest is greatly in danger, or some such matter as that.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution – these can lift at a colossal humbug – push it a little – weaken it a little, century by century, but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“For a million years [mankind] has gone on monotonously propagating itself and monotonously re-performing this dull nonsense-to what end? No wisdom can guess!”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“A child’s first act knocks over the initial brick, and the rest will follow inexorably.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“Of all the things to bear, to be cut by your neighbours and left in contemptuous solitude is maybe the hardest.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“In five or six thousand years, five or six high civilisations have risen, flourished, commanded the wonder of the world, then faded and disappeared.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“[Mankind] is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never by majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise… The vast majority … are secretly kind-hearted and shrink from inflicting pain, but in the presence of the aggressive and pitiless minority they don’t dare to assert themselves.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“We do not know good fortune from bad, and are always mistaking the one for the other.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“Knowledge was not good for the common people, and could make them discontented with the lot which God had appointed for them, and He would not endure discontentment with His plans.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“Of the score of fine qualities which [mankind] imagined it had and was vain of, it really possessed hardly one.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“Every man is a suffering-machine and a happiness machine combined.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

“Change of scenes shifts the mind’s burden to the other shoulder and banishes the old, shop-worn weariness from mind and body both.”

Mark Twain The Mysterious Stranger

How to: 10 Steps to Learn Any Skill (and Why They Will Change Your Life)

How to: Learn Any Skill
17 MINUTE READ

How to: Learn Any Skill

Perfect for you if:

  • You can’t remember the last time you read a book or picked up a new skill.
  • You struggle with boredom, depression, anxiety or a lack of purpose.
  • You’re looking for ways to supercharge your learning skills.

When was the last time you read a non-fiction book? Or made real tangible progress learning a new skill? Was it a week ago? A month? A year? At school?

This is a serious question. The fact is that the moment you stopped learning is the moment you stopped growing. Your development froze at the moment you decided to ask no more questions or read no more books.

“Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death.”
Albert Einstein

Non-learners generally fall in to two buckets.

  1. People who claim they have no free time.
  2. People that suffer from a lack of inspiration.

Of the first group, only a very small minority are in a genuinely difficult position. Even then, genuine difficulty is usually only temporary.

How many hours a week do you spend watching TV (for the average American it’s over 5 per day)? Or mindlessly browsing ‘news’ or social media? Or chatting with colleagues at work? You owe it to yourself to take this time back.

“Lack of time is actually lack of priorities.”
Timothy Ferriss

If someone gave you an alternative, could you get your work finished by 5 P.M. each day? How about 3 P.M.? Work expands to fill the time available to it. The truth is that many of us lack alternative uses for our time. We work because we have no alternatives except for work. How long have you been living to work rather than working to live?

The second group has even fewer excuses. “Only boring people get bored” my grandma used to tell me. She was right:

“Progressive automation will probably lead to an enormous increase in the leisure hours available to the average worker. The pity of it is that many of these will not know what to do with all their newly acquired free time.”
Viktor Frankl

There are so many skills to learn. So many lists and options readily at our finger tips. Never have we lived in a time where so much information is so accessible and affordable. Never have we had so much choice and freedom.

There is more free, high quality learning material available on the internet than a million people could process in a million life-times. There are free online resources to learn maths, languages, science, cooking, history or yoga. There are air-fares to surf beaches for less than the cost of a round of drinks. There are free parks, museums and libraries full of knowledge just waiting to be uncovered.

“We can discover the meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Viktor Frankl

But perhaps the most important reason to learn a new skill this year is meaning. Meaning in the active pursuit of some goal. Meaning in the added richness and complexity of the world around us that learning brings. Meaning in the people we meet and the communities we join along the way.

If you are bored, or anxious, or depressed or lonely or demotivated then I offer you this one simple solution: learn something new this year. It doesn’t matter much what it is. Pick something new and decide to learn it and learn it well.

Unfreezing yourself is as simple as reversing the decisions you’ve made.

And it will change your life in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

10 Steps to Learn Any Skill

  1. Week 0: Decide What to Learn.
  2. Week 1 – 4: Get Started Right Away.
  3. Week 2 – 4: Read the Manual. 
  4. Week 2 – 4: Make a List.
  5. Week 5: Commit to a Goal.
  6. Week 5: Make a Plan.
  7. Week 6 – 21: Practise.
  8. Week 6 – 21: Teach.
  9. As Needed: Take Breaks.
  10. Every Week: Be Persistent and Patient.

1. Decide What to Learn.

Suggested Timing: Week 0.

There are thousands of subjects, languages, sports, musical instruments, or skills to learn.

But, whether stuck for inspiration or paralysed by choice, it can be harder to pick something to learn than we think.

Make a list.

Nothing unlocks inspiration like a good list. These days most can be found with a quick online search.

Why not check out the Dewey Decimal system for ideas? Or the wikipedia page of Olympic sports? Or some lists of valuable career skills?

Think laterally and borrow liberally. What are your friends good at? Or your bosses? What were Einstein’s hobbies? What juicy ideas can you find in the exclusions list of your health insurance?

Prioritise the list.

Narrowing down the list once you’ve got it can be more problematic. When prioritising projects, think in terms of:

  1. Utility; and
  2. Excitement.

Skills with high utility are useful to you and/or other people, the more immediately practical the better. When a skill has high utility you’ll have more opportunities to enjoy and practice it every day. You might even be able to use it to boost your income.

Skills with high excitement are just that. Learning to do a backflip (ideally on a pair of skis) is not particularly useful. It is, however, awesome. If it gets you out of bed and exercising 6 hours a day, chalk it up as a win.

A big part of both utility and excitement is people. Learn to cook or dance with your partner because it will bring you closer together. Learn to run because it’s a great excuse to bond with friends. Learn languages because it increases the number and depth of connections you can make. Learn to teach or give first aid because it will help you to help others.

Whatever you choose, don’t forget that the vast majority of your happiness in life is accounted for by your relationships.

An ideal skill scores highly on both utility and excitement. If you have to choose, excitement always wins. Forcing yourself to learn because you feel you should is a tortuous path to self-improvement.

Go with your gut.

Don’t get caught up in other people’s ideas of what you should and shouldn’t learn.

The path to self-improvement is only wide enough for one. When the going gets tough, the only person’s determination you’ll have to fall back on is your own.

Both utility and excitement are personal and subjective. The important thing is that you feel personally motivated by your choice!

Also, don’t overthink it. You’re not making a life commitment. The best way to get learning is just to…

2. Get Started Right Away.

Suggested Timing: Week 1 – 4.

Narrow your list down. Write down the very next action you can take to get started. Do it right away.

Search for a nearby class and call to sign up. Pull on a pair of trainers plus the closest thing you have to exercise clothes and go for a run. Read an article, buy a book or watch an online lesson or lecture.

Don’t invest lots of money into equipment. Don’t sink lots of time into planning. Instead, get started. Test early. Build momentum. This valuable experiment will familiarise you with the realities of your choice.

How do you feel about the new skill after a couple of early pilot sessions?

Not what you were expecting? No worries! Celebrate ticking “Try XXX” off the bucket list. Now go back and pick something else.

Still excited and motivated? That’s awesome! Keep doing what you’re doing and in the meantime…

3. Read the Manual.

Suggested Timing: Week 2 – 4.

“All I have learned, I learned from books.”
Abraham Lincoln

Our ability to access, learn from and add to the knowledge of the collective is at the core of human progress.

This idea applies to all skills. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been eating, socialising, running or breathing your whole life. At least one person has done more of it, more thoughtfully than you.

As a result, they’ve worked out better ways of doing and of learning how to do it. If you’re lucky, they’ve written this knowledge down. If you’re even luckier, they’re still alive.

Resist the urge to dive in. Instead, spend a couple of weeks finding these people – be they friends, family, teachers or fellow learners.  Find their knowledge in books, speeches, poems, articles, guides, frameworks, films and podcasts.

There are no shortcuts in learning but there are many quick routes to failure. Drinking deeply from the experiences of others will save you years of future dead ends and frustrations.

Consider also researching at one or two levels of abstraction from the skill you’re trying to learn. For example, when learning “Russian”, also research “Language Learning” and “Learning” or “Memory”.

As your practical experiment and theoretical research continues…

4. Make a List. 

Suggested Timing: Week 2 – 4.

Make a list of everything and anything you come across that might be helpful for learning your skill.

Some of the things you write down might include:

  • Inspirational goals and milestones;
  • Different learning approaches;
  • Useful equipment and tools;
  • Great schools and/or teachers;
  • Clubs, societies and communities; and
  • Any extra reading or research.

Whatever it is, write it down. Don’t worry too much about organising or prioritising your list at this stage – you’re in collection mode.

Once you’ve gathered a mighty list it’s time to…

5. Commit to a Goal. 

Suggested Timing: Week 5.

By now you’ve probably learned enough to have a stab at setting a good first goal.

Write your goals down.

Even if you ignore all the other steps below, make sure you write down your goals.

The simple act of writing down a goal or resolution makes it up to 10x more likely that you will achieve it.

When you write your goals, make them positive, present and first person. Write them as if you have already achieved them.

Make your goals SMART.

The best goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Realistic and Time Bound.

An example of non-SMART goal might be “I learn to play the violin”.

An example of SMART goals might be “I pass my grade 1 violin exam with a Distinction by Y month” or “I play these X violin pieces to 5 friends on Y date. ”

Stick to a 3 – 4 month (12 – 16 week) timeline.

If you’ve ever set 12 month goals you’ll probably be familiar with how vague and uncertain these can feel.

The fact is that the future is highly unpredictable. We also tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a day but underestimate what we can achieve in a year.

To solve this, break down your goals into 3 – 4 month milestones and focus on the next milestone only. This will keep your plan tight, realistic, immediate and tangible.

Set multiple, tiered goals.

Setting multiple, tiered goals is a great way to stay on track in the face of unexpected set-backs.

Make the first goal wildly ambitious. The second goal should be challenging but realistic. The third should focus on completion over performance.

For example, for running you could set three goals:

  1. “I complete X marathon within the top 100 competitors on Z date”
  2. “I complete X marathon within Y time on Z date”
  3. “I complete X marathon on Z date”

These tiered goals make it much less likely that you’ll give up completely in the event of an unexpected injury or training setback.

Make a commitment.

The first commitment you make is to yourself. This is why writing down your goals is so important.

The most powerful commitments you make are to others:

  • Tell your partner, friends, family and colleagues.
  • Tell the members of your learning group or club.
  • Commit to and work towards the goal with someone else.
  • Raise money publicly for charity.

Nothing is more motivating than making a public commitment to others. They will pick you up when you are down and hold you accountable if you fail.

Once you’ve made a commitment to your first milestone…

6. Make a Plan.

Suggested Timing: Week 5.

Set aside a few hours to hammer out a good plan that covers What, How and When.

N.B., Each part of the plan will influence the others and even your original goals.

Don’t be afraid to go back, iterate and change things as you go through the process.

What are you going to do?

Start with your goal, and break it down into the components you will need to work on to get there.

What are the major components? What do you need to achieve? What are the big obstacles? Why aren’t you already there yet?

Use the ABCDE technique to prioritise the things that will have the greatest positive/negative impact on your goal.

Write A next to items you must do. B is for should dos. C is for dice to dos. D is for things you can delegate. E is for anything you can eliminate.

Now order your list by priority and sequence to give yourself a rough to-do list.

How are you going to do it?

During your research you’ll have uncovered many different ways to learn your skill.

Some will clearly be better than others. Some will come down to personal conditions, limitations or preferences.

In any case, go with your gut and focus on as few approaches as possible for the next 12 – 16 weeks.

When are you going to do it?

With the “What” and the “How” in place it’s time to decide on the “When”.

It can be helpful for many skills to borrow a training periodisation approach from athletics.

In the 16 weeks leading up to a goal a typical program might look like:

  • 8 weeks basic training;
  • 4 weeks specialising in key skills;
  • 3 weeks overtraining specifically for the goal; and
  • 1 week of tapering and recovery.

So, for a language exam taking place in 16 weeks you might spend:

  • 8 weeks learning vocabulary and grammar alone and with teachers;
  • 4 weeks working on specific reading, writing, listening and speaking exercises;
  • 3 weeks pushing yourself hard on past and example exam papers; and
  • 1 week of light speaking, reading and vocabulary flash cards.

This level of planning might seem like over kill but it will make a massive difference to your progress.

With your plan in place it’s time to double down on…

7. Practise. 

Suggested Timing: Week 6 – 21.

Practice every day.

Do something every day that moves you towards your goal.

If possible, schedule a regular time(s) each day to focus on your skill.

Earlier is always better. You are most well rested earlier in the day. There is also less opportunity for surprises to have deviated you from your best laid plans.

That said, everyone’s schedule is different. Make or find time in your day, every day, even if only in the unexpected moments of waiting.

Practice little and often.

Scientific research is very clear that the tortoise always beats the hare.

You have a maximum of 4 – 6 hours of really good, focussed work in you each day. No more. You might work for longer but you are no longer at your best.

For maximum productivity, consider breaking these hours up into ~2 hour segments with ~15 – 30 minute breaks in-between. During these breaks, go for a walk or do something totally different.

Disconnecting occasionally from your practice will allow your brain refresh itself. It will also disengage attention in a way that promotes creative insight.

Practise purposefully.

Avoid slipping into illusions of confidence. Identify your gaps and weaknesses honestly. Work always on the things that you find most difficult.

Test yourself by recalling the main points at the end of every page or chapter. Synthesise concepts in lectures as they’re explained instead of parroting.

Learning is a physiologically intensive process. It is not easy and effortless. If it feels that way – you’re probably not learning.

This is especially true when it comes to using teachers. Teachers are tools that have three purposes:

  1. To introduce and break down difficult concepts.
  2. To help you overcome obstacles in your learning.
  3. To keep pushing you forward into unchartered territory.

Teachers are not there to spoon information into your head whilst you listen passively. Nor can they.

Work and practice purposefully by yourself. Remember what teachers are there for and use them accordingly.

Defeat distraction.

Distraction is the first enemy of productive practice. Luckily, it is easy to defeat.

First, refuse to multitask. Physically clear everything away and turn anything off that might distract you during your practice.

Next, if you can, work at your new skill in a quiet, dedicated place where others cannot disturb you.

The ability to work single-mindedly on the task at hand is one of the most important productivity hacks there is.

Pounce on procrastination.

Procrastination is the second enemy of productive practice. It is caused most often by lack of will or lack of skill.

There are two easy ways to overcome a short-term lack of will and regain momentum:

  1. Break the current task down into smaller, easier steps. What is the very next thing you can do?
  2. Decide to work on the current task for e.g., 10, 15 or 20 minutes and then take a short break.

Overcoming a lack of skill is often as simple as making a mini-plan to learn whatever it is that is holding you back (see practise purposefully).

If these approaches don’t help or you suspect your problem might go deeper, it might be time to take a break (see step 9).

8. Teach.

Suggested Timing: Week 6 – 21.

Teaching forces you to break down, synthesise and internalise complex concepts (a.k.a., learning).

As you learn, bring to mind a specific person and ask yourself how you would go about teaching them this concept.

Run through the words and frameworks your would use in your head. Can you explain it clearly? Where are your gaps?

You can do this exercise no matter what stage you’re at, even if you don’t have an opportunity to teach the skill in real life.

9. Take breaks.

Suggested Timing: As Needed.

Taking planned and regular breaks at the end of each milestone is as important as it may feel counterintuitive.

Give yourself a fortnight or more of total time off after each milestone to celebrate and rest – you deserve it!

Here are several reasons why it is also one of the best ways to supercharge your long-term learning:

Time to recover.

Pushing yourself hard over a long period leads to a build up of physical and mental fatigue that is deadly to productivity.

At best, failing to take breaks will drastically reduce your future productivity. At worst, it could lead to burn out that lasts weeks, months or years.

If you’re worried about losing fitness, stamina or momentum why not try light work at a complementary skill?

If you run, try cycling or swimming. If you’re learning a language, try singing lessons. If you’re learning a musical instrument, try painting.

You may even learn valuable things that you can bring back to your primary skill (a.k.a., Medici effects).

Time to forget. 

Every gardener knows that pruning is an essential part of long-term growth.

The same is true of learning. Forgetting is actually an integral part of mastering any skill.

When we take a break our brain has time to spring clean and allow the suffocating dust of unimportant detail to settle.

Don’t fear forgetting, embrace it. Your brain is laying the foundations for you to come back stronger.

Time to reflect and reposition.

One of the most valuable habits you can develop in productivity is making time to actively step back and take stock.

Set aside at least half an hour to reflect on the last milestone. What went well? What would you have done differently?

Now set your targets on the next milestone. How can you make the next push 1% better?

Set some new goals, make a new plan and get ready for the next push.

10. Be  patient and persistent.

Suggested Timing: Every Week.

Learning is not quick and it is not easy. There are tricks to avoid common pitfalls but there are no shortcuts.

Learning is also an exciting roller coaster of starts, stops and set-backs that can, at times, make even the bravest passengers want to get off.

That is why the most important qualities to cultivate when it comes to learning are patience and persistence.

Failing = Learning.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Thomas Edison

It is impossible to learn without making mistakes and it is very difficult to make mistakes without learning.

This golden rule applies not only to “What” you’re learning but also “How” you’re learning it. No matter how much research you do there will always be a thousand things you wish you’d known when you just started.

In either case, don’t let fear of failure paralyse you. Instead learn to:

  • Expect the unexpected.
  • Embrace failure as an opportunity to learn.
  • Think of obstacles not only as opportunities but even as part of unconventional solutions.

Approach every skill learning adventure as a game, challenge and experiment.

Adopt a growth mindset and your mind will grow.

Plateauing.

You’ve stuck to your plan. You’re practicing purposefully. Heck, you’ve even doubled down and yet you still just can’t seem to progress.

Sound familiar? There is nothing as frustrating in skill learning as hitting a plateau. There is also nothing more inevitable and natural.

If the block is sudden and measurable in minutes or hours, consider taking a short break. Go for a walk. Chat to a friend. Let your brain work its way out of whatever local optimum it’s stuck in.

A more stubborn plateau combined with persistent lethargy or demotivation is consistent with impending burn out. Get a good night of sleep. If that doesn’t work, consider taking a longer break and reassessing your plan and pace.

If you’re feeling good but still can’t seem to make progress no matter what you do then keep going. A little dose of patience and persistence will see you though.

Baking a cognitive leap means gathering all the ingredients together at the same time under just the right conditions.

Learning is rarely a linear function of effort. Keep gathering ingredients and the leap will come.

Regressing.

In every skill learning journey there come a few alarming points at which progress feels like it’s suddenly going backwards rather than forwards.

If you’re practicing purposefully and you’ve ruled out fatigue then the good news is that this phenomena is both temporary and natural.

As we learn new information, our brain automatically starts throwing up temporary structures and frameworks to store and link it together.

Every so often though we gather enough new information to realise that the current structures and frameworks are no longer fit for purpose.

As a result, our brains enter into a period of renovation and remodelling – shuffling furniture in and around itself in the process.

This can be a disarming experience when you try and find your favourite comfy chair. It is, however, only temporary.

Within a week or two you’ll have found most of your old belongings in their new places.

You’ll also have plenty of new space to run around in.

Conclusion

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Mahatma Gandhi

“Develop in to a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading, cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.
Charlie Munger

If there’s one thing I hope you take away from this article, it is this: That learning a new skill will be one of the most eye-opening and rewarding decisions you take. It will (re)connect you to the people around you. It will unlock new places and new experiences you never even knew existed. It will grow you through your triumphs and your setbacks.

Write down the first skill that comes to your head now. Perhaps it’s a life-long dream, perhaps it’s something that occurred to you as you were reading.

Now write down the very next action you need to take to get it started.

Now do it.

Congratulations. You are already on your way to a brighter, more meaningful future.

Book Crunch: “Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time”, Brian Tracy

Eat That Frog, Brian Tracey
7 MINUTE READ

Eat That Frog, Brian Tracy

“Eat That Frog!”, Brian Tracy
Print length: 144 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You wish you had more time to spend with your family and friends.
  • You’re procrastinating on something important and you know it.
  • You feel overwhelmed at work or stuck in your career.

I’m a huge fan of Brian Tracy. His advice on productivity goes deep on “What” and “How”. His writing is motivational and accessible. His messages are clear and consistent.

In fact, neither his message nor his wording have changed a great deal in the 10 years since I first read his book “Goals!”. But not much needs to. His empowering formulas for personal and professional productivity are simple, practical and effective.

That said, I’m not sure about the structure of this version of those tips. There’s a good deal of repetition. Many points seem to fit within a single theme or add detail to each other. The “21 Great Ways” ends up feeling more catchy than practical. As a result, I’ve restructured the content into a simple six-step plan below.

Nevertheless, Brian’s original does chant a powerfully motivational mantra of planning, prioritisation and action. I am indebted to him for giving me some solid advice on productivity and sales 10 years ago at a point in my life when I needed it most.

My advice: read the crunch below. If you like it, skip “Eat That Frog” and read the slightly meatier, “Goals!”.

It will definitely change the way you work.

It might just change your life.

Why

Personal productivity is about taking back control of your time.

  • There will always be too much to do.
  • Lack of time is actually lack of priorities.
  • The key to reclaiming time is proper time management.

Taking control of your time lets you focus on what counts: your relationships with others.

What

  1. Decide on your Goals.
  2. Plan your Goals.
  3. Plan your Time.
  4. Set Yourself Up for Success
  5. Work Single-Mindedly on Your Most Important Task.
  6. Repeat the Process Regularly.

How

1. Decide on your Goals.

Visualise clearly what you would like each area of life to look like in 5, 10 and 15 years.

  • Business / Career
  • Family / Relationship
  • Financial
  • Health
  • Professional Development
  • Social / Community

Now, take 30 seconds for each area (+ Problems / Concerns) to write your top 3 current goals:

  • 30 seconds is as good as 3 hours.
  • Write as if you had already accomplished each goal.
    • On paper.
    • In the present tense.
    • With a positive voice.
    • In the first person.

Identify the goal in each area that will have the greatest positive impact on your life.

Tips for Professional Development.

  1. Identify the 5 – 7 results areas for which you are currently entirely responsible.
    Discuss and syndicate these with your boss, colleagues and direct reports.
  2. Grade yourself (1 – 10) in each of those areas.
  3. Make your weakest skill the focus of your professional development.
    This major cause of procrastination sets the height at which you can use all your other skills.

Example results areas:

Management:

  • Planning
  • Organising
  • Staffing
  • Delegating
  • Supervising
  • Measuring
  • Reporting

Sales:

  • Prospecting
  • Building rapport and trust
  • Identifying needs
  • Presenting persuasively
  • Answering objections
  • Closing
  • Getting resales and referrals

2. Plan your Goals.

Efficiency is doing the thing right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.

Write a list of everything you’ll need to achieve for each of your most impactful goals.

  • Next actions.
  • Barriers
  • Limiting factors.
  • Personal capabilities.
  • Resources.
  • Other people.

Now invert:

  • Ask yourself why the goal isn’t already complete.
  • Start with the end in mind and work backwards.

Prioritise with Pareto’s 80/20 principle.

  • What 20% of the tasks will contribute 80% of the results?
  • Solving which 20% of the barriers will unlock 80% of the progress?

Prioritise the list with the ABCDE technique.

  • A – Must: Major consequences for the goal if (not) completed.
    Prioritise among A tasks – A1, A2, A3 etc…
  • B – Should: Some consequences.
  • C – Nice: No consequences.
  • D – Delegate: Anything not “only you”.
  • E – Eliminate: Anything no longer important.

Organise the list into a plan.

  • By priority.
  • By sequence.

Set deadlines.

  • Set a main deadline.
  • Set sub-deadlines if necessary.
  • Make the deadlines aggressive. (What if you only had one day?)
    Creates urgency. Triggers eustress. Defuses Parkinson’s law.
  • Add +20% to your timeline when communicating your plan with others to account for unexpected delays/diversions.

Tips for Business / Career.

  1. Write a list of every activity you do in a week / month.
  2. Identify which one activity contributes the most value.
  3. Now work out the second and third most value contributing activities.
  4. These activities are your priority. Resolve to downsize, delegate or eliminate everything else.
  5. Syndicate this focus and plan with your boss, co-workers and direct reports.

3. Plan your Time.

Plan in advance and work from lists.

  • Write everything down.
  • Add every new thing to the list before acting.
  • Move items from a master list > monthly > weekly > daily lists.
  • Do this before the start of each period.

Prioritise your lists:

  • With the 80/20 principle.
  • With the ABCDE technique.

4. Set Yourself Up for Success.

Create the time, space, energy and capabilities to work on your most important tasks.

Eliminate anything that fails the test of “Zero Based Thinking”.
“If I were not doing this already, knowing what I now know, would I start doing it again today?”

Create large chunks of time.

  • Block out large chunks of you calendar for uninterrupted work.
  • Wake up early and work from home.

Prepare everything you need in advance.

  • Clear everything away not related to the task at hand.
  • Gather everything you need for the task within physical reach.
  • Set up your work area so it is conducive to working long periods. Make it:
    • Clean
    • Attractive
    • Organised
    • Comfortable (especially chair)

Eliminate distractions.
Work all the time you work.
Every wasted minute is one not spent with friends/family or on a more important task.

  • Eliminate / delegate 80% of email.
    • Prepare canned responses to FAQs.
    • Train and delegate your email triage.
    • Batch your emailing as infrequently as possible.
  • Turn off all electronics for at least:
    • One hour each AM and PM.
    • One full day per week.

Learn continuously.
Everyone who is good at something was once bad at it.
You can learn anything by simply learning to replicate what someone else has done.

  • Read for one hour every day in your field.
  • Listen to audiobooks whilst you drive / travel.
  • Attend as many seminars and trainings as you can.

Maximise your energy.

  • Eat as if you were a pro athlete.
    • Breakfast: High protein, low fat, low carbohydrate.
    • Lunch: Salad with white meat (chicken / fish).
    • Avoid sugar, white flour and salt.
    • Say no to pastries, deserts, soft drinks and candy bars.
  • Exercise regularly:
    • At least 200 mins per week (~30 mins per day).
    • Schedule sessions in like business meetings.
  • Get enough rest:
    • Working >8h a day provides diminishing returns.
    • Get to sleep by 10 P.M.
    • Take at least one full day off per week.
    • Take regular vacations.

Become an optimist:
It’s not what happens to you but the way you interpret them that determines how you feel.

  • Look for the good in every situation.
  • Seek the valuable lesson in every setback or difficulty.
  • Look for solutions to every problem (solution orientation).
  • Look forward rather than backwards (goal orientation).
  • Refuse to criticise, complain or condemn.

5. Work Single-Mindedly on your Most Important Task.

Eat that Frog! Each day, work on your hardest and most important task:

  • Before anything else.
  • Single-mindedly (no multi-tasking) until it is complete.
    Switching has a high cost of momentum and energy.

Overcome procrastination and generate momentum.

  • Lack of Planning: Break the goal down into smaller steps.
  • Lack of Skill: Expand your capabilities.
  • Lack of Will:
    • Do just one item on your list. Do anything!
    • Shift to a process goal (do just 10 minutes).
    • Practise discipline.

Don’t be afraid to fail.

  • “There is no such thing as failure only feedback”.
  • Test, experiment, make it a game, have fun!

6. Repeat the Process Regularly.

Develop the habit of success.
For more on habit formation see “The Power of Habit” book crunch.

  • Constantly review the activities you are engaged in.
  • Constantly identify whether these are the most important things you could be working on.
  • Develop a fast tempo and a sense of urgency.
  • Work all the time you work.

Practice asking yourself constantly how to maximise your effectiveness.

  • What can I start?
  • What can I stop?
  • What can I do more of?
  • What can I do less of?

Never forget that all of this is a means an end: spending more time with the people you love.

Further Reading:

“Goals!”, Brian Tracy – A superb book that covers “Eat That Frog!” and more in twice as many pages. I can’t recommend this book enough, especially if you’re at the start of your career. Provides the kind of solid, practical advice that it’s amazing we don’t all receive as part of a basic education.

“Getting Things Done”, David Allen – A classic on efficiency and effectiveness. I’ve been using some variation of David Allen’s system for as long as I can remember. It transformed me from an energetic, chaotic mess into the kind of person people trust to never drop the ball. If you’ve ever wished you could do 4 times as much and still feel at peace when you get home, this book is for you.

“The Four Hour Work Week”, Tim Ferriss – The textbook on simplification and automation. I’ve found Brian has a tendency to add more things than he takes away. Tim’s tips on automating the unimportant, time consuming components of life will close that gap.

“Think And Grow Rich”, Napoleon Hill – A wonderful and practical dose of philosophy. The “Rich” of this book is much broader than simple financial reward. A perfect complement of “Why” and “What” to Brian’s strong hand of “What” and “How”.

“Deep Work”, Cal Newport – Perhaps one of the best tips and goals of Brian’s writing is to create long periods of uninterrupted work. Cal paints a compelling case for “Deep Work” in this excellent book. A great read for anyone lost in the shallows.

Book Crunch: “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Someone Who’s Been There”, Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed
6 MINUTE READ

“Tiny Beautiful Things”, Cheryl Strayed
Print length: 370 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You are suffering, however much and for whatever reason.
  • You are going through a period of tremendous change and upheaval.
  • You want to learn how to better be there for the people you love.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a powerful collection of letters and essays from author Cheryl Strayed’s two years as “Sugar”, the anonymous advice columnist for “The Rumpus”.

The first source of this book’s power are its letters. Carefully selected from thousands, each letter combines moving detail with clear framing of some universal aspect of human suffering. Some writers simply need courage to do what they know they should. Others are genuinely lost. The result is a cathartic cross section of loss, abuse, lust, confusion, betrayal and despair. Whatever the problem you face, however deep your suffering, it is hard not to find perspective or comradeship among their ranks.

Then there are the replies. Cheryl draws as unflinchingly from her own tragic story as she does from those of the many sufferers she has met and counselled. Her writing is open, conversational, honest, irreverent, intimate and vulnerable. It feels like there is nothing you could say that would shock “Sugar”. Nothing you could feel or do that would not make her love you. That her replies are so accepting, thoughtful and insightful is remarkable. That each one is so specific and yet feels like it could be addressed to you personally is what makes them unique.

The truth, though, as Cheryl acknowledges, is that nothing we feel is unique. Though its causes are many, suffering has two basic properties. First, it is universal. Second, it does not function on an absolute scale. Take a victim of abuse, a parent who has lost a child and an angstful teen. We might judge the relative gravity of their situations differently. And yet each may experience their suffering as acutely and strongly as the next. Each may see their path as impossible and insurmountable.

It is at the centre of this universal and general nature that suffering provides us with hope:

Acknowledge. Accept. Act.
Acknowledge. Accept. Act.
Acknowledge. Accept. Act.

These are the three themes that vibrate clearly throughout Cheryl’s letters. The promise of a single (if not easy) solution to a single problem.

Read “Tiny Beautiful Things”. Keep it close. Refer to it in times of trouble. Refer to it when you lose perspective. Share it with others.

It will make you stronger. It will make you happier. It will make you a better person.

In the meantime, here is a woefully inadequate book crunch.

Being there for yourself

Acknowledge

Acknowledge your suffering.

  • Your suffering is real and natural.
  • Nothing you are thinking or feeling is wrong.
  • You are not alone.

Accept

Accept reality (You don’t choose the cards you’re dealt…).

  • Life isn’t fair.
    • Sometimes things that are not our responsibility become our problem.
    • Bad things happen:
      • to good people,
      • for no reason,
      • all the time.
  • Life isn’t black and white.
  • Being human is complicated.
    • People don’t do what they should / you want, they do what they can.
    • We are all savages inside: we all want to be loved and esteemed.
  • The past is fixed.
    • What happened, happened.
    • You can never change that.
  • The future is uncertain.
    • Things, relationships and people change.
    • Holding on to old truths doesn’t make them true.
  • And this moment too will pass away.

Accept responsibility (…but you choose how to play them.).

  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
  • Self-pity and emotion change nothing.
  • The only person you can change is you.
  • Change is not a nice thing we say…
  • Change is a hard thing we do.

Act

Draw strength from others.

  • Find and take courage from others who have suffered like you.
  • Seek support and advice from people you love and who love you.
  • Use formal safety nets e.g., doctors, therapy.
  • Use informal safety nets e.g., Alcoholics / Narcotics Anonymous.

Communicate mindfully.

  • Let it out: find a place for it or it will rule you.
  • Ask questions: understand the bigger picture.
  • Explain your feelings without making someone else responsible for them.
  • Be honest with others in a way that allows them to make healthy decisions.

Think / understand.

  • Think things through on paper.
    • Journal.
    • Draw up lists.
    • Make diagrams.
  • Think from the perspective of others.
  • Map out the options.
  • Map out the consequences.
  • Identify your motivations, desires and fears.
  • Think from the perspective of your best self.
    (Generous, reasonable, forgiving, loving, big hearted, grateful).
  • Visualise what you wish you’d done a year from now.
  • Ask what there is to lose / gain from each option.

Have the courage to act.

  • You don’t always need a reason you can verbalise.
  • Trust yourself – live out what you already know to be true.
    • Be true to your truest self.
    • Don’t act inconsistently with your gut / inner core.
    • Don’t do the things you know are wrong.
  • Identify excuses / lies to avoid doing what you fear most.

Change what you can.

  • Distance yourself from sources of harm (this is not running away).
  • Set healthy boundaries.
    • They are not judgments punishments or betrayals.
    • They teach people how to treat you.
    • They teach you how to respect yourself.
  • Don’t prioritise the short term over the long term.
  • Reach hard even if it is difficult.
    • Pick and stay true to one most important thing…
    • Even if that means taking some risks.
    • Start with the smallest steps.
    • It’s going to be hard but you have to keep going.

Be patient and don’t give up.

  • You can’t always escape.
  • You can’t work everything out at once.
  • The process of recover is non-linear; there will be circles and set-backs.
  • That’s why you will mess up; and that’s O.K.
    • Try to be the person you want to be…
    • But don’t kick yourself when you’re the person you are.
  • And remember, this moment too will pass away.

Forgive.

  • Understand that failing in one role (e.g., husband) does not mean failing as a whole (e.g., father).
  • Forgiveness means acknowledging and letting go of anger or pain.
  • It does not mean allowing the forgiven to stomp all over you once again.

Reframe internally.

  • Rewrite your narratives
    • Narratives define who we are.
    • We can change even the most ingrained ones.
    • But it takes time and effort.
  • Practise gratitude (for the tiny beautiful things).
    • Gratitude defeats jealousy, depression, anxiety.

Being there for someone else

You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it within himself

Galileo Galilei

Your job is not to solve the problem.

Acknowledge and accept.

  • Over and over.
  • Even if it feels lame and insufficient.

Share stories to give strength and courage.

Soften with admission and vulnerability.

If someone asks for advice:

  • Know you can’t change them.
  • Be honest but don’t meddle.
  • Be compassionate but not judgemental.
  • Give them some tools to help.

Be there if / when things falls apart.

Further Reading

“The Art of Loving”, Erich Fromm – “A rich and detailed guide to love—an achievement reached through maturity, practice, concentration, and courage.”. The kind of book that will make you stop and reconsider your entire life in a new way. This book is a classic of personal development and a must-read.

“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trai”, Cheryl Strayed – A rich, raw autobiographical account of Cheryl’s three month journey down the Pacific Crest Trail and through her life. All of the power of Cheryl’s writing with a little insight into what it takes to become “Dear Sugar”.

“How to: Achieve Growth Through Pain”, Erin Young – A superb guest post from Erin on the topic of loss and growth written on this blog and deeply inspired by Cheryl’s work. More excellent reading recommendations to be found here.

How to: 6 Books and 8 Steps to Endurance Running Success (Lessons from the “Toughest Footrace on Earth”)

Endurance Running - WhyWhatHow.xyz
18 MINUTE READ
Endurance Running - WhyWhatHow.xyz
The Marathon des Sables, 2016
Day one of seven – Only 256km to go!

Perfect for you if:

  • You’re fit, motivated and starting to become serious about endurance running.
  • You’re preparing for your first (ultra)marathon, especially the Marathon des Sables (MDS).
  • You’re rehabilitating from a running injury.

“Full of very succinct and good advice… as a general guide to help people prepare for long distance challenges like the MDS, I think your blog is excellent.”
Julian Goater, National Cross Country record breaker, twice world age-group duathlon champion and author of The Art of Running Faster

“A clear, concise and true account of what to expect in an endurance race. Some really level headed and rational advice.”
Marina Ranger, 18 Time Ultra-marathon and Ironman Competitor

A couple of years ago I was asked by a friend if I wanted to run the Marathon des Sables (MDS). We had 10 months to prepare. Neither of us were anything close to what you might call “endurance runners”. Personally I’d never run much more than 5km in one stretch in my life.

In the end four of us went along with his crazy scheme, raising ~£30,000 for charity in the process. Two of us finished in the top 250 (of 1,200). My friend and I placed in the mid pack (~600). That was despite him breaking both his little toes, losing eight toe nails and having half the skin on his feet sanded off by the Sahara (the photos are gruesome!). Looking back, the training and race were one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.

One of the first things I did was to buy as many books on endurance running as I could. I then synthesised the best of these into a set of notes (below) which informed my training plan. Looking back on the experience I’m incredibly glad I did this. Our timeline from fairly fit to MDS worthy was short and the notes helped avoid most major “new runner” pitfalls. At one point I did pick up a knee injury. Thanks to my research I was able to get back up and running as quickly as possible without major complications.

To keep the notes below concise I’ve stripped out the extra detail on preparing specifically for the MDS. I might break these down in a future post. For now, here’s my raw MDS training plan, kit list and nutrition plan. What’s left below is hopefully a useful starting point for general endurance running / ultra marathon training!

Where a section lacks detail I’d recommend referring to the books below or a Google search. This is probably because that section gets very detailed (e.g., fixing your feet), academic (e.g., training periodicity) or controversial (e..g., nutrition). In those cases I’ve tried to link to a good resource that wraps up the main points well.

I was never a runner before training for the MDS but it’s now an important part of my life. Running keeps me fit whilst I’m on the road and is an amazing way to explore new places and meet new people. As a keystone habit it’s also been incredibly powerful for bringing about far reaching positive change to my life.

Good luck with your training and if you have any hints/tips/opinions then please do leave a comment!

Six Books every Endurance Runner Should Read

  • “Born to Run” – Chris McDougall – From the African Savannah, to the Mexican Copper Canyons and Nike’s factories – Chris takes running back to basics in his critically acclaimed book on evolution, injury and recovery. Compelling insights, great story telling and practical insights abound. A must read.
  • “Eat and Run” – Scott Jurek – If you’re going to take advice from anyone you could do worse than the most well-known and successful ultra marathon athlete of our time. Scott’s proof that veganism is compatible with world class athleticism alone would make this book a must. Definitely one to read and refer to.
  • “Field Guide to Ultra Running” – Hal Koerner – Hal dispenses with story telling in favour of a wealth of practical, down-to-earth tips on endurance running. This essential endurance running guide is full of trail running techniques, race strategies and even detailed training plans for 50km or 50 and 100 mile ultras. One of the most helpful books I read.
  • “The Art of Running Faster” – Julian Goater – A fantastic running primer, especially on the bigger picture elements of running (e.g., mindset and training cycles). Julian’s book is a superb supplement to Hal’s guide with a slightly more track focussed and academic flavour.
  • “Survival of the Fittest” – Mike Stroud – I didn’t read this book before the MDS but wish I had. Full of anecdotes from the author’s own experiences and some great insights into Nutrition, Evolution and Physiology. If you’re still hungry after McDougall and Jurek then this book is definitely worth picking up.
  • “Fixing your Feet” – John Vonhof – If endurance running is your trade then your feet are your tools. Nowhere will you find a book that covers the topic so comprehensively. Perfect for you if you’ve ever had a hot-spot, blister or toe-nail trouble. If you haven’t, you will. This bible on foot care will save you a world of pain!

Extra Credit

Anyone training specifically for the MDS might also enjoy “Running from Shadows” by Mark Roe. A humorous and well written account of one office warrior’s experience training for and completing the race.

This Discovery Channel documentary featuring Olympic rowing gold medallist James Cracknell also made for part inspiring, part terrifying pre-race viewing.

The Runner’s World website is a treasure trove of high quality writing on all things running. No matter what I type into Google on the subject it usually comes up top of the results. Well worth checking out.

Eight Steps to Endurance Running Success

  1. Bring the Right Mindset.
  2. Don’t Get Injured.
  3. Work on your Technique.
  4. Practise Purposefully.
  5. Sculpt your practice into a long-term plan.
    • Set a goal >>
    • Build in milestones >>
    • Periodise your training >>
  6. Fuel yourself for success.
  7. Race smart.
  8. Use the right tools.

1. Bring the Right Mindset.

50% of endurance running is in your head. That’s why, when it comes to running, mental toughness is as important as physical fitness.

Remember these tips whenever you feel demotivated or find yourself dreading training sessions:

Decide to love it not to fight it.

  • Keep training fun (don’t over fixate on performance).
  • Periodically run without gadgets and goals.

Adopt a growth mindset.

  • No plan survives first contact with the enemy.
  • Expect the unexpected both in training and on the race.
  • Relish each setback as an opportunity for learning and growth.

Expect nothing in return.

  • It’s not the goal, it’s how you get there.
  • Do it for yourself, not for others.

Share it.

  • Join a running club and/or run with others (if possible)
  • Share your running highs and lows with friends and supporters.
  • Give back; run for charity, help other runners.

2. Don’t Get Injured.

It is amazing what the body can withstand and achieve with small, steady, compounding improvements. That is why the Golden Rule of becoming a better runner is not getting injured.

  • Consistent gains come from consistent training, but
  • The biggest enemy of consistent training is injury, and
  • The majority of injuries are avoidable.

What’s more, the advice to runners who do pick up an injury is clear:

  • Don’t train on an injury; and
  • Don’t overcompensate coming back into your plan.

The pressure of catching up on missed training is powerful. Do not succumb to it. Injury cycles can last for months or even years. Once you slip in, it can be very hard to escape.

Here are some steps you can take to stay ahead of the pack:

Know your enemy (see APPENDIX: Running Injuries).

  • Learn the causes, early symptoms, preventative measures and treatments of common complaints.
  • This will help you catch them early and prevent setbacks.

Be patient with your training.

  • Overtraining leads to mental and physical fatigue.
  • Fatigue will wear you down and compromise your form.
  • Never train so hard that you lose form (this exacerbates overtraining and causes most injuries).

Work on your technique.

  • Poor technique is at the heart of many chronic injuries.
  • Over striding and heal striking are the worst offenders.

Remember that the first and most important goal of every training session is completing the next session.

3. Work on your Technique.

For a great primer on technique, check out this timeless 4 minute classic from ultra marathon legend Scott Jurek.

Speed (distance per minute) = cadence (steps per minute) x stride length (distance per step).

First, focus on high cadence and light feet. This will help you avoid injury and increase efficiency.

Then, adjust stride length (without compromising cadence) to control speed.

Here are some of characteristics of a good running technique:

Feet (run with quick, light feet):

  • Use a fast cadence (180 strikes per minute).
    I use a free metronome app on my phone set to 180 bpm to help with this.
    It may feel uncomfortably quick at first but will quickly became natural.
  • Land on mid/front of the foot.
    The key here is to avoid heal striking – a major cause of knee and back injury.
  • Land lightly (listen to your feet).
  • Strike below or behind your hips.
    Otherwise you’re heal striking and wasting energy coming over your foot.

Posture (imagine a rod from head to foot strike):

  • Lift your head up.
  • Look at the ground ~5 yards out.
  • Stand tall.
  • Straighten your back.
  • Open your chest.
  • Relax your shoulders.
  • Bend your arms 45-90 degrees.
  • Do not cross your body with your arms.
  • Bend your knees slightly.

Form (think of running as controlled falling):

  • Lean forward (but without bending forward)
  • Think of an efficient cycling movement.
    • Lift your knees to pull you forward.
    • Flick your heels back to push you forward.
  • Use your arms.
    • Arms are integral to shifting bodyweight quickly.
    • Cadence is often limited by arms rather than legs.
    • Feel shoulders (not elbows) pulling back and down one at a time (but keep them relaxed).

Breathing (breathe deeply through your nose):

  • Breathe through your nose.
    • Breathe easily, no need for gasping.
    • Reduces heart-rate and perceived stress.
    • If you can’t breathe through your nose you may be running too hard.
  • Set a consistent rhythm (breathe in for 3 + steps, out for 3 + steps).
  • Practice using your whole lungs (be mindful to avoid shallow breathing).

4. Practise Purposefully.

REMEMBER: The golden rule of training is to be able to complete the next training session.

Give each training session a clear focal point.

Good running requires training in ALL of these skills (even/especially for endurance).

  • Focus on honing one skill per training session (six Ss).
    How and when to focus on each S will make more sense after section 5.

    • Skill
    • Stamina
    • Strength
    • Suppleness
    • Speed
    • (P)sychology
  • Train twice a day on non-long run days.
    • Breaks up the distance.
    • Provides twice the training focal points.

Vary the conditions you train in.

  • Surface (road, trails, sand, mud):
    • Variable surfaces will build ankle strength and reduce the risk of injury.
    • Be careful of road cambers, they can skew technique and cause injury.
  • Weather:
    • Get used to running in the wind, rain, snow, heat, cold, humidity.
    • Learn to relax into and embrace adverse conditions, not fight them.
  • Times of day:
    • Run at dawn, mid-day, dusk and night time.
    • The unique challenges of each will help generalise your conditioning.

Using a variety of training techniques each week.

  • Easy runs:
    • These should form the bulk of running sessions.
    • Run at 60 – 70% (enough to carry a conversation) without checking a watch or worrying about pace.
    • Treat these as a good opportunity to experiment (with terrain, mileage, running partners).
    • You may feel easy runs are “junk miles” but they add to the foundation and build strength and muscle memory.
      Weekly mileage is the best predictor of race performance.
    • Finish with Strides (100m bursts of 95% speed with 2 min cool down, sets of 4 – 12).
  • Long runs:
    • 30 (- 50% if racing back to back marathons) of your weekly mileage.
    • For ultras, longest run should be about 60 – 70% of the distance you will race
    • Back to backs are great for building time on the feet and logging miles
    • Use these to experiment with race nutrition and gear.
    • Careful not to increase by more than 10% per week.
  • Special training sessions (see APPENDIX: Special Training Sessions):
    • e.g., fartleks, tempos, intervals, hills, barefoot, spectrum and resistance training.
    • Include a few each week to stress a particular focal point.

* I found aiming for a heart rate of ~ 160 BPM worked well for me when running without a partner.

Supplementary training

  • Strength training:
    • Core strength (esp. stomach and back) is key to running.
    • Go to the gym and train regularly on top of your running.
    • Aim for 200 crunches every morning in addition to your gym sessions.
  • Stretching:
    • Suppleness increases range of motion and efficiency as well as reducing risk of chronic injuries.
    • Best performed consistently; before and/or after and separately (e.g., Yoga) to training.

5. Sculpt Your Practice Into a Long-term Plan.

Sign up for a Race.

Sign up for a race, whether competitive or fun.

  • Races are a great way to structure your training.
  • Have fun with it, pick a race that will take you to new places and people.
  • Always remember that the race is a training aid and not an end in itself.

Set multiple goals for the race.

  • Choose a target pace / time based on previous results.
  • Set A, B and C goals (e.g., top 100, personal best, finish race).
  • This will help you adapt your plan to reality leading up to / on race.

Train specifically for your race.

  • Know the course and its demands.
    • Type of running (back-to-backs vs. long runs).
    • Conditions (temperature, time of day, surface, hills).
    • Recommended/required gear.
    • Nutrition requirements/options/limitations.
    • Hydration approach (and limitations e.g., rationing).
  • Replicate these demands as much as possible in training.

Sign up for Practice / Milestone Races.

Sign up for milestone races e.g., one third and two thirds of the way to your main race.

  • Creates a forcing mechanism.
  • Gives you an indicator of progress.
  • Creates realistic conditions to test your gear, nutrition and hydration.

Periodise your training

Macro Periodisation (Training Cycles):

  • Periodisation is about structuring your long-term training plan to maximise fitness.
  • There are many different opinions on “best” practice and it can get pretty academic pretty quickly.
  • Experiment with what works best for you, do some research, ask other runners or join a running club.
  • For now, here is a basic overview of major periods for a 16 – 20 week training plan:
    • Base (~8 weeks) – Take it easy, focus on easy and long runs.
    • Specificity (~6 weeks) – Start brining in some Special Training Sessions to focus on eg., endurance, speed and recovery.
    • Peak (~2 weeks) – Ramp up and push the boundaries of over-training. This shouldn’t feel sustainable but don’t get injured!
    • Taper (~2 weeks) – Cut training down to almost nothing. Stretch, do some acclimatisation.
    • Race – The big day(s). Don’t forget to stick to your plan!
    • Recover (~4 weeks+) – Very light training. Why not try e.g., swimming.

Micro Periodisation:

  • You can take things even further by periodising within your macro periods.
  • E.g., run harder than the period average for 3 weeks then take it easier for 1 week.
  • This can help keep your sessions varied, speed up gains and avoid fatigue.

6. Fuel yourself for success.

Caveat: Do not overthink general nutrition. It is the quickest way to make your life and running habit miserable.
A little education goes a long way and you will find yourself naturally changing your diet as your running progresses.
Be wary of general rules: nutrition is highly individual. Experiment. Have fun. And trust your body.

Think of food as fuel:

On the run:

  • Inputs:
    • Carbohydrates
    • Salts
  • Vectors:
    This is a highly personal choice – experiment on your training runs and mix up flavors to avoid monotony.

    • Energy Gels
    • Energy Chews
    • Electrolyte mixes
    • Energy drinks
    • Natural foods (e.g., Chia seeds, nuts, chocolate milk for recovery)
    • Salt tablets
  • Process:
    • For carbs, aim for 300 – 400 calories an hour.
    • For salts, aim for 200mg (easy conditions) to 400mg (tough conditions) per hour.
    • Use a watch to monitor your caloric intake closely and don’t get behind.

Hydrate before it’s too late:

  • Get used to drinking on the run while training
  • Do not get behind on water intake (this is a main cause of ultra race dropouts)
    • Once dehydrated it is very hard to catch up.
    • Severe dehydration can lead to Hypertonia as the kidneys shut down.
    • Aim for 600ml per hour (20 – 40 sips @ 15 – 30ml per sip) in easy conditions and much more in harsh conditions.
    • Use a watch to keep to a strict drinking regimen.

7. Race Smart

Have a plan for the race:

  • Set multiple goals (pace/time)
  • Train for those goals (don’t expect to suddenly run faster on race day)

Stick to the plan on race day:

  • Start slow, finish fast (it takes at least an hour for the adrenaline to wear off)
  • A big part of endurance running is discipline: start steady and stick to a plan

8. Use the right tools.

Shoes:
Very personal. I’m a Brooks Cascadia (designed by Scott Jurek) fan but each to their own!
Use the Taco test to check if your current shoes are compromised: if you can bend the forefoot past 90 degrees it’s time for a new pair!

  • Don’t skimp, go to a specialist running shop.
  • Avoid too much support (this can weaken your foot).
  • Think about trail shoes vs. trainers (some trail shoes have self cleaning soles).
  • Wear shoes that allow you to run down hill without jamming your toe.
  • Anticipate foot swelling of at least half a size.

Socks (very important):
I always run with an inner layer of Injinji toe socks and have (so far) never had a blister.

  • Blister management = moisture management.
  • You get what you pay for, avoid cottons (terrible wicking).
  • After contact with water, change socks or use a hairdryer at next aid station.
  • Try different combinations of socks during training (don’t leave it to race day!)

Watch (with GPS)
Very personal choice. I’m a huge fan of Suunto’s Ambit Peak range.

  • Critical for timing nutrition, hydration.
  • Also important for sticking to planned pace.

Clothing:

  • Cover up in light clothing / colours.
  • N.B., Wearing less is not always the best option for staying cool.

Compression gear may / may not help with recovery and may provide some benefits whilst running:

  • Compression shorts
  • Calf sleeves

Headlamp:

  • Wear this around your waist.
  • Keeps it stable allowing head movement.
  • Also lowers angle increasing depth perception.
  • Bring spare batteries.

Music:

  • Is good but make sure you can still hear what (and who) is going on around you.
  • In early stages of training it can be helpful to hear your feet to make sure they stay light.

Water bottles:

  • Many different styles and varieties available.
  • Practice with your bottles before a race to check for leaks / customisations.

APPENDIX: Common Running Injuries

Fixing your Feet

If endurance running is your trade then your feet are your tools. Look after them and they will look after you. Failing to do so will result in catastrophic blisters, toe nail loss and injury causing alterations in technique.

Nowhere will you find a book that covers the topic so comprehensively as John Vonhof’s “Fixing your Feet”. In the meantime here are some basic pointers:

Preparation

  • Equipment:
    • Invest in high quality footwear.
    • Check the lining often for snags and bumps.
    • Replace it as often as required.
    • Learn some basic alternative lacing techniques.
    • Experiment with types and layers of socks.
  • Training:
    • The best way to get your feet used to endurance running….
    • …is to spend lots of time on your feet.
  • Treatment:

Prevention

  • Taping
  • Lubricants – consider shoe lubricants and powders to reduce friction

Treatment

  • Intervention
    • Never try to run through a hot-spot – it will become a blister.
    • Much better to lose 5 minutes than drop out of a race entirely.
    • Replace wet socks with dry ones as soon as possible.
  • Bandaging – learn the basics of treating blisters.

Chronic ailments

Musculoskeletal

  • Runners knee – irritation at / around where the kneecap (patella) rests on the thighbone.
  • Achilles tendinitis – dull or sharp pain along the back of the tendon, usually close to the heel.
  • Hamstring issues – pain in the back of your thighs or butt (also sometimes lower back pain)
  • Plantar Fasciitis – a sharp stab or deep ache in the middle of the heel or along the arch of the foot.
  • Shin Splints – diffuse pain in the lower part of your shins.
  • Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) – swelling and pain on the outside of the knee.
  • Stress Fractures – a specific point of acute pain on a bone (usually lower leg or foot).

Fatigue

  • Mental
    Demotivation / depression are common symptoms of mental fatigue.
    Sleep / rest. Have fun and check your mindset hasn’t become overly performance focussed.
    If all else fails, take a break from formal training and / or running entirely!
  • Physical
    An abnormally elevated resting heart rate is a dead give away for physical fatigue or illness.
    Be mindful of overtraining and make sure you’re getting enough sleep, rest and food.
    Pushing yourself too hard when you’re physically fatigued is a sure route to injury.

Acute ailments

Respiratory

Musculoskeletal (muscle, ligament, bone)

Other

APPENDIX: Special Training Sessions

Fartleks (“Speed play“):
Stress-free workout that improves mind-body awareness, mental strength, and stamina.

  • Unstructured speed experimentation
  • Decide as you feel like it to sprint, run fast, jog…
  • … for 30 seconds, to the next lamppost, past a cyclist

Hill training: General
Challenging but absolutely critical workout that builds strength and speed

  • Long Hills: Build up to 2 – 3 miles up a consitent gradient
  • Hill Repeats: 2 – 3 minutes uphill running at an all out effort. Repeat 3 – 12 times depending on the workout.
  • Practice both up and down hill running but only one at a time.
  • If no hills, use a treadmill (better than nothing!).

Hill training: Uphill

  • Uphills make you run properly (front strike, arms moving) so note the feeling on them.
  • Practice running strongly off the top of a hill to leave other racers behind.
  • Don’t eat during a climb (while heart rate elevated), eat at the top, you will need the energy for the descent.

Hill training: Downhill

  • A good downhill is harder to master than a good uphill.
  • Find a line and look where you want to go (5 meters ahead).
  • Keep gravity over the centre and let gravity do the work.
  • Keep cadence fast and land on your mid-foot.
  • Use a duck stance if the descent is technical to avoid lateral ankle roles and increase stability.
  • Maintain breathing and stay relaxed.
  • Use sunglasses/a visor to help stop air get into your eyes.
  • Spread arms wide like an airplane for balance.

Tempo training:
Increases lactate threshold to run faster at easier effort levels. Improves focus, race simulation, and mental strength.

  • Warm up and cool down with a consistent fast effort in the middle
  • If you can talk easily, you’re not in the tempo zone, and if you can’t talk at all, you’re above the zone.
  • Pace is not an effective means for running a tempo workout, as there are many variables that can affect pace including heat, wind, fatigue, and terrain

Interval training:
Improved running form and economy, endurance, mind-body coordination, motivation, and fat-burning.
See e.g., structured speed training, progression runs and negative splits.

  • Short, intense work outs followed by an equal or slightly longer recovery e.g., two minutes hard, two – three minutes recovery.
  • Unlike tempo workouts, you’re running above your red line and at an effort where you are reaching hard for air and counting the seconds until you can stop.
  • The secret is in the recovery. Patience and discipline while you’re running easy allows you to run the next interval strong and finish the entire workout fatigued but not completely spent.

Barefoot training:

  • Modern trainers can weaken the foot by providing too much support (leading to injury).
  • Progressive and occasional barefoot running is good to strengthen feet.
  • Start with 5 – 10 mins then work slowly up to 30 – 45 mins.
  • Choose a soft surface e.g., grass.

Spectrum training (deliberate extremes)

  • Helps to push you out of your comfort zone and discover new things (esp. in absence of a coach).
  • Examples:
    • Strike as far forward on your foot as you can for 2 mins.
    • Run as fast as you can for 2 mins.
    • Increase cadence to max possible for 2 mins.

How to: Achieve Growth Through Pain – Tools and Strategies to Avoid Suffering and use Pain to Change your Life for the Better

Growth Through Pain - WhyWhatHow.xyz
12 MINUTE READ

Growth Through Pain - WhyWhatHow.xyz

Perfect for you if:

  • You know you need to make a change but you don’t know how.
  • You want to navigate through pain without deep suffering.
  • You find yourself thrown into the unknown and need a direction to swim.
  • You want to learn and grow from a painful experience so that you can change your life for the better.

This guest post was written by Erin Young, founder of Zen Green Tea. You can find out more about her in the author box at the bottom of this post or leave a comment to get in touch.

Thrown Into The Unknown

I remember vividly my own painful event, it was the sinking realisation that my two-and-a-half-year relationship was over. At the time I felt despair and huge levels of anxiety at the unknown future that lay ahead of me. I had changed my entire life for that relationship and when it ended I felt overwhelmed at the prospect of having to pick myself up and choose a new future, especially in the sad state I was in.

Fast forward to today, almost a year later, where I have never been more at peace or happy. It takes hindsight to be able to look back on that journey and see the strategies, tactics and knowledge that helped me navigate through the unknown to a better place.

The hardest times in life can be the biggest teachers. Hard times can break some people but for most people hard times can offer the opportunity to reach a level of higher functioning. This positive change is known as Posttraumatic growth (PTG) which is more than just resilience to get back to your starting point. It is more like thriving where you find added benefits to your life that are born from the challenge.

With PTG, the growth does not occur as a direct result of the trauma/hard time but instead it is born from the struggle a person goes through in handling and navigating through the new reality. This process is what allows you to redefine yourself and if done right achieve growth and a better life.

I only read about PTG recently but I could immediately identify with it because the painful event I went through was exactly what I needed to push me into a happier life that better met my individual ideals.

I want to share with you the process I used to navigate through my new reality because the strategies and techniques I used helped me greatly to avoid deep suffering, tipped the scale towards positive growth and gave me strength to rebuild a better life.

The Pre-Work

When I went through my painful experience it became quickly apparent how valuable some of the previous reading I had done on strength, resilience and self-worth was in gathering strength to face this pain on my own terms. It’s so important to stockpile strength and learn in the good times. It lays the foundation to carry you through the bad times. Here are a few resources that I drew wisdom and inspiration from both before and during the painful event that helped me:

  • Sheryl Sandberg’s Letter on Grief and Resilience: This was pivotal. Sheryl has expanded on this in her excellent book Option B. These writings talk about the grief she faced when her husband suddenly passed and, as a result, threw her life on a completely different and unwanted path. Her wisdom, resilience and search for help is inspiring.
  • About Love Blog: I love this blog written by a couple, Mara and Danny, who have been through some incredibly hard times- divorces and infertility- but have turned toward love to transform their lives and help others do the same.
  • Man’s Search for Meaning: This book is a great source of inspiration to find hope in the worst circumstances. It is written by Victor Frankl who endured unimaginable circumstances in concentration camps during WW2 (book crunch here).
  • Search Inside Yourself: This is a fantastic starting point to being more mindful and gain a better understanding of yourself. It’s a pragmatic, easy to understand introduction to mindfulness, meditation and emotional intelligence which can help you build a stable inner foundation.
  • Meditation: Meditation helps you become self-aware, and develop a solid inner peace which can help you through hard times. I love the app Headspace which is a good place to start to learn how to meditate. Just 10 minutes a day can start you on the right path.

Choosing Acceptance

Research into PTG has found that the ability to accept a situation which cannot be changed is crucial to being able to adapt to a traumatic life event. This is called “acceptance coping” and it is necessary to accept a new reality in order to experience any growth and learning.

It took two days for me after the painful event happened to accept my situation. The difference between non- acceptance and the decision to accept the situation was profound. Before acceptance, I had no space in my mind, there was a battle going on inside my head where I was blaming myself, going through all the options and decisions leading up to the break up and fighting against the new reality.

After two days I decided to re-read Sheryl Sandberg’s essay on resilience and after I had finished that I decided with my first ounce of determination to be resilient, to accept the situation and to deal with it in the best way I could.

Acceptance for me meant becoming a friend to myself when no one else was there to be one. I told myself that I did all I could possibly do with the information and resources I had at the time. The sudden calm and stillness that came from acceptance was profound. When you surrender you stop blaming, you stop denying, you stop fighting and when you take these things away you give yourself back some headspace and peace.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Research into Post traumatic growth shows that it is incredibly beneficial to have supportive people in your life during a painful time who are able to craft stories and offer different perspectives on the changes happening to a person. When I was confronted with my new reality one of the best things I initially did for myself was to research books about women who have experienced significant pain but have then conquered change with strength. I started reading Eat Pray Love, Wild, and Tiny Beautiful Things as well as re-reading Sheryl Sandberg’s letter on grief. I found so much solace in identifying with their struggles. It gave me the strength to make the first step towards change.

In the next few weeks after the break up when I was travelling I met some incredible women. By showing my own vulnerability they told me their own stories of pain and how it led them to the better lives they are living today. All these stories forced me to examine why this big change occurred and why I was unhappy in the first place. Finding the answers to these questions allowed me to make conscious choices to change aspects of my life. All these changes added up to eventually let me live a better life than before.

For anyone going through a hard time, from changing jobs, relationships, experiencing sickness, or the loss of a loved one; I strongly suggest you find stories (both in people and in books) to identify with that can help you find hope and the strength to take the first steps.

Pain v.s. Suffering

An incredibly important insight one can gain in life is that pain and suffering are not the same thing. They are often lumped together but they can be separated and you can experience pain without suffering. Everyone has painful times in their life, and pain is important to help you learn and grow. Suffering however is not a required experience for growth and often it can hinder growth as it can often lead to hopelessness, deep anxiety and depression.

A lot of meditation is based around separating pain and suffering through the practice of “letting go.” In the pre-work I recommended the app Headspace which is a great initial way to get started in meditation. During their meditation sessions you practice noticing emotions as they arise and fall, and being able to see them for what they are but then being able to let go of them. During hard times, this awareness and ability can help you control your thoughts and emotions so you can maintain your inner calm. There is a great metaphor where you can view yourself as an ocean- the top layer might be choppy but dive a little deeper and your core is always the same – calm and clear.

Suffering stems largely from grasping and aversion. Grasping is when the mind is trying desperately to hold onto something- this is why I was deeply suffering before I chose to accept the situation. Aversion is when the mind refuses to accept something- for example the new reality. In both of these cases the reality itself does not change (I was still going to have to go through a break up) but if I was to grasp and avert the whole process I would cause myself deep mental turmoil which is suffering. If I was to instead separate the pain and stop allowing myself to practice grasping and aversion then I could experience the pain (and the growth that stems from it) without suffering.

As the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in “Meditations” (book crunch here):

If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.

Setting The Rules

In order to avoid grasping and aversion it is a good idea to set some specific rules for yourself to follow while you navigate through the hard time. These rules will be unique to every person but a good way to define them is to used your past experiences. Have you been through a similar hard time in the past, if so what were the major things that in hindsight caused the most suffering?

For me, I had been through another break up when I was 19 as well as a few other taxing times- change of careers- isolation when I started my business- and I knew from those experiences some of the worst practices I had which brought me the most suffering and delayed me from reaching the new place I wanted to be in life.

These practices were:

  • No independent sense of self-worth: I have in the past always attached my self-worth to reference points outside of my control like the way I looked, my bank balance, my career, the approval I sought from others. These reference points are shaky and will always change. By using these points, I was allowing my self-worth to change rather than be a solid constant.
  • Mental rumination: The worst part of a painful event can often be the constant playback (rumination) and analysis of every small detail. Rumination leaves you clutching at straws to find meaning in situations or words where there was none. It’s easy to walk down endless roads of “what if”. Every time I have ruminated in the past over a painful event I would end up in a messy and sad state that did not change the situation and only made my suffering worse.
  • Non-acceptance: Denying or fighting against a situation will cause serious suffering. Acceptance is needed to start to step forward and out of the pain.
  • Lack of a goal and hope: On any other journey, without a destination you lose hope and become lost. Despite this journey being emotional not physical, the same rules apply. To get through a painful event you need to set an achievable goal which will help you maintain hope and momentum for the journey.

For the painful event I went through I created rules for how I would address each of these points:

Rule 1: Fortify my self-worth: I made an active effort to form new mental habits to help me detach my self-worth from all the shaky pillars I had basing my self worth on in the past. I constantly reinforced to myself that I was enough exactly as the person I am. It was not easy to do this at first, every time I compared myself to others and felt inadequate I had to consciously override this thought with positive affirmations. Overtime however this became easier and eventually it became natural and subconscious. A blog I adore “About Love” has a great free email series where Mara takes you through her journey of building her self-worth. It’s a great initial starting point to help you build self-worth. You can sign up for her free email series here.

Rule 2: Do not ruminate. I made a huge effort to stop myself from constantly playing over the painful event (plus all the things leading up to it) in my mind. Catching myself and changing my behaviour (turn on music, read a book, watch a tv show) as soon as I would do this helped me hugely in avoiding falling into any pits of despair.

Rule 3: Practice acceptance. Although acceptance had already happened up front before I wrote the rules, I soon realised that I needed to constantly practice acceptance throughout the journey. It can be so easy to slip back into grasping and aversion during the ups and downs of the journey. I used some affirmations throughout the journey which helped me every time I felt myself grasping or averting. These affirmations include:

  • I made the right choice. I did the best I could with the information I had at the time to make a decision for my wellbeing.
  • Yes it is ok to feel pain and sadness but this is temporary and will get less with time.
  • Replacing sadness with gratitude for the good memories we did share.

Rule 4: Work towards something achievable. I set myself an achievable goal for six months in the future. The goal was simply to look back on the previous six months and know that I had had fun, exposed myself to new experiences, and that I had made the effort to meet more people.

I could have made my goal much harder by forcing myself to try and suddenly achieve my greatest dreams but it would have been futile because I was in an unhappy place so that would have felt like a lot of pressure and stress. My achievable goal let me relax, and pull myself back together so that I would be in a good headspace after six months to then set the next goal.

Time Heals All

Despite the cliché, time certainly does help you through a painful time. The information I provide in this post is a guide for anyone wanting to achieve growth and learning from their painful event to help them achieve positive effects on their life.

The strategies and tools are a good starting place to help anyone reduce their suffering and move more quickly through the journey to reach the place they want to get to. For me, I was able to dramatically change my own life so that a year later I am much happier than what I was before the painful event occurred.

Some of the long lasting positive changes that I now enjoy as a result of the journey are:

  • Developed a strong, independent sense of self worth
  • Established what I want from my work and as a result feel much more motivated resulting in me creating significant growth in my businesses and feeling much happier in the work I am doing
  • Have found and cultivated better relationships with family and close friends. I am a much more empathetic person and I have used my experiences to help guide my family and some close friends through their own painful times.
  • Met an incredible man who I am lucky enough to be in a wonderful relationship with. I have learned a lot about what kind of relationship I want to be in and as a result I find myself in a relationship built on trust, openness, shared values and ensuring we both support each other’s dreams.

Share Your Story

I’d love to hear in the comments what you think of this article. If you have been through a hard time and found any additional resources, strategies or tools helped you please do share them so other readers can benefit from your insight!

Book Crunch: “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change”, Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
8 MINUTE READ

The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

“The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg
Print length: 402 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You’re under the illusion that you’re in conscious control of most of your life.
  • You want to start a new habit but just can’t seem to make it stick.
  • You want to kick a bad habit but keep falling off the wagon.

Charle’s Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” is a primer and guide for anyone that is fascinated by or has struggled with habits, cravings and willpower.

The idea that habits are a powerful driver of behaviour is not a new one. William James was one of many to observe that:

All our life so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits – practical, emotional, and intellectual – systematically organised for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.

However it is the author’s astonishing breadth of sources and pulitzer worthy story telling that makes this book a classic on the subject. From classical and sports psychology to rehabilitation programs, big business, government and cultural movements; Charles sets about demonstrating that habits dictate most of what goes on around us, whether we see them or not.

Most powerful of all are the practical implications of Charle’s writing. Anyone who knows first hand the unstoppable destruction of craving and addiction can benefit from this book. But so can people looking to make small, positive changes in their lives. Even CEOs and leaders of communities and societal change can benefit from its insights.

The book’s closing sections touch lightly on the thorny nature of free-will and the ethics of habit. Charles concludes that habits can and do exert a power that may go beyond our conscious control to moderate. Changing those habits when we know about them, however, is within our control and a failure to try and change something you know about amounts to negligence.

This book teaches us not just what habits are but also how to change them. What follows is the essence of its main arguments.

The Anatomy of Habit

At some point, we notice that: Cue + Response => Reward.

  • Cues are combinations of stimuli (sight, smell, taste, touch, sound, thought).
  • Responses are chains of thoughts and/or actions.
  • Rewards are increases/decreases in pleasant/unpleasant sensations, emotions or thoughts.

As a result, we practice the response until it becomes a reliable and automatic habit.

  • Repetition triggers long-term changes to the brain’s structure (learning).
  • Coordination becomes independent of conscious decision making.

With time, the brain begins to expect and crave the reward as soon as the cue arises.

  • Cravings emerge even before the habitual response takes place.
  • Even similar cues (near misses) can begin to trigger these cravings.

These cravings then begin to drive responses that deliver the reward.

  • Cravings are powerful enough to override even basic survival instincts.
  • Physical cravings are mostly short lived (e.g., nicotine in blood stream < 100 hours).
  • The mental component tends to be much more powerful and enduring.

The Roles of Habit

As individuals we rely on habits to free up our limited conscious resources.

  • Our conscious attention and working memory are limited.
  • Yet we must respond to thousands of stimuli throughout the day.
  • We manage this by delegating most of our responses to the subconscious.

As companies we rely on creating or changing the habits of our customers to sell our products.

  • Companies have become masters of understanding and manipulating habit cycles.
  • They understand cravings, create new ones and identify and exploit periods of change.
  • Understanding our own habit loops as individuals can help us spot and limit this manipulation.

As groups we rely on habits (laws, processes, routines) to encourage sustainable cooperation.

  • Organisational habits reduce the time and cost of making decisions.
  • Good habits set clear common goals and rules for reward and punishment.
  • Poor habits leave accountability ambiguous and undermine cooperation.

As societies we rely on habits to make major changes / movements sustainable.

  • Societal change moves initially through strong (friendships) and then weak (community) ties.
  • But sustaining this change is effortful so long as its behaviours are a disruption to “normal life”.
  • To make the movement self-sustaining, leaders must set new habits and sustain the movement until these habits become the status quo.

The Properties of Habit.

Habits Are Prone to Relapse.

Habits can’t be erased.

  • Habits result from structural changes in our brains.
  • Once formed, these structural changes decay very slowly.

They can only be overridden by conscious willpower or a new, deeper habit.

  • The subconscious always follows the path of least resistance.
  • But we can use willpower to override a habit with a new behaviour.
  • Or to bridge the gap between a new habit and a deeper one.

But willpower is limited in capacity and endurance (like a physical muscle).

  • We can’t lift e.g., 3x our maximum weight at once nor 60% of it for three hours.
  • It can be strengthened through patient practice (but only within limits).
  • And willpower strength correlates highly with success over time.

This is why deep, old habits are prone to relapse.

  • Cravings drive habits that reinforce themselves.
  • And cues can be persistent and out of our control.
  • Eventually, willpower can become overwhelmed, leading to relapse.

Habits Cascade Like Dominos

The outcomes of habits are often cues for other habits.

This is why changing just one “keystone” habit can have far reaching effects.

  • It can eliminate cues for habits further down the chain.
  • It can establish cues that create new or trigger other, existing habits.
  • It creates a period of wider change and a sense of belief in change.

But not all habits are effective keystone habits.

  • Some habits are better positioned to trigger cascades than others.
  • Keystone habits are often those that benefit from changes across many different areas. e.g.,
    • Quitting smoking might not lead to starting running or improving your diet,
    • But starting running might encourage you to do both and more.

How to: Create a Habit

1. Identify the desired response.

  • Work on one new thing at a time.
    New habits need willpower and willpower is limited. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.
    
Remember, keystone effects may naturally trigger more change than you think.
  • Make it easy to follow through.
    Plan/prepare/do what you can in advance to make the new response easy to complete.
    e.g., put gym clothes on first thing for running, lay things out the night before for early rising. 

2. Select a cue.

  • Choose one or more of the following to establish as a cue for your response:
    • Location
      Somewhere unique that supports this habit (e.g., a library for studying)
    • Timing
      A regular time each day / week works best
    • Emotional state
      Is the trigger for this new habit excitement? anger? anxiety?
    • Other people
      Who will trigger the new habit? a spouse? a colleague? a friend?
    • Directly preceding sensation, thought or action
      What series of steps will trigger this response? Is it another habit?
  • Visualise the cue and plan out / rehearse your exact response to it in your head.

3. Design some carrots.

  • Treat yourself.
    Use something that makes you feel good like a small piece of chocolate, or chatting with friends.
    Be thoughtful about what new habits this reward itself might create.
  • Establish support networks.

    Find one or more people to tackle the habit and/or check in with to keep you motivated.
  • Visualise your desired outcome and remind yourself of it often.
    Write a clear visualisation of your end goal, print a photo, save a video etc…
  • Track progress and celebrate small wins.

    Small wins reinforce the behaviour and create a positive cycle of belief in change.

4. Set up some sticks.

  • Commit yourself to your new resolution on paper.

    Those who write down resolutions are ~10x more likely to complete them.
  • Track streaks of completed responses.

    The threat of breaking a long streak is a simple yet powerful motivator.
  • Make a public commitment, especially to your weak-ties (acquaintances and communities).

    People whose opinion you care about but who are not so close they won’t judge you if you fail.

5. Practice your new habit cycle every day for 30 days.

The structural changes that underlie habits are triggered only by extended, consistent practice.

How to: Change a habit

Caveat: There is no single formula to change a specific habit.

  • Every person has different cravings and drivers for the same routines / behaviours.
  • Some habits are simple to break down, others are complex and require prolonged study.
  • Some habits can be changed quickly, others are more obstinate.

1. Choose the existing response that you want to change.
e.g., snacking, web browsing, smoking, waking up late, nail biting, stuttering

2. Experiment with rewards.
Rewards are often obvious in retrospect but hard to uncover.
e.g., snacking mid-afternoon may be more about taking a break than the need for sugar.

  1. Give yourself a few days, a week or even longer.
    
Don’t put yourself under pressure to change in this period, you’re just collecting data.
  2. Adjust your responses to test different rewards and determine the craving driving your routine.

    e.g., eat an apple instead of a cookie, take a break and socialise instead of snacking.
  3. After the response, jot down the first three sensations, emotions or thoughts on your mind.

    This creates momentary awareness. and helps with recall later.
  4. Set a timer for 15 minutes.

    Give the response and reward time to take effect.
  5. Review your notes and ask yourself if you still feel the same urge.
    If no: you have found the reward that satisfies your craving.
    If yes: the reward is something else, try again.

3. Isolate the cue.

Like rewards, cues are often obvious in retrospect but hard to uncover.

  1. Each time you feel the craving arise make a quick note of:
    • Where you are
    • What time it is
    • How you feel
    • Who else is around
    • What you’ve just been doing or thinking about
  2. Review your notes for patterns to identify the cues for your craving.
    e.g., craving to take a break takes place between 15:00 and 16:00

4a. Either: Eliminate the cue.

  • Many cues are directly within our control.
  • The quickest way to stop a response is to simply eliminate the cue.
    e.g., block websites, delete apps, disable notifications, end relationships.
  • Eliminating cues is powerful because it requires no willpower.

4b. Or: Design an alternative response that delivers the same reward (see Create a Habit).
Some cues are not possible or practical to eliminate e.g., times of day, location of work, colleagues

N.b., Periods of major external change and crisis can uproot even old and entrenched habits
These periods give us and others a licence to shake up old habits and act in new ways.

  • Major external changes include e.g., starting a new school, getting married, moving home, changing job, having a child.
  • Crises include e.g., health scares, bankruptcy, accidents or near misses, global financial crises.
    
Fabricating or artificially prolonging a sense of crisis can be useful when promoting change in yourself and others.

Further Reading

“Thinking Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman – A deeply insightful and Nobel Prize winning piece of work on the psychology of human misjudgment. A little hard work to get through but well worth it. I’ll be crunching this book at some point soon.

“Eat that Frog!”, Brian Tracey – I first picked up one of Brian Tracey’s books when I was 19 and it is no exaggeration to say that it changed my life. One of the best writers on habit forming, goal-setting and general life-acing out there.

“A Mind for Numbers”, Barbara Oakley Book crunch here. A superb book and practical guide on the psychology of learning. Barbara touches on habit forming in her excellent primer.

“Deep Work”, Cal Newport Book crunch here. Cal’s book focuses specifically on building the habit of deep work. Its insights are both fascinating and practical.

“The Marshmallow Test” – three and a half adorable minutes of scientists torturing small children with marshmallows. A modern revival of the classic Stanford experiment.