“Man has it all in his hands, and it all slips through his fingers from sheer cowardice.”
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime & Punishment)
So for the last 5 months, I’ve been doing this thing called The 5 Minute Journal. I originally heard about this idea from Tim Ferriss (as with so many other things), but it’s a popular practice that millions of people are already doing. I figured I can try it for 30 days (because anyone can try anything for 30 days), and I haven’t stopped since.
I’ve found it to be extremely beneficial to my performance as well as my mental health.
The 5 Minute Journal is pretty simple.
In the morning I fill out the following:
I am grateful for…
What would make today great?
Daily Affirmation. I am…
and in the evening I answer these questions:
3 amazing things that happened today…
How could I have made today even better?
and that’s it!
It’s not that invasive and I’ve integrated it into my day so I don’t need to expend much effort to write. I created a notebook in OneNote and synced all my devices on it so I can easily access my journal whenever I need it.
There are physical 5-minute journals that people can purchase, but I like my digital journal for convenience reasons. Also, OneNote is free.
I also included it on my Streaks app, so I have additional reminders and incentives to keep it up. I highly recommend this app too. You can customize your own habits and it’s so fun to see my patterns.
When I first started the 5MJ, it felt really lame, awkward, and artificial, but over time I learned what things worked for me and what things didn’t.
I (stole from Tim Ferriss) try to use 1 ground rule for my journal just to keep it effective and not feel so dull. I cannot repeat what I am grateful for within 3 days of each other. This prevents me from saying “I am grateful for my dogs” every day even though it’s so true and I’m tempted to write it every morning. I can leave room for gratitude in other things. There have been days when I’ve had to dig deep for gratitude and I find beauty in places that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
When I started it, I literally wrote down my to-do list in the “What would make today great?” section and felt like my days weren’t great until I finished my to-do list.
This just added to my stress and didn’t help all that much. I noticed that my best days were the days that I created or learned something new. Usually, the 3rd spot doesn’t really matter too much. Today, I try to make sure at least one of the things in that the “What would make today great?” section is “Learn something new” or “Create something new” because that makes life worth it.
The see the Daily Affirmation as a beautiful opportunity to tell me whatever I need to hear most. Most of the time, I wrote down statements that I didn’t necessarily believe but wanted to be true.
A few examples of those statements were:
I am an inevitable success.
I am capable.
I am doing good work.
I am in control of where my life goes.
I am spending my time well.
I noticed that in the morning I usually didn’t believe it, but as I went about my day, I would find examples that supported the affirmations.
Telling myself something in the morning somehow makes my subconscious look for proof of it in my everyday life. I’m sure this rings true for all the negative things we say about ourselves as well.
Another noteworthy lesson, and probably the most important lesson, I’ve learned from practicing the 5MJ is being able to accomplish the things we set out to do is a skill that needs to be practiced and maintained.
When I first started doing the journal, I wrote down the things that would make today great at the start of the day and be devastated to discover that my days ended up being something entirely different. It’s upsetting to know that the whole day was wasted, in the sense that I couldn’t live the life I wanted to, but it was a great lesson to learn.
I saw that if I could lose track of this day, I could easily lose track of much more time, especially if I’m not tracking it. I realized that this is what happened to me in high school and in college. I get caught up in the hustle and bustle of living that I forget my intentions that I originally go in with. I was upset that I lost a day, but then I realized that there are people who do this for decades of their lives. That’s an excruciating realization. Losing track of our intentions is the fastest way to build a life we hate or at least a life that doesn’t feel worth it.
The evidence was all around me, but it wasn’t clear until I started seeing the patterns externalized in my journal. Now, after paying much attention to carrying out my intentions, I’ve developed a relationship with myself in which I can trust my “busy monkey mind” to still carry out the intentions my best self wants.
Sometimes I’ll go through the day feeling like I haven’t done the things I intended to do, but when I look at my journal, I realized that I did and that’s a pleasant surprise. The peace of mind that this provides me is invaluable, but I didn’t start noticing this until a few months into the journaling. There were definitely enough bad days where I believed for a short while that I always subconsciously destroyed my intentions unless I really really really tried not to.
The last lesson I’ll mention is that it’s worthwhile to write down my seemingly trivial thoughts because reflecting on them is fun. It’s cool to see a tiny snapshot of the past, what’s going on inside my head, and what I felt was worth remembering for that day. A lot of beautiful moments happen during the bad days, and this journal gives me an opportunity to see and relive them when they would have otherwise been forgotten.
I think everyone should start journaling. It’s one of the most invaluable things I have ever done for myself and I know everyone could benefit from it. I think the longer I stick with it, the more value it’s going to give me in the future. If the 5MJ doesn’t fit your style, I recommend just free writing for 5 minutes.
Start writing down your thoughts and intentions. Write anything. Stick with it for a while. Receive benefits.
You give what you get, but maybe even more with journaling.
“Excellence is the next five minutes, improvement is the next five minutes, happiness is the next five minutes.”
Tim Ferriss (1977 – )
In light of the new semester, I want to go over a method that can help in the majority of classes. I consider this to be a more advanced technique and if you’re new to learning about study methods, I recommend checking out my Strategies for Better Studying posts: 1, 2, 3, & 4.
This technique is called phasing and it’s designed to maximize results with minimal effort. Something to keep in mind about phasing is that it does require stellar academic skills upfront. The better the student one is, the less they have to work, so long as they know the right techniques.
During my last few years in college, I started to try this phasing technique. It took me a while to get down, but once I got it I was rarely ever stressed about my classes or exams and I was getting higher grades than ever before! Once I got my phasing system down, exam season and finals week were the most stress-free times of the semester.
Honestly, finals week should be the easiest week of the semester.
I remember one night my friends wanted to go out and celebrate someone’s birthday the night before I had my electricity and magnetism physics final.
Do you know what I did?
I partied my face off with them and still dominated that test. I got an A in the class and I wasn’t nervous about it one bit. This is all thanks to phasing. (Trust me, physics E&M was not a class that came easy to me at all)
Before we really dive in, I want to get two things out of the way early on. First, there is no substitute for hard work. For every class, there is a minimal amount of work necessary to receive a certain grade and there’s no way around it. If we want an A in a class, then we’ll have to do A level work. We can’t get As with D effort, but we don’t have to totally kill ourselves over the As either. Phasing helps with keeping the work limited to only what we absolutely HAVE to do.
Leave the busy work for those who pretend to make progress.
Second is sacrificing the present for the future is worthwhile. In order for phasing to be effective, we have to be able to keep our future selves in mind. Taping into the part of us that is capable of sacrifice is crucial for phasing to work its magic.
What is phasing?
Phasing involves breaking up the semester into 3 fundamental phases: Frontload, Review, and Relax. I love phasing because (if executed properly) it maximizes performance and requires far less effort than just “trying to get through the semester.”
I also love phasing because it follows the “natural curve of motivation” throughout the term. In the beginning, most students are highly motivated and well-rested but as the semester goes on students tend to get lazier and lazier. I know that’s true for me. I felt that way every semester without fail.
Frontloading is taking the entire load of the semester and moving it to the front, typically the first 1/3. For example, let’s say we wanted to frontload a class that was 3 months long, then we would plan to go over all of the class material in the first month. Now, this isn’t easy and it’s why I brought up the two points I did earlier. Frontloading is difficult, but at least this way we put the toughest part of the semester on the time when we are the most resilient. Remember, we can’t get As with D level work, but the sacrifice is worthwhile. Frontloading is a serious undertaking, but when the end of the semester comes and we’re not feeling as motivated we’ll be so happy you did it.
Honestly, frontloading was something that took me a few semesters to get down properly. It was easy to fall into the fallacy that it’s much easier to just learn and perfect the concepts throughout the semester rather than bust it frontloading. Until one semester, I finally stayed on top of the frontloading and I was getting the grades without any of the stress.
It’s critical to keep in mind that the goal of frontloading is not to take the whole class in a third of the time but to be familiar with all the topics covered. This is the difference between frontloading working properly and being more trouble than it’s worth.
Earlier I said that this technique takes less effort than just taking the semester as it comes. So why am I suggesting to put in extreme levels of effort into the first 1/3 of the term if it’s already difficult to just keep up? Because in the long run, it will require less effort.
We are simply paying out dues upfront. There’s no substitute for hard work.
Frontloading is hard and can seem impossible if it’s not approached systematically. Do not just wing it and try to learn everything 3 times faster. That’s a guaranteed way to crash and burn out. Instead, take the time to plan it out. Take time. Don’t worry if it takes a few days to plan it out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure.
When I took my second semester of o-chem, I couldn’t afford the textbook so I had to pay careful attention to what concepts I was responsible for learning and how long I had to learn them. I’ll go into how I handled this class into more detail later, but for my frontloading phase, I took the time to write down which mechanisms I needed to learn each day. When I was making the schedule I had no idea what an aldol condensation or a Diels–Alder reaction was, but I knew that next Thursday I’m going to figure them out. I also tried my best to not put too much pressure on myself to learn these reactions perfectly, I just simply wrote down the questions I had when I couldn’t figure things out (which was pretty often). When making these schedules, keep in mind the days and times which you will have access to someone who could easily explain the information to you. I try to get all the front loading in before the last review session with a tutor or teacher so any knowledge holes can be filled.
Also, keep this in mind when you start creating your frontloading schedule — trying to learn something proficiently every month is much more difficult than learning a bunch of things and spending 3 months trying to improve. Learning and proficiency take time.
When frontloading be sure to create a running list of questions. This is going to be invaluable later. Write all the questions you get while you’re frontloading. Write down everything that is confusing to you. This will capture your own unique understanding of the concept. If you can find the answers, write them down too.
Frontloading is by far the most cumbersome phase.
Once we’ve reached the review phase, it’s all downhill. Reviewing can be challenging, but it is much less taxing than creating new neural pathways. Especially when study techniques are modified with the principles in mind to fit each unique situation. I highly recommend checking out my post, Active Recall & Spaced Repetition, that goes over the fundamental principles of learning more and studying less. The goal of this phase is to strengthen the neural connections created from the frontloading phase. This is when we become concerned with proficiency and excellence.
So how do we know when it is time to review?
There are two different situations when I could stop the frontloading phase and move onto the review. The first is when I finish going over all of the scheduled concepts. Maybe going over the concepts was challenging, but I was able to develop a basic understanding of the idea.
The second is when I get stuck on understanding a new concept and I will need support from a tutor or a professor. Maybe the concepts were too complicated for me to grasp on my own and I’ll need outside support.
What do we actually review when the time comes?
Remember that list of questions I said to make earlier? This is when creating those questions from the frontloading phase comes in handy. That list of questions contains all of the potholes of our specific understanding and it is a great place to start reviewing.
Studying the homework assignments and practice questions assigned by the teacher are also other great ways to strengthen these newly formed neural pathways. If you don’t have access to those, or if your class doesn’t operate that way, there are tons of practice questions online from other educational resources. All you need to know is the name of the topic or concept that you’re trying to practice and the rest is cake.
Final Thoughts on the Review Phase
Similar to frontloading, I recommend the review phase be scheduled out. Clearly articulate checkpoints and goals. Define a successful day and define failure. Take the time to create this plan, it will keep chaos at bay.
On that note, it’s worthwhile to know when the 2nd to last day that you will have access to outside help is and plan accordingly. I brought up this idea in the frontloading phase, but it’s critical to get it right in the review phase. We should make sure that our schedule (this includes spill days) can handle reviewing all of the material before the 2nd to last day of the lecture or 2nd to last office hours. Yes, this means we have to be extremely responsible with your time. I don’t recommend saving the unanswerable questions for the last office hours, everyone else is trying to get their questions in too and there’s a chance of not being able to ask a question at all. Everyone always tries to cram before an exam. Crowds ruin everything and we don’t want to be screwed out of information simply because there were too many people. Do the opposite of what the crowd does and find much less resistance.
Remember that reviewing takes less energy than learning something completely new. As the academic term moves forward the semester will get easier and easier and easier. Stick with the system and you’ll see the payoff slowly emerge. Eventually, recalling this information will be a cakewalk and all we’ll have to do is just show up.
When all the questions and concepts start to bore us (because they’re too easy, not because they’re uninteresting), that is how we know we can enter the last phase.
This is my favorite part of phasing and (to be honest) the whole reason why this method is worth it. While everyone is else is cramming and stressing, we can focus on relaxation and living our best lives. Maybe we might want to have a few active recall sessions just to keep our minds sharp, but most of our time will be spent decompressing. This is exactly how I was able to party it up with my friends on finals week and still kick ass on my exams. If we’ve executed the last two phases as designed, then active recall would work it’s magic and any gaps in knowledge would have been filled at office hours or in class.
By this point, we know everything we need to know for the class, and maintaining knowledge is so much easier than learning. Enjoy it. Getting to this point is not easy at all and the rewards ought to be reaped. Now, the focus can be shifted to other things like proper sleep and diet.
I love to play huge amounts of video games, make music, and watch tv before exams.
What do you like to do?
When is it applicable?
Phasing is a fantastic method for getting fantastic results with less effort than usual, but it’s not suitable for all class types. The types of classes we’ll encounter in our academic carrers are as follows:
Lectures – these are usually large scale classes held in giant rooms. The average class size for a lecture is anywhere from 100-500 students. Usually, the professor talks the entire time, while students take notes. These are most common in first-year college courses. Typically, students who attend a lecture also have to attend a discussion class.
Sometimes I had professors use the lecture before an exam as a review session, which can play a key role in the review or frontloading phase.
Discussion – discussions are smaller classes and are usually led by a graduate student studying the same subject as the course. This is where students receive additional instruction as well as extra practice problems. Typically, this is where most students get their questions answered.
If the schedule permits, Iuse discussions as an opportunity to fill knowledge gaps during the review phase. Discussion classes are invaluable if used right. I literally would not have passed Calc III if it wasn’t for the grad student who led my discussion that year.
Use office hours in place of a discussion for the same purpose. Some students feel awkward going into office hours, but that time is literally set aside so students can have in-person access to their professors.
Laboratories – oh labs. Usually, they come with science classes and last a few hours. In these classes, students will perform some kind of experiment, record data, and interpret the results. Phasing doesn’t really apply to lab classes, but usually, the person who leads the lab is another graduate student so you can use that time to ask them questions if needed.
I remember in my O-Chem II class, my discussion grad student was terrible and couldn’t answer my questions. But the grad student who helped me in my lab section was awesome! Dave if you ever see this, thank you! I managed to get all my questions answered during the lab section while I waited for my solutions to heat up. Phasing doesn’t typically apply to lab classes, but there is another opportunity to have access to someone who knows the material proficiently.
Studio – similar to labs, studios are a hand-on place for students to learn by doing. I wouldn’t recommend phasing for a studio class, but just like labs, these classes are a great opportunity to have access to someone who knows their stuff.
Independent study – these classes are designed to be separate from a regular course. These are great classes to use phasing on because the class is just you! You can schedule the material however you please and phasing is an excellent frame to base that schedule on.
Content-Based – these are classes that require us to understand facts and concepts then prove our knowledge. All STEM classes are this way. Phasing works best for content-based classes. Honestly, it was created in order to specifically get through content-based classes relatively stress-free.
Synthesis – these are classes that require us to take input from many sources and synthesize them to extract a greater understanding or to prove a point. Most language and humanities courses are this way. Phasing can work for synthesis classes, but some details would have to be changed. Synthesis work encodes information differently than active recall and the modifications to phasing should reflect that. Maybe instead of a review phase, switch the phase to rewriting or a drafting phase.
Phasing works best with lectures, discussions, seminars, content-based, and independent study type classes. It can be applied to the other classes as well, but the logistics would work a little differently.
If you’ve read my other posts about studying, then you’ll know that I’m all about learning the principles of a system then modifying it to better fit the situation at hand. In other words, phasing is a great method to approach the academic term, but tweaking it to fit exactly what we need is even better!
Some classes may be too difficult to split into 3 equal parts. In order to accommodate this, I recommend keeping the phases in the same order, but repeat them as many times as needed. The full semester model is powerful, but sometimes we need to pivot.
For example, in my o-chem class, I had to split the term into 9 phases instead of 3. I had a set of “frontload, review, & relax” for each of the 3 exams. For each exam, I got a list of the concepts I was responsible for learning and scheduled which day I was learning each topic. I made sure I covered all the topics at least once before the 2nd to last office hours to ensure I get my questions answered. This meant I was studying for the exam as if it was the night before, a week or two in advance.
Phasing works because we only spend about 1/3 of the time heavy on the gas pedal as opposed to always being on every other week or so. At least with phasing, we know that 2/3 of our time will be spent efficiently or relaxing. It’s possible to get it all, it just takes a little foresight, discipline, and effort.
Phasing is not a catch-all method, but an ideal to shoot for. It is simply a framework to operate inside. I say this because the frontloading phase can take most people down and it’s easy to feel like there isn’t enough time to get through it all or that it’s impossible. If the schedule doesn’t totally fit, just make a few tweaks and account for spill days!
This is one of the more advanced techniques I talk about simply because it requires so much at the starting line, but the rewards are sweet.
Challenge yourself. Give it a try. Win. Take it all.
In my last post, I bring up the idea of analyzing hero myths for commonalities in order to find traits that would bring us success in any pursuit we choose.
What a mouthful.
I specifically brought up The Osiris Myth and how that story illustrates the power of attention. This post is going to focus on another powerful aspect of the hero of heroes, speech.
Similar to attention, speech is highly overlooked.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, renowned Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, provides a beautiful timeline of history. It starts from matter and energy appearing marking the dawn of physics and takes us all the way to the present and into a potential future. In this timeline, we see different human species appear and either evolve or die out. Obviously, we know how this story ends. Us, the homo sapiens, end up dominating the planet.
But why? What makes homo sapiens the dominant human species?
Harari argues that is it our unique ability to communicate through complex language. Homo sapiens were the only human species that were capable of communicating on a massive scale. That gives us a huge advantage over the other species. That combined with our unprecedented cognitive abilities makes us the most powerful creatures on earth.
Everything we do on this planet is created by us and our ability to communicate through complex language. Yuval talks about this idea of human beings living in two worlds simultaneously; the real tangible world and the “imaginary” world of conversation. I like to think of this “imaginary” world as the world of conversation, speech, or logos rather than “imaginary.” Referring to this world as imaginary carries implications that it’s not real. If anything, the world of conversation is more real than the tangible world.
From my experience and observations, unless overridden by conscious free will, the human being primarily lives in the world of conversation. We experience our lives as a narrative, a conversation, but we also create things external to us in that conversational world.
Let me explain using businesses as an example.
Businesses in society are not physical entities, but a conversation we are having with one another.
In Sapiens, Harari brings up Google to illustrate this point. If we were to destroy the Google headquarters, would Google disappear? No, it wouldn’t because we could rebuild it.
If we replaced all the people who worked for Google with a whole new batch of people, would Google disappear? No, not really. It might be a different company, but it could still very well be Google as we know it.
This little thought experiment is fun because it highlights the fallacies in thinking that we live in a purely physical and tangible world. Google exists in the world of conversation and because of that, we could destroy the things that represent Google in the real world, and Google could still exist.
I argue that the conversations that we’re apart of matters much more than where we are in the physical world. I’ve seen happy people in terrible places and I’ve seen miserable people in beautiful places. What determines their happiness or misery is the conversation they’re in.
People live in conversations.
Businesses are conversations. Relationships are conversations. Jobs are conversations.
Sometimes we add tangible symbols to keep the conversation boundaries clear in the physical world. We see this in things like wedding rings or uniforms. Nothing changes physically when someone gets married, but we all understand that there’s still a huge transformation that takes place. When someone changes from fiance to wife or husband, there’s a transformation in the conversation & the way we act changes along with that conversation. We symbolize that change in the physical world with wedding rings, marriage certificates, and other things.
When my girlfriend and I first started dating, nothing changed physically, but we started changing how we behaved because things have changed in the world of conversation.
The same thing happened when I became an EMT. Nothing changed physically, except maybe a few neural pathways. I was physically the same person, but the conversation I participated in was different.
We create the world with our language. Change the conversation, change the world.
I know this idea seems a little extreme, but it seems like the Mesopotamians understood this as well.
This story depicts how the Mesopotamians believed the world came to be and the origins of the first men. It’s one of the oldest stories known to man and it is filled to the brim with powerful and timeless lessons. I’ll be interjecting with some analysis in italics throughout the story.
It begins with Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, and Apsu, the god of freshwater coming together in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create the world, Mesopotamia.
Tiamat is more than just the goddess of saltwater, she is also the mother of everything and the goddess of Chaos. Together, Tiamat and Apsu populated Mesopotamia with young gods.
Tiamat is the archetypical representation of the anima. She is the chaos from which life springs and Apsu is the penetrative decisive force necessary to keep them alive. In some ways, Apsu is the archetypical old wise king, the positive masculine, and the animus.
There are also representations of Tiamat and Apsu drawn as serpents wrapped around each other and look eerily similar to DNA. How the Mesopotamians knew that is way beyond me.
As time goes on, the young gods become troublesome and begin to act recklessly. One night, the young gods disturb Apsu while he’s sleeping. In his frustration, Apsu tells Tiamat that they need to destroy the younger gods because they weren’t acting properly. Tiamat disagrees with Apsu and urges to protect the young gods, but it was too late. Ea, (a god of knowledge, mischief, and sweet water) discovered Apsu’s plan to destroy the young gods and sends him into an eternal sleep, death.
Naturally, the younger generations start acting in ways that the judgemental farther (animus archetype) does not approve of.Apsu doesn’t believe his creations are bringing order to the chaos, judges them accordingly, and wants to destroy them as a result. Not surprising considering that the animus archetype either protects or destroys. Of course, like any good mother, Tiamat strives to protect her children (a hallmark anima trait) but in the end, the young gods end up destroying Apsu, the order of the old.
Younger generations are constantly looking to understand the world around them and older generations are constantly working to give them answers. The issue arises when the younger generation doesn’t see the value in the old ways. Perhaps the old ways of doing things are outdated and need to be changed. Perhaps the new ways of doing things aren’t the best and the young people who practice these methods are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Either way, there is a mismatch between the young and old and it almost always results in the young destroying the old ways.
So what happens when we destroy what our predecessors have given us?
Tiamat hears of Apsu’s death and is furious. She creates an army of monsters to destroy the young gods in retribution for the death of Apsu. She places Qingu, one of the few gods she trusts, as head of the army and gives him the Tablet of Destinies to wear as a breastplate. The Tablet of Destinies was the story of the world and what was written on the tablet is what happened. Because of this, the tablet gave Qingu immense power.
Tiamat’s rage echos themes of flood myths that can be found all over the world. In most cultures, you can find a myth of a great flood wiping out the world. In this story, Tiamat doesn’t necessarily drown the world but she is the goddess of chaos and saltwater and her will is to destroy the world because it has become too corrupt.
The young gods are terrified of Tiamat’s wrath and know that they cannot defeat her despite their powers, so they elect a champion, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk had eyes all around his head and could speak magic words. He was the only god who was brave and strong enough to take on this battle. He made a deal with the younger gods and told them that if he defeated Tiamat, then they must make him king of the gods and give him the Tablet of Destinies.
Marduk, the hero of the gods, the only opportunity to overcome chaos, harnesses the power of attention and speech.
I think this idea is so powerful. The only way we can have a fighting chance to triumph over chaos is through our attention and speech.
Also, the younger gods are also willing to give him the Tablet of Destinies if he can defeat chaos. How cool? The hero that uses their powers of attention and speech to overcome chaos, will determine what happens in the world. The will of the hero can surpass the will of the gods, so to speak. The hero will no longer be under the influence of the gods and can create the world in his image.
So Marduk went to war. He armed himself with a net and a sword. The battle was long and difficult. The more Marduk would attack Tiamat the stronger she became. She grew more monstrous with every swing of his sword. Tiamat takes the form of a dragon and begins destroying everything around her, but Marduk doesn’t quit. Eventually, he catches Tiamat in his net and chops her into pieces.
From her body, Marduk creates the sky and the earth. From her blood, he creates the first man tasked to be servants of the gods with the responsibility to maintain order and keep chaos at bay.
So Marduk, the hero, confronts chaos with his net and his sword. This is particularly interesting because this is similar to how we psychologically grasp the unknown. When we are confronted with something that we don’t know, we try to grab for a general understanding (the net), then learn the details in pieces (the sword). I like to use this idea to study better, creating a general knowledge frame to understand something then learning the details after makes learning really complicated concepts much more manageable. I talk about this in my post, Strategies of Better Studying (Part 3).
When Marduk when to war with Tiamat she grew stronger with every attempt to contain her and eventually began destroying everything around her. When we confront chaos, it will get ugly and things will be destroyed, but persistence will be the only way victory. Finding the balance to know which is tolerable destruction and which is irreparable damage is difficult, but solace can be found knowing that things will get ugly.
Notice how in the end humans are created from Tiamat (life; the anima) and the thing that harnesses attention and speech. I think this shows that the Mesopotamians noticed that a part of us, human beings, had powers like Marduk but was placed in bodies created from Tiamat.
I’ve also heard versions where the people were created from the blood of Qingu. I think that’s an interesting take on the story and also carries wisdom, but I’m not going to dive too deep into that here.
Not only were we created from the same thing that created everything else, but we were also tasked to serve the gods and mediate between chaos and order. This gave the Mesopotamians an understanding of why we felt controlled by things beyond us at times. Like jealousy or lust. The Mesopotamian gods represent a lot of what modern people would call emotional states. Carl Jung said when we stopped believing in the gods, we put them inside of us.
It is also our job to be like Marduk and maintain the balance between chaos and order. If we do, we get to be like Marduk. Access to the Tablet of Destinies and be king of the gods. This is an idea I think the Mesopotamians really captured well: the hero who maintains a proper balance between chaos and order will determine what happens in the world and will not unwillingly fall to the influence of their emotions or primal instincts.
Similar to Marduk, human beings speak magic words. We use our speech to craft the world around us and it’s truly magical how it happens. What we say has a very real impact on the world as we know it. From the story, we know that the hero who harnesses speech and attention and willingly confronts chaos gets to determine what happens. This is a powerful lesson, but that leaves us with an important question:
What does it mean to harness speech?
I don’t have a clear cut answer, but I think it’s something like understanding that there is immense power in what we say but to take it further and to use that power to confront potential and bring about our will.
Harnessing speech requires a focusing of attention on our language.
How we phrase things is how we understand them.
Harnessing speech involves practicing multiple iterations of phrasing ideas while refining the meaning more accurately each time.
From my experience, whenever I’ve experienced frustration or irritation, it comes from a lack of specificity or too much generality. For example, when I was first working on my YouTube channel I was frequently frustrated because there were so many little decisions to make. I had no idea where to start and the whole thing seemed like a terrible idea.
But then I started writing down the issues down one by one. What’s the font for my brand? What is my logo? What are the structures to the beats? What are my upload days? What genre of music am I making?
Slowly, the task became less and less frustrating.
I had to focus and articulate the chaos into something small and actionable.
Once I started doing that, there was another layer of specificity. What font size should I use? What are my brand colors? What are the titles of the videos I’m uploading? What time am I uploading?
I felt like Marduk throughout the whole process — slowly cutting the chaos into smaller and smaller pieces using my speech. The way we overcome chaos is through using our language to break up the overwhelming monster into manageable pieces.
So this poses the question: if the Meopotampians meant this, then why didn’t they just say it?
Again, not a perfect answer but I think it’s because language development is a long and difficult process. The Mesopotamians saw this lesson. They knew it to be true. But they could not say it outright because we, as a human race, did not have enough iterations to be able to clearly spell out that message. We can today because we’ve had thousands of years to be able to retell the story, refining the message with every rep.
This also mirrors the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. The battle was long, but after a while, Marduk was able to capture the Tiamat (chaos, the unknown) and chop it up. The Meopotampians captured this idea, so to speak, but we have been able to chop it up and understand it on a deeper and clearer level.
Over time, messages from the great myths become clearer and clearer, provided that the ones confronting the unknown are harnessing their powers of attention and speech in a responsible and constructive way.
I’ve seen this to be true in writing too. The age-old phrase that I’m learning to accept captures it perfectly — writing is rewriting. I used to think that writers just wrote down whatever they wanted to write the first time through, but I’m starting to see that there are significant differences between the first iteration of something and the 10th or 20th.
I try to embrace the idea and use it to write my blog. I usually write something that barely makes any sense at first, then I try to make it clearer with each rewrite.
This blog post literally started as “Mesopotamian God Story – the being that confronts chaos is the thing that chooses the destiny – articulation – logos – speech.” As you can see, I’ve fleshed it out a bit more.
Another place I’ve seen this idea is in Napoleon Hill’s fantastic book, Outwitting the Devil. It’s on my Must-Read Book List. In his book, he talks about the importance of definitive purpose and how it is what separates the drifters from the non-drifters. The act of defining purpose is a form of harnessing speech. Defining purpose requires us to use language to carve out exactly what we want from the unknown. Creating or defining purpose is a great way to get people to consciously grab hold and actively participate in the world of conversation, especially if they don’t have the vocabulary to do so.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that our brains have systems for dealing with environments that they don’t understand, I talk a little about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). These systems in our brains are primarily associated with negative emotion. We experience negative emotion when we find ourselves in places that we don’t know how to navigate (chaotic environments). When we’re in predictable environments, we experience positive emotion. Like the humans created in the story, we must manage the balance between chaos and order. We get access to positive emotion from confronting the chaos and turning it into order through harnessing speech and focused articulation.
This is something that I try to actively practice, especially in highly stressful or overwhelming times. Believe it or not, one great way to practice this is to create checklists. Whenever I feel like a challenge is too much to overcome, I emulate Marduk and chop the great dragon into little actionable tasks. This simplifies the situation, instead of trying to control for all the variables, my task becomes one easy thing — cross things off the list.
I recommend checking out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s a beautifully written piece on the hidden (an extremely underrated) powers of checklists. It’s really cool to see how using checklists can completely eradicate mistakes and move projects along faster. He also goes over what makes checklists effective and what makes them more trouble than their worth. Using checklists to practice harnessing speech is so powerful. Just keep in mind that more accurate articulation comes from multiple reps, the first checklists you make aren’t going to be very good.
When it comes to being an effective student, determining what you need to get accomplished or what you need to learn is a fantastic way to practice harnessing speech.
What we say creates who we are. We see this in jobs and our relationships with people. I try to make this known with my students — the only reason they see me as a tutor is that we agree that in the world of conversation, I am a tutor. There is nothing that’s physically different between me and them (except a few neural pathways). I find that this helps them feel like they could learn the material too, despite their failures in the past. It also humanizes me and makes me more relatable. When I’m tutoring I find that things run smoother if my student sees me as similar to them rather than some “math guy” who knows the answer all the time.
Our language plays such a huge role in the world we participate in. I don’t like to write about what people ought to do, but we should treat our powers of speech with respect and use it to build a better place for everyone.
“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”
Test and performance anxiety can be completely debilitating. Anxiety in general can destroy the best of us, but it can be overcome. First, we have to understand why we get anxiety in the first place.
Our brains have a threat detection system that’s constantly examining our surroundings. I talk a little bit about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). When it notices something that could be a potential threat, now or in the future, it immediately tries to solve that problem. Our minds are constantly preparing for the worst-case scenario.
Needless to say, this process is stressful and if overdone could lead to anxiety. When our brains don’t know what to prepare for, this is exactly what happens. If the brain detects a potential threat but doesn’t know how to prepare for it, then it will try to prepare for everything.
Like literally everything.
Our minds will want to prepare us for a panther attack from the tress, and the next economic crash, and embarrassing moments, and food shortages, and life beyond school, and…and…and…you get the idea.
We are anxious because we’re trying to solve every possible problem at the same time, which is impossible. Our minds work hard to find solutions and when it can’t, it works even harder. At this point, our bodies will use their stress responses which have physiological effects. Our bloodstreams get flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, which is super useful in the short term, but terrible crippling over the medium to long term. This is why anxiety can be so taxing on the body.
These stress response systems aren’t entirely terrible. After all, they are fantastic indicators for potential threats now and in the future which is awesome because we can use that to our advantage. In the context of education, this means we can use our anxiety to determine if we have sufficiently prepared ourselves. This is a slippery slope and takes practice to identify how much anxiety is enough, but it’s a powerful skill once it’s been honed. The biggest difference between unnecessary anxiety and beneficial anxiety lies in our habits.
How much have we actually prepared for the threats in front of us?
How many hours have we put in to earn the calm?
Coping with Anxiety
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
In terms of education and test-taking, anxiety can arise from not knowing what to prepare for. A big part of conquering anxiety is understanding why we get it, then taking the steps to solve the threats in front of us.
When riddled with anxiety, many people become paralyzed. Often it can seem like it’s impossible to move when anxiety has taken over. Not surprising considering that freezing is the first step of the stress response. I talk more about this and how to overcome it in The Relationship with Ourselves (Part 2). Part of getting through that paralysis is defining what it is we are anxious about.
Remember, our minds are constantly working to solve problems, and if the problem is not clear than our mind spins out and anxiety takes over. Conquering anxiety equals defining anxiety. We have to take the time to discover what it is that we are actually anxious about. I recommend writing it down and using Tim Ferriss’ Fear Setting Exercise. Once we discover what the worse case is, we can work on making that specific situation better, or if we can’t, then we can work to cap the downside – make sure the losses aren’t too extreme and/or irrecoverable.
“We suffer more in imagination than in reality.”
Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)
Defining what needs to get done and what needs to be understood is incredibly powerful. I’ve noticed that whenever I’m feeling anxious or overwhelmed it’s because the tasks I need to complete aren’t crystal clear. When my goals are as clearly stated as actions that I need to take in the real world, the anxiety melts away.
For this reason, I’m a huge advocate of checklists. They are a fantastic tool for taking the huge ideas we have up in the sky and bringing them down to Earth in bite-sized actionable steps. I recommend reading The Checklist Manifesto. Dr. Atul Gawande beautifully outlines the power of checklists, how to make good checklists, and how to get everything done right. I’ll definitely be writing something on that book later down the line. His insight on checklists in unparalleled and incredibly powerful.
Get things articulated in small and simple tasks.
Another fantastic way of coping with anxiety is to shorten our timelines. When stress is high, focus on small increments of time. The higher the stress, the smaller the increment. Don’t worry about what’s going to happen in a year, or a month, or a week, or a day, or an hour. Focus on what’s right in front of you, even if that means tuning out everything and focusing on just getting through the next few seconds.
I’ve noticed that when I’m extremely stressed out, it helps to just focus on the next 3 seconds. I get through my rough patches 3 seconds at a time. When I’m less stressed, I’m in a more visionary state and I’m able to create and execute plans over weeks or (when I’m really on) months.
Focusing on the seconds or focusing on the months, time will pass either way. Adjusting our timeframes is a powerful way of maintaining control especially when we’re wrestling with something like anxiety.
I also talk more about anxiety and their relationship to education in my posts Strategies for Better Studying Part 2 and Part 3.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law is a relationship between nervous system arousal and performance developed by American psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. The law states that arousal in the nervous system (stress) can actually help with performance, but only up to a certain point. In high amounts, arousal could be detrimental to performance (as most people with test anxiety know too well). This knowledge is powerful because it suggests that we actually need some level of stress to perform at our best. Most people’s natural reaction to test anxiety is to try to get rid of all of it, but we actually want to hold on to some of that stress. Yerkes-Dodson also suggests that if we’re not stimulated enough then our performance will suffer as well.
The graphic above shows the Hebbian Yerkes-Dodson Curve which is a simplified version of the original curve. It leaves our hyperarousal effect on simple tasks and the differentiation between difficult and simple tasks. There are a ton of interesting findings related to performance and stress that developed as a result of this work. For example, intellectually demanding tasks may require lower levels of arousal for concentration whereas tasks demanding persistence may require higher levels of arousal for motivation. Because of this, different tasks may have different Yerkes-Dodson curves but the Hebbian version is a solid average of most tasks.
Understanding the Yerkes-Dodson curve is crucial for managing stress and anxiety specifically to enhance or maintain a certain level of performance. We don’t want to completely avoid stress altogether, we just want to manage it enough to prevent performance impairment.
“Stress is a result of a lack of structure.”
Touré Roberts (1972 – )
When managing stress, we want to keep good stress (eustress) and let go of bad stress (distress). Here are a couple of methods that I use to help with stress management:
Entering the Sleep-like Brain States. Meditation, driving long distances, running, breathing, showering, and cleaning are a few of the things I do to get my mind in a sleep-like state. Taking time to unplug and step back from working on whatever I’m working on helps decrease my nervous system arousal. Most of the time, our brains are doing “duration, path, outcome” operations. It’s obsessed with how long something will take, the path we will take to get there, and what will happen once it’s all over. These are most of the operations we do in our day-to-day lives, but it’s taxing on the brain. Entering the sleep-like states replenishes our ability to continue using the “duration, path outcome” operations.
Define the stressor. Similar to anxiety, half of the battle is clearly understanding what it is that is stressing you out. I try to get this out in my journaling or other reflective writing. Honestly, sometimes I’ll just write what’s stressing me out in my notes app just so I have something to externalize my thoughts onto. This helps because once something is clearly defined, we can take the steps necessary to solve the problem.
Eating healthy and regularly. Studies have shown that eating breakfast regularly helps with mood stabilization. It’s also much more difficult to perform when our blood glucose levels are low. Doing difficult and stressful tasks requires a higher cognitive load. The higher demand for our mental faculty calls for higher physical demands on nutrition. It’s much easier to get stressed when we’re hungry. We can eliminate any extra stress but keeping our bodies happy and healthy.
On that note, avoiding stimulants. Caffeine is a big one. Caffeine and other uppers hype up the activity in the central nervous system, they literally chemically increase our arousal. All of our emotional states, like stress, are related to biochemical ratios in our bodies. Everyone’s body is a little different, and I urge everyone to pay attention to how each of the things they ingest makes them feel. We can control a surprising amount of our emotions from controlling what we take in. I personally try to keep off stimulating chemicals when I’m highly stressed. However, I do use caffeine on occasion if I don’t have the energy levels required to perform my best. Basically, I recommend generally avoiding stimulants but if you really want to try to only use them if your arousal levels are lower than the sweet spot.
This last method I wouldn’t try unless you need to really calm down. Six deep breaths trigger a parasympathetic response. If we can manage to get 6 deep breaths in, when the exhale is longer than the inhale, then our bodies take that as a signal to relax and starts to turn on our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our brain the relaxes us. This is a physical way of lowering nervous system arousal.
Be aware that we do need some stress in order to perform at our best, so don’t just try to find ways to eliminate stress. It’s all about finding balance.
Confidence and Anxiety
Confidence has a significant relationship with anxiety. If we don’t believe that we can overcome a challenge, it’s really easy for us to shut down. We won’t prepare for the dangers to come and our minds will make us more and more uneasy as the danger gets closer. Confidence gives us a fighting chance to overcome anxiety. Without confidence, anxiety will win every time.
How to Increase Confidence
The tricky part about confidence is that we need to prove to ourselves that we have confidence before we can start having it. I talk a little bit about this in my post, The Relationship with Ourselves.
Rather than trying to talk ourselves into acting confident, we need to show ourselves that we are capable and get some wins under our belt. There are a few ways to do this. One of my favorite recommendations is to go out and learn something. Literally anything. Find a skill that has always seemed interesting and learn about it. Practice it. Invest in it. Confidence is a side-effect of watching yourself kick ass at something. People who are good at things are confident. People who seem confident, but aren’t competent are just arrogant. If you take shortcuts, you’ll know and you won’t exude genuine confidence. Building a relationship with ourselves and knowing ourselves as someone who is authentically confident is difficult and takes time, but it’s totally worth it.
Focus on building an identity and creating solid habits. Those are perfect ways of developing confidence within ourselves because when cultivating identity and habits, we’re already making constant little wins.
Last Thoughts on Anxiety
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Mark Twain (1835 – 1910)
“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”
Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD)
Two different men from vastly different times and they’re saying the same thing. It’s not worth it to worry. Any suffering we are to bear will be experienced when we experience it. If the practices in this most don’t help, try to find ways to not participate in the madness of anticipating pain. Sometimes I drive myself crazy worrying about the future, but other times I can catch myself and remember that I’m only hurting myself by thinking that way.
Not all of our thoughts are true. Not all of our thoughts are useful.
I also recommend reading Stoic philosophy to learn how to operate in times of high stress and anxiety. Letters from a Stoic and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca are fantastic pieces of work and are both on my Must-Read Book List.
“Life is suffering.”
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Suffering, pain, death, and misfortune are all a part of life. Rejecting these parts makes things harder than they already are. If we learn to embrace hardships and learn to love our fate, amor fati, then maybe we will be relieved of a little pain.
In life, we perform. We are always performing. If people depend on us, we need to perform. Learning how to thrive when it is our time to shine is a skill that translates beautifully in any field. I consider performing to be a powerful meta-skill worth taking on.
During my freshman year of college, my friend and I performed at open mics twice a week and it really helped with my performance anxiety. The first time I went up on stage, my voice was shaky and played all of our songs super fast because subconsciously I wanted to get off the stage as fast as possible. But by the end of the first semester, the stage felt like my natural habitat and was a place for me to thrive and shine.
We get better at anything with deliberate practice and time. Performance and test-taking are just other skills to develop. Focus on developing yourself and giving your all. Know exactly what you need to conquer and be mindful of your stress levels and management techniques. Everyone can be a great test-taker, it just takes a little work.
Sometime after college, I was exposed to the idea that…
Questions are extremely powerful.
In his book, Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss says that the answers to anything and everything that we want is in other people’s heads and questions are our pickaxes. He attributes his 10x, 100x, and 1000x gains to his development of better questions.
I instantly fell in love with this idea. Not because I immediately recognized how useful that perspective is (although I wish I could say that), but because I was having trouble finding answers to the questions that were burning inside of me.
Why am I always getting the short end of the stick?
How come I’m not being rewarded for doing the right thing?
Is this all there is to life?
Will it ever get easier?
What’s the point of understanding complicated things if no one cares about them?
When will I have sacrificed enough?
How do I make more money?
Why do I keep making bad choices?
The frustration drove me deeper and deeper into nihilism, but this new piece of knowledge was bright enough to help me see the light.
It’s not that life was giving me harsh answers to my questions, it’s that I wasn’t asking the right questions at all. Then I realized…
Improve my questions, improve my life.
It’s not that knowing that asking better questions suddenly made my life better, but knowing that there is something I could do to give me a fighting chance was liberating and empowering.
I just needed to ask better questions.
Little did I know that the best was yet to come, and I was just beginning to understand the power of questions. There was another way to use questions powerfully.
This other idea was clearly articulated to me by Jordan Peterson, but I found it to be true in many other instances of my life.
When we’re asked questions, our minds almost immediately go to work on finding an answer.
This can be extremely uncomfortable if we’re asked the wrong (or right) questions. We can ignore the answers and act as if we don’t know them, but we will. The curse of knowledge is that we will never unknow something, so once we are asked the question we are also given the answer.
The cool part is that it doesn’t matter who asks the questions. We just need to be asked the question in order to start looking for an answer. This means that we can ask ourselves these questions or find someone to ask them to us.
At first, this idea seemed inconsequential but then I realized that I can discover honest and reasonable answers if I take a little bit of time to be asked what I really think I should do.
It can be something as small as “What do I want to eat for dinner?” or something as big as “What do I want my life to mean when everything is said and done?” Our minds will find us an answer if we let it.
This can be done in a way that is ineffective, but the key is to want to answer the question in a way that does not compromise ourselves. Try to be genuinely curious about the answers.
Suddenly, big questions don’t worry me as much and smaller questions are answered with myself in mind. My major life choices aren’t made carelessly or for other people. Learning and practicing this is so freeing.
Despite my question list being presented in no particular order, I do think it’s important to mention that good questions in the wrong order can get bad responses. Sometimes jumping right to the deep work questions can surface some superficial answers. If we take the time to warm people up with easier questions before jumping right into the difficult stuff, we’ll get answers that are more honest and well thought out.
My Question List
Here is a list of every question that I’ve found worthwhile to ask myself. I recommend spending at least 5 minutes thinking about each one (obviously in your own time, there are way too many of them to do it all at once). A lot of these questions aren’t necessarily designed to give me pragmatic answers, but to get me to think differently and break old ways of thinking.
I think everyone should keep a question list, if you decide to make one please share it with me at email@example.com. I would love to see what other people’s pickaxes look like.
Bolded questions are the ones that I would argue have most impacted my life.
“Often, all that stands between you and what you want is a better set of questions.”
Tim Ferriss (Tribe of Mentors)
In no particular order:
What do I want to change and how will I know when I have?
What would this look like if it were easy?
What am I avoiding just because I know the answer is painful?
How can I make my 10-year plans happen in 6 months?
How am I complicit in creating the conditions I say I don’t want?
What am I not saying that needs to be said?
What’s being said that I’m not hearing?
What are the actions I need to take today?
What am I unwilling to feel?
Whose expectations am I trying to fulfill? My own or those of someone else?
How much would I pay to relive this moment 40 years from now?
Who do I know that can help me with this?
Do I need this?
Is there an action that I can take now to make this better?
What is something that feels productive to me at the moment, but usually ends up wasting time and energy?
Am I doing this for Present Me or Future Me?
What do I enjoy refining?
What makes me different?
What is something that I know is stupid that I can stop doing today?
What are my 7 streams of passive income?
What skill am I working on?
If someone could only see my actions and not hear my words, what would they say are my priorities?
What is the biggest small thing I could do today?
Is there a way I can automate this?
What do I have to offer?
What am I good at?
What am I preventing myself from feeling?
What can I work on today that will continue working for me years from now?
What am I avoiding just because the desired outcome would take longer than I’d like?
What can I do now that I would be so happy I started doing 3 years from now?
Have I earned this?
Are my goals my own, or simply what I think I should want?
How much of my life had I missed from under planning? Overplanning?
How could I be kinder to myself?
How could I better say no to the noise to better say yes to the adventures I crave?
Assume that more than one path exists to achieve your ideal life. What would some of the alternative routes look like?
What would make today great?
What are the three amazing things that happened today?
How could I have made today even better?
What two things am I going to try to improve this month?
Which thoughts have I had over the past week that are worth remembering forever?
Will this new endeavor either supply me with long-lasting relationships or a new skill set? In other words, will I win even if I lose?
Imagine each day is only 12 hours long. What would I cut out?
If I had a gun to my head and could only work for 2 hours today what would I work on?
Which areas of my life are in maintenance mode? Which areas are in growth mode?
What’s a tiny problem that irritates me every day?
Am I being effective or just busy?
What do I wish I had?
What are the 1-2 things that if I get them done today, I’ll go to bed content?