“If you want to look good in front of thousands, you have to outwork thousands in front of nobody.”
Damian Lillard (1990 – )
In October 2019, I decided to start a YouTube Channel about music production. At first, it was just a place for me to upload my beats so I could showcase my music but little did I know I stumbled onto something much bigger.
I found a community of people who are into music production just as much as I am and it’s so cool. I discovered that there are so many different ways of making a living online as a music producer. I’ve always been interested in making money online, but making money as a music producer has always been a dream of mine. I saw that there were so many other people who were making a killing by producing music online and I had to get involved. I started paying more attention to my channel and experimented with different kinds of videos.
I’m not expecting to make a killing like these guys, but I know I’ll never have a chance if I don’t play the game.
Now, it’s been a few months and I’ve learned a ton, not just about the realities of the YouTube game, but about myself and living a creative lifestyle.
Here are a few lessons that I’ve learned since starting my YouTube channel:
I Have No Idea What Good Music Is
I guess this depends on what I mean by good, but ever since I started the channel I feel like I’ve lost touch with (or become aware that I’m ignorant of) what people are receptive to and what good music sounds like.
I can make something and think it’s trash, but it will perform well on YouTube. Conversely, I can make something that I really love and everyone else will just be like 🤷🏾♂️.
What’s even crazier is that sometimes I’ll make something that’s bad and I’ll come back later and think it’s brilliant.
Music is so subjective. I almost feel like music doesn’t represent the musician at all, but that the musician is just the instrument the music uses to exist. Music takes on a life of its own and we live amongst them.
Aiming Higher Makes Things Easier
Setting my sights on bigger goals tends to make accomplishing smaller goals easier.
For example, I used to be really bad at making Type Beat videos. Those were videos that just had the song playing with some visuals to accompany it. Once I started making Beat Making Tutorials, the Type Beat videos seemed much easier to make!
After a while, I found myself making Type Beat videos when I wasn’t able to make the Beat Making videos. I wasn’t hitting my goal 100% of the time, but I was creating 100% of the time. I found the value of aiming for a harder goal. There are levels to the creation and it’s worthwhile to aim at the harder goal.
Writing this post is an example of me practicing this!! I have two other blog posts I’ve chickened out of writing this week so I can write this one, even though I used to think that this topic was too big for me to write about in one week.
Oh how foolish I am and how powerful perspective is.
There Are People Like Me
It absolutely blows my mind that there are literally thousands and thousands of music producers online, but it’s impossible for me to name 5 people in my life that are into music production. It’s so cool that there are people like me out there even though I can’t see them in my immediate community.
Everyone Can Win If You Play The Right Games
In most environments, if you are gaining something it’s usually at the expense of someone else. This is known as a zero-sum game. Typically these games urge people to be less giving but with YouTube, I see that there are ways for everyone to benefit.
At first, it felt like I was competing for subscribers with the big fish, but then I realized that if I engaged with their videos then other people would see my channel. Then it all hit me! Everyone wins when it comes to engaging on YouTube. If I leave a comment, their video benefits in the algorithm, and I have my profile picture and name attached to their video for other people to see.
For a while, I thought I was going to get crushed under the weight of the competition, and while it is still competitive, the YouTube game doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Everyone can benefit.
This discovery had me looking out for these opportunities in other domains of life!
Doing Things “Right” is an Illusion
At least on YouTube, it is. It’s taken a little while, but I’m starting to see that YouTube is really what you make it. Starting off as a new YouTuber, especially since so many other have come before me, it’s easy to want to “do my videos right,” but the truth is that everyone starts with a blank canvas and we can do whatever we want.
Yes, some things perform better than others, but not everything performs the same way. Some videos blow up after years. Some videos blow up after seconds. Some videos never blow up and that’s what makes them beautiful. Some videos blow up because their creator uploads consistently. Some videos blow up because their creator doesn’t upload consistently. It’s all okay in some weird way. All that really matters is how we define “success” and “correct.”
There Are Too Many Ways to Monetize Art
And I’m talking deeper than just ad revenue. After diving really deep into the creative space, I started seeing how different people would approach each of their models for making money off their art. There are so many things we can do, it’s almost enough to stop us from doing anything at all!
If you are creative, find a way to make money off your creations. It’s possible and it’s fulfilling as hell.
Everyone’s Audience is Different
Getting caught up in all the “cosmetic metrics” (views, subscribers, likes, etc.) is so easy, but I was shocked to discover that not everyone with over 100,000 subscribers was rolling in dough.
I was shocked to discover that some producers were making a really good living but with very little subscribers and views. They made tons of money because the people who were listening were paying them. Some YouTubers have thousands of subscribers but only 10 views on their videos. It just goes to show, we never really know what someone’s audience is really like.
Someone can have 200,000 subs, but only 10 true fans when someone else can have 200 subs but 50 true fans. Who would you rather be?
Music is One Universe of Many
I have developed a new and strong appreciation for lighting, set design, video editing, screenwriting, and graphic design. I used to think these things were cool, but now I really see the beauty in each of these crafts. The craft I’m really starting to fall in love with is video editing. It’s so fun to see the parallels with music production and deconstruct shows as I watch them.
Video Production is Foreign to Me
Keeping people’s attention is tough and it’s something I learned how to do, but relearning how to do it through video is a whole new process.
It’s like I’m taking up blogging again. Creating videos is new for me and it’s like learning how to talk all over again. The ideas I want to portray over video are far from the ideas I am able to portray, but I know that gap will close with time.
The Pressure to Deliver is Real
I would always hear the big YouTubers talking about the pressure they have to make a video every week, but I didn’t know how real that was until I hit around 200 subs.
Suddenly, I’m hyperaware of this house of cards that I’m building and if I stop making videos even for a week everyone is going to forget about me and move on. Obviously that’s a lie, but that feeling is so real and it’s something I have to talk myself out of literally every day. I know thinking that way is toxic for my creativity and can definitely speed up the burnout process.
I know it’s a dirty trick my mind plays on me and I thought other people were crazy for having it, but it’s totally a thing.
Creating Brings Me Meaning
I really like creating. As tough as it is to keep up with all the deadlines, I’d rather be stressed about my works than be stressed over what to do with myself or some other external forces. More than ever do I understand the myth of Sisyphus and why to assume he was happy. My younger self didn’t get it, but I can say with certainty that he was happy. Like I am trying to squeeze my works out week by week.
The creative grind pushes me to my limits, but it makes me feel alive.
“But a man soon discovers that everything depends upon his being useful, not in his own opinion, but in the opinion of others; and so he tries his best to make that favorable impression upon the world, to which he attaches such a high value.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (The Wisdom of Life)
Writing about this idea was taken from Cheryl Strayed’s List of Writing Prompts that I found while reading Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans, which is on my Must Read Book List. I love the open endedness of this prompt because it allows me to take this wherever I want. This post is going to be more personal than my other posts, but I think the lessons are solid and should be shared.
So if I’m going to write about how I found my way back, then I need to write about where I was and how I got lost in the first place.
A few days ago, I was cleaning out some old drawers in my childhood room that haven’t been opened for years. I found a little certificate that said “Congratulations on reading 143 books in one year!”
I was immediately thrown back to my childhood. Images of little Chris just reading like mad. I remember my mom bringing me to the library every week with a laundry basket that we would fill up with books. I loved reading so much, but somewhere between kindergarten and senior year, I lost it. I actually hated it. I hated it so much that I would do anything to avoid reading. I carried this with me to college and I even majored in engineering just so I could read the minimum number of books to get a degree. (That wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big one).
Flashforward to today. I love reading again. I read every day and it’s always the highlight of my day. Part of my personality is creating my own version of whatever I’m consuming and now I read so much that I want to write a book of my own one day. Actually multiple books! Now, I have a blog and I’m taking steps every single day to make my books a reality.
The best part, and I mean this from the bottom of my heart, is that I feel connected to who I authentically am and an inner peace that could not be found anywhere else. The ability to exercise my highest faculties and dedicate my will and time to projects that reflect the parts of me that I make me proud is, for lack of a better term, God’s work.
This doesn’t just stop with writing. This also goes for making music! I used to make music every single day. Every chance I had to strum my guitar I would take. I completely identified with it, but somewhere in college I lost that too. I felt like making music was taking me away from the things I “should” be doing and that the talents and passion for music was a distraction and a burden to wrestle with. I felt guilty making music and wrong for wanting to make it a huge part of my life. But today, I am back. I make more music than ever and it sounds way better too! Now, I put most of my stuff on my YouTube channel!
I lost myself. I lost who I was. I rejected who I wanted to be.
I took a step back. I found him again. I love this person and can see what he has to bring to the table.
I had to take a step back for about a year to sift through and separate the wheat from the chaff. I had to accept that there are ways of being and knowledge I couldn’t ignore.
I lost my way because I was tired of doing “what was right” and I wanted to do “whatever I wanted.” My dumbass at the time couldn’t even clearly articulate what it was that I wanted.
I ignored the knowledge of good and evil. I completely subscribed to nihilism and hedonism. (While they are formidable philosophies, they are not comprehensive enough to lead a healthy life). I had my head so far up my ass I couldn’t recognize sunlight.
But then, I saw how it affected the people who looked up to me. I saw my students started thinking along the same lines as me. I saw the ones who look up to me copy what I said and did and how much damage they would create with those ways of thinking. It was disheartening, but it didn’t really get to me until I saw it in my sister. I saw how much she was copying what I did and how I think, and it scared the living daylights out of me. All the damage she created for herself (while less than the damage I caused) casted a bright light on the weight of my actions. I saw an iota of the impact that we have and how we truly cannot image the actual effects of our actions. I saw that everything I did mattered because they affect everyone else around me. My sins were not kept in a vacuum, but were observed, studied, and duplicated by others around me.
The heartbreak when I see my loved ones destroy the beauty of life shows me how it really does start with myself. As Schopenhauer said, people either act through traditions, customs, or imitation. If I don’t pay attention to my own actions and walk a path that I could be proud of, then the people who look up to me that I care will not either. The path I walk will be the path of others, but more importantly, I will be the path of others that I care for.
People don’t pay enough attention to how they act because we think that our actions only affect ourselves, but there’s a huge domino effect at play. I found my way back because I saw that we are all connected and took responsibility for it. Everything all of us does all the time matters because we affect other people.
“How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Maxims on Life and Character)
I have spent many weeks putting off writing about this topic simply because it is so big and I didn’t know where to start. I kept scrapping intro after intro because I felt like none of them could accurately express the magnitude of importance that this idea holds. I was getting frustrated because I had this huge message inside me, but I had no way of getting it out! So rather than try to build up to the idea I’m just going to start from the point I want to make and work my way around it.
The main idea is that people are relational creatures and we do not pay enough attention to our most important relationship, the relationship with ourselves.
We see it everyday, so much energy, attention, and money are dedicated to our relationships. In fact, we have entire industries built on this phenomena – therapy, self-help, sports, the arts, the list can go on forever.
We put so much care and attention into how we relate to our work or our loved ones, but rarely think about how we relate to ourselves. This is peculiar because how we relate to ourselves impacts us far greater than how we relate to anything external of ourselves. I’ve read so many different books written by people from all different time periods, and it seems like the biggest influence on our experience of reality, life satisfaction, and peace of mind is ourselves.
People are constantly looking outward to change their lives or find happiness. The inconvenient truth, is that everything we desire is within.
They tell themselves “Once I get _____” or “Once ____ is over” or “When I’m finally ____” then I can be happy.
Most of us intellectually know that this isn’t true, but to internalize it is a different story.
Our life satisfaction, our abilities to take on new things, and potential opportunities are all dictated by how we know ourselves.
We all have feelings and thoughts about ourselves that we do not share with other people and these patterns control our orienting reflexes. People are purpose driven creatures and I talk a little bit about how we need to track things in order to succeed, but the relationship with ourselves decides what we believe we can even keep track of at all.
The relationship with ourselves is the sum total of all our achievements and failures that we observe in ourselves. We subconsciously keep score of everything. Every time we said we were going to do something but didn’t creates a relationship with ourselves that suggests we aren’t reliable. Every time we’ve done the impossible and surprised ourselves with our abilities creates a relationship with ourselves that proves we can do amazing things in the face of adversity.
Everything we do is kept record.
Christians believe that God is watching them always. I believe that we were made in God’s image and it is not only God always watching but it is the god within ourselves that is always watching. Regardless of religious affiliation, we are the only ones who have been with us since the beginning.
No one understands the experiences and situations we have been in better than ourselves and it is through this understanding which we develop the relationship with ourselves.
Who we know ourselves to be is not based in what we say to other people, but how we feel about ourselves. Our perspectives of ourselves is the only thing that has truly been with us through all of our situations. This part of ourselves keeps score, it pays attention to what we have and haven’t done and casts projects of what we can and cannot do. How we relate to ourselves dictates our orienting reflexing and ultimately our lives.
Imagine that you’re planning to meet a friend for dinner. You plan to meet them at the restaurant, but they don’t show up. You try getting in touch with them, but they’re dodging your calls. Eventually, you get a hold of them and they give some weak excuse that barely explains why they couldn’t show up. You just got let down. Your friend did not fulfil what they committed to you. Naturally, we’d feel disappointed and upset, but the real truth is we will forever see that friend as less reliable and accountable. Their word has taken a slight dip in believability and the person can no longer be counted on as much as they were before. It can seem harsh, but it’s the truth. Now, the real kicker is that we can replace that unreliable friend with ourselves.
We rarely pay attention to the expectations and commitments we put onto ourselves. Partly because we like to think as long as only I know, then it didn’t really happen. However, the feelings associated with that unreliable friend can easily be put onto ourselves if we pull the same stunt. Our self-esteem, self-efficacy, confidence, ambition, life satisfaction is a direct result of this. It’s easy to put things onto others and it’s even easier to put things on ourselves, but sometimes we tend not to notice the relationship with ourselves.
In a world of legally mandated education, I’ve noticed a lot of students wondering why they’re forced to learn and work on countless “pointless” concepts and it’s a fair argument. Most of the concepts and “education” people recieve is only useful in an academic setting and rarely applicable in The World Beyond. Admittedly the education system, at least in the United States, needs a ton of rework. However, there is something invaluable we can get from our education.
Our current education system provides students with an opportunity for them to prove to themselves what kind of person they are.
Are you the kind of person who gets things done when the going gets tough or do you quit the first chance you get?
The relationship with ourselves is always transforming and refining with every situation we encounter. Since most kids spend most of their time at school or working on their education, a large portion of the relationship with themselves is rooted in how they handled their academic responsibilities.
We can choose who we are, but first we need to discover what our relationship with ourselves is like. We can ask ourselves the follow questions to get a quick snapshot of what our relationship might look like:
What degree is it damaged?
What can we do to make it better?
Do we trust ourselves?
Do we believe we are capable of helping ourselves?
What kind of person do we think we are?
What kind of person are we actually?
The good news is we can build the relationship with ourselves no matter where we are. First we have to know what our relationship is like for ourselves, then work on ways to prove to ourselves that we are the kind of person that we want to be.
This starts with our integrity and identity.
A common definition of integrity is what you do when no one is looking. People who having integrity are typically considered moral and trustworthy because we know that even behind closed doors they will still make the right choices. This definition of integrity is fantastic and if we see it through the lense of the relationship with ourselves, we will see that integrity is important because we, us, ourselves, are always looking. We constantly are watching us and we know how we would act behind closed doors. People with integrity have a healthy and strong relationship with themselves because they know exactly what kind of choices they will make.
There’s another definition that I believe is much more useful and powerful. Integrity is also known as a state of being whole or undivided. Every commitment we break, to others or ourselves, puts a little crack in our integrity. Every aspect of our lives that is not aligned with our chosen commitments also puts a little crack in our integrity.
When our integrity is not perfectly whole, we are prone to negative emotion and lose the ability to live in the present. This creates intense dissatisfaction with our lives.
Living with perfect integrity is better than anything we can ever experiences. It’s comparable to true peace of mind and contentment. It is our goal to seek out what does not make us whole and undivided and reorient that part of our lives so it serves us, or at least does not hold back. When we have perfect integrity, the relationship with ourselves is pristine. We get out of our own way and become our biggest ally.
When we have a commitment, or vision for our lives, we create a value structure which deams certain actions as “good” (they bring us closer to our goals) or “bad” (they bring us away from our goals). When we stay on the path, so to speak, we are operating with perfect integrity and are creating a positive and powerful relationship with ourselves. If we were to stray off the path, make a “bad” decision, we won’t be able to have perfect integrity until we make up for the damage done. In a Judeo-Christian context, this can be seen as atonement – at one, at return to a state of wholeness.
I believe this is why the world religions have this mechanism built into their structure. Human beings must stay on a path towards something they find valuble. This is clear when we have a goal or a commitment. However, sometimes we may choose to act in a way that does not align with that path.
In archery, they call missing the mark a sin. In a religious context, they say not staying on the path is a sin. I’m saying that from the perspective of developing a relationship with ourselves, not saying on the path is a sin, in the technical sense of the word.
When we sin, we must correct our trajectory in order to return to the path. The world religions have their own ways for doing this, but I believe they all contain the same basic mental exercises.
In order to restore integrity we must:
Admit that we have missed the mark
Understand the impact of our sin to the highest degree that we are capable
Discover methods to make up for the sin
Implement those methods in the real world
This can look an infinite amount of ways. In the future, I’ll write more about integrity because I feel like it is one of those HUUUGE ideas that could make a significant positive impact in many people’s lives.
Living with perfect integrity requires us to clearly understand what our values, goals, and commitments are. This is not an easy task, and many people love to not clearly articulate themselves so they can escape the responsibility of paying attention to their actions. I talk about this idea in a few of my posts, but it first came up in The Reality-Possibility Exchange.
If we could be honest with ourselves and understand our commitments, we know when we’re doing something right and when we’re doing something wrong. If we pay enough attention, there is a specific moment when we decide to do the wrong thing. There is an actual second that we can point to on a clock when we decide to not follow through on our commitment. Pay attention and you will notice it when it comes. What we decide to do in that moment determines the relationship with ourselves.
Our identity, in terms of the relationship to ourselves, is how we understand ourselves to be. We know what we like or don’t like. We understand what we are skilled in and what we are ignorant of. We know ourselves as a certain kind of person.
Our identity is one of the strongest motivational forces and determines what our goals and aims are. Our identity shapes our ideals and the paths we walk towards them.
No matter what we declare our identity to be, we can act out of line and define ourselves whenever we want. This is a turbulent process which comes with its own set of stages, but it can be done. Our identities aren’t permanent, not until we’re dead.
Don’t sacrifice who you could be for who you are now.
Our identity is closely related to our integrity. We see all of our own actions and know all of our own thoughts. Our identity is built from our integrity. If we aren’t following through on our commitments and projects, then we are supplying proof to ourselves that we aren’t trustworthy and reliable. Creating an identity of being unreliable prevents us from creating an identity of someone admirable or virtuous.
The game is pretty rough, but it’s what we all have to play. It’s play the game (whatever game you choose) and play it well, or know yourself as a loser.
“When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.”
Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones Season 1 Episode 7)
We try hard to stick to the identity we give ourselves simply because we hate being wrong and what’s worse than being wrong about who we are? Additionally, our identities are usually justified by the people around us. Our friends and family members will consistently remind us of how we are this kind of person or that kind of person. Their perceptions of your identity are just as malleable as our own. Our identities are never permanent in our minds or in the minds of others.
Consistency & Toughness
Life is hard, but we’re tougher than we think, the only issue is that we have to prove it to ourselves. How do we prove it to ourselves? Through consistent action.
Consistency is key to building a relationship with ourselves and it’s also key to building a lasting and formidable identity. Developing a relationship with ourselves is much like developing a relationship with another person, it takes a lot of time. So we need to create consistent action to create ample proof that we are who we think we are. However, unlike relationships with other people, the relationship with ourselves is 20% discovery and 80% creation. Relationships with other people tend to be 80% discovery, and 20% creation.
We need toughness because relationships are hard work and working over the long term will require us to be tough. A lot of early life relationships end because people don’t have the toughness to deal with the challenges of intertwining the life of another. The unique part about this relationship is we can never leave it! We are always going to be in a relationship with ourselves and it’s damn hard to craft it into something steadfast and powerful.
A couple tips for developing toughness – do not say things that make you weak. You are listening to yourself when you speak, and if you say you’re weak then you’ll listen and internalize it. Be mindful of the comments we make about ourselves. Also, try operating in your Zone of Proximal Development. It’s an excellent way to grow yourself in any domain of life you choose.
This is the difference between success and failure in terms of someone reaching their full potential. The “talentless” can surpass the naturally gifted individuals and reach unimaginable heights as long as they cultivate the grit within them.
According to wikipedia – grit is a positive, non-cognitive trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state (a powerful motivation to achieve an objective). It is the key to stellar performance in any field and the best part is anyone can create it within themselves. The simplest way I think about grit is as passionate persistence.
Renowned scholar and author, Angela Duckworth wrote a book appropriately titled “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” and has a TedTalk which has over 6 million views on YouTube in which she gives a fantastic overview of grit and how we can use it be reach out full potential.
The reason why I bring up grit now is because the key to understanding grit and using it to our advantage is to know ourselves as someone with high levels of grit.
Developing a relationship with ourselves where we are full of grit and cultivating an identity that matches can give us full proof armor when we encounter difficulties such as The Attack, or what Steven Pressfield describes as Resistance in his book, The War of Art.
Grit can be thought of as having 5 characteristics. Focusing on developing each of these characteristics in ourselves will help us cultivate grit as a whole.
The 5 Characteristics of Grit
Courage – developing courage does not mean ridding ourselves of fear, it means to accept the fear within us and act anyway. In order to create a relationship with myself in which I know myself to be courageous, then I have to pay attention during the times when I’m more afraid, decide what they best course of action is, and take it. No withdrawing or freezing in hopes that things will go away on their own.
Conscientiousness: Achievement Oriented vs. Dependable – being conscientious a useful trait to develop within ourselves because conscientious people work like mad. Knowing ourselves as someone who is focused on achievement and dependable makes us invaluable in any industry at any level. Conscientious people tend to rise to the level of expectation, but only because they prove to themselves that they can over and over. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but they laid bricks every hour.
Long-Term Goals and Endurance: Follow Through – nothing is worthwhile without follow through in the long term. Things that take longer are usually better and designing our lives is a long game. We need to be able to know ourselves as people who can follow through even if they goal is years down the line. We need to know that we can maintain vision over the long term. Sometimes I think that the true test of success is just maintaining the vision over the trials and tribulations.
Resilience: Optimism, Confidence, and Creativity– we will encounter hardship and challenges that rival our wildest dreams. The only way through it is knowing ourselves as resilient. If we know we have what it takes to get through it, then we will. The only thing is that we’ll need to know how to get through most challenges. Knowing ourselves as optimistic will help us keep faith and push forward. Knowing ourselves as confident will give us the willingness to push the boundaries into unexplored territory. Dragons lay in the unknown, but so does treasure! Knowing ourselves as creative will give us the means to solve some of life’s toughest puzzles – the challenges which impede us from obtaining the life of our own design.
Excellence vs. Perfection – excellence is a difficult idea to wrap our head around without tangling it up with perfection. If we know ourselves as perfectionists, or someone who produces perfect work, then we are frozen forever. Our super egos would be too strict and that would leave no room for any kind of action. However, if we know ourselves as excellent, or someone who produces excellent work, then we will inevitably put our best effort into everything we do. Going the extra mile is only tough if you don’t normally do it.
The relationship we have with ourselves can be reflected in our self-efficacy. Self–efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments (Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). It reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment.
If we have a powerful relationship with ourselves and know ourselves to follow through on our commitments, then we will have high self-efficacy.
If we have an unstable relationship with ourselves and we know ourselves as wishy-washy, then we’ll have a low self efficacy.
Remember, part of us is always keeping score and self-efficacy is the part that controls our confidence and willingness to try new and difficult things.
Now, this is not the same as self-esteem. Self-esteem is more like the amount of self-respect we have rather than confidence in our ability to perform. Self-esteem is important too, but self-efficacy is what I believe really controls the trajectory of our lives.
There is more I’d like to go over when it comes to the relationship with ourselves, but I’m going to cut it off here for now. How we treat ourselves and how we act affects us. All. The. Time. The relationship with ourselves is a part of our lives that doesn’t get as much attention as it should, especially considering that it determines the majority of our life outcome.
Love yourself. Trust yourself. Push yourself. Earn yourself.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)
The other day I was thinking about how my life, and everyone else’s, is the accumulation of all the little moments of our lives. A lot of people I’ve talked to, including myself, are waiting for this imaginary future when their lives can finally start, but it’s a delusion. Our lives are happening right now and how we live in each moment decides what our lives actually are. So when I think about lifestyle design, or living my life by my own design the question arises –
How can I have the life I’ve always wanted?
Well if our lives are the sum of all the smaller moments, then living the life I’ve always wanted means to be the person that lives that ideal life in every moment. Everything I want to be, I ought to strive to be in every moment. If I do this, then over time I will have many small moments of me living out my ideal life and it will eventually be indistinguishable from my life as a whole. I can build my dream life one moment at at time. Thinking about this excited me, but at the same time terrified me.
How was I supposed to keep up with a demand that high?
How will I actually be able to build my dream life?
Through one decision at a time. Every moment I’m confronted with potential and I have a choice to turn it into something good or something bad. All I have to do is choose good every time right?
Yes, but the fact is I’m human, we’re all human, and for whatever reason we won’t always choose the good option.
So what can be do to make up for this peculiar quality?
Build habits. James Clear is a fantastic author who wrote the book, Atomic Habits, which outlines exactly that. Clear suggests that success (or how I like to think of it – ideal lifestyle design) is not a one time transaction, but the product of daily habits. In other words, we slowly build the kind of lives for ourselves one moment at a time. This phenomenon can work in our favor and take us towards our best life or can work to our detriment and create holes for ourselves indistinguishable from Hell.
This idea is relevant to self-talk and our thoughts as well. If we tell ourselves that we are capable and strong people often, then we are more likely to believe it. However, on the flipside, if we tell ourselves that we are weak and not good enough, then eventually we will believe that as well. I try to avoid saying things that make me weak, because my thought habits are pretty easily malleable.
I’ve seen this idea pop up in multiple places. In Atomic Habits, Clear states that habits are the compound interests of self-improvement and in The Slight Edge, Olson suggests that everything is curved in life especially the results from our seemingly tiny decisions.
Making the kinds of choices to propel our lives forward is a difficult thing to do and that’s where habits come into play. Building habits will help us stay on the upswing even when we don’t “feel like it.” Typically, making upswing choices takes a lot of willpower and if we are presented with a crossroads and have low willpower, then chances are we’ll make a choice that brings up on the downswing. Habits are our brain’s way of automating familiar and old tasks so it can focus on other areas and mastering new tasks. Put more simply, habits save cognitive load.
Life operates by design or by default, the best part is we get to decide.
The 1% Rule
“Small helpful or harmful behaviors and inputs tend to Accumulate over time, producing huge results. According to Lean Thinking by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones, Toyota’s approach is based on the Japanese concept of kaizen, which emphasizes the continual improvement of a system by eliminating muda (waste) via a lot of very small changes. Many small improvements, consistently implemented, inevitably produce huge results”
Josh Kaufman (1976 – )
The idea behind the 1% rule is pretty simple – 1% for better or worse seems insignificant in the moment, but over time it will add up to who we are on a day-to-day basis. Renowned authors James Clear, Josh Kaufman, and Jeff Olsen all noticed the 1% rule independently of each other and I think that means there’s something objectively true about the observation.
YouTuber and Productivity Guru Thomas Frank also brings up the 1% rule in this video!
I love the advice Thomas gives in the video to set a scheduled release date and aim to get 1% better every time. It doesn’t matter what domain you are improving, as long as it is consistently improved we can use time to our advantage rather than our detriment. I did this with music production, with every project I aimed to get better at making melodies, or mixing drums, or sampling and now that it’s been a few years, I can do all of those things fairly well. I also did this with blogging. I have experimented with a different aspect of blogging with every post and over time my blogging skills have improved. I can honestly say that using the 1% rule to approach any new skill is the most effective way to learn something without being let down by unrealistic expectations. Things like The Transition Curve are also things to keep in mind when we are trying to learn a new skill.
While this is a fantastic discovery for those of us who feel up to the challenge, but like I mentioned in my post Tracking vs. Loss Aversion, I talk about the importance of not just chasing a carrot, but also running from a stick. The stick in this case is the compound effect of getting 1% worse every day over time.
Getting 1% better for a year makes us about 38 times better than we were when we started, while getting 1% wrose for a year makes us 3% of what we were when we started. If we aren’t getting 1% better, than we’re getting 1% worse. It sounds like a wild accusation, but let me use science to explain.
Since we’re relatively large creatures, compared to subatomic particles, our bodies follow laws of conventional science (non-quantum laws), which means we adhere to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The 2nd law states that entropy is always increasing. Entropy can be thought of as a measure of chaos or disorder. So the natural state of things is that they decay over time. Which means, if we aren’t actively trying to be 1% better, then we are truly getting 1% worse.
Progress is a Long Game
New habits don’t seem to make a difference until we reach a critical point. We expect to make linear progress, but our progress has more of a logarithmic behavior. James Clear calls this the expectancy curve. I talk more about the Expectancy Curve in my post The Valley of Disappointment.
In order to notice the powerful outcomes, we have to stick with a skill longer than the valley of disappointment lasts. We must allow time for our habits to develop and not let our own disappointment take us out, especially at the beginning. The best way to avoid disappointment and see massive results is to set up a system that works for you.
Set Up Systems, Not Goals
“How you do anything is how you do everything.”
Dr. Andre Pinesett
Rather than try my hardest at one thing, or only do my best work when I’m blogging, I choose to try to do my best in every little thing I do. I do this for many reasons:
To know myself as someone who always does their best
So I don’t have to try harder than usual at any given time
I’ve developed a habit of being excellent, at least as much as I can be, all of the time. This is because I truly believe that how I do one thing is exactly how I do another. If I half ass a blog post, you can bet real good money that I’m half assing everything else I’m doing too. A big part of designing our lives is to pay close attention to how we decide to approach situations and decide if that is the kind of person that we would like to be.
When I work with my students on math problems, I do not only see how they perform academically, but I also see how they approach new challenges in general. Most get frustrated and try to ignore the problem. Some double down and use even more firepower to get through it. A few of them just lie and tell me that they understand it when they clearly do not. I don’t make judgements on their choices, I see my job as someone who ought to help them elevate their own problem solving skills by meeting them at their level.
I personally believe that the students who double down when they are confronted by challenges will be the most successful and most satisfied with their lives. Life is full of challenges and if we were only allowed to get one thing from our education it ought to be the ability to surmount challenges healthily. Using these tiny, low risk, problems as practice in developing ourselves in this skill is one of the best things we can do for ourselves.
So rather than just trying really hard in one area, we should apply Leonardo’s personal mantra to every aspect of our lives:
“Ostinato rigore” (Constant rigore)
Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519)
We need consistency because we fall to the levels of our training, not to the levels of our goals. If our training is rigorous, then we will fall to the level of excellence. If we’re having trouble changing habits, then we should pay more attention to our systems.
Goals are the results of what we want to achieve and Systems are the processes that get us there. Here are a few reasons why we should have goals, but we shouldn’t focus on them:
Winners and losers often have the same goals. Some people think that winners are more ambitious goals, but that isn’t the case. People who win do not win because they have ambitious goals.
Achieving a goal is satisfying for a moment. The next moment, we need a new goal. If we don’t have one, we can easily spiral into depression. It’s also easy to fall into black or white thinking. Achieve goal and be happy or fail and be disappointed. If we fall in love with the process, rather than the outcome, we give ourselves permission to be happy.
Solving problems on the goal level is usually only momentary. Solving problems on the systemic level will prevent similar problems from occurring in the future.
With all my content creation, blogging, YouTube Videos, and Music, I don’t try to just make 1 song every day, or 1 blog post every day. I aim to produce a little every day or write for an hour every day. Back in college, I used to tell myself that I needed to make a beat a day if I wanted to be a good producer. While its a good goal to have, I noticed that once I made the beat, I wasn’t motivated to keep going. Sometimes I wasn’t even able to make something because looking at the task at the level of making an entire beat was too big! Now I have a simple step by step system that I can run whenever I feel unmotivated or uninspired that produces content. Every step of my content creation process is crystal clear to me so all I have to do is focus on putting one foot in front of the next, rather than just trying to get to the finish line.
“All truly wise thoughts have been thought already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we much think them over again honestly, until they take root in our personal experience.”
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749 – 1832)
In light of my last post, Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, I want to go over different study methods that can be used with those principles in mind. Proven study methods used in conjunction with active recall and spaced repetition is the winning formula for any student looking to get better grades with less work and stress. It doesn’t matter which method you use, as long as the principles are being practiced. Pick the a strategy, combine it with another, modify it so it can fit your needs. I want my students to have an arsenal of methods to so they can design their own perfectly personalized study system. Over the next 4 weeks, I’m going to explore some of the most popular study methods that we can use to chop up, modify, and customize.
The Pomodoro Technique and its Modification
You may or may not be familiar with the word Pomodoro, but it’s Italian for tomato. I’ve been watching an absurd amount of The Sopranos lately, so I figured it would be appropriate to start with the Italian themed strategy. Now, I know what you’re thinking..
What do tomatoes have to do with studying?
Absolutely nothing. Pomodoro was the name of the tomato shaped timer that Francesco Cirillo used when he developed this technique!
The Pomodoro technique can be executed in 7 fairly simple steps:
Clearly articulating what task needs to be done
Setting a pomodoro timer (or any timer) to 25 minutes
Work on the task without interruption for the 25 minutes
Take a break for 3-5 minutes
Repeat Steps 2 through 4 at least 4 times
Take a longer 15-30 minute break
Repeat as many times as needed
Each work interval of 25 minutes is commonly known as a Pomodoro. Do 4-5 pomodoros then take a long break. I use this method all the time just to get started! For me, starting something is usually the hardest part. My brain doesn’t like the idea of sitting down and working on something for hours, but when I practice the pomodoro technique, it’s much easier to get the ball rolling if I think I’m only going to be working on this for 25 minutes.
Using the Pomodoro Technique is a really great strategy and you will get tons of work done if it’s executed properly, but I find that I get my best work done when I’ve been working on something for hours uninterrupted and the Pomodoro Technique inherently comes with interruptions. So what I do is modify the technique to fit my own personal needs. If I’m feeling like it, I’ll use this technique the way it was designed but more often than not I just use it as a catalyst to begin my work flow.
In all honesty, I have an incredibly difficult time sitting down and writing for hours or producing for hours but over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at negotiating with myself to get things done. One of the deals I make with myself constantly is just do 1 pomodoro then you can play video games. Sometimes I work the 25 minutes and go play my video games, but most of the time I ride the momentum that I build during that first pomodoro and get shit done. When I make this deal with myself, I end up being more focused too. Getting my work done is important to me, so knowing that I only have this limited time to get it done helps me stay focused. There’s something about having a short time line that gets us out of our own way. The best part of that discovery is being able to trick our minds into getting out of its own way.
The pomodoro technique is effective because it works under the assumption that we get our best work done within the first 25 or so minutes of beginning. It’s easy to come to this conclusion, if we examine our productivity as a function of attention span. I view my attention span as a period of time which I can voluntarily focus on something without suffering or wanting to do something else. There are certain days and conditions that contribute to a longer attention span, but on average my attention span is about an hour. There are been times when I really developed myself in this domain and I got it up to 3 hours but there have also been times in my life when I let it drop to 10 minutes. There’s no shame or ought when it comes to attention span, but I think it is something we should take into account when we are designing systems to optimize our learning capacity. Rather than define a pomodoro as 25 minutes, I define a pomodoro as equal to my attention span at the time. It’s useless to sit down and stare at your paper if the only purpose is to wait out a pomodoro session. Adjust the length of each session and you have a game plan that works best for you, but that leave us with the question:
How do we know how long our attention span is?
So there are ways to determine an attention span, but what I find best is to just start a timer whenever you start a project and whenever you feel the desire to seek out different stimulation or take a break stop the timer. I spent a day and timed my attention span (and because I’m a total math nerd) I averaged it out and defined that as my pomodoro. Nowadays, my pomodoros last about an hour, but on days when I’m not feeling up to it I make them as low as 10 minutes. This is a great technique to bang out loads of work and overcome that high activation energy required to get started.
The Feynman Technique
I’ve mentioned this technique in earlier posts, Active Recall and Note-Taking, and it’s fairly simple. The Feynman Technique is based on the idea that we truly understand something if we can explain it in simple terms. When I first started tutoring, I wasn’t aware of all the different learning and studying theories but I noticed that I was gaining a deep understanding of math quicker and faster than my students. At first I thought it was strictly a function of time. Since I’m doing math more often than them, I’m improving faster than them. But I’ve always felt like there was a bigger reason and it is because I was constantly explaining complex ideas in a simple way. This exercise 1) forces me to find any holes in my knowledge and 2) is an excellent active recall technique. If I’m explaining something that I don’t have a deep understanding of, then I’ll stumble while I try to explain these topics. I’ll take note of that stumble and fill that little knowledge pothole, so next time I run the neural pathway it’ll be smooth.
If you don’t have another person to explain it to, try writing it down in simple terms and reading it after some time has passed. It takes more effort, so it may actually be more effective. Explaining concepts to other people, especially students, gives an opponent processing benefit but writing it out and reading it back to yourself is an excellent test for understanding.
Incorporate Concepts into Everyday Speech
This is one of those things I’m always doing without people knowing. By sliding these new concepts into conversations with people helps with firing the neurons connected to the concepts you’re interested in. I tend to look like a nerd, but I don’t mind because I get my recall in. Additionally, using the information in a creative way helps with retention.
Most people usually don’t see conversations as a creative, but they are! We are creating conversation and humans live in conversation. Our environments are results of our conversations and by injecting our concepts into our speech, we build the concepts right into our fabric of reality. The idea of speech being one of our superpowers is an old one and definitely deserves it’s own time in the sun, but I’ll just leave this tip here. Incorporating our newly found knowledge into our everyday speech is a solid strategy to get those neural pathways fired and help with knowledge retention.
Simulate the Test Environment
For a while many of my students would do fantastic when I’m working with them, but when it comes to taking the test they end up failing! They understood the material fine and whenever I’d ask them what they think happened they tell me that they forget everything when they’re under pressure. This problem drove me crazy for a long time, until I took a deep dive into the human mind to understand.
Our minds are constantly making associations and we perceive the world on so many different levels. I recommend checking out Jordan Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lecture series for those interested in diving deep into why that is. Our minds and bodies are navigating space and time constantly fluctuating between order and chaos. The world of what we already understand and the world of what we don’t. When we’re in the world of order, we aren’t anxious and can predict the outcome of our actions. When we’re taking a test, it’s much more comfortable to operate in the world of order. However, taking a test in a classroom is different than taking a test at home.
While it seems like the same thing, the test in a classroom environment is unfamiliar to the parts of ourselves that are adapted to the test in a home environment. The unfamiliarity causes us to activate the parts of us that navigate the world of chaos and that part of us may not be equipped to handle the questions on the test. This is why many students, including myself, don’t perform as well on tests than we do while we’re practicing. The solution to this problem is to simulate the test environment as much as possible while studying. The small associations we make while learning (or studying) the material can act as cues when we are trying to recall the information later. That’s why my students do better when practicing math with me. We usually practice in the same place, so their minds are associating their work with myself as well as the environment around us. Those minor associations make the recall significantly easier!
Back in high school, I noticed that my calculus skills were much better when I was in my math class but I didn’t know why. Today, my math skills are much better when I’m at a student’s home or in the tutoring center. I’m not as math savvy in my personal life.
“No Stakes” Practice
Every since I was a kid, I’ve always liked the idea of practicing something with no serious consequences. (Probably because life tends to be unwavering about consequences.) The opportunity to be a n00b is powerful because it frees us up. It gives us the freedom to make mistakes, and mistakes light the path to mastery. When we’re free to make mistakes, we’re free to learn. I talk more about this is my The Power of Failure post. Not to brag, but I’m constantly told that I make difficult academic subjects easy not because I explain things well, but because I have a relaxed attitude about it. I was so surprised when I first heard this, but after reflecting on it for a while it made complete sense. Once my students understood that nothing bad really happens if they make mistakes, they are more willing to give things a try. In those attempts, mistakes would inevitably be made but they would learn from every single one.
When we try something new, or if we’re trying to improve a skill, we should allow ourselves “No Stakes” practice. Trial runs with nothing at stake tend to carry high yield lessons. I don’t just try this strategy when I’m studying, although it is fantastic for it, I also use it when I draft blog posts and make music. I give myself a “no stakes” pomodoro, so I have a definite time when I can stop making trash but that time is crucial because I edit that trash into most of the creative projects I put out. I freedom to make mistakes is priceless, don’t underestimate the value of “no stakes” practice.