Back in University I knew a girl that always walked around with a big smile on her face. We were good acquaintances and when things were going well she was extremely pleasant. Frequently though, when something would happen that she didn’t like, she’d completely lose her shit. She’d cry, complain, and generally just make a big deal.
It was around this time that I started to observe something important.
Everyone’s happy when the sun is shining.
And it’s really easy to be composed when things are going your way. That doesn’t mean you’re happy or have composure.
Composure, for example, exists on a continuum.
It’s not measured by how composed you are sitting at a café, drinking a cappuccino.
It’s actually measured by the following:
How badly can things go wrong and you still remain composed? How much shit can you handle before you break and lose your composure?
Everyone breaks at some point.
The girl I knew in University broke when it rained. But the higher your breaking threshold the more “composure” you can be said to have, even though you eventually freak out.
This is a very simple observation. But it has profound consequences.
It applies to every trait we have.
Selfishness, Courage, Faithfulness, Discipline.
These traits exist on continuums and are situationally dependent.
- Put a big enough obstacle in my way and watch my discipline disappear.
- Give me a big enough incentive and watch how selfish I become.
For all traits at some level of intensity, we will break or be activated.
It doesn’t mean that we’re always selfish, or cowards, or cheaters.
But we need to remember that we’re not invincible, infinitely faithful, infinitely disciplined or infinitely selfless either.
If we think we’re invincible, it’s only because we’ve been able to avoid (by choice or not) being tested to our limits.
I find it hilarious when you hear a taxi driver complaining about the lack of grit of some soccer superstar who choked at the end of the game. Meanwhile, the most pressure he’s ever experienced is the 6pm traffic jam.
If we haven’t yet been tested at a high intensity, we have no business to judge others who have been tested and failed.
We don’t know our limits and really have no idea what we would do in a similar situation.
However, if we admit our situational vulnerability and get to know our real limits it opens the possibility for us to work with them, plan around them, use them to our advantage, and improve them if necessary.
Let’s explore our limits now.
What are Your Limits for These Important Traits?
Stand-up comedian Chris Rock once said, “Men are only as faithful as their options.” The year was 1999 and he was talking about President Bill Clinton’s famous affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Although I don’t totally agree, the statement does have some truth to it.
Increase the number of options, the quality of options, or some other temptation factor and over a long enough timeline everyone would break.
No one is invincible.
A lot of couples I see in Brazil take this idea and try to use it as an excuse to control their partners behavior. Banning their partner from going out alone with friends to the bar. Even banning them from going to the beach or the gym alone.
We could argue all day about how healthy or unhealthy this is…
However, I believe there’s a more important takeaway here than justifying controlling, fear-driven relationship behaviors.
It might be difficult. But the opportunity is to be honest with ourselves.
Taking the time to really understand what situations might put us close to our breaking point, and if it’s important to us, responsibly choosing, ourselves, not to put ourselves in those situations.
Know you have a thing for whores? Maybe you shouldn’t go for a beer at the whorehouse.
Know that a certain group of friends can pressure you to do something you wouldn’t otherwise? Maybe go out with different friends this time.
It takes maturity to admit that we might not be as invincible as we think we are and plan ahead to avoid situations that could lead to doing something we’ll regret.
Discipline is your ability to execute on what you committed to do in the face of obstacles and distractions.
It seems like some people have super human powers, they can plow on and achieve everything they want. Meanwhile others get derailed by a vibrating cellphone, change in the weather, or interrupting co-worker.
The reality is that people who consistently execute with discipline don’t have more superhuman powers than anyone else.
Instead, they have 1 of 2 things.
- They have a very emotionally compelling reason “why” they need to execute
- They control their environment to remove distractions
The emotionally compelling reason why is what we look to when we need to dig deep and push through tough obstacles. It’s how Elon Musk built Tesla against all odds. It’s what motivates the obese person to lose weight only after their doctor tells them to change their habits or they’ll die.
When we have a strong reason “why” it pushes us to the point where the pain of inaction is finally greater than the pain of action.
For any major life goal having a deeply compelling reason why for doing it is essential.
However, the second behavior, controlling your environment to remove distractions is equally important.
It may even be far more important in cultivating the discipline for our normal day to day tasks.
Why do you think most people who work in bakeries are fat?
Why do you think that you get more work done if you shut the office door and put your cell phone on airplane mode?
If you put a brownie on my desk and leave it there all day I will eat it eventually. However, if you remove all junk food from my house to eliminate the option of temptation, I only need enough willpower to not drive to the store when the craving hits. Which is much easier than resisting something that’s right there staring me in the face.
When we remove distractions it lowers the pain of action to be preferable to inaction.
With both methods, action happens.
Figure out your “why” to push through obstacles, but at the same time don’t neglect modifying your environment to remove distractions as well.
Being cool isn’t about never getting angry or upset. There are times in life that justify anger. If we know that we’re fucking up in some area of our lives it’s important to get angry. Anger can motivate us to change what we’re doing.
However, the problem arises when we get upset over things that don’t help us. When we lose our cool over things that are outside of our control.
- Is complaining about the traffic jam going to get you there any faster?
- Is crying about your broken collar bone going to heal you?
Getting upset, especially about things that we can’t do anything about, isn’t helpful, but it’s an addiction.
Because it’s an addiction I understand that changing it is easier said than done.
However, if we don’t try to change it, it never gets better. In fact, it gets worse.
The more often you get upset, the deeper those neural pathways get carved into your brain, and the easier it is for you to get upset next time.
But the same is true of staying cool. The more you practice staying cool. The easier it becomes over time.
The best practice I’ve found for improving your ability to stay cool in stressful situations is to always remind yourself to differentiate between what’s in your control, and what’s outside of your control.
When something happens that I don’t like I take a deep breath and ask myself, “Is there some action I can take right now to improve the situation?”
- If Yes, either do it or shut up.
- If No, shut up.
It’s not perfect, and sometimes I still get upset. But practicing this attitude consistently I’ve seen drastic improvements over the years.
Jocko Willink, 20-year veteran Navy SEAL commander, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blackbelt and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win echoes my experience with his own practice.
How do I deal with setbacks, failures, delays, defeat, or other disasters? I actually have a fairly simple way of dealing with these situations. There is one word to deal with all those situations, and that is: “good.”
When things are going bad, there’s going to be some good that will come from it.
Oh, mission got cancelled? Good. We can focus on another one.
Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good. We can keep it simple.
Didn’t get promoted? Good. More time to get better.
Didn’t get funded? Good. We own more of the company.
Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good. Go out, gain more experience, and build a better résumé.
Got injured? Good. Needed a break from training.
Got tapped out? Good. It’s better to tap out in training than to tap out on the street.
Got beat? Good. We learned. Unexpected problems? Good. We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.
That’s it. When things are going bad, don’t get all bummed out, don’t get startled, don’t get frustrated. No. Just look at the issue and say: “Good.”
Now. I don’t mean to say something clichéd. I’m not trying to sound like Mr. Smiley Positive Guy. That guy ignores the hard truth. That guy thinks a positive attitude will solve problems. It won’t. But neither will dwelling on the problem. No. Accept reality, but focus on the solution. Take that issue, take that setback, take that problem, and turn it into something good. Go forward. And, if you are part of a team, that attitude will spread throughout.
Finally, to close this up: If you can say the word “good,” guess what? It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, that means you’ve still got some fight left in you. So get up, dust off, reload, recalibrate, re-engage, and go out on the attack. And that, right there, is about as good as it gets.
Whether you want to use my “do something or shut-up” practice, Jocko’s habit of saying “good” to everything, or any other practice that makes sense for you. Always remember that coolness/irritability is a habit that can be improved over time with practice.
In 2009, I had an opportunity to live in two worlds.
World 1: Abu Dhabi, UAE. One of the richest places on earth, flooded with oil money, Mercedes-Benz’s, and Russian escorts.
World 2: Duri, Indonesia. One of the poorest places on earth in the deep heart of the Sumatran jungle. Flooded with elephants, palm oil, and cigarette smoking Indonesians.
Up until that point in my life I had been conditioned by a classic 1st world mindset.
I’d been told the key to happiness in life was to make a shit load of money, date a hot woman, and buy all kinds of cool stuff.
That I should always be working and striving after things that I didn’t have.
There I was in Abu Dhabi. Partying with the rich locals. We drove up to one of the nicest hotel clubs in the city in a Mercedes-Benz S500. There was more grey goose vodka than anybody knew how to drink. And the club was full with beautiful girls. But something was wrong. Nobody was smiling.
I remember looking around and just seeing all of these weird, unhappy faces. All the money in the world. No smiles.
I started to notice this trend all over the city.
We’d go out to a nice restaurant or to the beach. And it was the same story.
In one of richest cities in the world, people seemed really unhappy.
Then I remembered Duri. I remembered the poor Indonesian dudes. Smoking their unfiltered cigarettes, scoffing down their bowls of rice, happy as can be.
In the Indonesian jungle, with almost nothing, everyone was smiling, laughing, having a grand ol time.
This was the first time that I started to realize deep down that possessions and status have almost zero correlation to happiness. And started to question what I was chasing.
The Arabs weren´t unhappy because they lacked some material thing. They had everything. The problem is they felt entitled to it. They were born into it and it was seen as a right. Therefore, they had no appreciation for it.
The Indonesians weren´t happy because they had a lot. They had next to nothing. But they were greatly appreciative of what they did have. They came from nothing. They knew there were other Indonesians that had no cigarettes or rice.
Gratitude, which is the precursor of happiness, starts when we stop being entitled.
When we stop focusing on what we don’t have, and we stop wishing for things to be different than they are.
It can be practiced and improved.
That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set goals and work to achieve them. But if we’re not grateful for what we have right now, we’ll have zero chance of being grateful for whatever it is we’re trying to achieve when we finally reach it.
A Simple Practice:
A very simple, but highly effective practice I’ve been doing for the last 2 years is to say at least 3 things I’m grateful for every morning before walking out the door. Try it for a month and you’ll see the difference.
It also helps to remember that no matter how bad things get they could be worse. And that we can be grateful in literally any situation. Even if it’s not necessarily the life situation we want. Even if it’s objectively horrifying.
A More Intense Practice:
In 1946, Viktor Frankl, after being held in Nazi Concentration camps for 3 years published “Man’s Search for Meaning” a collection and analysis of his experiences that recount both the horrors that humans are capable of committing to one another, but also the upper limits of man’s ability to stay positive and grateful under terrible conditions.
Anytime I start to feel ungrateful about my life. I practice thinking about Viktor’s book.
The men in those camps worked with frost bitten fingers 12 hours per day in the snow. They ate 1 crumb of bread or a spoonful of pea soup per day to stay alive. They wore the clothes of their dead friends who were already sent to the gas chambers. They were stripped of all dignity and identity as human beings. And wondered if they’d live to see tomorrow.
Yet, some of them were able to smile. Viktor recounts that some of them passed the days working and making jokes among each other. Savoring the little moments of joy like when they got a spoonful of pea soup with one or two whole peas in it.
And all of a sudden, my life looks a whole lot better.
Selflessness is when we give our resources (time, energy, money) without expecting recognition or payback in return.
Selflessness also means we give freely without being pressured. If a bum asks us for money on the street our giving might not be selflessness but in fact a way to relieve uncomfortable social pressure.
Most of us think of ourselves as giving. But when we look at the actions we take on a regular basis a lot of times it tells a different story. Even though I believe it’s a good idea to be selfless I personally struggle to act in that way consistently.
Selfless acts feel good and when done consistently can create an addictive feedback loop. I believe the way to improve is to start to give small amounts of resources and try to hook yourself so that you want to give more and more. I’m currently experimenting with this.
A wise person is someone who always remembers that what he currently knows and believes is probably wrong. He also knows that what popular society holds as true is very likely wrong or at least flawed as well.
He openly contemplates ideas that challenge his beliefs and that of general accepted knowledge.
This is easier said than done.
Humans have many cognitive biases, but one of our most influential is the confirmation bias.
Our confirmation bias is an innate drive we have that helps us to confirm we’re always right, and ignore evidence that shows us we’re wrong.
It’s always present and is the cause of a lot of foolish human behavior.
We are all susceptible to it.
The confirmation bias gets worse in the case of highly emotionally charged issues, such as those involving gender, race, and religion.
When we get emotionally charged our ability to reason completely goes away and we somehow find a way to confirm our pre-existing beliefs in the face of strong contradictory evidence.
That’s why you can never win an argument with someone when they are in an emotionally charged state. It’s impossible to win as reason gets thrown out the window.
Groups tend to get overly emotionally charged much easier than individuals. And for that reason, attending group discussions as a means of trying to open your mind on complex subjects is usually a waste of time.
One practice I’ve found that actually works to open your mind is to have 1 on 1 rational conversations with people who you totally disagree with.
If you’re a meat eater have a rational conversation with a vegan.
Atheist? Have a rational conversation with a religious person.
It needs to be a 1 on 1 conversation. As I said above, group conversations tend to get emotional and rationality goes out the window.
Do your best to keep an open mind and stay rational. Although you’ll probably leave the conversation with most of the same opinions you entered with, you’ll often pick up 1 or 2 new important insights.
As far as popular knowledge is concerned. Popular knowledge is almost universally wrong because what’s popular (i.e. Mainstream) needs to be generalized so everyone understands it, and probably relatable so it gets shared around. Real knowledge is almost always nuanced, and not easily explained to a wide audience. So, challenge anything that’s popular and try to get as close to the source of information as possible if it’s important.
As with anything, the more consistently you practice challenging your beliefs the easier it gets.
Two Final Traits that Affect Every Aspect of Our Lives: Courage and Connectedness
Courage is not a lack of fear. Courage is demonstrated when you feel fear but you don’t let it stop you from doing what you want to do.
Fear is completely subjective. What scares the hell out of one person may be a normal boring activity for someone else and vice versa.
Therefore, courage isn’t related to some external objective measure.
Courage is our ability to consistently act in the face of a personal subjective feeling of fear/discomfort.
Courage for one guy might mean walking across a room and talking to an attractive woman. For another this would be a normal day so it requires no courage at all.
For most of us to drive a race car around a track at 300 km/h would require courage. For Mario Andretti, it requires none at all because he’s used to it.
Courage is subjective. But when we consistently exercise our courage muscles over time we generally improve objectively in almost all of the other traits we desire.
Day to day courage is the derivative that determines our breaking point in almost all of our other traits. Almost everything we do comes down to how we deal with fear.
- Faithfulness = fear of missing out
- Judgement = fear of the unknown
- Discipline = fear of failure/fear of success
- Wise = fear of being wrong/disapproval
Fear and courage are at the heart of almost every important trait we have and that’s why it is so critical to train courage on a regular basis.
Remind yourself of this every day.
Like with discipline, having an emotionally compelling reason why also helps you to push through fear and do what you want to do.
I wrote an extensive article that deep dives into the subject of training yourself with fear, stress and discomfort. To learn more check it out here -> Why we Need to Inject Stress and Chaos into Our Lives
There’s a state of consciousness which opposes loneliness and separation.
It’s a state where time stops, action and awareness become one, and our sense of self falls away as we merge with the people and environment around us.
Ancient wisdom called it “connectedness”.
Throughout history, the few people who have been able to cultivate this state as a way of everyday living have gone on to become household names. Sages like Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Lao Tzu.
Performance researchers call it a “flow state”. A peak state where we feel our best and perform our best.
A 10-year McKinsey study found top executives are 5 times—i.e. 500 percent—more productive when in it. And in studies run by the U.S. military, snipers in flow learned between 200-500 percent faster than normal.
Some of us might call it runner’s high or being in the zone or being unconscious.
I just think of it as the most important thing we could possibly want to develop in our lives. And I’ve spent the last year trying to get better at it.
Most of us feel separate from one another. A lot of the time we feel like we’re individuals (lone wolves) making our way through a dog-eat-dog world. We have a low level of connectedness.
And when Neil DeGrasse Tyson said, “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.” He was making a statement that we understood rationally, but have no idea how to feel emotionally.
However, people with a high level of connectedness, who are accustomed to experiencing regular flow states are able to feel it at their core.
The more frequently and easily we enter flow states the more we feel connectedness with the world and mankind.
This feeling of connectedness is the other derivative for almost every important trait we have.
Gratitude, selflessness, compassion, morality.
Cultivating “connectedness” regularly changes everything we are.
The issue is that it’s hard to do.
Anyone can swallow an LSD paper and get the feeling of oneness, and connectedness right away. But I’m not sure that’s a sustainable approach.
We need to explore how to get into this same state consistently using our minds and bodies.
We can use meditation, various spiritual exercises, extreme sports, dancing, deep concentration, MMA. The list goes on.
It’s a massive undertaking. There are a lot of ways to try and everyone is different.
As an introductory resource, I’d recommend Flow Genome Project Founder Steven Kotler’s book, Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.
This awesome video by Jason Silva gives you a great preview here.
It’s an amazing book and the right place to start.
Connectedness to the world and other people is hugely important. It grounds our actions in morality. And it teaches us empathy and compassion for others. Whether we use meditation, psychedelics, or any other method I think it’s a subject worth exploring for anyone who wants to not just improve themselves but also potentially improve the world as a whole.
Every single trait we have exists on a continuum.
Who we are and what we do is always situationally dependent.
Whether we’re talking about faithfulness or discipline. Courage or connectedness. We have limits and vulnerabilities to those traits and it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.
But if we’re honest with ourselves and do a good job of getting to know our limits we have a real opportunity to improve and live better lives despite not being invincible or perfect.
With some traits like courage, and connectedness we’ll likely want to work on improvement.
With other traits like faithfulness, and discipline we may want to modify our environments to help us out.
Either way. The first step is to know yourself.
So, what are your limits? And what are you going to do about them?
Let me know what you think and as always if you have any questions or comments feel free to comment below and send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org any time.
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