The Answer No One Wants to Hear

What workout program do you do?

It’s a question I’m asked at least once a week – in the gym, at a social event, from a reader, from a friend – and what they’re really trying to ask is “How do you look the way you do?”

I usually try to satisfy their question with some version of lifting weights, doing sprints, or rowing. This generic response will usually suffice, and the person will likely draw the conclusion that I must have some tricks up my sleeve that I won’t talk about.

But the real answer to their question?

I’ve had a heavy barbell in my hands or on my back nearly every day for the past seventeen years.

And therein lies the problem. While this is the truthful answer to their question, it’s not the one most people want to hear. Because if they wanted my advice and I told them to lift heavy weights for fifteen years straight, the conversation would be over before it began.

Repetition is the master of all great, predictable outcomes.

We are inundated with ways to cut corners in everything from our work to our workouts. Media thrives off of ways to burn belly fat, get rich, or feel your best in just a matter of weeks. Our social feeds are filled with friends doing some new 30 day workout or nutrition program.

We want the results, but we also want to see the finish line in the near future.

But alas, this is not how life works.

If I were to ask Seth Godin how to be a great author, he’d tell me to write every single day for the next 20 years.

If I were to ask Jerry Seinfeld how to be a great comedian, he’d tell me to write jokes and practice every single day for the next 15 years.

If I were to ask the top sales rep at any company how to be a great sales rep, they’d tell me to pick up the phone 100 times a day, every single day.

Success is not sexy, as much as we want to make it so. It also isn’t accessible via a shortcut, band-aid, or “hack”.

So now whenever someone asks me what workout program I do, I’m just going to tell them the truth, the answer no one wants to hear…

…that I’ve had this heavy-ass steel bar on me for 17 years and counting.

The Only Thing That Matters When Creating Your Best Self

Why don’t you have any food?

This is a question I’m asked virtually every time someone is at my house. A quick peek in the fridge reveals some fruits and vegetables, grass-fed beef, and a jug of almond milk. A peek in the pantry reveals some rice, coconut oil, apple cider vinegar, RXBARs, and baby food.

This is what our fridge and pantry look like every single week. It’s not because we don’t eat. It’s because we make eating healthy as easy as possible. Let me explain.

When we think of someone that is in really great shape, we think they must have incredible discipline and willpower to eat healthy and workout a lot.

When we think of someone that is very successful in business, we think they must work harder than everyone else and be smarter than most.

But in my experience studying successful people, both in my own network and through reading, rarely is it the characteristics we “think” lead to success that actually do. Instead…

Creating our best self boils down to making it easy to succeed and difficult to fail.

If you pull back the curtain on the daily lives of people we deem successful, there is a good chance they’re no different than anyone else. They simply make it as easy as possible to be successful, and make it as difficult as possible to fail.

Which brings me back to the food in my house. I am not in good shape because I have iron will. In fact, if you put me around a large pizza or a dozen cookies, they will both be gone in a matter of minutes. Instead, I am really good at controlling my environment, which then leads to my success. With food, I keep the bad stuff out of my house so I’m not tempted to eat it. With workouts, I set my bar low by simply trying to lift heavy weights for 30 minutes a few times per week. For some insurance, I fast nearly everyday until 1pm and have done so for the past 7+ years.

When we think of creating the best version of ourselves, we should be crystal clear about the characteristics we’re striving to normalize in our lives. Once we’re crystal clear about those, we need to ask ourselves:

  1. How do I make it easy to succeed at this?
  2. How do I make it difficult to fail at this?

Limiting the food in your house is a system. Putting the alarm clock in the other room is a system. Putting your fish oil or multivitamin next to your toothbrush is a system. Putting your phone on airplane mode while you write or make sales calls or work on your most important project is a system.

Willpower is limited. Discipline is overrated. To create our best selves, we need to use systems – systems that make it easy to succeed and hard to fail.

Playing the Long Game

Every generation for all of recent history has faced various forces in their work life – the speed of innovation and change, politics both internal and external, macroeconomic factors, etc. Each generation has faced different circumstances requiring different skill sets to thrive within them. But there is a single skill, or rather two separate skills packaged as one, that has a common thread throughout history. It helped people just as much in 1932 as it helps us now. The only difference is that it’s becoming much rarer (and quickly so) in today’s attention-deficient world.

That skill is what I call playing the long game, and it’s broken down into continually learning and working hard over long periods of time.

Continually Learning

Being a continual learner is arguably more important now than it has ever been. With rapid change comes a need for a continual understanding of the change. It’s those that commit to personal growth, both in intelligence and skills, that stay ahead of the curve. Knowledge and information also happen to be more accessible than ever before, so any excuse to not learn is likely invalid. You can teach yourself how to code for free, get an MBA packaged in an online course or book for the price of a couple coffees, or you can take any number of free online courses from Ivy League schools.

The formula is simple. Change is happening quicker than ever yet the speed and depth at which most of us learn haven’t increased. This creates a gap between the new frontier of work and the workforce that is supposed to drive it. And in that gap there’s opportunity.

Working Hard

Hard work has historically been a commodity. It was the rule, not the exception, for most of recent history. For a number of reasons, this has changed. Hard work – the kind where you simply put your head down, absorb, learn, and adapt for years on end – has now moved from a commodity to a rarity. Get rich quick propaganda and stories of young entrepreneurs making millions of dollars in a short amount of time have created a “quick fix” mentality for much of the population, specifically the younger generations. Commitment to longevity has been replaced by quick jumps to trying this or that new thing. Much like the learning gap mentioned above, the hard work gap creates an opportunity for those paying attention to it. The person that is willing to work hard and commit to the long haul has a distinct advantage over those that will be in and out of various paths in six-month chunks.

The world of work has changed. Moving forward, the people that win will be the people that understand success is a persistent (wo)man’s game. Be as persistent as you are intelligent, and you will win in the long run. Hard work combined with the curiosity to never stop learning is an unstoppable combination. In a world where it is rare, those who commit to playing the long game will be the ones that shape history.

How to Remember What You Read

Last year I read 55 non-fiction books. That’s more than a book per week for an entire year.

But what does that even mean for me as a learner? Was it information that I applied to my life? Was it information that I absorbed and can later recall? Did those 55 books stick, and somehow move the needle in my life?

Some, yes. Others, no. But they all, in theory at least, held some wisdom that is worthy of remembering. Much like the people in our lives, there’s usually something to be learned from the books that cross our paths.

Reading large quantities of information is important to me. In a similar vein as “hard work”, reading is insurance for staying ahead of the general population and lesser versions of myself. But just like working hard can be detrimental if that work isn’t intelligent work, reading a lot can be detrimental if that knowledge isn’t absorbed and applied. Wasted reading, just like wasted hard work, purely equates to wasted time. So there must be a balance of quantity and absorption, consumption and application.

To solve for this as 2017 approached, I instituted a note-taking process for remembering the key takeaways of the books I read. These notes are intended to answer the question:

What is the distillation of this book, and how do I apply it to my life?

The result is a very simple 3×5 note card process that I complete after finishing a book. I don’t take notes while I’m reading because I want to focus on the big themes – the paradigms not the details, the models not the components – which tend to reveal themselves once the book is completed. Once I’ve finished reading a book, I then go back and skim the book while doing the following to create my note card system.

  1. Quantity Each book gets (5) 3×5 note cards. No more, no less. The actionable outtakes of a book should be like an elevator pitch – short and memorable. By using just 5 note cards it forces me to think through what is most valuable.
  2. Title In the upper-left of each note card, I write the title of the book.
  3. Topic In the upper-right of each note card, I write the topic or category of the book – entrepreneurship, leadership, parenting, habits, etc.
  4. Takeaway The front of each note card has a key takeaway. These are the things I want to remember and apply to my life.
  5. Research The back of each note card has concepts that I don’t fully understand, and I write them down as a reminder to read more about them. This oftentimes leads to my next book to read.
  6. Organization I then organize the note cards by topic first and title second. They go in a plastic note card holder, separated by topic.

This process, over time, will give me a large warehouse of actionable information in various disciplines at my fingertips. Think about having several years worth of leadership content, distilled into actionable insights, at your disposal whenever you need. That’s my ultimate goal. I’ll have a library of information to revisit when I want to dig deeper or refresh myself on a specific topic.

This process also has a secondary benefit of reminding me of the books I’ve read in the past. I’m regularly asked by readers about this book or that book, and by having this system in place I’ll be able to quickly reflect on whether or not a book was a good read when I pull up the relevant note cards.

Information is useless if not applied. This system helps me absorb and apply information instead of just consume it. It took me many years of heavy reading to get to this point, and while it works for me it may not work for you. But wherever you’re at in your reading journey, think critically through building your own system for applying knowledge. Better to read one book and apply it than read ten books and forget them all.

Why 100% is Easier Than 95%

In most situations in life, doing less is easier. Cleaning 95% of your laundry is easier than cleaning 100%. Running 95% of a mile is easier than running 100%. Doing 95% of a project is easier than doing 100%. It is a simple math equation, and for most things, it’s true. Emphasis on most.

There are certain things in life in which the opposite becomes true and doing 100% is actually much easier than doing 95%. There are areas where going “all in” is substantially more attainable than going “mostly in.” For example, not eating any chips and salsa (aka 100% all in) is much easier than just eating a few chips (95% in). Because we all know the moment we have that first chip, we’re bound to just keep going. The 95% slips to 90%, the 90% slips to 80%, until eventually we’re full and dinner hasn’t even come to the table yet. It’s not just certain foods that create this scenario either. It’s habits we’re trying to build. It’s habits we’re trying to break. And it’s identities we’re trying to create or diminish.

These things in our life that require us to be 100% committed tend to have a snowball effect. We give them an inch and they take a mile. You know this to be true if you’ve ever told yourself that you’re just going to have one drink and you end up having several. You know this to be true if you’ve ever told yourself that you’re going to work out three days per week, and you end up failing one week only to fail the entire next month. You know this to be true if you’ve ever tried to do or stop anything in moderation. Because when it comes to habits, moderation can actually be our enemy.

It would seem logical to think that the blame is on ourselves when we fail at moderation. We are, after all, the ones that are doing the thing, whatever that thing is. But this would be inaccurate, or at best incomplete. What we’re battling is our willpower, and as much as we don’t want to believe this, our willpower is actually limited. Very limited.

We tend to think that we have an unlimited supply of willpower if we simply try hard enough. If we just grit our teeth, clench our fists, and buckle down, we will be able to will ourselves to victory. But what inevitably happens every single time? We lose. We lose because the war against willpower isn’t actually winnable. The deck is stacked against us. Willpower is like a gas tank. With every big and small decision we make as we go through our days, we steadily consume that gas tank of willpower until it’s gone. And once it’s gone, it’s not coming back for a while. All it takes is one situation when our willpower tank is empty — a scheduled workout that we’re too tired for, a tasty snack in the fridge, an extra glass of wine in the bottle — and before we know it we’ve broken whatever promise we made to ourselves.
This is where 100% is the better option. Certain things in life require us to go all in, and here’s why.

I have to write every single day. If I decide to take Sundays off from writing you know what will happen? That Sunday will stretch into Monday, and that Monday will stretch into Tuesday, and before I know I find myself having not written for months. In effect, that 95% goal that seemed logical upfront has suddenly diminished to nothing. I offered 5% and it took the other 95% with it. So instead, writing for me is a 100% activity. I’m either in, or I’m out. Interestingly enough, I never have to put any parameters on working out. I have worked out so consistently for so long that it is simply embedded into my person. It is a part of me, and I couldn’t separate it from myself any more than I could separate brushing my teeth or drinking water. If I’m above ground, I’m consistently working out.

And therein lies the key.

When we are trying to create or break a habit, 95% doesn’t cut it. We have to be 100% dedicated to that habit. Because when we do that, willpower is removed from the equation. I don’t have an option to not write each day because I’ve committed to being all in. And when something isn’t an option, I don’t have to rely on willpower to do it.

Where in your life do you need to be 100% all in?

It’s different for everyone. But it starts with asking yourself what you struggle with control over. It’s in these things, in these moments, that we need to change our frame of reference from “some of the time” to “all of the time.” When we do this long enough we fundamentally shift our identity. By writing every single day, my identify shifts to truly being a writer, not just someone who writes sometimes when inspiration hits. And once our identity shifts, we have won the war.

Do you want to be someone who runs sometimes, or do you want to be a runner?
Do you want to be someone who eats healthy sometimes, or do you want to be healthy?
Do you want to be someone who writes sometimes, or do you want to be a writer?

If you’re struggling with something, don’t fool yourself into believing moderation is the key. If it requires your willpower, you will lose. Go 100% all in until it’s a part of your identity. If 95% is a struggle, give 100% a try. It might just be easier.