When is the last time you changed your mind about something important?
What a challenging question, right?
I think so.
I wrestle with this question frequently.
First, because I reckon if my beliefs aren’t evolving over time, then I’m probably not learning enough. Which means I’m destined to remain in my ignorance.
Second, because it’s useful to encounter new information that challenges our present beliefs. Even if new information doesn’t change our minds, it can shore up gaps in our thinking – and that’s worth its weight it gold.
In other words, our beliefs shouldn’t go left unchecked for too long. Sometimes it’s not new information we need, though.
Often, we need a literal crucible to test our beliefs – or shatter them altogether.
Feedback Loops for Your Beliefs
When you believe something to be true, and allow that belief to govern your behavior, if you are attentive, you’ll collect market feedback about your beliefs as they’re acted out.
That feedback does not always come in perfectly translated form, though. Occasionally it can take shape in dastardly consequences – or even delightful surprises.
But this market feedback component is useful, because it allows us to become more aware of reality.
Absent this feedback loop, our beliefs really don’t matter much. At least, to the extent that accurate beliefs enable us to better cope with reality.
The Foundation of Beliefs
The purpose of beliefs, in my opinion, rests on a fantasy that a “better state” exists. That state exists in the future, and access to that better state depends on my conduct.
If I conduct myself properly, eventually, I can access and enjoy this better state.
But if I do not conduct myself properly, then I will forfeit my eligibility to ever experience that better state.
Just because this better state only exists as fantasy in the present, does not make it untrue. It simply means that until I can access it, that it does not, in reality, exist for me (yet).
Hence, the importance of developing beliefs that serve as a roadmap to the better state.
Proper conduct moves me closer. Improper conduct moves me farther away.
My beliefs govern my conduct. My ever-changing proximity to the perceived better state signals the appropriateness of my conduct.
As I act out my beliefs, the resulting change in proximity to my desired better state alerts me to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of my beliefs – as a roadmap toward my idealized better state.
This feedback loop provides useful information.
First, about the appropriateness of my beliefs as a set of directions for achieving my desired aim. If the directions are incorrect, I’ll end up in a different destination than intended.
Second, with enough effort, I may discover errors about my idealized better state. Perhaps it’s not all that I once chalked it up to be. In this case, maybe I don’t need to alter my beliefs, but adapt the fantasy to something more appropriate.
Adapting Our Own Hierarchies
This ebb and flow between our beliefs and the reality we create as a result of acting them out is part of the beauty of the great human drama.
We rarely – if ever – have complete information. The best we can do is respond to the incentive structures we encounter.
Sure, we can create new fantasies. But behind every fantasy, there is some truth – if not, at the very least, the hope of some higher truth we can’t yet articulate or prove.
Sometimes our beliefs are directed toward undetectable aims to those around us. This does not validate negative market feedback, nor does it invalidate our beliefs.
Then again, sometimes our beliefs are not only ineffective, they’re downright inaccurate portrayals of reality (physically manifested or fantasized).
We don’t have perfect information. So the idea of holding permanent, never-changing beliefs has always seemed a bit like psychosis to me.
But what does seem like a more appropriate, useful line of thinking, is the idea our beliefs evolve over time –both expanding and contracting as we identify gaps and cull impurities in our understanding.
A common point of frustration I encounter involves coming to odds with the world around me (and other people in it).
When I was younger, this was often a function of assuming someone else should respond a certain way – of expecting other people to respond the way I would things.
Eventually, I learned a better strategy is to assume people experience the world differently than I do.
As I’ve aged, I’ve come face to face with a similar challenge. Not only with people, but with tools, experiences, rules, institutions.
The frustration usually occurs when someone or something claims, “That’s not the way this works,” or “That’s not the intended use of XYZ.”
I encounter these “invisible” obstacles often.
Usually it’s the function of someone who’s a stickler for tradition or rules. Real letter-of-the-law types, who can’t see past dried ink to the spirit of things.
Anyway, whenever I was younger, I often felt the temptation to change myself when I encountered obstacles. As if I needed to mold myself to the world around me, to become a more amicable, compliant, and likable person.
But now I recognize the error of my youthful thinking.
We do not improve our world when we accept things as they are. Occasionally, when we find ourselves up against immovable object, we’ve got to become an unstoppable force.
What’s the alternative, anyway? Living out a life of frustration?
I say no to that.
I’d rather create the world I want than force myself to settle for a world that is less than it could be.
Whenever I encounter obstacles now, I try to turn the tables. Instead of asking questions like, “How does it work?” I like to ask, “Could it work this way?”
Sometimes when you read the user’s manuals of life, all you can hope to find is a set of instructions for intended use. Which offers a limited view.
If you can learn to look at the world through a lens of possibilities, everything opens up.
This is especially relevant when learning new things.
Maybe we do have to learn new things along a specific domain before we can apply them others. Like learning the alphabet before we can learn to write a novel or deliver a keynote.
But the real use of our ideas lies in our ability to move beyond specific, limiting domains – and instead learn to shape the world according to what could be.
But on the bright side…after binging through every conceivable movie and tv show, I still found quite a lot of time left to read.
What about you? Read anything good? I know I did. In fact, my year was full of tons of what I like to call “gateway books.” You know, books that unlock a corner of the universe you didn’t know about before.
Anyway, as a fun exercise, I went back through every book I bought, started, reread, listened to, browsed, shelved, was gifted. I rated them. Tallied up my costs. Then built a spreadsheet. Which you can browse here.
Investing In Yourself
All-in this year, I spent something like $1,200 on books. Which is amazing, because I actually budget about $100 per month for learning and reading. (And technically, I was under budget by about $50, so hooray for that too.)
But – the reason I like to review costs, not just what I read, is because I like to double check I’m actually investing in my education. Not just spending money to spend money or fill up bookshelves or appear smart. If the books I buy aren’t improving my life, then what the hell am I doing?
And yes, I know. “Improving my life” is quite the generality. Basically, for a book to improve my life, I want it to do entertain me, educate me, inspire me, inform me, piss me off, make me cry, make me feel something, level up my thinking, make me better at business, make me better with money, make me a better writer…or any other reason I damn well please in the moment.
But this year, I’d say I did pretty well, too. Because of all the books I read enough to review, I only rated a single title with a lowly “one star.”
Here’s a fun, detailed breakdown:
Okay, so my star rating doesn’t necessarily correspond to my ROI from a given book. Occasionally I’ll read a book I don’t love but still find value out of. So my start rating is somewhat arbitrary – aside from denoting how well it delivered on whatever function it served for me.
When Ideas Have Sex
I love discovering connections between different, seemingly unrelated ideas. In fact, I’d wager it’s one of my favorite things. Plus, I love going down new rabbit holes with ideas. So, I often read broadly across multiple categories, then explore subjects deeply that fascinate me.
This year, I had several big monomaniacal stints. Here are a few of the categories that delivered all-expenses paid vacations to visit Alice in Wonderland:
Fiction (Especially J.D. Salinger and Kurt Vonnegut)
Business (Especially Accounting, Finance, and Management)
Personal Finance + Real Estate + Investing+ Passive Income+ Taxes
Faith + Spirituality + Moral Philosophy + Christian Hedonism
And there were others, too. But those were some of the big ones. As an added layer of fun, I wanted to word cloud the various topics I read most. Here’s a fun image of those:
Keeping My Head Full
In 2020, I also decided to write a book (expected to publish in spring/summer 2021). It’s primarily about how to navigate your education, career, and finances in order to get the most out of life.
The first draft is finished and I’m in the 2nd draft / editing phase. Which is exciting. Because I’ve spent the last handful of years thinking about and talking about many of these ideas. But in December 2020, I decided to stop talking and start writing. And write I did. In fact, between the book, chapter outlines I wrote nearly 60,000 words in one month. Combine that with my regular newsletters, blog posts, social posts, and sales emails and we’re probably easily in the ballpark of 100,000+ words. In one single month.
Cranking away content like that can be tough. Let alone if your head isn’t already full of ideas. So fortunately, I lived the better part of this year like a sponge – absorbing ideas and soaking them up.
Which came in handy when it came time to sit down and spill my guts onto the blank page. And I can’t wait to share the final product.
A Final Word on Reading
There’s more data and information being created on a daily basis that was in existence for most of history. Think about that for a moment. We live in a time and era completely saturated with ideas.
Which is great. Except for when you consider how few people take advantage of the “right” kind of information. Books offer that in a way that social media, blogs, podcasts, and “the media” just cannot compete with.
And there’s good reason for that, too. Because not just anyone can (read: will) sit down and crank out a book. Let alone go to the trouble of editing it, publishing it, and ensuring its circulation.
In a sense, books act as a sort of high-fidelity information filter. Meaning that reading a book about a topic is very likely to be much more information than just browsing the web. Of course, there are still plenty of shit books out there.
But books are an incredible frontier of affordable and accessible knowledge. With books, you can educate yourself – and become an expert on anything. Without relying on college or credentials or anybody else. And if you don’t believe me, just ask my good friend, Will Hunting (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting):
Anyway, in case you’re looking for some awesome books to add to your list, I’ve made my whole list available public here. All of the 3-5 star books, I’d most likely recommend.
Reading a book is a lot like tossing a bouncy ball inside a racketball court. Except this court acts more like a vacuum. And once in motion, a ball will remain in motion, changing course only upon impact.
Introducing new ideas is like adding more bouncy balls to the cage. Each new book increases the count of hurtling projectiles by one. And so on.
Eventually, with all those balls a-bouncing, collision becomes inevitable. Two different ideas collide, each exerting an impact upon the other. And this event fundamentally alters the original course of both projectiles.
When Ideas Collide
When you only have a few balls bouncing, collisions happen less frequently. If you don’t increase the number of bouncy balls, the ideas you introduce first will remain constant longer.
It’s only once you begin to introduce new ideas rapidly that the rate of collision begins to accelerate. When this happens – for better or worse – your original ideas become vulnerable to impact. It is no longer a matter of if your original ideas will face a collision, but when.
When ideas collide, it’s the idea that packs a greater force that carries more influence. By virtue of traveling at a greater velocity or bearing greater mass, some ideas delivers a more violent blows upon others. In some cases, those blows cause the deterioration of lesser ideas altogether. In other cases, the impact simply causes a slight alteration in course – for both ideas.
Collision As The Goal
I’ve heard it said before there are ‘no new ideas under the sun – only new combinations of old ideas.’ I believe this to be true.
And if it is true, the best way to increase the likelihood of two old ideas colliding to create a new, interesting combination is through consistent addition to the total number of different ideas bouncing around.
One sure way to increase the probability of unique collisions is to increase the total number of balls in play. But what if you not only want to ensure it eventually happens – you also want to reduce the amount of time it takes to happen? In that case, you could also introduce more balls more frequently.
With more balls colliding more frequently, the rate at which new, unique combinations of old ideas happen will increase. Not all collisions will be unique. And not all unique collisions will be useful. But that’s not really the point, is it?
You can’t often predict which unique combination of old ideas will fundamentally alter the course of the game. And you especially can’t appreciate new, unique combinations if you don’t also observe the impact of new ideas as they act upon others.
But if you’re deliberate about the balls you add and observant enough (and maybe a little lucky), you might just witness the collision of two ideas the world has been waiting for.
Or you could just sit back and enjoy the site of a bunch of bouncy balls flying through the sky, violently smashing into one another. (As far as consolation prizes go, that also sounds pretty cool. But what do I know, I’m just a guy talking about bouncy balls on the internet.)
Ideas are most vulnerable when they’re first conceived.
If you don’t take immediate action to move them forward, they’ll most likely die.
That’s not to say good ideas become bad ideas the longer they remain dormant. Rather, that advancing them forward immediately increases the likelihood of bringing them to life.
Consider some of the ideas you’ve had in your life. How many have come to pass? What’s different between the ones that survived and those that died?
For me, it all depends on how quickly I took action. The longer I go without taking a step forward with an idea, the more likely I am to abandon it.
Ideas don’t count as progress. Execution does. I never want to be that guy at the bar wearing his letterman jacket yelling about how he had the idea for Amazon back in his day. The difference is that guy never takes steps toward fulfilling his ideas…
You won’t make the world a better place with ideas. You’ve got to bring them into reality for them to matter.
I grew up in a place where handshakes mattered. Where a man’s word was his bond.
Call me old fashioned but the same principle still governs my worldview.
Doing business shouldn’t require contracts.
Except today, you’re probably making a stupid decision if you’re not getting something in writing.
Sure, contracts make things easier in some ways. Contracts define the scope of expectations for both parties. They provide a means for recourse if terms aren’t met. These legal instruments hedge against untrustworthy behaviors.
But contracts also create business friction. They introduce a third-party (lawyers) into a situation that could otherwise be settled between two competent, consenting parties. Contracts extend the sales cycle. They create a barrier to satisfying two party’s unmet needs.
People respond to incentives. Where there’s a big enough incentive, there’s also a temptation to violate an agreement. Sure, contracts provide an avenue for reconciliation in these cases – but at what cost? (Read: more lawyers).
Skin in the Game
As Robert Frost said, “Good fences make good neighbors.” In some sense, contracts are one way for a person to up the ante on someone else’s behavior. They add a little skin in the game for both parties.
Absent a contract, what’s the worst that could happen? Maybe it’s a line of thinking that ruining your reputation isn’t that high a cost. That with the right amount of money you can buy a new reputation – or better yet, buy the victim’s silence.
Kinda shady, right?
Blockchain holds a lot of cool possibilities for getting us closer to “handshake” agreements again. Not in the sense that everybody suddenly begins acting out of good faith. Rather, it takes everyone as they are. Hey, let’s just pretend everyone’s a shady motherfucker. Instead, imagine a world where people don’t have to trust one another to do business.
That’s not to say that blockchain will eliminate the need for trust. But what if it could minimize the need for trust? What if two parties could engage in transactions that didn’t require egregious legal fees, lengthy due-diligence, and an arthritic-inflicting pile of paperwork?
What if a handshake created an actual binding, digital contract? Instead of needing to “insult someone’s honor” or demand a contract – imagine if contracts generated spontaneously.
Pretty wild to think about, right? Maybe not.
Nice guys finish last.
Sadly, I don’t think honoring handshake deals is back on the rise. But the cost of transacting business AND providing means for enforcement is getting a lot easier.
I like to imagine a world where, instead of looking over your shoulder or worrying who’s going to screw you, you can confidently go about your business in good faith.
Maybe there’s still hope for the nice guys out there after all. But for everybody else, get it in writing.
Managing the way clothes are arranged in my closet? I have a system.
Part of this is driven by the fact I hate doing things over and over again. Anytime I can replace that or minimize the pain with a system, I do it.
Often this kind of thinking comes at the expense of simplicity.
Sometimes simple is the right solution. Not always. But it’s certainly best when you’re first starting anything out.
Simplicity allows you to increase your rate of iteration. It allows you to test things. It allows you to improve things on your way to perfection.
If you start out trying to think about the perfect way of doing things, the perfect way of optimizing things, or the perfect way to systematize something…before you ever start doing something, it leads to inaction.
You get lost in the analysis – like I often do. And as they say, you can reach the paralysis by analysis state. Where you get so lost deep thinking about how something will or will not work that it prevents you altogether from just doing the damn thing.
Sometimes it’s a real hurdle. Other times it’s a huge time saver later on.
There’s a beautiful happy medium that takes form in process iteration.
Iteration in and of itself can be approached systematically.
It allows you to start small. To start simple. To take action swiftly.
Then run tests. Evaluate. Course correct. Adapt.
Before you go roll out some major new system, try to strike the root of the underlying problem you’re solving for.
Maybe you don’t need some robust solution. Maybe a simple fix will solve your pain. But if you do need a system, you’ll at least be closer to understanding which system.
I dropped the book immediately and began frantically convulsing, part from fear of being caught in the act, part from knowing my stash was about to be flushed. All the while I knew if I did not administer soon, I would surely die.
I didn’t get really into drugs until I was about six or seven years old. During the summers, I used to visit the Enid Public Library and wander about the shelves, carte blanche. It was there, cloaked from the public eye behind numerous texts, where I would be administered dosage upon dosage of fresh, new, enlightening psychotropic devices. Even so, this freedom to binge diminished as I relocated during the school year to a more cautiously monitored environment: the public school library.
Potent substances of epidemic proportions, if you look carefully enough, can be found littering the shelves of most libraries, though, and I was determined to find the most satiating of these. This, in my opinion, must have been why I was banned from visiting certain “Dark Arts” sections as an elementary student. It must have been that look in my eyes. Perhaps they were too red, or maybe the librarian had begun to take notice of that slight change in my disposition each time I made a new visit to this wonder emporium. Either way, I had to proceed with caution most days, if I was, after all, going to get my fix.
One day, in fact, the librarian caught me perusing around this “off-limits” section of the bookshelves. There I was at 11 or 12 years of age, Atlas Shrugged in hand, when that user’s itch overtook me. I dropped the book immediately and began frantically convulsing, part from fear of being caught in the act, part from knowing my stash was about to be flushed. All the while I knew if I did not administer soon, I would surely die.
It was no use, however, the ruse was up. At that age, I was hardly tall enough to see over the counter to check a book out, let alone hide a 1,200-paged manifesto behind my wimpy little back. So, I picked the book back up from the floor, replaced it on the shelf, and obediently followed the orders, promising myself I would find a way to unlock the potency of its contents at a later date.
That memory seems so long ago; I oftentimes wonder if it happened at all or if it was no more than the birth of some intense trip. After all, I have been using most of my life, and, it is not uncommon for me to drift entirely from all tethers to reality into fantasies tucked deep away in the darkest crevices of my mind, readily awakening to the inspiration I find in each new literary drug.
Subsequently, even if the instance with the librarian did not occur, I am certain the restrictions to prevent me from self-medicating or overdosing at such a young age were, in fact, in place. I despise that truth even to this day, but realize it did not stop me from introducing myself to those much harder drugs, so much as it merely delayed me.
However, what I know now is that had I simply been allowed to satisfy my craving when it initially had sprung, perhaps I would not have been so receptive to its effects or so keen to discover even harder, more illicit scholarly substances to fill the void such a prolonged introduction had created.
Furthermore, perhaps under the cautious supervision of the librarian or some other pedagogue dealer of dalliances, I would not have—once self-prescribing—been so keen to consume far above the recommended dosages. Perhaps given the opportunity at self-discovery—though this might be a stretch—I would have even hated the drugs, and rejected altogether any such interferences with my worldview as it then existed.
Even so, such was not the case, and it was made clear that such voyages into the unknown were impermissible for such a young, budding mind. This created nothing but contempt and inspired in me a sense of rebellion, a sense of courage to gallivant off into uncharted waters as a freelance pharmacist for myself, eager to indulge in every new available banned product I could find. So, too, did it make me more receptive to the mind-altering nature of these unapproved commodities. I found in these not merely a delightful escape, but more importantly, I discovered truth. I felt alive and aware, as if my eyes had at last been opened to all that was around me. I saw the world not as I thought it to be, but for what it truly was. I saw myself juxtaposed to the universe as a finite entity, both free and powerfully awestruck by the magnitude of what I had previously not only not known, but dismissed as impossible.
Those substances freed me from the restrictions imposed not only by coercive authorities, but of the inhibiting limitations I had enforced on myself through ignorance. Upon discovering this newfound, vast expanse of intellectual wealth, I gained a new appreciation for life, for learning, and for contemplating axiomatic truths.
I discovered how to listen rather than talk, how to humbly promote myself rather than boast, how to speak sincerely rather than with grandiosity. But far and above more imperative than all, I came to know how to love myself and as a result, how to love others. The ideas resulting from of all these trips and highs in prose and poetry unlocked all of these things for me, and I think they can for anybody courageous enough to give them a try.
So forget about prohibitions, censorships, or coercive deterrents. Why don’t you give the unknown a shot? Why not explore the limits of your own vast cognitive abilities?
Go pick up a book today, who knows? Your gateway drug could be waiting for you.
Take-Home Message: People love talking about themselves. Give them a chance.
“Hi, I’m Mitchell.”
“Hi, Mitchell, I’m [Insert Name]”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise. So, Mitchell, what do you do?”
That’s the script to each new interaction I’ve been programmed to rehearse. It happens on auto-pilot. On many occasions, I catch myself regurgitating these words like lines from a play. It’s not because I’m superficially interested, either. It’s something more Pavlovian than that. It’s the response I’ve been conditioned to recite for years, as if we’re all merely products defined by our roles in society, rather than humans with passions, a family, and a story.
It happens all around us, and it walks with us through each new stage in our lives. Questions about what you wanted to be morphed into questions about your major, or any other classifying information. Whatever the question, the result is the same, and I’m guilty of it, too.
I call it qualifying by classifying. It’s really an easy recipe. You take a glassful of notions you have about an individual, add two shots of answers to surface-level questions, maybe stir in a pinch of prejudice, garnish with a stereotype, stir, and then you drink this mind-numbing libation. Add rash judgment according to your preference.
This isn’t healthy. All this does is continue a broken narrative that our existence is pointless. It adds to this group-think mentality that our own intrinsic, individual characteristics don’t matter. It adds to the propagation of society as a swarm of worker bees, beholden to the hive. It grants us each a label according to our role–rather than our personality–as if it’s our duty–rather than our choice.
But, there is still hope.
It happens by working on our delivery. Instead of asking someone what they do, ask, “What’s your story?” or “What keeps you up at night?” or even, “What are you passionate about?”
Watch the fire light in their eyes. Why? Because people love talking about themselves, detailing their passions, and telling their stories. What they likely don’t get often is someone eager to listen. This is not mere conjecture. Research has proven that the areas of the brain that respond to self-disclosure are also associated with reward. People really, truly, love talking about themselves.
Here’s the beauty of this, though. When you engage someone else this way and set them into motion about their story, you will learn more about them than you would by asking them what they do or about their major. Why? Because when you show interest, it allows others to let down their guard and make way for a friendly conversation. Before you know it, you’ll be figuring out how your aunts went to high school together or planning a cookout.
But why does it even matter?
Here’s why. Because a lot of people haven’t thought out what makes them happy or evaluated what they would do differently if they could. They’re just like you and me, moving through life, searching for answers, only to find more questions. But something happens when someone engages us and we get to talking. The wheels start turning and it awakens these feelings and inspirations that we’ve either repressed or forgotten about. Sometimes, all someone needs is to feel like they have the permission to let it all out. We can do that for other people, and it doesn’t even cost a thing.
But why do I care or why should I?
Here’s why I care. Not long ago, someone asked me what made me come alive. He asked me about my goals and my ideal life, where I envisioned myself in a few years, and why it all mattered to me. It floored me. I thought this guy was the most impressive person I’d ever spoken to. Why? Because he made me feel like a rockstar. He challenged me to provide answers to questions I had not even articulated for myself.
I walked away from that conversation remembering him. I remembered how he made me feel, too. And I couldn’t shake the questions. They stuck with me. So, over the course of several weeks following that conversation, I hashed out answers to a lot of those questions. All of this from just a simple conversation, that only took a few minutes of a stranger’s time.
Now, I’m not proposing you do this as charity. You can approach it from a motive of self-interest. You can even look at it as a key for networking better and making people remember you. You can do it from the joy you’ll likely receive from witnessing someone light up as they describe their story to you. You can do it to feel like a good person.
It doesn’t really matter why you choose to, or even if you choose to at all. But, I assure you, you’re leaving value on the table in every interaction you have if you’re continuing to engage people solely based upon their occupation or education.
I dare you capitalize on that missed value and to join me in making this change. It’s no easy one. It requires a process of undoing years of socially-cultivated colloquial. No matter how I look at it, though, all I see are opportunities–and years of missed opportunities from just scratching the surface. The ripple effects of those opportunities turned into action are impossible to know without trying.