The burden of intellect

Yesterday afternoon I took the GRE, a standardized test that is commonly required for graduate school admissions. It’s like the SAT for grad school.

I got a perfect score.

The thought of going back to school for another master’s degree (I already have an MBA) had been nagging me recently, but I did not expect to be applying this soon. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, starting school in the fall suddenly seemed like a viable option, but I only had a few weeks to put together my applications.

So, I paid for for the GRE on Thursday and scheduled my exam for Saturday. On Saturday morning, I used the free practice test software to do a quick run through of the question types and exam format. In all I spent no more than 15 minutes preparing.

The test is computerized, so the software is able to provide your score immediately upon completion of the test. I unconsciously held my breath as I clicked through the last question and waited for my scores to pop up on the screen.

Quantitative: 170
Verbal: 170

I did not feel overjoyed, ecstatic, triumphant, or proud. Mostly, I just felt relieved. My intellect had been validated.


In fact, what sticks with me most from the exam is a question that I got wrong. The quantitative sections consist of 20 questions with a 35 minute time limit. Generally, I don’t have problems running out of time on exams like this, but at the end of the second quantitative section I found myself with only 3 minutes remaining for the final few questions.

The penultimate question was a gnarly system of equations problem about chickens and ducks on two farms, with fractional coefficients. It consumed almost my entire remaining clock time, and I breathed an exasperated sigh of relief when I finished computing my answer with 30 seconds to go.

Alright, final question!

I remember the exact question, but stating it here would violate the terms and conditions of the test. In general terms, I had to calculate the remainder when a small integer raised to a large exponent was divided by another small integer.

I realized that the solution could be found by calculating the repeating pattern of remainders, but I ran out of time while trying to compute that pattern, and ended up just guessing.

Later on, during a short break in the test, I went back to my calculations and finished the problem. I had guessed wrong.


While I was not expecting to get a “perfect” score on the GRE, it didn’t surprise me. About five years ago I took the GMAT, another standardized test used for admission to business school. I prepared in exactly the same way: about 10 minutes reviewing the question types and format of the test. No practice exams, no study books, no tutoring. I scored a 770, which is not a perfect score but is deep within the 99th percentile.

Before going to business school I served in the U.S. Navy for five years. Twice a year, all enlisted personnel who are eligible for advancement to the next rank take an exam which is used, in combination with other factors, to determine who will get promoted. The exam scores are normalized much like the SAT, with a median score of 50 and a range from 20 to 80.

I took three such exams over the course of my enlisted service. My scores were 76, 80, 80.

This story repeats itself throughout my life. I don’t know how many standardized tests I have taken, but I’ve scored in the 99th percentile on pretty much all of them.

Actually, there is one exception–in 7th grade, I took the SAT as part of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program. I scored a 1320 (720 math, 600 verbal) which is, I don’t know, maybe 85th percentile. Of course, I was being compared to students who were 5 years older than me, so I guess it was an acceptable result.

 

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At this point, I probably come off as some arrogant prick who just wants to gloat over how smart he is. I cannot deny that my ego is stroked when I tell people about my test scores. But that’s not the reason I wrote this post. I’m going to dig deeper here.

For those who attend public school in the U.S., standardized testing starts early. I’m pretty sure I was first tested in the first grade, because I was being pulled into “gifted” programs all throughout elementary school. And from that very first test, I was marked.

Something happens when you test at the highest possible score, 99th percentile, on every test that is handed to you. You’re not merely a bright kid. You’re an outlier. The magnitude of your raw intellect becomes your most distinguishing characteristic, at least to all of the adults in your life.

Many of my significant memories from that early age revolve around the shock and delight of the adults around me who experienced that intellect. I recall a special day in third grade when an astronaut visited our class. I had been obsessed with space for several years, and had probably read every single book in the school library about it.

The astronaut started quizzing us about the solar system, and in a room full of eight year-olds there’s bound to be a few space fanatics, so I was not the only one answering correctly. However, his final question had everyone stumped: “What lies beyond Pluto within the solar system?”

No one could figure it out, and after a minute or two kids were frantically yelling out answers. I was scouring my brain for all the knowledge I had gathered in my study of elementary school space books, but my first few guesses were wrong. Asteroids? Planet X? Nothing?

Finally, the astronaut decided we didn’t know. As he was about to tell us the answer, I stood up and yelled,

“Wait! I know it!”

“Okay, one final guess. What’s your answer?”

“The Oort Cloud!”

The astronaut’s face was a mix of surprise and confusion as he confirmed that yes, the Oort Cloud is indeed beyond Pluto. The rest of the students were silent, wondering what the hell the Oort Cloud was, and my teacher just stood with her mouth agape. She would later refer to me as “Oort Cloud boy” and remark that she would never forget that moment in all her years of teaching.

As an eight year-old, getting a jaw-dropping reaction from authority figures around you makes a big impression, and it was abundantly clear that this jaw-dropping reaction was a response to my intellect.


Straight-A report cards were pretty much standard throughout elementary school, but on a few occasions I ended up with a B in a subject. I felt a lot of shame when I didn’t have perfect grades. I know that none of the adults in my life ever intended to make me feel bad, certainly not my parents. But it was clear from their reactions that I was disappointing them when I wasn’t perfect.

This pattern escalated in middle school. I had a history teacher in seventh grade named Mr. Rayer who routinely won teaching awards at the state level. He held students to high standards and demanded a lot of work. One of the largest components of our grade was a daily journal of sorts, in which we wrote about the topics we were learning and completed other writing assignments.

I hated the daily journal. I didn’t understand the point of it. I just wanted to read the textbook, and then take a test. That strategy had worked for every other subject I had encountered in school up to that point. So, I just didn’t do it.

I ended up with a D on my midterm report card, and of course that triggered parent intervention and conferences with the teacher. I did enough work to recover my grade in the class, but I still struggled with Mr. Rayer’s demands.

High school was four more years of the same failure to meet expectations. My grades were good despite taking some of the most demanding high school courses available in the state (I took 10 AP classes, and passed all but one AP exam), but it was always apparent that I had underperformed my true potential.

The final poignant example of this was in college admissions: I had applied to the top five universities for computer science in the country, but was only accepted to the fifth place school.

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Through all the struggles I had in school, there was one enduring message that I got from the adults in my life: You’re so smart! This should be easy for you. Why don’t you just put a little more effort into it? Why don’t you just apply yourself?

Even if the message was true, I only heard the first part of it: “You’re so smart.”

My experience in elementary school defined the word “smart” for me: Smart equals effortless achievement.

Another story from second grade comes to mind: as part of our curriculum, each student authored an illustrated book which was entered into a competition with all the other students in the school district. We stepped through the process of writing the book through classroom exercises–choosing the characters, setting, and plot, then writing a draft, and finally going through cycles of revision and editing.

I was not fond of the classroom writing process. It felt tedious and boring, and I didn’t like what I had written so far. So, I presented my teacher with an alternative: a short story about a spaceship traveling through the solar system that I had written, for fun, during summer vacation.

That story went on to win an award at the countywide competition. My takeaway? The writing process is for chumps! Why put so much effort into it? If I just sit down and write what I want to write, adults will be impressed. At least, that’s what my seven year-old self learned.

And it kept working! Every school writing assignment from that point on was completed on my own schedule, which typically meant I wrote it–with no preparation–the night before it was due.

But the problem with relying on sheer intellect to do everything is that it works… until it doesn’t.

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My transcript for the first two years of college–note the GPA inflection point.

College is where my intellect train went off the rails. I had accumulated so many credits (52 to be exact) from AP exams and equivalence exams that I was almost a junior before I even set foot on campus, so I could skip the bullshit and go straight to advanced topics in engineering and computer science.

During my freshman year I took courses in algorithms, data structures, discrete math, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. I stuck to my old strategy of relying on intellect, and it seemed to be working.

The data structures course was a notorious weed-out class for computer science majors, and was graded heavily on a curve–the kind of class where the median test scores are in the 60s, and maybe one person (out of 150) gets a 90 or above.

There were two midterms and a final. I diligently attended most of the class sessions during the first third, and got a slightly above average score on the first midterm. Then I realized that all of the lectures were recorded for a group of remote students from a different campus, and I could just watch them online instead of going to class.

Needless to say, I didn’t get around to watching them until the weekend before the exam. I crammed about 12 hours of lectures into one caffeine-fueled night, and took the exam early the next afternoon on zero sleep.

I scored higher on that second midterm than I did on the first. My academic strategy seemed solid.

With complete confidence in my abilities I enrolled in Computer Graphics the next semester, which was clearly the most advanced course I had ever attempted. This is where my intellect first failed.

The first project was to create a simple paint program which had flood-fill functionality. I figured a weekend would be sufficient, given my previous success in programming courses. On Saturday afternoon I coded up my first attempt and started debugging.

Nothing worked. I didn’t even know where to begin. And after an hour or so of working on it, I knew–there was zero chance I could complete even a crappy version of this program by the end of the weekend.

So, I folded. I dropped the class and decided I would attempt it again when I was ready. I had no other strategy! What, was I suddenly supposed to attend all the lectures and take diligent notes and work sample problems in the text? I had never needed that before, so why now?

My next semester was the knockout blow. I simultaneously took courses in advanced computer architecture, differential equations, and probability theory. They all proved to be beyond my ability to learn by osmosis, and I ended up with a D and an F. The third course didn’t even give me a grade; I had attended class so rarely that my transcript simply said “Absent”.

I changed majors and took easier courses, but by this point I was broken. I earned a GPA of 1.2 during my sophomore year and was not invited back.


At the beginning of this story I mentioned that I am considering a second master’s degree, so you can deduce that I eventually resolved my academic troubles. That part of the story is less instructive, in my opinion. We can learn a lot more from our failures than from our successes.

I felt a lot of clarity around my failures after reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. It is the book that introduced the concepts of fixed mindset and growth mindset to the collective consciousness, and spawned a million viral articles about why we shouldn’t call kids “smart”.

You could say I am a textbook case of the fixed mindset: I got consistent validation from adults by demonstrating superior intelligence. It was recognized and praised to the near-complete exclusion of every other aspect of my identity, so that eventually my entire sense of self-worth was predicated on “being smart”.

A couple quotes from Mindset succinctly sum up the effects of my fixed mindset:

People with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t.

I never attempted anything where I couldn’t be reasonably successful right from the start. I hated sports because I was bad at them, and couldn’t stand the feeling of being just like everyone else once I set foot on the field or the court.

In [the fixed mindset], effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.

From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies—if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural—then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you.

The surest sign of my superior intellect was the ability to get the right answer without even trying. If I had to work at it… well, then I probably wasn’t that smart, since that’s what everyone else had to do.

When I finally faced an intellectual challenge that did not come naturally to me, and which required concentrated effort to overcome, I gave up. To acknowledge that I needed to work hard to be successful would have required me to tear down the identity I had built over years of coasting through school and being praised for it, and that was a frightening thought.

If I’m not smart, then what am I? What redeeming value do I have in this world?

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Simply understanding that I have a fixed mindset has gone a long way in helping me acknowledge and shift my behavior towards a growth mindset, but it’s a slow process to overturn decades of brain wiring.

However, I don’t believe that the power of mindset is the only lesson to be learned from my experience.

Suppose I had been praised for effort instead of intellect. What would they have praised me for? Pretty much every subject I encountered in school was (relatively) effortless for me, even after being shuffled into the most advanced curriculum available in my local public school system.

The Duke TIP talent search uses the 95th percentile on a grade-level standardized test as the criteria for being “gifted”. Assuming a normal distribution for intelligence, this would be roughly 1.65 standard deviations above the median, and we would expect 1 in 20 kids to have this level of intelligence.

But what about the kid who is 1 in 100? 99th percentile is at +2.33 standard deviations. And 1 in 1000? That’s +3.1 standard deviations.

Put another way, the difference in intellect between a median child and the gifted 1-in-20 kid is almost the same magnitude as the difference between the 1-in-20 kid and the 1-in-1000 kid.

We could stop here to quibble about the messiness of defining and measuring “intelligence” but that’s not necessary to make my point: Clearly, a gifted academic program aimed at the 95th percentile is going to be less challenging for the 99th percentile, and downright easy for the 99.9th percentile.

Was I a 1-in-1000 kid? I don’t know. But I do know that throughout my primary and secondary schooling, I was able to get good grades in the most challenging curriculum available to me without ever developing good study habits–or any study habits at all, for that matter.

If you had pitched me the growth mindset during that period in my life, I’m not sure it would have stuck. If I could excel year after year without real effort, why do anything differently? I would never have believed you if you said that trend would stop, because all my experience told me otherwise.


A 20-year longitudinal study of exceptionally gifted Australian kids seems to corroborate some of my personal experience. The kids in this study were selected on the basis of having an IQ above 160, which appears in the population at a ratio of fewer than 1 in 10,000. I’m not that intelligent, but I think I shared more in common with these kids than with a kid of average intelligence.

The primary finding of the study is that kids who were challenged according to their abilities thrived, while those who followed a normal curriculum did not:

The considerable majority of young people who have been radically accelerated, or who accelerated by 2 years, report high degrees of life satisfaction, have taken research degrees at leading universities, have professional careers, and report facilitative social and love relationships. Young people of equal abilities who accelerated by only 1 year or who have not been permitted acceleration have tended to enter less academically rigorous college courses, report lower levels of life satisfaction, and in many cases, experience significant difficulties with socialization. Several did not graduate from college or high school.

Given this finding, it is unfortunate that more than half of the subjects in the study were not accelerated at all. This is how the researcher describes their experience:

The remaining 33 young people were retained, for the duration of their schooling, in a lockstep curriculum with age peers in what is euphemistically termed the “inclusion” classroom. The last thing they felt, as children or adolescents, was “included.” With few exceptions, they have very jaded views of their education.

You could say that I have a somewhat “jaded” view of my education as well. Math was the only subject in which I was able to accelerate to any degree, but even that was constrained by the school’s reluctance to allow a child to skip two grades ahead. I distinctly recall my frustration when, after taking a course in advanced algebra during the summer vacation before my freshman year of high school, the stodgy math teacher insisted that I take pre-calculus, which covered many of the same topics I had just learned. Her justification was simply that no one in her experience had ever gone straight to calculus as a freshman.

Would jumping ahead two (or more) years in school have solved all of my problems, and turned me into the next Doogie Howser? I don’t know, I’m probably not that intelligent. (That was an actual nickname I had as a young child, by the way.)

But I do know that I feel a deep sense of excitement and fulfillment when learning something difficult. That feeling pushes me to work harder and longer than I do otherwise. It’s a feeling that was absent for much of my schooling, and in its absence I felt adrift.

This is, perhaps, the root of my fixed mindset. As the Australian researcher notes:

The impostor syndrome is readily validated with gifted students if they are given only work that does not require them to strive for success. It is difficult to maintain the belief that one can meet and overcome challenges if one never has the opportunity to test oneself.


What about those accelerated kids, the geniuses who are identified early and placed on a track that stretches their talents?

A popular Nature article describes the outsize impact that such luminaries can have on the world. It recounts the story of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which was founded in 1971 and intends to follow over 5,000 intellectually talented individuals for 50 years. The first few cohorts have been part of the study for over 20 years now, and the results are remarkable. The author of the article makes this bold statement:

With the first SMPY recruits now at the peak of their careers, what has become clear is how much the precociously gifted outweigh the rest of society in their influence.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Lady Gaga are just a few notables from the SMPY cohorts.

And just to reiterate, even among this select group, there emerged stark differences in outcomes based on whether the kids were accelerated or not:

The SMPY data supported the idea of accelerating fast learners by allowing them to skip school grades. In a comparison of children who bypassed a grade with a control group of similarly smart children who didn’t, the grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field.

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In the 14 years since I failed out of college, much has changed in my life. Aside from successfully finishing a graduate degree (with honors), I’m now a husband and a father, and those roles in particular have demonstrated to me that intelligence provides almost no advantage in certain realms of life. Sometimes it can be downright unhelpful, in fact. I’ve had to put a lot of effort into other aspects of my character in order to find a consistent and enduring happiness.

I don’t see my intellect as a source of pride anymore. After all, what have I done to earn it? It was a gift, plain and simple, and I am beginning to understand the proper use of such gifts. In the words of a favorite book of mine:

He may not see at once that he has scratched a limitless lode which will pay dividends only if he mines it for the rest of his life and insists on giving away the entire product.

The gift of intelligence is special. I owe it to the world and to my creator to mine this limitless lode and give it away. There’s certainly no use in lamenting my past; that won’t help anyone.

When I started writing this article, I didn’t expect to unload a 4,000 word novella. I just wanted to tell my story so someone else might learn something from it.

My biggest lesson in all of this is that regardless of what happened when I was a kid, I have the power now to choose a life that celebrates my intelligence.

I’m not stuck in school anymore–I can say no to work that doesn’t challenge me or spark intellectual curiosity.

I don’t have to be jaded.

I can accelerate myself to whatever level I want.

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I find my lack of faith disturbing

I’ve been catching up on my book list recently, and finally got around to reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I had already listened to no less than three podcast interviews with the author, so I was familiar the ideas contained within the book. However, as is often the case, actually reading the book has made a much stronger impression on me than those podcasts.

For one, the author is exceptionally good at making all of his points by telling stories. Every single concept in the book is presented as part of an engaging narrative, often with multiple narratives woven together like a TV show that switches back and forth between characters to follow the action.

Stories also have the advantage of bringing out emotions that are absent when reading something like a college textbook. And, as Tony Robbins would have us remember, your state (i.e. emotions) has a profound effect on how you respond to things. The emotionally charged stories in The Power of Habit had the effect of making me remember the concepts in the book with vivid detail.

The Habit Loop

I’ll give a brief overview: the first part of the book covers the neurological basis of habitual behavior. Scientists know the parts of the brain that are connected to habits, and through brain scans have identified three phases of activity that characterize a habit.

  • The cue is a sensory input that matches a learned pattern and signals the brain to start the habitual behavior. It can be almost anything–seeing a particular person’s face, sitting down in the driver’s seat of your car, or remembering that you have a dentist appointment tomorrow.
  • The routine is the actual behavior itself, which is marked by decreased activity in the cognitive areas of the brain. This decreased activity represents a learned efficiency, as the brain doesn’t need to spend precious energy thinking about a behavior it has already rehearsed many times before.
  • Finally, the reward is the payoff at the end of the routine. It can be an obvious pleasure like eating or sex, or something more subtle like forgetting about the stresses of the day (after drinking a beer, for example).

However, this isn’t the whole story. Habits aren’t truly burned into your brain until you develop a sense of craving which drives you towards the routine in anticipation of the reward. Through brain scans we can see when a craving has developed: the burst of brain activity associated with the reward starts to appear at the beginning of the routine instead of at the end when the reward is actually received.

This all made perfect sense to me as I read it, since I have removed several stubborn bad habits from my life and it’s easy to look back and see how they were driven by this “habit loop” as Duhigg calls it. The next few chapters of the book were, in fact, focused on the process of changing habits through the habit loop concept. And this is where I had my revelation.

Belief: Unscientific but powerful

Duhigg uses the story of Tony Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts to explain how habits change, and what can prevent change. I won’t repeat the whole story, but reading it put me into a very emotionally charged state. During Dungy’s long quest to remake his football team using the power of habit, his college-aged son commits suicide. Nonetheless, he carries on coaching exactly as before and, after years of falling short in the playoffs, the team finally wins the Super Bowl the next year.

As a father of a young boy, when I read about losing a son to suicide it strikes me to the core. I can almost spontaneously burst into tears simply by reading a story about that, if I let the emotions overwhelm me.

Which is why the explanation that Duhigg provides underlying this narrative hit me like a freight train:

If you identify the cues and rewards, you can change the routine. At least, most of the time. For some habits, however, there’s one other ingredient that’s necessary: belief.

Duhigg argues that the Colts kept failing in the playoffs because the players did not really believe that their coach’s philosophy was a winning one. When the stakes were high and the pressure increased, they reverted to their older habits. This is also the explanation for why many recovering addicts and alcoholics relapse when faced with a stressful situation.

However, watching Dungy go through the death of his son, and seeing him continue to coach exactly as before, instilled a sense of belief in the players. Similarly, among those alcoholics and addicts who manage to stay clean and sober through life’s tragedies, one common thread is a belief that their new way of life can bring them happiness and fulfillment.

There is, unfortunately, no specific set of steps guaranteed to work for every person. We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced. And we know that habits are most malleable when the Golden Rule of habit change is applied: If we keep the same cue and the same reward, a new routine can be inserted. But that’s not enough. For a habit to stay changed, people must believe change is possible.

This whole story about belief is, admittedly, the most unscientific part of the book. But I think that is only because we have a poor grasp of how belief actually manifests in the brain. You can define belief as the absence of doubt, or perhaps the point where we no longer need additional evidence to accept a proposition as true. Either way, it is a real psychological phenomenon, and just like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

I believe, therefore I will

Starting any new endeavor is, in some ways, simply a change in habits and routines. If you want to make progress on your business idea, you have to carve out time for it in your schedule. And to do that consistently, you need to alter your habits about how you spend your time, so you get to work instead of hopping on Facebook as soon as the kids are in bed.

As I have admitted numerous times on this blog, the primary reason I have not moved forward with my business ideas is that I have not put the time in. I don’t work on starting a business, therefore I don’t start a business. The revelation I had while reading The Power of Habit is that deep down, I don’t really believe I can do this. I don’t believe it’s going to work.

This is actually a great realization to have. I can stop beating myself up over my priorities and productivity habits. I can stop trying to dredge my brain for ideas on how to “get motivated.” Until I find that belief, it’s not going to stick anyway.

There is no switch I can flip in my head to force belief where there is none. This isn’t the end of the road though. Duhigg does provide a proven strategy for overcoming doubt: community.

People might be skeptical about their ability to change if they’re by themselves, but a group will convince them to suspend disbelief. A community creates belief.

This falls in line with Jim Rohn’s famous declaration that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Basically, if you don’t believe, find others who do and get close to them.

I have my action plan now: Find a community. Ironically, I’ve been part of an online community of aspiring entrepreneurs for over six months, but I haven’t even begun to tap that resource. Today would be a good day to start.

What about you? Instead of beating yourself up over failing to stick to your new habits or commitments, how about examining your belief. When life gets in the way of your plans, does your shallow belief give out? How can you find a community of others like you, and borrow their belief until you develop some of your own?

What to do when the wheels fall off

I’m not having the best morning.

For a little side income, I rent my car out using Turo –basically AirBnB for cars. This morning I had to deal with a near-disaster when one of the lug nuts came off a front wheel while a renter was driving the car. It was all my fault, because I just rotated the tires myself and forgot to re-tighten the nuts after driving it. Fortunately, we were able to catch it before something tragic happened.

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As a business owner, that is clearly an unacceptable customer experience and I owe them a full refund of the rental fee. So now I am out $100 because I tried to save $20 by doing my own maintenance. The silver lining, I suppose, is that I will never forget to re-tighten the lug nuts when I put a wheel on my car.

That’s actually not the only wheel falling off in my life right now, metaphorically speaking. A couple weeks ago my managing partner called me up and told me that I had been ranked at the bottom of my peer group in the annual evaluation, and would be given the opportunity to complete a performance improvement plan to keep my job.

I was completely blindsided by this news. I knew that I hadn’t had a stellar year, but my performance metrics weren’t that bad. After getting over the initial shock, I started talking to people involved in the evaluation process and discovered that this was mostly a political result, rather than an accurate reflection of my performance. In fact, my counselor, who was supposed to represent me in the evaluation process, was absent from the conference call in which my peer group was ranked. I never had a chance!

I’m not trying to pass blame. I did not have a great year as a consultant, and I did not do outstanding work for my clients. I also did not do enough networking and rapport-building within my own company, which is an important part of the unavoidably subjective process of evaluating and ranking employees.

But… it would be easy to blame my previous manager, blame my counselor, or blame stupid corporate HR processes for my situation. I have more than enough justification to support the hypothesis that I am just fine and don’t need to change a thing.


Netflix recently released a documentary entitled Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru. It follows the action at one of Tony’s six-day transformation seminars in Palm Beach, Florida. There are some remarkable and compelling storylines, and you can get a good taste of Tony’s philosophy and teachings just by watching.

In one of the first “interventions” that is captured in the film, Tony takes a young woman who claims she wants to eat healthier and gets her to acknowledge that her self-image issues actually stem from her hatred for her addict father.

His message to her is this: if you want to blame your father for your flaws and shortcomings, then you need to blame him for your strengths and talents as well. You can’t unfairly dump all your negatives on him and keep the positives for yourself.

This is an enduring message in Tony’s story as well. His father was absent and his mother was an abusive alcoholic, but he considers them absolutely essential to his current success. It’s a simple word substitution–some would say he is successful in spite of his upbringing, while he adamantly believes that he is successful because of his upbringing.

If only we could all be so lucky to come from a broken home, right? That would be the sarcastic response, and I have to say it because I know some of you may be thinking it. But that’s not the point.

The point here is that Tony Robbins chooses to interpret his past in a certain way, because that interpretation leads to a different set of behaviors. He calls this process reframing:

Reframing isn’t about pretending a situation is great when it may not be. Rather, it’s about discovering what could be great, what you could learn by consequence or how you can use the situation to create a better outcome. Perspective is a powerful thing. When you can reframe a particular experience or interaction, you can often change what happens as a result.

The same message appears in a story about Thomas Edison, recounted by Ryan Holiday in his book The Obstacle Is The Way. When Edison’s factory burned down in 1914, his only response was to immediately rebuild and start over. Edison was 67 years old at the time, and he lost years of research and prototypes in the fire, not to mention millions of dollars in plant and equipment. How did he speak of this unfair twist of fate?

“I’ve been through a lot of things like this. It prevents a man from being afflicted with ennui.”

Edison had every reason to frame this event as a sign that his business was over, and it was time to retire. Instead, he considered it an opportunity to “get rid of a lot of rubbish” and start from scratch. He borrowed money to get a new factory up and running, and his company was back to earning millions in revenue before the end of the year.


Earlier today I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and noticed a post by a budding entrepreneur in the Zero To Launch private forum. He announced his second successful product launch, and provided a look back over the past 18 months to show how he had gotten there. The bottom line message was this: just follow the steps in Zero To Launch exactly as prescribed, and you will get results.

I’ll be honest–my initial response was despair. I’ve had ZTL for over a year and I check the forums pretty often, so I’ve seen all of this guy’s progress along the way. After all this time, he has a growing business and I have… a website with five blog posts that gets zero traffic.

This is the frame of resignation. I interpret that guy’s success as evidence that I am hopeless, that I just don’t have what it takes to start a business. Might as well throw in the towel now before I waste any more time on this.

There is another way to frame this information though, and it was reflected in some of the comments on his post, like this one:

comment

Here I am, using this post as evidence that I should give up, while someone else reads the exact same words and feels “boosted up”. What gives? The difference, in a word, is framing.

When I got the news that I might lose my job due to poor performance, I could have framed it as bad luck and office politics. But I recognized that the behaviors which would have resulted from that framing were not going to help me. Instead, I chose to frame it as an opportunity. What behaviors resulted from that framing?

First, I did some introspection into the causes of my poor performance, and recognized that I was very bad at asking for help. I was in over my head on one project in particular, and the only way I was going to succeed was to rely on my colleagues to get me up to speed quickly. Instead, I convinced myself that everyone was “too busy” to help me and that I needed to prove I could handle it on my own. I wanted to protect my ego, and the client suffered as I barely managed to meet the expectations of the job.

Second, I calmly considered the prospect of being unemployed within two months and what options I would have at that point. My current job is not my dream job, not by a long shot. It was the only offer I received before graduating last year, so obviously I had to take it. What if I took this time to do a proper job search, and maneuver myself into a role that I actually enjoyed? What if I worked for a company who was happy to have me?

It sucks that I might be fired soon, but framing the situation as an opportunity has led to actions which proactively move me toward favorable outcomes.

Similarly, when the wheels almost came off of my car, I could have focused on the hundred bucks I lost and the possible ding to my 100% five-star customer rating on Turo, all because of a stupid mistake! Instead, I framed that cost as my tuition for a couple important lessons in automotive maintenance and customer service.

And what about starting a business? I can’t lie to myself–the reason that my business attempts have not moved forward is because of my behavior. I haven’t taken action. So when I read a success story from someone who is following the exact same system to create an online business, I need only choose the right frame and his words can become the fuel to lead me to take action. I’ve been reframing other events in my life with positive results, so why not use it here too?

Stupid ways to make money, Vol. 2

Before I started my new job as a consultant, I phoned a friend of mine from undergrad who had been living the consulting lifestyle for a number of years. He gave me my first look into the world of optimizing rewards points to earn free travel, a core element of what is called “travel hacking”.

It started with a simple Marriott Rewards Visa credit card. I saw an offer for 80,000 points just to sign up, plus I found out that my first six weeks on the job would be spent in a Marriott hotel so I would get 5x points for all of those nights. I ended up earning over 120,000 rewards points in the span of a couple months, which is enough for at least $600 in free nights.

Since my wife’s family is in Japan, and my family is scattered across all corners of the U.S., we already do a lot of traveling. So if I can get $600 worth of free hotel stays, that counts as “making money” to me.

It didn’t take long for me to start wondering if I could just sign up for a few more credit cards, pocket the points bonuses and get even more free travel. Most of them require a minimum spend (typically between $1,000 and $4,000) within the first few months, but our family’s normal monthly spending combined with the reimbursable expenses I incur for work could easily chew through this threshold.

Fast forward six months: I have signed up for four more cards, and now I’m signing my wife up for a few of her own, including some of the same ones that I already got for myself. To meet the spending requirement for one of them, I paid my rent on the card for a couple months which added about $70 in fees. The points I’m getting for it are worth well over $300 though, so it’s technically worth it.

I find myself habitually checking blogs like ThePointsGuy and 10xTravel to see if there are any new cards with big bonus offers that are expiring soon. The other day, I tweeted some random marketing bullshit for American Airlines so they would give me 350 free miles. That’s worth maybe $3 or $4, if you’re curious.

So far I have redeemed points for four round-trip flights, five hotel nights and a ten-day car rental. It adds up to probably $2,000 in free travel. And really, that’s just getting started. Between my wife and I we just signed up for three different Hilton credit cards that will net over 215,000 Hilton HHonors points, which is probably about $1,000 in free nights from Hilton.

To be sure, this is a pretty cool way to get thousands of dollars in free travel. There is, however, a limit to the upside. There are only so many credit cards with big sign-up bonuses, and you generally have to wait two years before you can get the bonus again. Some cards (notably American Express) only offer a bonus once per lifetime.

Sure, you can also earn unlimited points by just spending on these cards, and there is an entire corner of the internet devoted to the practice of “manufactured spending” to churn credit card points without actually spending money. But the return on time invested at that point has become vanishingly small.

At this point I have spent a lot of time and energy on stockpiling these miles and rewards points. Each credit card I sign up for requires some maintenance. I need to set up the account, make sure I’ve connected my checking account for automatic payments, and then swap out the cards in my wallet to make sure I’m putting the required spending on the new card. Once I hit the spending threshold, I have to stop using it and switch to the next one. Then I have to make sure to close the card before I get hit with an annual fee on my account anniversary.

None of these tasks are difficult or individually time-consuming, but collectively they add up to a lot, especially when I have five different cards going at the same time. It consumes mental bandwidth that is no longer available for deeper pursuits like, oh I don’t know, starting a business?

In this case I am tripping over the same psychological trap that led me to sign up for a bunch of checking accounts in order to get cash bonuses. The points are “free”. That is, all I need to do is sign up for a credit card, divert my existing expenses onto that card instead of the one I was using before, and then I’ve got a pile of points that are worth hundreds of dollars in free travel. It doesn’t really require any thought, skill, or luck. Just follow these steps and you win.

Seeing something that is “free” actually triggers that most pesky of all irrational human biases, loss aversion. Choosing not to take the free stuff feels like a loss, because all you needed to do was just go and grab it.

So when I see a new credit card offer for 50,000 points, in my mind that is basically a stack of cash sitting on a plate waiting for me to grab it. I can’t say no. I minimize the reality that I’m going to have to do a bunch of trivial tasks to make sure I get those points. I forget that the time and thought spent on getting my “free” reward is taken away from something else in my life, something that might just be more precious and valuable.

That is why travel hacking is a stupid way to make money. It is still a way to make money though, and sadly I doubt I’m going to stop anytime soon. Maybe after I’ve exhausted all of the good sign-up bonuses…

Ten ways I could have predicted my own failure

I think I may have laid the cynicism on a little thick in that headline, but I got you to click so mission accomplished.

Truthfully, this article is not about wallowing in my self-pity. It is about some very important predictors of whether or not a person will follow through on his goals, and where I score on those predictors.

In my daily internet search for that magic bullet which will help me get out of my own way and finally take action, I came across Brendon Burchard and his High Performance Academy. He shares a free video (with accompanying worksheet) that outlines ten factors which collectively can predict if a person will take action on his goals. It was compelling enough that I watched the entire 40 minutes, and I thought I would share how I scored myself in the context of trying to create an online business.

I’m going to assume you at least checked out the worksheet I linked above, so you understand what each of these ten points refers to. If not, go do that now. Also, I answered these questions in relation to my current project, which is to help young men quit playing video games and improve their lives.

1. Future Identity

The first one is possibly the hardest to answer, because it forces you to push out all the other possible future identities you could see for yourself.

I’m 32. There are still a lot of pivots I could make in my career, and a lot of options that are still on the table for me. Out of all those options, do I see myself as a dude who helps other dudes stop playing videos games? I mean, I already do that to some extent by being active in forums, but it’s not part of my identity at this point. In fact, the only reason I’m doing it in the first place is because I thought it might be a possible avenue to make an online business.

I know for certain that I don’t want my future identity that would result from following my current career path, and continuing to work a job where my overall contribution to the world is forgettable at best and regressive at worst.

I’d give myself a 6 on this one.

2. Intrinsic Value

This is actually something that has developed as I’ve spent more time working on my idea. I started reading and posting in the StopGaming subreddit as part of my research, but eventually I found that I could actually be pretty helpful to the other people there. Helping people improve their lives is intrinsically motivating, for sure. Could I do this even if I won’t ever get paid for it? Yeah, I think so, and that merits a solid 9.

3. Utilitarian Value

This is a little tricky, because it can be hard to see what the ultimate results might be. If I had faith that I could definitely end up as one of those guys who makes five figures a month on about 20 hours of work, then the utilitarian value would be clear. But what if I eliminate the monetary incentive? If, at best, this business idea might break even, then is there any other useful benefits I could gain?

The cynic in my head says no. Or rather, he says that the benefits are trivial compared to something else I could be doing with that time. For example, I could go back and learn how to code, and that would provide much more obvious utility than whatever fuzzy skills I might get from the mess of trying to start a business.

On the other hand, this whole process has already knocked me well out of my comfort zone. I know that discomfort is the seed of real growth, so I can’t deny that this experience will make me a better and stronger person. I just can’t see what those benefits are, so I discount them. I’ll be generous and give myself a 6.

4. Opportunity Cost

Ahh, shit. This is, hands down, the number one factor that has consistently eroded my motivation to work on my business idea. What am I giving up in order to work on this crazy, uncertain project?

First of all, by choosing this one niche in which to create a business, I am giving up other niches that might be more lucrative or enjoyable. I’m giving up spending extra time to develop skills which might make me better in my job, and lead to a higher salary. I’m giving up spending time on learning a totally new set of skills which could allow me to jump to a different, more appealing career path. I’m giving up time I could spend with my family, or that I could spend reading more books.

Given the potential long-term benefits to be gained from building an online business, I’m willing to give up some of the things I listed above. But the uncertainty is what kills me! If all of this ends in failure, then any of those other options would have been a better choice!

This is my Achilles heel when it comes to motivation to follow through on my online business idea, and I suspect it is the same for many others like me. I can’t give myself anything higher than a 3 on this one.

5. Delay Time

You know, believe it or not, I actually do think that I could get results pretty quickly. At least, it won’t take me long to figure out if this is worth my time or if I should move on to something else. It’s not like becoming a doctor, with a decade of expensive and arduous training before you get any real financial return. I’ll give myself an 8 here.

6. Personal Control

Theoretically, can I make this happen, all on my own? Yes. I don’t need anyone’s permission or assistance in order to make this happen. This is definitely a 10.

7. Social Support

This is one area where I have improved my prospects by purchasing some coaching and getting to know others who are also on the long, strange journey of trying to build an online business. On the other hand, I don’t have any particularly strong support from anyone in my family. My wife has withheld her opinion, which is probably a good thing.

Right now I’m sitting at about a 6 here. But this is one factor which I could probably ratchet up to a 10 by adjusting my time commitments to the social circles that I am involved in.

8. Bandwidth Belief

I do have enough time for this, assuming that I make the tradeoffs implied by the opportunity cost. I have total control over the time commitment I am currently making to this, so there is no real reason to say that I don’t have enough time. This is a 10.

9. Resource Availability

Yes, I already have the resources. Starting an online business requires an internet connection, and that’s about it. Anything I could ever want to know about how to make this business is available on the internet. I’ve got every resource I could need. Another 10.

10. Autonomy

This is exactly why I want to do this in the first place! Starting an online business will give me complete autonomy over my work and creative efforts. There is no one who can second-guess my decisions or tell me no (except, perhaps, my wife). Finishing strong with another 10.

And the total is…

78! That’s actually a lot higher than I expected. As you can probably guess from the title, when I started writing this post I assumed I would fail to meet Brendon’s threshold of 75. But I passed, which means I have incontrovertible evidence that I will definitely take action to move forward on this idea.

Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel any better though. Perhaps I was too generous in my scoring, like on opportunity cost. I suspect that this result makes me uncomfortable because it means I can’t use it as an excuse.

There are many possible barriers that can prevent us from working toward our goals. But for my goal of starting an online business, most of these barriers do not exist. What does that mean?

It means… that I am my own barrier.

It’s not you, it’s me

That was the message I delivered to my realtor yesterday.

In truth, I knew all along that right now was a bad time to start looking to buy a home. But I was tempted by the promise of “building equity” in a property instead of flushing my rent payments down the toilet, and so I started the search.

What was I thinking? The housing market in Seattle right now is insane, and prices are being bid up to ridiculous levels. Furthermore, I have no idea where we are going to be in two years. I don’t have any reason to believe I will stay in my current job long-term, and buying a house would only reduce my flexibility if I wanted to look for something else.

But you know, it was a good distraction from the important things in my life that I don’t want to face. I could spend hours poring over listings and building spreadsheets to calculate the ROI of owning versus renting.

It played into my scarcity mindset perfectly: “If you just stop renting and start building equity, you can save thousands of dollars a year! It’s practically free money!” Never mind that the whole process of purchasing a home consumes countless hours of my precious time, and after that I will have the privilege of handling all of the upkeep and maintenance myself.

Do I want to own a home eventually? Yes, absolutely. Just not now.

The funny thing is that it only took a couple weeks for me to realize that I had made a mistake, that now was not the time to buy. And yet… the realtor would send me a couple listings each week, and I inevitably opened that email just to take a look. What’s the harm, right?

Even after I had already convinced myself that I was going to stop looking for a house, I would immediately forget my decision once I opened one of those emails. I’d spend another few hours obsessing over the details of the neighborhood and the financing. How far is my commute? Is there a nearby park within walking distance? What about schools? What would the monthly payment be?

I didn’t really make the decision to stop looking until I broke up with my realtor yesterday.

It was on good terms, of course. I assured him that when we are ready to start looking again, he will be the first person we call.

This whole episode got me thinking about the other sources of distraction in my life. This morning I opened my email inbox and had messages from Ramit Sethi, Sean Ogle, Chandler Bolt, and Ian Pribyl.

All four of them are excellent at crafting emails that get opened, and I am a sucker for it. And what happens once I open an email? I inevitably end up looking at a few articles, which leads me to a few more, and then two hours later I’m considering a new online business idea that I hadn’t seen before.

I think it’s time to break up with all the mailing lists that I have signed up for. They haven’t gotten me any closer to creating a business, but they have provided plenty of distraction in the meantime.

I know that I need to say no to everything except the one project that I’m pursuing right now. But as long as I keep opening those emails just to see what’s inside then I haven’t really made this decision.

If my business idea was a girlfriend, then I am basically telling her that we should be exclusive but then using Tinder behind her back. I know we are right for one another and should spend the time to develop the relationship, but… you know, I want to keep my options open, right?

I’m such a shitty boyfriend wannabe entrepreneur.

One of those days

Today I had one of those days. You know, the ones where your job has sucked every last bit of life-force from you and still demands more.

The ones where you had a huge pile of mundane but urgent work to do, and couldn’t concentrate on any of it because you kept imagining what life would be like if you didn’t have this job, and now you’re panicking because tomorrow you’ll have to try and face the same pile of work plus a little more.

The ones where it takes you 20 minutes to compose a three-sentence email because every few words, you stop to sigh and stare out the window.

The ones where you open up a spreadsheet, not to do more work, but to try and calculate how long you could pay your bills if you quit your job today, and then ask yourself if that would be enough time to find a new source of income.

The ones where you go and read all the marketing emails from your mailing lists that cater to wannabe entrepreneurs, and almost convince yourself to buy another online course when you haven’t even taken the time to follow through on the last one you bought.

To be fair, it could have been a lot worse. I was working from home today, so I had the luxury of taking breaks to go work out, play with my son, and take a walk around the block. If I was stuck in an office then my only relief would have been mindless internet browsing.

I’ve had days like this in every job I’ve ever worked. That may be a big reason why I still have the distorted but stubborn belief that finding a job I really love is a pipe dream.

I’m going to go to bed tonight, wake up tomorrow morning, and face the same job. I’ll get through it, one way or another, and perhaps it won’t be quite as bad as today was. But I’m not going to forget this day.

Why? Well, because I wrote a blog post about it.