The gift of the outside perspective.
Many of us are immigrants in some place or the other. For different reasons, we leave our homes to make a life elsewhere. Sometimes we are fleeing terrible conditions, homes and communities ripped apart by war, and catastrophe. Or we might just seek new opportunities for a better life, or in a more indulgent way, enough distance from home to be ‘ourselves’, make our own way.
For whatever reason, many of us find ourselves as outsiders, at least for a time, or perhaps our whole lives in places we have chosen to settle in. This all too common experience, of being foreign, lends a texture to life, a perspective that we can perhaps examine and mine for its insights into the goal of getting what you want.
There are studies that insinuate that a large percentage of businesses are started by immigrants, ditto, the number of advances and inventions made. For instance, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies operating in 2010 were founded by immigrants or their children – including the likes of Apple and Disney. For all the oppressive negative and uncertain climate globally around the topic of migration, we cannot deny that much good has come from people who moved across borders for search of a new life.
This ‘foreign’ experience is not just restricted to immigrants, people who move from one country to another for a better life. It is also felt by the traveler, as you encounter strange, new cultures and places. It is even felt, albeit to a lesser extent by the one who moves across metropoles, or from the rural country to the city.
There is a vibe and mentality that prevalent amongst these immigrants, the new guys. They are generally more heightened and awake than natives. Coming from different places and having different experiences makes everything new to you. You have to stay on your toes. You have to adapt to a system that has been running along without you, you are an outsider. You have to keenly observe and see where you can fit in and what opportunities you can take advantage of.
Many times, the odds are stacked against you. The same benefits and advantages that are available to citizens are not available to you. So, the immigrant does not depend on the system. He cannot. The system was not built for him. He has to make a plan, he has to figure it out. He has to grind, seek opportunities, make friends and connections, band together with family and friends, and do whatever it takes, within and outside the system, because his survival is dependent on it. He has to get creative.
The immigrant has to build from scratch and be vigilant against losing it all tomorrow. Because you don’t have the safety net, the comfort of home, and your people around you, you have to build something new. Plus, you may have come from somewhere that was amazing, before things changed and, in a few days, the country collapsed, and you and your family lost everything. You know better than most, just how fast everything can change. This drives you to work extremely hard, and prove yourself, so you become valuable enough to dictate your terms. So, you can build a life for yourself, a life you can be proud of. You don’t just want to eat today, you want to build some kind of long-term stability, you want to be antifragile.
It is this force that pushes you outside your comfort zone. The same one that brought you here, that will continue to work on you and in you and keep you relentless in your pursuit of success. It will hopefully inspire you to think, ‘what can I offer, what can I contribute? What are my passions and skills and how can I be valuable here? ‘. It will force you to take realistic stock of your circumstance and take full responsibility for it.
And it’s that experience, the cocktail of conditions that allow many immigrants to excel. The strangeness of your new environment that forces you to stay sharp and awake. That is your gift. Because, you don’t take anything for granted, you won’t rest on your oars, there is no one to support or catch you. You will hunker down and push. You will study, work, network, put yourself out there, take the menial jobs, do whatever it takes to survive and succeed. You will make a plan and play a long-term game.
The gift of being an outsider will terraform you into the person that gets what you want.
Every next level of life will demand a different you. — Leonardo DiCaprio
In the road to get what we want, we work hard, we struggle and strive. We put in the work, we pay the price in blood, sweat and tears. We hustle to make things happen. We battle inertia and gain some momentum. We push and get knocked back. We win some and we lose some. We battle impossible odds and somehow, miraculously, come out the other side.
And then it happens. We break through. Things that seemed so hard become easier. Taking action becomes the norm and we get into a groove, we start to win, sporadically at first, but over time we win more consistently. We master our present challenges. We have built new habits, new ways of thinking, we have gained some measure of control.
The temptation here is to ease up and rest on one’s oars, allowing oneself to drift and bask in the glory of the past victory. And there is a place for that, the celebration, the reward, the rest. But soon, you must pick up your tools and continue your journey. Plateaus exist to be savored and enjoyed, but not to be remained in. You have to push further, to learn more, to get stronger.
You have to move to the next level.
You have gained competence or mastery over these old problems, it is time to embrace new ones.
Now it means that we can look forward to the horizon, to the things we have intuited and sensed in the distance. The things that we must tackle next and explore. Deficiencies that we must turn our attention to and fix.
Leveling up is generally marked by a transition, by a change. Sometimes that change is physical or social and tangible. Other times, it is more internal, marked by a shift in mentality or perspective. But in whichever form it emerges, the new level should be honored.
You know you have reached a new level, when the things that used to trip you up, are much easier to manage. Your brain is somewhat rewired, you have grown wiser and your conviction deeper. The things that used to interest you, don’t interest you as much. Sometimes it is the things that used to inspire and drive you. Somehow it feels like they have lost their luster. It just means you are operating at a higher level. You have to come to terms to this step in your evolution.
Going to the next level means that we have gained powers and experience, but it also means that we must tackle the whole thing again, diving back into the fray, albeit on a different level than we are used to. Growth is predicated on deliberate practice and working at the edge of strain, the point where we feel stretched.
It is a call as always, to return to the basics, and reinforce them. It is an exhortation to return to the rhythm to consistency, with renewed purpose and vigor, with heavier weights, and greater expectation. To draw even more from yourself. It is an invitation to go even deeper, to press further, to expand your limits. To shine a light into the dark places you refused to go before and boldly proceed. To challenge your mentality and limiting beliefs even more.
And that is the essence of growth. The ability to change one’s actions effectively to create new results. To move from peak to peak and emerge into deeper, more authentic and powerful ways of being.
With it, we move closer and closer to getting what we want.
Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results. – Farnam Street
I saw this quote the other day, and it struck me, because sometimes I think to myself, ‘why the obsession with personal development?’ I may not be consistent with the actions I take towards growing and becoming better, but I am always reading and watching and consuming media of that sort.
And I’ve been doing this for years, since I was a pimply faced teenager. Books from the likes of John Maxwell, Myles Munroe, and Ben Carson introduced me to a world where, if you believed and worked incredibly hard and relentlessly, you could get what you want, you could live a happy life.
It seemed like the secret.
A powerful one because it actually worked. I applied the principles and I saw results. How could I not get hooked?
Sure, the ideas in those early days were simplistic. And as I grew older, I recognized greater nuance, different shades and more layers to life. From the lifestyle gurus and business leaders to the philosophers and shamans, there was much to learn.
We are all born into this life thing and there is no real manual for it. Each religion has its own texts and ideas, society and culture have their own prevailing ideologies going on. We live and make mistakes, we try, fail and succeed. Personal development seemed to offer a way to manage this complexity.
It gave a promise. That you didn’t have to be lost. You could embark on a journey to discover how to live, how to act, how to orient ourselves so that we can be happy and fulfilled. It promised that if you learned enough, and acted on what you learned enough, you would get the results you want.
That is the rabbit hole that is the billion-dollar global self-help industry. Like everything else in life, it comes with its good and its bad. Every other person is some sort of guru selling you on newsletters, and courses, magic pills and quick fixes. At the same time, millions of lives get impacted and improved from learning, from boot camps, from courses, from seminars, sermons, books and podcasts.
And that is why we do it. That is why we engage in personal development, that is why we teach and share personal development. Because each and every one of us possesses massive potential. And if you want great life results, whatever that means for you, you must take the time to learn, to evaluate and to change.
That is the promise of self-development. That it may not be easy or happen overnight, but over time, with dedication and hard work we can get what we want. We can manage our emotions better, and quiet the storm that rages within. We can improve. We can move from being couch potatoes, to running marathons. We can move from being broke to being rich. We can move from being lonely to having thriving meaningful relationships. We can go from being miserable and depressed, to be happy and joyful. We can progress from being aimless to living with a compelling vision.
Anything that isn’t growing, is dying.
It is not just a once off thing. It is a daily practice. It is a lifestyle of perpetual learning and action taking, of climbing from peak to peak. It is life well lived that is dedicated to the pursuit of something greater than itself. Wherever that journey takes you, up, down or sideways, it is the journey that matters. Because it is the journey that changes you, that encodes lessons into your DNA, into your bone and marrow.
It is what makes a life worth living.
The resilience of the human spirit is something to marvel at. Across the globe, every day, every person is fighting a battle. For some, the skirmishes are small and minor, first world type problems. For others, it’s outright war, for other still, it is literally life or death.
It is in the midst of the depths, in the horrors of a concentration camp, we get the meditations of Viktor Frankl, on man’s search for meaning. We get the counsel of Nelson Mandela in the long walk to freedom. We get the journals of Ann Frank. Glittering diamonds of insight and wisdom buried amongst the dark dirty coal, or perhaps, forged from it, from years of pressure and hardship.
I get into impossible situations, I have friends in impossible situations, every day is a battle to not lose hope, to last another 24 hours. It seems like all doors are closed, like there are no good options. The perpetual assault on mind and soul can leave one dark and hopeless. I never know what to say to offer comfort. I can only think to tell them what to do. And what to do might be simple, like endure it, go through what you must but stay sharp to the slightest opening, to the slightest opportunity for escape for change. But the fact that it’s simple, does not mean that its easy.
It is fortitude and persistence that keeps us going at these times.
On a long enough timeline, you can innovate your way out of any problem
I heard that quote about two years ago and its stuck in my mind. I think I heard it from Tai Lopez, and it is attributed to Jeff Bezos, but I’ve never found any reference to it online. Regardless of its validity, I think about it a lot.
It encourages one to always think in the long term, to consider the overreaching arch of our intentions and our actions. We may be pressed to the wall today, but we can slide inch by inch, day by day and eventually break free and launch our counter attack.
But you have to be patient. Even when it seems like everyone is moving but you, even when it seems like you take two steps forward and you get smacked ten steps back. You have to be persistent. You cannot give in.
Life isn’t fair. For some people it moves along breezily with no real challenges, for others, it’s a brutal grueling grind. I don’t know who allocates luck or who deals the cards, all I know is you play the hell out of the ones you’ve got.
It is okay to be mad. It is okay to be angry. It’s fine to slip into depression. Sometimes we must retreat into the darkness. The anguish at rock bottom serves to hurt us, to break us open, to loosen things, to refine us. The trick is not to let it consume us so much that we get swallowed in it. We can embrace the darkness and its lessons, but we cannot allow it to take root and take over our hearts. We must hold on to the light, we must hold on to hope.
The main battle ground is the mind, and it is enemy territory. It is often an unruly beast fighting against our control. But the harsher the outer environment, the more we must cultivate our inner garden, our inner citadel, our stronghold. You have to protect your mind, you have to feed it the right things. You have to practice, memorize, affirm. Your imagination must become stronger than the reality outside you. Channel your emotions, channel that anger.
And then you must act. Relentlessly, persistently. You push, you make the moves, you go for the interviews, you improve, you get better, you gain skills, you feint left, you pivot, you switch it up, you keep trying and trying, chipping away, building, brick by brick, tap by tap, stroke by stroke.
Until you break through, until you get what you want.
Someone asked me the other day how I managed to stay upbeat, and full of energy. What keeps me going? What keeps me so fired up? I was pleasantly surprised, because I don’t particularly see myself that way. My answer included a bunch of things like growing older and having a chip on my shoulder, but in hindsight, a part of it is probably down to habit. I have been doing certain things almost every day for years now and at this point in time it is just a way of life, it is an obsession.
Every empty pocket of dead time – waiting in line, unexpected delays – I spend reading or watching videos. I’m always learning or being motivated or enjoying insights from the most productive, prolific and impactful people in the world. It’s just what I enjoy doing. If I’m too tired or feel overloaded, then I’ll binge watch Netflix. But generally, I fuel my fire every day out of habit.
I’ve been thinking about momentum lately.
“Momentum,” she repeats. “You can’t just stand there if you want something to fly. You have to run.” – Lauren DeStefano (Fever)
Since the beginning of the year, I blogged around the theme of how to get what you want. To get what you want, you have to know what you want and why it is so important to you. The burning desire for it is what makes you act, fighting against inertia to move you from point A to point B.
At the beginning it is hard work. You don’t know where to start, so you start anywhere. And because you are new to this, you fail, but you start again. You persist. You keep it moving, you keep working.
Soon you win the battle against inertia and eventually get into motion. Even though it feels like a series of starts and stops, eventually, we get a bit of wind. Taking action becomes easier, and now and then, we even start to gather hot streaks. We get stretches of time where we stay in motion, maintaining that flow, seeing our efforts begin to multiply. We have gained momentum. And this momentum is a powerful and profitable force.
Success requires first expending ten units of effort to produce one unit of results. Your momentum will then produce ten units of results with each unit of effort. – Charles J. Givens
Momentum emerges from being consistent over time. The longer we take a line of action, the deeper the habits are ingrained, and our moves become instinctual. But you have to front load the investment to reap the reward. And that reward is the exponential increase on our input.
When we gain momentum, we become formidable. With your moves stacking on each of each other, results begin to compound. Success builds on success. New possibilities appear, new doors open. The universe itself seems to unfold before you.
When you find yourself in the thickness of pursuing a goal or a dream, stop only to rest. Momentum builds success. – Suzy Kassem
But momentum can be fragile. It can become its worst enemy. Hypergrowth is just as bad as no growth if the system cannot grow to accommodate it. So, we must manage ourselves so as not to burn out from the power, from the abundance and increasing influx. It takes discipline to manage momentum. Too many times, we get a bit of traction and for some reason or the other, we stop and let it die out. To keep momentum alive in a sustainable way, and to protect it from waning or even reversing, we have to keep moving, we have to keep adding to the fire. We must continue to strike the iron while it is hot and knead while the dough is wet. We can’t afford to stop.
Sometimes, bad things happen. Tragedy strikes, we get unpleasant news, we get into bad company, we are knocked off course and pushed back on our heels. With that falter, rises the flicker of doubt. We see our momentum reverse against us. The fear sets in, the anxiety, we make another mistake, or another tragic thing occurs. We begin to spiral, maybe we react badly, reaching for something to cope. We are stressed, we are failing, and the failure compounds. This is how fortunes are lost, this is how citadels crumble.
Momentum can make you or break you. When it’s positive, it is great. It buoys you up like a wave, moving you forward with little effort. When it is negative, it is incredibly hard to stop and can dash you against the rocks.
You always want to optimize for forward momentum. Only stocking up healthy food and snacks in the house, as well as installing triggered habits like 5 push-ups every time you went to the bathroom, would make your forward momentum in staying fit more antifragile. Hanging around smart and inspired people can fuel your forward momentum in building a successful career into a roaring steam train.
The trick, once you have secured the basics of taking action towards your chief aims, is to go a little harder, a little faster, and a little longer. Build momentum and make it easier for yourself to succeed by pouring fuel on the flames.
This means staying focused. On the goal. On the objective. Despite distraction, and setback, you must keep an eye on the goal. Take a step back if you need to, catch your breath if you need to, but keep pushing forward, learn to break into those pockets of momentum. They will put wind in your sails and push you forward further and faster than you could imagine.
I’ve never been punched in the mouth. At least not literarily. And not in recent memory. Perhaps last in some childhood scuffle. But I get punched in the mouth every week. Some weeks, I get punched every day. Metaphorically speaking. By life. By adulting.
Especially as a creative, as a freelancer, as an entrepreneur. Life can be sometimes feel like a series of fires to put out, and punches, mis-steps and mistakes. If there is one thing that is for sure, is that things will not go your way. The client will not pay on time, the job will take longer than you think to be commissioned, it will take even longer to get done.
Bad things are sure to happen.
How do you live in such an unfortunate and uncertain world? Do you hide and try to maximize certainty, or do you find a way to embrace the chaos and work with it?
Just under a decade ago, I began to open my mind up to other schools of thought, spiritual ideas and ways of looking at the world. In my transition into young adulthood, there were a lot of incongruencies and uncomfortable paradoxes in my belief system, and I sought to figure out a way to view the world and a way to live. The prevailing criteria for whether I would adopt a worldview or not, was its efficacy. I didn’t care where the idea came from, as long as it worked.
Life post-faith, or life after the walls of your previous belief system have been blown off can feel like free floating in the vast void of space, far from any planet or ship to orient you. This was the mental image I consistently pulled to mind as I wrestled with things in that period of my life. But sometime in 2011, I came across a blog post written by Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris’ website that introduced me to a school of thought that would prove an anchor, and a guide. It is one I still hold dear. In fact, I count Ryan as one of my favorite authors, and his books on the school of thought as some of the most important books I’ve read. That school of thought is Stoic Philosophy.
Every now and again, a friend would come to me for advice, usually panicking, overwhelmed with some situation or event, and I would offer some perspective. I’d often refer to stoic philosophy as a possible solution or framework to analyze the problem and offer a solution. And then they would ask, ‘what is Stoic Philosophy”. There, I would stumble on my words trying to articulate something I understand quite well but can’t often express as well. This post is my attempt to do so.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is immensely practical in its approach. In other brands of philosophy, there is usually a lot of deliberation on the nature of life or reality. Or they are marked with arcane concerns that are more about jumping through intellectual hoops than anything else. Not stoicism. The main focus here is simple. How to live well.
Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, stoicism was famously practiced by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, and they are considered the main leaders of the philosophy. But over the course of history, many have illustrated stoicism as a way of life. In their ranks, leaders and statesmen, thinkers and athletes.
The core of stoicism is this. Real life is unpredictable, and much is outside our control. Our lives are fleeting, and we are plagued by anxieties. How then shall we live? How can we be steadfast, strong and in control of ourselves?
The stoics offer what are known as “spiritual exercises” meditations and patterns of thought that offer perspective and strength. I’ll highlight a few.
- Practice Misfortune
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” – Seneca
Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you are always afraid that something or someone will take it from you. – Ryan Holiday
Seneca, who was immensely wealthy man in his time, suggested that we ought to take some time every month to practice poverty. Eat little food, wear your worst clothes, expose yourself to embarrassment. Place yourself in the uncomfortable situation you fear and ask yourself ‘Is this what I used to dread?’
If you practiced the worst-case scenario, when it actually happens, it loses its ability to disrupt your life. You are already familiar with it. If you get punched every now and again, you get desensitized to it, better able to handle it.
- Train Perception to avoid good and bad
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” -Marcus Aurelius
Nothing is good or bad. It is our judgement that makes it so. Management of perception is one of the core tenets of stoicism. In fact, the first theme in Ryan’s book ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ is all about the ‘discipline of perception’.
When tragedy strikes – you don’t win the pitch, you have a bad day at work, your colleagues undermine you, it is easy to judge what has happened as bad, getting wrapped up in the resulting emotion, anger, distress, worry. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. Things simply happen. We decide if its good or bad. We choose to see the good in it. We choose to turn the obstacle on its head.
The failed pitch becomes a teachable moment, an event to mine for lessons to fortify ourselves for the next one. It becomes practice. Problems at work with colleagues becomes an opportunity to learn, to practice virtue – compassion, equanimity, leadership, forgiveness. The bad day teaches us resilience and a chance to maintain an inner citadel of peace in a chaotic harsh world.
- Is this within my control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” – Epictetus
Perhaps the most important practice in stoic philosophy is discerning what we can control and what we can’t. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control traffic, you can’t control the actions of others. You can’t make someone like you or love you. No amount of huffing and puffing and crying and whining will change certain things. Why expend energy on them?
There are only a few things that really matter and only a few things you can control. Focus on those.
You can’t change where you were born or who you were born to. You probably can’t change the job market, or the prevailing economic conditions. Not without immense coordination and collaboration with others anyway. But you can change your perspective, you can change your actions. Focus on what you can do and take action along those lines.
This meditation dovetails nicely with the discipline of action. As a person with goals and aims, all I can do is focus on what I can control and consistently take the actions I can to move me closer to them. I can’t control when the client will pay, but I can focus on drumming up new business, I can focus on finding better clients, I can focus on increasing my streams of income. There is no use crying about how unfair it all is, all I can do is focus on what I can do. And take bold action.
Everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. – Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle is the Way)
So, what do you do when you have been punched in the mouth?
Take a step back. Wipe off the blood. Learn from the punch.
Was it inevitable? Was it just bad luck or misfortune? Did you fail to account for something? Were you too relaxed? Did you let your guard down? Maybe it’s okay that you got punched. Punches make you tougher, they build your resilience. Perhaps you can learn to pull a punch like that. How can you avoid another punch? How can you deal better with it next time? How can you use the momentum of the punch against your opponent, against your obstacle?
Don’t get mad. Don’t let it throw you off balance for too long. Don’t let it ruin everything you have been working for.
I have borrowed liberally from this primer on Stoicism here, to articulate the philosophy and some of its meditations. I also highly recommend Ryan’s books ‘The Obstacle is The Way’ , ‘Ego is the Enemy’ and ‘The Daily Stoic’. Also Robert Greene’s books The 48 laws of power, The 50thlaw, The 33 strategies of war and Mastery are very much in the stoic vein…at least in my opinion