Escaping the prison of unworthiness

Years ago, one of my friends shared an allegory that changed how I think about myself and the world. The allegory:

You wake up and realize that you’re locked in a cell.

Time slips through your fingers. The days and weeks blur and crash into one another, each as empty as the last.

One day, without thinking about it, you reach into your pocket. Inside, you discover a key. You understand that this key will release you from your cell and that, strangely, you’ve possessed the key the entire time.

You gather the courage to free yourself. When you put the key in the lock, you notice that there was never a cell to begin with. It was all just an illusion. You were free the whole time.  

*

Though few of us realize it, we all live in imaginary cells that were built before we were even self-aware.

When you were born, you became a citizen of a country. In turn, you were bound by its laws. Then, your parents raised you in accordance with their beliefs about religion, education, diet, morality, and self-worth. As you grew older and more self-aware, the society you found yourself in encouraged you to observe its customs about fashion, relaxation, health, holidays, sexuality, ethics, and appropriate behavior. Along the way, expectations about almost every aspect of your life were forced upon you without your request or consent.

Sure, you may have gone through periods of rebellion, but the truth is simple: many of your biggest life decisions were made for you. Since none of us chose the circumstance we were born into, few people ever flourish to their fullest potential, similar to a plant’s growth being stunted by the size of its pot.

Soon, all the beliefs and expectations from the outside world alchemized to influence almost every aspect of your life. They created the illusion that you were unworthy. They hardwired demons, feelings of anxiety, and insecurities into your system.

I know that sounds far-fetched, but pause for a moment and reflect. How many times have you blurred the truth or failed to show up honestly and vulnerably? How often have you struggled to accept a compliment? Have you ever written your successes off as a matter of circumstance or coincidence? Are you able to see and feel the magic found in the mundane? Do you have a nasty habit of putting other people’s needs ahead of your own?

I’ve wrestled with all of the above.

These tendencies indicate that you’ve been tricked into believing that you aren’t worthy. They are evidence that you’re imprisoned in an imaginary cell. The power of the illusion rests in its ability to infect both your thoughts and feelings. By making you feel small, you’re much less inclined to believe in your own capability.

Feeling like you aren’t worthy has a nasty ripple effect. It makes you feel as though:

  • You’re not ready (so you perpetually tell yourself, “I’ll start tomorrow”)
  • You’re not lovable (so you pretend to be someone you’re not)
  • You have to work hard to get what you want (so you toil away day after day)
  • The future will be worse than the present (so you’re manipulated by your own anxiety and continually play it safe)

But thankfully, once you’ve learned to see the cell you live in, escaping from it is deceptively simple. Begin by asking yourself:

  • “If I felt like I deserved an amazing life, what would I be doing right now?”
  • “If I were ready to begin living my dreams, what would my first step be?”
  • If the real me were truly lovable, how would that change my actions? How would that change the conversations I’m having with myself and the people in my life?”
  • “If I assumed that success could come easily to me, what would I do to make that happen?”

Of course, the changes would be dramatic. You would become more fully yourself and feel more deeply powerful and connected. You would be fully alive.

The trick is to answer these questions with actions rather than thoughts or words. Respond with your life. Begin living as though you are worthy, ready, lovable, successful, and capable. Doing this will unlock your heart and mind. You will illuminate the truth about your own power, worthiness, and ability. You will notice that the cell you found yourself in was nothing more than a compelling illusion.

The truth about entrepreneurship

May 4th, 2016, on the phone with S*: “I’m going to close my business and get a real job. I’m done” she tells me. I’m shocked. S* is very successful in a competitive market.

She goes on to explain that she’s burnt out, and has been for a long time. She feels that the physical, emotional, and spiritual cost of running a business is no longer worth the freedom and income it generates.

As I listen to S* speak, I notice something unexpected: I’m jealous. A very real part of me wishes for a real job too.

A few days later, I mentioned all of this to a famous entrepreneur. After pausing for a while, he quietly said, “I wish I had a real job too.”

*

I started my first business as a professional magician when I was six. By the time I was 18, I was performing for Fortune 500s and professional sports teams. Since then, I’ve built three other businesses. Two succeeded, one failed. I’ve also consulted for hundreds of entrepreneurs and executives in every stage of the game.

It’s easy to get swept away by the romanticism of entrepreneurship. It seems like building a business is fun and exciting and that owning one creates a lofty life.

In reality, entrepreneurship is not nearly as glamorous, fun, or easy as most have been led to believe.

In this article I’m going to unpack the truth about entrepreneurship as I’ve experienced it, both as an owner and an advisor. We’ll cover the good, the bad, and the surprising. I’ll help you figure out if being a founder is likely to make you happy and explain how to increase the possibility of success while maintaining as much sanity as possible.

The good

You gain control of your time and focus. When you start your business, you will be its slave. It will demand far more from you than you expect. This will last anywhere from 6 months to several years.

If you’re able to push through, something amazing happens: you gain almost total control of your time and focus. This creates the potential for a deeply engaged, vivacious life. The ability to drop what you’re doing to see a friend, hop on a jet, or take a personal day with very few repercussions is amazing. For many, myself included, this alone makes the struggle worth it.

You get to choose how much money you make. In fact, doing so only requires developing three things: a product or service that people want, a way of letting people know that it exists, and an effective sales process. Sales and marketing are easier to learn than you expect. The hard part is developing something that people will enthusiastically purchase (more on that in a moment). Once you’ve done that, your income will directly correlate with the amount of energy you invest in your business.

Be aware that the ability to choose how much money you make is also a trap. Many people become enslaved by the desire to make as much money as possible. To do so is to waste your life.

The bad

You will sacrifice your mental health: Six months ago, W*, a very successful non-profit founder, asked, “Do you think it’s possible to build an organization without hating yourself at least some of the time?” My honest answer: no.

If you decide to start a business, your mental health will suffer. Rejection, disappointment, extreme stress, isolation, embarrassment, and intense self-doubt are woven into the fabric of entrepreneurship. I know this sounds like an exaggeration. It’s not.

Here’s one example (of many) from my old speaking business; every entrepreneur has a similar story.

McGill University was hosting a global leadership conference, and I was on the short list of keynote speakers they were vetting. To my delight, they decided to hire me.

I sent them the contract and told my friends and family about the deal.

Several days later, McGill called back. They found a famous speaker who was willing to work for free and decided not to hire me. For several days, I was miserable. I had no interest in seeing my friends, I couldn’t focus on work, and my belief in myself was shaken to the core.

If this only happened once or twice a year, it would be manageable. But this happened once or twice a month and went on for several years. Of course, it was intermingled with just enough success to keep me going, but it was a true struggle.

Unfortunately everything about that story is normal for entrepreneurs. Your self-worth gets tied up -almost entirely- in the performance of your business. As it fails you’ll feel crushed. It will take everything you have (and perhaps a bit more) to pick up the phone and take a shot at your next sale.

As you build your ability to generate leads and close deals, you learn to trust yourself without getting attached to outcomes. For most, this will take several years, but if you pay attention to the process, you’ll notice incremental gains, which will boost your confidence. Until then, it’s normal to feel bipolar as you revel in each new victory, while crumbling with each new defeat.

Isolation is a normal side effect of entrepreneurship: the sheer act of blazing your own path in life is always isolating. It means that fewer and fewer people will be able to relate to what you’re experiencing, and the more you succeed, the fewer peers you’ll have.

Aside from that, almost all new businesses require tightening the belt, which often leads to social isolation. When I was starting out, I’d tell my friends I was too busy to hang out. In reality, I felt like I couldn’t spare $3.00 for a beer. The sad part is that some of those friends stopped calling.

The unexpected

Despite appearances, most entrepreneurs are making a middle class income. Many business owners have become adept at appearing far more affluent than they are. I did this during my first four years as a speaker. I’d act casual as I picked up a tab for my client while secretly fearing that I wouldn’t be able to make rent. I did this because I felt like I needed to appear successful in order for clients and potential clients to trust me. I also wanted my friends and family to admire me.

This type of behavior is common among entrepreneurs. I recently had dinner with the owners of two well-regarded marketing firms. I asked how much they make per year, expecting them to be well into the six-figures. Nope. They were each making about $60,000. One of my friends runs an international software company that services Fortune 500s. He employs eight people. He made $47,000 last year. Another runs an elite cyber security company with 18 employees. He made $41,000 last year.

Are there business owners out there making millions? Of course. But they’re far less common than you’d imagine.

Luck and privilege are deceptively important factors for success: anyone who claims that luck isn’t a major factor in success – and especially quick success – is delusional.  Anyone who denies that being privileged makes success substantially easier (whether that’s through economics, education, family support, gender, race, or other means) is ignorant to how our world works.

Countless self-help and entrepreneurship “gurus” claim to have uncovered the secret to success (or productivity, or profitability, or whatever). That’s a great way to sell books and trainings, but it’s also BS. Luck and privilege make a huge difference and influence almost everything in your business.

Successful people tend to assign undue credit to themselves for both victory and defeat. It leads people to believe that they have more agency than they really do. Don’t get me wrong, you’re responsible for the effort that you put in, but in most cases, you won’t actually be able to control the results.

When you succeed, express gratitude to the fates. When you fail, express compassion to yourself.

Owning a business is not as glamorous as it seems: the bitch work will always outpace the glamor. In fact, it’s a willingness to consistently do the bitch work that makes people successful.

A huge amount of your time will be dedicated just to keeping your shit together: when you work for yourself, every single decision comes down to you. You will also be responsible for managing a near infinite number of details. Staying sane and organized is half the battle.

Success does not lead to contentment. Many people believe that once they achieve their goals, they will be content. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Contentment and success are two different skills that don’t have much to do with one another. Success is about achieving your goals. Contentment is about learning to desire that which you already possess.  

Should you start a business?

If you’re thinking about starting a business, my advice to you is simple: if you can be happy doing anything besides starting a business, don’t start a business. For most people the price isn’t worth the cost.

However, if something deep inside of you is yearning to build a business, or if you need the freedom that comes alongside owning your own business, honor that. It will be much more challenging, and much more rewarding than you could ever imagine.

Protips for those starting businesses

For most people, it’s best to work on your business at night and on the weekends. Once the business becomes viable, then you should quit your job.

Get a mentor: the singular best tip I can give you if you want to become an entrepreneur is to find a mentor. While there are people who offer this as a professional service, it tends to be more effective as an informal relationship. The best way to foster this relationship:

  • Find someone who you want to be like in 10-15 years.
  • Email her. Tell her that you admire her and ask if she would be willing to chat for 20 minutes. If possible, propose meeting in person. Make it easy for her by offering a variety of options, including meeting at her office.
  • When you meet, come prepared with broad, open-ended questions about how she became successful. Make sure that she’s doing most of the talking.
  • After the meeting, send a thank you card.
  • Follow her advice, even if it doesn’t make sense.
  • Several months later, update her with your progress. If she responds, ask if it would be possible to get together again.
  • Rinse and repeat.

The trick is to show her that you sincerely value her time and are following her advice.

In the beginning, focus exclusively on product and sales. When you’re starting out, social media, a cool logo, a flashy website, and networking groups are huge time wasters. All that matters is building a product or service that people want and learning how to sell it.

This raises the question, “How do I know if people want my product?” The answer: create a basic version of your offering, and try to sell it. Let’s say that you want to create a new type of chalk for rock climbers to put on their hands. First, make a batch of the chalk at home.  Show it to a few rock climbers and ask if they’d like to buy it from you. If people buy it, you’re on the right track. It’s important to pay attention to what they do, not what they say. If people aren’t buying, they aren’t interested. Pitch your product to at least 50 buyers before attempting to judge whether or not it’s viable.

Over time you’ll refine your ability as a salesperson. Reading books on sales will help speed up your success, but if all you’re doing is reading (and not actually selling), then you’re doing it wrong.

Create or join a mastermind. Running a business is isolating and difficult. One of the best ways to cut through the isolation while also speeding up your success is to join a mastermind.

A mastermind is a small group of people who meet on a regular basis to invest in one another’s success. The mastermind that I am a part of consists of four entrepreneurs. We meet on Monday mornings. Each week we check in with one another, offer solutions/perspective on the problems we are facing, and make a commitment for the following week. The three people in my group have become some of my closest friends and most trusted advisors. Their guidance has improved every area of my life.

You can create your own mastermind by finding a small group of entrepreneurs and meeting with them on a regular basis. During your meetings, everyone should be open, honest, vulnerable, and willing to help.

So, why haven’t I gotten a real job?

August 2nd, 2016, back on the phone with S*: “How’s the new job going?” I ask.

“I hate it. I think I’m going to quit. I like having a steady paycheck but I can’t stand my boss. I miss being able to pick the projects I work on.”

“So are you going to look for a new job?”

“No. I’m going to start a new business. I’ve got a few ideas…”

At the top of the article I mentioned that I sometimes find myself wishing for a real job. And yet, I choose to ignore that wish.

I’m one of those people who is happier working for himself despite the significant toll that it takes. Yes, I could figure how to be ok working for a boss, but it would feel like a betrayal.  I get restless and depressed when I’m forced to work on projects I don’t love.

In 2009, my mentor said to me, “Jason, your curse in life is that you are an entrepreneur. It’s your job to figure out how to make that a blessing.” Those words still ring very, very true.

Reminders to myself

When I fail to give my mind any sort of structure or organization, my world grows dark and crazy. I find myself fixating on embarrassments, disappointments, and mistakes from my past. I worry that the future will be worse than the present, and that I’m destined for failure and loneliness. I find myself discounting, or even ignoring, all of the beautiful things that have already happened, and all of the amazing things that are currently happening.  

However, I’ve found that when I give my mind guidance – usually in the form of gentle reminders – that I become much more focused, happy, and in touch with my ability to live my dreams.

I like to think of the reminders as training wheels for my mind. I scatter them around my apartment, on the desktop of my computer, and set alarms for them on my phone. After a few weeks, I no longer need the reminders; they’ve become a familiar part of how I think about myself and the world.

What follows are ten reminders that I need in my life right now. They’re the thoughts I want shaping my reality. They revolve around courage, integrity, trusting myself, and the moment.

I share these reminders to help solidify them for myself, and with the hope that a few of them will serve you too. If they do, integrate them into your life. The more familiar something becomes, the easier it is for your mind to accept it.

1) Your demons will attempt to tear you apart. Whether they succeed or fail is up to you. They will begin by encouraging you to check social media when you should be working. They will remind you that you can easily put everything off until tomorrow.

If that doesn’t work, they will tell you that you’re likely to fail and that you’re an imposter. They will remind you that no one gives a shit about what you’re up to anyway. Your demons will make you feel small. They will be very convincing.

Do not let them dictate your actions. Instead, observe them. Let them run their course. They will exhaust themselves. You’ll notice that beneath the demons rests a stable sense of confidence and creativity. Trust that. That’s the real you.

When you can, use curiosity to conquer your demons. Ask, “Why are you scared right now?” or, “Why are you feeling anxious?” or, “Why are you procrastinating?” Don’t settle for the first answer. Go deep. Keep asking why until you get to the root of the issue. This will drain your demons of their power.

2) Honesty – especially when it’s hard – is the key to integrity. Integrity makes life flow more easily and more vibrantly. On a simple level, this means you must tell the truth. On a deeper level, this means leaning into the hard conversations. It means that your actions should mirror your thoughts and desires. Anything else is a betrayal of self.

Some people will be disappointed by what they learn about you when you’re completely honest. That’s ok. It’s not your job to protect other people from your reality. It’s better to disappoint them than pretend to be someone you’re not.

3) It’s ok to be single. The majority of my friends are married. Most of those who aren’t married are in serious relationships. Me? I’m single.

When I compare myself to my friends, I fear that I’ve fallen behind. I fear that maybe there’s nobody out there for me. But these fears are phantoms. I’ve taken a very different path in life than most of my friends. I can’t expect my results to look like theirs.

More broadly, obsessing over the gap between where I am and where I want to be is dangerous. It misses the point. There is a lot I love about this stage of life. I love that I can stay up late, lying on my couch and listening to music without bothering anyone. I love being able to get to know my readers personally. I love being able to spontaneously drop what I’m doing to see a friend. And once this stage of life ends, I may never be able to return. I need to enjoy it before it slips through my fingers, because one day, I’ll miss all of this.

4) I am enough.

5) The only way to improve the future – either for myself or others – is to improve this moment. Doing this will improve the next moment.

6) Playing it safe is one of the most dangerous decisions I could ever make.

-2015

7) When in doubt, assume that getting exactly what you want in life will be easy. In fact, there seems to be a reliable process:

  • Get crystal clear on what you authentically desire. Focus on one thing at a time. Finding clarity may require journaling, experimentation, or prolonged periods of silence and reflection. This is the hard part.
  • Once you’ve found clarity about what you desire, write your vision in vivid detail. Use pen and paper. Keep working on your vision until it feels right.
  • Assume that you will succeed; begin taking action as though you already have.
  • Be open to the possibility that getting exactly what you want will be easy and that it may show up differently than you expect.
  • Now let it go. Release your attachment to outcomes. Literally burn the piece of paper that you wrote your vision on.
  • Finally, take the first step. Then the second. You don’t need to see the entire path as you walk it. Just trust that everything is unfolding exactly as it should.

8)  Go easy on yourself. It’s ok to be imperfect. Remember that more than anything it’s your rough edges and imperfections that make you human. It’s ok to sneak a scotch or a cigarette every now and then. Even though you’re a vegetarian who avoids caffeine, it’s no big deal if you eat a bit of meat or have a cup of coffee.

If you’re having trouble forgiving yourself, or treating yourself with compassion, imagine that a close friend is in the exact same situation that you’re in. How would you want him to treat himself? Of course, you’d tell him to be gentle and forgiving. Treat yourself the way that you would treat anyone else you would love; transfer the advice you would give to your friend over to you. Zenfully, by relaxing your standards and leaning into your imperfections, you’ll become happier and more effective.

Besides, you’re already on your path. You’ll get to where you’re going. The business will grow, your influence will expand, and you’ll meet a woman who helps you flourish. It’s a question of when, not if. As long as you stay true to yourself and keep moving forward, you’ll get there.

9) Abundance isn’t about having a certain amount of money in your bank account. It’s about realizing that you already have everything you need to begin living your dreams. It’s about realizing that if you ever run out of money you have friends and family who will let you stay with them while you get back on your feet. It’s about living fully so that you may die with as few regrets as possible.

It’s in money’s nature to ebb and flow. Hoarding it is the opposite of abundance. Hoarding inspires fear and a lack of faith in self. It prevents the natural flow of affluence.

In fact, the fluidity of money is built into the language that we use to talk about it. The word “affluence” comes from the Latin word, “affluentia” which means “flowing towards.” The word, “currency” comes from the Latin word, “currens” which means “to run” (as in a river’s running current).

The key to abundance is to give freely (especially to the less fortunate), make huge investments in yourself, and to notice the amazing things you already have.

10) Leap. You don’t need a net.

*

Those are the reminders that I need in my life right now. If everything goes according to plan, they’ll help shape me into the man I want to become. I hope at least one or two of them resonated with you. If you have reminders that are particularly meaningful to you during this stage of your life, I’d love to hear them. You can post them in the comment section below.

How to understand, cultivate, and focus your energy

July 2nd, 2016, Washington, DC: I’ve just delivered the Best Man toast at W* and E*’s wedding. People are shaking my hand and giving me compliments on it. I do my best to look delighted and let the compliments land, but the truth is, I can’t feel their warmth right now. I’m too exhausted. It’s been a long couple of weeks.

I step outside to steal a few moments for myself.

A panhandler approaches. He goes into his pitch, preparing to ask for a buck or two. I interrupt him, hoping to speed this up, and ask, “How can I help you, sir?” I tried to ask the question gently, but it came out brusque and resentful.

For the first time, he really looks at me and sees beyond the 30-something guy dressed in a rented tux. He turns to me, and gently says, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you” and walks away.  

I didn’t mean to send him away. I would have given him a few dollars. But I had become so burnt out that I couldn’t even extend a bit of warmth to someone who needed it.

In that moment, I realized that I had nothing left to give.

Energy is your most important resource

Have you ever been in a situation where your life appears to be perfect – you have money, time, friends, family, and health – and yet, there’s still something missing? That’s happened to me many times. In most cases the problem is that you’ve misallocated your energy, making it difficult to connect with the moment.

Learning to cultivate, manage, and strategically invest your energy will dramatically improve your life. In fact, the success of almost any endeavor hinges on the amount of energy and attention you invest, not the time or money.

By energy, I’m referring to the cross-section of how energetic you feel (hyper, sleepy, etc.), and the predominant emotion you’re experiencing (playful, creative, etc.).

When you feel energetic, confident, and creative, it’s easy to engage with life. When you feel tired, depressed, and dark, doing anything is a struggle.

The aim is to make decisions that flood your system with positive energy, and then focus that energy on the people and projects that mean the most to you. Doing this begins with treating your energy as though it’s an extremely valuable currency.

Energy is a currency

Think of your energy as a currency –like time or money- that can be invested, saved, given away, stolen, or wasted. When making decisions, ask yourself, “Do I really want to invest my energy in this?” If the answer is unclear, unpack the question by asking, “What are the likely consequences of pouring my energy into this?”

You should invest as much energy as possible into the things you want more of, while withdrawing it from the things you don’t want.

An example from my professional life. A few years ago a partner and I were working on a project for a well-known entrepreneur. When we sent him the bill he refused to pay.1

Even though we could have sued him and won, we chose not to.2 A lawsuit would generate huge amounts of stress, resentment, uncertainty, and anger. It would dominate our thoughts and calendars. It would take us away from friends, family, clients, and ourselves. Simply put, it wasn’t worth it.

The world is dark and difficult enough on its own. By investing your energy into something that’s likely to produce more shit, you’re making life harder for yourself (and probably others, too) than is necessary.

As you start making decisions based on whether or not you want to invest your energy you’ll notice new – smarter – behaviors emerging. Instead of trying to win arguments you’ll start saying, “Maybe you’re right” and changing the topic. Instead of spending hours trying to find the best deal, you’ll buy things based on convenience. Instead of getting tangled in drama (like a lawsuit) you’ll let it go and move on.

Avoid energy thieves

One of the best ways to create an abundance of energy is to minimize your exposure to energy thieves. The most common culprits:

Toxic people: when identifying toxic people, there’s an important distinction to make between loved ones who needs support, and the truly toxic. A loved one going through a tough time is likely to command a lot of your time and attention. Even though this can be draining, I’d suggest giving it to them as generously as you can. Leaning on the people you love, and allowing them to lean on you, is one of the most meaningful, intimate experiences you’ll ever have. It’s also the literal foundation of a strong support system.

A truly toxic person is different. Truly toxic people consistently leave you feeling drained, anxious, and small. If you have people like this in your life, it’s best to spend less time with them. Don’t return all of their calls. Ignore their invitations. Say no when they ask you to do something you aren’t enthusiastic about. Avoid hanging out with them one on one. Yes, this is kind of cold, but it’s even colder to lie about wanting to spend time with someone while withholding your full presence.

Prioritizing the desires of those who bring you down signals to yourself that your needs are less important than the needs of people you dislike. Please don’t do that to yourself.

Lying: lying – especially white lies and lies of omission – is so normal that most people don’t even realize they’re doing it. It’s also extremely draining.

To successfully lie, you have to construct a fictional reality and then try to convince someone– often someone you care about – that it’s the truth. Then you have to keep track of the lies you’ve told, and who you’ve told them to, so you don’t get caught. Through it all, you have to shoulder the burden of knowing that you’re not showing up authentically in the world.

At a deeper level, many people lie to themselves by failing to pursue their burning desires and avoiding the conversations they need to have.

When you commit to living without lies (a surprisingly difficult task) you’ll notice that it frees up a huge amount of energy for you to invest in other areas of your life.

Mindlessly staring at screens: computers, phones, tablets, and televisions are unavoidable. The question you need to ask yourself is what’s happening while you’re looking at them. If you’re engaged by the work you’re doing, entertained by the Pokémon you’re chasing, or enjoying the conversation with your friend, that’s fine. But when you find yourself zoning out, entranced by whatever is in front of your face, then the screen is stealing your energy. Work to set boundaries around your interaction with electronics to prevent them from draining you.

Toxic jobs: most people spend a lot of their time at work. A bad job has the ability to infect every area of your life. If you find yourself consistently wishing you worked somewhere else, it’s time to develop an exit plan. Yes, I know, quitting is scary. It forces you to deal with the unknown. That’s ok. It’s far better to quit than to suspend yourself in a reality that drains you.

Being overcommitted: this is the mistake I made at the top of the article. Over the course of three weeks, I committed to being in three weddings in three states, spending a week leading an 80 person staff training in a fourth state, and catching up with friends and family along the way. I wasn’t allowing enough time for rest. I failed to prioritize myself and, as a result, burnt out.

If you’re wired to be a people pleaser (like I am) then it’s important that you learn to say, no. Alternatively, if you do say yes to many things all at once (like I did), then make sure that the price is worth the cost. Personally, I needed a solid week of rest before I was able to fully engage with life again.

Neglecting your health: many people willingly sacrifice their health by putting diet, exercise, and sleep on the back burner, perpetually telling themselves, “I’ll handle my health tomorrow.” Bad idea. Health is the foundation of energy. A few basic guidelines:

  • Diet: a simple approach is to have a smoothie for breakfast, a big-ass salad for lunch, and a sensible dinner. Experiment with eliminating alcohol and caffeine to see how they affect your energy. Personally, I am much more energetic when I consistently go without caffeine.
  • Sleep: the goal is to wake up feeling refreshed in the morning. The easiest way to do this is to wake up at the same time every day and go to bed when you’re tired. If this doesn’t work for you, try turning your electronics off an hour or two before bed. If that doesn’t work, experiment with eliminating caffeine and sleep aids. If you’re still struggling, I suggest reading, “The Insomnia Workbook.” This book made dramatic improvements in the quantity and quality of my sleep.
  • Exercise: find something you enjoy and aim to do it a few times a week. If you’re completely lost, I suggest starting with Couch to 5k, a tiered jogging program for people who aren’t runners.

As with any change, it’s easiest to begin with small, sustainable, actions that move you in the right direction.

Identify and protect your peak times

Most people get the majority of their work done in two or three predictable bursts throughout the day. If you start observing your own behavior you’ll notice that there are consistent times when it’s easier for you to be creative, focused, and in the zone. These are your peak times and they are extremely valuable.

You can find your peak time by keeping track of your energy throughout the day. Over the next two weeks, check in with yourself every hour while you’re awake. During these check-ins, rate the following on a scale of 1 – 10, your:

  • Energy
  • Focus
  • Happiness
  • Creativity
  • Stress

At the end of the two weeks, review the data that you’ve collected about yourself. You’ll start to notice natural ebbs and flows of energy. Keep in mind that things like caffeine, sleep deprivation, and changing time zones can skew your results. Control these elements to the best of your ability during the experiment.

Once you’ve found your peak times protect them on your calendar. These are the times when you’ll most easily be able to step into the flow and create whatever it is that you desire. I suggest using them for the most important projects in your life.

Personally, my peak times are from 9:30am – 11:30am and again from 9:00pm – 12:00 midnight. I dedicate the first one to writing and working with clients and the second one to whatever feels most important that day.

A lost secret

One of the lost secrets of life is that energy – not time or money – is the most valuable resource.

By focusing and channeling your energy you can create nearly anything you desire: love, connection, money, art, fun, joy, adventure, etc. The trick is to understand that creating a better future starts by focusing your energy in the present. From there you are limited primarily by your imagination and your belief in yourself.

On life, death, and the moment

 

-1-

Summer of 2010: I was on a camping trip with 11 guy friends in Quebec. We were all healthy, playful and happy. M* died on that camping trip. He drowned. He was 27.

Winter of 2011: I was in Washington, DC preparing for a speaking tour. One night, C* called me. He told me that our close friend M* (a different M*) was dead. M* took his own life. He was like a brother to C* and I. He was 24.

Summer 2013: I was in New England for the week. As I was leaving a friend’s house, I got an email from L*. She told me that R* was dead. His heart stopped while he was in China. He was 28.

-2-

If you want to evaluate your life, the most important question you could possibly ask is, “Am I loving to the best of my ability?”

We’d all like to believe that we love fully, but the truth is more complicated; living from the heart is difficult. It requires facing – and then transcending – your core fears.

There’s a key that makes facing your fears easier, but it requires insane courage. Its gravity is so significant that it’s nearly impossible to comprehend. That key?

Accepting your own mortality.

-3-

Let’s start with the simple truths: one day you will die. So will everyone you have ever loved and everyone who has ever loved you.

A more complicated truth: you have no idea when your day will come.

-4-

The denial of death is the denial of self. Death is woven into every fiber of your being. It cannot be separated from life.

And yet, most people avoid acknowledging the presence of death. They refuse to talk about it, let alone open their hearts to it. To do this is to deny the truth of being alive.

Most of us get swept away by the sheer inertia of life. We become entranced, repeating the same flawed routines again and again and again. We allow ourselves to be manipulated by toxic people, the media, politicians, our demons, and the culture we exist in.

Reminding yourself that all of this ends, can help snap you out of the trance, and give you the confidence to take control.

-5-

When you open your heart to the inevitable reality of death you’ll notice that it creates a renewed sense of urgency about living.

Realizing your own mortality connects you to the innate potential of this exact moment. Mortality strips away the lies, excuses, and illusions that have been holding you back. Beneath them, you’ll find abundant reserves of power, freedom, and agility.

-6-

A few practical approaches for opening yourself more fully to life even in the face of your own inevitable death:

  • Make love to your partner like it’s your last night together
  • Drop to your knees and offer yourself in pure devotion to whatever, God, Goddess, spirit, or science you believe in
  • Quit the job or close the business that’s been eating you alive
  • Allow yourself to finally break and feel the things you’ve been avoiding
  • Rent a fast sports car and drive it through the twisting mountain roads
  • Book the trip you’ve been dreaming of
  • Strip away the white lies you’ve been telling yourself and the world (even when it hurts)
  • Stop playing it safe

Risk living your dreams. It’s ok if you don’t have a plan. Your path will emerge as you walk it. Cast away the illusion of not being ready, or worthy, or capable, and begin. Now is the time. It always has been.

-7-

“But isn’t this risky?” you ask. “Can’t things go wrong when you speak your truth, chase your dreams, and confront the things you’ve been avoiding?”

Yes.

And that’s the point.

Maybe you will run out of money. Maybe your heart will break. Maybe the plane will crash. Maybe the conversation will go poorly. Maybe you’ll have no idea where the path is leading you.

That’s ok.

Because you know what else is completely possible? Dwindling your life away at a job you hate, mindlessly clicking on link after link after link online, getting caught up in drama, and being controlled by fear and anxiety only to die shrouded in lies and regrets. In fact, it’s not just possible – it’s normal.

-8-

A tool for connecting to all of this: imagine that you’re on your deathbed, looking back at your life. Imagine two different versions.

The first version was ruled by fear. You wanted to quit your corporate job to work for a non-profit, but you were afraid of making less money, so you remained in a career you hated. You wanted to open up to the people you love, but you were afraid of vulnerability, so you remained closed off. You wanted to have a richer life experience, but you were afraid of getting the help you needed, so you treated yourself as though you were unimportant.

The second version was ruled by love. You wanted to quit your corporate job to work for a non-profit, and you did, despite the salary cut. You wanted to open up to the people you loved, so you took the risk of being vulnerable, even though it was massively difficult. You wanted to have a richer life experience, so you got the help you needed, even though admitting that you need help felt next to impossible.

Now pause and reflect on the two different paths. The life led by fear ends up bleak and incomplete. The life led by love ends up vivacious and dynamic. Both are realistic and available to you. Both are created by decisions made in this moment. The question is, do you have the courage to walk the path with heart? (The answer, I promise, is yes. You do have the courage.)

-9-

Should you start to lose faith in yourself, come back to this moment and stare death straight in the eye. Acknowledge that soon, you’ll no longer exist. Allow the life force to come back into your body. Return to yourself, and begin again

-10-

I’ll leave you with a quote from the Dalai Lama that I think of often. He was once asked what surprised him most about humanity. He answered,

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present, the result being that he does not live in the present or the future. He lives as if he is never going to die, then dies having never really lived.”

Don’t let that happen to you. Live and love while you still can, because one day, you’ll no longer be able to.

The art of giving back: an unconventional approach to negotiation

April 2015: “I’m torn. I want to work with this conference in Guadalajara, but they can’t afford my keynote fee. I could give them a discount, but I’ve noticed that the clients who pay reduced rates end up treating me poorly.”

C*: “So, basically, they’re asking you to donate a chunk of your time and energy, right?”

Me: “Yeah, that’s one way of looking at it.”

C*: “Respond by asking them to donate their time and energy. Get the conference to do a community service project or something similar in exchange for the discount. If they’re open to it, then it’s a win all around.”

Me: “You’re a genius.”

When I told the conference coordinator that I’d be happy to offer a discount in exchange for community service, she leapt at the opportunity. The end result was amazing. Together, we activated hundreds – maybe thousands – of hours of community service. It was magic.

*

One of the hidden-in-plain-sight secrets about the human experience is that we are all deeply connected. Another secret: we all belong to one another. Many people succeed at creating amazing lives for themselves while still feeling like something is missing. This sense of lack or hollowness is a result of forgetting to invest in other people’s success as well as your own. Ultimately, a failure to invest in others’ happiness and stability is a failure to invest in yourself.

Fortunately, there are simple and effective ways to use your existing job – whether you’re a business owner, executive, or employee – to improve the world around you.

The uncomfortable tension between making money and being generous

Many of the most talented people I’ve met used to dream of making the world a better place. Now, they hide behind lies of powerlessness by telling themselves, “I can’t change the world” or “I’ll focus on giving back when I’m rich.”

And I get it. What they’re really trying to do is resolve two truths that seem to contradict one another:

  1. Making money for the sake of making money is inescapable. You have to pay the bills. Unfortunately, the mere act of making money and being successful, while addictive, is not intrinsically fulfilling.
  2. Being generous for the sake of being generous is extremely fulfilling.1 Unfortunately, it’s also unsustainable on its own; the act of generosity does not usually generate enough income to live off of.

In an ideal world the solution is simple: dedicate half of your time to making a living and the other half to giving back.

But the reality is much more complicated. Volunteering can always be pushed to a later date, while paying the bills can’t. As a result, many people find that their goals change from giving back, to making enough, to making more. That’s exactly what happened to me. When I started working, I focused on reducing global poverty, but the demands of the real world interfered with my plans. Without noticing, I began spending more time thinking about my sales cycle and less time figuring out how to help others.

It was only when C* suggested requesting a volunteer project in exchange for a discount that I returned to using my business for social good. The trick is to harness what you’re already doing for the better good.

Using your job to give back part 1: entrepreneurs, executives, and people who can negotiate

If you’re a business owner or an executive, the approach I recommend is simple: if a client needs a discount, offer the discount in exchange for community service. This strategy can be effective with a wide variety of customers. I’ve used it with speaking, consulting, and coaching clients. C*, the friend who gave me this idea, works in film production, and he’s used it with his clients as well.

A few guidelines to make this feasible and effective:

  • Request a small amount of community service if your client needs a small discount. If they need a large discount, ask for a large amount of community service. On one side of the spectrum, I’ve asked for entire organizations to dedicate a full day to volunteering. On the other, I’ve requested that everyone involved bring a can of food for the local food pantry.

  • Focus on organizations that serve your client’s community. This makes it easier for your clients to say yes. It also extends the reach of your generosity, which is a deeply satisfying feeling.

  • Make sure that your client has partnered with a reputable organization that you respect. In other words, if you’re not an animal lover, and your client proposes working with the local animal shelter, politely decline and suggest a different organization. It’s important that you feel great about the social good you’re creating. Personally, I’m disturbed by poverty and homelessness. Because of this, I request that my clients partner with organizations addressing these issues.

  • Most importantly: take time to feel the impact that you’re creating. Your generosity and creativity benefits you, your client, and a group of benefactors. That’s true power. You deserve to feel amazing for becoming one of the people who actively makes our world a better place. If more people behaved like you, everyone would be better off.

Why this works: if you’ve ever given a discount to a client, there’s a good chance that you felt weird about it. I used to. In fact, many of the clients I formerly gave discounts to treated me worse than the clients who paid full price.2

There are two schools of thought as to why this happens. The first believes that people who are likely to negotiate tend to be high maintenance and difficult to work with. The other believes that when you negotiate, you signal that you are low-status and easily pushed around.

I don’t buy either of those theories. People treat us how we allow them to. If you give a discount without asking for something equivalent in return, you’ve indicated that you don’t fully believe in the value of what you’re selling.3 By asking for something valuable -like your client’s time and energy- in exchange for a discount, you signal that you’re confident in your ability to deliver.

 

Using your job to give back part 2: employees, bosses, and owners

As crazy as it sounds, employees can use their company’s resources to give back to the local community too. The trick is to help your boss understand how she and the company benefit by getting involved with community service.

Here’s how to do it:

1) Begin by finding an organization that is somehow related to your company. Though there doesn’t have to be a logical connection between your company and the organization, having one helps. A few examples:

  • An accounting firm partnering with a mathematics tutoring center
  • An ice-cream stand partnering with a homeless shelter
  • A summer camp partnering with an overseas HIV/AIDS program for children.4

If you can’t find a logical connection between your company and a philanthropic organization, aim to partner with an organization in your community. Local ties are very appealing to business owners.

2) Make volunteering beneficial for the company. The easiest way to do this is to contact the local media and let them know about your company’s efforts. Don’t overthink this. It’s the journalist’s job to cover local events. Most of them welcome tips about stories in their community. Of course, this is also a huge win for the company because it will generate free publicity and media coverage. 

3) Schedule a time to chat with your boss. I suggest sending your boss an email asking if she’d be available for 15 minutes to discuss a new project.

 

4) Start by asking for a small commitment. Make it as easy as possible for your boss to say yes. A few guidelines:

  • Ask if you and any interested employees could spend one Friday afternoon volunteering. Mention that Friday afternoon is the perfect time for volunteer work because employee engagement is already low.
  • Tell her that you’ll handle the logistics and organization. Let her know that all you really need is her permission.
  • Mention that this project can bring good publicity for the company, and to increase the likelihood of this happening, you will personally reach out to at least three journalists before and after the event. If you come prepared with a list of journalists and their contact information, it will be even easier for your boss to give you permission.
  • Remind your boss, if appropriate, that creating an opportunity to serve the less fortunate will boost company morale.
  • Tell her that you’d love it if she joined, too.

5) Pause to appreciate how exceptional you are, regardless of the outcome. If more people cared as much as you do we would have fewer problems and more joy. The world needs people like you. I hope you pause to feel good about that.

 

6) After the volunteer experience, have everyone sign a card for your boss and the owner of the company. You want to make your boss feel proud of the good work that “she” enabled. Yes, you’re really the one who did all of this, but it’s beneficial to give the credit away. Doing so will make your boss feel important and make her more likely to green-light volunteer projects in the future. Also, repeat step five.

 

7) Assuming everything went well, ask if you can do this once a quarter. There’s a very good chance that your boss will say yes.

*

I know that a lot of people are going to dismiss this idea, telling themselves it would never work at their company. If this is you, my hope is simple: challenge your assumption by talking to your boss and seeing what happens.5 To dismiss an idea that excites you, without even attempting it, is to fail before you’ve begun.

The myth of powerlessness

It’s unrealistic for most people to dedicate their lives to building a better world. Because of this, many of the most generous, kind, and capable people have fallen victim to the toxic myth that their need to make money negates their desire to make a real difference in our world.

While this is a common belief, it’s also divorced from reality. No matter where you are in your job or business, there is always a way to generate profit while contributing to the creation a better community. Anything less should be considered a failure to express your true power, creativity, and generosity.


What to do when the world grows dark

 

April 6th, 2016: Just yesterday S* asked me how I was doing, and I honestly answered, “You know, it feels like everything I touch is turning to gold right now. It’s amazing.”

But today, the world feels dark. Really dark. I want to get out of bed and at least try to make something of myself, but I can’t. Whatever it is that normally draws me into the world is nowhere to found. Not even a glimmer.

Life feels monotonous, bland, uninspired, and pointless. If I’m being honest, I kind of hate myself, and I think I’m a jackass who’ll never amount to anything much.

Though I had plans to write, take meetings, and go out in the evening, I am spending the day in bed, eating cherry pop-tarts, watching Netflix, and feeling like shit.

When I wake up the next morning, I feel a bit better. Not great, but better. By the end of the following day, I’m glad to be alive again. I even feel playful.

*

Every now and then, the world caves in on me. Temporarily, I feel miserable. More than that, I feel like I’ll never be able to get back to the place where I love myself and my life again.  

When this happens, I’m always tempted to think that I’m broken, flawed, or messed up. But almost everyone I know goes through periods of intense darkness or depression. As far as I can tell, my friends and clients who have the courage to live boldly, vivaciously, and creatively are more susceptible to darkness than those who stayed on the beaten path.  

So let’s start there: if you periodically feel depressed, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not broken; you don’t need to be fixed. In fact, I would argue that it’s a sign of truly being alive. The only people I know who don’t deal with depressed periods are those who have avoided pain so much that they end up behaving more like robots than humans. They’ve chosen (perhaps unconsciously) to numb themselves. By avoiding pain, they’re also avoiding the full human experience and failing to dwell in reality. To numb yourself is to move through life with muted feelings.

Short intense bursts of depression are normal parts of the human experience and can offer deep insights. They may not seem normal, because most people suffer in silence, which leaves everyone feeling like they are alone.

It also doesn’t help that many mental health “experts” imply that perpetual happiness is possible. It’s not.  

The good news is that when the world grows dark, there are reliable ways to step back into the light. More than that, there are tools you can use to help you transform the darkness into something meaningful.

First, let the darkness in

Many people feel guilty for feeling bad. They think, “I’ve got food, a job, and friends. I shouldn’t feel like this. This isn’t ok. I should feel grateful for what I have.”1

This mindset signals to yourself that your naked feelings aren’t valid. The truth is much more simple: your feelings are valid, even if they don’t make sense or seem unwarranted. Telling yourself otherwise creates distance between yourself and your reality, which is counterproductive.  

Another common reaction to feeling bad is trying to reframe your feelings into something positive. An example from a conversation I had a few weeks ago:

Me: “It hurts that S* only returns my calls when there’s something in it for him. We used to be such close friends. It took me years to notice that the relationship has become toxic, and now that I see it for what it is, I’m wrecked and embarrassed.”

C*: “Dude, don’t feel bad about that. S* treats everyone that way, and I’m sure he’d be there for you if you really needed it. Besides, you’re a well loved guy. People adore you; focus on that.”

While C*’s approach to dealing with difficult feelings is common, it’s also misguided. Attempting to reframe your feelings about a situation is the same as saying to yourself, “How I feel is somehow wrong.” Once again, that’s a bad idea and a form of self-denial.

Feeling guilty for feeling bad and reframing your feelings builds walls around your heart.  While those walls are comforting in the moment, they come at the cost of divorcing you from your truth.

Instead of these mindsets, try something far bolder and more courageous: let the darkness in.

Feel the full force of your emotions and reality pressing down on you.

Succumbing to the darkness provides several counterintuitive benefits:

  • It proves to yourself that you can handle the adversity. It forces you to confront the reality that you are stronger than the darkness within. When that reality clicks, you gain deep insight into yourself and your power.
  • If you are meant to learn something from this bout of depression2, it will create space for you to gain clarity.
  • It will begin the process of cleansing your system of the negative feelings.

Instead of fighting your feelings (which only exacerbates them), surrender.

Next, create space for the light

After letting the darkness in, the next step is to release the demons that are causing emotional chaos. During this process, you usually begin to feel relief.

The following five approaches are the ones that I find most effective. More importantly, they’ve generated positive results for the friends and clients I’ve shared them with. You don’t need to use all five; just experiment until you find the strategy that works best for you.

1) The “fuck you” game (warning: lots and lots of f-bombs coming up, even for me). This is my favorite technique and one that I use even when I’m feeling great. Start by going someplace private. Then say, “Fuck you” out loud to everything that you want to say “Fuck you” to.  This can be to a person, a situation, an object, whatever.

The exercise looks something like this:

  • “Fuck Walter for making me feel like an asshole”
  • “Fuck money for being so captivating, so hard to come by, and so unfulfilling all at once”
  • “Fuck being single when all of my friends are married”
  • “Fuck my friends.”
  • “Fuck trying to lose weight”
  • “Fuck donuts”
  • “Fuck CrossFit”
  • “Fuck Kanye”
  • …etc.

It doesn’t matter if you fully believe everything you say. It doesn’t matter if you’re hypocritical or inappropriate (if you need to tell puppies to go fuck themselves, do it). What matters is that you suspend judgment long enough to release the pent up tension. This may take three minutes, or three hours. You’ll notice that after this exercise you feel much, much lighter and more playful.

2) Stop pretending to be strong, and be weak already. Most of us – especially men – move through the world pretending to be stronger than we are. This is another form of self-denial. Instead of pretending to be strong, allow yourself to finally be weak. Collapse. Break. Cry. Sob. Allowing yourself to be weak will help clear out whatever you’ve been holding onto that’s bringing you down.

3) Talk to yourself. Depression shrouds you in dark illusions about yourself and the world. It creates a fog that distorts your truth. One way to cut through the fog is to ground yourself in reality. You can do this by talking to yourself out loud.

Yes, talking to yourself is kind of insane. That’s ok. It will help you conquer the darkness. While it’s tempting to just think about this stuff, it’s important that you put your feelings into words. Taking the time to name and identify ongoing issues crystallizes the situation and removes the fog.

Start by asking yourself, “What’s wrong?” and then answer yourself, stream of consciousness style. Resist the urge to judge your monologue. Instead, be curious. Try to understand yourself. Be gentle if what you’re saying makes no sense or seems petty.

Your dialogue might begin by being mundane or walled off. That’s fine. Use curiosity and persistence to press through. An abbreviated example:

You: “I feel crappy today. Really crappy.”
You: “Yeah, I noticed. Why do you feel that way?”
You: “I have no idea. I think I’m just messed up.”
You: “Yeah, but take a guess about what’s going on. It’s fine if you’re wrong.”
You: “Well, I mean, I’m not thrilled that I still have this shitty job; I wish I could find the courage to quit.”
You: “You’re not thrilled? That’s a pretty big understatement…”
You: “Ok. I’m wrecked. I hate that every single day I wake up and know that 9 hours of my time are going to be dominated by some stupid boss at a stupid company that I neither like nor respect. Worse still, I’m too cowardly to quit.”
You: “Is there anything you can do about that?
You: “No.”
You: “Well, ok, but give me an idea, even if it’s a crappy one…”

And so on.

If it becomes clear that a certain person (or people) are causing dark feelings in you, talk through that too. For example:

You: “And I hate that Jessica is so aloof about our relationship.”
You: “What would you tell her?”
You: “I’d start by saying that I’m insanely – almost unfairly – attracted to her, but the way she ignores even my most basic emotional needs makes me feel really small…”

Many people suggest talking to loved ones when you’re depressed. This is excellent advice, and you should take it. Feeling the warmth of people you love will help you get back to your reality, but you should still talk to yourself. Even the most open people wear masks. To conquer bouts of depression, you need to take the mask off for a bit, and it’s generally easier to do this when you’re alone.

4) Rage! If you’re in touch with your body, then this strategy will be fun. Use physicality to clear your system of bad energy by throwing an adult version of a temper tantrum. Down a Redbull, blast some metal, and bounce off the walls. Beat the shit out of your pillows. Scream. Jump with all your force. Break plates on the ground. Throw mugs at the wall. Get one of those foam bats and whale on your couch.

5) Temporarily hold yourself to really, really low standards. We’ve already discussed how counterproductive it is to fight against your feelings. A much more effective strategy is to surrender to them. Spend the day in bed eating Pop-Tarts and watching Netflix. Let the clouds pass.

This is especially effective when combined with one or more of the strategies above. The combination of rest and release is often exactly what you need.

If you live with other people, let them know that you’re feeling down. You can also let them know that you’d like to be left alone.

As to which technique you should use – there’s no right or wrong here. Go with the ones that you’re drawn to. Different situations and feelings call for different techniques.

Take time to spot-check the basics

When working to improve mental health, it’s tempting to search for complicated and flashy solutions. You look for repressed childhood memories, subtle ways you’re sabotaging yourself, emotional vampires flying under the radar, and obscure micronutrient deficiencies.  All of those things are important, but they’re not starting spots.

Instead, use this period of darkness as a reminder to spot-check the basics. Are you exercising? Are you hanging out with people you love? Are you sleeping enough? How’s your diet? If you’re neglecting any of these areas, then start paying attention to them. They are disproportionately important for your mental health. You don’t need to make huge sweeping changes to your life. Just go for a brisk walk, write an email to a friend, take a nap, eat a salad, whatever.

Remember: this too shall pass

The hardest part about short bursts of depression is that it feels like they will last forever, but I promise that the dark spells pass.  You’ve experienced this before, and you’ve come out on the other side every single time.

One of your truths (though you may have forgotten it) is that you’ve been able to handle everything – literally everything – that life has thrown at you. This period of depression and darkness is no exception. The clouds will burn off.

Postscript 1: but what if the darkness doesn’t pass?

One of the most fucked up things we’ve done as a society is creating a stigma around mental health.

If your friend fell and broke her arm, you wouldn’t waste a second before telling her to go see a doctor.

Yet telling her that she should talk to someone to help her deal with her depression is a much more delicate conversation and one that generally doesn’t happen.

Admitting to yourself that you need help can be even harder.

So let me make this simple: everyone can benefit from a great psychologist. I mean literally everyone. You are not the exception to this rule (and of course, neither am I).

But even more to the point: if you’ve been feeling depressed for more than a few days or if your bouts of intense depression occur more than two or three times a year, please talk to someone. Being a human is difficult enough as is. There is no need to deal with additional suffering.

Yes, admitting that you need help is uncomfortable. Yes, you may not feel like you can afford it. Yeah, I know; you’re busy and don’t have the time. Yes, a lot of psychologists are idiots who aren’t smart enough to treat you.

I don’t care about any of that stuff. What I care about is you treating yourself well and getting the help you deserve. I promise you’ll be glad you did. By taking good care of yourself, you’ll create a better life for you. You’ll also be contributing to the creation of a world where mental health problems don’t come with the stigma.

Postscript 2: suicide

7:02pm, February 10th, 2011: I’ve just finished the final rehearsal for an upcoming speaking tour. The phone rings. It’s C*.

Me: “Hey, man! How’s it going?”
C*: “I’ve got some bad news… Remember M*?”
Me: “Yeah…”
C*: “He’s dead…. He killed himself…. I confirmed it with his mother. They found him in his apartment. The note said he had been depressed for a long time, and it was no one’s fault. I’m so sorry…”

*

I knew M* well. He, C*, and I hung out every day during senior year of high school.

Though some may consider suicide selfish, I don’t buy it.  I suspect that M* felt like he was being selfless when he killed himself.  I imagine that in M*’s darkest moments, he felt that asking for help was too much of a burden to place on someone he loved. I imagine he felt so deeply broken that professional help would just be an exercise in futility. Though he would have been wrong on both counts, the illusion of being hopeless was overpowering.

Looking back, I wish I called him more. Just to say, “Hi,” to ask how he’s doing, to laugh about the time he and C* went “Ultimate Hiking.”

And I wish he called me. It wouldn’t have been a burden at all. I would have been honored by his trust and vulnerability. I know C* feels the same way.

Life gets painful. Happiness, meaning, connection, and love can be elusive. There are days when the world grows impossibly dark; the idea of waking up and dealing with 60 more years feels unbearable. These are the times when suicide seems like a viable option.

If you start to feel this way, here is what I want you to do: search for the slightest flicker of light amidst the pure darkness. Something imperceptibly small – even trivial – will do. Perhaps it’s the memory of a pet, a nice thing someone once said to you, or the dream of living with less pain in the future.

Now use that glimmer of light and hope to pick up the phone and call a suicide hotline. If you’re in the United States, call: 1-800-784-2433. If you’re outside the US, google “Suicide hotline [your country],” and call the number. Someone will be able help you. You’ll be glad you called and so will be the people who love you.

From there, work with a professional to conquer the depression. Yes, the world and its people can suck. Yes, there are times when it feels like being alive isn’t worth it. Yes, the path forward may be a turbulent one. Despite all this, it can get better, and you’re not alone. I promise.

 

You’re not broken: the hidden dangers of personal development

January 2013: D* and I are eating breakfast and talking about the year ahead. Since my speaking business is doing well (finally), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about who I want to become as a man.

I tell D*, “I want to be one part Richard Branson, one part Thich Nhat Hanh,1 and one part Greg Gillis.2 That would be awesome.”

D* looks at me, pauses, and says, “What’s wrong with being Jason Connell?”

I was speechless…

Looking back, I realize why I couldn’t answer D*’s question. My obsession with trying to improve myself left me feeling like Jason Connell wasn’t good enough.

*

Personal development is a funny thing. When done well, it’s beautiful. “The Inner Game of Tennis” taught me how to control my mind. “Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends on It” made me realize that I need to pay attention to my relationship to myself. BraveSoul, a retreat I attended, helped me connect to my intuition.

But the industry is victim to a catch-22.  If a coach, seminar, or book can create lasting results quickly, it’s bad for business because the customer will have no further need for personal development products. In other words, a customer who believes he or she is flawed, unworthy, or unready spends more money than those who believe they are fine.  Unfortunately, it is in the business’s best interest to nudge people into believing that they are missing something, even when they aren’t.

That’s exactly what happened to me. I got so involved in personal development, that I lost track of two simple and very empowering truths:

  1. Happiness only exists in the moment. It does not (and cannot) exist in the future.3
  2. I already have everything I need to achieve whatever I authentically desire. So do you.

All that remains is learning how to access your innate happiness and ability to create. The first step is to become aware of the hidden dangers of self-improvement. This will allow you to avoid the traps I fell into, while also speeding up your results.

Danger #1: the gross exaggeration of your flaws

Have you ever noticed that the world looks like whatever you focus on? For example, if you focus on crime, automobile accidents, and the negative aspects of society, the world is going to seem like a dark place.

However, if you focus on compassion, the natural abundance all around you, and good times with friends, the world will look like an amazing place.

The same thing happens with what you notice about yourself. If you notice what’s great about you, you’ll feel great. If you notice what sucks about you, you’ll feel crappy.

Marketing, advertising, and pop-culture all trick you into believing you are far more flawed than you truly are.4 Unfortunately, personal development does too. When combined, these aspects dramatically exaggerate your perception of your flaws.

The fix: reconnect to your truth

I have a secret for you: there is nothing wrong with you. You are not messed up, you don’t need to be fixed, and your haters really are assholes.

I have another secret for you: you already have everything you need to begin turning your dreams into reality. You can prove this to yourself by simply taking the first step and seeing what happens. Along the way, you’ll notice something surreal: the barriers to success that seemed so daunting were nothing more than figments of your imagination.

There are many forces trying to persuade you that you’re flawed, unready, or unworthy. Some are so compelling that they may have even convinced you. They’re wrong. The truth is, you are ready.

Danger #2: an obsession with the future

Personal development encourages you to sacrifice the present in exchange for a better future.

A few examples:

  • Entrepreneurs sacrifice sleep, sanity, and health in order to build their businesses.
  • Students pull caffeine-fueled all-nighters to get better grades.
  • People of all ages obsess over their diet and exercise in order to create good looking physiques.

This shouldn’t be an attractive offer, but  if you’re already focused on your flaws, then you’re not enjoying the moment anyways, which makes the offer much more appealing.

To further complicate the problem, the end goals obscure the reason you’re trying to improve your life in the first place. It’s not really the thriving business, GPA, or hot body you’re chasing. It’s the feeling that you expect the business, GPA, or body to create. In most cases, the feeling you’re chasing is happiness or one of its cousins (love, connection, stability,  respect, etc).

This presents a paradox. Personal development tells you that the reward for your effort, happiness, rests in the future.  However, happiness can only be found in the moment. These two ideas create a strong tension that bars many from accessing their innate happiness and ability to succeed.

Fortunately, there’s a way to resolve the tension…

The solution: coffee, chocolate croissants, and Netflix

When you ignore the present moment for long enough, you adapt by putting yourself into a low-grade trance. This trance leads to apathy and listlessness.5

If you’ve been involved with personal development for a while, there’s a good chance you’ve become entranced by the future. It’s time to come back to the present.

Start by spending a day delighting in the simple pleasures of life.

For me, this includes black coffee (and then regretting it later because I’m sensitive to caffeine), chocolate croissants, and Jessica Jones on Netflix. It also includes sailing, checking out used bookstores, and listening to music in the dark.

Many people have become so future-oriented that they’ve forgotten how to create joy for themselves. A few easy sources are:

  • Warm chocolate chip cookies
  • Puppies (if you don’t have your own, visit an animal shelter)
  • Massages
  • Concerts
  • Comedy shows
  • Pizza
  • Fiction (I’ve been loving “Snow Crash”)
  • Nerf guns

Don’t overthink it. As long as you enjoy the activity, you’re doing it right. A few tips to make this easier and more fun:

  • Call in sick from work. Yes, you could save the fun for the weekend, but it’s even better when you should be working. Additionally, calling in sick is a simple reminder that you are more important than your job.
  • Loosen the reigns and indulge. For example, if you’re dairy free but you absolutely love cheese pizza, order a cheese pizza.
  • Spend time away from  phones, computers, and tablets since they tend to interfere with enjoying the moment.
  • Avoid feeling guilty. If spending an entire day enjoying life makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong, say to yourself, “It’s my job is to enjoy the day. I can go back to worrying about the future tomorrow.”
  • Realize that things have a way of working out. One of the main reasons people obsess over the future is that they’re afraid of what it may hold. The truth is, you’ll be fine. You’ve been able to handle everything that life’s thrown at you thus far, and that’s not about to change.
  • If you’re on the fence about spending an entire day having fun, let me make this easy for you: you totally deserve it. Beyond that, orienting yourself in the moment will improve your effectiveness across all areas of your life.

Pausing to enjoy life reminds you that you have the ability to be happy in this exact moment.

After you’ve spent a full day reconnecting to the present, begin adding little moments of joy into your daily life.

The hard work…

As far as personal development goes, my suggestion is simple: let your emotions guide you. If you’re enjoying the process and it seems like it’s speeding up your success, that’s perfect. Otherwise, you’re probably on the wrong track. You don’t need any additional feedback or information beyond your direct experience.

When you feel as though you’re living for the future, slow down and do something you enjoy to draw yourself back into the present. When you’re feeling as though you’re too flawed for your dreams, challenge that assumption by taking action. Things will work out just fine.

The hard work rests in surrendering to the moment and accepting that you are ready to begin. As you do, you’ll be surprised by how naturally success and happiness flows to you. And if you happen to stumble or fall, dust yourself off, grab a chocolate croissant, and begin again.