3 Ways Elephants And Neuroscience Can Help You Make Better Decisions

standard post
Eric Barker  -  

Everything You Know About Neuroscience is Wrong

Here’s a fancy brain picture for you:

Research says that’s likely to make you think I know what I’m talking about — even if I don’t.

Via The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us:

In one clever experiment, David McCabe and Alan Castel had subjects read one of two descriptions of a fictitious research study. The text was identical, but one description was accompanied by a typical three-dimensional brain image with activated areas drawn in color, while the other included only an ordinary bar graph of the same data. Subjects who read the version with the brain porn thought that the article was significantly better written and made more sense. The kicker is that none of the fictitious studies actually made any sense— they all described dubious claims that were not at all improved by the decorative brain scans.

The brain is quite complex and poorly understood — even by experts.

As Molly Crockett explains, most everything we read in the media about the brain is grossly oversimplified and often flat-out wrong.

Oxytocin isn’t just the “love hormone.” And dopamine isn’t merely “the reward neurotransmitter.” And serotonin isn’t just the “happy chemical.”

Is this a very left brain way for me to look at things? Or right brain?

Turns out that distinction is largely misunderstood in the popular media as well:


I don’t mean to poo-poo all the ways you make sense of what’s going on in your head.

So is there a good metaphor for the brain’s workings that can help us live our lives better — and doesn’t require a PhD to understand?


And it’s actually over 2000 years old — but meshes perfectly with the latest neuroscience has to offer. Here we go.


The Elephant And The Rider

In The Dhammapada, Buddha compared his desires to an elephant and his discipline to a human trainer:

In days gone by this mind of mine used to stray wherever selfish desire or lust or pleasure would lead it. Today this mind does not stray and is under the harmony of control, even as a wild elephant is controlled by the trainer.

Jonathan Haidt dives into the roots and modern science of this metaphor in The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom:

The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

It’s an elegant way to understand the primary structure of the human brain.

The old parts of the brain are like the elephant: A simple yet powerful creature, ruled by primal emotion and desires.

The new brain (or prefrontal cortex) is the rider: Smarter and more rational but easily overpowered.

When the elephant is calm, the rider can steer the elephant. This is the “you” you usually identify with.

But when you’re hungry or tired, when you break that diet or procrastinate against your better judgment — that’s the elephant exerting his strength.

Good luck trying to steer that big guy when he gets frightened by a mouse, Mr. Rider.

It’s a great metaphor and matches the latest in neuroscience pretty well.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize winning psychologist Danny Kahneman talks about the two types of thinking: System 1 and System 2.

They match the elephant and the rider pretty closely.

Problem is I always forget which is System 1 and which is System 2 — but I never forget the difference between the elephant and the rider.

So how does this relate to your life?


Elephant > Rider

When the elephant really wants something, he almost always wins. Maybe this seems depressing. Shouldn’t the smart guy be in charge?

We need to remember: the rider evolved to serve the elephant, not the other way around.

Fond of eating, sleeping, and being safe, the elephant always keeps the fundamentals in mind.

But the elephant does make bad decisions, and the rider can help.

You want to be more productive. You even read a blog about it. You develop a fancy system and a schedule. You’re feeling good.

But that’s all for the rider. The elephant doesn’t understand any of it. And so you still end up procrastinating.

(Turns out your elephant likes TV, chips and salsa. Go figure.)

So how do we make good changes in our lives if the rider is so weak?


3 Ways To Outsmart A Willful Elephant

The rider can win. He’s smarter. But as David Mamet once said, “If you’re smarter than the other guy, be smarter than the other guy.”

There’s a way to overcome the elephant but it’s not by sheer force. Here are three things you need to do.

1) Keep the elephant calm

Want to lose weight? Don’t have donuts in the house. Don’t want fights at Thanksgiving dinner? Stop talking about politics.

The best way to slow the elephant is not to let him start charging in the first place.

Manipulate your environment so as to make what you should do easy and what you shouldn’t do hard.

2) Strengthen the rider. And don’t let him get tired.

Willpower is a rider who hits the gym regularly. He’ll never be stronger than the elephant, but he’ll do better than a weak rider.

And after a long day, the rider can get exhausted. Not the best time for big decisions.

3) Train the elephant

The elephant is, quite literally, a creature of habit. Fancy arguments don’t change his mind.

But by breaking bad habits and creating good habits, you can train him to behave better when he gets wound up.

These three things can help you align what your rider wants with what your elephant does.


Sum Up

Riders and elephants that are on the same page can do great things. Ask Hannibal.

As Charles Duhigg explains, much of what we do every day is based on impulse and habit, not conscious thought. In other words, elephant territory.

Via The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business:

One paper published by a Duke University researcher in 2006 found that more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.

The elephant knows fundamentals. And he’s actually better at complex decisions because he never loses sight of the basics.

The elephant’s not bad — nor is your “old brain.” Einstein knew this. He once said:

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.

But your elephant needs a good rider to guide him and make sure he doesn’t get out of line.

Here’s how to increase willpower and here’s how to improve your elephant’s habits.

It’s time to start training this guy.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

8 Things The Most Successful People Do That Make Them Great

standard post
Eric Barker  -  

There’s A Right Way To Learn

Want to be more successful? Actually, that’s not ambitious enough — want to be the best?

I do. So I called my friend Daniel Coyle, author of the best books on getting better at anything: The Talent Code and The Little Book of Talent.

Dan knows that the “10,000 hour rule” is nice but you need to align your effort with the way your brain was designed to learn.

Hours are vital but you can get to mastery faster — much faster — by practicing the right way.

So how can you and I do that? Here are 7 steps experts use:


1) Be Uncomfortable

You learn best when you’re reaching. “Flow” is great. But flow is not the best way to learn.

You want to be stretched to the edge of your ability. It needs to be hard. That’s how your brain grows.

Here’s Dan:

We learn when we’re in our discomfort zone. When you’re struggling, that’s when you’re getting smarter. The more time you spend there, the faster you learn. It’s better to spend a very, very high quality ten minutes, or even ten seconds, than it is to spend a mediocre hour. You want to practice where you are on the edge of your ability, reaching over and over again, making mistakes, failing, realizing those mistakes and reaching again.

More on the best way for you to practice here.


2) Stop Reading. Start Doing.

Keep the “Rule of Two-Thirds” in mind. Spend only one third of your time studying.

The other two-thirds of your time you want to be doing the activity. Practicing. Testing yourself.

Get your nose out of that book. Avoid the classroom. Whatever it is you want to be the best at, be doing it.

The closer your practice is to the real thing, the faster you learn.

Here’s Dan:

Our brains evolved to learn by doing things, not by hearing about them. This is one of the reasons that, for a lot of skills, it’s much better to spend about two thirds of your time testing yourself on it rather than absorbing it. There’s a rule of two thirds. If you want to, say, memorize a passage, it’s better to spend 30 percent of your time reading it, and the other 70 percent of your time testing yourself on that knowledge.

More on how to shift from reading to doing here.


3) The Sweet Spot

You want to be successful 60-80% of the time when training. That’s the sweet spot for improvement.

When learning is too hard, we quit. When it’s too easy… well, we quit then too.

Always be upping the challenge to stay in that 60-80% zone.

Here’s Dan:

You don’t want to be succeeding 40 percent of the time. That’s flailing around. You don’t want to be succeeding 95 percent of the time. That’s too easy. You want to constantly be toggling, adjusting the environment so that you’re succeeding 60 to 80 percent of the time.

More on how to find your sweet spot for learning here.


4) Commit To The Long Term

Asking someone “How long are you going to be doing this?” was the best predictor of how skilled that person would end up being.

Merely committing to the long haul had huge effects.

Here’s Dan:

The question that ended up being the most predictive of skill was “How long are you going to be doing this?” Commitment was the difference maker. The people who combined commitment with a little bit of practice, their skills went off the charts.

Commit to the long haul. Don’t give up. Even works for mice:

More on how long term commitment can take you to the next level here.


5) Find A Role Model

Watching the best people work is one of the most powerful things you can do. 

It’s motivating, inspiring and it’s how you were built to learn. Study the best to be the best.

Here’s Dan:

When we stare at someone we want to become and we have a really clear idea of where we want to be, it unlocks a tremendous amount of energy. We’re social creatures, and when we get the idea that we want to join some enchanted circle up above us, that is what really lights up motivation. “Look, they did it. I can do it.” It sounds very basic, but spending time staring at the best can be one of the most powerful things you do.

More on finding the best mentor for you here.


6) Naps Are Steroids For Your Brain

Napping isn’t for the lazy. It’s one of the habits of the most successful people in any field.

Sleep is essential to learning. Naps are a tool that will make you the best.

Here’s Dan:

Napping is a high performance activity. If you looked into the habits of highly successful people you would see a lot of naps, a lot of recovery. It’s sort of our brains’ janitorial service. It helps us clean out the stuff we don’t want. It also helps us work on ideas while we’re asleep. Top performers use sleep as a tool.

More on how astronauts use sleep to increase performance here.


7) Keep A Notebook

Eminem keeps a journal. Peyton Manning keeps a journal.

Top performers track their progress, set goals, reflect and learn from their mistakes.

Here’s Dan:

Most people who are taking an ownership role in their talent development use this magical tool called a notebook. Keep a performance journal. If you want to get better, you need a map, and that journal is that map. You can write down what you did today, what you tried to do, where you made mistakes. It’s a place to reflect. It’s a place to capture information. It’s a place to be able to track your progress. It’s one of the most underused yet powerful tools that I could imagine anybody using. 

More on how to use a notebook to be your best here.


If You Only Remember Two Words From This…

Dan says the two key words are “Reach” and “Stare.”

Reach: Always push yourself to the edge of your ability.

Stare: Look at those better than you and emulate them.

Here’s Dan:

I would say, “Reach. Get out on the edge of your ability. Get into your discomfort zone and reach past that.” And I would say, “Stare. Find somebody you want to be in two years, three years, five years, and stare at that person. See what they’re doing. See exactly what they’re doing, and steal that. Steal from them.”


Sum Up

Sadly, you weren’t born an expert.

But you can become one with practice and time. Start now. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve:

I’ll be sending out more tips from Dan in my weekly email.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

Lessons From The Samurai: The Secret To Always Being At Your Best

standard post
Eric Barker  -  

Reading a few books by samurai there was one thing I saw repeated again and again and again that surprised me.

It has nothing to do with swords, fighting or strategy. Actually, quite the opposite when you think about it.

What did so many of history’s greatest warriors stress as key to success and optimal performance?

“Being calm.”

And it wasn’t one random samurai mentioning it off the cuff.

We’re talking about some of the greatest samurai who ever lived writing about it over and over for five hundred years:

Shiba Yoshimasa (1349-1410):

For warriors in particular, if you calm your own mind and discern the inner minds of others, that may be called the foremost art of war.

Suzuki Shosan (1579-1655):

When you manage to overcome your own mind, you overcome myriad concerns, rise above all things, and are free. When you are overcome by your own mind, you are burdened by myriad concerns, subordinate to things, unable to rise above. “Mind your mind; guard it resolutely. Since it is the mind that confuses the mind, don’t let your mind give in to your mind.”

Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714):

A noble man controls frivolity with gravity, awaits action in a state of calm. It is important for the spirit to be whole, the mood steady, and the mind unmoving.

Adachi Masahiro (1780-1800):

The imperturbable mind is the secret of warfare.

And, of course, the man probably considered the greatest samurai of them all, Miyamoto Musashi, in his classic, The Book of Five Rings:

Both in fighting and in everyday life you should be determined though calm. Meet the situation without tenseness yet not recklessly, your spirit settled yet unbiased.

Nobody really needs to sell us on the value of staying calm.

You know the benefits: you think clearly, you don’t make rash decisions, you don’t get scared.

But how do you get and stay calm?

Our society is energy drinks, 24 hour news cycle, Starbucks on every corner and relentless social media feeds. GO GO GO.

And even funnier, much of what we know about relaxing and being calm is dead wrong.

The samurai had answers. And they line up with the science. Here we go.


The Scientific Samurai’s Guide To Staying Chill

The samurai trained in martial arts a lot and they thought about death a lot.

Really, they thought about death a lot.

Via Code of the Samurai: A Contemporary Translation of the Bushido Shoshins:

One who is supposed to be a warrior considers it his foremost concern to keep death in mind at all times, every day and every night, from the morning of New Year’s Day through the night of New Year’s Eve.

Hey, you would too. Death was pretty much in their job description, right?

But research shows training very hard and imagining the worst that could happen are two powerful techniques for promoting calm.

Samurais trained relentlessly. They strongly believed you should always “be prepared” (they were like the deadliest Boy Scouts imaginable.)

Research shows that preparation reduces fear because when things get tense, you don’t have to think.

Who survives catastrophic scenarios like samurai battles? The people who have prepared.

Via David McRaney’s You Are Not So Smart:

According to Johnson and Leach, the sort of people who survive are the sort of people who prepare for the worst and practice ahead of time… These people don’t deliberate during calamity because they’ve already done the deliberation the other people around them are just now going through.

And how about all that thinking about death?

“Negative Visualization” is one of the main tools of ancient Stoicism and science backs it up.

Really thinking about just how awful things can be often has the ironic effect of making you realize they’re not that bad.

From my interview with Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking:

It’s what the Stoics call, “the premeditation” – that there’s actually a lot of peace of mind to be gained in thinking carefully and in detail and consciously about how badly things could go. In most situations you’re going to discover that your anxiety or your fears about those situations were exaggerated.

Okay, but you don’t want to spend all day training in swordfighting or thinking about death. I get that. Frankly, neither do I.

So what’s the key here?

Research shows the most powerful way to combat stress or anxiety — to stay calm — is to have a feeling of control.

For samurai, training tirelessly and visualizing the worst that could happen gave them a feeling of control while in battle.

The US military dramatically increased Navy SEAL passing rates by teaching recruits psychological methods for gaining a feeling of control.

Without a feeling of control, when stress gets high we literally can’t think straight.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Amy Arnsten studies the effects of limbic system arousal on prefrontal cortex functioning. She summarized the importance of a sense of control for the brain during an interview filmed at her lab at Yale. “The loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control. It’s the prefrontal cortex itself that is determining if we are in control or not. Even if we have the illusion that we are in control, our cognitive functions are preserved.” This perception of being in control is a major driver of behavior.

Anything that gives you a feeling of control over your situation helps you keep your cool.

So what does it for you?

More information? Practice? Support from others?

That’s the thing that will help you keep your cool like a samurai.

Note I said “feeling of control” — it doesn’t even have to be legit control, just feeling like you do can work wonders.

Even a good luck charm can help — because good luck charms really do work.

Good luck charms provide a feeling of control, and that feeling of control actually makes people perform better with them.

Via The Courage Quotient: How Science Can Make You Braver:

…people with a lucky charm performed significantly better than did the people who had none. That’s right, having a lucky charm will make you a better golfer, should you care about such things, and improve your cognitive performance on tasks such as memory games.


Sum Up

I know what some of you are thinking: Calm? Aren’t samurai the ones always screaming at the top of their lungs while waving a sword?

Thing is, that was a deliberate tactic to frighten their enemies. Musashi explains:

In single combat, also, you must use the advantage of taking the enemy unawares by frightening him with your body, long sword, or voice, to defeat him… In single combat, we make as if to cut and shout “Ei!” at the same time to disturb the enemy, then in the wake of our shout we cut with the long sword.

Sneaky. These are the kind of smart ideas that come from a cool head.

The samurai were great warriors. They fought against their enemies in epic battles.

But as Musashi and the others make clear in their writings about being calm, the most important battle is to overcome yourself.

Via The Book of Five Rings:

Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

8 Steps To Getting The Perfect Mentor For You

standard post
Eric Barker  -  

Mentors, mentors, mentors. Everyone’s always talking about them but no one really seems to know how to get a good one.

Thanks to the internet we have more information than ever — but not any more wisdom.

Contacting mentors is one of the things I think you should do every week.

Whenever I say that, the response is the same: How?

Here’s what research and experts have to say about picking, contacting and maintaining a relationship with the right mentor, A-to-Z. Strap in.


Mentors Matter

I’ve posted about what the most successful people in the world all have in common. One of those things is mentors.

For his book Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviewed over 91 of the most creative people in the world (including 14 Nobel prize winners.)

What did they have in common? By the time they were college age, almost every one of those earthshakers had an important mentor:

In our study we found that a few individuals were taken in hand by competent adult practitioners very early in life, many were recognized during high school, and most of the remaining had an important mentor by the time they were of college age. Again, recognition by a mentor is not strictly necessary, but it must definitely contribute to the realization of creative potential.

10,000 hours of deliberate practice makes you an expert but what makes you dedicate 10,000 hours to something in the first place?

As Adam Grant of Wharton explains, the answer is great mentors.

Why would somebody invest deliberate practice in something? It turns out that actually most of these world-class performers had a first coach, or a first teacher, who made the activity fun.

Not worried about accepting a prize in Stockholm or being a chess grandmaster?

Okay, brass tacks here: Research shows mentors mean promotions and career satisfaction.

Via Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships:

…past research has also found that people with mentors get more promotions and experience greater job and career satisfaction than those without mentors.


What Do Mentors Really Do?

Mentors generally offer three things.

1) They give career guidance.

Via Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships:

First, they offer career guidance-for example, by making suggestions on assignments a protege might take, or suggestions on what career path might be most advantageous.

2) It’s not all about work. Mentors provide much needed emotional support when times get tough.

Via Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships:

Second, mentors can provide emotional support around issues such as the inherent conflict between work and family, or can recommend methods for coping with a difficult boss or with work stress.

3) Mentors also often act like a role model, giving you something to emulate and aspire to.

Via Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships:

Third, a mentor may provide support to proteges by serving as an effective role model who demonstrates appropriate behaviors for different situations.

Some people might say, “I don’t need to worry about all this. My company has a mentorship program.”

Yeah, too bad that program sucks.

Via Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships:

Unfortunately, recent research has revealed that those in formal mentoring programs often fail to deliver on their rosy promises, and the participants may be left helpless and disillusioned. Possible reasons for this include a shoddy formal mentoring program structure, a matchmaking system that mimics blind dates from hell, or simply inadequate resources or rewards to support these programs.

And what about your greater career? If you’re a star do you think your company is going to tell you when it’s time to move on to greener pastures?

You need objectivity and you need someone who can give you advice that’s valuable over the long haul.

Via Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get the Most Out of Their Relationships:

Mentors external to an organization provide a different perspective on the protege’s career and profession, as well as on the situations they witness in their organization. Being too entrenched in one organization can lead to less innovative decision making, possibly embracing only a particular style of management, and finally an inability to imagine a career outside of that organization.

So you need to get your own mentor. Here’s how.


How To Pick A Mentor

I’ve done an entire post on selecting the best mentor for you. You can read that here.

The quick and dirty version comes courtesy of Dan Coyle’s masterpiece The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

  1. Avoid Someone Who Reminds You of a Courteous Waiter
  2. Seek Someone Who Scares You a Little
  3. Seek Someone Who Gives Short, Clear Directions
  4. Seek Someone Who Loves Teaching Fundamentals
  5. Other Things Being Equal, Pick the Older Person

The research also shows it’s good to look for someone who has a resume that shows grit.

And, believe it or not, happier mentors are better mentors.

Know yourself and what you need. If you don’t have these answers, a mentor can’t help you much.

Aspirational figures must “fit” with your career goals.

Role models who aren’t relevant or whose achievements are unattainable can make you 22% less satisfied with your career.

Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:

People who actively target someone to serve as a role model draw positive feelings from that person only if the role model’s achievements are both relevant and attainable. People who choose role models who do not fit that description wind up 22 percent less satisfied with their careers than people who do not have a role model at all. – Lockwood and Kunda 2000

Though I’m using mentor in the singular, I encourage you to be polygamous here — you need multiple mentors to cover the various areas of life.

More on how to select the perfect mentor here.


How To Contact A Potential Mentor

A referral from a mutual friend or contact is gold. But not everyone will be able to get that.

So what do you say in that first email?

You still want to leverage the power of some kind of similarity to build a connection.

Wharton Professor Adam Grant notes that he’s much more likely to reply when people highlight uncommon commonalities in their emails to him.

What’s that mean? Ways you two are similar that aren’t obvious. And this has scientific underpinnings:

As the psychologist Robert Cialdini sums up the evidence from Influence, “Similarity literally draws people together.” In Give and Take, I elaborate on this principle to point out that similarities matter most when they’re rare. We bond when we share uncommon commonalities, which allow us to feel that we fit in and stand out at the same time.

So you establish some kind of common ground. The next thing to keep in mind is equally important:

Wasting a mentor’s (or potential mentor’s) time in any form is a mortal sin.

Not only is it annoying, it shows you lack basic skills. It screams to a mentor, “This person isn’t ready for your help.”

Writing a multi-page email to a very busy person doesn’t show you’re serious — it shows you’re insane.

So respect their time and start small. Asking good questions is a great way to build a relationship.

But the key word here is “good” questions.


Carve this in stone. Scrawl it in blood above your desk. Get a tattoo.

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, highlights this tip succinctly: Do your homework.

It’s amazing how many would-be mentees or beneficiaries ask busier people for answers Google could provide in 20 seconds. That puts you on the banned list. Explicitly state what you’ve done to get answers or help yourself.

There is an old expression: “When the student is ready, the master appears.”

If you’re doing everything you can to advance your career, getting a mentor won’t be too hard. Why?

Because if you’re doing awesome work, people more successful than you will notice and want to help you.

If they don’t, you’re doing something wrong.

What, personally, makes me want to go the extra mile for someone?

When they demonstrate they have explored every conceivable avenue and they can go no further without me.

Seeing someone has done everything in their power shows they’re smart, they didn’t waste my time, and they’re resourceful.

Most mentors see themselves that way, so guess what? The two of you now have something very important in common.

Finally, don’t mention the M word — mentor. You wouldn’t ask for marriage on the first date, would you?

My friend Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me I’m Lying, says you should never flat out ask “Will you be my mentor?:

Don’t ask anyone to be your mentor, don’t talk about mentorships, just leave the word alone. No one goes out and straight up asks someone they’re attracted to be their boyfriend of girlfriend–that’s a label that’s eventually applied to something that develops over time. A mentorship is the same way, it’s a dance, not a contractual agreement… If you email a total stranger to ask them to commit to give you hours of their time over a period of years and demand that this gift is to be called a “mentorship,” you’re going to be disappointed.


The Email

What does an intro email look like?

My friend Ramit Sethi, NYT bestselling author of  I Will Teach You To Be Rich, has some templates you can use.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of my thoughts meshed with his insights.

  1. Subject line: I like to use the name of a mutual friend or contact that referred me. Otherwise, use something you share in common (alumni of the same school, etc.) or something attention getting.
  2. First thing: introduce yourself and clarify the connection you mentioned in your subject line.
  3. Politely flatter. It’s appropriate — if they weren’t awesome why would you want their help? It shows you took the time to learn about them. Highlight uncommon commonalities.
  4. Be clear, but polite, about what you want. Short but not blunt. Do not waste their time.
  5. Show you’ve done your homework. Can your questions be Googled? If so, to the ninth circle of Hell with you.
  6. The easier you make it for them to give a yes, the more likely you are to get a yes. You’ll schedule around them. You’ll drive to them. You’ll bring coffee.
  7. Proofread, edit, and make sure it’s brief. Take the time. A hastily sent grammatical abomination from your iPhone is a terrible idea. And if the length of your email elicits a gasp, a sigh or a comparison to the Game of Thrones books, you’re not done editing.


How To Handle The First Meeting

So they agreed to talk to you or meet with you. Great. I’m not going to tell you to be on time, be polite, and brush your teeth.

If you require that kind of advice you don’t need this article, you need preschool.

Some tips culled from RamitRyan and my own experience:

  1. Ask good questions. Good questions show you are smart and have done your homework, and make the mentor feel that they offer unique value.
  2. Other than asking good questions, shut up. Ryan says “The point of an accomplishment mentor is not for you to give them your opinion.”
  3. Don’t ask for a job. This makes people feel awkward and undoes all the good work you’ve done so far.
  4. Be likable. Here’s more on making people like you, using Dale Carnegie’s classic advice and making good conversation.
  5. Again, never waste their time. Keep it short, hit your marks, create an impression you can build on and make an exit.

Do those and you’ll be in good shape. Of course, right after this is where most people totally drop the ball.


How To Maintain A Mentor Relationship

Many people send a great email, have a great meeting… and then they vanish off the face of the Earth and let the connection go cold.

From Ryan:

Stay in the picture. You are easily forgotten by busy people, remember that. The key then is to find ways to stay relevant and fresh. Drop emails and questions at an interval that straddles the fine line between bothersome and buzzworthy. It’s easier to keep something alive than it is to revive the deceased…but it’s on you to keep the blood flowing, not the mentor.

And the inevitable question people ask me: What do I say when I touch base with them?

After that first meeting, did you actually take any of their advice? (If not, stop reading now and just go watch cartoons, okay?)

The best answer, in my opinion, is simple:

I used your advice by doing _____. Here’s how wonderfully it turned out _____. Thank you so much!

Do what they said, get results, and let them know they made a difference. This is what mentors want.

If they engage you can follow up with:

I (did my homework) and figured (really impressive next steps) would be _____ but I’d love your insight. Do you think (well-thought-out-strategy #1) or (well-thought-out-strategy #2) is better?

You want these interactions to be conversational back and forths, not one-offs you need to regularly hit with a conversation defibrillator to keep the relationship alive.

And try to reconnect with them in person or on the phone at least annually.


Now Do It

I don’t know where I’d be without the mentors who helped shape me.

So no more “I don’t know how to do that” excuses. You have the pieces to the puzzle now.

You cannot — and should not — go it alone. You have much to learn from those who came before you.

Go back to the top of this post, follow the steps and get started.

As Eleanor Roosevelt once said:

Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails

The Two Words That Will Lead You To Success And Happiness

standard post
Eric Barker  -  

Seriously: Just Two Words

Seems like this should be a very short post, right?

Here’s the quick and dirty:

  • The word “yes” leads to happiness.
  • The word “no” leads to success.

Here’s why.


For Happiness Say Yes

“Yes” creates opportunity. Saying yes a lot makes more things happen.

And research shows that lots of little good things are the path to happiness. Spending money on many little pleasures beats rare big positives.

Via The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does:

One researcher, for example, interviewed people of all income levels in the United Kingdom and found that those who frequently treated themselves to low-cost indulgences— picnics, extravagant cups of coffee, and treasured DVDs— were more satisfied with their lives. Other scientists have found that no-cost or low-cost activities can yield small boosts to happiness in the short term that cumulate, one step at a time, to produce a large impact on happiness in the long term.

Saying yes to activities and events keeps you busy — and studies show you’re happier when you’re busy.

The happiest people are those that are very busy but don’t feel rushed:

Who among us are the most happy? Newly published research suggests it is those fortunate folks who have little or no excess time, and yet seldom feel rushed.

So say yes to things and stay active — especially socializing, which makes us happier than almost anything else.

Having a better social life can be worth as much as an additional $131,232 a year in terms of life satisfaction.

And research shows that making more opportunities — saying yes — actually makes you luckier.

Hold on. I know what you’re thinking:

If I say yes to everything that comes down the pike, won’t more bad things happen too?

First off, I’m not telling you to say yes to armed robbery or heroin.

And studies show that as we get older we remember the good and forget the bad. So more stuff makes for happier memories.

What about regrets? Yes, we all occasionally say yes to dumb things and later regret them.

But what do you learn when you look at the things most people regret before they die?

For the most part the old saw is true: we regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did.

Want to be happier? Make “yes” your default.


For Success Say No

“No” creates focus.

I talked about this in my post about what the most successful people have in common. Warren Buffett once said:

The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.

And that’s what gives them the time to accomplish so much.

The books Daily Rituals, Creativity and Managing With Power break down how great artists, scientists and businesspeople work.

And all three say the same thing: Those at the top of their field work obsessively and relentlessly.

Via Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

“Sooner or later,” Pritchett writes, “the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”

Trying to do too many things is the path to mediocrity.

Want to be an expert who has put 10,000 hours into perfecting their craft? First you need 10,000 hours.

And that means saying no to a lot of other things.

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.

Glenn Frey of the Eagles learned exactly that about being a great musician. How did he learn it?

By listening to Jackson Browne’s tea kettle — and with a lot of elbow grease:

Success is about doing good work — and good work takes hours and hours.  

Want to be wildly successful? Make “no” your default.


Great — But How Do I Become Both?

Saying yes to everything all the time will turn you into a very happy flake who never accomplishes much.

Saying no to everything but your work will make you a miserable, lonely expert.

So how do you say yes and no?

It all starts with “protected time” for your important work.

Make a few of your prime hours inviolate. Anything threatening them gets a “no.” Period.

Charlie Munger always kept one prime hour for his personal priorities.

Via The Idea Hunter: How to Find the Best Ideas and Make them Happen:

Charlie Munger hit upon one strategy when he was a young lawyer. He decided that whenever his legal work was not as intellectually stimulating as he’d like, “I would sell the best hour of the day to myself.” He would take otherwise billable time at the peak of his day and dedicate it to his own thinking and learning. “And only after improving my mind — only after I’d used my best hour improving myself — would I sell my time to my professional clients.”

For the vast majority of people this means waking up long before your first outside commitments begin.

My friend Cal Newport plans every minute of his day. You’re not that much of a time management ninja? No problem.

Focus on protected days instead of protected hours.

Adam Grant has days where the door is closed, the answer is no, and important work gets done.

Other days are designated for new initiatives, helping others, and the answer is yes, yes, yes.

There’s a level of trial and error to see what works for you personally but this type of deliberate split is the first step to work/life balance.


Sum Up

It’s pretty straightforward:

  • For happiness: say “yes” more.
  • For success: say “no” more.
  • And start experimenting with protected time to make sure both are getting their fair balance.

Here’s more on becoming successful and here’s more on increasing your happiness.

Putting this post together required quite a few no’s on my part — so for the rest of the day, I’m a yes-man.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

Here are the things that are proven to make you happier 

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails