How do you stay immersed in your work with so many distractions going on?
If you’ve got your values in place, even if The Tonight Show asks you to appear, if it’s not the right time for you, then that’s just a distraction.
Even if the most wonderful opportunity comes up, if you’re focused, it is actually still a distraction from what you’re really doing. You have to make that call. Am I going to stop the work that matters to me most?
Here’s a good thing to remind ourselves of – the important versus the urgent.
Things that are not important and not urgent are just distractions. That’s stupid crap that we shouldn’t be doing. Like requests from others that don’t matter to you. When somebody wants something from you, if it’s not on your list of what’s important, then say “no.”
Then there are things that are not important, but they’re urgent. These are your biggest enemies because they prevent you from getting what you want most. An example would be other people’s problems. If someone asks, “I need you to help me out with this really important thing,” it’s not actually important to you. But somebody’s made it urgent to you.
You have to make the value call. You have to muster up your value system and have a good philosophical base in place. Say, “I’m sorry, but this is your problem, not my problem.” I don’t mean that in a bad way. There’s a nicer way to say that.
Then, there are things that are important to you and not urgent. This is where you should be spending most of your time. Because these are the things where it’s preparation instead of procrastination. This is getting your shit together. These are things that are important to you, but they’re not urgent.
This is where you need to be proactive and know your own values. You have to be future-focused to realize that this is what you need to be doing most and where you need to spend most of your time.
Then, there are things that are important and urgent. You should have taken care of them earlier before they became urgent. Yes, it’s important to you, but you want to be spending all of your time on things that aren’t urgent and taking care of them in advance through preparation. Because then if you don’t, they become problems.
The important and urgent category is not the worst thing because at least it’s still important to you. But try to not to let things get there. We should be saying “no” to everything that’s unimportant especially the things that people try to say are urgent.
People create problems and throw them at us like it’s our problem too. Whether you want to call that slow living or call it good, smart preparation, and focus, I think it’s a matter of following your own values of what’s important to you instead of giving in to other people’s problems.
When I used to work for someone else, we used to call this passing the ball. Anytime someone threw problems at me, automatically, I threw them back. I would not keep that ball with me.
It helps to have your philosophy aligned internally. So that when it comes up in the moment, you have that automatic ability to say “no” with conviction.
One of the best books I’ve read in the last year or two is called The Courage to be Disliked. Don’t let the title distract you. The book is actually about many different things.
It’s a fascinating little book that communicates the philosophy of a an Austrian guy from the 1930s named Adler. He was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. But whereas Freud got famous, this guy didn’t as much.
A Japanese author found his works and turned them into this fascinating book. The book has a really well-defined way of explaining the difference between other people’s tasks and your tasks. The author refers to the word “tasks” as the things you need to do in your life. It explains the distinction between what’s your responsibility and what’s not your responsibility.
Even if somebody is sick, or crying, or dying, it may not be your responsibility or your task to go take care of them. If somebody got themselves into a mess, it’s not your task to get them out of that mess even if they try to make it your task.
I highly recommend that book. If you’re listening to this, if you find it difficult to say “no,” and you need a better framework or philosophy to stand on, go find that book. It has some great stances.
I feel like one of the reasons why people cannot say “no” is because they haven’t chosen the battle that they’re fighting. I see that a lot in my business. People come in and they’re just lost. “I have this. I want to get this done, but I have no clue how to proceed. I haven’t started because . . .”
They can’t focus. They can’t come up with these ideas and rules of thumb because they don’t know what they’re doing.
How do you get someone to figure out what to focus on, which battle to choose?
First, you have to know who you’re doing it for. If you’re doing something for yourself, like making music or trying to get fit, then it doesn’t matter what the world thinks of it. You’re doing this because you want to. And if other people like it, well, that’s just a bonus.
But if you’re doing something for others like a business, and the world doesn’t seem to want this thing, then I think it’s actually smart to give up sooner and try something else. But when I say, “give up,” it doesn’t necessarily mean giving up completely. Don’t be committed to one solution.
You can be committed to a problem. For example, I was looking at my friend’s site this morning. My friend is committed to designing a backpack to help people have better portable storage.
But if the world looked at the first design of their backpack and went, “Nah, we don’t want that,” then they should immediately be able to say, “What else could it be? Maybe we need roller bags. Maybe people need lockers around the world so they don’t need to bring storage with them. Maybe people need less stuff and we’re going to commit to helping people who have less stuff.”
Whatever it may be, you can be committed to a problem long-term. But feel free to quickly let go of whatever solution you came up with. Don’t get too attached to that and change as often as needed until something hits.
That’s one aspect of what you’re asking – when to push through or when to give up. But as far as somebody knowing what the hell they’re doing in the first place, that’s a tough one because it doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker. It’s a nuanced collection of many things like what suits you at this stage in your life.
Sometimes we say we were going to do something years ago, and then feel some loyalty or obligation to our past self to follow through on that thing.
But I think it’s better to give up on those. Even if you told the whole world, “I’m going to go do this thing,” if a few years later, or even a few months later, it doesn’t suit you or your current situation, it’s OK to let those go.
I checked in on a friend of mine. His whole business was an event ticketing system. I texted him, “Dude, I’ve been thinking about you. How are you doing?”
He said, “My old business is completely trashed. We’ve decided to let that go. That is now moot for the future. I’m working on a community streaming thing now.”
I was so happy to hear that because one could take the opposite stance. The common thread is you need to be safe, agile, flexible, changeable, and don’t be loyal to things that you said in the past.
The best advice from people I respect was to first, figure out your ‘why.’
But I also had two drivers – business and music. I find some people don’t have those. What would you say to people who don’t have those passions?
I think most of us know what we should be doing. If you can separate from yourself for a minute and imagine that you ask someone, “Here’s my scenario: A,B,C,D,E. What do you think I should do?”
You can imagine that a neutral, wise person would say, “I don’t know you at all. But based on what you’ve told me, you should be doing this.” I think most of us have the ability to think through that scenario.
Put a wise man in your head, right? It doesn’t have to be a man. [Laughter]
Now you know what you should be doing. Then, it’s a matter of whether you feel like it or not, you go do that thing.
I do this all the time. Sometimes people ask me about will power and how to make things happen. I very, very often, even though I’m living high and retired and financially free, I still do things I don’t want to do because I know that I need to do them. I grumble and complain and kick something and curse the sky and then get back to work.
I do the thing I know I should be doing.
So, if you don’t know what your calling is, I would recommend to be smart and do the statistically right thing. Do the thing that you think a smart person would advise you to do. Do that, whether you feel like it or not. Then inspiration will hit.
I love this image that I once heard of “personifying inspiration.” Inspiration is like a beautiful woman. She’s never going to make the first move. Inspiration never comes to you. But if you make the first move and you go halfway to her, she’ll meet you there.
I really love that idea and think of it all the time. When I’m not inspired to do the work I know I needed to be doing, I sit down and start doing it anyway. The inspiration comes later.
I think a part of that is habits. When I think about making music, I didn’t ever question it. I didn’t think if I felt good, I just put in the work. Maybe it sucked some days. Maybe it was great on other days. But I started working and it came out.
I do the same thing with business. If I’m stuck, I start playing around with things until something falls into place. The whole idea of focusing is quite natural to me. Maybe it’s easier because when we were younger, we didn’t have cell phones that we could stare into all day. We didn’t have YouTube. We haven’t learned to be distracted from day one.
Do you have thoughts on how our lives will be if we don’t focus?
You and I have the same thoughts on this. You need to understand the do-or-die importance of focus. If you don’t learn to focus, you’re going to have a shallow and unrewarding life without any meaningful achievement. It’s a wasted life.
This is massively fucking important. To me, this is the single most important priority – no matter what else you want to do in life – learn to focus and avoid distraction.
Phone apps, websites, and media are all designed to be as addictive as possible. Treat them as you would heroin or other harmful addictions. I wouldn’t ever dare to stick a heroin needle in my arm because I’ve heard how massively addicting it is.
It’s the same reason I’ve never had a social media app on my phone or a video game in my house. I look at those things as the absolute worst enemies of me living the life I want.
There’s my rant on the importance of it. I get so sad when I see people on the subway on their phones. I look over their shoulder for a second and they’re just swiping little colored dots to fall into line. I’m like “What the fuck are you doing?”
You have to value your time. I don’t know if you’ve read James Schramko’s book when he said, “Assign an hourly wage whether you’re working or not working.” I loved that part from the book.
I do have an hourly wage. If I’m watching a movie with someone, I think, “This is costing me $350.” I would rather sleep because that’s way more valuable than watching some half-ass story. Or not do anything and just let myself sit and think. You should assign a value to it.
People don’t value their time.
I have been assigning a pulled-out-of-the-air number of $500 per hour for my time.
Just couple months ago, I heard that Naval Ravikant said that his time is worth $5,000 per hour.
As soon as I heard that, I thought, “I like that. $5,000 an hour.” Now, that really fucking changes the way you think. Even if you give me $500, my life’s not going to change. $5,000 an hour. That’s a really cool way of thinking about it.
I’ve been treating my time as worth $5,000 an hour since then. That didn’t actually change my daily actions, but it helps in those little moments of decision.
But here’s the bigger part. It comes down to self-worth. To me, I’m more important than anything in the news or any entertainment that could be coming down the pipe. My life is more important to me than any of it. Anything that could be coming in through the media is not as important to me as me and my own dreams and the things I want to do in life.
But I know that feeling of exhaustion when you just want some entertainment to come into your eyes. If you’re into this subject, I highly recommend a book called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal. She’s studied willpower, distraction, and discipline for years.
She found that the best way to improve your self-control is to see how and why you lose control and focus during those moments. What is that moment when you’re working and suddenly, you switch to the browser tab that has the stupid social media on it? What happened in that second that made you switch over?
The main job of our modern prefrontal cortex, our actual rational thinking brain, is to bias the brain towards doing the harder thing. When I’m doing my work, and I come upon a hard moment, I want to pop open a different browser tab and look for a distraction. When I hit upon a difficult moment where I didn’t know what to do. I think, “Ugh, mental strain and effort.” I want a distraction!
Since I’ve identified it, I actually catch myself wanting to alt+tab over to the different tab in the browser. But I catch myself and think, “Nope. I’m going to push through.” It’s important to name the demon.
Steven Pressfield wrote a series of books, starting with The War of Art. They’re brilliant because he named the demon. He calls creative procrastination, The Resistance. He describes it as the devil with a pitchfork. This is the demon that’s nagging at you any time you’re sagging into distraction instead of doing your work. That’s The Resistance. That personified image has helped thousands of people recognize it when it surfaces.
So, my advice for anybody who wants to work on their willpower or wants to strengthen their discipline is to notice what happens in those moments when you lose control.
This is also true some someone who wants to binge on sugar snacks when they’re trying to lose weight, or whatever it may be. Notice what happens in that moment when you’re faced with doing a harder, difficult thing versus taking the easy road out.
In those moments, we have to keep steering ourselves towards the harder thing.
I usually like to keep these episodes evergreen, but we are in a very strange situation right now.
Usually, I tell people ignore the news completely. These days with this pandemic going on, countries are shutting down, regulations are changing. It’s important to once in a while look at the news now, because things will matter and affect each of us.
But our brains are a little fried between handling our normal business while also dealing with this nonsense that we’re exposed right now.
What would you say about paying attention to the news?
I also always prefer to stick evergreen, but let’s go timely for a second.
The important things that you need to know are usually just a few sentences. Everything else is just commentary and noise.
Right now, on March 26, 2020, this is all we really need to know: It’s very contagious. It can kill. Avoid all social contact. Wash your hands often. Stay inside. Everything is shut down. And it’s going to be like this for at least a month. I think that’s everything.
I’m living in Oxford, England, right now and I don’t watch the news. But apparently two weeks ago, the government of the U.K. said something about herd immunity. I don’t even know what that means.
Suddenly, I received dozens and dozens of emails that said something like, “Oh my God! I just heard the U.K. is doing herd immunity. Are you going to get out of there? Big pile of dead bodies. What are you going to do? How you reacting? How’s the government handling this?”
I’m say, “Huh? What? I’m just in my home working. I’m not watching that right now.”
I was really busy with work. A couple weeks passed, and I thought, “Huh, I should learn more about this herd immunity thing people are talking about.”
By the time I had the time to look into it, the government changed their mind. They’re not doing that anymore.
I thought, “Wow, how many millions of human beings spent hours of their life forming an opinion on something that the government uttered once and then changed their mind on a week later? How many hundreds of thousands of people spent how many hours of their lives thinking about that? And it was all for nothing.”
I’m so glad that I didn’t give that any of my mind. Even now, people are saying, “I hear the government’s changed their tune. What’s your opinion on this?”
The government? Come on! I’m in my home. I know not to go out. I’m doing my work. I’ve got 20 days’ worth of food in the fridge. I’m just doing my work.
At this point, what the government does is moot to me. Who cares? It’s down to the essential sentences you need to know. And if you already know it, well then, you check in one minute every five days to see what’s new. Read the headlines and turn it off.
I actually like that. So, let’s go back evergreen because that answered it. [Laughter]
If you don’t know what to do, just don’t do anything. Just wait.
Let’s talk about the importance of hobbies. One of our mutual friends, Ian, looked at me once and said, “Tom, never trust a man without a hobby.”
It stuck with me. Do you have a hobby?
Interesting. Did he give any more thought on why?
He did not. He just looked at me and said, “Never do that.” He walked away and left me hanging.
Should I ever trust the man without a hobby?
It’s easy to utter an aphorism without backing it up.
Twelve years ago, I sold my company for more money than I’ll ever be able to spend. A year or two after that as I was passing through a border at a country, they asked, “What do you do for a living?”
I gave my usual, bullshit answer I give to people when I don’t want to talk about it. I say, “I’m a programmer.” That usually shuts most people up. Or if they actually want to talk programming, that’s great. I love to talk programming.
But I’m not actually a programmer for a living. Nobody pays me to do any programming.
So when the visa control border guard asked, “What do you do,” I said, “Programmer.”
He said, “Who do you work for?”
I said, “Myself.”
He said, “Who are your clients?”
I’m thinking, “Oh God, come on.” I said, “No one.”
He kept pushing it. And finally, he said, “Look, it sounds to me like you’re coming into the country to take a programming job. And I’m about to deny you entry unless you can prove to me that you are not.”
I said, “Alright. This is a little embarrassing. Last year I sold my company for $22 million. I don’t need to work ever again. OK? You can search the Internet. It’s out there. It’s public.”
And he said, “Oh, why didn’t you say so? Come on mate, next time somebody asks you what you do for a living, just admit that you’re retired.”
I thought, “Wow, that’s weird. I never would have thought of myself as retired.”
I’m not doing anything for money, so technically, I’m retired. So, this notion of a hobby. Now, I feel like my whole life is a hobby. Everything I’m doing is a hobby. I’m just doing it because I want to.
But, let’s get to the real core question, which to me, is what do you do when you want to play hooky? Playing hooky is American slang. Playing hooky means you blow off work or school to go do whatever you want that day.
I found that throughout my life, the best things I ever did were when I was playing hooky, not when I was supposed to be doing my “real work”. I was fascinated with something else instead. Something more fun and interesting.
If you follow the more fun and interesting thing, it’ll probably turn into something as good or better for work.
Even my old company, CD Baby, was just a hobby that took off. My main gig was to get in the van and drive off to a different gig every single day. I was touring America to play gigs. CD Baby was something I was doing for fun on my days off. It was fun to build a website, the database, processing payments and all that. It was a blast. Much more interesting than getting onstage and singing the same 20 songs.
I was staying up late every night, nerding out, and making this new website with glee instead of making music because I found it more interesting.
I’m all in favor of hobbies. This is kind of the opposite of what we were saying 15 minutes ago. Notice what distracts you. Notice that moment of distraction. Also notice what you are drawn towards.
Not in a bullshit watch Netflix kind of way, but if you’re drawn towards another activity that is fascinating you more than your real work, maybe you should also take that seriously.
Programming and writing are really pretty much all I do. I’m always either programming or writing. I tend to treat them almost as playing hooky from each other. I say that I’ll write and write and write and focus on my book.
Sometimes, I hit a stopping point with all of the philosophical stuff with my book. I think, “I would love to do some programming right now.” To me, programming is peaceful and easy. I love that it has a right or wrong answer.
Then I’ll lose myself in programming for a while until I can miss having new philosophical ideas in my head. Then, I’ll go back to writing.
I’m always playing hooky from the different sides of my life.
Interesting. But it’s all creation, right? It’s not consumption.
What I find with distraction when someone is drawn to Netflix is that they say, “Oh, I want to watch Netflix”. And then I’ll see them take out the phone. So, they’re distracting themselves from Netflix now.
Oh! I’ve heard of this! Yes!
You put something on the TV and now you pull out your phone. Oh, my God, the two screens shoving stuff into your eyeballs.
I usually watch with amazement. You just distracted yourself with this so that now you can distract yourself with that. I wonder if you got another screen, what you would do?
Right. Eventually set up one of those rooms where they have 16 screens playing 16 channels at once.
We should talk about monk mode.
When people come visit my house, they often look around us and say, “Do you live here? There’s nothing here.” I said, “There’s a chair.” I don’t have a TV. I don’t have much in here, but this is the environment that I set up to help me focus.”
Monk mode is about putting yourself into the environment that would help you.
In theory, a master monk could meditate and focus in the middle of a candy store in Times Square. But for most of us, we need to put ourselves into an environment without distractions. That’s why people go away somewhere into the forest for their 10-day Vipassana. They don’t do their Vipassana in the mall.
You have to know that you’re prone to distractions and then eliminate the ability to get sucked in by them. There’s a reason I have no cookies in my house. I know myself well enough to know that if there were a box of cookies in the house, there would be some moment of weakness where I’d given and eat the whole box before realizing it.
One of my rules of thumb is to know the difference between what you want now versus what you want most. The box of cookies is what I want now. Being fit is what I want most.
What I want most in life is to create amazing things. I very often come over here to my broadband modem and completely power it off. I shut it down. I unplug it. Then I shut my phone completely off. Not even airplane mode. It’s too easy to re-enable. So they’re just dead pieces of electronics.
Then, I disable the Wi-Fi. This is actually for good. Wi-Fi has been disabled on my laptop for years. I can only use the Internet when I’m next to the modem and I plug in the Ethernet cable. That’s the only time I’m online. I have no Wi-Fi.
Every night, a couple hours before bed, I shut off the Internet. Then every morning when I wake up, I work and write for a few hours before I go back over to the broadband modem and turn it back on.
It sounds like I’m a nut. But this is my version of not keeping cookies in the house.
It’s also why I don’t use anything in the cloud because to use it, you have to be online. And online is a massive distraction zone.
All of my crucial work in life is done offline. Everything is completely self-contained in my computer, so I can work offline because I do most of time.
And then of course, delete all games. Do not install any games. If you’ve already installed them, it’s time to delete them if you want to do anything with your life. No matter how many experience points you’ve built up inside the game, delete it. Completely delete it.
Social media. I’ve never installed social media on my phone. My advice to other people is to go log in your account and generate a long random string as a password. Go online and search one of those long random password generators. Make a 32-character long, jumble of strings and then change your password to that. Log out, delete all cookies and don’t save that string. So now you don’t know the password to your account. The only way to get back into your account is to do the whole “Forgot My Password” loop. Don’t let yourself do that.
Another thing I like is that I’ve changed my browser to not allow cookies. If you go into preferences, there’s always a setting, even on your phone, to not allow cookies at all. Block all cookies. You can still use the internet to go look something up, but you can’t easily log into anything anymore.
Now the Internet has become less valuable to you, less distracting, and less enticing. Nothing is personalized.
These are all tiny techniques, but the most important thing is to value yourself and your ultimate goal the most. Do what you want most over all the little, tiny what-you-want-now things.
For a lot of listeners that have to be online, keep that idea of knowing what you want most, and then make those tools work for you.
Since I do all my work on a laptop, I have the Facebook News Feed Eradicator. I don’t see anything posted by anyone except what I’m consuming through my own work.
Twitter – anything with politics, Corona, I make those words mute and I only see the things that are important.
With my phone, I’ve unfollowed anyone posting any nonsense. I’m only looking at groups where I have my potential audience.
But I use those tools, like you said, with an idea of, “What do I want to accomplish?” Everything else is unnecessary. I don’t need to know where someone went on vacation. It’s got nothing to do with me. And I actually don’t care. I barely remember where I went on vacation last year. I don’t take food pictures. I don’t need to see yours.
But the one question that I’ve been asked is, “How do you weave off these distractions?”
You’ve said to just shut them off. I found that when I say that to someone, it doesn’t happen.
This is where I can’t speak for others because I’ve never tried to do the hybrid. It comes back to feeling a sense of importance and urgency.
There have been times in my life where I was a little adrift and my goals were foggy and vague. They weren’t at the forefront of my mind. I let myself get sucked in to other people’s stuff or distractions.
I’m at a time in my life now where this is the most important thing to me. I consider my time at $5,000 an hour. I don’t spend a single hour with anybody. There are some people – I’m sure they are nice people – who have asked me to hang out. I think, “No, I don’t hang out. I don’t do that anymore.” I did that in my 20s. I’m 50 now. I’m running out of time.
I have so many things I want to achieve in my life. Fucking Netflix? God, no. Games? Fuck, no. What a horrible way to waste a life. Absolutely not. Every single hour I spend is fucking crucial.
And of course, I have an 8-year-old son who I spend a lot of time with – maybe 30 or 40 hours a week. Just one-on-one time because that is worth it. Netflix? God, no.
Can you pinpoint what changed between being adrift and this mode you’re in now?
Yeah, I felt the pain of not doing it. There was an ultimate pain in my soul. I asked myself, “If I keep living this way, who will I be? I’ll be some guy who did a few things long ago and not much since because I’ve been watching shows or playing games.”
I understand the world is hard. You want to do something easy. So, you go to Stardew Valley and you plant your garden or something. I’ve seen people do it. I get why people just want to veg out in front of a show. There’s not that much difference between vegging out in front of a show versus summoning up a little more strength to do the thing that really matters most to you.
It’s not a massive difference in energy. We’re not talking about climbing Mount Everest versus laying on the beach. Especially for sedentary intellectual work, the difference between watching your show and doing the hard work, if not that big, so nudge yourself enough to do the thing that matters most to you.
I felt the ultimate pain in my soul of not doing what I really want to do. When I deliberately pictured myself dying, I realized that I hadn’t achieved the things that really matter to me.
It would be a horrible, horrible feeling if I found out that I had a month to live and didn’t do any of the things I thought I would do because I got distracted. I want to be able to die peacefully knowing I did my best.
So, I look at the whole world of entertainment as my ultimate enemy.
I dealt with a client a long time ago. He said, “Tom, do you think it’s okay for me to play Call of Duty a couple hours a week?”
I said, “Hold on a second here. Do you know what’s happening with your life? Nothing’s going right at all based on what you’ve told me. I’m trying to help you with this business, and then you’re asking me if you can play a game?
Go play your game. But I would recommend playing it until you’re just so tired and sick of being whoever you are. Play until you feel like unplugging it and throwing it out.”
In Tony Robbins’s book, Awaken the Giant Within, he tells the story of when he was a teenager. He grew up with a single mother because his dad was an alcoholic and left the family. His mother had a strong opinion on alcohol. When he was 15 he said, “Mom, I want to have a beer.”
She said, “Alright, I’ll let you have a beer on one condition. You drink a whole six pack.”
At the age of 15, she made him drink an entire six pack. Sure enough, by the fourth one, he puked his guts out. He said, “I’ve never touched a drop of alcohol since.”
I hadn’t heard of that applied to video games. That’s a funny way to do it. Alright, you want to play?
If you have to do your work online, I think there’s actually a good lesson learned from the way that the Internet used to be long ago when it first started in mid ’90s. Everybody had dial up modems and we all had one home phone line.
If you went on the Internet, you had to dial in. You had to make sure nobody in the house was using the phone. Then you’d dial into the Internet and connect. It would make this cute noise, then you were online.
You would do whatever you needed to do online. Then you would disconnect so that you could use the phone again. There’s something to that. I wish there was a modern version of that.
I agree. But once again, it’s one of these willpower things. You need to push yourself to do that extra step.
When do you think it does make sense to consume? How do you feel about creation versus consumption?
I think consumption is great when you need to refill your creative tank. When you need to steal ideas, and you should just admit that you’re looking for things to steal. David Bowie very publicly said, “The only reason I look at anybody else’s work is to look at what I can steal.”
So, if you really want to live the creative life, then consumption is when you are looking for ideas to steal. Look for ingredients to use. Go foraging.
If you hit some kind of wall in your efforts for the day and you’re feeling at your wits end, then go look in the world. But do it deliberately.
Think, “What can I use? Who’s doing what and what ideas can I use myself? What ingredients can I borrow, can I steal from the world, and use in my work?”
The way that I read is very much like that. When I’m reading a non-fiction book, I’m going through it with a pen in hand, looking for ideas that I can take and spin further myself.
I never want to echo somebody else’s idea. I’d never do that. I’d never just quote somebody else and leave it at that. I’m going to take this idea, figure out what I like about it, dissect it, break it apart, amplify it, and take it somewhere else. Now it’s something original. I read other people’s books full of deliberate intention to reuse and spin their ideas into something new.
Same thing with music. I was a musician for 15 years. Every time I would listen to somebody else’s music, it was with absolute deliberation. I’d think, “How can I use this?”
I barely ever read new business books. When I do, it’s only before I need to write an article or something of my own.
I wait for something to pop up and think, “You know what? That’s cool. But I have a much better way of phrasing this.” I take it, and I put the book away.
But with music, it was different.
I sometimes found if I listened to some artist and thought, “I like his idea. It’s great. It’s mine now,” a little bit too much of the influence was left on my music.
That’s why I think the fun is to make hybrids. When I listen to some West African musicians and found something I like, I think, “Oh, I like that. I’m going to mix that with this Texas boogie woogie thing.” I’ve mixed things together instead of just imitating an artist completely.
Maybe you like a melody. You figure out what you liked about that melody. Maybe it was that melodic leap. That’s what made that melody so cool. Or you ask yourself, “What was it that I liked about that lyric? I thought it was going there and it ended there instead.”
Now, you can take this lyric and that melody and merge them together. Nobody will ever even know what your influences were because you’ve merged them together.
I don’t know. When I went to the African or a completely different niche, no one knew the influence. But in my experience, if I stayed in the same niche, even though I created a hybrid, it was too close. Even in business, too, borrowing from someone too close in competition gets tricky.
That’s a good argument in favor of getting your influences from afar. Even in marketing, maybe it’s better to look at people like Jay Abraham who people aren’t talking about so much anymore. He’s an absolute direct marketing genius. But he really isn’t so much in the current zeitgeist of things.
Or go back to Jay Conrad Levinson with his series of Guerrilla Marketing books. People aren’t reading those as much anymore, but that’s a great reason why it would be great to go back to them now. See how you can apply what he was talking about 30 years ago.
Also, Harry Beckwith wrote a brilliant series of books starting with Selling The Invisible.
Harry Beckwith is kind of who Seth Godin became. Harry Beckwith was in a similar vein to Seth Godin, but didn’t get as famous. His writing about having a holistic marketing approach is genius.
So, if you’re doing something similar to Biggie Smalls, then maybe you shouldn’t be continuing to look too closely to Biggie Smalls as an influence but digging further afield and listening to the Bulgarian Women’s Choir or something like that.
Yeah, I agree. With marketing, I find a lot of good ideas by looking what the car companies are doing. For fixing my own company structure, I will look at the processes of factories. But that’s the problem I find with consumption. You’re subscribed to a couple favorite guys in your field and it’s like, “Eh, I don’t know.”
This is just a meta thing. But I’m not into current events in any way. I don’t like reading new books. I don’t like reading news. I don’t actually listen to any podcasts or read any blogs. I’m completely, intentionally out of touch with whatever’s going on now. Because I really prefer to hear more interesting ideas from another era.
I feel like there are enough people looking at what’s going on now that we don’t need another person to comment on something that a politician said today. Everybody else is doing that. This morning, I started listening to the audio book for The Odyssey, the Homer epic. I met a Canadian, who was passing through London and he told me that the Odyssey was the best thing he’d ever read. He said, “This book has been around for thousands of years. There’s a reason it’s a classic. It’s really, really, really good.”
In his book Antifragile, Taleb talks about this idea that things that have lasted the longest, will continue to last the longest because they’ve stood the test of time.
Going back to the classics of marketing, the classics of literature, or the classics of music, it’s really great to get yourself out of being over-influenced by the current zeitgeist.
I remember that you post reviews and summaries of books that you read on your website. I really recommend for all the listeners to go check that out.
Over the last year, has anything you read left a big impression on you?
A book that blew my mind in the past year was the one I mentioned at the beginning called, The Courage to Be Disliked. That one comes to mind first. It’s one of the best things I’ve read in a couple of years.
But other than that, I’ve been doing way more output than input this year. I actually haven’t been reading that much. I’ve been shutting off all input to focus on output.
For what it’s worth, I don’t know if this is useful to anybody else, but I started disconnecting the ideas inside of a book from the book itself.
Whenever I read a non-fiction book, I take detailed notes and I save them all in text files. Recently, I spent many hours categorizing those thoughts and ideas from books into categories by subject. So now I have 1,500 ideas on the topic of discipline in a folder called Discipline even though those 1,500 ideas may have come from 110 different books.
Now they’re just separate ideas. I can search it if I really need to find it. For the most part, now they’re ideas that have been cut off from their original book source. I just use books to get the ideas inside. I don’t fetishize or glorify the book itself. I don’t really care about the book. I don’t care about the author. I want the ideas inside of it so I can use them for my own purposes.
Separating the ideas from the book was a really interesting project I did this year. Now, I have 30 different folders with categories like Pain, Profit, Discipline, Solitude, or Focus. Inside that are the collected ideas across the last 350 books.
I started taking book notes about 350 books ago, around 13 years ago. I enjoy it much more now to go through by topic when I’m needing inspiration. You can have thoughts on discipline from a book about poker or a book about parenting, or a book about sports.
What’s the biggest idea of the last 12 months that you came across?
It’s probably the one that I mentioned earlier from The Courage to be Disliked about distinguishing tasks. That idea of is this my task or your task when other people say they need something from you.
The fact that somebody else is in need is not your obligation. You can take it on optionally if you want to, but you can’t be guilted into these things because it’s not your task.
But I encourage you to go to sivers.org/book. Courage to be Disliked is near the top of that list. I sort that page with my most recommended books up top and that is near the top. Read the notes on it, and if they appeal to you, read the whole book because the book is way better than my notes.
That’s awesome. Let’s finish on that note. Derek, I really appreciate you coming on.
Thanks. You touched on some topics that are real, soap box things for me. The topics of distraction and focus. I start cursing and yelling when I talk about these subjects because I care about them so much. Thanks for a really fun conversation.
These are foundational topics. Even though someone might have listened to someone talk about before, or read 20 books on it, these are the things that are very simple to phrase, but very difficult to do all the time.
Alright, Derek. You mentioned your website, but let’s mention that again, where people can find you.
Go to sivers.org. And honestly, as you could tell, I wasn’t here to promote anything. The main reason I do these conversations is because I really like the people who I meet. Some of my best friends have been people who emailed me after hearing me on a podcast and introduced themselves. We hit it off and became best friends.
So, anybody listening to this, go to sivers.org. And if you click contact, my e-mail address is there. Please email and introduce yourself.