Jason Shen has achieved tremendous success in athletics, technology entrepreneurship, writing, and living an outstanding life. To promote his recent GiveGetWin deal on The Science of Willpower, he sat down to tell us how he started learning about willpower, the state of what's known scientifically about how willpower and the brain work, and how you can start improving your life right away by implementing a tiny habit, thinking and systems, and using some powerful thinking tools. Enjoy:
Developing Willpower by Jason Shen, as told to Sebastian Marshall
Willpower has been an undercurrent in my entire life. In gymnastics, you have to use your willpower to overcome your fear of an activity and go for the skill you want, to get over the fear, to push yourself to finish your conditioning and strength training a part of you doesn't want to…
It didn't come automatically to me. When I was a student, I wasn't automatically self-disciplined. There were actions I knew were useful, like doing my homework in one session without getting distracted, or not throwing clothing on my apartment floor. But I wouldn't always do them, and I didn't know why.
I started to learn those answers during a student initiative course at Stanford called The Psychology of Personal Change. That's when I first started reading academic papers on the topic. In academia, willpower and self-discipline is often called "self-regulation," and in 2009 I started to get really serious about it from an academic perspective -- and saw gains from it in my personal life.
Noah Gibbs is an author, speaker, lead developer at OnLive, paid Rails expert for Carnegie Mellon, and author of lots of Ruby on Rails software. To promote his GiveGetWin deal, Noah sat down with me to share some incredible insights about working with deep knowledge, how empathy and understanding the user/customer is the path to success in business, and covering many other important insights. If you're a programmer, you'll love Noah's perspective and insights. If you're not a programmer, this might be one of the more insightful interviews you read about why people do programming, and about thriving in a technical skill and business in general.
Building Ruby Castles In The Clouds by Noah Gibbs, as told to Sebastian Marshall
I grew up in the middle of nowhere in East Texas, with nothing there but a state penitentiary. So I had a lot of time with a computer. No internet. Just my Apple II computer, and long stretches of time. They say you need long stretches of uninterrupted time to program.
I had that.
I program because… programming is building castles in the cloud. Concepts on top of concepts. Except that the computer is there to check you -- it's all mental and conceptual, until you find out whether it works or not.
In case you don't know them, 37Signals are one of the most forward-thinking people at selling software as a service. They've got a great blog called Signal vs. Noise.
I was listening to their podcast, and found this amazing gem by David:
One of the things we've tried to do is look at what we're trying to achieve, not what tools we're currently using. I'd say, by far, our biggest competitor for all our products is email.
It's not that email offers the same functionality, it's that email is how people are running their projects. ... If you're looking at a market in terms of what products are already available and say, "Well, we could probably make a similar product that just gave you more features" then the potential for you to have a breakout success is much less. When you have a product that's designed to compete on an even playing field with other products and just one-upping them, the way to win is massively out-market them. ... If you try to invent your own market space and category by fusing a few things together and looking at what people are really trying to achieve using Basecamp or even Excel spreadsheets - if you can identify a use case within the space that no one is attacking directly, then your chances of having a breakout success and a product that basically sells itself is much, much greater.
That's from time 13:40 on Episode 3. You can download that podcast here - it's free, and highly recommended:
What's the mental burden of trying to do something? What's it cost? What price are you going to pay if you try to do something out in the world?
I think that by figuring out what the usual costs to doing things are, we can reduce the costs and otherwise structure our lives so that it's easier to reach our goals.
When I sat down to identify cognitive costs, I found seven. There might be more. Let's get started -
Activation Energy - As covered in more detail in this post, starting an activity seems to take a larger of willpower and other resources than keeping going with it. Required activation energy can be adjusted over time - making something into a routine lowers the activation energy to do it. Things like having poorly defined next steps increases activation energy required to get started. This is a major hurdle for a lot of people in a lot of disciplines - just getting started.
Opportunity cost - We're all familiar with general opportunity cost. When you're doing one thing, you're not doing something else. You have limited time. But there also seems to be a cognitive cost to this - a natural second guessing of choices by taking one path and not another. This is the sort of thing covered by Barry Schwartz in his Paradox of Choice work (there's some faulty thought/omissions in PoC, but it's overall valuable). It's also why basically every significant military work ever has said you don't want to put the enemy in a position where their only way out is through you - Sun Tzu argued always leaving a way for the enemy to escape, which splits their focus and options. Hernan Cortes famously burned the boats behind him. When you're doing something, your mind is subtly aware and bothered by the other things you're not doing. This is a significant cost.
From Sebastian: I was really honored and thrilled when Jason Shen offered to write a guest post here at SebastianMarshall.com - he's an incredibly bright guy with broad knowledge and skillset, writes well and clearly, and is an all-around good guy. So I'm really excited to be able to bring you a guest post by him - I imagine you'll want to read more by him afterwards, and you can reach him at his website - www.jasonshen.com.
Here's Jason -
I read Sebastian's blog because I'm interested in winning and he writes honest, insightful and sometimes provocative stuff about victory. Recently, I've been thinking about ways to win that are less commonly employed - one, because it's interesting and two, because I think there is a lot we can learn from unorthodox methods that work.
That's what this blog post is about: strategies that are nontraditional, that are beyond "do your best and learn from your mistakes" type advice, yet are undeniably ways that help you win.You might find them strange, but that's ok because winning isn't normal.
Some people find the pursuit of winning distasteful or even silly. Others get juiced by the idea of winning, of kicking ass and taking names, of being the best. I have a feeling that many of you SebatianMarshall.com readers fall into the second category. This post is for you.
If you're striking off on your own, thousands forces outside of your control will conspire against you. You'll have to deal with politics, egos, deals falling throughs, markets shifting and crashing, competitors who do a variety of actions ranging from brilliant to insane to innovative to unethical... you'll deal with clients who are demanding or flaky, you'll see forces outside your control like breakups and divorces screwing up very good partnerships and employee/employer relationships...
...the list of things you'll have to deal with is legion. Quite frankly, in a way, you're somewhat insane for grabbing the reigns and trying to build the world of your own accord.
With many of the forces working against you, they're outside your control. But of the things inside your control, there's one that leads to winning and losing more than anything else, so remember --
Refuse to be outworked.
You might be outsmarted by people more brilliant than you, outmaneuvered by people more politically connected than you, out-executed by someone who cracks the nut faster than you, but if you refuse to be outworked you're almost guaranteed to be successful on some level and to live a meaningful life.
Y'know, you can read all the case studies you want. It's hard to fully understand international business without going to different countries and walking around.
So, let's talk business and walking around. I was in Seoul, South Korea for a month last summer.
I came to like Korean culture a lot. Koreans are some of the strongest, proudest people I've come across. They manage to combine a strong warrior culture with the utmost civility, order, cleanliness, and quality of life.
It's pretty incredible, actually. Many societies with a strong militant, warrior feeling about them descend into kind of a barbaric police state sort of vibe, constant terror in the air.
Korea? Nope. The men are proud, masculine, patriot, somewhat militant, but in a good way. There's a mix of strong, expansive, traditional values, along with a large minority undercurrent of modernity. It's really good - it's the best of all possible worlds. There's problems - the blatant racism and xenophobia kind of sucks, but I don't mind it so much. Nowhere's perfect.
What's cyclothymia? It's a mild form of the docs used to call "manic-depression," but which they re-name periodically. Cyclothymics can actually function decently well, and as such often don't know they've got it. If you cycle through highs and lows, are particularly artistic, or that describes someone you love, then read this post in full and please comment with your own experience. I'm still learning, myself.
AN INTRODUCTION TO CYCLOTHYMIA
Knowing the term "Cyclothymia" would have been very helpful to me a few years ago. This essay is plain English and, if I've done a good job, might help people who associate with a cyclothymic relate better to them, and might help a cyclothymic manage themselves better and produce better.
I'm against the "medical-ization" of life. We need medical terms, but we need to be able to explain things in plain English without labeling. Labeling, by definition, drastically simplifies.
Cyclothymia is simple at its roots, simple enough for a plain discussion without medicalization. Here's how it works for me -
I picked up 32 audiobooks recently including an audio copy of Machiavelli's The Prince.
It's always intrigued me as a book - it's really not so hardcore, given its reputation. It's a fairly straightforward, blunt book on political science, governance, and military science. The mystique and aura around it are primarily from people who haven't read it.
The most famous quote from the book, of course, is "Better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."
I missed it the first couple times I read the book. This time I picked up on Machiavelli's point.
I updated My Time/Habit/Life Tracking about three weeks ago. In it, I added a "Challenges" section:
——————————————- CHALLENGES: Did I start the day in my planner instead of online? Did I only check email when I was ready to write back immediately? Did I clear my active to do list before any screwing around? Did I avoid getting into arguments with idiots online? Did I only check a site once, then done with it? Did I prioritize books/good learning instead of mindless surfing? Did I avoid sugary food? ——————————————-
Note one in particular - "Did I avoid getting into arguments with idiots online?"
This can be hard to do if you're on a discussion site. But now, I think I've got a rule that covers when to discuss and get into it with people, and when not to.
The rule - no arguing with peasants.