My good friends, that is a very good question indeed.
To simultaneously side-step the question and cut a long story short which I’ll elaborate on later, I have made two discoveries of prime interest to us here at Dream Big Start Small.
Discoveries? What type of discoveries? I hear you mutter.
Well, let’s get into it.
The first is best introduced by the following arrow diagram, which shows operations at DBSS HQ four months prior to present day.
University exams -> adventure -> adventure -> graduation -> impromptu adventure -> attempt to write book -> (failed) adventure (DNF) -> present day.
Ok, what does this mean?
Adventure! But that’s not important. What is important is to note the number of arrows in the diagram. Seven. A lucky number for some, but not when it’s the number of arrows in a span of four months.
Now a question: take a guess at how many days I’ve journaled, meditated, lifted weights, read like a beast or done, well, anything we talk about here at DBSS? The answer is… not very much at all. Not even many cold showers either…. In fact, on the face of things, this summer looks like a failure. No cold showers? No reading? No meditation?
What the hell have you been doing?!
I indeed have fallen off the habit horse. My mighty string of daily habits is no more. So let’s play CSI. Let’s analyse the crime scene, find out what went wrong, and we’ll arrive at discovery numero uno.
So, the evidence. One male. Four months. Not been in same place for four weeks. Lost ALL habits built up. Failed to write a book.
Conclusion: Routine is my best friend.
Wait, WHAT?! Routine?! You can’t be serious! All your hatred of the Thank-God-It’s-Friday, living for the weekend mentality! What’s come over you?!
Yup, I’m deadly serious. Here’s discovery numero uno. ROUTINE is AMAZING for building and maintaining habits. Building and maintain good habits is just so, so, so much easier when you’re in a routine. When I wake up in the same bed for a couple of months, working out, cold showers, reading, meditation… it just happens. But when I’m constantly on the move? Everything falls apart.
The reason seems simple. Routine gives life a structure. You wake up at X, you go to work at Y, you come home at Z, then you go to bed at… damn, out of letters. Basically, a routine gives you a foundation on which to build other habits. If you work an eight hour shift, then you’re obviously in the habit of going to work. Or if you’re at university for eight hours a day (ha), then likewise you’ve got a major habit going on there. Once you’ve got one habit, it’s then relatively easy to build others around it. It’s harder to build on nothing. (Is this one reason why I never get much done in the holidays?)
Another reason why routine is pretty bliss for building habits is that it guarantees you’ll be in the same place for a decent amount of time. Habits need time to form, so this is perfect. But if you’re contantly on the move, you need to put in a LOT more effort to build these habits. Why is this? Because habits work in loops.
A habit loop goes like this. You have a trigger, you complete an action, then you get the reward. For example, you come home tired from work (trigger). You eat a cookie (action). You feel good (reward). Then you feel guilty (trigger). Then you eat another cookie (action). Then you feel good (reward). Then you feel even guiltier and so on….
Alternatively.. You wake up and listen to Prodigy – Invaders Must Die (trigger). You lift some heavy-ass weights (action). You feel like a Greek God (reward).
So here’s the thing. Know why it’s easier to give up bad habits when you’re in a new place? It’s because you remove the trigger. But the same is also true for good habits. If you remove the trigger, it goes. And the trigger could be anything. It could be seeing running shoes next to your bed, the sound of an alarm clock, your favourite radio show starting… And herein lies the issue with constantly changing your environment – you remove all your triggers, thus your good habits often go up in smoke.
So what’s to be done?
The way I see it, there’s two options.
- Vow to never go anywhere else. Ever. No family visits. No friend visits. No travelling. No other countries. No adventure. Nada. Routine is essential to habit formation. It’s time to get serious now.
- Find a way to keep adventures, friends, family and such, whilst finding a way to keep in the groove with becoming the strongest version of yourself.
Let’s say we unanimously pick (b). How do we keep habits when we’re going somewhere else?
Obviously, this is the golden question. And I’ve clearly not figured it out yet (see: no posts in four months). In fact, I’ve failed miserably at keeping habits going when my environment changes. That said, I DO have a hypothesis.
How to Keep Habits On The Move
- Accept the situation. You’re in a different place, out of your routine, and you probably won’t be able to do most of the stuff you usually do at home. (E.g Granny doesn’t own a squat rack.)
- Don’t take yourself too seriously. Lighten Enjoy the situation. (E.g Granny = amazing chocolate cake)
- Pick ONE habit that you can do ANYWHERE in the world. Then make sure you do this ONE thing every time you wake up. (E.g meditate for 10 mins)
Your one habit, the bastion that you must defend at all costs, could be anything. As long as you can do it anywhere. For example, ten push-ups, going for a walk, meditating, reading a book.
As long as you do your one habit, then I reckon it won’t really matter if you lose everything else. Because you’ll be in the habit of building habits, which in itself is a habit. Savvy?
In a month’s time, I’ll report back on how this goes.
(Oh, and eating breakfast as your one habit does NOT count…)
Ok, second discovery…
Failure, The Serenity Prayer & Tacit vs. Explicit Knowledge
Roughly four months ago, I completed Tai Lopez’s 67 Steps program, downloading the 67 principles of success derived from the greatest minds to have lived, straight into my brain.
And By Godfrey, did I feel absolutely on FIRE doing the 67 Steps. Suddenly, I was reading 3x more, I could quote tons of people saying deep things and I felt like I knew just so much. It was insane!
In fact, I was so hyped by all these books and all this knaaawledge that I wanted to earn a living spreading that knowledge. I started an Instagram to give a quote of the day from books I was reading, I wanted to start a book club… basically all I wanted to do was teach people about books. Because books, I believed, were IT. Look no further than books. Books are “da” bomb.
Buoyed by my post-Tai Lopez wisdom and righteousness (see: lack of humility), I set about writing a book. A book about success. Because damn, did I feel successful. It was to be titled “The 7 Habits of Highly Unsuccessful People”, and was to be based on the concept that to find solutions, it’s sometimes better to invert the question. For example, if you wanted to know how to be successful, first find out how NOT to be successful, then just don’t do that.
So, I wrote two pages a day every morning when I woke up whilst at university. Then post-graduation, I set off at a furious pace editing and re-editing. I AM going to work on this from sunrise to sunset. That was my mindset.
But then surely and not so slowly, my pace slowed. And then I ground to a halt. Procrastination ensued. Then it hit me….
Who the heck am I to be lecturing about success? What do I know about success? I know nothing!
“But Iain,” an inner voice would say, “you’ve done the 67 Steps! You’ve read all these books! You know everything there is to know about success!” Perhaps there was a figment of truth in these statements, I thought. After all, the blueprint of success had never been so clearly laid out in front of me.
But then I realised…. I could tell someone how to succeed, but I didn’t know how to truly apply those very principles to my own life. I knew how to succeed, but in truth I didn’t know how to succeed at all.
And, as I fell prey to the same habits I was warning about in my own book, I quit. I couldn’t write any longer.
Fast forward two and a half months to now. I stumble across a story in Jonathon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis.
“During my first year of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered the weakness of moral reasoning in myself. I read a wonderful book – Practical Ethics – by the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. Singer, a humane consequentialist, shows how we can apply a consistent concern for the welfare of others to resolve many ethical problems of daily life. Singer proposes and justifies a few guiding principles: First, it is wrong to cause pain and suffering to any sentient creature, therefore killing animals with large brains and highly developed social lives (such as primates and most other mammals) is wrong, even if they could be raised in an environment they enjoyed and were then killed painlessly. Singer’s clear and compelling arguments convinced me on the spot, and since that day I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farming. Morally opposed, but not behaviourally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed in the first six months after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.
But then, during my second year of graduate school, I began to study the emotions of disgust, and I worked with Paul Rozin, one of the foremost authorities on the psychology of eating. Rozin and I were trying to find video clips to elicit disgust in the experiments we were planning, and we met one morning with a research assistant who showed us some videos he had found. One of them was Faces of Death, a compilation of real and fake video footage of people being killed. (These scenes were so disturbing that we could not ethically use them.) Along with the videotaped suicides and executions, there was a long sequence shot inside a slaughterhouse. I watched in horror as cows, moving down a dripping disassembly line, were bludgeoned, hooked, and sliced up. Afterwards, Rozin and I went to lunch to talk about the project. We both ordered vegetarian meals. For days afterwards, the sight of red meat made me queasy. My visceral feelings now matched the beliefs Singer had given me. The elephant [emotion, behaviour] now agreed with the rider [rationality], and I became vegetarian. For about three weeks. Gradually, as the disgust faded, fish and chicken re-entered my diet. Then red meat did, too, although even now, eighteen years later, I still eat less red meat and choose non-factory-farmed meats when they are available.
That experience taught me an important lesson. I think of myself as a fairly rational person. I found Singer’s arguments persuasive. But, to paraphrase Medea’s lament: I saw the right way and approved it, but followed the wrong, until an emotion came along to provide some force.”
Reading this had a huge effect on me. Not because of the ethics of eating meat, but because I’d been through the exact same experience of knowing, but not really knowing. I was completely convinced by the 67 Steps and the principles of success within. I knew how to succeed, but really, I was not much better off than before.
Then I read further. Haidt explains that there’s two types of knowledge – explicit and tacit.
Explicit knowledge is what we know as book-smart. It’s facts that you can recall and recite. You read a date in history, the Latin name of a butterfly, the life-cycle of a neutron star, and it goes into your head to be regurgitated anytime you like. Explicit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge on the other hand is much more akin to street-smart. Tacit knowledge can’t be taught, it has to be accumulated through life experience.
For example, although a skinny kid might be able to tell you how to beat someone to a pulp, it’s likely that it’s just explicit knowledge. If you were approached by a mad-man wielding a non-blunt axe, his descriptions of the weak points of the human body are probably going to be pretty useless to you. An MMA champion on the other hand, is brimming with tacit knowledge of combat. He instinctively knows when to wait, when to lunge for the axe, and when to make the killer blow. You can’t teach that. You have to go through hundreds of hours of being attacked in training. Tacit knowledge, not book knowledge, is “da” bomb.
Haidt finished with a story about the serenity prayer:
““God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
If you know the serenity prayer already, you know it explicitly. If you live the serenity prayer, then you know it tacitly.”
This, my friend, is my experience down to a tee. Sure, I know the theories of success, but it’s all explicit knowledge. As an American military general might put it, I don’t know jack-shit.
(I guess the irony here is that I now know tacitly the difference between explicit and tacit knowledge.)
So, where does this leave us? Does this mean our quest to acquire knowledge through books, biography and amusing YouTube videos must come to an end?
I say not at all. I say acquire as much explicit knowledge as possible. But this had to be paired with acquiring as much tacit knowledge as possible.
And with that, I want to leave you with a quote from Gandalf from The Hobbit, which perfectly packages up the philosophy of Dream Big Start Small.
“The world is not in your books and maps. It’s out there.”
So, to end on what may seem like the ultimate paradox. First, you need to correct for too many adventures by being in the habit of building habits with your one habit. But then, on the quest for as much tacit knowledge as possible, go on more adventures. I guess I’ll definitely be testing out that hypothesis then….
My fellow adventurers in life, to you, I doff my hat.
As Always, Dream Big Start Small!