I’ve been hopping around the globe now for more than five years, to see what the experience could teach me.
I don’t fancy museums or buildings; rather, I love to meet all types of different people everywhere I go, and learn about they see the world.
Once I was quietly sipping some noodle soup at a tiny stall in Cavite province, in the Philippines, minding my own business. Suddenly a man of about 45 burst in out of nowhere, walked directly to me and handed me a thin booklet about Mr Jesus Christ.
The way he’d acted, it seemed that he believed I had never heard the name before. He went on in earnest detail about the new kingdom that was coming, and stressed the importance that I repent and profess my love of Jesus. That was the only way I would receive an invite to this giant orgy in the afterlife.
In Kochi, India, I had a Thali lunch with a man of about 50 who was adamant that one could heal any illness – simply by using their thoughts. Doctors and modern medicine were not necessary, he said, because everything is made of energy.
Sri Meenakshi Amman, a 2,500+ year old Hindu temple in Madurai, India.
I’ve visited prayer halls in mosques of Indonesia and Malaysia where the “truth” was broadcasted, at maximum volume, across loudspeakers for the willing (and me, the unfortunate unwilling) to hear.
Everywhere I’ve went, people who know nothing about me or my life, take it upon themselves to suggest to me the correct way of living, either directly or indirectly. But the majority bear their burden silently, dutifully following the routines and rituals that their mother culture and society thrusts upon them.
Likas Mosque in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia.
If I were to ask you, perhaps: how many things can you say that you absolutely know, with full certainty?
Left is left and right is right. Or are they? The sky is blue. Or is it?
Since I’ve left home I’ve found that every conviction I’ve once clung to has been debunked. I question every belief I’ve ever had or have, because being proven wrong again and again, I know the fickle ground upon which beliefs stand.
Yet everywhere I go, I see humanity like stubborn children, clinging to what it perceives to be true. Entertaining any idea that conflicts with our depiction of reality makes us uncomfortable, so we don’t. We simply accept what is convenient, what is handed down to us, and let those beliefs form our convictions.
To be sure, there’s assurance and solace in being able to definitively settle the question of who we are and why we’re here.
I think the details of what we believe matter less so than the need for certainty.
Uncertainty is uncomfortable, so we seek to settle the issue permanently. There is certainty to be found in the sign of a cross, or the half moon of a mosque, or in a gohonzon.
The symbol and what it represents matter more than the details.
As a symbol, the cross or the gohonzon replaces actual understanding. It substitutes the hard thinking and questioning, and “fixes” us, so to speak, for life.
On the other hand, the more I travel, the less rigid my own beliefs become. I care nothing for the religion, politics, or sports teams from my youth.
And in this pursuit I find myself in lonely company.
As we rid ourselves of ideology and narrowness, we venture deeper and deeper into unfamiliar territory. We learn that there are very few hard truths in life.
Uncertainty can be chilling; but it’s also empowering. I remember how excited I felt when I realized how remarkable the world and it’s people were, and how much there was to discover and learn. Each person and culture and place and idea that I’ve discovered has given me a new and unique lens to view this wide magical world that we live in.
But I feel myself among a small minority; most of humanity still hums along in blissful childlike innocence (and ignorance). A Muslim taxi driver who picked me up in Kuala Lumpur pointed to events in Myanmar to assert that Buddhists were violent. While a Thai Buddhist pointed a finger the opposite direction.
And would the Filipino man still be so certain of God’s kingdom if he was born in, say, Nepal? Or would he question, find the answer on his own, and arrive at the same conclusion?
Convictions provide faith and comfort, but at the cost of true understanding and a loss of the ability to reinvent ourselves and realign our values to ones more meaningful to our core sense of self. As far as I understand it, this, I believe, is a fundamental human flaw.
On a macro level, psychological biases can also be very dangerous when they lead us astray. They also blind us to the possibility of what Nassim Taleb calls “black swans,” a sudden unforeseen event that disproves everything.
History proves that what humans conventionally believe (which in the cultural and historical context in which it appears seems seems set in stone), is often completely wrong.
• Until the 16th century humanity lived and died believing that the Earth was the center of the universe. Then Copernicus published his heliocentric model, and we believed (incorrectly, again) that the sun was the center of the universe until the 20th century, when we discovered other galaxies.
• China, the ancient land of wisdom and philosophy, believed unquestioningly that the world was flat and square all the way up until the 17th century.
• Before Darwin, we believed that the world began 6,000 years ago. Now we have discovered carbon dating showing us fossils that are 3.5 billion years old.
Almost every single belief that any human has ever conceived was proven wrong at some point – often irreversibly. In hindsight, we laugh and wonder how people back then could have been so foolish.
When generations of the future look back at us, will they laugh and wonder how we could have been so foolish?
Black Swans and their effects
A “black swan” is a sudden and unforeseen event which catches the unprepared fully unaware – often with catastrophic events.
Consider the life of a turkey.
A turkey spends his whole life believing tomorrow will be the same as yesterday. Every day in his life so far has confirmed this. He’s had an easy life, and been treated well by the butchers. As they wish to fatten him up as much as possible, he’s never suffered from want of food.
There’s a belief the turkey adopts that being a part of a coup with other birds is somehow safe and acceptable – and all of these other turkeys seem to have things figured out.
Then a little old holiday called Thanksgiving comes along, and once he’s come of age and large enough, the butcher’s axe comes.
The turkey never saw that one coming. He couldn’t have.
I fear that many of us have chosen the life of a turkey in a world of rapid, dramatic, irreversible change.
And I’m worried that more and more people are rushing to join the hen house without realizing the serious dangers that certainty poses.
Entrepreneurs, for instance, are viewed as something like rockstars these days. Everyone wants to call themselves an entrepreneur, and big communities of entrepreneur support groups have formed as a result.
The trouble is that these communities are quickly becoming a mediocre majority in and of themselves. And there’s so much information being thrown at them. There’s too much money in consulting and selling books about how to be an entrepreneur and content about escaping the 9 to 5.
Something that used to be very uncomfortable and difficult – entrepreneurship – is suddenly easier than ever before, and everyone wants to become one. It’s the fashionable thing.
It’s also become more comfortable than ever before. People associate with something because of the identity it gives them. When I first began to tell people I was an author, it felt so incredibly cool. I was damn proud of myself.
But the identity becomes an end in and of itself. And, if you care about your life, this is very dangerous.
Many (entrepreneurs, musicians, authors, artists, etc) become attached to the identity and addicted to the struggle of trying to make it, without actually focusing on results and creating real change.
Remember, it requires less thinking and energy to choose a position, an identity, a religion, or a career, and ride it out indefinitely. This is why graduates fresh from college, firm in beliefs, enter the world supposing they have life entirely figured out.
And why wise seekers such as Socrates – a name that has echoed down the ages – once said “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing: that I know nothing.”
It’s important to understand when our deeply-held beliefs may be holding us back, and how to discover newer, better, more effective ways of looking at things.
Success comes to those who break the conventional molds. Who shed old identities and biases and ways of doing things to embrace a newer, more empowering sense of self, and ways of acting and being…
If and when you ever find yourself among the majority, it’s time to pause, take a step back, and reflect.
Question everything. Accept everything, and see how it fits. Only through a collection of viewpoints and ideas can you find what meshes with you. Explore the truth, on your own, as earnestly and as long as you can.
Do so if only to join me in this lonely quest. I’d most certainly welcome your company.
“Break the rules… You have to think outside the box. That’s what I believe.
After all: what is the point of being on this earth if you just want to be like everyone and avoid trouble?”
A few ways to start thinking and acting differently.
There is no “blueprint” I can hand off to you for how to be unconventional (that would be horribly conventional, no?). It more or less comes down to opening your eyes and noticing when conventional methods are wasteful or inefficient, and finding a smart shortcut.
As my own knowledge is experiential, and not from any text book or best practice guide, all I can offer are examples.
1) How to learn 9x faster.
Studies show that we retain approximately 10% of what we read, and 90% of what we teach.
“The Learning Pyramid” is a simple concept developed way back in the 1960s that tells us that learners retain approximately:
90% of what they learn when they teach someone else/use immediately.
75% of what they learn when they practice what they learned.
50% of what they learn when engaged in a group discussion.
30% of what they learn when they see a demonstration.
20% of what they learn from audio-visual.
10% of what they learn when they’ve learned from reading.
5% of what they learn when they’ve learned from lecture.
So why most people attempt to learn by reading? Statistically, it’s one of the least effective ways to learn. 90% of our time spent reading is wasted.
If there’s something you want to learn about, don’t read a book about it. Write a book about it.
This is what I did with my book “Hack Sleep.” I was an insomniac who wanted to learn how to fix my sleep. Through the process of writing the book, I scoured through tonnes much material, hoping to quickly find the gems I was most interested in. And I tried a bunch of stuff.
When you commit to teaching – such as creating a course or workshop – the motivation to master the material (and tailor it to the needs of students) is greater than if you simply read about it.
When you read a good book, you may take 2-3 ideas from it. You may learn 8-12 new things from an excellent book.
But when you teach, you throw in your identity with mastery of the material. Suddenly you become an authority on the subject. And you may even find yourself with a nice profitable new business to boot.
This is how life transformation happens.
Writing a book was a much more active activity than reading one. I’ve also published a course, spoken on podcasts about sleep hacking, and been published on industry blogs. And learning to fix my own sleep also incidentally created a nice extra income stream for me.
“I call this like the grad school problem, where people just… they don’t wanna leave school, you know, and somebody is saying “oh I got my master’s in something, but I’m thinking of going back and getting a second master’s or doctorate…” and it’s like “oh come on! Get out into the world!”
You gotta leave your little Ivy campus at some point, you’re actually doing yourself a disservice by staying in school. By throwing yourself out there into the world you learn so much more than just sticking in theoretical land.”
2) Know when to underperform (or go absentee).
We were brainwashed as youths to believe that receive “A” marks on our report cards was the surest way to the reach the pinnacle of success and achievement in our lives.
But all too often, it’s the C students, and indeed the dropouts who go on to have the hugest the most massive success. The ones who did well in school seem to kind of just coast through life, never rocking the boat or doing or creating anything interesting.
The varsity quarterback who dated the prom queen? Working a desk at a car dealership by 30, overweight and alone.
The dropout? Created Microsoft. Created Facebook. Created Apple. Created Google. Created something that changed the world because at some point, he stopped going with the natural flow through life.
Am I being hyperbolic? Sure, sort of. But these days it’s easy to stalk your friends from high school or college, ten years on. Is there any correlation to their test scores to what they’re doing in life?
David Heinemeier Hanson is an unconventionalist and massively successful entrepreneur who has just about done it all: he’s built Ruby on Rails, 37 Signals, and Basecamp. Through Ruby, he was indirectly responsible for the creation of Twitter and countless other applications. He also took up competitive race car driving in his 30’s, despite no previous experience.
Interestingly, he didn’t find most of what he learned in school very useful. “Some of my proudest grades were my lowest grades,” he says.
“If I can put in 5 percent of the effort of somebody getting an A, and I can get a C minus, that’s amazing,” he explains. “Then I can take the other 95 percent of the time and invest it in something I really care about.”
DHH discovered the magic secret to peak effectiveness while still in school – he looked for and found the least wasteful way to do something. 5% of the effort of the A students was enough to get the job done.
Ironically, the best way to become a creative genius in today’s marketplace for content is to not be original.
It’s about “standing on the shoulders of giants,” and borrowing the best work that others have already done, and adding on top of that. This concept is also known as “the lazy programmer.” Rather than write code from scratch, the lazy programmer just borrows someone else’s code, and adds a new command on top of that.
In the middle of the 20th century, there was a renowned Madison Avenue art director named Zoltan Medvecky. He won numerous prizes and accolades for his work.
One day, a junior copywriter teamed up with the illustrious art director to create a print advertisement. When it came time to create the layout, Medvecky thumbed through his file drawer, pulled out an old issue of Life magazine, and stole an editorial layout.
The young copywriter was aghast. “Isn’t that cheating?”
But when he looked at the finished ad, he had to admit, it looked great.
Ten years ago, it was very tough to become a DJ. You had to drop thousands on vinyl and turn tables, and learn how to sync tracks – an incredibly difficult skill to master. Now you can become a DJ with your computer using software that automatically syncs the tracks for you.
You can learn how to use the software by watching video tutorials or purchasing a $20 course on Udemy, and be playing shows within a couple of months.
When you’re able to become a professional DJ in two months, you can pretty much do anything. David Heinemeier Hanson didn’t go to school to learn how to be a race car driver. He simply learned early on how to reach the next level with the least amount of effort.
3) Blogging is a terrible business model.
99% of bloggers do not get significant readership, and the ones that do, 99% make little or no money.
There are far too many “me too” bloggers out there in every single niche you can imagine: from marketing to travel. And the vast majority follow the same conventional path to mediocrity.
Conventional blogging wisdom says that you have to write hundreds, even thousands of blog posts before your blog can become successful enough to “make it.” Then you load them up with metadata, tags, keywords, and a whole bunch of silliness.
The false commonly-held assumption is that more must be better. But in practice, this leads most to burnout within six months or a year.
Recently, my friend Austin took an unconventional approach. He wrote no more than three posts on his blog, drove hundreds of thousands of visitors to them for free, and built a mailing list of 10,000 subscribers within a month.
He then used that list to raise more than $90,000 for his book through Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
Another example from the blogosphere is guest blogging. Guest blogging is a fine way to acquire readers, backlinks, and a reputation for your website or blog.
But thousands and thousands of writers wield conventional methods to pitch their articles to industry blogs. I have a friend who owns a very large authority site about guerrilla marketing, and he showed me the hundreds of e-mails he’d received for guest posts each week. He silently tried his best to hide his frustration and annoyance.
Guest blogging is very important, but becoming a part of the herd by performing this type of outreach is horribly inefficient.
Why not take advantage of the huge stream of guest pitches already being made to your advantage?
Set up a page on your own website, and insert certain keywords that certain bloggers look for, such as “write for us,” “guest post opportunity,” “submit your content,” etc. Create your own call for writers, and optimize it for the keywords people are searching for.
Then all you have to do is include a contact form, with a field requiring the guest writer to include links to five published writing samples.
Boom! Free outreach targets send directly to your e-mail on autopilot, and you can even ask the guest writer to make warm introductions to those other blogs on your behalf. And you can also get 100% free content for your own site. Big wins all around, and you saved yourself a lot of trouble.
4) Last is a final example from my personal experiences.
On average I fly at least once a month, sometimes more.
Whenever I touch down in an airport very late, a long queue for taxis will form. I’m a big fan of networking and meeting people when I travel, so I’ll often strike up conversations. I’ll also invite other travelers I meet to share a taxi to town together.
One time I arrived in Bangkok after midnight, saw a long queue, and rather than fall in line at the end, I went instead to the exit. As people called a taxi and approached to leave, I’d politely stop them and ask if we were going the same direction. I asked three people, and the third agreed to share a cab.
This took me about two minutes. And I also saved money on the taxi fare as a result. I couldn’t help but wonder: why did everyone else decide to listlessly wait in the queue for 20 minutes, rather than simply talk to another person and entertain the very sensible prospect of sharing a cab together?
By simply doing something a little bit different than what the other 99% of people do, I cut my wait time for a taxi by 90%. I also cut the taxi fare by 50%.
This is not some “hack,” it’s just using common sense to find better, more efficient ways of doing things than to blindly go with the flow – a terribly dangerous way to go about one’s life.
When common sense is so uncommon, does it really make sense to follow the flow?
As you can see – the herd behavior that 99% of people unquestioningly follow is detrimental in every area of life: from learning, to travel time and expense, to our careers.
When you add up the cumulative efficiency lost, it becomes a toxic brew for an unfulfilled, listless form of living. I call this the “zombie” state, a catatonic, non-generative retreat from living.
Remember that you are dying a little bit every day. There is absolutely no reason to conform to conventional mediocrity and every reason to be different.
The onus is on us to identify when conventional practice leads to poor results, and where conventional wisdom falls short to find ways to attack problems from a different angle. We must never become complacent.
Every problem bears with it the seed of opportunity – a chance to improve upon an old, failing model.
If you are reading this, then you and I are kindred spirits. I implore you to become an unconventionalist. Be a discoverer. Discover new ideas and worlds and in the process, discover yourself.