Book Review – Can’t Hurt Me

Have you ever wanted to know how to run on two broken legs?

I can’t say that I meant to learn how to, but David explains how he did it, with duct tape, tube socks, and an attitude. Much of the book covers his (superhuman?) exploits in this and similar extreme circumstances. Losing 100 pounds and remedying a lack of proper education? Running 101 miles without training? I’m not saying David’s a parahuman in hiding, but I’m not convinced he isn’t, either. This book will carry you through the life of a man who is, quite frankly, hard as the diamond core of Jupiter.

David attributes his ability in these, and other arenas, as more the product of a state of mind, a denial of defeat, an abjuration of abandonment, a gross gesture towards giving in. It certainly seems to have worked for him in achieving his goals, and he breaks it down into ten challenges, one following each of the first ten chapters, intended to make you, if not the beyond belief bodily breaker that he is (at one point in his first Hell Week, he was running from the nose and mouth with blood, kept getting pulled off the ‘evolution’ (a term for exercises in BUD/S training), only to get back up and back into place: “Oh shit, Goggins is back on the log. I repeat, Goggins is back on the log!”) then at the least, stronger than you were walking into it.

From his youth of abuse, disappointment, and being the outsider, to breaking world records for pullups, David really doesn’t seem to know the meaning of, “Enough”. As you walk with him through the house of pain, both forced and by choice, that his life has been, there is a rising sense of a need to do better, be stronger, more resilient. Perhaps it was just me, but it certainly seemed to come across as a friendly challenge – “I’ve gone through this and I’m still here. Come on, is your stopping point your real stopping point, or just a matter of convenience?”

David has a lot to say about your real stopping points. A few times, he actually does hit a limit, but it’s clear from how he approaches these situations, that he really did give it his all, and not his ‘all’. At least, I don’t think you pee blood from hitting a point where you allow yourself to give up. Maybe I’ve just given up too early in my exercise routines to do so, but on the whole, I’m actually pretty okay with not being quite that hard.

I started reading this book because I have been told, and observed, that I often give up too easily, and I hope I’ve gathered some of his gears without necessarily making myself someone who will beat my body to within an inch of death’s door. It’s hard to know where to draw the lines, given how very far from where most humans do David demonstrates is possible. I think I’ve gained from it; certainly I am stronger than I was. I started running, and unlike my last attempt (“Run at least one minute per day”) I find myself going further and further before I am compelled to stop. I have also challenged cold showers, turning them from a frightening punishment-type experience, to my new normal. Certainly I shower faster in my daily cold shower than I did in the warm, but it’s more a matter of not wasting time enjoying the water, then a need to get out as soon as possible.

In this book, David explains something he calls the 40% rule – that we tend to have only reached 40% of our total limit, when we feel we’ve hit our limit. He suggests this is controlled by a brain area he calls the governor, after the part found in many car engines that limits their top speed. I’m not sure how accurate his numbers are here, but I definitely think he’s onto something with the idea of having a limiter, something that tells us, “You’re too tired, you’ve done enough, this is too much” well before we would start taking real damage. It makes sense to have something like that, so we don’t break ourselves in everyday life, but at the same time, when you need to run from a tiger, well, you have deeper reserves than you thought.

Certainly I’ve found that I can do more than I ever believed possible, mere months ago, when achieving twenty hours of work in a week was a struggle to me. Now I well exceed that, with my main limiter seeming to be my distractability, a problem I’ve struggle with all my life to one degree or another. A very low degree, apparently, when reading fiction or playing video games (at least until the Hell Year broke my hedonism trap, but that’s a story for a later blog post). I was being governed, and it was possible to see my way past it, but Can’t Hurt Me gave me an explicit model of what was going on, one I suspect I will use again and again before accepting, “You’ve done enough, it’s too hard” or other stopping point phrases.

Personally, I think in some ways David goes too far in his pursuit of shattered limits, over shattered limbs, through a hole in his heart, and past pneumonia. I suspect there’s some survivor bias here, in that other people who have run his peculiar mental setup, often die, and don’t report back that it’s a bad idea. Read it with this in mind, seriously consider how hard pushing for whatever goal you pursue is worth putting yourself through, but also, learn not to accept your first, “This is too much, I’m done.” There’s a balance to be struck, and Can’t Hurt Me brought me closer to what I think is the correct balance, while also showing me just how far the point of balance things can be taken.

I recommend reading it if you’ve decided you have something to protect, but please do remember that you can’t protect from a hospital bed or the grave. Get stronger, but try not to go too far, wherever you decide too far is, for you.

Book Review – The Motivation Hacker

In The Motivation Hacker, Nick Winter provides a guide to being able to get things done, through self-modification. From the foreword, it’s clear that he’s a motivated individual – in it, he provides a list of all of the things he did alongside writing this book in three months, and it’s a fairly impressive list. Does it deliver?

I believe so. I gained a lot from having read this, powering up hard and becoming a far more active and dynamic version of myself. Prior to reading it and applying the suggestions within, I struggled to achieve twenty hours of worthwhile work done in a week. I would often find myself struggling on Sunday to hit this really quite low total. I fell in love with his mention of his lapsed protagonist license, and the idea of doing everything I wanted to, time in a day being the only limiting factor. I was ready for a change, and for the person who wants change, The Motivation Hacker will make you far better equipped.

My experience support’s Nick’s contention that with a large load of motivation, what used to be dragging yourself out of bed and through your day becomes leaping out of bed to challenge the day and take what you want from it. One of the central ideas here is to load and overload yourself on motivation. You could motivate yourself enough to get something done, and be sort of sad and stressed while you push yourself through, or you can pile it high and charge that task, tackling it with intensity and joy. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly find living this way more fun than what I was doing previously.

Getting into the meat of the matter, Nick explains the motivation equation: Motivation = (Expectancy x Value)/(Impulsiveness x Delay). What are these pieces?

Expectancy is confidence of success. If you try something, do you believe you will succeed, or fail? If you expect to fail, there’s not much drive to start. If you’ve been a ‘loser’ all your life (I was, at the outset of this, by my standards both now and then) doing anything is going to feel like a chore that you will not want to face.

Value is, straightforwardly, the expected payoff of the task in question. If it’s valuable to you, you’ll be more motivated to do it. This isn’t limited to financial rewards or accolades; doing something you expect to enjoy doing has a higher motivation behind it, and thus, actually does feel more enjoyable in the moment.

Impulsiveness is your likelihood of being distracted. Will you work for five minutes, and then check your email, and your newsgroups, and maybe read a little reddit? That’s impulsiveness, a quality that everyone has, and that those of us with ADHD get an extra helping of.

Delay is the temporal distance between you and the reward. Taking up a task that will pay off five years from now is much, much harder than one that will pay off in five minutes. Humans engage in hyperbolic discounting, and this can drain your motivation quite quickly, leaving you looking around for something else, anything else, to be doing.

The conjunction of the latter two reminds me of a quote from Order of the Stick, a fantastic Dungeons and Dragons oriented webcomic I’ve been following for years: “Hard work and persistence may pay off in the long run, but laziness always pays off right now.” It’s fairly true, assuming you get nothing from the work; a true assumption for the undermotivated, but not one that’s compulsorily true.

Adjust any of these variables, and your motivation shifts accordingly. Adjust all of these values, and turn yourself into a superhuman dynamo of activity (maybe). Nick contrasts a PhD student comparing her options between working on her dissertation (low Expectancy, 2/5ths of such students don’t get a doctorate, low Value, given her beliefs about the jobs available to her, and the tedium of writing conference papers. High Impulsiveness, being surrounded by interesting people and things to do, and high Delay, given the years between her and that piece of paper) and working on a web game she hacked up one weekend (High Expectancy, since she knows she can keep improving it, high Value, since working on the project is fun, and her players reward her with praise. Low Impulsiveness, since many people are asking her to work on it, and low Delay, because with every improvement, the change can be rolled out immediately.)

From here, Nick delves into techniques. Chapter 3 starts with success spirals, an Expectancy hack of starting to achieve one goal, known to be within reach, every day. By completing this goal every day, you build your belief that you can achieve your goals, and with this experience, your Expectancy rises.

Nick lays out his first success spiral, and notes that he probably started too ambitiously. I followed in his shoes, tracking nine goals rather than one for a month; I felt like I really needed that Expectancy boost, and as I’ve described elsewhere, I do better with an extreme, than with a median goal in mind.

The next technique he delves into is precommitment. One common form of precommitment is to publicly announce your goal to people whose opinion you value. To do so changes the act of smoking a cigarette from a choice between nicotine now and health years from now, to the choice between having that cigarette, and not having to admit to someone you respect that you haven’t followed through on your plan to quit. The stronger the precommitment, the more it can drag your Impulsiveness down, and the more boost it will give to your Expectancy; knowing you really don’t want to break that commitment means you’ll have a stronger belief that you can follow through.

A specific version Nick recommends is to “burn your ships”. Instead of leaving alternative choices around to challenge your will regularly and boost your Impulsiveness, get rid of them. Want to lose weight and eat healthy? Don’t buy any more cupcakes, and get rid of the ones you have. Want to do more work and spend less time on social media? I did this one personally, by clearing almost half of my subscribed subreddits, turning off never-ending reddit, and further by installing an extension called Friction, that puts a load time in front of any site on a specified list. Watching those fifteen seconds count away has redirected me away from wasting time dozens of times so far, and I expect it to keep working.

This review is already fairly long and detailed, and I don’t want to take the enjoyment of reading the book yourself from you. Engagingly written, humorous, packed with solid advice and examples of how he used every bit of it, The Motivation Hacker is a good use of time for anyone who’s not already a fusion-powered hero, charging through every obstacle in their way. I gained a ton from it, and I can’t say enough good things about it without sounding like a religious convert. Read it for yourself, and make your own judgement. I doubt you’ll regret it.

Book Review – Ego is the Enemy

Over the course of several conversations, it became clear to me, in large part by it being explicitly pointed out to me that I was displaying anger, and lashing out and hurting people who, in my right mind, I would walk barefoot over a mile of broken glass for. When I calmed down, I saw that they were right. I had a flaw in my thought, and it needed to be fixed.

To be sure, at the time of writing this, anger is more easily reached – I’m in the middle of breaking a couple of chemical dependencies. They were useful crutches at an earlier stage of my life, but I’ve come to a point where they were holding me back. So I quit THC and nicotine within a few days of each other, a decision that, while the correct one, has made me a bit edgy. That said, chemistry is not an excuse and I wasn’t going to just take that as a stopping point.

I did what I usually do when I know there’s something I need to fix and I don’t know how to – searched the internet for lists of good books on the subject. Once I have a decent stack of recommendations, I can work through several of them, putting aside the ones that don’t seem to be helping.

From the large pile I gathered, I pulled Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy. I was, as I’ve said, in a combative space, and this suited me.

I can frequently be heard referring to myself as lucky, usually in a tongue-in-cheek sense, but it’s moments like this one that make me wonder, sometimes…

Ego is the Enemy digs into the difference between the people who succeed briefly, then flame out, or never succeed at all, and those who stride forward, one foot in front of the other and their eyes on the goal. Holiday brings a wry humor to the task of reminding us that we are all, in the end, human. Drawing from exemplars of both the restrained and those who refused any restraint, each of his points is well supported and illustrated in a way that brings clarity of vision to the issue of ego.

In many ways, the diseases of the modern industrialized world are those of surfeit – too much sugar, too many calories, too much instant gratification and superstimuli. This excess is exacerbated by the fact that it is optimized for being form over substance. Prepacked foods are sugar and carbohydrates and fat. Porn comes in an instant, in a bewildering variety that your ancestors never had access to. In many ways, our civilization has a similar issue with self-esteem(link to review of pillars). At least for my generation, almost any achievement earned a gold star, trophies were given for showing up, and the adults chased us (this has gotten worse, I hear) trying to protect us from any failure. As a result, many of my peers (and me! I did not select this book at random!) grew up with a six hundred pound ego, suffering diabetic neuropathy and, like Fat Bastard, crying out, “I’m damn sexy!”

Ego is the enemy is the bread, water, and vitamin diet my ego needed. There is a mental sting one feels when a good point has been landed, one we know is accurate, and that we have no way of pushing aside. Ryan Holiday delivers that sting again and again, and if you’ve come to put your ego through fat camp, it’s just the suffering you want. Delicious!

The book is composed of fairly short chapters, each focused around one particular aspect. Talk, talk, talk. To be or to do? Become a student. Simple ideas that he puts flesh to with clear historic examples, ones that demand recognition. To be or to do? for example, focuses largely on John Boyd, a career serviceman who flew over Korea and became, in time, the lead instructor at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB. He touched the minds of many, shaped modern military thought directly and indirectly, and is almost totally unknown.

He would advise those he thought had promise to consider which path they wanted to follow in their lives. The version of this speech known to history is too good not to quote, so here you go:

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments. Or you can go that way and you can do something — something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference. To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do? Which way will you go?”

John Boyd

If you, like many of John Boyd’s disciples, want to do something rather than be someone, I’d strongly recommend you grab a copy of Ego is the enemy, and read it with a will.