Mind Food (Not What You Might Think)

Charlottesville, Virginia

June 15, 2020

I extracted the following from a newsletter I receive each week. I found the ideas to be insightful and illuminating. I love the idea of "leverage points," his ideas about how we forget seemingly life-altering events so quickly, his recommended reading list and the purpose of the question, "What do I have to do to make this one the best things that has ever happened to me?” 


Here are three potentially life-changing ideas about how we can all become slightly less awful people: (1) finding the leverage points in life, (2) living in the age of short-term bias, and (3) some suggested books racism. 1. Finding the leverage points in life

In last week's newsletter (see below), I talked about how there are certain activities and pursuits in life that provide non-linear results — for example, an increase of 10% ability can generate 100% improvement in your quality of life.

I argued that people who are good at spotting leverage points like this are the ones who tend to do the best in life. They develop the ability to recognize these leverage points and act on them, and similarly, recognize the anti-leverage points and avoid them. I asked readers to send me examples that they could think of. Below are some of the most significant and common ones I received.. Physical Health - For all the fad diets and insane workout routines out there in the world, becoming moderately active in your life is likely one of the most significant leverage points available to anybody. Going from sedentary and no physical activity to basic physical activity (walking 30 minutes per day, light workouts a few times per week) is likely one of the single biggest boosts in physical and emotional health, mental clarity, mood, emotional regulation, disease prevention, sleep quality, and overall sexiness. A little bit of physical activity provides massively outsized benefits. So, you don’t have to run a marathon — just stop being a couch potato. Food - This has been my big lesson of 2020 and a silver lining of being in quarantine with so many restaurants closed. The extra effort to seek out high-quality food provides a non-linear benefit. I would estimate that the difference between eating something ultra-processed and full of sugar and salt versus something that’s fresh and locally sourced gives at least a 50% boost in energy, mood, attention span, and mental clarity for the next 6-8 hours. Not to mention the lack of "sugar crashing" and needing naps. Seriously, when I eat a bunch of processed garbage now, it actually feels like I’m mildly hungover. It’s that big of a difference. Not to mention eating properly sourced foods, which has all sorts of positive effects on the environment, local economies, and so on. Education - Years ago, I saw an interview with Warren Buffett where the interviewer asked, "What is the best investment for a young person right now?" It seemed that the interviewer expected a hot stock or maybe a discussion of retirement funds or something like that. But Buffett simply responded, "Knowledge." He then explained: money will come and go throughout your life. But when you learn a useful piece of knowledge, you have it forever. Therefore, the highest leverage use of a young person’s time is education. Socially speaking, modest improvements in education generally have wide-ranging effects on people’s lives. Better education not only increases earning potential but it is also one of the best predictors of not being violent or committing crime. Relationships - If you dig deep enough into research on happiness and wellbeing, the biggest factor that comes up, again and again, is the quality of a person’s relationships. If you’re able to maintain good relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners, you’re going to be healthier mentally and emotionally, experience less anxiety and depression and feel more satisfied with your life. Social Skills - This plays into the above: better social skills produce better relationships. But better social skills can also have an outsized impact on other areas of your life. You’ll progress in your career faster, you’ll be a better negotiator, a better collaborator, a better parent, and so on. Personal Finance - Similar to exercise, personal finance falls along "a little bit is far better than none, but a lot is only slightly better than a little." A basic understanding of saving, interest, credit, and debt will probably increase your lifetime wealth significantly. Time Management - My favorite of all of the reader suggestions. I spent almost five years living abroad in cultures that — how do I put this politely? — couldn’t show up on time if their lives depended on it. Most people from developed countries talk about how the third world helps you relax and not worry about time so much. It actually did the opposite for me: it made me appreciate time management so much more. It’s absolutely incredible how much everything suffers for each extra increment of poorly managed time. Work life. Home life. Friendships. If you aren’t able to reliably be where you say you’re going to be for the amount of time you allotted, then you become undependable. Failing to manage time not only harms everything you plan to do, generating more stress and fatigue, but it also disrespects other people’s time, thus harming your relationships as well. Emotional Health - Both a cause and effect of many of the above. People with poor emotional management tend to suffer in their relationships, struggle to find the motivation to exercise or eat well, manage their time and money poorly — yet their failures at the above cause them greater emotional turbulence and stress. Therefore, you could argue that mastering your emotions (or your mind, in general) is The Ultimate Leverage Point in life. Get your mind in order, and everything else gets that much easier. There were many more good ones — everything from pet training to dental hygiene — far too many to list. 2. Oh, how fast we forget

This calendar year has been a clinic in how we, as a society, emotionally react to calamity and crisis. This weekend, protests persisted in at least a dozen American cities, yet wall-to-wall news coverage and hand-wringing on Twitter seemed to have moved on to other conversations. Once the outrage was gone, our collective attention span left, too — so, we sit and wait for the next dumpster fire to catch and hold our gaze.   Oh, and remember COVID-19? Yeah, that’s still happening. In fact, it’s accelerating in many parts of the United States and around the world. Or how about the Australian wildfires? Or Trump’s impeachment trial? Every step of the way, the broader culture reacted as if these were cataclysmic world events and then promptly forgot about them. Meanwhile, they are representative of persisting underlying issues. Psychology has shown that people tend to emotionally overreact in the short-term and underreact in the long-term. 2020 has been like a hit parade of these sorts of events. In the moment, the event is so calamitous and anxiety-inducing that we can’t imagine life being the same ever again. But then, for most of us, life is mostly the same, so we forget that the world is actually shifting and changing under our feet. We go from pathological overestimation of the moment to a pathological underestimation. And in both cases, our intuition is wrong. It’s more difficult to, a) recognize the overreaction in the moment and b) maintain one’s attention and focus on the issue long after the initial excitement has receded. I think our collective failure at both might have something to do with the raging dumpster fire also known as governmental policy. 3. An educational moment

Speaking of the non-linear benefits of education and fighting our tendency to underestimate long-term factors, regardless of your political leanings, I’ve been using the past week as an opportunity to educate myself about racism in the United States. Regardless of your political leanings, I believe it’s important to learn as much as you can about the topic. The past ten days or so, I’ve read and/or scanned through about eight different books and am currently working my way through a few more. The following are some recommendations, along with my reasoning.   To understand the psychology of human bias and prejudice, the origins of racism, and the formation of racial identity, Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum is fantastic. In fact, it’s so good that I recommend it for anyone who wants to understand maltreatment of minorities in any country around the world (since every culture has its various in-group/out-group prejudices). The book is honest and research-driven but also avoids being too preachy — a common hazard on this topic. Tatum has a great understanding of how white people react to discussions of racism and was excellent at disarming some of my knee-jerk emotional reactions before they happened. Tatum is also the first person I’ve ever come across that clearly explains the concepts of "institutional racism" and "systemic racism" in a way that doesn’t rely on vagaries and circular logic. Highly recommended.   A book that I will recommend, while not agreeing with everything in it, is Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. I don’t buy all of the historical comparisons she makes throughout, but this is the most thorough analysis I found of the disastrous policies in the United States around mass imprisonment, The War on Drugs, and the disproportionate harm they cause to African-American communities. Chapters two and three, in particular, are incredibly strong rebuttals to the common arguments that higher police brutality against African-Americans is due to higher violent crime rates committed by African-Americans. The vast majority of police interactions occur for petty drug offenses. And while whites and blacks sell, use, overdose, and traffic drugs at largely the same rates, the vast majority of surveillance, searches, seizures, arrests, and busts occur in minority communities. Then, once arrested, minorities are convicted more often and sentenced longer than whites for the same crimes. If you’re at a loss at why Black Lives Matter exists and these protests are happening, despite the fact that police brutality has been declining over recent years, this book will help you understand. On the subject of policing, I found The End of Policing tedious for stretches (due to its preachiness) but there were enough gold nuggets in it to keep me digging. The basic gist is that: a) the police in the US are expected to do way too much, b) they are also way too heavily armed, and c) almost every "reform" we’ve thrown at the problem—from both the right and the left—has not worked. Body cams don’t work. Diversity training does not work. "Broken windows" policing does not work. Hiring more African-American officers does not work. And so on and so on. I’m including the book here simply for its first chapter, which presented a lot of data that changed my views about policing. The rest of the book, your mileage will vary depending on how much you think the US is a police state. For a deep historical perspective, I recommend Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s long but wonderfully written and well-researched. I’m still not finished with it, but I’m enjoying it immensely. For a more personal perspective of the lived experience of racism in the twenty-first century, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is incredible and touching. I read it when it came out a few years ago and I still think about it often. For a conservative counterpoint on this whole subject, see Thomas Sowell’s Discrimination and Disparities. I found Sowell to be a good economic-based analysis of discrimination (or lack thereof), but he seems to have a blindspot around behavioral economics — i.e., the many ways people behave irrationally. There’s also a conspicuous lack of statistics. Still, I think his points are important to hear and think about.   Finally, it’s probably a good time to revisit Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (free download) if you haven’t. It’s still powerful and relevant fifty years later.

Best Things and Leverage Points

This week, we’re talking about: (1) how to make your struggle the best thing that ever happened to you, and (2) how to spot leverage points in life.

1. The best thing that ever happened to me – In 2018, I spent three and a half months on business-related trips. In 2019, I spent nearly five months on business-related trips. During these years, I regularly bemoaned the fact that I was never home, that I was always distracted, that I couldn’t seem to find an extended period of time to just think and read and write. Both years, I kept promising my wife, “Next year will be different.”

As they say, be careful what you wish for…

When the pandemic hit, guess what I did the first couple weeks? If you selected, A) freaked out and squandered my days reading the news and playing video games, then you were right. Yes, I too, am human.

But as I settled into a groove over the past couple of months, my attitude has shifted quite a bit. When it comes to decision-making, I have often written that one of the best things to optimize for is living regret-free—i.e., asking yourself, “What choice will I regret making the least?”

After my initial freakout, I asked myself the same thing, “What could I do during this period that would make Future Me proud of my actions? What would leave no regrets?” And quickly, I realized that that same thing I had spent the last two years bitching about was now being handed to me on a silver platter: three (and counting) uninterrupted months to read, think, and write.

Years and years ago, I wrote a journal entry called “What if it was [were] a gift?” The idea was to challenge yourself to see everything that ever happens to you as a gift. The idea was that all experiences can have value, it’s just that that value is contingent on how we choose to see and act in the moment.

Last week, I was talking to a friend who more or less had his entire business wiped out. There’s a strong chance it will never come back. Months ago, he was a total mess. But when I zoomed with him last week, he was in great spirits. I asked him what changed and he said it was simple, he asked himself:

“What do I have to do to make this one the best things that has ever happened to me?” 

His answer: he signed up for some online courses that he’s wanted to take for years but could never justify the time commitment. They are in a different field and he believes that if his business doesn’t survive, he’ll be positioned to transition into an exciting new career.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we are seeing such an outpouring of political protest right now. Stuck at home and many without jobs, people are looking to find something to make this time meaningful and important. Pushing for political change is one way to do that.

The difficulty with living through crises is that the costs are immediate and obvious and the benefits are subtle and accumulate over a long period of time. The other difficulty is that the ability to accrue those benefits requires us to make changes to our perspectives and behaviors.

And that’s what’s so beautiful about my friend’s question. It’s not, “What if this was the best thing that happened to me?” or even, “What if this ends up being a good thing that happened to me?” It’s, “What do I have to do… to make this the best thing that happened to me?”

Without the doing, there is no transforming.

2. Where are the leverage points? – A follow-up question to the above is, “How do I use my time well? Doing what?” The idea of using time well is something I’ve written about for many years, but I’ve never approached the question: what is a good use of time? How do we know?

Here’s an interesting starting point to answer that question:

Improvement and growth don’t have a linear, one-to-one effect on our lives. For example, getting 10% better at golf isn’t likely to make you 10% happier. Whereas getting 10% better at your marriage could potentially make you 50% happier. Improving 10% at a skill or vocation is unlikely to result in a significant increase in pay, but improving 10% at managing complex projects or managing people could potentially multiply your income many times over throughout your career.

Basically, there are leverage points in life. And it’s not always clear where those leverage points exist. Spending the time to make two new friends could be life-changing… if you have no friends. But it could also be a complete waste of time and energy if you rely on your social life as a way to avoid responsibility and doing something meaningful.

Spending more time with your kids could drastically improve their emotional health over the coming years. But spending more time with your kids could also drastically decrease their emotional health depending on how much time you already spend with them.

There are subtle and invisible leverage points all around us—situations where 1% of increased effort can produce 10%, 20%, or even 100% extra reward. There are negative leverage points, as well, where 100% more effort will produce a 1% extra reward. These leverage points are fleeting and hidden in plain sight. Perhaps an underrated and under-discussed skill-set is that some people intuitively know how to sense and act on these inflection points and most others do not. Especially because outsized benefits in one area of life tend to spill over and compound into benefits in other areas.

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