Billy Joel had it wrong when he exclaimed "Only the Good Die Young."
Analysis of over 16,000 individuals again confirms that the best predictors of mortality overall are sense of purpose and sense of community/family. This recent research finding, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that risk factors for mortality were being unmarried, infrequent involvement in religious activities, and being socially isolated.
This dovetails perfectly with what I've already written about in terms of managing perception of stress. Yes, nutrition and activity play a role, but ultimately are borne out of, reinforced or negated by one's sense of higher purpose and connection to community and/or family.
The National Geographic Blue Zones project began digging into these same factors now for over a decade, and I think that Dan Buettner's article on "The Island Where People Forget to Die" helps put a fine point on it: have incredible meaning in your life and have incredibly meaningful relationships.
Recently I visited a gym environment where I hadn't been in three years. Every single "regular" was more or less doing the exact same routine, complaining about the exact same shoulder issues and looked worse than they did when I last saw them. The skinny lean guys were still complaining about how they cannot gain 5 pounds of muscle; and the big guys were marching about with more belly fat than ever. You might be thinking, "well, Jonathan, you have to understand that as people age..." AND I'm going to cut you off right there. Not true. Have you ever read Martin Luther King Jr.'s letter from Birmingham Jail? Time is neutral. What are you going to fill it with? More of the same unevolved waste, because your pride is higher on your priorities than improvement? Or are you going to get a coach? You need one. We all do.
I get it. You already know everything. That's why surgeons just practice on pigeons at home. That's why music schools don't exist. That's why universities have never played an important role in the progress of anything. Sounds ridiculous? That's what my ear hears when people talk about not needing help in any area of their lives, especially fitness. I've seen the same people aimlessly pounding out endless hours in the gym to basically no avail for a decade. And this depressing fact is highlighted more every day as I age and continue improving, and as my clients and colleagues age and continue improving.
We have to start with your head and your pride. A good friend of mine used to daily paraphrase Henry Ford, saying, "whether you think you can or can't, either way you're right." So if you believe you have to devolve as time passes by, you're right. Except, you aren't right. How do you explain people like Dana Torres? They aren't just genetic freaks. I've worked with lots of people like this. The examples exist, challenging your paradigm. Now, you have to do something with that cognitive dissonance. You can either let it change your mind, or you can cynically come up with some excuse for why it doesn't apply. And then, again, whether you think you can or you can't, either way you're right. This is the number one reason why you need a coach. You need at least one person in your life showing you the "impossible" is possible on a regular basis.
A couple years ago NPR ran a segment on Sandy Palais (http://www.npr.org/2011/02/21/133776800/seniors-can-still-bulk-up-on-muscle-by-pressing-iron). For the first 63 years of her life she knew everything. It netted her osteoporosis. Never having done serious strength training before, she swallowed her pride, worked with some trainers and at 73 she could Deadlift 165 pounds. Does that sound like we're predetermined to degenerate as we age? We aren't. You can put away whatever equivocations you're already building in your mind about her, because she didn't have a very fit starting point and her routine isn't even that streamlined. It's just decent.
But your pride is still there, keeping you depressed, disempowered, making excuses, thinking no one could possibly have something different that's helpful. You've built up all kinds of slick coping mechanisms so that you won't listen to anyone about anything: "I don't want to get too bulky;" "I don't want to get too skinny;" "everyone in my family has high cholesterol;" "I know what to do, I just don't do it." You know what? Save it. I've done over 10,000 consults and I've heard it all. A coach is someone there to help you go through the deep internal change about which you're unwilling, unwitting and incapable of doing efficiently on your own.
Yes, there are all of the fundamentals: your program design and form is garbage; your workout regimen is based on thirty year old wisdom that was wrong back then; your chiropractor, nutritionist, last trainer, orthopedic surgeon, gp, and physical therapist all told you the wrong advice; you don't know about food sensitivities, inflammation, controlled ketosis, nutrient timing, biorhythms, effective supplementation, citizen medicine, and the like. Obviously, you need a coach because you don't even know enough to know that you don't know anything. However, I'm not even talking about that. Let's say you are extremely advanced, you've worked several thousand hours in the wellness industry and you KNOW what you are doing. The second you stop seeking coaches and new mentorship your skill set is passé and your knowledge base outside of your troubleshooting experience is obsolete. Sorry folks, that is just status quo in every industry nowadays.
So, again, I get it. Good coaches are expensive and you're broke. That's why the trillion dollar tobacco industry is primarily funded by the lower third of the socioeconomic ladder. That's why the porn industry yearly revenue tops $57 billion. Guess what. People have, are and will continue to spend tons of money on vices and pointless purchases, oftentimes with money they don't even have (the AVERAGE American credit card debt is almost $16,000). So why do we still have this stigma about seeking help with fitness, nutrition, wellness and stress management? Without these pillars, people can't even function. But yet we have to shame ourselves and each other about going to a trainer or a therapist. Should I chide you for paying "just to have someone keep you company while you play the piano"? Should I chide you for paying someone "just to keep you company while you read your Calculus text book"? I mean, why bother even letting assisted self-improvement enter the conversation when it's so much easier to act self-righteous and self-medicate with a variety of dirty little secrets? The reality is that every person who hasn't admitted they needed help and paid for it in healthy ways has paid for some really unhealthy ways to cope instead. But they keep it a secret.
Listen, I don't have any health issues because I take care of myself and I have been fortunate. Yet I have to pay top dollar on premiums, health care and taxes because you don't. So, let's not play the "expensive" game. Your pride costs you AND others more than several years of working with the most elite professionals in the world.
Everyone needs a coach. Even the best coaches need coaches. Even you. Even me. But if you think you can't learn anything new and it's not worth it and you don't have time, either way you're right.
Infants (the demographic with the lowest incidence of chronic disease and most positive central nervous system regulation) do best when they drink breast milk. There are some rare abnormalities, like chylothorax, wherein this isn't the case; but generally it's true. Breast milk content varies, but on average the macronutrient content in energy (as opposed to volume) is about 50% fat, 10% protein and 40% carbohydrates. Babies are growing rapidly, thus their carbohydrate needs are relatively high.
How does this instruct us as adults? Well, if you're in a rapid growth cycle like babies, which really only pertains to bodybuilders or people trying to accelerate their cancer cell production, then you want to move your carbohydrate intake up to 40% or more. It will raise blood sugar, stimulating the pancreas to produce insulin which grows ALL TISSUE especially those cells which are upregulated for growth. Upregulated cells would include muscle cells after a workout, or cancer cells if you have cancer, or fat cells if you are sedentary. Also, insulin creates insulin resistance, leading to degeneration and aging.
What does all that mean? If you are trying to maintain or have moderate increases in strength or muscle, carbohydrate intake other than fiber should be severely limited, except immediately following some workouts and/or in the evening when fat cells are most difficult to grow. If you are really active, like a 90 year old Okinawan karate teacher on his feet all day, then you might benefit from a little more white rice in the diet.
By virtue of decreasing carbohydrate percentage, this means that your fat and/or protein intake will go up. If you want to grow fat at half the rate of a baby, there is a strong argument that a good balanced diet should look like 60% fat, 20% protein, 20% carbohydrates (again, not including fiber).
If you don't want to grow fat at all, especially if your activity level isn't very high (keep in mind, kids move a lot more than you, and nature doesn't peg their carb needs higher than 50% of total calories), then dietary fat most likely should be higher. If you haven't done any heavy lifting, 15% or fewer calories coming from protein is probably fine, meaning fat percentage could go as high as 80+%.
If you still think that dietary fat intake increases your risk of heart disease or some other ideas pulled from 1950s American nutrition science, please please please watch Gary Taubes' Googletech talk for free online and read my earlier blog posts.
This is not meant to be exhaustively comprehensive so much as concisely heavy impact. I did not include logic puzzles, sleep, art and the like, because, frankly, after you do even a few of these seven practices, one of the first ideas that will come to mind is a desire to obliterate a sudoku puzzle, write a song, paint a picture, read and write a few books, speak a new language, and invent something that makes the Rubik's cube look like a prehistoric relic. Oh yeah, and you will sleep progressively better and better and better.
Complex large living organisms that don't move don't have brains. They're called plants. John Ratey, MD has created a great book, "Spark," which details numerous studies showing the cognitive benefit from movement and then the mechanics down to the cell level of how exercise makes you smarter. My favorite illustration driving this home concerns the Sea Squirt, an underwater invertebrate. This little critter roams about until it finds the place where it will live out the rest of its life; and then it eats it own brain. After all, if you sit still most of the time, why would you need a brain?
2.) Ketosis (not to be conflated with ketoacidosis)
Your brain will live longer if you can keep your blood sugar low almost all the time. Eat seldom; and when you do, make sure you get coconut oil, butter and fish oil. Your body will learn to live off of fat (again, since this is how it was meant to work and how it started working when you were born). Without elevated blood sugar, it is darn near impossible to get any chronic diseases, especially the ones affecting the brain.
There are numerous examples of people who reversed advanced Alzheimer's and dementia by simple ketotic regulation.
Via intermittent fasting and MCT and short chain fatty acid administration - d beta hydroxybutyrate can cross the blood brain barrier and is neuroprotective. Given that neural cell death will occur when energy is no longer uptaken, ketone bodies afford each affected cell within the brain additional longevity since they operate independent from insulin-dependent GLUTs.
J Clin Invest. 2003 Sep;112(6):892-901.
D-beta-hydroxybutyrate rescues mitochondrial respiration and mitigates features of Parkinson disease. Tieu K, Perier C, Caspersen C, Teismann P, Wu DC, Yan SD, Naini A, Vila M, Jackson-Lewis V, Ramasamy R, Przedborski S.
Prostaglandins, Leukotrienes and Essential Fatty Acids 70 (2004) 309–319. The therapeutic implications of ketone bodies: the effects of ketone bodies in pathological conditions: ketosis, ketogenic diet, redox states, insulin resistance, and mitochondrial metabolism. Richard L. Veech* Laboratory of Membrane Biochemistry and Biophysics, National Institutes of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, 12501 Washington Ave., Rockville, MD 20850, USA
3.) Stop the Confusion: Eat Great Food
Your brain started out only hungry for its needs: vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. You starved it from its needs and became a drug addict. That is, you stopped eating foods dense in nutrients; and instead you began eating foods which have no nutritional value, leech nutrients out of your body and get you high. That's right, the nutritional value of grains and pasteurized dairy is less than nothing. Not only does their processing rob them of any nutritional value whatsoever, your body uncouples some of its own minerals (like calcium) to get them out of your body.
Add to that the fact that these foods create a euphoria from the blood sugar roller coaster and that they contain opioids: casomorphin and gluteomorphin.
Your brain is actually confused about what it wants and what it thinks tastes good, because you have starved it from its needs and been taking opiates for years. You are an actual drug addict. This is not a joke.
The good news is that as you begin supplementing, eating nutrient dense foods and turning away from your opiate addiction, you can actually regain normal brain function again. Believe it or not, when you have been flawlessly feeding your brain appropriately for a few months, you don't crave or think about the drugs anymore. I repeat, this is not a joke. I'm having an ever-growing number of executive and lifestyle coaching clients who don't even think about pasta or pastries anymore.
If you get an itch, it's only because you are nutrient deficient, and/or because you're still sneaking a little opium in (a piece of cheese, a bite of bread, or a sip of beer).
Be prepared for withdrawal. "Everything in moderation" is folly when talking about opiates. And that's to say nothing of the inflammatory sadomasochistic euphoria from blood sugar instability. You are sick; and the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. If you need some help during detox, don't be afraid to get more vigilant with your antioxidants and properly sourced caffeine (more to come on nicotine gum in the future).
4.) Rewire Neurons
Practice focused thought. You can do it with breathing, with guidance, with neurofeedback devices, and/or by running a low current across the brain. All of these increase levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, GAbA and serotonin. Depression, anxiety, pain and neurodegeneration can be stopped. The brain is complex; but it is still a series of many understood processes which can all be altered.
Some studies on current applied across brain:
Researchers attached an electrode to the upper incisor in rabbits to stimulate the trigeminal nuclei via the infra orbital nerve with only 10hz @ 5v, resulting in over 15% increase in cerebral cortical blood flow.
Int J Neurosci. 2009;119(9):1292-302.
Assessment of the outcomes of cerebral blood flow measurements after electrical stimulation of upper right incisor tooth in rabbits.
Gulturk S, Gedik R, Develioglu H, Oztoprak I, Cetin A.
Department of Physiology, School of Medicine, Cumhuriyet University, 58140 Sivas, Turkey. email@example.com
Another 10hz study showing safe increased blood flow with brain stim:
Acta Physiol Scand. 1990 Mar;138(3):307-16.
Effect on cortical blood flow of electrical stimulation of trigeminal cerebrovascular nerve fibres in the rat.
Suzuki N, Hardebo JE, Kåhrström J, Owman C.
Department of Medical Cell Research, University of Lund, Sweden.
Safe, among the longest studied so-called "nootropics" or smart drugs, they boast alleged IQ improvements in adults.
In rat models, they have proven to be specifically neuroprotective in the substantia nigra, including pars compacta.
There are about 3000 favorable studies on pubmed for the racetams, although I found the following one among the most recent and interesting.
Indian J Pharmacol. 2012 Nov-Dec;44(6):774-9. doi: 10.4103/0253-7613.103300. Piracetam and vinpocetine ameliorate rotenone-induced Parkinsonism in rats. Zaitone SA, Abo-Elmatty DM, Elshazly SM. Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Suez Canal University, Ismailia, Egypt.
It's a drug. It's controversial. It's basically NZT from the movie "Limitless." It makes people smarter, better at problem solving and extremely focused for very long periods of time. If you are a depressed, anxious, unhealthy and addictive personality, it is inarguably a bad idea. Moody people and the emotionally immature beware. That's most of you, even the adults who aren't in college anymore. However, if you are happy, smart, relaxed, healthy and very controlled, prepare to have the best day of your life. On modafinil, sleep is deep, recuperative but totally unnecessary. Daily longterm persistent high dose use, like with any drug, isn't smart. But limited irregular use, like with many drugs, has some significant upsides. One of them is the protection of brain cells.
Clinical trials have proven its benefit in improving concentration. Unfortunately, most of the studies with Modafinil for Parkinson's were focused on finger tapping, not mental acuity, and therefore had minimal statistically significant outcomes. Mental fatigue is much less with modafinil, even if body fatigue is under affected.
Aviat Space Environ Med. 2012 Jun;83(6):556-64.
Modafinil as a replacement for dextroamphetamine for sustaining alertness in military helicopter pilots. Estrada A, Kelley AM, Webb CM, Athy JR, Crowley JS.
J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2010 Spring;22(2):130-54. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.22.2.130. Psychopharmacological neuroprotection in neurodegenerative disease: heuristic clinical applications.
Lauterbach EC, Shillcutt SD, Victoroff J, Coburn KL, Mendez MF.
The above six takeaways should be substantial enough to help 99% of people A LOT. However, in the case of Parkinsonism, there is at least one more big trick.
This is some of the heaviest artillery for people deep into neurodegeneration. The layperson need not apply. Although selegiline has fallen largely out of favor, even for early-onset Parkinson's among American medical practitioners, it has a track record of netting the patients much greater overall benefit than dopamine therapy alone. More recent reviews argue that the fears once associated with selegiline had too many confounding factors.
J Neural Transm. 2013 Mar;120(3):435-44. doi: 10.1007/s00702-012-0899-3. Epub 2012 Sep 12. Rasagiline and selegiline, inhibitors of type B monoamine oxidase, induce type A monoamine oxidase in human SH-SY5Y cells. Inaba-Hasegawa K, Akao Y, Maruyama W, Naoi M.
Source: Department of Neurosciences, Gifu International Institute of Biotechnology, Kakamigahara, Gifu, Japan.
Clin Neuropharmacol. 2012 May;35(3):134-40. doi: 10.1097/WNF.0b013e318255838b.
Selegiline: a reappraisal of its role in Parkinson disease.
Fabbrini G, Abbruzzese G, Marconi S, Zappia M.
Source : Department of Neurology and Psychiatry and IRCSS Neuromed Institute, "Sapienza" University of Rome, Rome, Italy.
How do you explain the experience that someone has never had? Better yet, how do you convince someone they can do something they believe is impossible? The easy answer is you can't and you don't. What you do is use the closest experience someone has had and make analogy. Here, I try to make the ultimate one.
You're an addict. Food. Sex. TV. Booze. Anger. Something. You'd like to change. Or, at least you once did. You tried some stuff. Something kinda worked. Overall you failed. Ergo, change must be impossible. Right?
You read a testimonial. You attend a meeting. You believe, for a moment; and then you doubt. Doubt grows into disbelief. Disbelief becomes who you are. Change is impossible. It's your genes, your parents, your weak will, your age, your gender, the man keeping you down, the religious nuts, the irreligious nuts, the conservatives or the liberals or some factor you don't control keeping you from change. Change isn't in the cards. The "they" and the "them" have created a power structure that you just won't ever overcome. Right?
But you still sort of want to believe you can change. So, every once in a while, you put some hope in a pundit, an author, an infomercial. You try some new things. A little something works; but overall not really. Now it's a fact. A law. An immutable truth. Change is impossible.
This is the juncture in an article where the author knows he's struck a chord, made some connection you can relate to, and then he proceeds to draw you in a little more by giving his own testimonial or an example of some famous person. I'm not going to do that.
Instead, I'm going to point you at your own life. You have already changed, in profound ways, but you no longer view them as profound because they're familiar, tired, everyday. So try to remember when they weren't familiar.
Pick an identity, thought-process, skill or aptitude you at one point never had. Hint: that's all of them. Now consider one. Any one will do. Take, for example, riding a bike. At one point it was impossible. It was impossible for you to become the person who naturally rides a bike. Everything within you should have prevented you from gaining the skill. Then you transformed. It wasn't just unnatural for you. No humans are built to ride a bike. Yet somehow you did it.
Dig deeper. At one point you could not talk, read, write, think critically. At one point you were not an adult. At one point you were closed-minded. You couldn't draw, paint, photograph, play music, balance a ledger, run a company, lead people, run a 5k, shake someone's hand.
All of it, every aspect, was a set of action potentials in the brain. Then you began firing the neurotransmitters across a different set of pathways. Sodium flowed into and out of cells in a new pattern. And you changed.
You know what it looks like. You've done it. Every day you change dramatically. Every morning you wake up with the identity of "the person who has never made it through this day." And then you make it through this day.
We do what is familiar. By definition we don't understand what is unfamiliar. Change is the release into the unfamiliar. The skill or practice of change requires effort toward relinquishing oneself into the unfamiliar. It's uncomfortable, nonsensical, illogical, foolish, dumb, ignorant, baseless. Then, all of a sudden, the bike balances. Oh, now it makes sense.
People every day say to me, "I can't imagine eating that way." Or "I can't imagine living that way." Well, I agree it's unfamiliar. I couldn't imagine speaking English before I began speaking it. Then I couldn't imagine reading Greek until I did. Now I can imagine learning any language I put effort toward. No one is good at anything until they are. No one does anything until they do.
Really, change is inevitable. It's going to happen. It has. It is. It will. The question isn't whether it's possible. The question is if you are going to take an active role or a passive role. With entropy alive and well, you know where passive leads.
Taking an active role is unfamiliar. It's dumb, nonsense, irrational and doesn't work. I can't imagine how it could. Right?
Tonight or tomorrow morning you are going to stare in the mirror, wondering if one day you can sleep through the night, or be thin, free from sadness, liberated from the bottle, smart, good enough, successful, fulfilled. You want to change. Maybe it's possible. You've done it before. So now what?
Change something easy.
Change something challenging.
Change something difficult.
Change the impossible.
Mozart had to learn to feel, then move his fingers, control them first, synthesize his motor control with his ear and imagination next. Much later he became a musical genius. You're trying to play a sonata and you haven't even untied your hands or stood in front of a piano.
Just having read this, the contagion of change is already in your blood. It is infecting you at this very moment. You remember when you did the impossible before. Just the act of reading right this second is changing every cell in your body. Your pile of atoms configured themselves to capture electromagnetic waves from the screen in front of you. The optic nerve sent that data to the collection of chemicals inside your skull. You read. Proteins arranged themselves just so and you accessed memories.
And deep, deep down, you sensed a weak, inaudible, pathetic whispered "I think I can." It's silly. It's embarrassing. It's nonsense. Yeah, that's part of what change feels like. So now what?
Change something easy.
Change something challenging.
Change something difficult.
Change the impossible.
Everything the human body and brain does is a skill. And all skills require practice to improve. If you want to change the impossible and do the unimaginable, then you must practice. And like any other skill, you must start where your current agency allows.
So right this second make a list of the unimaginable. "I can't imagine making a list right now." Exactly. One practice session already accomplished. "I can't imagine forwarding this on to everyone." Perfect. Two practice sessions down.
Then, do the unimaginable every day.
"I can't imagine admitting I was wrong about X."
"I can't imagine forgiving my enemy."
"I can't imagine donating to my political enemy."
"I can't imagine never eating gluten again."
You imagine different and you become different. So now what?
Remember - you've already profoundly changed trillions of times.
Change something easy - write your name with your non-writing hand; read the cliff notes of a classic novel you've never read; eat your fast food sandwich without the bun just once.
Change something challenging - incorporate a new vocabulary word into your next conversation; tie your shoe with a type of knot you've never used; set a new personal record time for holding your breath.
Change something difficult - fast for a day; call and speak to someone you've had a grudge against; wake up one hour earlier than usual and meditate on only one word (i.e. - an ideal like "humility" or "forgiveness") for the whole hour.
Change the impossible - It's been four minutes, or four hours, or four days, or four weeks, or four months, or four years since reading this article. You're finally prepared. You've practiced. You've built up to this moment. You're now face to face with what you always wanted. And guess what: it's anti-climactic. You glide effortlessly across the threshold. It's hard to even remember how hard you thought this change would be. It happens just like every other change, naturally, and slipping into the forgotten it occupies the past where your other profound changes lost reside.
Can't imagine it? Spoiler: you just did.
There is no formula for success.
Do you remember the telephone game? Somewhere around Kindergarten, many American children experience one of their first introductions to high-minded communications theory. The teacher leans down and whispers into the first student's ear a word or phrase. That student then whispers it into the ear of the next, and so on. The last student recites aloud what he heard for all to hear, and everyone learns that it bears no resemblance to the teacher's initial quote.
The standard takeaway from the above exercise is that people misunderstand, misconstrue and/or misquote information. Thus, as it travels through more conduits, the distortion to the original message is amplified.
That's one interpretation. The other is that each student accurately hears, accurately construes, and accurately quotes ACCORDING to his understanding. And, of course, each student's understanding is entirely unique, built upon his idiosyncratic experience. Maybe the final product is better than the original because it has been subjected to greater perspective.
That leaves us at a philosophical impasse. Some say that the human experience is similar enough from person to person that we can share truths, axioms, and even advice. Others, like Antoine Roquentin, argue that you cannot even get a solid understanding of your own individual reality.
Bill Gates while at Concordia College several weeks back fielded a question about dealing with success. To paraphrase, he said something along the lines of "you have to understand more than the next guy, and still be in the right place at the right time, and still wager your risk while others are somehow thwarted in their wagering of potentially the exact same risk." Frankly, it doesn't matter what exactly he said; because he's Bill Gates and his experience has nothing to do with yours. But isn't it interesting that one of the most capable, wealthiest, knowledgeable people ever still recognizes the nebulous X factor in its contribution toward success?
Sadly, X is a variable, not a constant. No matter what other constants we may find, agree upon, theorize about or determine as law, one variable throws the whole equation into variability. So, again, there is no formula for success. No reliable one anyway.
Your guru would say otherwise. That's what gurus do. They also accumulate followers based on a formula which is supposedly repeatable. The only problem is that no one has ever identically repeated a breakthrough. "Of course not," your guru might argue, "new breakthroughs will come from certain formulaic practices or talents." Those practices become the formula.
Ok. Consider practices or characteristics that gurus promise will make you rich in spirit or rich in pocketbook.
Ingenuity? There is nothing new under the sun. Hard work? No one worked harder than slaves. Determination? Fails in the face of catastrophe, even though it pridefully soldiers on against adversity.
Every hour another "how to be the best" article pops up on social media and major business forums and entrepreneurial websites. They aren't worth the paper they're printed on.
No one has a predictable model. There are great stories, in hindsight, about people like Thomas Edison or Mark Mathabane. But what if Edison never found a working filament? His stubborn faith in finding a working solution did get him there. But what if it hadn't? Edison is just one guy, who maybe simply lucked out, and that's why we tell his story. We haven't codified an Edison manual for success that predictably brings the follower irrevocably to eureka. Even the compelling story of Mark Mathabane doesn't provide a primer on pulling oneself up by his bootstraps. Mathabane's harrowing story is a beautiful and brilliant triumph of the human spirit. One human spirit.
Access was a prerequisite for all examples. If the examples didn't have access to certain information, materials, insights, technology or people, nothing else mattered. Imagine a Mark Zuckerberg two decades earlier. Unremarkable. Imagine a Steve Jobs in feudal Japan. Fallen on his sword in a rice field. Isaac Newton captured this concept in his immortal quote: If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. Ready for a mind-bender? Newton did not come up with the metaphor within that quote.
Gurus and their devotees will consolidate success down to generalized essences, arguing that a Mark Zuckerberg would've simply created the Facebook equivalent in any environment. Not true. And what's the point of the argument anyway? If the definition of success is too explicit, it is easily disproven. If too general, it lacks importance. Either way, we're still without a guarantee or predictive model, which is the whole hope and value which drives our ears to a guru.
Gurus don't hold the keys to your success. They held the keys to a success. Theirs. Which has no resemblance to your life circumstances, your access, your resolve, your available tools. You do it on your terms.
Maybe it's talent? No.
Someone very close to me independently invented a "gearless"transmission in my high school physics class. He submitted the idea, without schematics, and prior to patent, as a bid simultaneously to GM and Ford. He never received a response. A few years later so-called continuously variable transmissions appeared in various models of cars. His first thought was that intellectual theft occurred. Later, he came to find out the concept had been around for at least 100 years. It was odd though, since major production vehicles never had CVTs until after his invention.
That same mind around the age of eight had come up with a working model of car brakes that recharge batteries during deceleration. Almost fifteen years later hybrid vehicles began using the technology. Since the public doesn't know about his ideas and he never collected a penny in royalties, do we tell his story as a success, failure or something else?
Another someone close to me was the quintessential entrepreneur, but tragic, not triumphant. We partnered in 2008 to begin a fitness franchise. He had built the obvious momentum for major success in many, many enterprises. With several viable multi-million dollar launches at the ready, a year ago he died of a spontaneous pulmonary embolism. An Ivy League college dropout, he constantly had his finger on the pulse of innovation in business, fitness and technology. A self-taught chemist who had built a laboratory where he created new polymers, he had his success story blotted out. After all, life is sort of the ultimate access.
The point is clear. There are uncontrollable variables in success. Innovation, brilliance, persistence and determination do not dictate the outcome. We have to let them be.
Moving on, what are the controllable constants?
Simon Sinek argues persuasively that THE constant is "the why." His Tedtalk includes strong illustrations to gird his theory; and honestly the presentation has some great points. Look at successful people, companies, movements, organizations and you will find a common thread of inside-out communication, Sinek claims. His juxtapositions appear to prove it true. When people begin with a strong, clear, genuine belief, their actions result in great results.
But, when testing it against other stories, the theory doesn't hold up. The prosecution submits into evidence Andrew Carnegie. Heck, consider every warlord who ever walked the earth. Their results came from "what" and "how" perhaps more often than "why."
Even success isn't success.
Shawn Achor's presentation of positive psychology challenges the debate at a different level. He argues that the answer lies in inverting the equation. That is, seek first fulfillment, and success will rain down. Battling for success will result in only impermanent enjoyment, because, after all, fulfillment for that accomplishment will be not much longer lived than the moment you made it. Achor points out that you always are stuck having to move on to the next challenge, putting happiness "beyond the cognitive horizon." That's a losing proposition. Instead, he says, seek fulfillment in and of itself, then success becomes automatic.
Achor is slick; but the keen eye will find he merely repackaged "instant success is wanting what you already have." If there's utility in it, then use it. But we're still without a template to get from A to B with endeavors for accomplishments.
Ultimately, your life experiences are 100% unique. This is why no one can just come along and sweep aside your deepest understandings about life, happiness, religion, ethics and death. No one can sweep your whole life aside. Professional debaters attempt to. They zero in on provisionally agreed-upon axioms, then disassemble in an attempt to drive you toward their interpretation or conclusions. But you can just always switch the axioms, because, after all, your experience is singularly your own.
Gurus are up against the same road block as the debaters. Their experiences and insights add very little to your experience, because you're only going to hear what you can hear, construe as you can construe and repeat as you can repeat. Thank your whole life for that.
None of this is meant to be a downer - just a wake up call that there exists no checklist to get you from where you are to where you want to be. Certainly, widen your access. Expand your tools. There are inspirational models of excellence, like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." But carve your own path. Do not become the tribute band of your favorite guru.
That then just brings us back to the beginning: there is no formula for success. There isn't because there can't be. Each success is at least as unique as there are people who've ever lived. There is no way to condense or codify infinite uniqueness. It's a statistical paradox where your chances are 0% until you succeed, at which point your chance of success became 100%. When you hit a home run, look back and describe in hindsight. But remember that no one predicted it just so.
There is no formula for success; and that is why your guru sucks.