Photo: Austin Neill
John Burke is a 30-year-old pianist from Atlanta, Georgia. He has composed several albums and more recently has begun writing musicals. In 2016, he released the album, Orogen, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album.
One of the songs on Orogen is called, “Earth Breaker,” which Burke calls, “Finger Breaker” because it is extremely fast and intense. The purpose of Earth Breaker is to create the emotional experience of living through an earthquake.
When Burke wrote the song, he couldn’t physically play it. It was too fast and frankly, above his skill level. He wrote a song he could not play. After enough practice, he was able to master the sequence of notes at increasing speeds.
Earth Breaker is just one example of how John Burke continually pushing his creative boundaries. While writing, Willpower Doesn’t Work, I interviewed Burke and asked him about his process for creating such a large and powerful body of work at such a young age.
Here’s what he said:
- He rarely does the same thing twice.
- He’s always attempting something different and more challenging than he’s ever done before (creativity, after all, is about pushing boundaries and making new connections).
- Once he gets an idea for a project, he immediately puts all of the pieces in place to ensure the project gets done in a timely manner.
- He embraces both internal and external pressure to propel himself forward.
John Burke is continually disrupting himself and everyone else in his field. He is very creative but also very strategic. In fact, his strategy is what allows him to tap deep into his creative potential.
Here’s specifically what Burke does the moment he decides he’s going to pursue a creative project.
- He calls his sound engineer and gets scheduled several months in advance for when his album will be recorded.
- Being on the schedule and being financially invested now gives him a pressing end-date (“To achieve great things you need 1) a plan, and 2) not enough time” — Meg Jay TED talk).
- He then blocks out his calendar for the next several months for “Creation Time.” This is where he’s actually going to sit down and do the work. If it’s not on the calendar, it probably won’t get done. If a paid-gig or another “great opportunity” pops up during creation time, he says he already has a meeting. That meeting is with himself.
- He then tells all of his fans via social media and his email newsletter about his upcoming album. This creates positive expectation and anticipation in his fans. Burke really cares about ensuring his fans trust him. So when he makes a public declaration to his fans, he feels compelled to make good on that promise.
When Burke decides he wants to do a project, he doesn’t overly-wait until he feels ready. Instead, he immediately creates conditions to make that project a reality. He forces his own hand. All of his strategies fit under the category of “Forcing Functions” — which are strategic situational factors put into place to ensure you produce a desired result.
Forcing functions are flow triggers, because they force you to act and produce. They absorb you deep into what you’re doing. This is how you remove procrastination and confusion.
— — —
“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Now is as good a time as any.” — Hugh Laurie
The remainder of this article is going to give you the psychological and strategic tools for continually pushing your own boundaries. Most of the people and organizations in any industry are avoiding change. This is especially true of those already successful.
It is human-nature to seek homeostasis as fast as possible. In order to combat that, you need to continually disrupt yourself. Like Burke, you need to push your own boundaries and attempt stuff you haven’t done before. As Tim Ferriss explains, you’ll need to pursue excitement in the form of bold experiments instead of happiness.
Specifically, this article will cover:
- Anticipation (how to use it rather than be destroyed by it)
- Adaptation (and the fact that you should take on big stuff because as a human being, you’ll normalize very quickly)
- Excitement (why it should be the basis of what goals you pursue)
- Experiments (why you should try stuff you’ve never done before)
- Disruption (how you’ll plateau personally and be irrelevant in any market if you’re not continually innovating what you do and how you do it)
Here we go:
The anticipation of the future is more intense than the future itself
“The anticipation of loss is much more frightening than the actual loss as anticipation leaves room for the imagination to create that which, in all likelihood, will never transpire.” — Craig D. Lounsbrough
The anticipation of an event is usually far more emotionally powerful than the event itself. This is true both for positive outcomes and negative.
Anticipation is a double-edged sword. On one hand, anticipation is what holds people back from acting and on the other, anticipation is what can move you forward.
When you project negative outcomes — like failure — you needlessly torture yourself. Psychological research has found that high achievers reframe anxiety and fear into excitement. If you’re getting ready to do something that freaks you out, reframe it. Excitement is empowering while fear is disabling.
Anticipation, then, can stop you from acting but it can be the very thing that gets you to act. As author, Peter Sloterdijk said, “Faith is purely anticipatory, in the sense that it already has an effect when it mobilizes the existence of the anticipatory towards the goal through anticipation.”
Faith is a principle of visualization and action. It’s when the anticipation and expectancy of a future outcome becomes so compelling and so real that you can’t not act. This is what psychologists call, “Pull motivation” which is far different from “Push motivation.”
- Push motivation is a behavior that an individual forces themselves to complete in order to satisfy a need or achieve a goal.
- Pull motivation is a behavior that an individual feels drawn towards.
Push motivation is rough. It’s exhausting, depleting, and requires constant willpower, which quickly burns-out.
Pull motivation is much more powerful. It draws you forward, and actually gives you more energy while you’re doing it.
Thus, anticipation can and should mobilize you, rather than paralyze you. Said Napoleon Hill, “All thoughts which have been emotionalized (given feeling) and mixed with faith (expectancy), begin immediately to translate themselves into their physical equivalent.”
The final and potentially most important component of anticipation is the fact that people adapt very quickly. No matter how bad or good the future will be, it will quickly become normalized. You’re “new norm” may be unfathomable to most people, and even to a previous version of yourself. But to you, in this moment, it feels like any other day. Here’s how bestselling author Russell Brand explains it:
“People do this a lot. They don’t seem to realize that the future is just like now, but in a little while, so they say they’re going to do things in anticipation of some kind of seismic shift in their worldview that never actually materializes. Tomorrow is not some mythical kingdom where you’ll grow butterfly wings and be able to talk to animals — you’ll basically feel pretty much the same way you do at the moment.”
This is helpful because you no longer need to fear change. All change quickly becomes your norm. Hence, you need to continually disrupt yourself because homeostasis creates apathy and lack of stimulation.
Human’s “normalize” very quickly
“Yes, a man can get used to anything, but do not ask us how.” — Viktor Frankl
Viktor Frankl wrote one of the most important books in the past century, potentially in the past millennial — Man’s Search For Meaning.
In the book, Frankl describes his experience as a victim of the Nazi Concentration camps. What surprised Frankl most was how quickly the shock and horror of watching people murdered and tortured became apathy.
Everyone in the concentration camps — the victims and the perpetrators — became apathetic to the ridiculous and horrible situation. Psychological research shows how quickly we adapt to the roles we assume in a given situation. We then act out those roles without even questioning.
The fact that a concentration camp can become normalized is both frightening and also empowering. What it shows is that people can endure far more than we think we can.
No matter how difficult an experience, you’ll quickly adapt to that experience. Therefore, you shouldn’t wait to do something until you feel pre-qualified. Instead, you get to work and the very situation will qualify you. It will quickly become your norm. For instance, earning millions or even billions of dollars is NORMAL for some people.
What do you want to normalize in your life?
Happiness has a ceiling-effect because we quickly adapt to new situations. “One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation” says Dr. Thomas Gilovich, a Cornell psychologist who has studied the relationship between money and happiness for over two decades. According to Gilovich’s research, it’s far more powerful to seek and invest in experiences than it is to seek material possessions. Said Gilovich:
“[People] think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they’ll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession.”
It’s powerful to stop pursuing final destinations and instead pursue experiences and growth. The problem with end-points or finish-lines is that you’ll quickly adapt. This is one of the reasons people who attain a desired goal quickly plateau and lose their purpose. Greg Mckeown in the book, Essentialism, has said, “Success is a catalyst for failure.”
Success, therefore, should not be a destination, but instead, an approach to life. You’re successful so long as you’re following YOUR OWN curiosity and pushing YOUR OWN boundaries.
The opposite of success is trying to beat someone else. This is also the opposite of innovation. Disruption is about walking away from competition rather than engaging in it. Said Billionaire Peter Thiel in his book, Zero To One, “All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape competition.”
Excitement is your super-power
“Excitement is the more practical synonym for happiness, and it is precisely what you should strive to chase. It is the cure-all.” — Tim Ferriss
Key things to avoid if you want an amazing life:
- Competing with other people
- Seeking end-points or outcomes as the ultimate source of success
- Seeking possessions to make you happy
- Continuing to do the same things for long periods of time
- Not pushing your creative boundaries
- Not stepping into fear and disrupting your own status-quo and the status-quo of those around you
Excitement comes from trying stuff you haven’t done before. John Burke, for example, is always pushing his boundaries. Over-specialization can be a path to stagnation. If you do the same thing every single day, your work and life will probably not have enough stimulation to drive deep emotion.
Deep emotion and intense feelings are what inspire powerfully creative and innovative work. In order to experience deep emotions and intense feelings, you need to continually try new things. You need to reach the threshold of your current identity and go beyond it. You need to open yourself to new experiences that reshape how you view the world.
According to Dr. Stephen Covey, a paradigm shift usually requires a new situation or a new role we take on:
“Where we stand depends on where we sit, which is a way of saying how our roles in life affect our paradigm, which then affects our behavior … Many people experience a fundamental shift in thinking … when they suddenly step into a new role, such as that of husband or wife, parent or grandparent, manager or leader.”
What would absolutely excite you?
What ROLE have you been playing in your life that perhaps hasn’t been so exciting?
What would an exciting life look like to you?
What would exciting work look like?
What would exciting experiences look like?
According to Dan Sullivan, there are two major types of people in this world: “needers” and “wanters.”
- Needers are externally motivated, seek security, have a scarcity mindset, and are reactive to what other people are doing.
- Wanters are internally motivated, pursue freedom, have an abundance attitude, and are highly creative.
Sullivan further states, “Wanting is unpredictable because it creates things nobody knows about, ways nobody thought of before, and results nobody considered possible.”
Needing is based on push motivation. You have to force yourself to act because you feel you have to.
Wanting is based on pull motivation. You let your deepest desires and curiosity direct where you go. You don’t limit what you can do based on what other people do or have done.
Therefore, you stop watching what others are doing and you chart your own course.
You stop following convention.
You break rules and create your own.
To other people in your field, you come-off as radically creative because you’re doing things way outside their frame-of-reference. You’re not even playing in the same game as the people in your field anymore because you’ve now created your own category and field.
Said R. Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Collaborating with people way outside your niche is powerful, because it stops you from living in an echo-chamber. When you’re too far inside a particular field, you cannot see outside of it. This is really bad for creativity. It’s bad for business and innovation. And it’s also bad for happiness and excitement.
Experimenting is the best form of goal-setting
“Broadly speaking, as good as it feels to have a plan, it’s even more freeing to realize that nearly no misstep can destroy you. This gives you the courage to improvise and experiment.
On how to get over analysis paralysis: set deadlines for decisions (put them in your calendar or they aren’t real) and break large intimidating actions/projects into tiny mini-experiments that allow you to overcome fear of failure.
— Tim Ferriss
Instead of pursuing traditional goals, a more exciting approach is to pursue 3–6 month experiments. Experiments are a fun way to pursue goals because they allow you to get innovative and bold. Experiments are short-term — and thus relatively low risk. They are your “moon shots.”
Why play small?
What’s the worst that could happen, you waste a few weeks or months and learn a lot while doing it?
One of the reasons experiments are powerful is because they aren’t based on what has been done before. By nature, an experiment is trying something NEW, where the boundaries of “possible” aren’t clear-cut.
Here’s a powerful process for developing a 3–6 month experiment:
- Think about a PROCESS and an OUTCOME that would EXCITE you. In other words, what is something that would be motivating, fascinating, and stimulating to attempt just for the sake of it? But also, what is a bold and powerful outcome that could potentially come from it? What’s the most bold and powerful thing you could do in the next 3–6 months?
- Set a hard timeline. Don’t make it too far away. The pressure of a timeline is an amazing forcing function — which will create flow and deep creativity.
- Focus on WHO — specifically WHO could you collaborate with to take this 10X or 100X bigger? WHO could you help that would fast-track your results so you are not re-inventing the wheel? WHO could you involve that would take this experiment beyond where you’ve currently imagined it? True experimenting is far more collaborative than competitive. The best experimenters and scientists always work with people who push them past their own limited ways of thinking. Moreover, trying to do everything by yourself often leads to procrastination and failure. You can easily get other people on board by turning your “experiment” into a mission. Explain the WHAT and WHY of the mission to get people committed and excited to help.
- Invest upfront. A strong forcing functions is financial investment. John Burke did this by getting on the schedule and paying his sound recording engineer months in advance. In psychology, escalation of commitment occurs when you become so invested that turning back no longer becomes an option. This level of commitment will deepen your WHY-power, making motivation and inspiration organic and subconconscious.
- Block out your schedule to actually do the work. If you don’t have it on your calendar, the time will go very fast. If it’s on your calendar and you put first-things-first, time will slow down. You’ll be stunned by how much you get done in a single day.
If you’re not disrupting yourself, someone else is
“Disruptive change is the only way to avoid a career-killing plateau.” — Whitney Johnson, Harvard Business Review
According to bestselling author, Whitney Johnson, you can avoid stagnation and instead have continual growth in your life and career by doing the following:
- Target a need that can be met more effectively.
- Match these needs with your “disruptive strengths.”
- Think about what you can do that most people cannot.
- Understand that market risk is better than competitive risk. In other words, don’t compete against established players (as Walmart learned the hard way, don’t try to beat Amazon at being Amazon). Create Blue Oceans by being radically honest with yourself and by following your own curiosity, rather than what other people are doing.
- Large companies have a hard time focusing on smaller, riskier, and more lucrative markets, people established in their careers do the same thing. Use this to your advantage. Stay small and lean and flexible.
- Let the strategy emerge (“When the WHY is strong enough you’ll figure out HOW” — Bill Walsh). Don’t make overly detailed plans. Instead, focus on experiments and feedback and then adapt accordingly.
According to Peter Diamandis “If you don’t disrupt yourself, then someone else will.” Diamandis also said, “In 10 years, it’s predicted that 40% of the Future 500 Companies will no longer exist.” Things are changing so quickly that if you’re not adapting and changing as well, you’ve already lost.
Disrupt yourself every single day. Wake up and try something new. Try something that forces you out of your shell. Think bigger. Think more creatively. In the words of Ryan Holiday, conspire. Come up with a crazy plot that no one could possibly expect. Don’t worry about all the people who will try to copy you. They will always be at least five steps behind.
Ready to upgrade?
I’ve created a cheat sheet for putting yourself into a PEAK-STATE, immediately. You follow this daily, your life will change very quickly.
This post first appeared on Medium.