The 3 Step Formula for Self-Mastery: Why and How to Improve Yourself
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The value of education (knowledge) like that of gold is valued in every place. – Epictetus, Enchiridion 150
Why do you bother reading this article? Why read any article or book? Not to pass time, not to impress others, not because it’s (much) fun. There are plenty of easier choices than reading.
No, you read it because you are learning how to live. You want to live well. You want to master yourself. You want to improve yourself. So that you can be freer, fear less, and achieve a state of peace and happiness.
Education – self-mastery in particular – has a purpose. You do not read for the sake of reading but for self-improvement. Think about the teenage version of yourself: I bet you’re glad for not still being the same. Life is a journey and we’re supposed to grow as a person. Physically, and more important, mentally.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve got this inner urge to get better and improve yourself as a person. However, in the time of Game of Thrones, League of Legends, Tinder and other fast-rewarding and fun activities it’s hard not to get distracted. Also, there are appealing success and wealth stories that grab our attention. We easily confuse making career with being successful or leading a great life.
The game of life, the game of self-mastery is all but a cookie. It’s tough. It’s annoying. It’s a never-ending rocky road of pain and pleasure. But I believe in choosing this rocky path rather than numbing myself in distraction after distraction, hiding from myself and looking away from my struggles.
I know, little devil on your shoulder is urging you to choose the easily accessible fun path with whiskey, Black Jack and hookers, because in the end, you’ll be dead. Why not have some fun before you leave?
And on the other shoulder there is little society telling you what a successful life looks life. Work hard, buy a nice house and a car, start a family, and get old.
Sooner or later, people realize that little devil’s fun path isn’t the right way to go. Because you don’t grow as a person and you don’t learn how to live. It’s just not fulfilling to party night and day. Also, you cannot hide all your life.
Little society on the other shoulder is comforting. It’s safe. And you can be successful in the eyes of the public. This path is tougher than the fun path, but it seems doable and like the right choice. So people go with society and invest most of their lives into some other people’s companies.
But there’s actually a third, and better alternative: I call it ‘The Rocky Path of Self-Mastery’. That’s where you learn about yourself, how to excel in life, and how to actually live well. And that’s what this article is all about: Why to choose the path of self-mastery and how to stay on it successfully. Plus, at the end you’ll get an excellent exercise to start with.
Here’s what you’ll get:
Get Better at the Right Things – Choose the Path of Self-Mastery
In this first part of the article we’ll look at WHY we all should choose the path of self-mastery.
It’s about what we usually learn and what we should learn instead. And why formal education alone won’t help you live the good life.
Quick Question: What’s the point of winning at sports but losing at being a good person?
Produce the Balance-Sheet of Your Own Life
“Believe me, its’ better to produce the balance-sheet of your own life than of the grain market.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Seneca wrote this reminder to his father-in-law who was for a time in charge of Rome’s granary. But then he lost this position for political reasons. “Who cares?” is what Seneca was saying (quote above). It’s just a job and now you can focus on your inner life. Forget the grain market, focus on yourself, it’s more important anyway.
I’m sure you’re an expert at something. Maybe it’s something in politics or sports or gaming or TV series. For me, it’s soccer. I know a lot about soccer, its players, teams, stats, who won what etc. Now, does this knowledge help me in everyday life? Not so much. It doesn’t teach me how to tie my shoes, it won’t help me cope with hardship, and it doesn’t help understand my friends.
So pretty much, this knowledge is useless. (Although I must say it was helpful while traveling as it provided an entrance subject to talk about – Messi and Ronaldo are known all over the globe.)
The same is true for your specialized knowledge from your work. While it’s important for your job, it’s not much helpful in teaching how to live.
What’s the point of winning at your job but losing in the effort to be a good husband, mother, or friend?
Get better at the right things. Getting better at being a good person must be a higher priority than getting a better corn trader.
“At the end of your time on this planet, what expertise is going to be more valuable – your understanding of matters of living and dying, or your knowledge of the ’87 Bears? Which will help your children more – your insight into happiness and meaning, or that you followed breaking political news every day for thirty years?”
– Ryan Holiday, The Daily Stoic, April 14th
If you put it like this, everybody understands what’s more important. It’s better to know how to live well than to know all the American Presidents. Okay, it’s considered common knowledge to know that George Washington was the first American President. And that the Donald is the current President. But is it important? Does it help you live well? Nope.
The same holds true for other ‘useless knowledge’. I like how Lucius Seneca put it in his short letter “On the Shortness of Life.” He talks about useless knowledge such as facts about Roman history, “which Roman general first did this or that: Duilius first won a naval battle; Curius Dentatus first included elephants in a triumph.” He goes on, “such knowledge will not do us any good, but it interests us because of the appeal of these pointless facts.”
He goes on explaining that people work all their lives for some higher rung of the career ladder but never truly learn how to live. They do not improve mentally; they work for their positions at the cost of life, Seneca argues.
Bottom line: Learn about how to live and die instead of useless facts like how to trade corn or which Roman first included elephants in his triumph. In Seneca’s own words:
"Believe me, it's better to produce the balance-sheet of your own life than of the grain market."
Study to Be Good, Not to Ace Tests
“We’re not trying to ace tests or impress teachers. We are reading and studying to live, to be good human beings – always and forever.” – Ryan Holiday, Daily Stoic, July 7th
Here’s what most people think once they’re done with formal school: “YES, I’ll never need to study again and read no more damn books!” I must admit, I was kind of that person. Because that’s what school teaches us, “school is dull, learning is dull.” There are twenty or more kids sitting silently in one room, listening passively. And there’s only one right answer to every question, and you’d better learn that answer or you’ll be ridiculed. There’s no room for individuality or spontaneity or what else.
I remember history class. In many exams we had to fill in the gaps in the text with facts like names, dates, or places. Who is this? What happened when? Etc. But the moral? Who cares about the moral, you need to know the dates and names…
History taught us many things about life. Things like the importance of perseverance, the danger of egotism, and the risks of temptation. But what we need to remember to pass 4th grade are dates and names.
At least you learn how to write and read (but also to understand?) in school.
Maybe I’m too harsh. And this is not about whether our traditional school system is good or bad.
Point is, you’re not done with learning after school. It’s only just begun. Because you haven’t learned much about life. You don’t know how to live. You don’t know anything about life.
Living is our school.
“A degree on the wall means you’re educated as much as shoes on your feet mean you’re walking. It’s a start, but hardly sufficient.” – Ryan Holiday, Daily Stoic March 22nd
Look, I haven’t figured out much in life yet. But I have seen many highly degree-educated people who have no idea about life. They are struggling through life. They may know algebra and all the human muscles and their functions, but they can’t talk to women, or shit their pants when criticized, or are unhappy to the bones. A degree on the wall won’t help you to successfully deal with life.
The degree might help you find a job, but it won’t help you deal with the ups and downs of life. And in the end, people get hired, not degrees. (Some say a college degree is worthless.)
Yes, for certain jobs you need to have certain knowledge. I don’t want people to construct a tunnel who don’t understand the necessary math. I don’t want people to build smartphones that explode. These people need specialized knowledge to do their jobs. But just because somebody constructs the best tunnels in the world does not mean he does not go home feeling like shit.
I had this friend. He was one of the best at university. He was fantastic in all kinds of sports and did great at the exams, at his jobs, in the student council and where not. He did everything with ease. He was helpful, kind, and would have done everything for his friends. And he had this unforgettable laughter. He seemed to have what most people wanted. Everybody would have agreed that he was successful at what he was doing.
But for some reasons he didn’t see the sense of living any longer. And he shot himself.
This is tragic. And it happens quite often. Maybe you had this friend as well. I’m no expert, but I believe in many cases it happens to people who seem to be successful at what they do. So there must be more to life than being good at school and jobs.
Point is, we need to ask ourselves, “What should we invest in?” In getting better at school and work or in getting better at living well? What is going to help us more?
(Take some time to think about that.)
Here’s a gem I found in Ryan Holiday’s book The Daily Stoic, it’s a fragment from the philosopher Heraclitus:
“Many who have learned from Hesiod the countless names of gods and monsters never understand that night and day are one.”
Look, I haven’t understood that night and day are one, but it expresses well what I am trying to say. Most knowledge we accumulate is rather useless. It does not help us live well. And in the end, we want to live well. We want to be good and happy people, caring about our loved ones and ourselves. To do that, we need to invest in understanding the matters of living and dying (or night and day) rather than historical and theoretical facts of monsters and men.
Bottom line: Most knowledge we accumulate is useless. If we want to live well, we need to get better at the right things – understanding happiness, meaning, and being a good mother, brother, or friend. If you want to live well, you need to invest in yourself. And that’s up next, right after that lovely quote from Epictetus.
"Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant." - Epictetus
What Is Self-Mastery Anyway? And What Is It All About?
“Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capability to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Rocky Path of Self-Mastery is about molding the raw material, which is you, into the person you want to be. The good person who knows how to live well, and how to be a good parent, mother, and friend. The person who stays calm and mature in difficult situations. The person who is patient, loving, free, and courageous. The person who is unselfish, honest, just, and humble. The good guy.
This is a hypothetical ideal. No one will ever be perfect. And nobody needs to be perfect. But we can try to get better. We can try to be the best versions of ourselves. We can try to produce the balance-sheet of our own lives. Or as John Wooden said it in his book Wooden (see summary here), “Do the best you can under the conditions that exist. That is what counts.”
Now, we’ll look at a definition of self-mastery and at the idea called ‘The Start Up of You.’
I recently got an email from the Daily Stoic newsletter. I want to share it with you, because it fits well and it’s worth a minute of your time:
You could read dozens of biographies of the excellent and the accomplished. You could devote yourself to the careful study of the self-help literature. You could dedicate yourself to learning every hack, trick, tactic, and strategy out there for saving time and doing more and achieving.
And you would find only one common thread in all of that study. Only one thing that binds the good and the great and the successful: self-mastery. Great men and women master themselves. Period.
Beyond all else—beyond genetics, and talent, and luck, and timing—there is self-discipline and self-control. Ironically, it is this very tight adherence to self-discipline that gives the best among us freedom.
That’s what Epictetus means when he says: “No person is free who is not master of themselves.” Self-discipline is the starting point of freedom.That’s why there are remarkable stories that emerge out of prisons. Even in those instances, when a man’s freedom has been taken away from him by the state, great men and women can improve themselves, build their lives, get an education, and, potentially, get out and become productive citizens.
So what’s stopping you? What is keeping you from doing the right thing and holding fast to the promises you make to yourself?
However, I do not quite agree.
People can be successful in business but be a wreck in personal life. And they surely have mastered self-discipline pretty well. Otherwise they couldn’t have accomplished the things they have.
So I don’t agree that self-discipline alone is the starting point of freedom. You can have self-discipline but use it for the wrong things, this won’t make you free. That’s what we said about the highly degree-educated people. They certainly needed the self-discipline to get as far as they did, but this won’t make them good and happy people.
You can use your self-discipline to get better at your job or you can use it to get better at being a good person. It matters greatly what you choose to get better at.
Let’s take the Epictetus quote from the email:
“No person is free who is not master of themselves.”
There is much more to self-mastery than self-discipline and self-control. People use this discipline to get their heads into their work and hide from themselves. They may feel quite depressed when they are alone, then to get rid of this shitty feeling, they work and work and work on things that make them outwardly successful and keep them inwardly a wreck.
If they use all their self-discipline for things that don’t matter for living well, they will never be free.
To master yourself, to be free, you most importantly need to be able to live with yourself. Invest in yourself. Become a better person. Try to improve yourself at being a better friend rather than a better tunnel builder. Both are important, but one just a bit more.
Bottom line: Self-mastery is more than self-control and self-discipline. It’s about how you manage to live with yourself. It means to invest in yourself, and in being a good person rather than investing in knowing the grain market and other useless facts. Self-mastery is about knowing yourself, being smart to invest in the things that make you happy and fulfilled in the long game of life. Learn how to live well and invest in the Start Up of You.
The Start Up of You
In his book The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday shares this idea, The Start-Up of You. He explains that people put their whole lives into being an entrepreneur, working countless hours and taking countless risks. But wouldn’t it make sense to be as invested in building ourselves as we are to any company?
“Which one really is the matter of life and death?”
Point is, Do.Not.Neglect.Investing.In.Yourself. You only have this one life. Do not blindly try to climb the steep career-success ladder and forget to tie your shoes. The fall can be deep.
What comes to my mind is this highly successful man who shines at work and is celebrating himself while he forgets to pick up his son from soccer training. Successful is a broad term.
It’s more important to invest in yourself and learn how to live well than to invest in your career and outward success. Because what’s the point of having a successful career and being wealthy when you feel miserable each day when you get home?
You can still make career, but the Start Up of You is just the higher priority.
“The wise person can lose nothing. Such a person has everything stored up for themselves, leaving nothing to Fortune, their own goods are held firm, bound in virtue, which requires nothing from chance, and therefore can’t be either increased or diminished.”– Seneca
You can lose your career. You can lose your family. You can lose your possessions. You can lose everything. The last thing you’ll lose, though, is your mind.
Bottom line: Investing in your mind, investing in yourself, investing in being a good and wise person, investing in living well, is probably the smartest thing you can ever do.
Bingo. That’s why you choose the path of self-mastery. Because it’s the smartest thing you’ll ever do. It won’t be easy, though...
A Warning: The Rocky Path of Self-Mastery is Tough and You Will Never Arrive
Some motivation before you get on the path?
The path is tough as fuck and it will never end. But it will get easier.
Let’s find out why self-mastery will never end and why it takes a ton of effort.
Learning how to Live Takes a Whole Life
“Learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die. So many of the finest men have put aside all their encumbrances, renouncing riches and business and pleasure, and made it their one aim up to the end of their lives to know how to live. Yet most of these have died confessing that they did not yet know – still less can those others know. Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
Learning how to live takes a whole life. So how do we want to learn how to live if we spend most of our lives working for some company and other people?
We simply won’t.
You will never know how to live. On the journey to self-mastery it is important to know: one never arrives. But you’ll get better if you devote time and effort to yourself.
Bottom line: Self-mastery takes a whole life and still you’ll never arrive.
As Tal Ben-Shahar put it in his great book The Pursuit of Perfect:
“The optimalism ideal is not a distant shore to be reached but a distant star that guides us and can never be reached. As Carl Rogers pointed out, ‘The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction, not a destination.’”
The Mastery Curve: Put in Effort despite Seeing No Progress
Now, I’d like to make use of George Leonard’s highly recommended book Mastery. It demonstrates the way to mastery in any field. I use the examples to make my point that self-mastery is tough.
“There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.” – George Leonard, Mastery
Study the image above.
It’s obvious: You have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau and keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.
Don’t be impatient. It seems as if you are getting nowhere, but as long as you are putting in the effort, as long as you are reflecting and trying your best, you are making progress. But it will only show after a while. Keep on digging and there will be water.
“How do you best move toward mastery? To put it simply, you practice diligently, but you practice primarily for the sake of the practice itself.” – George Leonard, Mastery
Love it! You practice for the sake of practice. Oh man, no wonder most people never get even close to master any skill. People give up. If there is seemingly no progress, why would you go on? It’s not fun to practice and see no progress. Yes, it’s not fun. But nobody said it’s fun. Nobody said it’s easy.
“We all aspire to mastery, but the path is always long and sometimes rocky, and it promises no quick and easy payoffs.” – George Leonard, Mastery
Look, it’s tough to become a master in any field. Because after a while you don’t get better anymore as quickly as in the beginning. There will be setbacks, there will be disappointment, and there will be doubt. What helps me going through hard times when you feel like nothing is changing or you’re even going backwards, is knowing this truth from the introduction of Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans:
“The superheroes you have in your mind (idols, icons, titans, billionaires, etc.) are nearly all walking flaws… Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. The heroes in this book are no different. Everyone struggles. Take solace in that.”
The difference between those superheroes and most others is that they are willing to keep on struggling. They keep investing and they keep on struggling. Day after day.
There is no overnight success. That’s just what they say in the media. It does not exist. There is always a long and arduous and struggleful journey preceding the success. And still after the success. The struggles will go on. There will be another plateau with no progress.
Somehow, these superheroes manage to love the plateau. They are fine going on with seemingly no progress. Effort without progress. Sexy, huh?!
Here’s an excellent comparison my brother told me about lately. It’s actually from Tolbert McCarroll’s book Notes From the Song of Life but he learned about it in Jacob Liberman’s book Light, Medicine of the Future.
“There are seasons in your life. Do not try to escape a season. If you try to bear fruit when it is time to bud, you may never bud.”
I think of the plateau as the winter season. You need to put in a lot of work, it’s hard, and yet nothing is happening. But eventually, spring will come. You don’t know when, but it will come. It always has.
Do not try to escape a season. Do not try to jump winter. Do not try to bear fruit in winter.
Watch a tree. Learn from the tree.
Now, you won’t become a master of self just by watching a tree. So I’ve put together a 3 Step Formula to Self-Mastery (coming up next).
Bottom line: Self-mastery takes the willingness to put in a ton of effort with seemingly no progress at all. Most of the time is spent on a plateau. And to get ahead, you continuously need to put in hard work. Day after day after day.
“It’s easy to get on the path of mastery. The real challenge lies in staying on it.” – George Leonard, Mastery
The 3 Step Formula towards Self-Mastery
Self-mastery is tough and you’ll never arrive.
The key lies in trying your best.
So I’ve put together a 3 Step Formula to help us go in the right direction. There are some great ideas in there, so don’t just jump from headline to headline but also consume some of the stuff.
I bet you’ll love the first idea (you think you’re an 8, but you’re really just a 2).
The 1st Step to Self-Mastery: Be Humble & Be Ready to Change Your Opinion
"What makes a good commander?"
“The immediate answer that comes to mind is ‘humility.’ Because you’ve got to be humble, and you’ve got to be coachable... Later, when I was running training, we would fire a couple leaders from every SEAL Team because they couldn’t lead. And 99.9% of the time, it wasn’t a question of their ability to shoot a weapon, it wasn’t because they weren’t in good physical shape, it wasn’t because they were unsafe. It was almost always a question of their ability to listen, open their minds, and see that, maybe, there’s a better way to do things. That is from a lack of humility…”
This is an excerpt from Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans. Tim asked and legendary ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink answered.
I love it. What makes a great commander? --> Humility.
Humility is the 1st step to self-mastery. Before anything else, you’ve got to be humble. I’ve put together three interesting ideas that will help you be humble.
You think you’re at an 8, but you’re really just at a 2.
This idea is stolen from Joe Manganiello’s book Evolution. You maybe know him from the TV series How I Met Your Mother (he’s Marshall’s brunch buddy). Joe is talking about fitness, but I think this works for other aspects of life, too.
“Truth: You think you’re working out at an 8. You’re actually working out at a 2. I don’t care how long you’ve been training; that’s just the reality. If that hurts your feelings, I’m sorry. It’s time for you to reestablish your baseline in order to define intensity.”
You think you're at an 8, but you're really just at a 2.
We think we’re at an 8, but we’re really just at a 2.
You need to swallow your pride and accept that. You are not as good as you think you are.
Realize that you’re at a 2, or you won’t get any better.
“Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.17.1
Secretly, we all think we already know. And that’s exactly the problem. If we think we already know, how are we going to learn anything new then? We won’t. You cannot get any better if you’re convinced you are the best.
Modern Stoic Ryan Holiday put it best in his book Ego Is the Enemy:
“The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better.”
We need to put that attitude aside, be open, and let go of our opinions. With the attitude that we’re just at a 2, this is so much easier.
I like how Ryan Holiday puts it in The Daily Stoic:
“Remember, if there is one core teaching in this philosophy [stoicism], it’s that we’re not as smart and wise as we’d like to think we are. If we ever want to become wise, it comes from the questioning, and from humility – not, as many would like to think, from certainty, mistrust, and arrogance.”
Bottom line: We are not as smart and wise as we think we are. We’re really just at a 2. Period.
Copy Kids by Cultivating the Beginner’s Mind
“What prevents people from learning… is not the subject itself – the human mind has limitless capabilities – but rather certain learning disabilities that tend to fester and grow in our minds as we get older… If we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities.” – Robert Greene, Mastery
So far, this goes hand in hand with the previous idea. If we think we already know, we cannot learn anything new. Greene goes on:
“Children are generally free of these handicaps. They are dependent upon adults for their survival and naturally feel inferior. This sense of inferiority gives them a hunger to learn. Through learning, they can bridge the gap and not feel so helpless. Their minds are completely open; they pay greater attention. This is why children can learn so quickly and so deeply.”
Children’s minds are completely open so that they pay greater attention and learn quickly. Adults’ minds, on the other hand, are often completely closed.
Think about political discussions in TV. These people protect their opinions as if it’s their heart. They go into the discussion and fight to death to keep their opinion. They are not open. They don’t even hear the others out. They think they know. That’s why nobody ever will change his opinion in such a discussion.
Just because most adults lose this ability to stay open does not mean we cannot cultivate it. If we want to master ourselves, we actually need to cultivate this beginner’s mind. Otherwise we won’t get any better.
Chris Sacca (you might know him from Shark Tank, I learned about him in Tools of Titans) explains the advantage of cultivating beginner’s mind nicely:
“Experience often deeply embeds the assumptions that need to be questioned in the first place. When you have a lot of experience with something, you don’t notice the things that are new about it. You don’t notice the idiosyncrasies that need to be tweaked. You don’t notice where the gaps are, what’s missing, or what’s not really working.”
Experience has its pros and cons.
If experience makes you feel secure you do not have enough experience yet. Otherwise you’d know that this feeling can be the beginning of the end.
Cultivate the beginner’s mind. Hear it from George Leonard:
“Perhaps the best you can hope for on the master’s journey … is to cultivate the mind and heart of the beginning at every stage along the way. For the master, surrender means there are no experts. There are only learners.”
There are no experts, there are only learners.
To be willing to cultivate the mind of a beginner also means to be willing to look like a fool.
“It’s possible that one of the reasons you got on the path of mastery was to look good. But to learn something new of any significance, you have to be willing to look foolish. Even after years of practice, you still take pratfalls… If you’re always thinking about appearances, you can never attain the state of concentration that’s necessary for effective learning and top performance.” – George Leonard, Mastery
That’s something else we can learn from kids. They don’t give a fuck. If they fail in front of others, they just laugh. It’s natural to fail. It’s ok. Nobody cares because everybody is failing himself.
Truth is: If you are not willing to look like a fool in front of others, you won’t get where you want to go.
Bottom line: Cultivate the beginner’s mind. If you think you already know, you won’t learn anymore. So copy kids, be open to others’ opinions and try to absorb everything. Always stay open and be willing to look like a fool. There are no experts, there are only learners.
It’s Never too Late to Change
“It is a mistake for anyone to think he has lived too long in his old, unsatisfactory ways to make the great change. If you switch on the light in a dark room, it makes no difference how long it was dark because the light will still shine. Be teachable. That is the whole secret.” – Vernon Howard, The Power of Your Supermind
People think they cannot change their opinion because they’ve hold that opinion for too long. And I understand it. If you preach all your life the world is flat, it’s hard to suddenly admit that the world is round. It’s the pride in people that holds them back.
Still, this is completely irrational. But explainable.
I learned about the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. It explains why we hold on to something even though it’s not worth it anymore. Because we already have invested a lot. For example, you buy a massive pack of M&Ms and the next day you read about how bad they are for your health. Now you want to eat clean and healthy but you don’t want to throw the M&Ms away because you already paid for them.
I think the sunk cost fallacy explains why people hold on to their opinions; they have invested so much in them so that it’s hard to let go. The church invested so much in their opinion of a flat earth so that they even killed people… And still, at some point they had to change their opinion.
So there’s really no reason in not changing your mind. Sometimes you understand something only years later. It shows strength to admit that you were mistaken before.
“If anyone can prove and show to me that I think and act in error, I will gladly change it – for I seek the truth, by which no one has ever been harmed. The one who is harmed is the one who abides in deceit and ignorance.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.21
Seek the truth, no matter what belief you hold before. Sometimes better alternatives present themselves, you must accept them and let go of the old belief. Only fools don’t change their minds. It's never too late.
There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. That’s why we’re on the rocky path of self-mastery, to learn and get better. Switch on the light, it doesn’t matter how long it’s been dark before. The light will still shine.
Bottom line: Be teachable, that’s the whole secret. Seek the truth and don’t be ashamed to change your mind. That’s a fool’s thinking.
The 2nd Step to Self-Mastery: Be Willing to Learn from Anyone, Mainly from the Best
“If you want to learn, if you want to improve your life, seeking out teachers, philosophers, and great books is a good start. But this approach will only be effective if you’re humble and ready to let go of opinions you already have.” – Ryan Holiday, Daily Stoic, April 11th
This message combines the first two steps to self-mastery. You first need to be humble and only then can you be effective at learning from others.
This second step is about how to improve yourself. Again, I’ve put together three ideas.
Choose Whose Children You’d Like to Be
“We like to say that we don’t get to choose our parents, that they were given by chance – yet we can truly choose whose children we’d like to be.” – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life
We can choose whom to learn from. Maybe your father is a drunkard, or he’s a jerk that cheated on your mother, maybe he’s long gone. But even if your parents were poor role models and you lacked a great mentor, you can still access the wisdom of the wisest men who have ever lived.
And even if you’re like me and were lucky to have great parents, you still need to look for other people to learn from. Otherwise you only get to know one female and one male role model. But there is much more out there. Your parents don’t know everything. Actually, they know very little.
When you grow up you believe that your parents know everything. But you’re mistaken. Your parents were struggling just as much as everybody else. They became parents but didn’t know anything about being a parent. They are still learning, just like you.
Choose some wise people to learn from. Ask yourself, who should teach you about finances? A rich or poor person? --> The rich, because they know how to make money.
You want to learn from the best. If I can choose, I’d rather learn how to get better at basketball from Kobe Bryant than from a friend who thinks he plays really well.
This is the task of the wise people in our lives – to serve as model and inspiration. Find a mentor and learn as much as possible. Make the wisest of all men your best friends and learn from them. Yes, Seneca is dead. Pythagoras, Epictetus, and Aristotle are all long gone. But that’s the amazing thing, there are texts from these people you can study while chilling on your couch in front of the fire place.
And there are many wise people among us. They like some young company. Think about your grandparents, teachers, professors, and neighbors. Learn from them, they’ve been alive for much longer than you have. I’m sure you can learn something.
Here’s a fitting quote I stumbled upon in Robert Greene’s book Mastery:
“At table, the ladies praised a portrait by a young painter. “What is most surprising,” they added, “he has learned everything by himself.” This could be seen particularly in the hands, which were not correctly and artistically drawn. “We see,” said Goethe, “that the young man has talent; however, you should not praise, but rather blame him, for learning everything by himself. A man of talent is not born to be left to himself, but to devote himself to art and good masters who will make something of him.” – Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe
Lately, my dad taught me about some edible plants. Now, if I’d want to, I could find out myself which plants were edible just by trial and error. But this would be stupid rather than impressive.
I can learn from the people who’ve already done the research and acquired the knowledge. You do not need to reinvent the wheel. It’s already there, you can use it even if it wasn’t your idea.
We owe it to these people to seek out this hard-won knowledge. People have worked all their lives to gain some knowledge, they’re more than happy to share it with us. They want it to live on in the next generation.
Bottom line: Don’t learn everything by yourself, just copy the best. It’s way more effective.
Learn from Anyone, Even from Fools
“The master said, even when walking in a party of no more than three I can always be certain of learning from those I am with. There will be good qualities that I can select for imitation and bad ones that will teach me what requires correction in myself.” – Confucius
Whether it’s the drunkard father or the annoying school bully, you can learn from anybody.
Each situation provides lessons we can learn from. Good or bad. We should be willing to learn from anyone.
It does not matter where the wisdom comes from. That’s something many fundamentalists are missing. It doesn’t matter whether something is from Islam or Christianity or Judaism or Buddhism. What matters is whether it makes your life better.
People care so much about where some wisdom comes from. I’ve been reading and enjoying some books from (controversial) spiritual teacher Osho. Now, people tell me that this man wasn’t holy and he attended sexual orgies or whatever… So all he said was bullshit or what?
Look, I don’t care whether he was right or wrong, all I care for is whether his teachings actually teach me something. And that’s what they do. I can get a lot out of his books and that’s what matters. (My favorite one is Living on Your Own Terms.)
So many will never give those teachings a chance just because they think he was some crazy man. Maybe he was, but this does not matter. Maybe his teachings will still light your brain bulb.
Bottom line: Seek wisdom no matter where it comes from. What matters is whether it makes your life better. Learn and copy the wise, observe and study the fools, and make it better yourself.
Reading Is the Ultimate Meta-Skill
“Reading (learning) is the ultimate meta-skill and can be traded for anything else.”
This is another quote I learned about in Tim Ferriss’ book Tools of Titans. It’s one of Naval Ravikant’s rules he lives by. And I love it.
Earlier we learnt we can choose who we want to learn from. Now reading is one way to learn from the best. And it’s crazy if we think about it. The most successful people in the world have written down all their tricks, skills, and secrets in biographies or other non-fiction books. Basically, you can read in one afternoon what a wise person acquired over a lifetime.
People spend hours, days, even years to come up with the best research and proven tips and we can consume it within a few hours or days (Tools of Titans, for example, is 700 pages and each page is worth reading it… so it takes a while).
This whole reading thing is insane. Just take this article, it’s nothing compared to some books I mentioned, but it’s still quite some time I invested in reading books and putting it all together. And you can read it in an hour or so.
I like how Stephen Covey put it in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
“It is so valuable to read broadly and to expose yourself to great minds. There’s no better way to inform and expand your mind on a regular basis than to get into the habit of reading good literature… ‘The person who doesn't read is no better off than the person who can't read.’”
"The person who doesn't read is no better off than the person who can't read." - Stephen Covey
There’s nothing I need to add. Except for, “YOU, well done. Love that you’re reading this!”
In the book Meditations I just mentioned, Marcus Aurelius said you do not only need to read, but also deeply understand what you read:
“From Rusticus… I learned to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.”
We must read for a deep understanding and not stop at the surface when learning something.
Ryan Holiday agrees and advices to read fewer but higher quality books:
“What if, when it came to your reading and learning, you prioritized quality over quantity? What if you read the few great books deeply instead of briefly skimming all the new books? Your shelves might be emptier, but your brain and your life would be fuller.”
As much as I love this, I’m happy you’re not living yet by what he’s saying. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this but rereading one of Ryan’s books (they are quality!).
In short: Reading is the ultimate meta-skill. And think twice about what you consume.
BUT, there’s more than just reading.
We can learn not only by reading, but also by listening, observing, writing or doing some physical activity like dancing.
For example, success coach Brian Tracy suggests to “turn your car into a learning machine, into a university on wheels. Never let your car running without an educational program playing.”
Or you can learn by teaching. I often try to explain what I’ve just learned to Nils. Then in most cases I realize that I cannot explain it very well so that I know I need to go back and read about it again.
Or you can learn from others by asking questions. You can even ask the dumb questions.
If you can’t read it, then listen to it or try something else.
Peter F. Drucker explains in his short book Managing Oneself:
“Schools everywhere are organized on the assumption that there is only one right way to learn and that is that same way for everybody. But to be forced to learn the way a school teaches is sheer hell for students who learn differently. Indeed, there are probably half a dozen different ways to learn. There are people, like Churchill, who learn by writing. Some people learn by taking copious notes… Some people learn by doing. Others learn by hearing themselves talk.”
There are different ways to get better and learn new things.
Personally, when I had to learn French vocabulary, I had to write the words down. That way I could remember the words much better.
One last thing:
When learning and when living, do not multitask. Singletasking is the superpower.
Bottom line: Reading is the ultimate meta-skill. The wisest people have written everything down. You can read it in one afternoon and soak it in. But, there are other ways to improve yourself: Listening to podcasts, writing down in a journal, or learning by doing. There are no limits to learning and improving yourself. Always prioritize quality over quantity.
The 3rd Step to Self-Mastery: Time and Effort Are the Secret Ingredients, Get Better Every Day
“There are no shortcuts… It is the nature of the human brain to require such lengthy exposure to a field, which allows for complex skills to become deeply embedded and frees the mind up for real creative activity. The very desire to find shortcuts makes you eminently unsuited for any kind of mastery. There is no possible reversal to this process.” – Robert Greene, Mastery
Self-mastery takes a whole lot of time and effort. You cannot shortcut this process. It’s like chopping down an immense tree. You won’t accomplish it with only a few swings of your axe. If you keep chopping away at it, though, the tree will eventually fall, whether it wants to or not.
But unlike the felling of a tree, with self-mastery you will never come to an end, even if you keep on chopping away at it. You will get closer to the ideal but you will never arrive. Self-mastery is more like chopping down a complete forest… you will be able to fell tree after tree, but there will always be a forest because new trees will pop up while you’re chopping away at the challenging ones.
This third step to self-mastery is about the long and arduous journey ahead of yourself. It’s split up into three parts. Let's dig in.
Leisure without Study Is Death – Spend Your Time Wisely
“Leisure without study is death – a tomb for the living person.” – Seneca, Moral Letters, 82.4
I’m smiling while writing this. Because so many people work their asses off for some company and if you’d tell them to study in their leisure, they’d be puzzled. Most people have not much leisure time and the last thing they want to do is to study…
And now here comes Seneca saying, “Leisure without study is death.” It’s got to make you smile. Anyway, here’s Ryan Holiday’s take on that:
“You deserve a vacation. You work hard. You sacrifice. You push yourself. It’s time for a break. Hop a plane, check into your hotel, and head to the beach – but tuck a book under your arm (and not a trashy beach read). Make sure you enjoy your relaxation like a poet – not idly but actively, observing the world around you, taking it all in, better understanding your place in the universe. Take a day off from work every now and then, but not a day off from learning.”
Do not take a day off from learning. This message couldn’t be any clearer. Or, actually, it could. Holiday goes a step further:
“If real self-improvement is what we’re after, why do we leave our reading until those few minutes before we shut off the lights and go to bed? Why do we block off eight to ten hours in the middle of the day to be at the office or go to meetings but block out no time for thinking about the big questions? The average person somehow manages to squeeze in twenty-eight hours of television per week – but ask them if they had time to study philosophy, and they will probably tell you they’re too busy.”
How are you going to get better at anything if you do not make time for it?
It’s impossible. It’s true for any skill. The best lawyers spend a lot of time investing in being great lawyers. The best basketball players spend a lot of time training basketball. And the people who seem to have mastered themselves spend a lot of time working on themselves.
You will only get better if you invest the time. You need to put something into it to get something out of it. Zero input = zero output.
What’s the antidote? --> Schedule learning time.
Learn from the best. Successful internet entrepreneur Noah Kagan schedules time for “learning” on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 12 noon. If you do the same, I’m positive you will find time to invest in yourself and read a book or something. (Don’t know what to read? Here are 20 book recommendations.)
So scheduling helps. What else does? Maybe this Seneca quote:
“You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide up his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is the right to be stingy.”
People protect their money but freely give away their time…
I’m not really into giving your time a fix monetary value, but it certainly could help. When you value your time at 100$ an hour, then you’re less likely to give it away freely to every coworker and chitchat here and there. The same is true for watching TV, commuting, or reading fake news. Be mindful about spending your time. Focus on what’s important. (Attention: Don’t run around screaming, “Time is money. Time is money!” That’s not the idea. Just spend/invest your time more thoughtful.)
Bottom line: If you want to be a better person, if you want to master yourself, then you simply need to put in the time and effort. Let not go a day by without learning something. Schedule learning time. It'll pay dividends.
“Eventually, the time that was not spent on learning skills will catch up with you, and the fall will be painful.” – Robert Greene, Mastery
Have Trust and Faith to Get over the Point of Frustration
“Whenever we learn a skill, we frequently reach a point of frustration – what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving in to these feelings, we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up.” – Robert Greene, Mastery
When you think you’re stuck, you easily get frustrated. I bet you know this feeling.
What differentiates the superheroes from us, then, is that they have trust and faith. They keep on going because they trust the process. They have this inner certainty that it will work out. They keep on digging because they have faith that there will be water.
Have faith in the process. Trust the process. Time and effort are the magic ingredients.
Do you remember the mastery curve? Most of the time you’re on a plateau, and that’s the tough time. And that’s the time when you get frustrated because you are seemingly making no progress at all.
Time alone won’t make you better. You continuously need to put in the effort. This is not always pleasurable. Work when there is no progress. Keep on improving when you’re standing still. But at some point, you’ll make progress. Trust and keep on chopping away at it, because at some point, the tree will fall.
Deliberate practice is the keyword here.
Highly focused and repeated practice will bring you further. And by repeated practice I mean hours upon hours upon hours of monotonous practice. You simply need to work diligently hard over a longer period of time (=lifetime). And then, slowly and step by step, you’ll get ahead. Here’s one of my favorite quotes that fits perfectly:
"Concentrated practice over time cannot fail but produce results." - Robert Greene
Know this and you are willing to go on even when it seems for nothing.
And remember, on the path to self-improvement one never arrives. It will always go on, you will never reach that perfect form, so you will always need to keep on going and keep on improving yourself.
When you get better and better, you still need to show up to practice every day. Like a black belt you need to show up to the dojo every day to roll. Or what do you think is LeBron doing every day? He is already the best, and still he is working harder than most others… There’s always room for improvement.
Bottom line: Self-mastery is a continual process. You need to be willing to put in the time and effort. You need to have trust and faith when you reach the point of frustration. Keep on chopping away and the tree will eventually fall. But, you'll also fail...
“No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.” – Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
Failure Is Your Means of Education
“Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education... There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This type of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done… When you do inevitably fail, it will confuse and demoralize you past the point of learning.” – Robert Greene, Mastery
If you never fail it means you’re not pushing hard enough. You need to try things to improve yourself, and when you do that, sooner or later you will fail. And you have everything to gain when you fail.
I know, this is more relatable to skill learning than self-mastery. It’s easier to imagine failing when you’re trying to balance on a slackline than failing when trying to be a better person. But believe me, you can easily fail when you’re trying to improve yourself.
Ever planned to eat clean? Ever intended to not get angry? Or ever planned to implement meditation to your morning routine?
We can improve ourselves in so many ways. And there are even more ways we can fail.
And that’s completely fine. Everybody fails, masters fail, and beginners fail. The difference between winning and losing lies in getting up quickly and trying again. Next time failing better.
This reminds me of my fellow countryman and tennis star Stan Wawrinka’s tattoo on his left forearm that quotes Samuel Beckett:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Everyone struggles. Even the best among us. All the superstars are fighting the same battles as we are. They didn’t get to where they are without failing a thousand times. Take solace in that. If they can fail, we can fail too. If they can get up each time, we can get up each time too.
“Those who have been instructed, like those who have been trained in the palaestra, though they may have fallen, rise again from their misfortune quickly and skillfully.” – Epictetus, Enchiridion 161
Be ready to fail. It doesn't mean you're not making progress.
And here’s one more fantastic quote from the book A Guide to Rational Living by Ellis and Harper. I learned about it in the Philosopher’s Notes of the book (a summary with the big ideas, my favorite tool to choose the books I want to read).
“In the final analysis, however, you’d better make some kind of plunge. Make this plunge experimentally, with the full knowledge that it may work out well – and it may not. If you fail, it will be unfortunate, but rarely catastrophic. And failure doesn’t have anything to do with your intrinsic value as a person. Humans mainly learn by doing and failing – a fact that you can, without liking it, gratefully accept.”
I love this! See life is an experiment and you cannot fail. You can do your best, hope to learn from failing and then correct along the way. No need to feel like shit. The only way to learn is to take the plunge. You may win, you may lose. Accept whatever the result.
Bottom line: If you try, you’ll inevitably fail. And that’s how you learn. It doesn’t matter so much whether something works out or not. You need to learn and keep on going. See life as an experiment and you cannot fail. Always remember, the best among us fail each day. They just get up, dust the backside, and move on. We can do the same.
Conclusion: Strive to Be Better, There Are No Excuses
If the rocky path of self-mastery is the so obvious way to go, then why are not all choosing that path?
They’ve got excuses.
And you know, it’s natural to find excuses. Because the path is rocky. It’s tough. And people don’t like tough. They like quick and easy. But this doesn’t exist. So I want to show you that all of our excuses are bullshit. Hear it first from Ryan Holiday, here’s an excerpt from his book The Daily Stoic, June 29th:
“It is possible to curb your arrogance, to overcome pleasure and pain, to rise above your ambition, and to not be angry with stupid and ungrateful people – yes, even to care for them.” – Marcus Aurelius, Mediations, 8.8
“‘I was just born this way.’ ‘I never learned anything different.’ ‘My parents set a terrible example.’ ‘Everyone else does it.’ What are these? Excuses that people use to justify staying as they are instead of striving to become better.
Of course it’s possible to curb arrogance, control our anger, and be a caring person. How do you think others do it? Certainly their parents weren’t perfect; they didn’t come out of the womb incapable of ego or immune to temptation. They worked on it. They made it a priority. They solved it like they would solve any other problem: by dedicating themselves to finding a solution, making incremental progress until they did.
They became who they are. Just like you can.”
You can do it if you choose to. Make self-mastery a priority. Everybody gets tempted and afraid, but you can work on it and overcome those temptations and fears.
It’s easy to blame circumstances and give up.
It’s tough to work hard and keep fighting.
You choose which path to go. One is way more impressive (and scarce).
"Free education is abundant, all over the internet. It's the desire to learn that's scarce." - Naval Ravikant
Everybody who is reading this has access to free education. And, as you’re reading this, you are probably one of those scarce people with the desire to learn. Great!
But look around. I bet you know a ton of people who choose to watch TV, play video games, or spend their weekends hangoverish. There’s not much desire to learn. And if, it’s mostly to learn how to drink faster, or how to be a better gamer, or how to dress to impress.
And there’s nothing wrong with those things. There’s certainly time for that. But as we’re choosing to invest in ourselves and to get on the rocky path of self-mastery, there are more important things to learn. We should learn how to be good people, a good mother, brother, and friend. How to stay calm in difficult situations. How to be more aware. How to live by certain values, etc.
Remember what Seneca said, “its’ better to produce the balance-sheet of your own life than of the grain market.” We better learn how to live well than how to play well.
It may be harder, but the harvest will be more bountiful.
“The gain is in proportion to the pain.”
I learned about this ancient proverb in Jacob Liberman’s book Light, Medicine of the Future.
Bottom line: There are no excuses. If you want to, you can choose to get better at whatever you want. I choose to be the best version of myself. And I try my best. Sometimes I’m doing good, sometimes I’m failing big time. But in the end, the harvest will be bountiful.
NOW: Don’t Let the Motivation Melt Away, Take Purposeful Action
“That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.9.13-14
For me, that’s the danger no. 1: To keep on learning and keep on reading books but avoiding action.
At some point I need to put the books aside and take action. Otherwise nothing will change but only my knowledge about it. And that’s the trap Stephen Covey warns in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (see summary here) about, “To know and not to do is really not to know.”
We need to put the things we learn in practice or it’s useless. Even worse, we’ll forget all about it. Use it or lose it, as they say.
I’m all in for more knowledge, but more knowledge without appropriate action won’t do you or anybody else any good. It’s the people who admit that cheap food at the expense of animal cruelty is bad, and then go to McDonald’s.
Most people will agree that we should raise and treat animals animal-friendly. No questions. But actually do something about it? Taking appropriate action? No, no… It’s too expensive or inconvenient, and other people are doing the same, and I love my meat, and bla bla bla. But guess what, the knowledge and understanding alone won’t help any animal. Nothing will change if we know but do not execute.
“The world needs demonstration more than it needs instruction.” – Wallace Wattles, The Science of Being Great
YOU can be the leader out there. You can go first and be the example. You don’t need to wait for somebody else to smooth the way. You can be that person. Choose to be the person that takes on the rocky path of self-mastery rather than the easy path of distractions and guidelines.
Jump over your shadow and start investing in yourself. Put in some effort to be the person you want to see in the world. Be the example.
"For those who approve but do not carry out, who are stirred, but do not change, I can do nothing at all." - Confucius
ATTENTION, most readers will leave now and look for some distraction so they don’t have to take appropriate action. For those we can do nothing, they are not ready yet. But you are. And for you I have prepared this quick exercise that gives you the chance to improve on yourself within the next 5 minutes.
Start right now, because if you do not, chances are high you will postpone self-improvement and the hard-won knowledge will vanish.
Download the Self-Mastery Exercise "How Do You See Yourself?"
So, go ahead and click the orange button below to download the exercise: