Very much aligned with what I have been thinking about.
For many people these days, life seems F*cked. While your life may in fact be f*cked, I know without ever meeting you that your words are compounding the problem. How you TALK about life makes all the difference in how you EXPERIENCE life.
Here’s some self-talk that blew through my brain recently: “I am stuck. Nothing really bad has happened, I am proud of the good things in life, but then one day it all got stuck somehow. I should try to not regret what is or was, yet I regret so much. I need to make some progress. I can’t go on like this. I must get going again, but can’t figure out how. What now?”
What am I supposed to do with that tornado of shit? Some words drive the action forward. Some words make us total lethargic couch potatoes. When life seems F*cked and you are stuck, your language is likely full of these couch potato words (like that last paragraph) that f*ck up your life even more.
A couple years ago, my friend, Dave Asprey, the father of Biohacking, introduced me to the concept of Weasel Words. Weasel because they are noncommittal. I was surprised to discover that some of my own seemingly harmless words were, at times, imprisoning me in a Cul De Sac of inaction and indecision. I am not talking about the stuff that the asshole in my head spews. I am talking about deviously ordinary words many of us mindlessly slip in every day. Especially when we believe we are in a positive mindset and making progress, these little devils can sap the life out of everything. They are insidious because we are unconscious of their negative power. By becoming conscious of these words and minimizing their use, I got out of the Cul De Sac of inaction and you can too.
Here are nine everyday words to minimize, especially when you feel F*cked. These words sabotage your life by destroying your agency. Your rational ability to choose which actions will make up your path through life. As you become conscious of these culprits and start to weed them out of your life, you will notice a visible change in your ability to get going again. Action will become Effortless. You will also notice a change in how you feel about yourself as your confidence for action grows. After describing how they impede action, I will suggest some replacement words and share a couple of hacks I have used to exorcise these villains from my life. Here are the culprits:
- Was / Is / Are / Am
- Need / Have To / Must
- Good / Bad
- Regret, could have
Becoming aware of my own use of these words has been an important part of my waking up and becoming conscious. When I find myself using some of the worst offenders, I endeavor to observe rather than indulge the judgemental thoughts (I just had to rewrite that from “try not to be judgemental”). The words are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. The issue is in the context and the intention behind their use as opposed to other words that could be used. In the political sphere, a person is usually trying to dodge a direct question purposefully with misdirection. We have all seen that. On a personal basis and between people, we tend to use weasel words to achieve what seem like very valid goals including:
- Avoidance of pain to self or others. The ego doesn’t like to fail and is unsure of outcomes. So it says things like “I will try.” Success is then the trying not the doing. Lowering the bar. This is basically a natural defense mechanism. So it is when we beat around the bush with bad news to a friend. We are “trying” to spare them pain. But many times the pain just gets elongated, delayed, or suppressed.
- Avoidance of responsibility. Again, ego doesn’t like to fail or be responsible for anything that it could fail at. So it shirks responsibility at every chance. “I” will do something is hard, “we” will do something shares the responsibility around and gets off my shoulders alone. So do politicians. They want to please as many voters of different stripes as possible so saying platitudes keeps them out of hot water. We are so used to this behavior from politicians that in many ways an in your face guy like Trump is a refreshing alternative to many people.
- Narrowing of alternatives. The ego also doesn’t like the paradox of choice. Too many choices means hard work will be required to decide between the alternatives. Not only could you choose incorrectly leading to pain and failure (see above), but the work to make the decision is difficult in an of itself. So we say we “can’t” or “Have to” or “Need to” do something. That means it is an imperative with no other alternatives. The only way. The narrow path can seem attractive versus the hard brain work of sifting through alternatives.
Recognition that the ego is just doing its job to protect me from pain and increase the chances of success has enabled me to be much less judgemental of my own use of these words. When encountering my own use of a weasel word I ask myself
- Is this word phrasing serving my higher values (or just my ego/fear)?
- Is there an underlying issue which my ego is trying to avoid here?
- Is there a way to reframe the sentence which is more in line with my higher values?
My personal reason for becoming aware of these words and working to get them out of my vocabulary is because they typically are impediments to action, destroy motivation, debilitate and discourage me from moving forward in life. I have decided that brain energy spent on them is generally wasted and I would rather spend that energy on actually accomplishing something rather than the avoidance.
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius
I know what you are thinking. You are thinking “I am a badass! I never get stuck!” or “I like those words, they make me feel all safe and comfortable (on the couch).” Or my favorite: “Those words accurately describe my reality! Are you telling me to deny my feelings?”
When I was a kid, every time I came within 3 feet of a cupcake I wanted to eat it. It was usually my mother slapping my hand away. “You can’t have that!” I hated my mother then. Of course, I COULD eat the cupcake. My mouth and stomach are working just fine, thank you. SHE was the only one stopping me. It was her fault my life was f*cked.
Today it is my own brain slapping my own hand. Do I hate myself? When I used to say to myself “you can’t eat the cupcake,” yea, I did hate myself on some level. My nervous system channeled my mother’s voice along with the related rage. Today, I have changed the words and the experience is completely different. The words I now say to myself are: “you CAN eat the cupcake if you want AND there will be consequences. Would you rather have the cupcake or the consequences?” This slight change of wording changes the experience completely. My mother is no longer involved. It is not about the past, but the present. From “my life is f*cked”, to “I have the agency to choose how I experience life.”
My personal goal is to reduce the use of these words by 50% next year. As with “Do This” posts, your personal mileage may vary. Your goals may vary. Everyone though can benefit from a little more consciousness in relation to our vocabulary and how it reflects the stories in our heads. Be aware. Be precise. Be awake.
Let’s look at each Weasel Word in more detail.
Was / Is / Are / Am
“Steering perception? I am! Inviting contradiction? I am! So this is the way the game is played. I am I!”Queensryche
The other day my 5 year old said,
“Daddy, I am hungry.”
“Hello hungry, I am daddy.”
“No, daddy, I am really, really hungry!”
“Oh, I understand. You are Harper and you FEEL hungry.”
A scowl was on Harper’s face.
Check that. Harper scowled.
When we say “I AM” we raise the stakes to the existential level. What AM I without the thing I just said I AM? The core question is, does this particular event really need the stakes raised so high? Do you really have a gun to your head? 99.9% of the time the answer is no and raising the stakes creates additional stress that servers very little purpose.
All forms of “To Be” can sabotage us in two very different ways: Limiting Options and Giving Up Agency.
- Limiting Options. When we say “I am X”, we are limiting the universe that is ourselves to one thing, “X”. The subject, “I”, is at that moment only ONE THING, “X”. Regardless of if we judge “X” to be a good or bad thing (more on that later), by attaching it deeply to our identity, we ignore all other aspects of our identity at that moment. We make ourselves smaller. We are also constraining the universe of possible actions to “X”. Life becomes smaller still. Life can begin to feel like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole. I am hungry. Eat. I am tired. Sleep. I am bored. Open Facebook. Change becomes possible when we become conscious of options, lots of options. “I am” limits options.
- Giving Up Agency. When we assign part of ourselves to something or some else, we can unconsciously give up. Give up responsibility. Transfer agency from ourselves to the thing or another person. When Harper said, “Daddy, I am hungry.” The explicit implication was, “and you need to solve my hunger problem.” There she stood, in a kitchen full of food within arm’s reach, expecting some else to feed her. Of course, I fed my 5-year-old. When I tried it with my wife, she pointed to the refrigerator with “I just got some more turkey that you like.” Despite my best puppy-dog eyes, she was having none of the transfer of agency.
- Agency is also transferred by the passive voice. The passive voice is evasive and changes the subject of the sentence from ourselves to someone or something else. The passive voice can let us off the hook, direct attention elsewhere, avoid responsibility for action. In “A scowl was on Harper’s face”, the “scowl” is the subject and “Harper’s face” is the passive object being acted upon. In “Harper scowled,” Harper is the active subject engaged in the action of the verb “scowled.”
When you find yourself sabotaged by some form of “To Be”, try these two hacks
- Use “Experienced” instead. “I experience hunger” has much less existential dread than “I am hungry”. Both are correct. Choosing the one which embraces more options, invites more possibilities will unF*ck your life.
- Switch to active voice. “Harper scowled,” allows her the freedom to stop scowling or continue. It is her choice. She has agency.
If “To Be” was a family member, it would be your alcoholic uncle who lost his job, divorced your aunt, got addicted to opiates, rode his motorcycle across Africa, and made $10M in the stock market last year. “Hello, my name is Ned, I am an alcoholic.” Yes, and so much more.
Need / Have To / Must
“Don’t believe everything you think.”Byron Katie
Beware of “inordinate attachments,” St. Ignatius of Loyola
“I need something to eat.”
“I have to eat lunch right now!”
“I must have a yogurt and a sandwich, or I will die!”
I started to say “I bet you…”, but caved and made her lunch.
I have fasted a couple times for a week or more. I have 100% confidence that my daughter would not die from starvation in the next six hours. Saying “have to” raises the existential stakes on the trival. Makes the trivial existential. Is that what you really want to do?
These words sabotage us by removing agency, proposing only a single solution and making the temporary existential.
- Removing agency. When we say we “need” or “have to” do something, do you really have any choice? Someone or something has made the choice for us. For Harper it was the feeling of hunger. Hunger removed Harper’s agency to make any other choice than to eat. I could think of a million things to do in the next hour, Harper could only think of one, she had given up agency.
- “Must do” is a similar cousin. There are very few things you “must do”. Breathing. Beating your heart. the truly existential stuff. When you tell yourself you “must do” something, you are removing agency, removing choice. It seems like there are no choices. But there are always choices. Even on eating. You could fast. And breathing. You could hold your breath. Don’t let your language steal your agency.
- Single solution. The verb in these sentences becomes the one and only solution to the problem. It becomes an “inordinate attachment”. Of all the options in the world, saying you have to do X limits them to a single solution.
- Make it existential when it likely is not. Our minds pay special attention to anything that might kill us. While this was very helpful when we were being chased by lions, there are very few truly existential threats in our world today. Yet we create them every time we use Need, Have To, or Must. These words raise the stakes to the existential level. Do you really want to raise so many things to the existential level so often? Why? Do you really need that extra level of vigilance for an afternoon snack?
When you find yourself sabotaged by Need/Have To/Must, try these words instead:
- Pause. Whenever you find yourself ramping up the existential stakes, pause. Ask yourself in that moment if that is really what you want to do. Is this really a moment of crisis? If it is, fine. 99.9% of the time it likely will not be life or death.
- Replace with “want to”. “I must eat,” is false and disempowering. “I want to eat,” is true and empowering. I am experiencing hunger and want to eat. I can eat now or later, yogurt, a sandwich, anything. I am in no danger of dying and my nervous system is not on high alert. I have not shot my body full of stress hormones that are not necessary.
- Replace with “get to”. I Need To eat implies an existential crisis. I Get To eat is an open opportunity. Opportunities are experienced differently by the nervous system than threats. Make your experience and opportunity not a threat.
If “Need / Have To / Must” were a family member, it would be your 30-year-old cousin with a dozen failed relationships. “I must have the perfect man.”
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”Shakespeare
My college daughter came through the door with her suitcases and dropped them with a huff. Home or the summer.
“Hi Finn! How are you?”
“I am great. Watched a movie on the plane. But I am really tired and hungry. You have anything to eat?”
Great, another hungry one.
“I am glad your trip went well and I hear you are hungry. I make a mean yogurt and sandwich plate. How does that sound?”
“Oh, that sounds good. But I was really in the mood for pasta with butter sauce.”
Frowning a bit I said, “Ok, i will make you pasta with butter sauce.”
While I knew that Finn liked the sandwich plate AND wanted pasta instead now, my nervous system felt the rejection when she said “but.” The nervous system feels the disregard for everything before the “but”. In order to not tilt myself, I had to so some mental karate to reframe the conversation myself. A situation that could have been avoided if Finn had not used the “but” in the first place.
“But” sabotages your life by completely negating whatever was just said before it. We often want to agree with people to “be nice” while using the “but” to express our true feelings.
- Hides a negative emotion to “be nice”. When someone says something we disagree with, we will often start out the reply by agreeing with them to be nice. And then we throw in the “but.” When I heard Finn’s “but”, i frowned. My nervous system took it for exactly what it was, a total repudiation of everything else that was just said. Everything before the “but” is discounted when you say it. While Finn was trying to be nice, the “but” sabatoged her whole objective.
- Denies that BOTH are often true. I know Finn likes yogurt and a sandwich. Yet that day she was feeling like pasta. That is fine. I can handle that. I want to make her what she is in the mood for. I am 100% certain that my suggestion “sounds good” AND she wanted something else. Why say “But” which triggered my frown when BOTH were true?
I have tried this for the last three years whenever I feel a “but” coming on and it works miracles.
- Replace “but” with “and.” I have yet to come up with a situation where “and” is not a better word. “Oh, that sounds good AND I was really in the mood for pasta for pasta with butter sauce.” No trigger. My suggestion was affirmed, she does like yogurt and sandwich, AND she wants something else. No problem, off to the kitchen.
If “But” was a family member, it would be your well meaning grandmother at Thanksgiving. “The turkey is nice, but a bit dry for my taste.”
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”Yoda
My kids found some videos online of other kids having fun on huge tire swings hung from massive trees. We have some big trees in our yard, so they asked me
“Can we try a tire swing in our yard?”
“Yes, I will build us a tire swing.” I replied.
When it was all put together strung between two massive pine trees in the side yard, they asked “Can we try it?”
“There is no try, only Swing or No swing.” I replied.
“Try” can feel like a safe word. “Trying” can feel like taking action, But it is not. It is the opposite of action.
My 10 year old, Madison asked, “Dad, why is “try” a bad word?”
“I didn’t say it was a bad word. It is just often the wrong word to use. It is imprecise. It doesn’t answer the question at hand.”
“But sometimes I say “try” when I am scared to do something.”
“Yes, I understand and yet you still have to decide later about what scares you right?”
“Oh yea, I get it now.”
Score one for Dad.
Many times when we say “try” we are actually uncertain of the outcome, or our ability to succeed, so our brains want to hedge. While this can feel like a “safe” strategy to avoid pain, it does not move us forward in any meaningful way.
“Try” sabotages us and fails to move action forward in two ways:
- “Try” gives your brain a pass on the real action. All actions have potential consequences. The ego wants accomplishments without consequences. To tick off tasks. To have “wins”. Your brain gives the ego these “wins” by confirming that your life is moving in the directions of your beliefs and values. When we make commitments to do something our ego registers the “win.” A commitment “to try” can FEEL like a win, when no actual action is being committed to nor consequences risks. “Trying” has no consequences. It is 100% inaction. It is a liminal state. In between. Not forward or backward. “Try” is simply another loop around the Cul de Sac of inaction.
- “Try” presupposes failure. “If you tell yourself that you’re going to try staying on diet or try to read the book, you’ve subconsciously already planned to fail.” my friend Dave Asprey points out. With failure imminent, the action is effectively prohibited. Who wants to take action with failure all but assured?
When you find yourself using “try”, take one of these three concrete actions instead.
- Decide immediately. When my kids asked could we “try” a tire swing in the yard, my answer was “Yes I will build one.” What if I said I would “try to build one”. The kids might have liked that answer, but I was not committing to ANYTHING. If you are ready to “try” something say exactly what action you will or will not take. Instead of “try” say “I will” or “I won’t.”
- Break it down into small steps. If the thing you are thinking about “trying” is big, hard, expensive or somehow you need more information to decide, break it down into small steps which you are able to accomplish with an “I will.” With most decisions, there are small steps that can be taken to make progress toward the big “I will or I won’t.” If I was unsure about the tire swing, I would have said “I will research tire swings.” After collecting the research information I would be in a better position to decide on the larger project. Commit to the small steps you can.
- Postpone the decision. Sometimes you are not ready to make a decision and there are no small steps that make sense to take immediately. Rather than say you will “try” something when you plan to do nothing, just say you will postpone the decision. For example if my kids had asked me for a tire swing in the dead of winter, I might have said, “Let’s decide in the spring.” A delay with a concrete timeline is always better than the open ended “try.”
If “Try” was a family member, it would be your 30-year-old bachelor nephew with a college degree working for minimum wage at a call center. He has been “trying” to get his life together since graduation.
I mentioned the tire swing project to my wife.
“Yea, you should do that.” said she.
“I am going to hang it up next week,” said I.
“Ok, well I get to do the laundry now.” she continued.
“I am jealous that you get to do the laundry today, I get to mow the lawn.”
There are “shoulds” around us all the time. From ourselves and others. When my wife said I “should do” something, I had the opportunity to agree with the “should” and continue the inaction, or decide immediately. I decided immediately and told her when I would be doing the swing. Our lives moved forward. If I had agreed to the “should” we would have been stuck in the cul de sac. It sounds like we “should” do something, but when will we decide? Why prolong the inaction?
“Should” sabotages us in a similar way that “try” does. It delays action, removes agency, implies guilt and provides false confidence.
- Delays action. It sounds like action, but it is not, similar to ‘Try.” Saying you “should” do something is not committing to any action at all. Only to the intent of some future action.
- Removes agency. Personal agency is when you make your own decisions. By saying you “should” do something, you give up your own decision ability. Who will decide then? It is purposefully unclear. You have removed your responsibility to decide (agency) by stating the obvious, that you “should” decide at some point.
- Implies guilt, shame. There are heaps of guilt and shame when I don’t do things I feel I “should” do. Why set yourself up for that pain? Why compound the inaction with guilt and shame?
- Gives false confidence. Should can come with a huge helping of self righteous superiority, without having actually done anything. I said I “should” do it, and that feels like action, so I am better than you because I “should” do something. Should can feel like action while letting you off the hook for any actual action. This false confidence will blow up further down the line when the action must be decided. It is a short term salve.
- Reveals a Value Gap. “Shoulds” are not about the events or actions being contemplated. They are about the stories in your head about what you value in life, your fears of a moral gap between what you believe and your fear of the uncomfortable truth that what you “should” do may not turn out, may be hard, may have unforeseen consequences. My values tell me I “should” do something, yet my fear tells me to be scared. Who wins? Should opens up the gap. Notice it. Resolve the gap by deciding between the value and the fear. One will win even if you are unconscious of it.
When you find yourself wanting to say “should”, try these tactics instead:
- Approach like with “try”
- Decide immediately. Do or not do. There is no should.
- Break down into small steps. If the big thing is too much to commit to, break it down and do or not do the small steps along the way.
- Postpone. Inaction is an action. When it is conscious. If you need more information or simply are not ready to decide, admit that and put it off.
- I often find myself wanting to say “should” when I fundamentally want to hedge. If you want to hedge, hedge. Delay. Say you will decide next week. Be honest that you can’t commit now. Don’t should.
- Replace “should” with “Want to”, “Choose to”, “going to” or “get to” to move the action forward or be more honest about the action. i “should do” something vs “I Want to” do something. The want to is a factual statement, it does not imply guilt or give up agency. It is 100% accurate and allows action to follow.
If should was a family member, it would be your goth highschool pothead cousin. She says she “should” get her life together at some point. And yet she has not.
We have a ice bath at our house, basically a cattle trough with cold water and ice in it. I like to jump in for three minutes after a work out to reduce inflammation and speed up recovery. I have been dropping hints to my wife about it.
“I can’t. Too cold.”
“I understand you don’t like being cold. Neither do I. And I blast through that fear because I know it is good for me. You can do it.”
“Stop being such an asshole. Don’t push me. I can’t.”
“If one of our daughters were at the bottom drowning, could you jump in and save her?”
“Of course I could.”
“So you Can, you just don’t want to. Isn’t that more correct?”
“Yea, I just don’t want to.”
“Can’t” is one of those words that can ramp up a small fear into the existential category unnecessarily. It is absolutist. No way, no how. That is often not true. My wife had done the cold plunge before. She could do it. She just didn’t want to at that time (I had lowered the temp). Growth comes when we push ourselves outside our comfort zone. Can’t keeps us in our comfort zone and hinders growth.
“Can’t” sabotages us by making the ordinary existential, limiting our options and is often a lie – a denial of reality.
- Make the ordinary, existential. Few people “like” being cold. Yet our ancestors without fire or clothes were cold and hungry most of the time. Today most of us have become habituated to being a comfortable temperature and well fed most of the time. So we tell ourselves we “can’t” leave our comfort zone. What if the power fails? What if we become homeless? Would you immediately die, or would you adapt? We can leave our comfort zones. We are unlikely to die outside them. Ordinary stress doesn’t need to be ramped up to the existential level.
- Limiting our options. Can’t is absolute. All options are off the table. You have removed all agency. When I mentioned a drowning kid, my wife agreed she “could.” So could she under other circumstances? Of course. Why limit your options with your choice of words?
- It is often a lie. One of the primary reasons to pay attention to the words you use is to avoid telling yourself lies. To avoid escaping reality unconsciously. If there are circumstances under which you “can” do something, even if extreme, then “can’t” is a lie. Why lie to yourself?
When you find yourself wanting to say you “can’t” do something, try these words instead.
- Replace can’t with will or will not. If you don’t feel like doing something just say it. Don’t lie to yourself. “I can’t get into the cold plunge.” is a lie. “I won’t get into the cold plunge,” is true.
- Replace with “Can and don’t feel like”. This is also true. Both are true. You can get into the cold plunge AND you don’t feel like it right now. Stick to the truth.
- Pro tip: add a time frame to the statement to allow yourself the freedom to change you mind later. Leave the door to growth open. “I don’t feel like a cold plunge right now, ask me again next week.” Feelings are like the weather. The come and go, change over time. Leave the door open to decide you can do something later.
If “can’t” were a family member, it would also be your black-clad, pale-faced gothic pothead highschool cousin. “I just can’t deal with it all.” You can and you have decided to deal with it by becoming an outsider and smoking pot.
My daughter came home from 4th grade with an art project.
“Look Daddy, I got an A+! Aren’t you proud of me?”
“Let me see your project.”
She presented it with a proud smile, angling for a “proud”.
“Oh, this looks like it took a very long time to do. Tell me about it.”
She rambled on for quite a while.
“Madison, I am impressed with all the hard work you put in and how creative you are. I am grateful you teacher recognized that too with the good grade. I look forward to seeing more projects in this class.”
In today’s environment where kids get participation trophies for everything, “proud” has also become much overused. I consciously limit the use of it to increase the impact when I do use it. I also am very conscious of what to be “proud” of. Outcomes are outside our control. To be proud of an outcome puts the focus on the outcome, which is by nature beyond our control. I tend to reserve “proud” for the process, the effort. Those things are within our control and can be repeated, therefore are worthy of encouragement and pride. I am proud that my daughter works hard and has a positive work ethic, not that she got an “A.”
“Proud” sabotages life by its over use, focus on outcomes, and discouraging action.
- Over use. Too much use of “proud” can diminish it’s impact, like participation trophies do. If you get a trophy for being on a team, what is the reward for excelling? Why pursue excellence if you parents will be “proud” no matter what? Don’t give anyone a trophy for the trivial.
- A focus on outcomes. When we are “proud” of outcomes, we become more attached to them. Yet outcomes are outside our control. The process can be within our control. Be very conscious of what you are “proud” of.
- Discouraging action. Sometimes we avoid action unless it gets the “proud” moniker. If I get proud for some actions and the few times i don’t, i don’t want to do that “unproud” action anymore. Pride can turn into a drug we are addicted to. It can set the bar for action too high. Why set yourself up for inaction?
When someone is fishing for a “proud” try these two strategies
- Give 1 for every 10. When you have the impulse to express pride, deny it 90% of the time
- Compliment the process. Focus praise on the process not the outcome.
If “proud” were a family member it would be your grandparents. They are “proud” of even very trivial things. “Oh, you picked up your room. I am so proud of you.”
Good / Bad
A little miffed about not getting a “proud” out of me, my 4th grader continued.
“Did I do good?” “Some of my classmates art was really bad.”
“Do you like it? Are you happy with the effort and how it turned out?”
“Then it’s good!”
Earlier this year the same 4th grader and I got Covid.
“I have Covid, that’s bad right?”
“Why do you feel it’s bad? Covid is just doing what a virus does, it doesn’t know anything about you. It could even be good because we are going to build immunity. It is a fact that we have Covid, I don’t see any reason to pile on with judgements about it either way.”
“Yea, that makes sense, it’s just Covid.”
Our egos love judgements. Good and Bad are judgements. They are not facts. “I have Covid,” is a statement of fact. Many times these judgements don’t serve us well. You did an art project, put your heart into it and are happy with how it turned out. Why let your experience of that be clouded by someone else’s judgement of the outcome who had no part in it? I came down with Covid. That is a fact. Does placing a judgement on it change the fact of Covid? Judgements add emotion, many times unnecessarily. While this is a natural, we can choose to react differently, or not at all.
Judgements like “good” and “bad” can sabotage us by disabling action and pulling us out of reality into a Victim or Hero mentality.
- Disable action. Judgements can become a drug like outcomes. I want good. I don’t want bad. I avoid actions that lead to bad and want more action that leads to good. Once a judgement is in place, it becomes harder to deal with the facts, especially if that judgement is “bad.” Judging Covid as “bad” makes getting through it and doing the work to get better harder. Even the judgement of “good” can disable taking risks in the future. If I had said my daughter’s art was “good” how would she feel about the next art project? “What if it is “bad”?” she might think. I did “good” the last time, so maybe I will rest on that outcome.
- Victim or Hero mentality. Either state is a fantasy, not reality. We are never just one or the other. They both take us out of reality. Yet reality remains and we eventually come crashing back into it. Covid is just Covid. I am not a victim nor a hero for getting it. Covid just is.
The reframe includes:
- Stick to the facts. Simply leave out the judgement. The nervous system recognizes the feelings of “good” and “Bad”. Just leave them out. Let yourself experience the facts of the situation without any critique. This happened, stick with that. “I have Covid.” Full stop.
- Turn it around. When you feel a strong judgement coming, stop and turn it around. “Covid is bad.” What if Covid is good?” What are the upsides of it? Could the opposite be true? Simply stopping to recognize the possibility of alternate reactions can keep us stable and better able to deal with the facts of the situation.
- Replace with “useful.” Everything that happens to us is an opportunity to learn and grow. This growth is stunted by judgement. Next time you find yourself wanting to judge, try replacing the judgement with useful. “I have Covid and it is useful.” I can learn more about health, I will develop antibodies, I will be able to tell others about my experience. I will grow.
If “Good/Bad” were a family member it would be the bloviating uncle with the Mercedes and too much debt, living way beyond his means. “I have a good car, a good house and very, very good shoes.” “Being out of fashion is bad.”
Regret, could have
About a week after my 4th grader’s art project, we were sitting eating a snack.
“I regret that art thing I did. I could have done it differently.”
“Madison, think about what you just said for a second. You told me you did the best you could. It seems to me that you couldn’t have done it differently because you didn’t. The question answers itself. Tell me what you learned and would do differently next time.”
Madison went on for about half an hour about how she would do things differently next time. Empowered to learn from the project she got very creative. Regret and could have’s are judgements, not reality, they hinder progress. By staying curious she could grow.
Regret and could have sabotages us by compounding negative emotions and judgments and confounding future action.
- Compounds negative emotions and judgements. Every time you bring up the past, especially negative emotions, your nervous system feels the pain again. Your nervous system has a very hard time differentiating between the memory and the real thing. In fact, reliving negative emotions just makes them stronger. If you in fact took an action or made a decision in the past that you have a negative experience of, why keep it alive?
- Confounds future action. Negative emotions are warning flags when similar situations come up again. Would Madison be excited about another art project if she regretted the last one or “could have” done better? This barrier is unnecessary and doesn’t serve any constructive purpose.
To exit the negative emotional spiral, focus on what you learned.
- Replace with “learned from.” When we learn something, we are empowered to grow and do things differently the next time. Many things, like art projects, are two way doors. We can open them again and go back through.
- **Pro tip, Regret minimization as a visualisation.** While I work to avoid offering regret for the past, I have found that for current decisions or future planning, regret visualization can be helpful. Scores have been written about how Jeff Bezos left a high paying career to start Amazon because he feared he would regret not doing so later in life. The idea is to visualize yourself 5 or 10 years in the future after making a major decision. Would you feel a tinge of regret for not taking the risk? Even if you failed? Knowing that you are likely to fail? For many of the big decisions, regret minimization can be a very useful visualization.
If “Regret” were a family member, it would be your 50 year old spinster aunt still pining for her highschool sweetheart. “I regret not marrying Chad.” Her whole life has been colored with that regret. Could she have? No because she did not.
Remember the self talk that blew through my head before?
“I am stuck. Nothing really bad has happened, I am proud of the good things in life, but then one day it all got stuck somehow. I should try to not regret what is or was, yet I regret so much. I need to make some progress. I can’t go on like this. I must get going again, but can’t figure out how. What now?”
Lets try that again with the recommended changes:
“I am experiencing some stuckness. Nothing really has happened, there are plenty of the good things in life and then one day it all got stuck somehow. I will not regret what is or was. I will make some progress by making a detailed projects list tomorrow. I can get through anything that doesn’t kill me. I will get going again and the project list is the next right action. Now I have a plan.”
In the first paragraph I was asleep, a passive victim of the world. Victimized by my own words. Same life. Second paragraph I accurately describe the feelings and come up with an action plan to move forward. I am awake. I have agency. This is a switch you have control over. Use it.
Thanks Zecca Lehn, for the fun conversation on your Posit2ive podcast!
EPISODE32: A Thin Edge in Angel Investing
Tobias, Angel Investor from the Northwest [7/15/2021]
Note: References with links are listed at the end of the show notes.
1:00 Talks about his love for things that solve problems, stemming back from his childhood. Talks about the drive Entrepreneurs have to try things that others won’t do. Shares experience with beginnings of downloadable software. Has started over 3 companies. He’s an investor in startups, and also a Limited Partner.
SECTION1: Reducing Friction
3:20 Shares his thesis driven approach to investing in startups that he believes correlate with higher returns. Points to software as a friction reduction inherent in software – uses his IPO investment in Amazon. Talks about the comparison with Walmart versus Amazon, and how software was the value creation for the consumer–Amazon 3x rate of growth of Walmart for 20 years. He was also an early investor in Docusign, and how fax was the way to make digital signatures—which were not even legal in many states.
6:30 Shares how some investors are actually taking a passive money strategy in venture, by being so crowd driven. We discuss the new market approaches, for examples like Uber and Docusign – where a market didn’t even exist. Reducing a pain point, with low friction that create categories, gets Martin excited; he also sees the real outsized returns this way. Discusses the need for a thesis to be counterintuitive and right.
13:00 Shares his experience helping to build the largest biodiesel refinery in the world with Emperium Renewables. Also talks about the struggle with competition with the oil industry. Also shares some of the economics surrounding tax credits in biodiesel, and how the subsidies flipped in 2009. Discusses the levered price per barrel of oil, and how it impacted the clean-fuels market.
18:00 Talks about his experience starting Tipper as a follower to Groupon. Learned the difficulties of operating to compete with the industry leader. Talks about 7 meta themes of software (see links below for incisive.vc). Uses the software-eats-industry example of Uber eating the taxi industry—talks about the complexity of some companies not being this disruptive.
22:00 Talks about weightings in his investment criterion. Discusses management as a primary signal to decide on a company. Talks about companies failing because of poor execution, and has developed a measurement system for gauging Founders. Highly encourages rebooting for Founders—e.g., meditation, nature hiking, and other relaxation techniques. Shares the need to focus on platform before feature, and another thesis about American laziness using the Amazon example.
SECTION3: Counter Intuitive & Right
27:00 Shares connection Upgrade Labs, and how influencers are able to drive attention to products in a new way in the BioHacking market. Shares biohacking opportunities, such as his investment in Levels. Shares real estate example of WeWork, regarding the software-eating idea as not working, because of promotion as a software company, that wasn’t adding scalable attributes (like a REIT).
34:00 Talks about his investment process at the earliest stage. For outsized returns, he points to the need to go with more thinking. If everybody believes the same thing, the returns will be lower—in Martin’s view. Shares his story about reviewing Levels, and the non-diabetic masses. Shares how he spoke with all of the competitors. And his experience with the CEO Sam led him to invest. Talks about coachability as a possible weakness. Looks at the structure of the org, and how the people in the pressure cooker may feel about the structure. He likes people with startup experience, and not necessarily people from large tech firms.
Talks about his Goldie Lox State: Where innovation and customer adoption are leading to significant growth – can be PreSeed or PreIPO. Looks at innovation is the driver for leading the charge of growth – with Bird example without innovation. Shares his view on opportunities going forward out of the pandemic.
-Martin Tobias [LinkedIn]: https://www.linkedin.com/in/martintobias/
-Incisive Venture: https://incisive.vc/
-Anderson Consulting story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Andersen
Echosign Acquisition: https://venturebeat.com/2011/07/17/adobe-acquires-electronic-signature-startup-echosign/
-Upgrade Labs [Bio Hacking]: https://www.upgradelabs.com/
-Peter Attia podcast: https://peterattiamd.com/podcast/
Aquired podcast on WeWork: https://www.acquired.fm/episodes/the-wework-acquisition-with-dan-primack
-Juiceroo story: https://fortune.com/2017/04/19/juicero-investors-hands
The brain is one big sense making, pattern recognition machine. We expect emotions to be different. That they “just come up” or are “real” or “just happen”. Yet the science tells us that emotions are just another case of the brain sensing certain things and matching those things to patterns I understands. Emotions are patterns also. Favorite quotes: “There is no emotion is a facial movement, it is our interpretation of that movement that creates the emotion.” This from a neuroscientist who has put sensors on people’s faces to try to detect emotions in facial movements. There are none. Your own emotions are guesses at the pattern you brain makes. “Emotions that seem to happen TO you are actually made BY you.” “If you change the ingredients that your brain uses to create emotions, you can transform your emotional life.” Basically neuroscientists confirming 2000 years of Stoic philosophy.
Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroscientist who had a massive stroke. Her insight is amazing.
In the Fall of 1980, I had it all figured out. I was a Junior at Medford Senior High School, the big leagues. My GPA was perfect and I was looking forward to my AP classes, science club, and the debate team. I grinned when I found my locker, #B69. Chad, the Varsity football captain grunted and elbowed me as he opened his locker, #B68. Calvin Klein’s Obsession assaulted my senses as I turned to see the most popular girl in the school, Mandy, the Captain of the Varsity Cheerleaders, primping in a mirror on her locker, #B70. My stomach churned. An icepick entered my eye and buried itself deep in my brain. You see, I was a nerd in a Football school.
Football is no joke in Medford, Oregon. A couple of years before, the small town of Medford had two highschools with about 300 kids per class. And Portland always kicked their butt in Football. The town fathers had had enough and split the schools into 9/10 (Junior High school) and 11/12 (Senior High School), effectively doubling the pool for Varsity sports. The plan worked, Medford Senior High School ruled the rankings in AAA Varsity sports across the board.
The entire social hierarchy of the town revolved around Varsity sports. Junior High had felt like a continuation of middle school. Senior High was where the action was. And I had finally made it. Or had I?
Chad scowled at me and slammed his locker. Mandy ignored me. I wondered if I could escape into my locker. Instead, I quietly closed mine and shoved off to Debate class.
We had a new Debate Team teacher, Terry Rose. Mr. Rose was a fireplug of a guy. Well built and confident. Owned oil wells in Texas. Had shot a tiger in Africa once. Been a speechwriter for a President. Came to Medford to retire, grow some pears and teach.
After class, I stopped by his desk.
“Welcome to Medford”
“Thank you. How are you, Martin.” What? Did he know my name?
“Good,” I paused. “But I have a locker problem.” I just blurted it out. Why? What does he care?
“Really? Tell me about it.” And he leaned back in his chair, inviting me with his hand to the chair beside the desk. What the hell? No teacher has ever given me more than platitudes.
“Uh, well it’s complicated.” I sat down and hugged my backpack. “I am stuck. Literally boxed in. Don’t know what to do. You see, Chad, the football captain has the locker on my left, and Mandy, the cheerleader captain has the locker to the right. They are the two most popular people in school. And who the hell am I? I hate football. Cheerleaders are way too energetic, they scare me. I feel paralyzed. What am I supposed to do?”
“Not making a decision is a decision. Find your own path. And stop paying attention to what other people are doing, it just makes you annoying.”
I sat in confused silence. Mr. Rose smiled. The bell rang.
“Uh, ok, thanks” I offered and shoved off to science club.
What the hell was he talking about? Not making a decision is a decision? Hadn’t he ever been stuck? Don’t care what other people are doing? Isn’t that what high school was about? Life is about?
The words simmered in my brain over the next few months. Eventually, they started to make sense. Engines fired up. Gears started turning. I ran for President of the Science Club. And won. I entered the state debate competition. And won. I cracked a joke to Mandy. She laughed.
My path started to open up before me. Senior year, my picture was in the yearbook with the caption “Most likely to invent the time machine.” In college, I double-majored in business and computer science just as the personal computer market was getting started. Turns out, the world needed a few more nerds like me.
I saw Chad at the reunion. Assistant Manager at the grocery store. Still driving the Camero. Mandy married a dentist and plays tennis on the weekends.
I found my own path. For the last 40 years, whenever I am stuck, Terry whispers in my ear: “Not making a decision is a decision.” And I figure out what to do next. What the next right action is. How to keep going down my own path. One foot in front of the other. Not caring what other people think. Thank you, Terry, where ever you are.
I received a message on LinkedIn yesterday. It read:
Martin! It has been like 23 years since we met in Silicon Valley. I so enjoyed our connection. You still in digital media? How have you been?”
A couple clicks reminded me of our connection and the memory popped into my head of a couple of drinks at a conference reception. Didn’t think anything of it at the time. One of the maxims I keep top of mind is:
Respond with KindnessMartin Tobias
I remembered our conversation. He was pitching me a start up and I showed curiosity and was impressed by his authenticity and passion. While I didn’t invest, I gave him kind attention. Apparently he appreciated it and remembered for 23 years.
Respond with Kindness. It will pay you back 100X.
“I hope you don’t get what you want in life, because then you are Fucked.”Martin Tobias
For over 20 years, this phrase has been one of my guiding principles. Today I am softening it.
Why soften it? I want my guiding principles to be in the positive frame, not the negative. While this has been great click bait and jolts the system, it does so by triggering a visceral emotional reaction: “What do you mean not get what I want? Isn’t that the point of life?” That reaction is why I like the principle, but I don’t want to relive the negative shock every time I hear it.
While I haven’t figured out exactly how to reframe this principle, something along the lines of :
- “Process goals are what you want in life”
- Process goals trump outcome oriented goals.
- I hope your goals support your values.
- The [[good life]] is a process not a goal.
Basically, the value of the positive frame in most things I do has risen in my value stack, and I am reframing whatever I can in that way. Give it a try.
Over 8,000 companies received pre Series A funding in 2019. 2020 is on pace to surpass that. How does one separate the signal from the noise? Over 25 years of Angel Investing, I have made every mistake there is and built a process from all that learning. This is the process I use to select deals for my Angel List Syndicate. Here is how I do it.
The top of the funnel is not every possible deal, you must apply a filter. The first filter is my personal network built over decades as an LP in over a dozen Venture funds, Angel investor in over 100 companies, CEO having raised over $500M for my companies (and all those venture and banking relationships), Founder of the Angel network Element8, and all the management and investor relationships over that time. From that network, I see thousands of deals a year.
The second filter is the Meta Themes I have found deliver outsized returns when present. They are listed below. If you want to get into the weeds, there is a very detailed dive into it on my blog.
- Software eats everything
- Great founders figure shit out
- Disruptive innovation creates new markets
- Platforms win
- Americans are lazy
- Invest only when I can be helpful
- Invest along other very smart, committed people.
After screening hundreds of deals through the Meta Themes, less than a hundred get the concentrated diligence process and end up with a weighted score. With every check I write of any size, I want to have a greater than 80% confidence in a 10x return on my capital. If you want to get into the weeds on the ranking algorithm, head over to this blog post. There are 5 major risk areas for every startup. I assign a confidence level from low (weak, unprepared, or insufficient) to high (easy, will crush it). The five components are:
- Management (50% weight)
- Product (10% weight)
- Market (10% weight)
- Regulation (10% weight)
- Terms (20% weight)
Less than a handful make it through to writing a check. My check size goes up along with my confidence interval. I usually write checks up to $50,000 between 80-90% confidence. Over 90% confidence, I will write checks up to $1M either alone or with friends and other smart investors. These are typically the deals that go through my Syndicate.
PS: Major Errors I have made.
While there is likely a whole post on errors I have made in the course of decades of Angel investing, the major ones that have cost me the most capital are listed here (in stack ranked order).
- Weak management. Management that can’t execute and pivot over time. Most management have nice looking resumes, but until you dig deeper and understand how they execute and the kind of culture they create, you won’t understand if they are up to the startup challenge. Everyone has an idea. The winers out execute everyone else.
- Underfunding. Most startups run out of money before they find a product/market fit. Many startups fundraise hand to mouth, never gaining enough capital to mitigate the big risks of the business. Underfunding can also be caused by overspending by management on the wrong problems at the wrong time (see above).
- Big Market, unclear entry strategy. I have fallen in love with large market size numbers, we all do. Without a clear product path to enter the market with some sustainable advantage, the market size doesn’t matter. Without product/market fit, the size is irrelevant. Also, if the “market” is already big, there are likely lots of competitors, a red ocean. There are better returns creating a new market with your product.
- Me to products. Never invest in a follower. Unless there is some geographic, language, or market reason. There has been alot of money made copying innovation from the US in Europe for example. But copying a product in the same market tends to lead to low returns for investors. Invest in the leader, category creator.
- Following investors without personal theme fit. I started out Angel investing with an “any good deal” strategy. How did I decide if it was a “good deal”? If other “smart” investors were in it. You will never know why other investors write checks, or even if they are “smart”. Plenty of “smart” people put money into Theranos. They all lost their money playing the momentum of others without doing their own thinking.