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It’s a Thing You Learn Every Day  

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

~Tim Ferriss

Last week I was speaking with a friend, hashing through some things they were frustrated with in what seemed to be stuck in a lack of progress. One of the core issues discussed was the mind’s desire to control, and the difficulty in letting go and trusting outcomes to arrive positively through patience. It is something I identify with extremely closely.

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve decided to commit to something, I commit to it wholeheartedly, with all my effort and energy. An admirable trait to be sure, but there is a darker side of that coin: an almost obsessive propensity to want things to be perfect, even if they don’t need to be. That intensity can have a lot of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to working with other people.

Have you ever worked on a group project in school? Ever notice the way personality types quickly emerge once the work starts? There have been too many articles written on this very topic to count, so I’ll spare you that rabbit hole. But if you think back, I’m sure you can remember some of the best and worst team projects you’ve worked on previously and the people you worked on them with. 

There’s the analyst or researcher, willing to do the book work. There’s the organized planner type. There’s the communicator, who volunteered to do most of the talking during the presentation. There’s the team player, a generally agreeable, well rounded person okay with whatever responsibility the group needs from them. There’s usually a creative type. You also undoubtedly encountered the slacker or procrastinator that just didn’t seem to care that much, nor did they volunteer for anything. There’s usually also a leader type, for better or for worse. That was usually me.

The thing about being a perfection-obsessed alpha type who usually assumes the leader role is that you typically have a hard time letting go of responsibilities and allowing others to drive. That’s a recipe for really bad teamwork, and one that took me a long time to learn. I grew up playing team sports, but mainly baseball, which is actually a 1 on 1 chess match masquerading as a team game. So I didn’t really learn to start trusting and relying on teammates until I got promoted into a Manager role at the call center I was working in at 30. It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t just get on the phone and make sales for my employees. I had to trust that they could get the job done so I could focus on other responsibilities.

One of the things that really helped me work through this subtle neuroses was the point where I learned how to differentiate what I could control and what I couldn’t. It is still something I haven’t quite mastered, but the better I get at it, the easier my life seems to get.

As I discussed these challenges with my friend, I conveyed the importance of this concept using “The Serenity Prayer,” a memorable mantra authored by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1900s:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It sounds so simple when it’s in a cute little poem, but in practice, this is extremely difficult for some people (like me). My friend, familiar with the Serenity Prayer, responded with:

“I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, but it just doesn’t seem to get through to me” they said in a discouraged tone. 

This made me think of the Tim Ferriss quote above.

“You know, if it is that difficult, it probably means it’s the thing you need to work on most,” I suggested, trying to avoid sounding like an asshole by quoting Tim Ferriss.

“Let me show you something,” I said, retrieving my daily planner. I paged through the last 2 weeks, showing how I have been starting every morning by writing down a quote by Cato (the one I wrote about last week). I then showed my Google Calendar, where every day at 2pm, I have an alert set to remind me of that daily focus again.

“This isn’t a thing you just learn one day. It’s a thing you learn every day,” I said reassuringly.

All productive, ambitious individuals have things they are working on to improve. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t getting the quick results you desire. Instead, find ways to remind yourself and repeatedly force yourself to keep at it. You’re only really stuck if you give up.