I’m both fascinated by and perpetually in awe of people like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Jack Ma and Tim Ferriss. They accomplish, grow, connect and utterly excel in so many different ways and verticals that they seem almost superhuman. But as I’ve studied their careers and trajectories over the years, I’ve found a set of simple mental tools they all seem to make excellent use of.
Though we won’t all accomplish as much as these super performers have, at the very least we can train our brains to think like them, which will give us massive advantages regardless of what we choose to pursue.
1. Lateral Thinking
The human brain is wired to see things in terms of black and white; safe and unsafe, good and bad, love and hate…alas, very little in life is actually black and white, and the greatest advantages tend to appear in gray areas. Lateral thinking is the ability to look at something, be it a problem or an object, and see far more options than appear to most people. You see the black, and the white, but also all the shades of gray, and maybe some colors as well. You could think of it as the ability to blend logic and imagination harmoniously.
So what’s the best way to develop better lateral thinking skills? Solving riddles. Riddles force you to think outside the box the reach an answer, and are one of the best ways to hone lateral thinking. There’s also a great video from Ken Robinson that talks about divergent thinking, which is a component of lateral thinking.
2. Systems Thinking
Our brains like to oversimplify things, and as such they tend to focus in on parts of a problem or thing, often discarding the nuances of the complex whole in the process. We miss the forest for the trees, so to speak. Systems thinking involves understanding how all the pieces of a system work together and impact one another, and using that knowledge to make more informed decisions. Empathy is a facet of this, as empathetic people are better at seeing and understanding things from someone else’s perspective.
Systems thinking is difficult, and often imprecise as it can involve a lot of estimation and guesswork, but it’s a much better approach than honing in on a single part.
To develop this trait, work to rekindle your childlike curiosity. Explore things, try to be more aware of your surroundings, and ask yourself “How does this work?” as often as you can. Most importantly, you need to try and see things from alternate perspectives.
As Paulo Coelho wrote, “If you conquer yourself, then you will conquer the world.” You can’t truly conquer that which you don’t truly understand, and very, very few people truly know themselves. That said, I would say this is by far the most common characteristic of top performers — they know themselves, both strengths and weaknesses, exceptionally well. They seek constantly to understand themselves even better. They meditate, they write notes or keep a journal. They read and study psychology, philosophy and neuroscience to better understand who they are, and why they do what they do.
These are the three keys to mastering self-awareness: meditation, introspection through writing, and constant study into the nature of self. I meditate, journal read voraciously to better understand myself and humanity in general.
Mushin is a Japanese word that translates roughly to “no mind.” It is a state of clarity without active thought, fully in the moment, aware of your surroundings to an intense degree but only softly focused. This is a state sought by monks, meditators of all varieties and martial artists around the world. It is in many ways comparable to, but not exactly the same, as Flow. It’s really, really hard to describe effectively in English, as we have no real parallel.
If you’re a fan of fantasy books, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series would describe this as The Flame and the Void. Many high performers seek this state through various avenues. There is no better frame of mind in which to live, if you can achieve it. To do this, you need to master two key things: Meditation, as we’ve already discussed in regards to self-awareness, and Flow, which we’ll dig into next.
Last, but far from least, is a state researched and coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Numerous books have been written on the subject, though my favorite so far is The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler.
Mushin and Flow are tightly connected states, albeit at opposite ends of the spectrum. Where Mushin is a relaxed, loosely focused state of awareness, Flow is an intense, highly focused state of awareness. Call it what you will — in the zone, dialed in, etc — flow occurs when you are intently focused on a task, at the edge of your abilities, and getting instant feedback on your efforts. From programmers to professional gamers to extreme athletes, all are familiar with this state.
For high performers, who often have to juggle a ton of data and data streams and complex decisions, the ability to get into flow states is critical for effective performance. But what about the average Jane or Joe? The best place to start are with the above mentioned book, The Rise of Superman, and with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on Flow. Once you come to understand what it is, you’ll be able to look at your life and the activities you perform and find better, more frequent ways to slip into flow.
For those who want to change the world, whether in a big way or a small one, it starts by changing yourself into the best possible version of you.