Debugging Your Mental Loops
"You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to control things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That's the only thing you should be trying to control."- Elizabeth Gilbert52
When personal computers first came on the scene, every department store had a computer section with the latest models on display: the Apple II, the Commodore 64, the Atari 800. Most of these computers came installed with BASIC, the language that allowed anyone to learn how to code.
As a young nerd, I had an expert level of BASIC (oxymoron), but my friend David Dack had almost zero knowledge. He knew how to write exactly one program. He was a bit of a prankster, and would have me watch out for sales clerks while he wrote his one program on all the computers in the store:
10 PRINT "I AM THE WORLD'S GREATEST HACKER"
20 GOTO 10
Running this program would cause the computer to endlessly display the words "I AM THE WORLD'S GREATEST HACKER," an infinitely-repeating testament to David's mighty programming prowess.
David Dack had mastered the loop, which is one of the essential building blocks of computer programming. When we're writing software, loops are how we get stuff done. More than that, loops help us get stuff done efficiently. Loops are a shortcut. Sure, we could write:
until our program was 1,000 lines long and all you had done was counted to 1,000. Or we could just write:
which accomplishes the same thing, in one elegant line of code.
We have counting loops, which run through a set of instructions a defined number of times ("for every row in this spreadsheet, apply this formatting"). We have conditional loops, which run through a set of instructions if certain criteria are true ("each minute, check if the time is 12:00, and if it is, pop up an alert."). We have infinite loops, which even David Dack understood.
The complexity of modern software is mind-boggling: layers upon layers of loops. Say you're reading this on an electronic device. The highest level programming loops may tell your device what content to display, and how to display it. Underneath that are loops running the reader app itself. Go deeper and you'll find loops controlling the operating system that runs the apps. Still lower are loops running the device itself: the battery, the clock, the screen. The layers build on top of each other, growing increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly amazing.
When you're using a word processor, making a phone call, or playing a videogame, you don't notice the loops. The loops are forming a higher-level, abstract representation that seems utterly divorced from the programming going on behind the scenes. All the richly complex software that we take for granted is run on top of simple building blocks like loops. It's one of the most amazing things about computers ... and our minds.
Our Minds Are Loopy
Like software, our minds are also programmed with loops.
Think back to how useless we were as babies. It's as if our parents got a new computer, except there was nothing installed on it, not even an operating system. Turn it on, and all they got was some low-level configuration menu that told the newborn how to suck, cry, and poop.
Over the next six months, we learned some basic skills: sensory input, rudimentary cause and effect, the beginning of language, and some simple emotions. Whether we discovered it through trial and error, parental guidance, or luck, this programming "stuck" through simple repetition, through practicing these fundamental skills over and over.
By the age of three, we had grown incredibly complex: walking, running, speaking in complete sentences, and expertly manipulating our parents. We now had a sophisticated operating system, which was learning to program itself, through a continuous stream of questions. ("Why are clouds? Who are trees? Where is muffins?") All these skills, habits, and personality traits were reinforced by constant repetition: loops building on loops.
Over the years, we learned increasingly complicated mental loops. First, we learned there were substances going in our mouth. Then we learned some of these substances tasted better than others. Later, we learned these substances were called "food," and then we learned how to get more of the foods we liked.
Along the way, we were continually developing mental models, thought habits or loops, that saved us time later on: "I only like white foods." "I usually get food after a boo-boo." "Grandparents give better food than parents." These loops optimized our behavior, making it more efficient to get what we wanted. Our code grew more elegant.
In school, we learned through repetition. First we learned the concept of numbers, then we learned operations on those numbers, then we learned layers of abstraction like algebra and trigonometry. And always the loops, in the form of practice, exercises, and tests. Later, these loops helped us with specific tasks like managing money, doing home renovation, or acquiring businesses. Our operating system was now fully formed, and specialized apps were beginning to appear.
Society deeply embedded its values into us through continued repetition and reinforcement: Sunday school, teen magazines, pop music, Disney movies, TV shows. And always the advertisements, repeated over and over, expertly-crafted loops telling us what to buy. Popup ads and spyware were getting installed on our operating system, slowing everything down.
Perhaps the most powerful loops were the ones making up our self-image and our view of the world. If we came from a safe, stable home, we probably grew up to see the world as a safe and welcoming place, thanks to the power of that repeated daily experience, that repeated loop. If we came from a chaotic, broken home, with repeated instances of lying or abuse, the world became a disturbing, dishonest place.
If we were always told that we were brilliant, we grew up believing it. Now, when we meet with difficulty or setbacks, our default response might be, "Hey, I'm smart and I'll figure this out." If we were constantly berated for how terrible we were, we grew up with that internal dialogue. When we run into trouble, we think, "Just my luck. Another failed project."
If our parents acted like money was always in short supply, our mental loops probably run something like, I've got to save every penny or I'll be broke, even when we have plenty of money, and such thoughts have far outlived their usefulness. If our parents spent money frivolously or gambled it away, our mental loops might go like, It's only money, and besides, I really need that rare albino giraffe.
If our parents had a reasonably functional relationship, we may have internalized loops like, It's OK to compromise with your partner, or We are working together as a team. If they fought bitterly, even after they divorced, we may have deep programming that says, Long-term relationships do not work out, and I am destined to live angry and alone.
As with the low-level loops of code running the clock on your computer, these loops can be so deeply embedded that they're difficult to detect. They run everything, yet they're invisible. That's because to a very great extent, these loops are self-fulfilling prophecies: if our loops tell us we're good with people, then we'll probably seek out opportunities to meet more people, and through simple practice we will be good with people. If our loops tell us we'll never amount to anything, we'll be nervous and afraid to jump on new opportunities, and we ultimately won't amount to much.
Addiction is a loop. We eat, or drink, or smoke, in order to feel better and better. We feel horrible the next morning, so we start the loop again, while our lives get worse and worse. Just about anything can be made into an obsessive loop: talking, pornography, flame wars, religion, worrying, shopping, sex.
Just as it's hard to believe that loops of code can build an immersive videogame, it's hard to believe that our thoughts, our behavior, and even our lives could be built through loops. Once you begin to observe your mind closely, however, you'll find these mental loops control just about everything you do.
Your loops create your thoughts.
Your thoughts create your actions.
Your actions create your life.
Therefore, the quality of our loops determine the quality of our lives.
Fix your loops, Fix your life.
This is great news: it means that even though many of our loops may be invisible to us, there is one simple way to find them, and that is by looking at the quality of our lives.
When you use a well-designed app, it just works. Think about your favorite search engine: how fast, powerful, and intuitive it is. Behind the scenes are millions of well-designed loops, all optimized to work together harmoniously.
Similarly, if our mental loops are reasonably well-designed, our life works. We are successful at work, play, relationships, money, and love. Successful does not mean perfect; it simply means that our lives have a minimum of friction, a minimum of pain. Where there's pain (outward pain, such as a series of failed jobs or relationships, or inward pain, such as depression or anxiety), there's usually a faulty loop. In fact, pain is an excellent indicator that we need to examine our loops.
Thus, improving the quality of our mental loops involves tracking down the faulty thinking that is causing us pain. It's a process that is similar to tracking down faulty computer code, or debugging.
The First Computer Bug
If there were a Geek Hall of Fame, "Amazing" Grace Hopper would deserve a nomination.
In 1947, "Amazing" Grace Hopper was a 40-year-old computer programmer at Harvard University, working on the Harvard Mark II, a huge electromechanical computer that used relays, switches, and vacuum tubes to perform amazing feats like calculating square roots in about five seconds.53
One afternoon, Hopper and her team of engineers began a routine test of the machine's adding and multiplication functions, when they noticed something wrong. In those days, everything was hardware, so you would manually inspect the computer itself -- like inspecting a car, or a washing machine -- to see if a part had failed. The engineers removed the panels on the enormous machine, one by one, until finally they found the problem: a small moth had made its way into one of the relays.
For years, the word "bug" had been used informally by geeks to describe hardware malfunctions. Even the grandfather of geeks, Thomas Edison, had referred to faults and difficulties in his systems as "bugs."54 So you can imagine the pleasure and delight of those Harvard Mark II engineers of literally finding a bug causing a bug. This was like winning the comedy lottery!
They reverently removed the moth from the relay, determined to enshrine this insect in the annals of computing history. They taped the moth into their daily logbook with the words "first actual case of a bug being found."55
Grace Hopper delighted in telling this story throughout her career, popularizing the use of the word "bug" to describe a system error or fault. She spent her later years on college lecture tours, telling that story, along with many others from her amazing career in technology. She frequently stressed to young people the necessity of personal change. "I find in general that human beings are allergic to change," she would often say, explaining that innovation and open-mindedness give people the freedom to try new things.56 In a sense, she argued for the debugging of the mind.
Decades after Hopper's death, bugs are a part of life for those of us who work with technology. We can all relate to a system crash, a computer freeze, or a life-sucking moment of doom where you lose the last four hours' worth of work: all thanks to bugs.
For those who develop software, bugs are a part of the process. A program almost never works properly the first time. You write some code, you run it, and it breaks. This is normal. This is part of the job. You track down the errors, or bugs, in your loops of code, then you rewrite the loops, and run it again. You do this again and again, hundreds or thousands of times, until you have a working prototype. Then you hand over your software to a team of beta testers. "Try to break it," you tell them.
By using the software in different and unexpected ways, your testers find more buggy loops, which you track down and correct. Some bugs are small: a misspelled word or a missing semicolon. Some bugs are huge: a gaping security hole, or a navigation system failure.
Let's say David Dack made one error when typing his brilliant program:
10 PRINT "I AM THE WORLD"S GREATEST HACKER"
20 GOTO 10
How long did it take you to spot it?
Yes, accidentally writing a quotation mark instead of an apostrophe would signal the end of our PRINT statement, causing the computer to choke on line 10. David Dack would no longer be the world's greatest hacker, he would be the world's greatest SYNTAX ERROR.
This kind of bug is easy to track down, but many bugs are far more insidious and complex. Some can only be reproduced under specific circumstances or unusual situations -- so unusual that the developers have great difficulty ever finding them. "Show me the steps to reproduce the problem," is a common refrain among programmers. Well, says the person reporting the bug, I was in this spreadsheet, and I clicked this menu item. Wait, maybe it was this other menu item. Hmm. Well, it crashed this morning, so please fix it before lunchtime.
Bugs Cause Pain
Years ago, my company used a well-known video editing application to produce online videos. For the sake of not being sued, we'll call this program VideoBug. Being a high-end video editor, VideoBug required an enormous amount of memory and computing power. It would run on a slower computer, just not very well. There was no way to know whether your computer was optimized for VideoBug until you found yourself hitting your head with a hammer out of sheer frustration. Using VideoBug was a great way of really coming to deeply understand and appreciate the pain of bugs.
Sometimes the pain would be subtle, like a split-second audio glitch that sounded correct in the preview video, but only showed up in the final video. You'd render the video again and again, trying to get the audio right, missing deadlines, missing sleep, missing your child's first piano recital. Eventually, you'd delete the entire video project, rebuild it from scratch, and twelve hours later, it would work.
Sometimes the pain would be acute, like when the computer would hang after working on an all-night video project, taking all your effort with it. "Well, didn't you save your project?" someone would ask, and you'd silently vow to kill them, right after you slaughtered the entire VideoBug development team.
One day, one of our team members was in the other room, separated by a three-foot reinforced concrete wall, when I suddenly heard him explode with rage. It was terrifying and violent, with a torrent of screaming expletives, and the sound of a massive filing cabinet full of CDs being pulled to the ground.
Freaking VideoBug, I thought to myself.
Now multiply our frustration times hundreds, thousands, or millions of users of the VideoBug software, and you see how seemingly small bugs can cause tremendous difficulty and frustration. To this day, a simple Web search turns up thousands of user complaints about all the issues not listed on the official VideoBug website.
You may ask, "Why didn't you just get a video editor that works?" Eventually, we did. But we had so much experience with using VideoBug, we were so trained to save our project every ten seconds and expect frequent crashes, that it was easier in the short term to live with terrible software, rather than learn a whole new system.
It's an appropriate metaphor for our minds. Our mental programming -- our loops -- can cause us pain, but it's often easier to just live with the pain than invest in learning a new system.
The rewards of learning the new system, though, are potentially infinite. Not only do our negative loops cause us pain, they hold us back. They limit us. If we switch to a new video editor, we'll simply make it easier to create videos. In the world of the mind, though, getting rid of our limitations unlocks anything we can imagine, because imagination is at the core of mind hacking.
How to Debug the Mind
To recap: our minds are the product of thousands of repeated lessons, good and bad, true and false, accurate and inaccurate. These have been ingrained as mental "loops" that can be positive ("I like to exercise") or negative ("I will never find true love"). They can be constructive ("I should spend money responsibly") or destructive ("I would be happier if I had a drink").
These habitual thoughts control our emotions, our behaviors, and ultimately our lives. Because they are deeply embedded, the product of years of experience and upbringing, these loops can be hard to track down. The best way of debugging these negative loops is to look at the quality of your life, more specifically for areas of pain. For example:
- Difficulty in relationships
- Difficulty at work
- Difficulty with family members
- Legal trouble
- Money trouble
- Health trouble
- Persistent negative beliefs ("I'll never succeed", "people are untrustworthy")
- Persistent negative feelings (cynicism, hopelessness, despair)
- Persistent failure
- Living in your parents' basement (or worse yet, your parents' car)
For me, being visited by the Secret Service, and the subsequent fallout, was an enormous pain point: a sign that something needed to be changed. But there were plenty of smaller pain points along the way, like getting caught sneaking vodka from the liquor cabinet by my father -- in my thirties. And of course, the everyday mental pain that was causing me to sneak from the liquor cabinet in the first place.
The problem is that we can get so used to the pain that we become numb to it. Like a person who's always worn a pair of ill-fitting shoes, we can convince ourselves that it's not worth the trouble to change. "The pain isn't that bad," we might rationalize, or "I can live with it." Meanwhile, the pain gets worse, and we limp through life in size 4 loafers.
Fortunately, there are several methods we can use to uncover the loops that cause us this pain. The first is based on a Japanese management technique known as The Five Whys.
Method 1: The Five Whys
Sakichi Toyoda was, you might say, the king of Japanese geeks.
In the late 1800s, many Japanese textile factories still used wooden hand looms to produce cloth. They were labor-intensive, slow, and expensive. After several years of experimentation, Toyoda invented a steam-fueled "Power Loom" that quadrupled textile production, cut costs in half, and produced better quality cloth to boot.57
The success of the Power Loom made Toyoda a rich man, and he funneled that money into developing new inventions to make his looms even faster and more powerful. Automatic shuttle changers. Interchangeable parts. Eventually, a fully automatic loom. Today, he's known as "King of Japanese Inventors," the Asian Thomas Edison, and his story is taught to every Japanese schoolchild.
Toyoda's genius was not just around his inventions, but also around his innovations in the process of manufacturing. To Toyoda, it was processes that failed, not people. When troubleshooting problems in his factories, he invented a technique known as the "Five Whys," to track a problem down to its root cause.
The technique is simple: when you encounter a problem in your factory, instead of berating the employee who's responsible, you step back and answer the question "Why?" five times, until you get to the deeper issue.
Let's say you're an automobile manufacturer. One of your new car models has a problem: under certain conditions, the gas tank explodes. While the natural response is to figure out a short-term solution (replace the gas tank, recall the cars, deny the story, etc.), the Five Whys discipline seeks to find the root (or roots) of the problem.
What's the source of our exploding gas tanks?
- 1.We used a gas tank from a new supplier. Why?
- 2.Our old supplier could not deliver in time for production. Why?
- 3.Production was rushed to meet an accelerated schedule. Why?
- 4.Management wanted to accelerate the production schedule to impact end-of-year sales. Why?
- 5.Management bonuses are tied to annual sales.
By following this tree of "Why?" down to its roots, you can make changes that impact the entire system, that tackle the problem at the source, not at its result. Here, the result (exploding gas tanks) is just the surface of a much deeper problem (management gaming annual sales bonuses at the expense of safety). Problems usually manifest themselves far down the chain from where they started.
Note the "five" in "Five Whys" is somewhat arbitrary -- it may take six whys, or four, to find the root problem. Usually, in fact, there are multiple roots to the problem, so you need to ask "Why?" down several divergent paths. The basic idea, however, is powerful: continue asking "Why?" until you get to the source (or sources) of the problem, and fix the problem there.
Toyoda's "Five Whys" technique was eventually embraced by the entire manufacturing industry as a best practice, and ultimately found its way to the modern corporate world as well. The company he founded, Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, lives on as the Toyota Motor Corporation, which makes some of the highest-quality automobiles in the world.58
Now let's look at Charlie, a 25-year-old programmer who has a pattern of not being able to hold a job: either he gets fired, or he quits.
Why can't you hold a job, Charlie?
- 1.I can't get along with my bosses. Why?
- 2.Sometimes I'm insubordinate. Why?
- 3.Now that I think about it, it's more like I don't want to be forced to do something I don't believe in. Why?
- 4.Because I had to do that a lot growing up. I hated that my father was so dominating. Why?
- 5.Because it made me feel like I can't be trusted to make my own decisions.
Like stepping through a program to find the faulty code, we've debugged one of Charlie's negative thought loops -- the hidden feeling that I can't be trusted to make my own decisions -- that manifests itself as insubordination, which ultimately leads to the pain of being fired.
Let's take another example. Darla is a 33-year-old mother of three who is afraid of walking alone at night:
- 1.I'm afraid of walking alone. Why?
- 2.I'm afraid someone's going to attack me, and no one will be there to help. Why?
- 3.My older brother often scared and threatened me, which left me with a feeling of never being safe. Why?
- 4.Because no one was there to protect me. My parents didn't take it seriously. They acted like I was overreacting, like I was the crazy one. And now I feel like the crazy one! Why?
- 5.Because I continually think that the world is not a safe place.
We've debugged a negative thought loop ("The world is not a safe place") that can be reprogrammed with a positive thought loop ("I am safe in the world"). More on reprogramming in Section 2.4.
The goal of "Five Whys" is to keep the focus on you. Not on other people. Not on circumstances beyond your control. If you end up with an answer like, "Because my husband is a moron," or "Because I was born with bad luck," try again. Train your microscope on your own emotions, thoughts, and actions, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself.
Let's take one more example. Ed is a 45-year-old project manager who suffers from depression. It's not serious enough to seek professional help, but enough to impact his daily life. Two or three times a year, he cycles through a depression that feels like he is "swimming against a powerful current."
- 1.I've had these depressive episodes since I was a teenager. Why?
- 2.It feels like all the happiness of life is gone. Why?
- 3.Life seems hopeless, out of control. Why?
- 4.Depression runs in my family. My aunt had it, my grandmother had it. I sound a lot like my aunt, actually. It shows you how it runs in the family. Why?
- 5.Well, I guess it's just a part of me, who I am.
Aha! We've uncovered a problem loop ("I am a depressed person") that is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because Ed sees himself as someone who goes through periodic cycles of depression, he becomes less likely to help himself when he feels a new episode coming on (say, by exercising or seeing a doctor). Thus, he is a periodically depressed person, caught in the buggy loop of bad thinking.
It's true there is probably a physiological component to his depression, but we're trying to get to the problem thinking that's contributing to the pain. Since thoughts create feelings,59 focusing on the feelings can be a useful way of getting to the thoughts.
In fact, a great trigger for the "Five Whys" is when you notice a persistent thought. Instead of suffering through these anxious or depressing thoughts that won't seem to go away, see them as red warning lights flashing on Toyoda's assembly line. A persistent thought usually indicates a problem loop, and asking "Why is this thought so persistent?" as the first of your Five Whys can help you trace it back to its source.
By practicing the "Five Whys" on yourself, gently questioning each of your long-held beliefs, you can often find the root problem. If not, here's a second method.
Method #2: Worst Case Scenario
Much of our mental pain is based on fears of imaginary events that simply will never happen. This fear is often just beneath the surface, gnawing away at us. By exaggerating the fear, we can pull it out into the open. We do this by asking one question: What's the worst case scenario?
Let's take the case of Francine, a 28-year-old receptionist. She finds herself stewing over a parking attendant who overcharged her earlier in the day, who then refused to refund the money. She "catches" herself obsessing over this small event hours later, and determines to root out the problem thought.
Francine is self-aware enough to know that she has problems spending money -- she hadn't wanted to park in the garage in the first place. Spending money, especially unnecessary money, causes her anxiety.
So we ask her, what are you afraid of? What's the worst case scenario?
The worst case scenario is that I spend too much money, and can't make enough to cover my expenses.
That's bad, but we're going for the absolutely worst case, so we encourage her to continue.
I lose my apartment. I can't afford food. I have to live in a shopping cart under a bridge.
I waste away and die a miserable death.
Actually, this isn't the worst case scenario -- that would involve an alien apocalypse, where the invaders keep her alive in an eternal state of unrelenting agony. But let's not get silly.
The point, though, is that Francine will see her fear as a bit silly. Even if she went broke, she could file for bankruptcy, or turn to her parents or friends for support. She would be able to get government assistance long before she ended up under a bridge. Still, feelings are persistent, even when we logically understand they're silly.
So we take our fears to their extreme conclusions to help us identify the limiting belief. With greater clarity, Francine can now synthesize her thought loop into something like this:
It's dangerous to spend money, because I will die a miserable death.
It's dangerous to spend money.
In the next section, we'll talk about how Francine can reprogram her mind using positive loops like "It's safe to spend money," or better yet, "I have plenty of money." These new loops will eventually replace the old code and make Francine happier and more successful. She may still get angry with the parking attendant for overcharging her, but she'll be able to keep it in perspective: one parking ticket does not mean catching rats for food.
Let's take another example: Gary is a high school teacher in his early thirties who is looking for a partner. He had a date last night, which went well until he flubbed the goodbye by awkwardly going for a kiss, which went badly, as his date turned away at the last minute. He has been obsessing over this detail all day, until he finally examines his thinking in an effort to get some relief.
What's the worst case scenario?
The worst case scenario is that she doesn't date me anymore. I really like her, and I will be crushed if she doesn't feel the same way.
Feeling crushed doesn't feel good, but this is nowhere near a worst case scenario.
The worst case scenario is that she never calls me back. This causes me to lose confidence, which women can detect immediately, and they start to become repelled by me. Eventually I give up completely, and accept that I'm doomed to be completely alone. Worse yet, I live to be 108, outliving even my family and friends. So I die completely alone, with no one to hold my hand except the nursing home attendant who happened to be taking my blood pressure at the time.
Wow! At least Gary has an imagination. But if Gary looks closely at this story he's just told, he should start to detect the underlying belief:
I'm no good with women.
Gary has to be careful with choosing his positive thought loop. A simple reversal ("I'm good with women") can seem boring in comparison to alternatives like "Women find me irresistible" or "I am magnetically sexy to women." These new loops can have enormous consequences in the direction of Gary's life, so he must take great care when rewriting his mental code. More on this in Section 2, which we will get to shortly.
Method #3: Third-Person Perspective
A third method you can use to bring your dark thoughts into the light is taking the Third-Person Perspective. This method is as simple as asking, "If this was someone else's problem, what would I say to that person?"
Take the case of Haley, a married mother of two who frequently worries for her children. Most parents worry, but Haley has made an art form out of it, insisting that her kids wear helmets when sledding, or staying inside during the summer because of the threat of ticks and Lyme disease.
One day, sick from worrying about her son's report card, she decides to examine her thoughts. She imagines herself sitting across the kitchen table from herself, as if she was a friend. If she had to analyze the thought loop that was going through her friend's head, what would it be?
Probably that her kids will get sick, or injured. Or worse.
What's her problem loop?
The world is dangerous. But the world is dangerous!
What's her problem loop, in regard to her kids?
My kids are not safe, unless I'm watching over them every minute.
And can she watch over them every minute?
No. Especially as they get older.
And should she watch over them every minute?
Sometimes, but no.
So what's the positive equivalent of her negative thought loop?
"My kids are safe."
How much better it feels to go through life thinking that your kids are fundamentally safe, rather than expecting doom around every corner!
Now, it's true that sometimes our kids do get sick and injured, so it may feel inaccurate or wrong to think, "My kids are safe," especially if you have a deeply ingrained loop of "My kids are not safe." But isn't it far more accurate to believe that your kids are fundamentally safe than not safe? After all, most of us grow up OK, despite the inevitable sledding crashes and tick bites. For Haley, constantly repeating to herself, "My kids are not safe" is simply not consistent with reality. It is a projected reality, that Haley is capable of reprogramming herself.
When using the "Third-Person Perspective" technique, it may help you to imagine a friend sitting across the table, or it may help you to imagine a scientist, a great leader, or another trusted person of authority. In Napoleon Hill's classic success book Think and Grow Rich, he told of a technique he used for years that he called the "Invisible Counselors."
He first chose nine great men whose character he wished to emulate in his life: historical figures like Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Each night before he went to bed, he would close his eyes and imagine these legendary figures around a table, with himself in charge as Chairman of the group. He would often put his current problems before each of the characters, then ask his imaginary advisors to share their wisdom.
This was not just a problem-solving technique, but a way that Hill used to rebuild his own character in the mold of these great men. Before addressing Abraham Lincoln, for example, he would butter him up by saying, "Mr. Lincoln, I desire to build into my own character the keen sense of justice, the untiring spirit of patience, the sense of humor, the human understanding, and the tolerance, which were your distinguishing characteristics."60
Night after night, Hill performed this mental exercise, and he found that each of the leaders began to develop his own personality. Lincoln would often arrive late, then walk around the table gravely, with his hands clasped behind his back. Thomas Paine would often get in spirited arguments with the naturalist Luther Burbank. These imaginary meetings became so vivid that Hill temporarily discontinued them, concerned he would lose the ability to distinguish imagination from reality!
I've personally used the "Third-Person Perspective" to get help or advice from many of the geniuses you'll read about in this book. I don't believe I'm communicating telepathically, or summoning the dead. I do believe, however, that a part of my mind already has the correct answer, and the "Third-Person Perspective" can be a useful way of logically tracing back my problem loop to its source, so I can discover the answer for myself. Plus, it's fun to discuss your problems with Yoda.
Getting to Bare METAL
For true geeks, bare metal is even sexier than bare skin.
"Bare metal" is a term we use for a new piece of computer hardware, with no operating system or even an assembler. It's just clean hardware, with no layers of junk added in. Sometimes we'll talk about "programming on the bare metal," which is the incredibly technical work of developing these tools for a new computer. In the hierarchy of geekdom, developers who bit bash on bare metal are the highest-level (i.e., lowest-level) geeks around.
In mind hacking, we're approaching our minds with that same spirit of "getting to the bottom of things," or going for the root loops that are controlling our emotions, thoughts, and actions. In fact, METAL can be used as an acrostic for:
M y E motion T hought A ction L oop
We've seen how everything we do is preceded by a thought, and that thought is often preceded by an emotion. By developing clarity of mind through regular concentration games, then using the debugging tools outlined in this section, we can track down the logical sequence of Emotion-Thought-Action that is causing problems in our lives. (You'll soon learn how to reprogram your METAL, but you can't fix the bugs until you identify them.)
On your pad of paper, after your daily concentration game, I recommend tracing My Emotion-Thought-Action Loop, using the debugging tools you've learned above. It might look something like this:
Anxiety about a new assignment at work
"I don't know if I can deliver this in a way that will make my boss happy."
Doubting the results of my work, redoing the project multiple times, unnecessary overtime and stress
Depression about my relationship with my partner
"We're not as close as we were before, and we're drifting further apart."
Getting angry at my partner over minor issues, passive-aggressive behavior, and frequent criticisms
Self-criticism over that stupid thing I said
"Why did I say that? Why did I say that? Why did I say that?"
Being self-conscious about everything I say to this person in the future
Regret about that decision I made in the past
"I shouldn't have done that. I wish I could go do it all over. My life would look so much better."
Self-doubt and procrastination about making any decisions in the present
Worry about my career after graduation
"The job market is terrible. I have no experience. There are lots of other people more qualified than me."
Reading gossip sites and watching funny llama videos instead of looking for a job
There's a strange kind of power from seeing your emotions, thoughts, and actions spelled out in words. Until you write them down, they will exist as swirls of feeling in your mind. Defining them gives us mastery over them. When you take the time to articulate these thoughts and feelings, to write them down as best you can, you gain power over them. For identifying your problem loops, METAL is a useful model.
MIND GAME: Name that Loop
For the rest of the day, try to "catch" your negative mind loops as they happen. Watch for signs of mental "pain" or friction, which are a good indicator of thought processes that need debugging. Debug each negative thought loop down to its root problem, using one of the three techniques:
- The Five Whys: Ask "Why?" five times - Worst Case Scenario: What's the worst thing that could happen? - Third Person Perspective: What would you say if you were hearing this from someone else?
At the end of the day, write down each of the "root problems" you uncovered on your practice sheet, preferably using the METAL method.
In Part 1 of Mind Hacking, we've seen how the mind is a naturally noisy place, and how we can cultivate focus and awareness of the mind's programming through regular concentration practice. Using the laser-like clarity that we develop through this practice, we can examine areas of our thinking where we have pain or difficulty, debugging our negative loops with skill and precision. This sets the stage for active reprogramming of the mind, which we'll cover in Part 2.
This is where things get fun.