Nikola Tesla may have been the greatest geek who ever lived.
The Serbian-American inventor was awarded 300 patents during his lifetime, beginning with electric motors, and eventually encompassing such diverse inventions as ship navigation devices, wireless lighting, and a plane that would take off and land vertically -- all in the early 1900's.103 In harnessing the forces of nature, Tesla seemed almost godlike in his powers: at one of his labs, he generated 135-foot bolts of artificial lightning, creating thunder that could be heard fifteen miles away.104
Like many great thinkers, some of Tesla's ideas seemed insane for the time, even by today's standards. He had plans for a robot that could operate of its own free will and free countries from war;105 saturating schoolrooms with electric fields to enhance the intelligence of children;106 and a "death ray" that he boasted could bring down 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles.107 Because he was a terrific showman, he earned a popular reputation as a "mad scientist," and it was sometimes difficult to know what he had actually invented, what was in development, and what only existed in his mind.
For many years, Tesla tried to perfect a device that could project your thoughts onto the wall, an invention he called the "thought camera." As he explained in a newspaper interview late in his life, "In 1893, while engaged in certain investigations, I became convinced that a definite image formed in thought, must ... produce a corresponding image on the retina, which might be read by a suitable apparatus."108 His diagram of this device was like a movie projector, with the operator staring into the machine that projected his thoughts on the wall. Being able to project your thoughts like a movie, you have to admit, would be both incredibly cool, and incredibly disturbing.
The thought camera was a natural fit for Tesla, who from an early age showed an unusual ability to see pictures in his mind. In fact, he was afflicted with a particularly severe form of what today would be called "visual thinking" or "picture thinking." A simple word like "engine" would trigger a vision of the object: a vision so strong that, as he later explained, "Many times it was impossible for me to tell whether the object I saw was real or not."109 He literally could not tell the difference between his mental pictures and the real world: a handicap that caused him considerable anxiety and discomfort throughout his life.
But this strange curse could also be a blessing: as a child, he was able to do integral calculus in his head, leading his teachers to think he was cheating.110 As he grew older, he began to gain mastery over the mental pictures, learning to visualize his inventions in great detail before writing down a single word.
His style was a marked contrast with Thomas Edison, who was also his boss -- and later, his arch-nemesis. Tesla rose to prominence working under Edison, and perhaps it was inevitable that the two great men, with their differing approaches, would eventually become bitter enemies. The animosity began when Edison asked Tesla to redesign his direct current generators; Edison allegedly claimed he would pay Tesla $50,000 for completing the project. When Tesla delivered the goods, the notoriously stingy Edison claimed the offer had been a joke -- but as a consolation prize, he would raise Tesla's salary from $10 to $28 per week. Tesla told Edison he could take his generator and shove it.
Tesla went on to develop the alternating current (AC) standard of electricity, which was in direct competition to Edison's direct current (DC) standard. The two men waged a bitter war of public relations and reputations, officially known as the "War of Currents," with Tesla's AC standard eventually winning out. Some biographers believe they both refused a joint Nobel Prize because each man did not want to share it with the other.
Moreover, their two inventing styles were fundamentally different: Edison, who claimed that "genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration," conducted thousands of experiments, meticulously writing down the results of each. Tesla, gifted with the ability to see strikingly vivid mental pictures, worked through problems in his mind, writing down plans only when he had a finished product.
When Edison died in 1931, the New York Times ran an extensive retrospective of his life, with tributes from some of the greatest luminaries of the day. The only wet blanket was Tesla, still not letting it go:
He had no hobby, cared for no sort of amusement of any kind and lived in utter disregard of the most elementary rules of hygiene.
He then wrote these telling words:
His method was inefficient in the extreme, for an immense ground had to be covered to get anything at all, unless blind chance intervened. At first, I was almost a sorry witness of his doings, knowing that just a little theory and calculation would have saved him 90 percent of the labor.111
For Tesla, the key was running mental simulations : a detailed picture of exactly what you wanted to achieve, working through all the problems, roadblocks, and obstacles in your mind. For Edison, the key was writing it down: doing the experiments, one at a time, working through the problems in real-world conditions.
As we've seen, there's a wealth of research to support Edison's approach. But new studies show that Tesla's method can work for us as well. I propose a hybrid approach, a final reconciliation between these two great minds. In addition to developing Edison's habit of writing it down, you can also increase your Tesla-like powers of mental simulation. Here are three easy methods.
Method #1: Shall We Play a Game?
In the classic 1983 geek movie WarGames, a teenage hacker (played by Matthew Broderick) breaks into a high-level military computer that is programmed to run wartime simulations. Thinking it's a game, the hacker accidentally sets off a countdown to total nuclear annihilation of Russia. In the climactic scene, the entire Department of Defense watches breathlessly as the computer runs countless simulations of World War III, all resulting in mass destruction of the planet.
After a dramatic pause, the computer concludes:
> A strange game. The only way to win is not to play.
A simulation is the imagining of a process or system over time. A flight simulator is a virtual environment where pilots can be trained to respond to emergency situations. A simulation game like SimCity lets you develop a virtual world and watch how it evolves. There are mathematical simulations, financial simulations, and weather simulations. But most importantly, there are mental simulations.
A mental simulation is simply imagining how something will play out. We do this all the time, from "Here's how this conversation will probably go," to "How much money will I have when I retire?" Let's define simulation as different from imagination: whereas we can use imagination to picture the final goal, we use simulation to picture how we'll get there.
Like imagination, mental simulation is difficult for most of us: trying to picture the road to success is dark and hazy, and the mind keeps getting distracted. It's hard work. The good news is, just as you can develop the skill of imagination, you can also develop the skill of mental simulation.
At least ten research studies have shown that when people are asked to imagine a future scenario (such as your positive loops), then asked to rate the likelihood of attaining that scenario, they believe it's more likely to happen if they have spent time doing mental simulations.112 In a fantastic UCLA study by Lien Pham and Shelley Taylor, they explain why this is so: mental simulations allow us to realistically plan how we get from Point A to Point B.113
In the study, they divided a class of psychology students into three groups. In preparation for an upcoming midterm exam, the researchers asked one group of students to simply imagine themselves getting an A: seeing their test score, feeling the satisfaction of a good grade. They asked a second group to run a mental simulation of getting an A: where and when they would study, how they would handle the temptation to procrastinate, taking the exam itself, then the final test score and rush of good feeling. A third group acted as a control, simply monitoring their study habits each day.
The first group of students, who mentally pictured a good grade for five minutes each day, scored about the same as the control group. The second group, who mentally simulated the process of getting to a good grade for five minutes a day, scored eight points higher: a full letter grade! The researchers concluded that by itself, "visualizing success" decreases our motivation to actually do the work that leads to success. Students who ran mental simulations, on the other hand, showed better planning skills and less anxiety at test time. (Put that way, the findings seem like common sense!)
The takeaway is that if your positive loop is to become an award-winning playwright, you don't just see your name on a Broadway marquee. Instead, you picture the act of writing a script, finding financial backers, working with the cast and crew in rehearsals, solving production problems, doing interviews and publicity, with your name on the marquee a result of the mental simulation you've just run.
If you are trying to get free from addiction, you can think through the process of asking for help, going to twelve-step meetings, building a network of sober friends, all while you get stronger and happier. You can simulate situations where you are likely to run into problems: parties, or family reunions, or New Year's Eve, and how you successfully navigate those temptations.
If your goal is to find a cure for cancer, you can run a mental simulation -- a mental mind-movie -- of going through years of training and education, countless hours of research, making critical partnerships and collaborations, making the crucial insights and discoveries, then the clinical trials, and finally success. You can see your name in Wikipedia, but only as the result of the simulation.
Here's how Jack Nicklaus, widely regarded as the greatest professional golfer of all time, described his approach:
Before every shot I go to the movies inside my head. Here is what I see. First, I see the ball where I want it to finish, nice and white and sitting up high on the bright green grass. Then, I see the ball going there; its path and trajectory and even its behavior on landing. The next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous image into reality. These home movies are a key to my concentration and to my positive approach to every shot.114
Nicklaus used a "reverse simulation," starting with the end goal, and working backward to the present moment. Either method is fine: you can tell the story forward or backward. The important thing is that you tell the story.
This is important, because there will be a story. If you're trying to become a millionaire, a Brinks truck is probably not going to back up to your cellar door and unload cash and gold bullion (although that would be an amazing story). It will happen in incremental steps -- and by mentally rehearsing, or simulating, the story, you can more clearly see the steps you need to take next.
Will your future play out exactly according to your simulation? We can say with almost total certainty that it will not. Unexpected challenges will present themselves; obstacles you never could have foreseen will block your way. But you will be better equipped to deal with an unpredictable future, because by developing the skill of mental simulation, you can run new simulations in real time, taking the new situation as a starting point.
To simulate reminds And stimulates your mind.
As you repeat your positive loops, you now have a powerful new tool to help you make them a reality: mental simulation. Work these simulations into your daily routine, thinking through all the problems that could arise, and how you will successfully overcome each of them on your way toward your goal. Just as a good computer simulation introduces many random variables, try to predict the unpredictable, and let your mind show you how you will succeed.
You can direct the "mind movie" to a happy ending.
Method #2: Block and Tackle
"I truly believe ... that your positive mindset gives you a more hopeful outlook, and belief that you can do something great means you will do something great."- Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks quarterback
The Seattle Seahawks had a weird idea: to make a kinder, gentler football team.
The story starts with head coach Pete Carroll, a positive, energetic leader who made his way up through the world of college football, rising to lead the New England Patriots to a division title in 1997. After the Patriots failed to even make the playoffs over the next two years, however, Carroll was unceremoniously fired, in what ESPN called a high-profile NFL "flameout."115 Stung by the experience, Carroll hunkered down in the world of college football for nearly a decade, until he was hired by the Seahawks for the 2010 season.
He was back in the big league, and this time, he was determined to do things differently. Carroll had an unusual plan in mind for the Seahawks, one that would make mental training every bit as important as physical training. He met with Dr. Michael Gervais, a sports psychologist who specialized in "high-stakes environments," where split-second decisions can make the difference between a game-winning play and a life-threatening injury.116 After their first dinner together, Carroll leaned over to Gervais and said, "What do you say we build a masterpiece together?" And that they did.
The two men created a remarkable program of mind hacking for the Seahawks, utilizing the same skills you're learning in this book: daily concentration exercises, constant repetition of positive loops, and regular mental simulations. In fact, as he explains, simulations are central for success.
"Let's articulate what it feels like," he tells athletes, "when you're at your best." They first imagine, in vivid detail, situations where the athlete was at peak performance. In one-on-one simulation sessions, they make strategies for getting back to that state of peak performance, even in high-stress situations. "We don't talk about winning, or being in the zone: those are aftereffects," Gervais explains. "We ask, 'What's getting in the way of you being in an ideal mindset?' And we figure out strategies to work through that."117
By running countless mental simulations, the players prepare for those critical moments in which games are won or lost: moments of fear. He points out that professional football players are under constant and intense stress: not just the physical stress of constant battering and the threat of injury, but the mental stress of making a bad play and losing a game, or a championship, or a career. The press ripping you to shreds, the fans tearing you apart, and the enormous sums of money won and lost on a game.
Simulations help them prepare for that moment of indecision and fear, so they can calmly and effortlessly know their next move, rather than being overwhelmed by the stress. If you've ever panicked or frozen up at a public speaking engagement, after being confronted by an angry colleague, or in a moment of high-stakes stress, you can see the practical value of this kind of mental simulation. It's not just for professional athletes, but also for professional geeks.
Gervais likens the simulation process to developing mental "tools," but I prefer the analogy of mental "functions." In programming, a function is a block of code that performs a specific function for you: give it an input like "September 1, 2098," and it will return a day of the week, like, "Monday." The code is nicely bundled in a neat package, like a little machine into which you feed an input (like 25) and it returns an output (like the square root of 25).
Running mental simulations is a way of developing these mental functions, so that when we find ourselves confronted with difficult situations, we are better equipped to handle them. "We need to get a platform in place," says Gervais, "that allows fear to be part of it, to be comfortable with it, even to have fun with it, and that allows us to master it. That's how to thrive in situations we're not proficient in. Fear is really central to what we do."
In those moments, he goes on to explain, "There is no pressure. It's the moment. And being lost in the moment is so rewarding and so engaging, people become so interested in that moment, that we don't have to challenge them. They become naturally interested. Asking, 'What is it like to be your best?' gets them there."
Seahawks Offensive Tackle Russell Okung echoes this idea. "It's about quieting your mind and getting into certain states where everything outside of you doesn't matter in that moment. There are so many things telling you that you can't do something, but you take those thoughts captive, take power over them and change them."
You can accelerate the performance of your mental simulations by specifically thinking through how you will overcome difficulties: not just "thinking positive" but also "working through the negative." Returning to the analogy of computer functions, given an input (you don't make the sales quota, your kids get caught drinking, your speech is a disaster), what will be the output? In other words, how will you successfully respond?
In a 2001 research study, students were asked to identify a large goal, such as going to medical school or becoming an actor. The researchers asked one group of students to think through positive benefits of the goal (respect or personal fulfillment), another group to think through negative difficulties they were likely to encounter (passing the MCATs or enduring humiliating auditions), and a third group to think through both.118
They found the third approach provided the best of both worlds: students who simulated both the outcome, as well as overcoming the potential difficulties, achieved more. Additional studies have shown that this two-pronged approach -- asking "What's it like to be your best?" as well as "How will you respond in a moment of challenge?" have proven effective at improving performance for professionals as diverse as nurses, employees, and managers.119
In fact, this "difficulty simulation" approach can also be effective for treating depression: instead of obsessing on a negative mental loop ("my family doesn't love me"), patients can start reinvesting mental energy in the higher-order positive loops ("my goal is to feel love and happiness"), and develop alternate ways of getting there.120 Let's call this the "Block and Tackle" method, where you simulate difficulties in your plan, and how you will successfully overcome them.
The best part of the Seahawks story is its ending: in 2014, Carroll and Gervais led the team to its first-ever Super Bowl victory. The Seahawks trounced the Denver Broncos, 43-8, in one of the largest point spreads in Super Bowl history. Carroll was 62 years old, the third-oldest coach to win the championship. But perhaps it's premature to call this the end of the story, since one of the team's positive loops is "Win multiple Super Bowls."
Method #3: Self-Simulation
There's a final hack for running effective mental simulations: imagine yourself in the third person.
When I'm preparing for a speech, I don't see it through my own eyes, looking out at the audience. I simulate it from the audience point of view, as others would see me. I hear it and feel it like I want others to hear it and feel it. In other words, instead of imagining yourself from the first-person or virtual reality POV, it's more effective to see yourself as others would see you, like a movie, with you in the starring role.
In a study by Lisa Libby from Ohio State University, they called one hundred registered voters the day before the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. They asked each of their test subjects to mentally simulate driving to their local polling location, standing in line, filling out the ballot, and turning it in. For half the group, they instructed them to see themselves voting from the first-person perspective (like an extremely boring version of Doom), and the other half from the third-person perspective (like C-SPAN).
When researchers followed up after the election, they found just over 70 percent of the first-person group went to the polls, while a whopping 90 percent of the third-person group followed through and voted.121 It may be that third-person mental simulations make a stronger impact on your self-perception, making you more likely to follow through in the real world. Or it may be that seeing yourself in the "mind movie" encourages a higher-order level of thinking. However it works, it's one more protip I hope you'll find useful.
So far in Mind Hacking, we've focused almost exclusively on our own minds. All the tools and techniques we've learned, however, have been in preparation for the final two sections, in which we show how to actively make change in the "real" world. What is the mysterious process by which all this mind hacking alters reality?
Now that our minds are humming like a Cray supercomputer, it's time to connect them with the minds of others. If you think one computer is powerful, imagine what it can do when it's hooked up to the cloud.