Fuckin’ A–it’s finally here!
After fantasizing about starting a podcast for nearly two years, after being asked hundreds of times, The Tim Ferriss Show is now live.
Sometimes you have to stop over-thinking things, bite the bullet, and figure it out as you go.
To launch, I’ve posted two episodes that are vastly different. They are available on iTunes and, for Android folks, Stitcher.
I have an important favor to ask, which I don’t do often:
1) Please listen to one or both episodes.
2) Then, PLEASE leave a review on iTunes.
I will read EVERY review and, based on that feedback, I’ll either stop or keep doing this podcast.
If you seem to like them, I promise to do at least 6 total episodes in the next 1-2 months. And trust me: I have some amazing people lined up and ready to go. Constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement are welcome, whether on iTunes or in the comments below.
All that said, here are the first two episodes! I really hope you enjoy them.
I consider Kevin Rose one of the best “stock pickers” in the startup world. He can predict even non-tech trends with stunning accuracy.
Kevin is a tech entrepreneur who co-founded Digg, Revision3 (sold to Discovery Channel), Pownce, and Milk (sold to Google). Since 2012, he is a venture partner at Google Ventures. He’s also a hilarious dude, and this episode involves heavy drinking.
In this finding-my-feet episode, Kevin and I get down on a bottle of Gamling and McDuck while discussing, among dozens of topics: why Kevin would love to work at McDonald’s, how he kicked my ass on the Twitter deal, and — just a wee tad — biohacking.
Dive in, folks!
Josh Waitzkin was the basis for the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer.
Considered a chess prodigy, he has perfected learning strategies that can be applied to anything, including his other loves of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (he’s a black belt under phenom Marcelo Garcia) and Tai Chi Push Hands (he’s a world champion). These days, he spends his time coaching the world’s top performers, whether Mark Messier, Cal Ripken Jr., or hedgefund managers. I initially met Josh through his incredible book, The Art of Learning, which I loved so much that I helped produce the audiobook (download here, at Audible or DRM-free Gumroad).
This episode is DEEP, in the best way possible. Josh will blow your mind.
And for a change from Episode 1, I’m totally sober. I’d be curious to know which Tim you prefer.
Listen to it here, and please subscribe!
Show Notes for Episodes 1 and 2
Special thanks to my friend Ian for helping with show notes. Much obliged, kind sir.
These notes only partially cover the conversations, but they will give you a taste.
EPISODE 1: KEVIN ROSE
- What makes a good wine bar?
- The story of Kevin Rose: Growing up in Vegas, starting Digg, joining Google Ventures, and beyond
- What makes Kevin Rose so good at predicting what’s next, spotting trends
- The characteristics of winners. What makes a successful angel investor?
- Hear the story of Odeo – The company that birthed Twitter
- Tips on choosing angel investments
“What new app will find itself on the front screen of your iPhone?”
- Dissecting the success of Philip Rosedale, Elon Musk and — the “Oracle of Silicon Valley” — Reid Hoffman
- How to say no to an investment or pitch
- Experiences and lessons learned running the roller coaster of Digg
- Where is Kevin Rose world-class? Which skills define his success?
- The M7 chip on iPhone – An opportunity to build new apps
- Learn more about My Basis, a biometric company that Tim invested in [Update: sold to Intuit for $100M]
- Why Kevin wants to get a job at McDonald’s
- Ideas and suggestions for the podcast. Where should it go, and how should it be different?
SOME LINKS FROM EPISODE 1
- Learn more about Digg
- Nextdoor – Private Social Network for your Neighborhood
- Watch the Philip Rosedale interview on Foundation
- Pick up Venture Deals by Brad Feld
- Check out Hotel Biron – Kevin’s fave tiny wine bar in San Francisco
- Visit Zuni Cafe – Get the dry-brined roasted chicken
- Learn more about Apple’s new M7 Chip
- Get health insights from MyBasis
- Any many more….
EPISODE 2: JOSH WAITZKIN
- The origins of The Art of Learning.
- What it takes to play 30-50 games of chess simultaneously (!).
- About Josh’s focus on moving from world-class to world champion. How to cross the gap between the two
- The many dimensions of Josh Waitzkin’s creative life:
- JW Foundation – The Art of Learning Project
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) school with Marcelo Garcia
- Consulting for “Master of the Universe”-type financiers; what commonalities the best have
- About the learning (and UNlearning) processes that distinguish the good from the great and from the elite
- Insights on the strategic movement from Tai Chi to BJJ
- About the profound kinesthetic intelligence of Marcelo Garcia and how he uses it to “navigate the world”
- A deep understanding of what makes world-class performers tick and thrive
“If you can really train people to get systematic about nurturing their creative process, it’s unbelievable what can happen. Most of that work relates to getting out of your own way at a very high level. It’s unlearning, it’s the constant practice of subtraction, reducing friction.” – Josh Waitzkin
- Strategies for aligning peak energy periods with peak creativity to achieve a relentless, proactive lifestyle
- On Hemingway’s creative writing process:
- End the workday with something left to write
- Release your mind from the work – Let Go
- Understanding cognitive biases
- Understanding how to use specific questions for deconstruction (e.g. “Who’s good at this who shouldn’t be?”)
- Core themes/habits that Josh teaches to top performers:
Meditation | Journaling | “Undulation” (Capacity to turn drive on and off)
- How Josh Waitzkin meditates
- Meditation styles: contemplative Buddhist sitting meditation, Tai Chi and moving meditation.
- What Josh’s morning rituals look like
- Why you should study the artists rather than the art critics.
- Remember to love.
“The hero and the coward both feel the same thing, but the hero uses his fear and projects it onto his opponent, while the coward runs.” – Cus D’Amato, original trainer of Mike Tyson
- JW Foundation – The Art of Learning Project
- Check out Hemingway on Good Reads
- Learn more about BJJ school of Marcelo Garcia
- Identify your own biases: List of Cognitive Biases
- Check out the article Tim mentioned: Bridgewater Associates founder, Ray Dalio, credits transcendental meditation for his success
“One of the things we have to be wary in life is studying the people who study the artists, as opposed to the artists themselves” – Josh Waitzkin
The Waitzkin Library:
- On the Road – Jack Kerouac
- Dharma Bums – Jack Kerouac
- Tao te Ching – Lao Tzu Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English Translation
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M. Pirsig
- Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts
- For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
- Green Hills of Africa – Ernest Hemingway
- Complete Collection of Short Stories – Ernest Hemingway
- Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway
- A Moveable Feast – Ernest Hemingway
- Ernest Hemingway on Writing - Larry W. Phillips
Preface by Editor
This post will explain how heat can be used to increase growth hormone, muscular hypertrophy, endurance, and otherwise aid performance.
It’s authored by Rhonda Perciavalle Patrick, Ph.D, and it’s comprehensive. But before we get started, you need to read some background and warnings…
Heat is no joke.
Ever since I was a premie, overheating and thermo-regulation have been my arch-enemies. On a few occasions, I’ve been hospitalized for heat stroke symptoms, and the symptoms hit suddenly and without warning. I’m extremely lucky I didn’t smash my skull on the ground after the collapses.
To delve into this handicap, I even became a test subject at Stanford University in 2005.
I underwent military-related heat marches to exhaustion, capturing data the entire time. Here are some choice pics.
It was as fun as it looks (I’ll share videos another time, as they’re hilarious):
After each session, I was so incapacitated that I couldn’t do any work for 8-12 hours. I often had to simply go home and sleep, even at 11am. These issues led me to eventually leave the study.
Heat is serious fucking business, m’kay?
TIM’S DISCLAIMER ON THIS POST:
Please don’t be stupid and kill yourself. It would make us both quite unhappy. Consult a doctor before doing anything described in this post or on this blog.
BIGGER LAWYER DISCLAIMER:
The material on this blog is for informational purposes only. As each individual situation is unique, you should use proper discretion, in consultation with a health care practitioner, before undertaking the protocols, diet, exercises, techniques, training methods, or otherwise described herein. The author and publisher expressly disclaim responsibility for any adverse effects that may result from the use or application of the information contained herein.
OK, will all that out of the way, here we go.
Consider looking at this piece as what elite athletes are likely to augment to their training and drug regimens.
The following is a guest article by Rhonda Perciavalle Patrick, Ph.D., who works with Dr. Bruce Ames of the Ames carcinogenicity test, the 23rd most-cited scientist in all fields between 1973 and 1984. Dr. Patrick also conducts clinical trials, performed aging research at Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and did graduate research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she focused on cancer, mitochondrial metabolism, and apoptosis.
And if you have any experiences with using heat, cold, or other environmental factors to improve performance; or if you’ve suffered from them; I’d love to hear about it all in the comments. Ditto for any factual corrections.
For the most part, people don’t like to get hot.
The massive indoor climate control systems and pleasantly chilled water fountains found in most gyms speak to this fact. There are some exceptions — Bikram yoga, for example — but they’re few and far between.
But here’s the surprise: increasing your core temperature for short bursts is not only healthful, it can also dramatically improve performance.
This is true whether it’s done in conjunction with your existing workout or as an entirely separate activity. I’m going to explain how heat acclimation through sauna use (and likely any other non-aerobic activity that increases core body temperature) can promote physiological adaptations that result in increased endurance, easier acquisition of muscle mass, and a general increased capacity for stress tolerance. I will refer to this concept of deliberately acclimating yourself to heat, independent of working out, as “hyperthermic conditioning.”
I’m also going to explain the positive effects of heat acclimation on the brain, including the growth of new brain cells, improvement in focus, learning and memory, and ameliorating depression and anxiety. In addition, you’ll learn how modulation of core temperature might even be largely responsible for “runner’s high” via an interaction between the dynorphin/beta-endorphin opioid systems.
The Effects of Heat Acclimation on Endurance
If you’ve ever run long distances or exercised for endurance, it’s intuitive that increased body temperature will ultimately induce strain, attenuate your endurance performance, and accelerating exhaustion. What might not be as intuitive is this: acclimating yourself to heat independent of aerobic physical activity through sauna use induces adaptations that reduce the later strain of your primary aerobic activity.
Hyperthermic conditioning improves your performance during endurance training activities by causing adaptations, such as improved cardiovascular and thermoregulatory mechanisms (I will explain what these mean) that reduce the negative effects associated with elevations in core body temperature. This helps optimize your body for subsequent exposures to heat (from metabolic activities) during your next big race or even your next workout.
Just a few of the physiological adaptations that occur are:
- Improved cardiovascular mechanisms and lower heart rate.1
- Lower core body temperature during workload (surprise!)
- Higher sweat rate and sweat sensitivity as a function of increased thermoregulatory control.2
- Increased blood flow to skeletal muscle (known as muscle perfusion) and other tissues.2
- Reduced rate of glycogen depletion due to improved muscle perfusion.3
- Increased red blood cell count (likely via erythropoietin).4
- Increased efficiency of oxygen transport to muscles.4
Hyperthermic conditioning optimizes blood flow to the heart, skeletal muscles, skin, and other tissues because it increases plasma volume. This leads to endurance enhancements in your next workout or race, when your core body temperature is once again elevated.
Being heat acclimated enhances endurance by the following mechanisms…
- It increases plasma volume and blood flow to the heart (stroke volume).2,5 This results in reduced cardiovascular strain and lowers the heart rate for the same given workload.2 These cardiovascular improvements have been shown to enhance endurance in both highly trained and untrained athletes.2,5,6
- It increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles, keeping them fueled with glucose, esterified fatty acids, and oxygen while removing by-products of the metabolic process such as lactic acid. The increased delivery of nutrients to muscles reduces their dependence on glycogen stores. Endurance athletes often hit a “wall” (or “bonk”) when they have depleted their muscle glycogen stores. Hyperthermic conditioning has been shown to reduce muscle glycogen use by 40%-50% compared to before heat acclimation.3,7 This is presumably due to the increased blood flow to the muscles.3 In addition, lactate accumulation in blood and muscle during exercise is reduced after heat acclimation.5
- It improves thermoregulatory control, which operates by activating the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the blood flow to the skin and, thus the sweat rate. This dissipates some of the core body heat. After acclimation, sweating occurs at a lower core temperature and the sweat rate is maintained for a longer period.2
So what sort of gains can you anticipate?
One study demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session two times a week for three weeks POST-workout increased the time that it took for study participants to run until exhaustion by 32% compared to baseline.4
The 32% increase in running endurance found in this particular study was accompanied by a 7.1% increase in plasma volume and 3.5% increase in red blood cell (RBC) count.4 This increased red blood cell count accompanying these performance gains feed right back into those more general mechanisms we talked about earlier, the most obvious of which being: more red blood cells increase oxygen delivery to muscles. It is thought that heat acclimation boosts the RBC count through erythropoietin (EPO) because the body is trying to compensate for the corresponding rise in plasma volume.4
[Note from Tim: If "EPO" sounds familiar, it's because it's commonly injected by Tour de France competitors. More on that here.]
In other words, hyperthermic conditioning through sauna use doesn’t just make you better at dealing with heat; it makes you better, period. I do want to mention that while these gains were made with a small sample size (N=6) some of the later studies that I point out reinforce this conclusion.
The Effects of Hyperthermic Conditioning on Muscle Hypertrophy (Growth)
Exercise can induce muscular hypertrophy. Heat induces muscular hypertrophy. Both of these together synergize to induce hyper-hypertrophy.
Here are a few of the basics of how muscle hypertrophy works: muscle hypertrophy involves both the increase in the size of muscle cells and, perhaps unsurprisingly, an accompanying increase in strength. Skeletal muscle cells do contain stem cells that are able to increase the number of muscle cells [TIM: called "hyperplasia"] but hypertrophy instead generally involves an increase in size rather than number.
So what determines whether your muscle cells are growing or shrinking (atrophying)?
A shift in the protein synthesis-to-degradation ratio…and an applied workload on the muscle tissue (of course). That’s it.
At any given time your muscles are performing a balancing act between NEW protein synthesis and degradation of existing proteins. The important thing is your net protein synthesis, and not strictly the amount of new protein synthesis occurring. Protein degradation occurs both during muscle use and disuse. This is where hyperthermic conditioning shines: heat acclimation reduces the amount of protein degradation occurring and as a result it increases net protein synthesis and, thus muscle hypertrophy. Hyperthermic conditioning is known to increase muscle hypertrophy by increasing net protein synthesis through three important mechanisms:
- Induction of heat shock proteins.8,9
- Robust induction of growth hormone.1
- Improved insulin sensitivity.10
Exercise induces both protein synthesis and degradation in skeletal muscles but, again, it is the net protein synthesis that causes the actual hypertrophy. When you exercise, you are increasing the workload on the skeletal muscle and, thus, the energetic needs of your muscle cells. The mitochondria found in each of these cells kick into gear in order to help meet this demand and start sucking in the oxygen found in your blood in order to produce new energy in the form of ATP. This process is called oxidative phosphorylation. A by-product of this process, however, is the generation of oxygen free radicals like superoxide and hydrogen peroxide, which is more generally referred to simply as “oxidative stress”.
Heat Stress Triggers Heat Shock Proteins That Prevent Protein Degradation
Oxidative stress is a major source of protein degradation.
For this reason, any means of preventing exercise-induced oxidative protein damage and/or repairing damaged proteins, while keeping the exercise induced protein synthesis, will ultimately cause a net increase of protein synthesis and therefore will be anabolic.
Heat shock proteins (or HSPs), as the name implies, are induced by heat and are a prime example of hormesis. Intermittent exposure to heat induces a hormetic response (a protective stress response), which promotes the expression of a gene called heat shock factor 1 and subsequently HSPs involved in stress resistance.
- HSPs can prevent damage by directly scavenging free radicals and also by supporting cellular antioxidant capacity through its effects on maintaining glutathione.8,9
- HSPs can repair misfolded, damaged proteins thereby ensuring proteins have their proper structure and function.8,9
Okay, let’s take a step back from the underlying mechanisms and look at the big picture of heat acclimation in the context of increasing muscle hypertrophy:
It has been shown that a 30-minute intermittent hyperthermic treatment at 41°C (105.8°F) in rats induced a robust expression of heat shock proteins (including HSP32, HSP25, and HSP72) in muscle and, importantly, this correlated with 30% more muscle regrowth than a control group during the seven days subsequent to a week of immobilization.8 This HSP induction from a 30-minute intermittent hyperthermic exposure can persist for up to 48 hours after heat shock.8,9 Heat acclimation actually causes a higher basal (such as when not exercising) expression of HSPs and a more robust induction upon elevation in core body temperature (such as during exercise).11,12,13 This is a great example of how a person can theoretically use hyperthermic conditioning to increase their own heat shock proteins and thereby reap the rewards.
Heat Stress Triggers A Massive Release of Growth Hormone
Another way in which hyperthermic conditioning can be used to increase anabolism is through a massive induction of growth hormone.14,15,1 Many of the anabolic effects of growth hormone are primarily mediated by IGF-1, which is synthesized (mainly in the liver but also in skeletal muscle and other tissues) in response to growth hormone. There are two important mechanisms by which IGF-1 promotes the growth of skeletal muscle:
- It Increases protein synthesis via activation of the mTOR pathway.16
- It decreases protein degradation via inhibition of the FOXO pathway.16
Mice that have been engineered to express high levels of IGF-1 in their muscle develop skeletal muscle hypertrophy, can combat age-related muscle atrophy, and retained the same regenerative capacity as young muscle.17,18 In humans, it has been shown that the major anabolic effects of growth hormone in skeletal muscle may be due to inhibition of muscle protein degradation (anti-catabolic), thereby increasing net protein synthesis.16 In fact, growth hormone administration to endurance athletes for four weeks has been shown to decrease muscle protein oxidation (a biomarker for oxidative stress) and degradation by 50%.19
My point is good news. You don’t need to take exogenous growth hormone. Sauna use can cause a robust release in growth hormone, which varies according to time, temperature, and frequency.1,15
For example, two 20-minute sauna sessions at 80°C (176°F) separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline.1,15 Whereas, two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.1,15 However, what’s perhaps more amazing is that repeated exposure to whole-body, intermittent hyperthermia (hyperthermic conditioning) through sauna use has an even more profound effect on boosting growth hormone immediately afterward: two one-hour sauna sessions a day at 80°C (176°F) dry heat (okay, this is a bit extreme) for 7 days was shown to increase growth hormone by 16-fold on the third day.14 The growth hormone effects generally persist for a couple of hours post-sauna.1 It is also important to note that when hyperthermia and exercise are combined, they induce a synergistic increase in growth hormone.20
Increased Insulin Sensitivity
Insulin is an endocrine hormone that primarily regulates glucose homeostasis, particularly by promoting the uptake of glucose into muscle and adipose tissue. In addition, insulin also plays a role in protein metabolism, albeit to a lesser degree than IGF-1. Insulin regulates protein metabolism in skeletal muscle by the two following mechanisms:
- It increases protein synthesis by stimulating the uptake of amino acids (particularly BCAAs) into skeletal muscle.21
- It decreases protein degradation through inhibition of the proteasome, which is a protein complex inside cells that is largely responsible for the degradation of most cellular proteins.22
In humans, there is more evidence indicating that the major anabolic effects of insulin on skeletal muscle are due to its inhibitory action on protein degradation.
For example, insulin infusion in healthy humans, which increased insulin to normal physiological postprandial (after a meal) levels, suppressed muscle protein breakdown without significant affecting muscle protein synthesis.23, 21 In contrast, insulin deficiency (such as in type 1 diabetes mellitus) and insulin resistance (to a lesser extent) are both associated with increased skeletal muscle breakdown.22,24
For this reason, hyperthermic conditioning may also lend itself to promoting muscle growth by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing muscle protein catabolism. Intermittent hyperthermia has been demonstrated to reduce insulin resistance in an obese diabetic mouse model. Insulin resistant diabetic mice were subjected to 30 minutes of hyperthermic treatment, three times a week for twelve weeks. This resulted in a 31% decrease in insulin levels and a significant reduction in blood glucose levels, suggesting re-sensitization to insulin.10 The hyperthermic treatment specifically targeted the skeletal muscle by increasing the expression of a type of transporter known as GLUT 4, which is responsible for the transporting of glucose into skeletal muscle from the bloodstream. Decreased glucose uptake by skeletal muscle is one of the mechanisms that leads to insulin resistance.
[TIM: For more fun with GLUT 4 transporters, read the "Damage Control" chapter in The 4-Hour Body, which covers how to minimize (or eliminate) fat gain from cheat meals or cheat days.]
Relevance for Muscle Injury
Animal studies using rats have shown that a 30-minute and 60-minute hyperthermic treatment at 41°C (105.8°F) attenuates hindlimb muscle atrophy during disuse by 20% and 32%, respectively.9,25 In order to return to a hypertrophic state after injury, muscle regrowth (“reloading”) must occur. Muscle reloading, while important for hypertrophy, induces oxidative stress particularly after periods of disuse, which slows the rate of muscle regrowth. A 30-minute hyperthermic treatment at 41°C (105.8°F) increased soleus muscle regrowth by 30% after reloading as compared to non-hyperthermic treatment in rats.8 The effects of whole body hyperthermia on preventing muscle atrophy and increasing muscle regrowth after immobilization were shown to occur as a consequence of elevated HSP levels.8,9,25
During injury, you may be immobilized but you don’t have to be very mobile to sit in the sauna a few times a week to boost your HSPs! This is a clear win in the injury and recovery department. Remember, hyperthermic conditioning (from sauna use) results in an elevation in HSP levels under normal conditions and leads to an even greater boost during exercise (or when core body temperature is elevated).11-13
Relevance for Rhabdomyolysis
Rhabdomyolysis releases myoglobin, a byproduct from broken down muscle tissue, into the bloodstream, which can cause kidney failure. [TIM: CrossFitters, watch your CPK levels after glute-ham ab work. If you can't do long planks with your feet *against* a wall, don't do hyper-extended ROM, ballistic ab work.]
Since myoglobin is a heme-containing protein, HSP32 (heme oxygenase 1) can rapidly degrade myoglobin before it has toxic effects on the kidney.26,27 In fact, induction of HSP32 in rats has been shown to protect against rhabdomyolysis in rats.26 This function of HSP32 is very different than the classical role of HSPs in preventing protein degradation. Again, heat acclimation causes a higher basal expression of HSPs and a more robust expression upon heat stress.11-13 The more heat acclimated your body is (the pre-conditioning is the key here), the higher your HSP32 expression will be during physical activity and this will protect your kidneys from the toxic myoglobin breakdown product.
That’s a sweet deal.
While studying the effects of something like hyperthermic conditioning on longevity is inherently hard in humans (obviously), there have been some preliminary positive associations with variations in the HSP70 gene associated with increased expression and longevity.31
Effects of Heat Stress on The Brain
One of the ways that the brain responds to injury on the cellular level is increased HSP production.
This includes ischemic injury (i.e. stroke), traumatic injury, and excitotoxicity (epileptic).32 What complicates things, however, in the context of “hyperthermic conditioning” (or deliberate heat acclimation) is that while on the one hand hyperthermia has been shown to reduce the frequency of seizures and the damage they cause post-conditioning, hyperthermia can actually increase the damage caused by seizures if they occur during a period of heat stress. In other words, the stress and its damaging effects are additive.33,34
That (and it’s implicit warning) being said, sauna-induced hyperthermia has been shown to induce a robust activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
One study demonstrated that men that stayed in the sauna that was heated to 80°C (176°F) until subjective exhaustion increased norepinephrine by 310%, had a 10-fold increase in prolactin, and actually modestly decreased cortisol.1,15 Similarly, in another study, women that spent 20-minute sessions in a dry sauna twice a week had a 86% increase in norepinephrine and a 510% increase in prolactin after the session.35
In addition to increasing norepinephrine, heat acclimation has actually been shown to increase biological capacity to store norepinephrine for later release.38 In light of the fact that the norepinephrine response to exercise has been demonstrated to be blunted in children with ADHD and that norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (NRI) are frequently prescribed to treat ADHD (among other things), use of heat stress and subsequent acclimation should be tested for it’s effectiveness as an interesting alternative therapeutic approach.39
Heat stress has been shown to increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) more than exercise alone when used in conjunction with exercise.40
This is important because BDNF increases the growth of new brain cells as well as the survival of existing neurons. An increase in neurogenesis is thought to be responsible for enhancing learning.41 BDNF’s role in the brain is also to modulate neuronal plasticity and long-term memory, while also having been shown to ameliorate anxiety and depression from early-life stressful events.42 In addition to the function BDNF plays in the brain when it’s released as a consequence of exercise, BDNF is also secreted by muscle where it plays a role in muscle repair and the growth of new muscle cells.43
While BDNF has specifically been shown to play some role in relieving depression from stressful early-life events, whole-body hyperthermia has also been demonstrated to improve depression in cancer patients.44 In this particular study, however, it was speculated that beta-endorphin (which is also induced by hyperthermia), not BDNF, may have been the agent responsible for this effect. As an aside, one of the reasons whole-body hyperthermia is sometimes used with cancer patients is because it can enhance the effects of chemotherapeutic agents.45
The Runner’s High and The Role of Dynorphin
Ever wonder what is responsible for the “runner’s high” or post-exercise highs, in general? You’ve probably heard that it’s due to endorphins, but that’s not the whole story.
Beta-endorphins are endogenous (natural) opioids that are a part of the body’s natural painkiller system, known as the mu opioid system, which block pain messages from spreading from the body to the brain in a process called antinociception. What is lesser known is that the body also produces a peptide known as dynorphin (a “kappa opioid”), which is generally responsible for the sensation of dysphoria. The discomfort experienced during intense exercise, exposure to extreme heat (such as in a sauna), or eating spicy food (capsaicin) is due to the release of dynorphin. The release of dynorphin causes an upregulation and sensitization of mu opioid receptors, which interact with beta-endorphin.46 This process is what underlies the “runner’s high” and is directly precipitated by the discomfort of physical exercise. Translation: the greater the discomfort experienced during your workout or sauna, the better the endorphin high will be afterward. Now you understand the underlying biological mechanism that explains this.
How is this relevant to hyperthermic conditioning and sauna use?
Heat stress from heat exposure in a dry sauna has been demonstrated to cause a potent increase in beta-endorphin levels, even more than exercise alone.1,15
A study in rats explains this somewhat: dynorphin delivered directly into a part of the hypothalamus in the brains of rats triggers a drop in their body temperature, while blocking dynorphin with an antagonist was shown to prevent this same response. Similarly, mu receptor agonists have been shown to induce increases in body temperature in rats.47 What this seems to imply is that perhaps, by deliberately manipulating your body temperature you are actually directly engaging the mu (endorphin) and kappa opioid (dynorphin) systems since they clearly play a role in temperature regulation in general.
To recap and drive the point home: acclimating your body to heat stress by intermittent whole-body hyperthermia via sauna use (“hyperthermic conditioning”) has been shown to:
Enhance endurance by:
- Increasing nutrient delivery to muscles thereby reducing the depletion of glycogen stores.
- Reducing heart rate and reducing core temperature during workload.
Increase muscle hypertrophy by preventing protein degradation through the following three means:
- Induction of heat shock proteins and a hormetic response (which has also been shown to increase longevity in lower organisms).
- Cause a massive release of growth hormone.
- Improving insulin sensitivity.
Hyperthermic conditioning also has robust positive effects on the brain:
- Increases the storage and release of norepinephrine, which improves attention and focus.
- Increases prolactin, which causes your brain to function faster by enhancing myelination and helps to repair damaged neurons.
- Increases BDNF, which causes the growth of new brain cells, improves the ability for you to retain new information, and ameliorates certain types of depression and anxiety.
- Causes a robust increase in dynorphin, which results in your body becoming more sensitive to the ensuing endorphins.
Life is stressful.
When you exercise, you are forcing your body to become more resilient to stress (somewhat paradoxically) through stress itself.
Hyperthermic conditioning is a novel and possibly effective tool that can improve your resistance to the sort of stress associated with fitness pursuits as well as some that are not traditionally associated with fitness such as the protective effects of HSPs on various types of stress. That being said, deliberately applied physical stress, whether heat stress or ordinary exercise, is something that requires caution.
You shouldn’t avoid it altogether, but you should use good common sense, not overwhelm yourself, and make sure to know your limits. (NOTE: you should not drink alcohol before or during sauna use as it increases the risk of death).48 Personal variation probably comes into play when finding your own sweet spot for building thermal tolerance while avoiding over-extending yourself.
I believe that hyperthermic conditioning in general may be worth a closer look as a tool in the toolbox of athletes. Perhaps it can be used for much more than just relaxation?
But no matter how enthusiastic you might be, remember:
- Heat responsibly and with someone else, never alone.
- Never heat yourself while drunk, and friends don’t let friends sauna drunk.
- If you are pregnant or have any medical condition, saunas are not for you. Speak with your doctor before starting this or any regimen involving physical stressors.
Be careful, ladies and gents.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Rhonda Patrick
You can find more video and writing from Dr. Rhonda Patrick at her website, FoundMyFitness.com.
- Hannuksela, M. L. & Ellahham, S. Benefits and risks of sauna bathing. The American journal of medicine 110, 118-126 (2001). This is actually an important review article that covers some of the benefits of sauna use including the cardiovascular advantages and hormonal changes such as the boost in GH levels. I also like it because it covers some of the risks of alcohol use before or during the sauna.
- Ricardo J. S. Costa, M. J. C., Jonathan P. Moore & Neil P. Walsh. Heat acclimation responses of an ultra-endurance running group preparing for hot desert-based competition. European Journal of Sport Science, 1-11 (2011). The sample sizes in both studies referenced here and in #4 have small sample sizes but they are two independent studies that compliment each other. This study also reinforces the endurance enhancements in #5.
- King, D. S., Costill, D. L., Fink, W. J., Hargreaves, M. & Fielding, R. A. Muscle metabolism during exercise in the heat in unacclimatized and acclimatized humans. J Appl Physiol 59, 1350-1354 (1985). This study shows that glycogen utilization is decreased in runners after heat acclimation. The sample size is small but ref #7 (another small sample) is an independent study that shows the same effect.
- Scoon, G. S., Hopkins, W. G., Mayhew, S. & Cotter, J. D. Effect of post-exercise sauna bathing on the endurance performance of competitive male runners. Journal of science and medicine in sport / Sports Medicine Australia 10, 259-262, doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2006.06.009 (2007). This study shows the effect of preconditioning the body to heat stress by using a sauna for at least 30 min directly after after training session. While the study sample is small, other studies referenced in #2, #5 reinforce and compliment this. I also have some anecdotal data. I did some serious experimentation with the sauna a couple of years ago when I had access to a sauna. I would sit in the sauna for up to 60 min. until I pushed myself to extreme physical discomfort about 4-5 times a week. I substantially (and I know this is just anecdote) increased my running PRs.
- Michael N. Sawka, C. B. W., Kent B. Pandolf. Thermoregulatory Responses to Acute Exercise-Heat Stress and Heat Acclimation. Handbook of Physiology, Environmental Physiology (2011). This is a good review article that covers many of the mechanisms that underly the endurance enhancements as a consequence of heat acclimation.
- Garrett, A. T., Creasy, R., Rehrer, N. J., Patterson, M. J. & Cotter, J. D. Effectiveness of short-term heat acclimation for highly trained athletes. European journal of applied physiology 112, 1827-1837, doi:10.1007/s00421-011-2153-3 (2012).
- Kirwan, J. P. et al. Substrate utilization in leg muscle of men after heat acclimation. J Appl Physiol (1985) 63, 31-35 (1987). The findings in this study reinforce the data in ref #3. Both small sample sizes but multiple studies showing the same effect makes the argument stronger.
- Selsby, J. T. et al. Intermittent hyperthermia enhances skeletal muscle regrowth and attenuates oxidative damage following reloading. J Appl Physiol (1985) 102, 1702-1707, doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00722.2006 (2007). This is an important paper because it shows that intermittent hyperthermia can enhance the regrowth of skeletal muscle in rats after disuse via induction of heat shock proteins. Having a quantitative way to non-invasively measure muscle mass in humans is difficult. Even though the experiment was done in rats (N=40) this is a good study because it also shows mechanism.
- Naito, H. et al. Heat stress attenuates skeletal muscle atrophy in hindlimb-unweighted rats. J Appl Physiol 88, 359-363 (2000). This study demonstrates that HSP induction by intermittent hyperthermia in rats can prevent muscle atrophy during muscle disuse. Again, this study was in rats but it shows mechanism has has a good sample size (N=40).
- Kokura, S. et al. Whole body hyperthermia improves obesity-induced insulin resistance in diabetic mice. International journal of hyperthermia : the official journal of European Society for Hyperthermic Oncology, North American Hyperthermia Group 23, 259-265, doi:10.1080/02656730601176824 (2007). This study was done in mice (N=20) but it demonstrates a very important mechanistic finding that hyperthermia increases the expression of glucose transporters in skeletal muscle, thus improving insulin sensitivity. Exercise (which elevates core body temp.) is known to improve insulin sensitivity. This is a cool mechanism by which this can occur.
- Yamada, P. M., Amorim, F. T., Moseley, P., Robergs, R. & Schneider, S. M. Effect of heat acclimation on heat shock protein 72 and interleukin-10 in humans. J Appl Physiol (1985) 103, 1196-1204, doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00242.2007 (2007). This study includes a relatively small human sample size (N=12) but it is a very important because it demonstrates that heat acclimation causes a higher induction of heat shock proteins upon later exercise. This is the fundamental concept behind hyperthermic conditioning.
- Moseley, P. L. Heat shock proteins and heat adaptation of the whole organism. J Appl Physiol (1985) 83, 1413-1417 (1997). This is a review article that explains some of the functions of HSPs and reinforces the data from reference #11 demonstrating that heat acclimation can increase the expression of HSPs.
- Kuennen, M. et al. Thermotolerance and heat acclimation may share a common mechanism in humans. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology 301, R524-533, doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00039.2011 (2011). This study is another small human sample size (N=8) but it reinforces the data from ref #11 because it demonstrates that some of the positive effects of heat acclimation are due to increased expression of HSPs. The study even shows specificity here by administering an HSP inhibitor, which ameliorates the positive effects of heat acclimation.
- Leppaluoto, J. et al. Endocrine effects of repeated sauna bathing. Acta physiologica Scandinavica 128, 467-470, doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.1986.tb08000.x (1986). This is a very important study because it shows the profound hormonal responses to repeated sauna use in humans (N=17). By day 3, growth hormone increased 16-fold, highlighting the importance of hyperthermic conditioning.
- Kukkonen-Harjula, K. et al. Haemodynamic and hormonal responses to heat exposure in a Finnish sauna bath. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology 58, 543-550 (1989). Even though the human sample size in this study is small (N=8), it shows that varying temperatures and durations differentially affect hormones. Small sample or not, the fundamental chemical changes in this study are reinforced from the data referenced in #1 and #4.
- Velloso, C. P. Regulation of muscle mass by growth hormone and IGF-I. British journal of pharmacology 154, 557-568, doi:10.1038/bjp.2008.153 (2008).
- Coleman, M. E. et al. Myogenic vector expression of insulin-like growth factor I stimulates muscle cell differentiation and myofiber hypertrophy in transgenic mice. The Journal of biological chemistry 270, 12109-12116 (1995). In this study mice were engineered to constitutively express high levels of human IGF-1 in their muscle stem cells. This caused the proliferation and differentiation of myoblasts and caused muscle hypertrophy.
- Barton, E. R., Morris, L., Musaro, A., Rosenthal, N. & Sweeney, H. L. Muscle-specific expression of insulin-like growth factor I counters muscle decline in mdx mice. The Journal of cell biology 157, 137-148, doi:10.1083/jcb.200108071 (2002).
- Healy, M. L. et al. High dose growth hormone exerts an anabolic effect at rest and during exercise in endurance-trained athletes. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism 88, 5221-5226 (2003).
- Ftaiti, F. et al. Effect of hyperthermia and physical activity on circulating growth hormone. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme 33, 880-887, doi:10.1139/H08-073 (2008). This study shows that hyperthermia SYNERGIZES with exercise to increase growth hormone levels in humans. So you can feel the burn from your routine and then jump immediately in the sauna for amplified effects. Again, small sample (N=8) but its conclusion is logical and intuitively follows the other studies. Anything that substantially increases core temperature should increase growth hormone and the effects should potentiate each other.
- Louard, R. J., Fryburg, D. A., Gelfand, R. A. & Barrett, E. J. Insulin sensitivity of protein and glucose metabolism in human forearm skeletal muscle. The Journal of clinical investigation 90, 2348-2354, doi:10.1172/JCI116124 (1992). This study demonstrated that insulin stimulated BCAA uptake in the forearm (post-absorptive and insulin infusion) The sample size in this human study was good (N=39).
- Lecker, S. H., Goldberg, A. L. & Mitch, W. E. Protein degradation by the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway in normal and disease states. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology : JASN 17, 1807-1819, doi:10.1681/ASN.2006010083 (2006). This is a review article that covers the mechanism by which insulin decreases protein degradation: proteasome inhibition.
- Chow, L. S. et al. Mechanism of insulin’s anabolic effect on muscle: measurements of muscle protein synthesis and breakdown using aminoacyl-tRNA and other surrogate measures. American journal of physiology. Endocrinology and metabolism 291, E729-736, doi:10.1152/ajpendo.00003.2006 (2006). This study used multiple different methods to measure protein synthesis and degradation in 18 humans after insulin infusion. The insulin levels were raised to physiologically relevant postprandial levels.
- Guillet, C., Masgrau, A., Walrand, S. & Boirie, Y. Impaired protein metabolism: interlinks between obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 13 Suppl 2, 51-57, doi:10.1111/j.1467-789X.2012.01037.x (2012).
- Selsby, J. T. & Dodd, S. L. Heat treatment reduces oxidative stress and protects muscle mass during immobilization. American journal of physiology. Regulatory, integrative and comparative physiology 289, R134-139, doi:10.1152/ajpregu.00497.2004 (2005). This study just reinforces and compliments the protective effect that HSPs have on muscle mass during disuse. It reinforces data referenced in #9.
- Nath, K. A. et al. Induction of heme oxygenase is a rapid, protective response in rhabdomyolysis in the rat. The Journal of clinical investigation 90, 267-270, doi:10.1172/JCI115847 (1992). This reference is relevant to the mechanism by which hyperthermic conditioning may protect against rhabdomyolysis: induction of HSP32.
- Wei, Q., Hill, W. D., Su, Y., Huang, S. & Dong, Z. Heme oxygenase-1 induction contributes to renoprotection by G-CSF during rhabdomyolysis-associated acute kidney injury. American journal of physiology. Renal physiology 301, F162-170, doi:10.1152/ajprenal.00438.2010 (2011).
- Khazaeli, A. A., Tatar, M., Pletcher, S. D. & Curtsinger, J. W. Heat-induced longevity extension in Drosophila. I. Heat treatment, mortality, and thermotolerance. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences 52, B48-52 (1997). This reference, as well as the two immediate ones following, back up the notion that heat shock extends lifespan in lower organisms via HSP induction.
- Lithgow, G. J., White, T. M., Melov, S. & Johnson, T. E. Thermotolerance and extended life-span conferred by single-gene mutations and induced by thermal stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 92, 7540-7544 (1995).
- Tatar, M., Khazaeli, A. A. & Curtsinger, J. W. Chaperoning extended life. Nature 390, 30, doi:10.1038/36237 (1997).
- Singh, R. et al. Anti-inflammatory heat shock protein 70 genes are positively associated with human survival. Current pharmaceutical design 16, 796-801 (2010). This study was a longitudinal cohort of a Denmark population (N=168) that found a slight increase in longevity (1 year) in females that had a polymorphism in the HSP70 gene that was associated with increased HSP expression upon heat stress.
- Yenari, M. A., Giffard, R. G., Sapolsky, R. M. & Steinberg, G. K. The neuroprotective potential of heat shock protein 70 (HSP70). Molecular medicine today 5, 525-531 (1999).
- Duveau, V., Arthaud, S., Serre, H., Rougier, A. & Le Gal La Salle, G. Transient hyperthermia protects against subsequent seizures and epilepsy-induced cell damage in the rat. Neurobiology of disease 19, 142-149, doi:10.1016/j.nbd.2004.11.011 (2005).
- Lundgren, J., Smith, M. L., Blennow, G. & Siesjo, B. K. Hyperthermia aggravates and hypothermia ameliorates epileptic brain damage. Experimental brain research. Experimentelle Hirnforschung. Experimentation cerebrale 99, 43-55 (1994).
- Laatikainen, T., Salminen, K., Kohvakka, A. & Pettersson, J. Response of plasma endorphins, prolactin and catecholamines in women to intense heat in a sauna. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology 57, 98-102 (1988). This study reinforces ref #15 in terms of the norepinephrine response but this demonstrates it in women. Also, the smaple size is small (N=11), so it good to have multiple studies showing similar effects.
- Salbaum, J. M. et al. Chlorotoxin-mediated disinhibition of noradrenergic locus coeruleus neurons using a conditional transgenic approach. Brain research 1016, 20-32, doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2004.03.078 (2004).
- Gregg, C. et al. White matter plasticity and enhanced remyelination in the maternal CNS. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience 27, 1812-1823, doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4441-06.2007 (2007).
- Christman, J. V. & Gisolfi, C. V. Heat acclimation: role of norepinephrine in the anterior hypothalamus. J Appl Physiol (1985) 58, 1923-1928 (1985).
- Wigal, S. B. et al. Catecholamine response to exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Pediatric research 53, 756-761, doi:10.1203/01.PDR.0000061750.71168.23 (2003).
- Goekint, M., Roelands, B., Heyman, E., Njemini, R. & Meeusen, R. Influence of citalopram and environmental temperature on exercise-induced changes in BDNF. Neuroscience letters 494, 150-154, doi:10.1016/j.neulet.2011.03.001 (2011). This study had an N=8 (okay, tiny) but… it demonstrated that hyperthermia and exercise synergize to elevate BDNF. This is awesome. Who doesn’t want more BDNF?
- van Praag, H., Christie, B. R., Sejnowski, T. J. & Gage, F. H. Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 96, 13427-13431 (1999).
- Maniam, J. & Morris, M. J. Voluntary exercise and palatable high-fat diet both improve behavioural profile and stress responses in male rats exposed to early life stress: role of hippocampus. Psychoneuroendocrinology 35, 1553-1564, doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.05.012 (2010).
- Pedersen, B. K. Muscle as a Secretory Organ. Comprhensive Physiology (2013).
- Koltyn, K. F., Robins, H. I., Schmitt, C. L., Cohen, J. D. & Morgan, W. P. Changes in mood state following whole-body hyperthermia. International journal of hyperthermia : the official journal of European Society for Hyperthermic Oncology, North American Hyperthermia Group 8, 305-307 (1992).
- Liu, X. L. et al. [Therapeutic effect of whole body hyperthermia combined with chemotherapy in patients with advanced cancer]. Zhong nan da xue xue bao. Yi xue ban = Journal of Central South University. Medical sciences 31, 350-352 (2006).
- Narita, M. et al. Heterologous mu-opioid receptor adaptation by repeated stimulation of kappa-opioid receptor: up-regulation of G-protein activation and antinociception. Journal of neurochemistry 85, 1171-1179 (2003). This study was done in mice but shows that repeated activation of kappa opioid receptor causes mu opioid receptor to become more sensitive to beta-endorphin. This study provides a mechanism by which the dysphoric feeling from exercise or heat stress can ultimately result in a better “endorphin high.”
- Xin, L., Geller, E. B. & Adler, M. W. Body temperature and analgesic effects of selective mu and kappa opioid receptor agonists microdialyzed into rat brain. The Journal of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics 281, 499-507 (1997).
- Heckmann, J. G., Rauch, C., Seidler, S., Dutsch, M. & Kasper, B. Sauna stroke syndrome. Journal of stroke and cerebrovascular diseases : the official journal of National Stroke Association 14, 138-139, doi:10.1016/j.jstrokecerebrovasdis.2005.01.006 (2005). This reference is only an N=1 where a a man had consumed several glasses of wine before he got in the sauna and was, subsequently, found dead. Alcohol consumption while in the sauna can cause severe dehydration, hypotension, arrhthymia, and embolic stroke. This is also reviewed in reference #1
Let’s get this party started!
For months now, I’ve wanted show you all of my TV episodes.
Over the last year, the team at ZPZ (the production company behind Anthony Bourdain) and Turner Broadcasting have helped me capture incredible footage and characters all over the country. I’m thrilled with every episode.
Alas, for reasons I won’t bore you with, the TV broadcasting puzzle piece is taking ages to sort out. I’ve been fighting hard behind the scenes, and it’s been a sumnabitch process for an impatient Long Island boy (me).
The waiting has driven me absolutely insane. I’ve felt a lot like this:
But…no más waiting already!
Enough. While the entertainment folks are sussing out cable details, I’d like to give you everything — and I mean EVERYTHING — digitally.
Turner’s all for it. This world is a changin’, and distribution is changing with it.
ON MAY 27, ALL 13 EPISODES WILL BE RELEASED ON ITUNES SIMULTANEOUSLY.
In each episode, I team up with world-class teachers to “hack” a different skill….then I get thrown through a gauntlet of tests. Sometimes I do well, othertimes I face-plant and decimate myself. You get to see all the struggles, nervous breakdowns, and little breakthroughs. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s real.
Here are some of the topics I jump into:
- Music and drumming
- Rally car racing
- Language learning
- Brazilian jiu-jitsu (and chess) — ouch.
- Parkour — super, double ouch.
- High-stakes poker (with real money)
- Tactical gun fighting
- Dating and the pick-up game
- Building a business in one week (I co-teach a student)
- Long-distance swimming (I co-teach a student)
- And the mysterious finale episode…
And another thing…
One of the things that bugs me most about TV is that five days of shooting gets cut down to 30 minutes. In reality, it’s around 21:30 after subtracting commercials. Whaaaa?! “Isn’t that a waste?” you ask. Yes, it’s a maddening amount of great footage that ends up on the cutting room floor.
I want to give you more.
If you’ve bought — or buy — an iTunes season pass (click “View in iTunes” here to purchase), more good news: you’ll get a ton of bonus footage. Current estimates are 10+ minutes of extras per episode, and I’m fighting to release much more footage into the wild, hopefully hours and hours.
If you can’t use iTunes or can’t afford to pay, here’s the solution: Each week after the May 27th launch, one episode will be released on YouTube for free viewing. It won’t contain bonus footage, and you’ll have to wait 3+ months to see the whole season, but you’ll be able to see them all.
If you’d like a sneak peek, the first episode can be watched here for free.
Much more coming soon, and thank you for your patience! It’s been a long road for everyone. Phew.
Preface by Tim Ferriss
I’ve written about how I learned to speak, read, and write Japanese, Mandarin, and Spanish. I’ve also covered my experiments with German, Indonesian, Arabic, Norwegian, Turkish, and perhaps a dozen others.
There are only few language learners who dazzle me, and Benny Lewis is one of them.
This definitive guest post by Benny will teach you:
- How to speak your target language today.
- How to reach fluency and exceed it within a few months.
- How to pass yourself off as a native speaker.
- And finally, how to tackle multiple languages to become a “polyglot”—all within a few years, perhaps as little as 1-2.
It contains TONS of amazing resources I never even knew existed, including the best free apps and websites for becoming fluent in record time. Want to find a native speaker to help you for $5 per hour? Free resources and memory tricks? It’s all here.
This is a post you all requested, so I hope you enjoy it!
You are either born with the language-learning gene, or you aren’t. Luck of the draw, right? At least, that’s what most people believe.
I think you can stack the deck in your favor. Years ago, I was a language learning dud. The worst in my German class in school, only able to speak English into my twenties, and even after six entire months living in Spain, I could barely muster up the courage to ask where the bathroom was in Spanish.
But this is about the point when I had an epiphany, changed my approach, and then succeeded not only in learning Spanish, but in getting a C2 (Mastery) diploma from the Instituto Cervantes, working as a professional translator in the language, and even being interviewed on the radio in Spanish to give travel tips. Since then, I moved on to other languages, and I can now speak more than a dozen languages to varying degrees between conversational and mastery.
It turns out, there is no language-learning gene, but there are tools and tricks for faster learning…
As a “polyglot”—someone who speaks multiple languages—my world has opened up. I have gained access to people and places that I never otherwise could have reached. I’ve made friends on a train in China through Mandarin, discussed politics with a desert dweller in Egyptian Arabic, discovered the wonders of deaf culture through ASL, invited the (female) president of Ireland to dance in Irish (Gaeilge) and talked about it on live Irish radio, interviewed Peruvian fabric makers about how they work in Quechua, interpreted between Hungarian and Portuguese at a social event… and well, had an extremely interesting decade traveling the world.
Such wonderful experiences are well within the reach of many of you.
Since you may be starting from a similar position to where I was (monolingual adult, checkered history with language learning, no idea where to start), I’m going to outline the tips that worked best for me as I went from zero to polyglot.
This very detailed post should give you everything you need to know.
So, let’s get started!
#1 – Learn the right words, the right way.
Starting a new language means learning new words. Lots of them.
Of course, many people cite a bad memory for learning new vocab, so they quit before even getting started.
But–here’s the key–you absolutely do not need to know all the words of a language to speak it (and in fact, you don’t know all the words of your mother tongue either).
As Tim pointed out in his own post on learning any language in 3 months, you can take advantage of the Pareto principle here, and realize that 20% of the effort you spend on acquiring new vocab could ultimately give you 80% comprehension in a language—for instance, in English just 300 words make up 65% of all written material. We use those words a lot, and that’s the case in every other language as well.
You can find pre-made flash card “decks” of these most frequent words (or words themed for a subject you are more likely to talk about) for studying on the Anki app (available for all computer platforms and smartphones) that you can download instantly. Good flashcard methods implement a spaced repetition system (SRS), which Anki automates. This means that rather than go through the same list of vocabulary in the same order every time, you see words at strategically spaced intervals, just before you would forget them.
Tim himself likes to use color-coded physical flashcards; some he purchases from Vis-Ed, others he makes himself. He showed me an example when I interviewed him about how he learns languages in the below video.
Though this entire video can give you great insight into Tim’s language learning approach, the part relevant to this point is at 27:40 (full transcript here).
#2 – Learn cognates: your friend in every single language.
Believe it or not, you already—right now—have a huge head start in your target language. With language learning you always know at least some words before you ever begin. Starting a language “from scratch” is essentially impossible because of the vast amount of words you know already through cognates.
Cognates are “true friends” of words you recognize from your native language that mean the same thing in another language.
For instance, Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and others have many words in common with English. English initially “borrowed them” from the Norman conquest of England, which lasted several hundreds of years. Action, nation, precipitation, solution, frustration, tradition, communication, extinction, and thousands of other -tion words are spelled exactly the same in French, and you can quickly get used to the different pronunciation. Change that -tion to a -ción and you have the same words in Spanish. Italian is -zione and Portuguese is -ção.
Many languages also have words that share a common (Greek/Latin or other) root, which can be spelled slightly differently, but that you’d have to try hard not to recognize, such as exemple, hélicoptère (Fr), porto, capitano (Italian) astronomía, and Saturno (Spanish). German goes a step further and has many words from English’s past that it shares.
To find common words with the language you are learning, simply search for “[language name] cognates” or “[language name] English loan words” to see words they borrowed from us, and finally “[language name] words in English” to see words we borrowed from them.
That’s all well and good for European languages, but what about more distant ones?…
Well, it turns out that even languages as different as Japanese can have heaps of very familiar vocabulary. To show you what I mean, have a listen to this song (to the tune of Animaniac’s “Nations of the World”), which is sung entirely in Japanese, and yet you should understand pretty much everything that I and the other Japanese learners are singing:
This is because many languages simply borrow English words and integrate them into the new language with altered pronunciation or stress.
So to make my life easy when I start learning a language, one of the first word lists I try to consume is a list of “cognates,” or “English loan words,” which can be found quickly for pretty much any language.
#3 – Interact in your language daily without traveling.
Another reason (or excuse, depending on how you look at it) people cite for not learning languages is that they can’t visit a country where it’s a native language. No time, no money, etc.
Take it from me—there is nothing “in the air” in another country that will magically make you able to speak their language. I’ve done a lot of experiments to prove this (e.g. learning Arabic while living in Brazil).
I’ve met countless expats who lived abroad for years without learning the local language. Living abroad and being immersed is not the same thing. If you need to hear and use a language consistently to be immersed, can’t virtual immersion be just as effective? Of course. Technology makes it possible for immersion to come to you, and you don’t even have to buy a plane ticket.
To hear the language consistently spoken, you can check out TuneIn.com for a vast selection of live-streamed radio from your country of choice. The app (free) also has a list of streamed radio stations ordered by language.
To watch the language consistently, see what’s trending on Youtube in that country right now. Go to that country’s equivalent URL for Amazon or Ebay (amazon.es, amazon.fr, amazon.co.jp, etc.) and buy your favorite TV series dubbed in that language, or get a local equivalent by seeing what’s on the top charts. You may be able to save shipping costs if you can find one locally that includes dubbing in the appropriate language. Various news stations also have plenty of video content online in specific languages, such as France24, Deutsche Welle, CNN Español, and many others.
To read the language consistently, in addition to the news sites listed above, you can find cool blogs and other popular sites on Alexa’s ranking of top sites per country.
And if full-on immersion isn’t your thing yet, there’s even a plugin for Chrome that eases you into the language by translating some parts of the sites you normally read in English, to sprinkle the odd word into your otherwise English reading.
#4 – Skype today for daily spoken practice.
So you’ve been listening to, watching, and even reading in your target language—and all in the comfort of your own home. Now it’s time for the big one: speaking it live with a native.
One of my more controversial pieces of advice, but one that I absolutely insist on when I advise beginners, is that you must speak the language right away if your goals in the target language involve speaking it.
Most traditional approaches or language systems don’t work this way, and I think that’s where they let their students down. I say, there are seven days in a week and “some day” is not one of them.
Here’s what I suggest instead:
Use the pointers I’ve given above to learn some basic vocabulary, and be aware of some words you already know. Do this for a few hours, and then set up an exchange with a native speaker—someone who has spoken that language their whole life. You only have to learn a little for your first conversation, but if you use it immediately, you’ll see what’s missing and can add on from there. You can’t study in isolation until you are vaguely “ready” for interaction.
In those first few hours, I’d recommend learning some pleasantries such as “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Could you repeat that?” or “I don’t understand,” many of which you will find listed out here for most languages.
But wait—where do you find a native speaker if you aren’t in the country that speaks that language?
No problem! Thousands of native speakers are ready and waiting for you to talk to them right now. You can get private lessons for peanuts by taking advantage of currency differences. My favorite site for finding natives is italki.com (connect with my profile here), where I’ve gotten both Chinese and Japanese one-on-one Skype-based lessons for just $5 an hour.
If you still think you wouldn’t be ready on day one, then consider this: starting on Skype allows you to ease yourself in gently by having another window (or application, like Word) open during your conversation, already loaded with key words that you can use for quick reference until you internalize them. You can even reference Google Translate or a dictionary for that language while you chat, so you can learn new words as you go, when you need them.
Is this “cheating”? No. The goal is to learn to be functional, not to imitate old traditional methods. I’ve used the above shortcuts myself, and after learning Polish for just one hour for a trip to Warsaw to speak at TEDx about language learning, I was able to hold up a conversation (incredibly basic as it was) in Polish for an entire half hour.
I consider that a win.
#5 – Save your money. The best resources are free.
Other than paying for the undivided attention of a native speaker, I don’t see why you’d need to spend hundreds of dollars on anything in language learning. I’ve tried Rosetta Stone myself and wasn’t impressed.
But there is great stuff out there. A wonderful and completely free course that keeps getting better is DuoLingo - which I highly recommend for its selection of European languages currently on offer, with more on the way. To really get you started on the many options available to help you learn your language without spending a penny, let me offer plenty of other (good) alternatives:
- The Foreign Service Institutes’ varied list of courses
- The Omniglot Intro to languages
- BBC languages’ intro to almost 40 different languages
- About’s language specific posts that explain particular aspects of languages well
You really do have plenty of options when it comes to free resources, so I suggest you try out several and see which ones work well for you. The aforementioned italki is great for language exchanges and lessons, but My Language Exchange and Interpals are two other options. You can take it offline and see about language related meet-ups in your city through The Polyglot Club, or the meet-ups pages on Couchsurfing, meetup.com, and Internations. These meet-ups are also great opportunities to meet an international crowd of fellow language learning enthusiasts, as well as native speakers of your target language, for practice.
But wait, there’s more. You can get further completely free language help on:
- The huge database on Forvo, to hear any word or small expression in many languages read aloud by a native of the language
- Rhinospike to make requests of specific phrases you’d like to hear pronounced by a native speaker. If you can’t find something on either of these sites, Google Translate has a text-to-speech option for many languages.
- Lang 8 to receive free written corrections.
The possibilities for free practice are endless.
#6 – Realize that adults are actually better language learners than kids.
Now that you’re armed with a ton of resources to get started, let’s tackle the biggest problem. Not grammar, not vocabulary, not a lack of resources, but handicapping misconceptions about your own learning potential.
The most common “I give up” misconception is: I’m too old to become fluent.
I’m glad to be the bearer of good news and tell you that research has confirmed that adults can be better language learners than kids. This study at the University of Haifa has found that under the right circumstances, adults show an intuition for unexplained grammar rules better than their younger counterparts. [Note from Tim: This is corroborated by the book In Other Words and work by Hakuta.]
Also, no study has ever shown any direct correlation between reduced language acquisition skill and increased age. There is only a general downward trend in language acquisition in adults, which is probably more dependent on environmental factors that can be changed (e.g. long job hours that crowd out study time). Something my friend Khatzumoto (alljapaneseallthetime.com) once said that I liked was, “Babies aren’t better language learners than you; they just have no escape routes.”
As adults, the good news is that we can emulate the immersion environment without having to travel, spend a lot of money, or revert back to childhood.
#7 – Expand your vocabulary with mnemonics.
Rote repetition isn’t enough.
And while it’s true that repeated exposure sometimes burns a word into your memory, it can be frustrating to forget a word that you’ve already heard a dozen times.
For this, I suggest coming up with mnemonics about your target word, which helps glue the word to your memory way more effectively. Basically, you tell yourself a funny, silly, or otherwise memorable story to associate with a particular word. You can come up with the mnemonic yourself, but a wonderful (and free) resource that I highly recommend is memrise.com.
For instance, let’s say you are learning Spanish and can’t seem to remember that “caber” means “to fit,” no matter how many times you see it. Why not come up with a clever association like the following one I found on Memrise:
This [caber -> cab, bear -> fitting a bear in a cab] association makes remembering the word a cinch.
It may sound like a lengthy process, but try it a few times, and you’ll quickly realize why it’s so effective. And you’ll only need to recall this hook a couple of times, and then you can ditch it when the word becomes a natural part of your ability to use the language quickly.
#8 – Embrace mistakes.
Over half of the planet speaks more than one language.
This means that monolingualism is a cultural, not a biological, consequence. So when adults (at least in the English speaking world) fail at language learning, it’s not because they don’t have the right genes or other such nonsense. It’s because the system they have used to learn languages is broken.
Traditional teaching methods treat language learning just like any other academic subject, based on an approach that has barely changed since the days when Charles Dickens was learning Latin. The differences between your native language (L1) and your target language (L2) are presented as vocabulary and grammar rules to memorize. The traditional idea: know them “all” and you know the language. It seems logical enough, right?
The problem is that you can’t ever truly “learn” a language, you get used to it. It’s not a thing that you know or don’t know; it’s a means of communication between human beings. Languages should not be acquired by rote alone—they need to be used.
The way you do this as a beginner is to use everything you do know with emphasis on communication rather than on perfection. This is the pivotal difference. Sure, you could wait until you are ready to say “Excuse me kind sir, could you direct me to the nearest bathroom?” but “Bathroom where?” actually conveys the same essential information, only removing superfluous pleasantries. You will be forgiven for this directness, because it’s always obvious that you are a learner.
Don’t worry about upsetting native speakers for being so “bold” as to speak to them in their own language.
One of the best things you can do in the initial stages is not to try to get everything perfect, but to embrace making mistakes. I go out of my way to make at least 200 mistakes a day! This way I know I am truly using and practicing the language.
[TIM: I actually view part of my role as that of comedian or court jester--to make native speakers chuckle at my Tarzan speak. If you make people smile, it will make you popular, which will make you enthusiastic to continue.]
#9 – Create SMART goals.
Another failing of most learning approaches is a poorly defined end-goal.
We tend to have New Year’s Resolutions along the lines of “Learn Spanish,” but how do you know when you’ve succeeded? If this is your goal, how can you know when you’ve reached it?
Vague end goals like this are endless pits (e.g. “I’m not ready yet, because I haven’t learned the entire language”).
S.M.A.R.T. goals on the other hand are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
To start developing your SMART goal in a language, I highly recommend you become somewhat familiar with the European Common Framework that defines language levels. This framework provides you with a way of setting specific language goals and measuring your own progress.
In brief, A means beginner, B means intermediate, and C means advanced, and each level is broken up into lower (1) and upper (2) categories. So an upper beginner speaker is A2, and a lower advanced speaker is C1. As well as being Specific, these levels are absolutely Measurable because officially recognized institutions can test you on them and provide diplomas (no course enrollment necessary) in German, French, Spanish, Irish, and each other official European language. While the same scale is not used, you can also get tested in a similar way in Chinese and Japanese.
So what do you aim for? And what do words like “fluency” and “mastery” mean on a practical level?
I’ve talked to many people to try to pinpoint the never-agreed-upon understanding of “fluency,” and I’ve found that it tends to average out around the B2 level (upper intermediate). This effectively means that you have “social equivalency” with your native language, which means that you can live in your target language in social situations in much the same way that you would in your native language, such as casual chats with friends in a bar, asking what people did over the weekend, sharing your aspirations and relating to people.
Since we are being specific, it’s also important to point out that this does not require that you can work professionally in a language (in my case, as an engineer or public speaker, for instance). That would be mastery level (generally C2).
Though I’ve reached the C2 stage myself in French, Spanish and am close to it in other languages, realistically I only really need to be socially equivalent in a language I want to communicate in. I don’t need to work in other languages. It’s essential that you keep your priorities clear to avoid frustration. Most of the time, just target B2.
To make your specific goal Attainable, you can break it down further. For example, I’ve found that the fluency (B2) level can be achieved in a matter of months, as long as you are focused on the spoken aspect.
In phonetic languages (like most European ones), you can actually learn to read along with speaking, so you get this effectively for free. But realistically, we tend to write emails and text messages—not essays—on a day-to-day basis (unless you are a writer by trade, and you may not have those goals with your L2). Focusing on speaking and listening (and maybe reading) makes fluency in a few months much more realistic.
Finally, to make your project Time-bound, I highly recommend a short end-point of a few months.
Keeping it a year or more away is far too distant, and your plans may as well be unbound at that point. Three months has worked great for me, but 6 weeks or 4 months could be your ideal point. Pick a definite point in the not too distant future (summer vacation, your birthday, when a family member will visit), aim to reach your target by this time, and work your ass off to make it happen.
To help you be smarter with your goals, make sure to track your progress and use an app like Lift to track completing daily essential tasks.
You can join the Lift plan for language learning that I wrote for their users here.
#10 – Jump from Conversational (B1) to Mastery (C2).
The way I reach spoken fluency quickly is to get a hell of a lot of spoken practice.
From day one to day 90 (and beyond), I speak at least an hour a day in my L2, and my study time is tailored around the spoken sessions to make sure that my conversation is what’s improving—not just my “general language skills” through some vague list of words I may never use.
So, for instance, I may start a session by asking what my native friend or teacher did over the weekend, and tell them what I did. Then I will share something that is on my mind lately and attempt to express my opinion on it, or allow the native speaker to introduce a new topic. It’s important to take an active role and make sure you are having varied conversations. Have a list of topics you would like to discuss and bring them up (your hobbies, hopes for the future, dislikes, what you will do on your vacation etc.) and make sure the conversation is constantly progressing.
Lots of practice and study to improve those spoken sessions tends to get me to lower intermediate (B1) level, which means I can understand the other person speaking to me fine as long as they are willing to speak clearly and adjust to my level and mistakes. It’s a LOT of work, mind you! On typical learning days I can be filled with frustration or feel like my brain is melting when–in fact–I’m truly making a lot of progress.
But the work is totally worth it when you have your first successful conversation with a native speaker. You’ll be thrilled beyond belief.
To see what this B1 level looks like, check out these videos of me chatting to a native in Arabic (in person with my italki teacher!), and in Mandarin with my friend Yangyang about how she got into working as a TV show host:
At this level, I still make plenty of mistakes of course, but they don’t hinder communication too much.
But to get over that plateau of just “good enough,” this is the point where I tend to return to academic material and grammar books, to tidy up what I have. I find I understand the grammar much better once I’m already speaking the language. This approach really works for me, but there is no one best language-learning approach. For instance, Tim has had great success by grammatically deconstructing a language right from the start. Your approach will depend entirely on your personality.
After lots of exercises to tidy up my mistakes at the B1 level, I find that I can break into B2.
At the B2 stage you can really have fun in the language! You can socialize and have any typical conversation that you’d like.
To get into the mastery C1/C2 levels though, the requirements are very different. You’ll have to start reading newspapers, technical blog posts, or other articles that won’t exactly be “light reading.”
To get this high-level practice, I’ve subscribed to newspapers on my Kindle that I try to read every day from various major news outlets around the world. Here are the top newspapers in Europe, South America and Asia. After reading up on various topics, I like to get an experienced professional (and ideally pedantic) teacher to grill me on the topic, to force me out of my comfort zone, and make sure I’m using precisely the right words, rather than simply making myself understood.
To show you what a higher level looks like, here is a chat I had with my Quebec Couchsurfer about the fascinating cultural and linguistic differences between Quebec and France (I would have been at a C1 level at this stage):
Reaching the C2 level can be extremely difficult.
For instance, I sat a C2 exam in German, and managed to hold my ground for the oral component, when I had to talk about deforestation for ten minutes, but I failed the exam on the listening component, showing me that I needed to be focused and pay attention to complicated radio interviews or podcasts at that level if I wanted to pass the exam in future.
#11 – Learn to sound more native.
At C2, you are as good as a native speaker in how you can work and interact in the language, but you may still have an accent and make the odd mistake.
I have been mistaken for a native speaker of my L2 several times (in Spanish, French and Portuguese – including when I was still at the B2/fluent level), and I can say that it’s a lot less related to your language level, and more related to two other factors.
First, your accent/intonation
Accent is obvious; if you can’t roll your R in Spanish you will be recognized as a foreigner instantly.
Your tongue muscles are not set in their ways forever, and you can learn the very few new sounds that your L2 requires that you learn. Time with a native, a good Youtube video explaining the sounds, and practice for a few hours may be all that you need!
What is much more important, but often overlooked, is intonation—the pitch, rise, fall, and stress of your words. When I was writing my book, I interviewed fellow polyglot Luca who is very effective in adapting a convincing accent in his target languages. For this, intonation is pivotal.
Luca trains himself from the very start to mimic the musicality and rhythm of a language’s natives by visualizing the sentences. For instance, if you really listen to it, the word “France” sounds different in “I want to go to France” (downward intonation) and “France is a beautiful country (intonation raising upwards). When you repeat sentences in your L2, you have to mimic the musicality of them.
My own French teacher pointed out a mistake I was making along these same lines.
I was trying to raise my intonation before pauses, which is a feature of French that occurs much more frequently than in English, but I was overdoing it and applying it to the ends of sentences as well. This made my sentences sound incomplete, and when my teacher trained me to stop doing this, I was told that I sounded way more French.
You can make these changes by focusing on the sounds of a language rather than just on the words.
Truly listen to and and mimic audio from natives, have them correct your biggest mistakes and drill the mistakes out of you. I had an accent trainer show me how this worked, and I found out some fascinating differences between my own Irish accent and American accents in the process! To see for yourself how the process works, check out the second half of this post with Soundcloud samples.
Second, walk like an Egyptian
The second factor that influences whether or not you could be confused for a native speaker, involves working on your social and cultural integration. This is often overlooked, but has made a world of difference to me, even in my early stages of speaking several languages.
For instance, when I first arrived in Egypt with lower intermediate Egyptian Arabic, I was disheartened that most people would speak English to me (in Cairo) before I even had a chance for my Arabic to shine. It’s easy to say that I’m too white to ever be confused for an Egyptian, but there’s more to it than that.
They took one look at me, saw how foreign I obviously was, and this overshadowed what language I was actually speaking to them.
To get around this problem, I sat down at a busy pedestrian intersection with a pen and paper and made a note of everything that made Egyptian men about my age different from me. How they walked, how they used their hands, the clothing they wore, their facial expressions, the volume they’d speak at, how they’d groom themselves, and much more. I found that I needed to let some stubble grow out, ditch my bright light clothes for darker and heavy ones (despite the temperature), exchange my trainers for dull black shoes, ditch my hat (I never saw anyone with hats), walk much more confidently, and change my facial expressions.
The transformation was incredible! Every single person for the rest of my time in Egypt would start speaking to me in Arabic, including in touristy parts of town where they spoke excellent English and would be well used to spotting tourists. This transformation allowed me to walk from the Nile to the Pyramids without any hassle from touts and make the experience all about the fascinating people I met.
Try it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean—once you start paying attention, the physical social differences will become easy to spot.
You can observe people directly, or watch videos of natives you’d like to emulate from a target country. Really try to analyze everything that someone of your age and gender is doing, and see if you can mimic it next time you are speaking.
Imitation is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery!
#12 – Become a polyglot.
This post has been an extremely detailed look at starting off and trying to reach mastery in a foreign language (and even passing yourself off as a native of that country).
If your ultimate goal is to speak multiple languages, you can repeat this process over multiple times, but I highly recommend you focus on one language at a time until you reach at least the intermediate level. Take each language one by one, until you reach a stage where you know you can confidently use it. And then you may just be ready for the next ones!
While you can do a lot in a few months, if you want to speak a language for the rest of your life it requires constant practice, improvement, and living your life through it as often as you can. But the good news is — once you reach fluency in a language, it tends to stick with you pretty well.
Also, keep in mind that while the tips in this article are an excellent place to start, there is a huge community of “polyglots” online willing to offer you their own encouragement as well. A bunch of us came together in this remix, “Skype me Maybe.”
I share several more stories about these polyglots and dive into much greater detail about how to learn languages in my newly released book Fluent in 3 Months. Grab a copy, or check out my site for inspiration to start your adventure in becoming fluent in a new language—or several.
Question of the Day: What tools or approaches have you used for learning languages? Please share in the comments!
This post is about the third book in the Tim Ferriss Book Club, which is limited to books that have dramatically impacted my life. Enjoy!
“I strongly recommend [The Art of Learning] for anyone who lives in a world of competition, whether it’s sports or business or anywhere else.”
- Mark Messier, 6-Time Stanley Cup Champion
“[This book] is a testimonial to the timeless principle of ‘do less and accomplish more.’ Highly recommended.”
- Deepak Chopra
“Josh provides tools that allow all of us to improve ourselves every day.”
- Cal Ripken, Jr., Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee
How do the best performers in the world become the best in the world?
The newest book in the Tim Ferriss Book Club provides the answers and blueprint: The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Joshua Waitzkin, the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s been one of my constant companions since 2007, and I’m THRILLED to shine the spotlight on it.
- Want to dominate sports? See the quotes from Cal Ripken, Jr. and Mark Messier above. There are many more.
- Want to dominate business or finance? Many of the Forbes 100 work one-on-one with Josh. I personally know hedgefund managers, with $10-100 billion under management, who have The Art of Learning on their bedside tables.
- Want to maximize creativity? Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, says “This is a really superb book, one I wish someone had given to me long ago… It will take a ferocious interruption to make you set this book down.”
Want to up your game, no matter the game? This book is your guide.
The Audible version of the audiobook can be found here.
This post includes several things, including:
- A brief personal story about Josh
- A sample chapter, both in audio and text
- A video overview
But perhaps you’re in a rush. Want the book synopsis in one sentence? Here it is: Through stories of martial arts wars and tense chess face-offs, Waitzkin reveals the inner workings of his everyday methods, including systematically triggering breakthroughs, cultivating top-1% technique in any field, and mastering the art of performance psychology.
The Art of Learning encapsulates an extraordinary competitor’s life lessons into a page-turning narrative.
My Story with Josh — Love at First F-Bomb
I first met Josh Waitzkin at a coffee shop in Manhattan.
Having just read The Art of Learning, I was as giddy as a schoolgirl that he’d agreed to come. I don’t have many heroes, and he was one of them.
About 15 minutes into sipping coffee and getting acquainted, I realized that he dropped as many f-bombs as I did. He was no Rain Man, and I felt silly for half expecting him to be. 15 minutes turned into nearly three hours, and he’s since become one of my best friends.
If you’ve read the bestselling book Searching for Bobby Fischer (or seen the movie), then you know of Josh.
Wandering through Washington Square Park with his mom at age six, he became fascinated with the “blitz chess” that the street hustlers played at warp speed. He watched and absorbed. Then he begged his mom to let him give it a shot. Just once! Soon thereafter, dressed in OshKosh overalls, he was king of the hustlers.
Josh proceeded to dominate the world chess scene and become the only person to win the National Primary, Elementary, Junior High School, Senior High School, U.S. Cadet, and U.S. Junior Closed chess championships before the age of 16. He could easily play “simuls,” in which 20-50 chessboards were set up with opponents in a large banquet hall, requiring him to walk from table to table playing all of the games simultaneously in his head.
He was labeled a “prodigy” (more on this shortly).
But how did he really become so good?
Partially by breaking the rules. Bruce Pandolfini, Josh’s original chess teacher, started their first class by taking him in reverse. The board was empty, except for three pieces in an endgame scenario: king and pawn against king. Memorizing openings was forbidden at the start.
Learning chess in reverse?
Yes, and this is just one of the many accelerated learning techniques Josh has refined and perfected over the last 20 years.
Calling Josh a “chess prodigy” is a misnomer because Josh defies pigeonholing. He has a PROCESS for mastering skills — one you can use yourself — and he’s applied it to many fields, not just chess.
He tackled Tai Chi Chuan after leaving the chess world behind. 13 Push Hands National Championships and two World Championship titles later, he decided to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Now, a few short years later, he’s a black belt under the Michael Jordan of BJJ, Marcelo Garcia.
As Josh has put it: “I’ve come to realize that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess. What I am best at is the art of learning.”
If you want to get the most out of life, you need to get his book.
You won’t regret it.
I’ll also be creating a message board so we can discuss this book and others.
Sample Chapter — The Introduction
[Below is just one of 20 chapters in The Art of Learning. Audio is embedded first, followed by text for the same chapter.]
Finals: Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands World Championships
Hsinchuang Stadium, Taipei, Taiwan December 5, 2004
Forty seconds before round two, and I’m lying on my back trying to breathe.
Pain all through me. Deep breath. Let it go. I won’t be able to lift my shoulder tomorrow, it won’t heal for over a year, but now it pulses, alive, and I feel the air vibrating around me, the stadium shaking with chants, in Mandarin, not for me.
My teammates are kneeling above me, looking worried. They rub my arms, my shoulders, my legs. The bell rings. I hear my dad’s voice in the stands, ‘C’mon Josh!’ Gotta get up. I watch my opponent run to the center of the ring. He screams, pounds his chest. The fans explode. They call him Buffalo. Bigger than me, stronger, quick as a cat. But I can take him — if I make it to the middle of the ring without falling over. I have to dig deep, bring it up from somewhere right now. Our wrists touch, the bell rings, and he hits me like a Mack truck.
Who could have guessed it would come to this? Just a few years earlier I had been competing around the world in elite chess tournaments. Since I was eight years old, I had consistently been the highest rated player for my age in the United States, and my life was dominated by competitions and training regimens designed to bring me into peak form for the next national or world championship. I had spent the years between ages fifteen and eighteen in the maelstrom of American media following the release of the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which was based on my dad’s book about my early chess life. I was known as America’s great young chess player and was told that it was my destiny to follow in the footsteps of immortals like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov, to be world champion.
But there were problems. After the movie came out I couldn’t go to a tournament without being surrounded by fans asking for autographs. Instead of focusing on chess positions, I was pulled into the image of myself as a celebrity. Since childhood I had treasured the sublime study of chess, the swim through ever-deepening layers of complexity. I could spend hours at a chessboard and stand up from the experience on fire with insight about chess, basketball, the ocean, psychology, love, art. The game was exhilarating and also spiritually calming. It centered me. Chess was my friend. Then, suddenly, the game became alien and disquieting.
I recall one tournament in Las Vegas: I was a young International Master in a field of a thousand competitors including twenty-six strong Grandmasters from around the world. As an up-and-coming player, I had huge respect for the great sages around me. I had studied their masterpieces for hundreds of hours and was awed by the artistry of these men. Before first-round play began I was seated at my board, deep in thought about my opening preparation, when the public address system announced that the subject of Searching for Bobby Fischer was at the event. A tournament director placed a poster of the movie next to my table, and immediately a sea of fans surged around the ropes separating the top boards from the audience. As the games progressed, when I rose to clear my mind young girls gave me their phone numbers and asked me to autograph their stomachs or legs.
This might sound like a dream for a seventeen-year-old boy, and I won’t deny enjoying the attention, but professionally it was a nightmare. My game began to unravel. I caught myself thinking about how I looked thinking instead of losing myself in thought. The Grandmasters, my elders, were ignored and scowled at me. Some of them treated me like a pariah. I had won eight national championships and had more fans, public support and recognition than I could dream of, but none of this was helping my search for excellence, let alone for happiness.
At a young age I came to know that there is something profoundly hollow about the nature of fame. I had spent my life devoted to artistic growth and was used to the sweaty-palmed sense of contentment one gets after many hours of intense reflection. This peaceful feeling had nothing to do with external adulation, and I yearned for a return to that innocent, fertile time. I missed just being a student of the game, but there was no escaping the spotlight. I found myself dreading chess, miserable before leaving for tournaments. I played without inspiration and was invited to appear on television shows. I smiled.
Then when I was eighteen years old I stumbled upon a little book called the Tao Te Ching, and my life took a turn. I was moved by the book’s natural wisdom and I started delving into other Buddhist and Taoist philosophical texts. I recognized that being at the pinnacle in other people’s eyes had nothing to do with quality of life, and I was drawn to the potential for inner tranquility.
On October 5, 1998, I walked into William C. C. Chen’s Tai Chi Chuan studio in downtown Manhattan and found myself surrounded by peacefully concentrating men and women floating through a choreographed set of movements. I was used to driven chess players cultivating tunnel vision in order to win the big game, but now the focus was on bodily awareness, as if there were some inner bliss that resulted from mindfully moving slowly in strange ways.
I began taking classes and after a few weeks I found myself practicing the meditative movements for hours at home. Given the complicated nature of my chess life, it was beautifully liberating to be learning in an environment in which I was simply one of the beginners — and something felt right about this art. I was amazed by the way my body pulsed with life when flowing through the ancient steps, as if I were tapping into a primal alignment.
My teacher, the world-renowned Grandmaster William C.C. Chen, spent months with me in beginner classes, patiently correcting my movements. In a room with fifteen new students, Chen would look into my eyes from twenty feet away, quietly assume my posture, and relax his elbow a half inch one way or another. I would follow his subtle instruction and suddenly my hand would come alive with throbbing energy as if he had plugged me into a soothing electrical current. His insight into body mechanics seemed magical, but perhaps equally impressive was Chen’s humility. Here was a man thought by many to be the greatest living Tai Chi Master in the world, and he patiently taught first-day novices with the same loving attention he gave his senior students.
I learned quickly, and became fascinated with the growth that I was experiencing. Since I was twelve years old I had kept journals of my chess study, making psychological observations along the way — now I was doing the same with Tai Chi.
After about six months of refining my form (the choreographed movements that are the heart of Tai Chi Chuan), Master Chen invited me to join the Push Hands class. This was very exciting, my baby steps toward the martial side of the art. In my first session, my teacher and I stood facing each other, each of us with our right leg forward and the backs of our right wrists touching. He told me to push into him, but when I did he wasn’t there anymore. I felt sucked forward, as if by a vacuum. I stumbled and scratched my head. Next, he gently pushed into me and I tried to get out of the way but didn’t know where to go. Finally I fell back on old instincts, tried to resist the incoming force, and with barely any contact Chen sent me flying into the air.
Over time, Master Chen taught me the body mechanics of nonresistance. As my training became more vigorous, I learned to dissolve away from attacks while staying rooted to the ground. I found myself calculating less and feeling more, and as I internalized the physical techniques all the little movements of the Tai Chi meditative form started to come alive to me in Push Hands practice. I remember one time, in the middle of a sparring session I sensed a hole in my partner’s structure and suddenly he seemed to leap away from me. He looked shocked and told me that he had been pushed away, but he hadn’t noticed any explosive movement on my part. I had no idea what to make of this, but slowly I began to realize the martial power of my living room meditation sessions. After thousands of slow-motion, ever-refined repetitions of certain movements, my body could become that shape instinctively. Somehow in Tai Chi the mind needed little physical action to have great physical effect.
This type of learning experience was familiar to me from chess. My whole life I had studied techniques, principles, and theory until they were integrated into the unconscious. From the outside Tai Chi and chess couldn’t be more different, but they began to converge in my mind. I started to translate my chess ideas into Tai Chi language, as if the two arts were linked by an essential connecting ground. Every day I noticed more and more similarities, until I began to feel as if I were studying chess when I was studying Tai Chi. Once I was giving a forty-board simultaneous chess exhibition in Memphis and I realized halfway through that I had been playing all the games as Tai Chi. I wasn’t calculating with chess notation or thinking about opening variations…I was feeling flow, filling space left behind, riding waves like I do at sea or in martial arts. This was wild! I was winning chess games without playing chess.
Similarly, I would be in a Push Hands competition and time would seem to slow down enough to allow me to methodically take apart my opponent’s structure and uncover his vulnerability, as in a chess game. My fascination with consciousness, study of chess and Tai Chi, love for literature and the ocean, for meditation and philosophy, all coalesced around the theme of tapping into the mind’s potential via complete immersion into one and all activities. My growth became defined by barrierlessness. Pure concentration didn’t allow thoughts or false constructions to impede my awareness, and I observed clear connections between different life experiences through the common mode of consciousness by which they were perceived.
As I cultivated openness to these connections, my life became flooded with intense learning experiences. I remember sitting on a Bermuda cliff one stormy afternoon, watching waves pound into the rocks. I was focused on the water trickling back out to sea and suddenly knew the answer to a chess problem I had been wrestling with for weeks. Another time, after completely immersing myself in the analysis of a chess position for eight hours, I had a breakthrough in my Tai Chi and successfully tested it in class that night. Great literature inspired chess growth, shooting jump shots on a New York City blacktop gave me insight about fluidity that applied to Tai Chi, becoming at peace holding my breath seventy feet underwater as a free-diver helped me in the time pressure of world championship chess or martial arts competitions. Training in the ability to quickly lower my heart rate after intense physical strain helped me recover between periods of exhausting concentration in chess tournaments. After several years of cloudiness, I was flying free, devouring information, completely in love with learning.
Before I began to conceive of this book, I was content to understand my growth in the martial arts in a very abstract manner. I related to my experience with language like parallel learning and translation of level. I felt as though I had transferred the essence of my chess understanding into my Tai Chi practice. But this didn’t make much sense, especially outside of my own head. What does essence really mean anyway? And how does one transfer it from a mental to a physical discipline?
These questions became the central preoccupation in my life after I won my first Push Hands National Championship in November 2000. At the time I was studying philosophy at Columbia University and was especially drawn to Asian thought. I discovered some interesting foundations for my experience in ancient Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, and Greek texts — Upanishadic essence, Taoist receptivity, Neo-Confucian principle, Buddhist nonduality, and the Platonic forms all seemed to be a bizarre cross-cultural trace of what I was searching for. Whenever I had an idea, I would test it against some brilliant professor who usually disagreed with my conclusions. Academic minds tend to be impatient with abstract language — when I spoke about intuition, one philosophy professor rolled her eyes and told me the term had no meaning. The need for precision forced me to think about these ideas more concretely. I had to come to a deeper sense of concepts like essence, quality, principle, intuition, and wisdom in order to understand my own experience, let alone have any chance of communicating it.
As I struggled for a more precise grasp of my own learning process, I was forced to retrace my steps and remember what had been internalized and forgotten. In both my chess and martial arts lives, there is a method of study that has been critical to my growth. I sometimes refer to it as the study of numbers to leave numbers, or form to leave form. A basic example of this process, which applies to any discipline, can easily be illustrated through chess: A chess student must initially become immersed in the fundamentals in order to have any potential to reach a high level of skill. He or she will learn the principles of endgame, middlegame, and opening play. Initially one or two critical themes will be considered at once, but over time the intuition learns to integrate more and more principles into a sense of flow. Eventually the foundation is so deeply internalized that it is no longer consciously considered, but is lived. This process continuously cycles along as deeper layers of the art are soaked in.
Very strong chess players will rarely speak of the fundamentals, but these beacons are the building blocks of their mastery. Similarly, a great pianist or violinist does not think about individual notes, but hits them all perfectly in a virtuoso performance. In fact, thinking about a “C” while playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony could be a real hitch because the flow might be lost. The problem is that if you want to write an instructional chess book for beginners, you have to dig up all the stuff that is buried in your unconscious — I had this issue when I wrote my first book, Attacking Chess. In order to write for beginners, I had to break down my chess knowledge incrementally, whereas for years I had been cultivating a seamless integration of the critical information.
The same pattern can be seen when the art of learning is analyzed: themes can be internalized, lived by, and forgotten. I figured out how to learn efficiently in the brutally competitive world of chess, where a moment without growth spells a front-row seat to rivals mercilessly passing you by. Then I intuitively applied my hard-earned lessons to the martial arts. I avoided the pitfalls and tempting divergences that a learner is confronted with, but I didn’t really think about them because the road map was deep inside me — just like the chess principles.
Since I decided to write this book, I have analyzed myself, taken my knowledge apart, and rigorously investigated my own experience. Speaking to corporate and academic audiences about my learning experience has also challenged me to make my ideas more accessible. Whenever there was a concept or learning technique that I related to in a manner too abstract to convey, I forced myself to break it down into the incremental steps with which I got there. Over time I began to see the principles that have been silently guiding me, and a systematic methodology of learning emerged.
My chess life began in Washington Square Park in New York’s Greenwich Village, and took me on a sixteen-year-roller-coaster ride, through world championships in America, Romania, Germany, Hungary, Brazil, and India, through every kind of heartache and ecstasy a competitor can imagine. In recent years, my Tai Chi life has become a dance of meditation and intense martial competition, of pure growth and the observation, testing, and exploration of that learning process. I have currently won thirteen Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands National Championship titles, placed third in the 2002 World Championship in Taiwan, and in 2004 I won the Chung Hwa Cup International in Taiwan, the World Championship of Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands.
A lifetime of competition has not cooled my ardor to win, but I have grown to love the study and training above all else. After so many years of big games, performing under pressure has become a way of life. Presence under fire hardly feels different from the presence I feel sitting at my computer, typing these sentences. What I have realized is that what I am best at is not Tai Chi, and it is not chess — what I am best at is the art of learning.
This book is the story of my method.
Below is a short video overview of The Art of Learning. Don’t miss the hilarious outtakes starting around 4:45:
Alternatively, the Audible version of the audiobook can be found here, but the author earns lower royalties than purchases through the link above.
QOD: If you’ve met or studied any world-class performers, what did you learn from them? What lessons have you learned from observing the greats? Please share in the comments!
One video letter from my quarterly mailings.
Every three months, I ship out a box of wonderful physical products, along with a video “letter” explaining how I found them and how I use them.
One such video letter is above.
The theme of these quarterly mailings is obsession–the ideas and objects I can’t get out of my head.
Obsessions enter my life from odd places. Currently, my gadgets and gear recommendations are coming from Cirque du Soleil performers, chess prodigies, Fortune 500 CEOs, and military snipers. It’s the randomness that makes it fun.
More than 1,500 people subscribe to these boxes through Quarterly.co. They are making 130 more slots available for my next shipment, which is going to be killer. You can subscribe here. If you miss TIM05, you’ll be first in line for TIM06.
Below, I describe the goodies from the last two boxes, so you can explore them a la carte.
[Note for those asking about the TFX TV show -- 13 episodes are coming soon, plus extras for iTunes season pass holders!]
Scroll to below the photos for descriptions and links.
1. Vagabonding book — one of my all-time favorites — signed by author Rolf Potts - This is one of two books I took around the world with me for approximately 18 months. I love it so much that I bought the rights to the audiobook, worked with Rolf to add new case studies, and had him narrate an updated version. Listen to a free sample here.
2. Soma Water Filter - The water filter I use and show off to friends. More details in the video at the top of this post.
3. STX Lacrosse Ball - My all-around fix for muscular issues including foot ache (e.g. plantar fasciitis), tight chest (which can cause back pain), and more.
6. Red Blossom Pu-erh Tea - This is the tea I currently drink every morning, especially when experimenting with Intermittent Fasting (IF).
This box was an experiment that included both physical and digital items, including one-of-a-kind remixes and welcome videos from band members and movie directors.
Even excluding the value of the 15 extra and remixed songs from Beats Antique, the People in Motion extras, and the Kumare extras, the box has a retail value of $209.25.
1. Clean Bottle, The Square, $45.00 — My favorite water bottle, bar none. Click the link to see how easy it is to clean. Genius.
2. The Five Minute Journal , $22.95. This is how I’ve been practicing gratitude and focus for months now. 2.5 minutes in the morning, another 2.5 minutes at night. Simple and effective.
3. Steve’s Grass-Fed Paleostix, $5.50. Need a slow-carb or Paleo snack? This one will do the trick.
4. CLEAR card, 4 months free trial, $60 value. This is how I skip airport security lines, saving my sanity and hundreds of hours a year.
5. Kumare, $21.73, including two albums of unreleased music, as well as behind-the-scenes photos. This is one of my favorite documentaries of the last 5 years. It blends reality and illusion into an amazing fabric. Check it out.
6. Beats Antique custom drive containing 7 (!) of their albums, as well as a special group of remixes and extras. I fell in love with Beats Antique at one of their live performances in SF. Their “electronic gypsy” music (as they’d describe it), combined with sensual dance, was mesmerizing.
To understand exactly what I mean, skip to 7:15 in the below video for one of my favorite songs (“Beauty Beats“). For the full sexy, play all 25+ minutes in the background while you work:
Here are the albums I included in the box:
Collide 2008, $8.99
Tribal Derivations 2007, $8.99
Contraption (EP Vol.1), $6.23
Contraption, Vol. II 2012, $7.92
Blind Threshold 2010, $8.99
Elektrafone 2011, $8.99
The Trunk Archives, $3.96
7. People in Motion – Documentary on parkour and freerunning, including custom-designed bracelet drive and extras.
Want to get the next box of random goodness? Just sign up here! Wait until you see what’s coming…
Question of the day: What types of items would you like to see in future Quarterly mailings and blog posts like this?
Charlie Hoehn was a full-time employee of mine during the making and launch of The 4-Hour Body. It was an intense period.
In this post, Charlie will share his M.E.D. (Minimum Effective Dose) for overcoming anxiety and managing workaholism. There are six techniques in total.
If you haven’t already, be sure to read his previous post on preventing burnout.
Do you feel a constant sense of dread? Do you have trouble breathing, relaxing, and sleeping? Do you worry that you’re losing control, or that you’re going to die?
In other words: are you trapped in your own personal hell?
I’ve been there (here’s the backstory), and I know what it’s like. Shallow breathing, tension in the gut, chest pains, rapid heartbeat… Every moment is exhausting, crushing, and painful. Anxiety destroys your confidence, your productivity, your relationships, and your ability to enjoy life.
For a long time, I thought I was going crazy. I was convinced that something horribly wrong was about to happen. I tired and afraid all the time, and I didn’t know how to shake it. One half of me pretended to be normal while the other half tried to keep it together.
I tried everything: meditation, yoga, high-intensity workouts, long runs, therapy, therapy books, keeping a journal, super clean diets, extended fasting, drugs, deep breathing exercises, prayer, etc. I even took a six-week course, made specifically for men who wanted to overcome anxiety.
What I discovered is that the most effective “cures” for anxiety are often free, painless, and fun. When I was doing the six techniques I cover in this post on a daily basis, I was able to get back to my normal self in less than one month.
It’s my sincerest hope that this post helps you eliminate your anxiety, once and for all. Surprisingly, it’s not as hard as you think…
1. Enjoy Guilt-Free Play with Friends
“A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind.”
— Stuart Brown
When I asked Tim for his advice on overcoming anxiety, he said, “Remember to EXERCISE daily. That is 80% of the battle.”
I completely agree. Exercise is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. But what’s the best type of exercise? Running on the treadmill for an hour? Doing hundreds of sit-ups? Self-inflicted torture via P90X?
How about ‘None of the Above.’ All of those activities are miserable. People only do them because they think getting in shape has to be a punishment.
Exercise does not have to feel like work; it can be play. In other words, physical movement that gets your heart racing, causes you to sweat, and is legitimately FUN for you and your friends. You don’t have to track your time, measure your heart rate, or count your calories. Forget all that noise. Just focus on having fun while moving around with your friends.
In my experience, the best forms of anxiety-reducing play are outdoor sports. They are social (more than one person is required), mildly competitive, and cause everyone to break a sweat in the fresh air and sunshine. However, any fun play activity that you can do on a regular basis with your friends should work.
Almost every weekend, my friends and I play home run derby or go to the driving range. For me, taking batting practice or hitting golf balls is the most rewarding form of play. Plus it gives me an excuse to move around outside for an hour or two.
I also take frequent trips to the park with an Aerobie Flying Ring (a flat rubber Frisbee that flies really fast). The Aerobie is perfect for playing because I have to call up a friend to join me, and we both end up running around chasing it.
Incorporating play into my weekly routine helped my anxiety and workaholism more than anything else. It was such a massive relief to hang out with my friends and have guilt-free fun again. Playing helped me decompress and unplug from work, which actually made me more productive.
After each round of catch or home run derby, I would return to my laptop feeling light and happy. And to my surprise, I was able to produce better work at a faster pace. My brain was operating at a higher level because it was happy, playful, and recharged. And I wasn’t the only one who attested to a boost in productivity and creativity because of play.
[Note from Tim: Exercise also elicits measurable biochemical effects (like increased BDNF production) that improve cognitive performance.]
My friend Ann (a book editor) texted me one afternoon to say that she was trying to work, but was so bored that she’d spent the last hour staring at a turtle swimming in a pond. I told her to come pick me up so we could play catch. We drove over to a park and played with the Aerobie for two hours in the sun. The next day, she sent me this message:
All work and no play makes Jack an anxious boy — literally. Isolating yourself erodes your health, and sitting in a chair all day is a recipe for neuroses. Get off the Internet, turn off your screens, and go have guilt-free fun playing with your friends! You’ll be less anxious, less lonely, more relaxed, and a whole lot happier.
DO IT NOW
Schedule a daily reminder to Play. Ask a friend, co-worker, or neighbor to play catch. Search Yelp.com for “co-ed sports” or “improv comedy,” then sign up. For a negligible fee, you get to be surrounded by fun people who like to play. Totally worth it.
You can take baby steps toward playing more, of course. You could invite a friend on a long walk, or play catch instead of drinking coffee, or take a date to the driving range. The important thing is to schedule guilt-free fun with good people.
Aim for 30 minutes per day (or more, if possible). Reducing your anxiety through play only takes 2% of your total time each week, but it’s up to you to decide that your happiness is worth the effort.
[Note from Tim: Schedule this recreation in advance or it won't happen. If you're a type-A personality, work will swell to fill your unfilled calendar.]
Free, or very cheap. Try not to think of play in terms of costs. This is an investment in your health and happiness, with a guaranteed return.
Aerobie Flying Ring. This is the best toy for playing catch. It’s light, durable, portable, and extremely fun.
Charlie’s Play Picks. Check out my list of fun activities and toys.
Play by Dr. Stuart Brown. If you want to read more about the science behind play and its essential role in fueling happiness, pick up a copy of this book. It’s fantastic. Also worth reading: The Play Deficit (article) by Peter Gray.
2. Unplug from All Sources of News
“Learning to ignore things is one of the great paths to inner peace.”
— Robert J. Sawyer
It took me a long time to see it, but the news was my single biggest source of anxiety.
The websites I was reading each day talked non-stop about crime, corruption, economic breakdown, and the end of the world. As a result, my fear of being attacked spun out of control. I became obsessed with protecting myself from every possible threat. I researched what to do if I was arrested and thrown in jail. I spent hundreds of dollars on food and equipment that I hoped would save me in the event of a disaster.
There was nothing inherently wrong with preparing for an emergency, but obsessing over apocalyptic scenarios, every day, for months on end?
One day, it finally dawned on me: my fear of an imaginary future was destroying my ability to enjoy the present.
And what planted those seeds of fear? The news.
When I made the commitment to cut the news out of my life completely — no TV, no conspiracy sites or “truth deliverer” blogs, ignoring / blocking every sensationalist link I came across on social media, etc. — my anxiety plummeted in less than two weeks. The negative information I removed from my conscious awareness freed me from the confines of other people’s frightening narratives.
I replaced the scary news with positive, joyful, and fun information. For instance, I listened to uplifting songs and standup comedy. I watched improv, and classic funny & happy movies. I read fun books that sparked my imagination and touched my soul. It really helped.
Of course, I didn’t bury my head in the sand. I still talked with my friends, who would inevitably bring up the noteworthy events that took place that week. And I was always surprised to discover that… I didn’t really miss anything. I was alive, and the world kept turning. That was about it.
The information you allow into your conscious awareness determines the quality of your life. In other words, you are what you think. If you are subsisting on content that’s unsettling, anxious, and soulless (see: the news, reality shows, horror movies, books written by hateful authors, porn), your mind will become stressed, scared, and cynical.
But if you are consuming content that’s joyous and playful, your mind will become happy and loving. Simple as that.
DO IT NOW
Cut anxiety-inducing information – especially the news – out of your daily routine completely! If your friends are watching the news in the same room, either change the channel or go do something else. If a scary headline appears in your Facebook feed, don’t click it – block it.
There’s no need to subject yourself to unhealthy unrealities. Replace those unsettling thoughts with positive content that will uplift you.
The “Anti-News” List. My favorite anxiety-fighting content. Just remember: Sad people tend to focus on the lyrics, while happy people just listen to the music. Don’t over-analyze the deeper implications of the art; just enjoy how it makes you feel.
BONUS POINTS: Flip the Shut-Off Switch
Whenever I’m feeling burned out, I have to force myself to unplug.
I relocate to a scenic environment where the skyline isn’t cluttered with buildings or human activity, then I disconnect from every device with a screen for a minimum of 24 hours. That means no texting, no calling, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram, and no Seinfeld. Only nature, face-to-face interactions, and books are allowed.
Unplugged nature vacations are incredibly refreshing. My mind always feels like a stuffy room that gets a sudden rush of fresh air. Instead of feeling tired all day long from a steady diet of internet content, I’m rejuvenated by real life again.
Give yourself permission to stop working and unplug. Don’t feel guilty for taking time off. This isn’t an escape from the real world – it’s a chance to reconnect with it.
3. Consistent Bedtime & Afternoon Naps
“My girlfriend asked me, ‘Did you sleep good?’ I said ‘No, I made a few mistakes.’”
— Steven Wright
I really can’t overemphasize the importance of consistent quality sleep. Every anxious person I’ve met has either been in denial about how little sleep they get, or they’re overlooking the fact that they’re going to bed at random hours every night.
One of my readers wrote this message to me after reading an early draft of my book:
“When I began forcing myself to sleep eight hours a night, my physical health problems cleared up, my emotions balanced out, and my anxiety disappeared. My mind could function and that tight feeling around my eyes vanished. Eight hours of sleep is a miracle pill.”
I was chronically in a severe sleep deficit, which took a major toll on my mental health.
The endless stream of digital information I was taking in every waking hour only compounded the problem. And because I kept going to bed at random hours, my mind never had enough time to shut down, relax, and digest everything that poured in during the day.
During the month I cured my anxiety, I made consistent sleep one of my highest priorities. The first thing I did was optimize my bedroom for ideal sleeping conditions. Here are the steps I took:
- Plugged my iPhone charger in an outlet far away from my bed so I couldn’t grab my phone while I was laying down. This little obstacle prevented me from checking Facebook or watching Youtube before trying to fall asleep. [Note from Tim: I always put my iPhone on Airplane Mode or turn it off while sleeping. Even on silent, the illumination of arriving text messages is enough to wake or aggravate me.]
- Cranked up the air conditioning so the temperature in my bedroom was around 68 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Kept the curtains drawn and wore a sleep mask so that my room was as dark as I could possibly make it.
Once my room was optimized, I committed to a consistent bedtime. I set a daily reminder on my iPhone called “Get Ready for Bed,” which went off at 10:00PM every night (i.e. nine hours before I wanted to wake up). As soon as it went off, I’d stop whatever I was doing, hit the bathroom, brush my teeth, and change out of my day clothes. I was dead serious about obeying my phone’s command. Even if I was in the middle of a conversation, I’d abruptly end it so I could get ready for bed.
After I finished getting ready, I’d switch my phone to silent mode, plug it into the charger that was far away from my bed, and lay down to read fiction for 15 minutes (No business or “thinking” books allowed). Then I’d turn off the lights and focus on the rhythm of my breathing until I fell asleep.
It took several nights to adjust to this change, but within a week, I was sleeping like a champion. The key was getting ready at the same time every night. It set me in motion toward getting in bed, and ultimately re-trained my body to crave sleep at a reasonable hour.
There was another aspect of my sleep routine that was critical for healing my anxiety: I took a 20-minute nap every afternoon.
Each day, immediately after I finished lunch, I would find a spot to nap – a couch, a bench, a reclined car seat, a carpeted floor, a friend’s wedding…
I’d set an alarm on my phone for 20 minutes, lie on my back, and close my eyes. I never tried to fall asleep; I just relaxed and focused on breathing in and out. Even if I didn’t fall asleep (10-20% of the time), I always felt refreshed and calm when my alarm went off.
Naps are awesome. I wish I could be a salesman for naps. We all took them every day when we were kids, so… why should we stop taking them just because we’re older? Take a quick nap in the afternoon, even if you have to cut your lunch break short. Then force yourself to get ready for bed at the same time every night. You’ll be more relaxed, more productive, and far less anxious.
DO IT NOW
Set a daily reminder on your phone to “Get Ready for Bed,” nine hours prior to your target wake time. Set another reminder to take a nap after lunch. Plug your cell phone charger in an outlet that’s far away from your bed. Cover your windows so your bedroom is as dark as possible. Drop the temperature in your bedroom to 68 degrees.
Aim for 8 hours of consistent quality sleep each night, and one 20-minute nap every afternoon.
Sweet Dreams Sleep Mask. The light! It buuurns! Use this mask to block it out.
Flux. The bright white light that you refer to as your “computer” might be disrupting your internal rhythm. Download the free Flux application to have your screen’s lighting automatically switch to a sunset hue in the evening.
Philips Wake-up Light. If you despise alarms as much as I do, then check out the Wake-up Light. It makes waking up gradual and pleasant.
4. Eliminate Stimulants
The physical sensations that preceded my panic attacks were the jitters (shaking hands, quivering voice) and a rapid resting heart rate. Guess what gave me both of those sensations? Coffee. And wouldn’t you know it, I was drinking 3-4 cups each day, running around like Tweek on South Park.
I decided to cut coffee out of my diet for a week. Shortly after I removed the caffeine from my bloodstream, I stopped having the jitters. My resting heart rate remained steady. The physical sensations that came with having a panic attack were no longer there, and I started calming down. [After some experimentation, I found that I could only have a half serving of coffee before I started feeling jittery. I also found that I couldn’t have caffeine past 5:00PM without disrupting my sleep routine.]
A friend of mine experienced similar results after removing aspartame. She had horrible anxiety for months but couldn’t figure out what was causing it. One day at work, she noticed that she’d finished three diet sodas in just a few hours. Her body was overloaded with caffeine and aspartame (a toxic sugar subsitute in diet drinks). As soon as she stopped drinking diet soda, her anxiety disappeared.
Sometimes, we tend to overlook the simple answers that are right in front of us. Let’s fix that.
DO IT NOW
Cut out any substance you regularly consume that’s correlated with increased feelings of anxiety. Common culprits include: caffeine, aspartame, gluten, refined sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana. Keep it out of your body for one week.
If you have that substance in your house, throw it away. If the people you spend the most time with are encouraging you to consume it, politely turn them down and do something else. If you have strong cravings for that substance, find a healthy substitute you can consume instead (e.g. water, tea, sugar-free gum).
After the substance has been out of your system for seven days, you can reassess its toxicity by consuming a typical dose you’re used to taking. If your anxiety symptoms return within one hour of ingestion, you’ve found the culprit. Try to eliminate that substance for good.
5. Trauma Releasing Exercises
[Note from Charlie: This technique is going to sound bizarre. I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical, but it worked really well for me and there’s a good amount of research to back up the benefits of T.R.E.]
One of the weirdest effects of anxiety is how much tension builds up in your body. I couldn’t even take a deep breath because my stomach always trembled, like it was being stretched to its limits. Relaxing felt physically impossible.
My body was so tense because I was constantly in fight-or-flight mode. Every day, I was producing the energy needed to survive a life-threatening event. The problem was that this event was in my mind; it was imaginary and it never took place. I had all this excess energy that wasn’t being released, so I became extremely high-strung.
A friend recommended that I check out T.R.E. — Trauma Releasing Exercises, which helped him conquer his anxiety. I watched a few videos of T.R.E. on YouTube and immediately thought it was fake. The clips showed people lying on the ground as their bodies went into spastic tremors. Their movements looked comical and freaky, like they were in the middle of an exorcism.
T.R.E. was originally designed as a safe and easy way to induce tremors. Anyone who has gone through extreme trauma, from the emotionally abused to war veterans, can use these exercises to their benefit. The exercises take about 20 minutes to complete, and they’re intended to induce tremors by exhausting your leg muscles.
I learned that tremors are a natural means for mammals to discharge excess energy after a traumatic event. The tremors release our body’s surplus of adrenaline after it’s no longer needed for survival. I watched footage of antelopes, bears, and other animals that had narrowly escaped an attack. Their bodies instinctively trembled for a few minutes, and then they’d act calm and normal again. It was fascinating.
Unlike most species, adult humans typically prevent themselves from having tremors. Why? Because we avoid behavior that makes us look weak or vulnerable. In other words, we are so self-conscious that we unknowingly block our body’s natural (yet embarrassing) function during times of great stress. As a result, we make it very difficult to overcome trauma because we’re constantly holding in so much excess energy. Thankfully, T.R.E. can help.
I bought the T.R.E. book on my Kindle and went through all the exercises. After I completed the full circuit, I lied on the ground and was STUNNED as my back, hips, and legs shook rapidly in sporadic bursts for 20 minutes. The tremors weren’t painful at all; the sensation actually felt relaxing and natural. I was just astounded by how vigorously my body shook. I looked like a vibrating cell phone. After my body’s tremors finally subsided, I went to lie down on my bed and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
I performed these exercises three nights per week, for three weeks. They were hugely effective for releasing the physical tension my body was holding in. I can’t show or describe all of the exercises here, as I don’t want to take credit for a routine I didn’t create. But if you’re interested in giving T.R.E. a shot, you can check out the book (or win a free copy by leaving a comment below — see instructions at the bottom of this post).
I know T.R.E. might sound kooky, or even a little scary. But it’s really not bad at all. It’s basically just a series of stretches that help your body thaw itself out by alleviating your chronic tension. Your tremors will definitely make your body move in strange ways though, so be sure to do these exercises in a relaxed environment where you won’t feel self-conscious.
DO IT NOW
Watch the 8-minute Tremors video on T.R.E.’s official website to see how it works.
Do the exercises every other day for three weeks. Then as needed.
$10 for the book.
Trauma Releasing Exercises. This short book explains the trauma recovery process in uncomplicated language. The last chapter includes photos and descriptions of the exercises, which elicit tremors that release deep chronic tension in the body.
6. Fix Micronutrient Deficiencies
Everyone should get tested for micronutrient deficiencies at some point. There are plenty of reasons why this is a smart move, but the most obvious is because of our changing soil.
The vegetables we eat absorb their nutrients from the soil they grow in, and the purity (and depth) of our topsoil has been severely compromised through hyper-aggressive/monoculture agriculture and mining. So even if you are eating a seemingly natural and well-balanced diet, you could still be deficient in key nutrients your brain and body need in order to function properly. Broccoli in one place doesn’t necessarily equal broccoli in another, for instance. Where you get your produce matters; they could be chock-full or devoid of the vitamins, etc. depending on where you source.
Below are two of the most common nutrient deficiencies that tend to amplify anxiety:
- The Vitamin B club. A lot of people are deficient in B-12 (methylcobalamin — found in meat), but others might be deficient in B-2 (riboflavin — found in yogurt, spinach, almonds, and eggs), or B-5 (pantothenic acid — found in avocados, mushrooms, and sweet potatoes), or B-6 (pyridoxal phosphate — found in tuna, chicken, turkey, and cod). Fortunately, it’s possible to get the recommended dose of all the B vitamins by taking a B-complex pill once per day.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. You can find omega-3 in salmon, fish oil, hemp seeds, and flax seeds. I take 2-4 servings of Nordic Natural’s cod liver oil pills each day, which contains a solid dose of the three fatty acids: EPA, DHA, and ALA.
For a few months, I was feeling unusually fatigued. I had no idea what was causing it. I was getting good sleep, I was eating healthy, and I was exercising regularly. I did some research, and found that I had a ton of symptoms for Vitamin B-12 deficiency: I felt mildly depressed, I had very little motivation, I was short of breath, my brain was foggy, and my fingers occasionally went numb.
Vitamin B-12 is in meat, fish, and certain dairy products (if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you’re likely deficient in B-12). The normal range for B-12 is between 500 and 1,000 pg/ml (picograms per milliliter), and if your levels fall below 500 pg/ml, your brain ages twice as fast. In other words, if your body isn’t absorbing enough B-12, your mind rapidly deteriorates and stops functioning properly. Holy Guacamole!
When I got tested for B-12 deficiency, the results showed that my levels were 200 pg/ml — less than half of the minimum amount my body required. Even though I was eating meat almost every single day, I was still massively deficient.
I immediately began supplementing with Vitamin B-12 pills — 1,000 mcg every day, sublingually (under the tongue). Within one week, I could already feel a difference. I was less foggy and more energetic. When I got tested again for B-12 a month later, my levels had shot up to 529 pg/ml. I was back in the normal range.
A few of my friends took micronutrient deficiency tests, as well. None of them had B-12 levels as low as mine, but they were all deficient in something. One found he was deficient in magnesium. Another was deficient in selenium, while another was deficient in potassium. All of them took measures to correct their deficiencies, brought their levels back up to the normal ranges, and felt like new people. Their minds were clear and sharp, and their energy went through the roof.
One final note on deficiencies: It’s possible that your gut isn’t absorbing nutrients properly. If you suspect that’s the case, you might consider taking a probiotic supplement to introduce more healthy bacteria into your GI tract. You can also get more healthy bacteria by eating fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi.
DO IT NOW
Research the nutrients mentioned above to see if you might be deficient.
Once you’ve been tested for deficiencies, ingest an ample amount of the desired nutrients (via food or supplements) for 30 days. Get tested again and re-assess.
Varies, depending on whether you’re ingesting food or supplements (pills average less than $1.50 per day). $80 for the B-12 deficiency test at Any Lab Test Now. $400 for the micronutrient test. I know, I know – it’s expensive.
[None of these resources are affiliate links. Neither Tim nor I will earn money if you decide to make a purchase through them.]
Any Lab Test Now. You can get tested for deficiencies in just a few minutes at Any Lab Test Now and have the results emailed to you within 48 hours. You can also get micronutrient tests at your doctor’s office, but (depending on which state you’re in) they will probably make you jump through a few hoops first.
Spectracell. This is the micronutrient testing lab Tim used to uncover his selenium deficiency (he used Brazil nuts to correct it).
Vitamin B-Complex Caps. This covers all of your bases for the B vitamins. These pills are free from common allergens, like soy, yeast, barley, wheat, and lactose.
Some people have been on the ride for a long time, and they begin to question, “Is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and they say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”
- Bill Hicks
I couldn’t see it for a long time, but I was the creator of my own anxious reality.
I didn’t allow myself to have fun. I never slept. I drank coffee all day while staring at screens. I consumed fear-mongering news that convinced me the end was near. People absorbed and reflected my nervousness back at me, and my anxiety perpetuated itself.
I’m not crippled with anxiety anymore, and I’m not burned out. Now, my state of mind is different.
I allow myself to have guilt-free fun in everything I do. The world is a playground, my work is a game, and life is a ride. And you know what? I feel 100 times better than I ever thought I would. I’m back to my normal self.
And I have no fear that those awful feelings will ever return, because I know the antidote — play.
# # #
Want a free copy of Charlie’s book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety?
Leave a comment below with your favorite technique for managing or overcoming anxiety.
The top 20 comments, as selected by Charlie, will receive:
Charlie Hoehn first reached out to me in 2008 through Ramit Sethi.
Shortly thereafter, I hired him as a part-time intern. Eventually, he became a full-time employee.
For three years, we worked together on a number of projects, most notably the The 4-Hour Body and the Opening the Kimono event. Charlie’s responsibilities ranged from “professional” tasks (planning VIP parties, assembling scandalous guest posts, coordinating logistics for 15,000 orders during the Land Rush campaign, etc.) to productive tomfoolery (epic grocery shopping sprees, editing vajayjay photos, photographing giraffe make outs, persuading me to swallow 25 pills at once).
It was one hell of a ride. We had a lot of fun, and we had some huge successes.
From day one, Charlie expressed a constant desire to become a hyper-efficient and effective entrepreneur. His role expanded as he requested more responsibilities (“What else can I do to help?” he’d ask me repeatedly), and we often found ourselves juggling several projects at once.
Most of the time, we handled it well. And as Charlie’s comfort zone stretched, his confidence increased, his communication and abilities improved, and our day-to-day operations were generally strife-free. We worked well together.
Then — in the middle of making The 4-Hour Chef – he suddenly quit. It hit me like a ton of bricks.
Finding work-life balance (or work-life “separation,” as I prefer) in a connected world is challenging. Speaking personally, I’m either 100% ON (for book launches, creative deadlines, etc.) or 100% OFF (such as my recent excursion to Bali). This ability to hit the shut-off switch helps me remain sane, separate work from pleasure, and it usually prevents me from burning out.
In this post, Charlie will share his story: what it was like to work with me for three years, and what led up to his burnout.
For all Type-A driven readers — especially those who struggle with the shut-off switch — this one is for you…
My brain felt swollen, like it was pushing against my skull. I looked down at my iPhone. Good lord. 60 hours straight. Wide awake, no sleep, for 60 hours straight. Yet I was still lively and sharp, thanks to the magic pill.
For four days, I’d supercharged my energy with a powerful nootropic; a brain drug typically reserved for fighter pilots and narcoleptics. If you’ve seen the movie Limitless, well, that pill actually exists. The drug’s primary function is to silence the body’s pleas for sleep. Lucky for me. Rest was a luxury I couldn’t afford.
I’d secretly taken this brain drug, without my boss knowing, so I could be great at my job. I was in charge of coordinating the Opening the Kimono event — a private conference on next-generation content marketing, hosted by Tim Ferriss.
Most attendees knew Tim for his two mega-bestselling books: The 4-Hour Workweek and The 4-Hour Body. The driving themes of Tim’s work were effectiveness and efficiency — getting better results, in less time, with less effort.
In The 4HB, Tim revealed how to lose 20 pounds of fat in one month (without exercise), how to triple fat loss with cold exposure, and how to produce 15-minute female orgasms. Both books sold more than a million copies each, and Tim was a star in the publishing world.
In addition to being a bestselling author, Tim was also a successful angel investor and advisor (his portfolio included Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Evernote, and many others). He was also — and I’m not exaggerating — a Chinese kickboxing champion, a horseback archer, a world record holder in tango, and a polyglot (fluent in five languages).
I’d been working with Tim for nearly three years as his Director of Special Projects. It was a dream job that I’d worked hard to land, and I’d reaped countless benefits. In the time we’d known each other, he’d personally introduced me to a wide array of amazing people: mega-successful CEO’s, brilliant tech entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, world-class athletes, inventors, robotics engineers, pickup artists, jet-setting casino owners, supermodels… The list was endless. My network went from “average” to “insane” simply by being around him.
He’d also given me a world-class education (I’d guess 3-5 MBAs combined), and helped build my portfolio into a showcase of incredible work.
I was 25 years old at the time, living in Russian Hill in San Francisco. Each morning, I’d walk over to my neighborhood café, sit down with my laptop, and work until nightfall on my weekly tasks. Whenever I finished a given job, I’d ask Tim for more work. Things multiplied quickly, and I soon had a plethora of responsibilities: assistant, researcher, editor, marketer, videographer, photographer, customer service, project manager… And then, I was his conference coordinator. Opening The Kimono was my biggest challenge to date.
More than 130 authors and entrepreneurs, from all over the world, paid $10,000 apiece for admission to Tim’s conference. And while I was confident we would successfully make it through this four-day event, I was also completely overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. There were so many moving parts.
I was terrified of screwing up. If something went wrong, I would need to fix it with superhuman speed. Somehow, I had to stay awake for the entire event…
And so, in my desperation, I visited an overseas pharmaceutical website, where I ordered the most powerful brain drug on the market.
The pills arrived just before the event. I took one every morning. Each day, I expected to pass out randomly from exhaustion. But it never happened; I stayed alert and wide-awake the whole time. The pills really, really worked. During the course of the four-day seminar, I slept a grand total of six hours. And just as I’d hoped, I was great at my job.
The event was a whirlwind, but we managed to pull it off. On the final day, everyone gave us a standing ovation. Attendees ran up to hug us and said it was the best conference they’d ever been to. Our inboxes were filled with dozens of glowing reviews and thank you notes.
I was in shock. After months of working around the clock, we’d exceeded all expectations, including our own. Tim gave me a hearty congratulations, and said he was amazed how well we’d done.
I was proud, happy, and very tired when I arrived back home. But later that night, my body started sending out emergency signals, warning me that something horribly wrong was happening.
My heart was racing. My vision was blurred. I had a pounding headache that wouldn’t stop. Sounds drifted sluggishly into my ears, and I could barely stand upright.
For the first time in my life, I felt completely and utterly burned out.
# # #
A few days later, I went back to work. We were just getting started on our next big project: The 4-Hour Chef.
Two years prior, I helped Tim edit and launch his second book, The 4-Hour Body. I was immensely proud to have played a part in the book’s success; it was the pinnacle of my career. On the other hand, The 4-Hour Body had been the most stressful undertaking of my life. Tim and I half-joked that the book nearly killed us. I was hesitant to jump in for round two.
Tim offered to double my salary if I helped him complete The 4-Hour Chef.
It was a generous offer, and I was immediately interested in taking it. I’d be making more money than I’d know what to do with, and I’d have another cool achievement under my belt. What did I have to lose? After a moment’s pause, we shook on it.
I felt incredibly fortunate to be in that position, especially since so many people I knew were either unemployed or working in jobs they hated. My family and friends all congratulated me. From a distance, things looked great.
But on the inside, I was flailing. I’d completely lost balance, and I couldn’t see that I was destroying myself.
I was addicted to my work. You see, I liked to think of myself as busy and important, so I tethered myself to the Internet seven days a week. I communicated with everyone through screens. I spent all day long sitting indoors. I drank coffee all week, and drank alcohol all weekend. I only stopped working when I was sleeping. And then I stopped sleeping.
I just couldn’t stop myself from working all the time. I wanted to be indispensable, the best in the world at running operations. It didn’t matter what else was going on in my life or if I started feeling sick; work was everything to me. Practically everyone I met in the tech scene behaved the same way.
So many of my friends and colleagues were workaholics.
Several buddies of mine were pulling 16-hour workdays. My friend in medical school was popping Adderall like candy. All of us were destroying ourselves during the week, and punishing our livers on the weekend. We didn’t take vacations. We didn’t take breaks. Work was life.
Here’s the thing: I was a workaholic long before I met Tim.
I’d always stayed up late. I’d always spent hours at a time staring at screens. The difference now was that my state of mind had changed. Now, the results mattered more than the process. I took everything very seriously because I thought I was so important — there was money and success on the line! And I wanted to be the best at dominating life.
Predictably, life stopped being fun.
Each week, I felt increasingly sick, exhausted, and apathetic. My eyes sunk back and grew dark circles beneath them. My forehead developed thick stress lines.
My hands started shaking. I felt like I was always on the verge of crying. I didn’t understand what was wrong with me, so I just tried to work my way through it.
Then the deadline for The 4-Hour Chef got pushed back three months.
Then a family member died.
Then a close friend attempted suicide.
When Tim and I met up for dinner the following week, I told him very meekly:
“I can’t do this anymore. I have to quit.”
# # #
Tim didn’t argue with me.
He understood where I was coming from, and offered his support in whatever I was going to do next. It was a massive relief to part on amicable terms, but I felt weaker than ever. I was already feeling the pressure to get back to work, but what would I do? My identity was gone. I decided to take a couple weeks off. Then another week… And another…
I spent the next three months being unemployed and feeling awful. Every day, I’d go through the motions of my old routine without actually doing anything. I compulsively checked email all day long, stayed up until 4:00AM, and slept a few hours each night. I received a handful of job offers and turned them all down, recoiling at the thought of having to go back to work.
The worst part was the guilt. I felt enormously guilty every second I wasn’t doing something that could advance my career or earn money. I would pace around like a neurotic rat, coming up with random chores to distract myself. When the chores were finished, I’d think, “Okay… Now what?” Any activity that didn’t feel productive – sleeping in, watching TV, taking a trip – filled me with regret. There was this gnawing sense that I was wasting time. I was losing money. And yet, I had no desire to work.
I started wondering if I’d screwed up my life very badly. Hadn’t I been living the dream? Did I just throw away everything I’d worked for? I started feeling very anxious. I wanted to do something big, to reinvent my career, to make a name for myself so I could be successful. What that something would be, I didn’t know.
Then one day, two of my friends, Chad Mureta (whom I’d met at the Kimono event) and Jason Adams, suggested that we start a mobile app company together. They were both sharp entrepreneurs and savvy marketers, and Chad was already making millions from the apps he’d developed.
Finally, I thought, here’s a job that makes sense. I could be one of the founders of a cool tech startup, working on fun projects with my smart friends, in one of the most exciting industries on the planet. The Draw Something app had recently been acquired for $250 million, then Facebook acquired Instagram for $1 billion. I thought, This gig might make me a millionaire by the end of the year! This is it…
I was so relieved to feel productive again. I strolled into the office each day to work on my laptop until late in the evening. I sat down, stared at my computer screen for several hours, and drank coffee. When I got home, I worked on my laptop until 4:00AM, slept for a few hours, then started all over again.
We spent the first month putting together an online course called App Empire, which walked people through the entire process of starting their own app business. It required many sleepless nights to get it finished on time, but we managed to pull it off.
The launch of the course was a success, raking in $2 million dollars in revenue over the course of 10 days.
If you said “WTF!” after reading that last sentence, I don’t blame you. But our results were somewhat typical in the high-cost information product world. When you combine a $2,000 course with a huge list of potential customers (and three guys who know a lot about online marketing), you get a multi-million dollar product launch.
We spent the next two months doing weekly webinars, walking customers through each lesson and answering their questions. In our spare time, we worked on our app ideas.
At some point in the third month, I realized: I didn’t care about apps. I knew how to make them, and I knew how to succeed in the app market, but I just didn’t care. I didn’t really use apps and I never got excited about them.
I asked myself, Why am I really doing this work? Well, the job gave me an excuse to hang out with my friends during the day, rather than being holed up alone in my apartment. But that was only a small part of it. The honest answer was:
Status. Money. Guilt.
I wanted to impress other people with my “success” of founding a company. I wanted to be rich. And I wanted to avoid feeling bad for not working.
The problem was… I didn’t really care about what I was doing. There was this weird disconnect, like apps should have been the natural progression in my career. But it just never felt right. It felt forced.
I quit my job that week.
Once again, I experienced “success” and walked away from it. Only this time, I was riddled with anxiety.
I started to think I was going to be punished for not being productive, for not making money, for not having my life figured out. I didn’t know how or when, but I was certain it was going to happen. Everything was coming to a head. It was only a matter of time before something terrible happened…
# # #
I was in a bad place for a long time after I quit those jobs.
I was too ashamed and proud to reach out to anyone for help, so I bottled my feelings up and stumbled around for the next year. It was the worst I’ve ever felt in my life.
It’d be very easy for me to manufacture a villain in this story. I could tell you that I was pushed too hard, or that no one cared about how I felt. But that’s not the truth. I was the one who chose to stay up until 4:00AM. I was the one pouring caffeine down my throat four times a day. I was the one who secretly ordered brain pills. I was the one who isolated myself from friends and kept my feelings hidden. Everything I did that fueled my anxiety was my choice.
The truth is that all of my emotional issues would have unfolded for me at some point in my life, regardless of whom I was working with. I was the creator of my own anxiety, and I was the one who broke myself with my workaholic habits. I just didn’t recognize how destructive my behavior was because I thought it was normal.
I wish someone had held up a mirror to show me I was the problem, but that never happened. No one knew the full extent of my situation but me, and I was in denial. It’s worth taking a moment to ask yourself:
— Do I feel guilty or anxious when I’m not working?
— Have I stopped playing with my friends?
— Do all of my daily activities revolve around building a more successful career?
— Am I always sleeping fewer than eight hours per night?
— Am I consuming stimulants multiple times per day to hide my exhaustion?
— Am I sitting still and staring at screens for most of my waking hours?
— Do I interact with people primarily through screens?
— Am I indoors all day long, depriving myself of fresh air and sunlight?
— Do I depend on alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations outside of work?
If you said ‘yes’ to most of those questions, you are not alone. When I was at my worst, I was doing all of these things on a daily basis. I was fueling my own anxiety and I couldn’t even see it.
My perceived lack of productivity, lack of money, and the unknown future kept me in a constant state of panic. Every day was a haze of fear and exhaustion. For more than a year, I tried everything to pull myself out of this state of living death. Nothing seemed to help, and I nearly lost hope.
Then one night, I had my first major breakthrough, which laid the foundation to cure my anxiety. This breakthrough happened in a flash. The emotional burden of non-stop worry was lifted, and I could finally breathe again.
It wasn’t hard. It didn’t cost me anything. It was only a choice.
TIM: To be continued in Part 2, where Charlie will describe the step-by-step process he used to reverse his descent into darkness (and we’ve all been there, including me).
I also learned a lot from Charlie’s struggles. First and foremost: As a boss, you cannot assume that someone is resting and recovering properly. You must ensure it. Employees out of sight does not equal employees out of the inbox.
Don’t want to wait for Part 2? Take a look at Charlie’s new book, Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, which includes all the techniques he used to get his life back on track.
(Photo: Aaron Benitez)
Would you like to win one of four laptops (and a dozen other items) that I used to write three bestselling books?
This post details how to get them.
All funds raised will go to the EFF. More on this important organization later…
To start off, let’s take a look at the laptops.
They’ve traveled with me through more than 20 countries. Nearly all of my biggest successes since 2004 can be traced to these machines. Hard drives are not included (sorry!), but good karma and mojo is.
Pics are below, and here are basics:
The Acer with “Brazilian Top Team” sticker — This was used for all the notes that became the original 4-Hour Workweek. It was bought in Berlin in 2004 and traveled with me for nearly 18 months around the world, including the Tango World Championships in Buenos Aires (in the “Intro” to 4HWW) and much more.
The Sony Vaio with California sticker — This was used for the very first full draft of The 4-Hour Workweek.
MacBook Pro with tons of stickers — This was used to write The 4-Hour Body, start to finish.
Before the pics, please note that I’m offering more than laptops. More than a dozen other items will be available starting tomorrow (2/13/14), including a brand-new (never opened) GoPro Hero3 Black Edition, a pair of LSTN Ebony Wood Troubadours headphones, high end digital scales, and a ton more.
How to Get This Stuff
The auctions will start at noon on Thursday, February 13th on FOBO.
If you’re in San Francisco and haven’t tried it, it’s a slick new app for selling electronics in less than 2 hours; I’m an investor and love it.
Rather than their normal 97-minute auctions, in which everything posted is guaranteed to sell, FOBO is doing special 4-hour auctions. It’ll be a lot of fun, and every dollar goes to the EFF.
Please note – Since FOBO is currently limited to San Francisco, be sure to:
- Join from within city limits, or
- Have a friend in SF make your offers for you.
Hope to see you during the auctions!
More About The EFF
I’m a long-time supporter of the EFF, The Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Simply put, they defend your rights in a digital world, where companies and governments can monitor and abuse you. They’re currently fighting the NSA’s massive phone and online surveillance activities. Even if you don’t participate in the above auctions, I hope you donate to support them.
More — Based in San Francisco, the EFF is a donor-supported membership organization working to protect fundamental rights regarding technology; to educate the press, policymakers and the general public about civil liberties issues related to technology; and to act as a defender of those liberties.
There are dozens of topics covered in this wine-infused, bromantic episode of scatterbrained nonsense.
Like what? Well, plans for 2014, firearms, tech finds and start-up talk, the goodness of Zelda, favorite recent books, and much more. O-tanoshimi dane!
One special offer:
If you sign up as one of the first 100 beta testers for Shyp (click here) and ship anything — I suggest a book for a friend or family member — you’ll get the following:
- A $10 credit
- A free copy of The 4-Hour Workweek, signed by yours truly! Limited to first 100 to ship.
Special thanks to reader Jonathan Hsieh of ClickPlayCEU for the show notes below, which include links to almost everything we mention…
Hat tip to everyone who put notes in the comments!
SHOW NOTES — Random Show 23
Commitment this year: Once per month doing something that I look back on and say – “That was an amazing life experience.”
The Bay Lights
Mag Tactical – Kevin’s Trigger Cage for AR
3-day Meditation Retreat
http://noetic.org/ (Tim’s rec)
Some of Tim’s commitments this year:
- See the Northern Lights
- Fly fishing, potentially in Montana
- Surfing in Costa Rica
- Heli-skiing in Alaska or elsewhere
Target Gold Tipped Socks
Kevin’s upping his game: CK boxer micro briefs (amazon) –
Bill Harlan – Harlan Estate
The Essential Scratch and Sniff Guide to Becoming a Wine Expert
2007 Clos de los Siete, from Mendoza
Tim Ferriss 3-Minute Breakfast
Zelda a Link Between Worlds (3ds)
Tim Ferriss Book Club
The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 1)
If you want to write a bestselling book, don’t reinvent the wheel.
I get at least a dozen email a week from friends who want to write books.
After three #1 bestsellers from 2007 to 2012, and publishing in 35+ countries, I’ve tried a lot. Having experimented with everything from “traditional” (Random House) to Amazon Publishing, from BitTorrent Bundles to self-publishing audiobooks, I’ve developed strong opinions about…
- What works and what doesn’t.
- What sucks and what doesn’t.
- What makes the most money and what doesn’t.
This post is intended to answer all of the most common questions I get, including:
- “Should I publish traditionally or self-publish?”
- “How does a first-time author get a 7-figure book advance?”
- “How do I get a good agent or publisher? Do I even need an agent?”
- “What does the ‘bestseller list’ really mean? How do you get on one?”
- “What are your top marketing tips if I have little or no budget?”
- “What are the biggest wastes of time? The things to avoid?”
- And so on…
My answers are grouped into sections, all of which include resource links. Here are the four sections of this post:
PR AND MEDIA
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING VERSUS SELF-PUBLISHING
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
As a prelude, here are two books I found useful when selling The 4-Hour Workweek, both as a proposal to publishers and as a finished book to the world:
For the first meaty section, we’ll cover marketing, as it’s where I get the most questions.
A few quick points to get us started:
- Wrangling book blurbs or cover testimonials is one of the biggest wastes of time for new authors. Take the same number of hours and invest them in making a better product and planning your marketing launch. I think one quote per book is more than enough, and a passionate quote from a credible but lesser-known person is FAR better than faint “meh” praise from a famous person.
- If you only have time to read one article on marketing, make it 1,000 True Fans by Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired Magazine.
- In my experience, more than 50% of the CEOs who have bestselling books buy their way onto the lists. I know at least a dozen of them. See The Deception of Bestseller Lists for more detail. I’ve never done this, as I aim to have books that are bestsellers for years not two weeks. That said, if you’re busy and simply want “bestselling author” on your resume, it can be had for a price.
- If your book is mediocre, you can still market/promote a book onto the bestseller lists…but only for a week or two, unless you’re mega-rich. Long term, book quality and pass-along value is what keeps a tome on the charts. I value the Amazon Most-Highlighted page more than my NYT bestseller stats. The weekly bestseller lists are highly subject to gaming. I’d love to see a shift to monthly bestseller lists.
Now, the meat of this MARKETING section:
12 Lessons Learned While Marketing “The 4-Hour Body”
How to Build a High-Traffic Blog Without Killing Yourself
How Tucker Max Got Rejected by Publishing and Still Hit #1 New York Times
How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on the New York Times (Skip down to “What were the 1-3 biggest wastes of time and money?”)
How the Various Bestseller Lists Work — New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Etc.
Behind the Scenes: How to Make a Movie Trailer for Your Product (or Book)
How to Create a Viral Book Trailer (or Get 1,000,000 Views for Almost Anything)
PR AND MEDIA
What does one week of a real launch look like for me?
Here’s the first week of The 4-Hour Chef launch. It features a complete list of media, in chronological order and broken down by format.
Now, here’s how I get that done:
The success of The 4-Hour Workweek is often attributed to an early wave of tech “influencers” who spread the word. Pursuing such influencers requires thoughtfulness, and you can’t be overeager. Sadly, most people oversell and make an asshole of themselves, pissing off busy people and getting rightly shunned. Here’s how to avoid pitfalls and do it right:
Marc Ecko’s 10 Rules for Getting “Influencer” Attention (Be sure to read his interactions in the comments)
TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING VS. SELF-PUBLISHING
Let’s showcase four success stories, all using different approaches:
- How a First-Time Author Got a 7-Figure Book Deal (traditional-ish)
- How to (Really) Make $1,000,000 Selling E-Books – Real-World Case Studies (self-published e-book “product”)
- How to Self-Publish a Bestseller: Publishing 3.0 (a hybrid)
- How to Crowdfund a Book (John Biggs, who describes the experience more in “The Crowdfunder’s Dilemma”)
If you’re going to use a crowd-funding platform like Kickstarter or Indiegogo to fund your book (and get pre-paid orders, as well as a reader database), the following scripts and tools could save you hundreds of hours:
Hacking Kickstarter: How to Raise $100,000 in 10 Days (Includes Successful Templates, E-mails, etc.)
Now, let’s look at the nitty-gritty economics of publishing, as well as how to weigh the pros and cons of self-publishing:
How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing
Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi on Self-Publishing vs. Big Publishers (Hint: there are some benefits to big publishers)
For those of you considering selling a book chapter by chapter, here are some relevant thoughts:
A Few Thoughts on Content Creation, Monetization, and Strategy
If you opt to self-publish, you might also need the below. Remember: you’ll be your own marketing/PR/advertising department, and you need to know what you’re getting into. Never bought advertising? You might have to learn. Not sure on margins? Get sure:
Jedi Mind Tricks: How to Get $250,000 of Advertising for $10,000
The Margin Manifesto: 11 Tenets for Reaching (or Doubling) Profitability in 3 Months
ON NEGOTIATING CONTRACTS, FINDING AGENTS, ETC.
If you’re going the traditional route (Read “How Authors Really Make Money” above), you will have to negotiate.
Many books have been written on the subject — I quite like Getting Past No — but here are the two most important things to remember:
- He or she who cares least wins. Have walk-away power and figure out your BATNA.
- Options are power. If you can avoid it, never negotiate with one party. Get competing offers on the table.
If you’ve decided on traditional publishers, I also suggest getting an agent.
I pay a 15% commission on my royalties because I want an experienced, diplomatic bulldog to fight my publishing battles for me. Selling a book to a publisher is easy — if you pitch the right editors, you only need an entertainment attorney to review contracts. But getting a book distributed properly nationwide? Getting the cover you want? Pushing important editorial decisions in your direction? Getting commitments for end-cap displays or seasonal in-store promotion?
All this stuff is massively time-consuming. Epic pain-in-the-ass stuff.
I view my “agent” more like the COO of my publishing business, not as a simple commissioned salesperson. This is one reason I opted to go with a smaller agency instead of a large entertainment agency. The latter tends to be (but is not always) exclusively focused on selling your book rights to the highest bidder. Once that one-night stand is over, they move on to fresh commissionable meat/deals, leaving you to fight the publisher on your own. And trust me: the road from contract to bestseller list is a LOT harder than anything that comes before it.
You can find good agents by looking for contact info under “Major Deals” on Publishers Marketplace/Lunch. I also suggest reading the “Acknowledgments” section in books that you like; the agent will often be thanked. Here’s an old story about how I found my agent.
Another reason to have an agent — you’ll have your hands busy writing the damn book! That’s where your creative process will make or break you. Take it seriously.
THE CREATIVE PROCESS
If you want a “bestselling book” that’s worthy of that label, you need a good book.
In my opinion, a mediocre book is more of a liability than no book at all. As the author of The E-Myth Revisited, Michael Gerber, once said to me, “If you’re going to write a book, write a fucking book.” Good advice. Follow it.
My stuff isn’t Tolstoy quality, but I do take pride in the work I do.
My general recommendation is this: If you can’t dedicate at least a year of full-time attention to a book (which might be 70/30 split between writing and PR/promotion), don’t bother writing it. There are exceptions of course. Some cocaine-fueled novelists I know can knock out a rough draft of a book in 1-2 weeks (!). I’ve seen memoirs completed in 1-2 months. But, alas, I’m not fast. I’m slow, what Kurt Vonnegut might call a “basher” or a “plodder,” and I write how-to content that requires a shit-ton of research and first-hand experimentation.
To do that reasonably well, I budget 1-3 years per book project.
It’s worth noting here, even though I write my own books, you don’t have to. “Ghost writers” exist solely to write books that are credited to other people. Here’s a good example of such services. If a current CEO publishes a book, it’s fair to assume that they had a professional ghostwriter interview them and pen “their” book. If you’re not sure, you can check the acknowledgments or simply compare the writing to their speaking style in interviews. Don’t match? Grammar a little too good? Use of “whom” a little conspicuous? That’s a ghost at work.
Now, moving onward.
Here are some techniques, tricks, and resources that I’ve found helpful for nearly any type of writing…
Tim Ferriss Interviews Neil Strauss, 7x New York Times Bestselling Author, on the Creative Process
Neil Gaiman – The Best Commencement Speech You May Ever Hear (20 Minutes)
The Odd (And Effective) Routines of Famous Minds like Beethoven, Maya Angelou, and Francis Bacon
Paulo Coelho: How I Write
The Bad (But Critically Useful):
“Productivity” Tricks for the Neurotic, Manic-Depressive, and Crazy (Like Me)
So…You Want to Be a Writer? Read This First.
And that’s it!
Did you enjoy this post? Any favorite parts, or things missing? Do you have your own tips about publishing and writing?
Please let me know in the comments! I’ll be reading them all.