I learned something about the way I think.
It made me want to saw off my scalp, pull out my brain, and kick it in the pituitary gland.
Because the pituitary gland has to be the brain’s scrotum. I mean, look at the thing. What’s it doing up there, looking like that?
I’m the kind of guy that lives in my own head. I’m a master of self-sabotage. This isn’t what I learned; I’ve known this for a long time.
But I never knew why I was my own worst enemy.
And ever since I’ve been able to put the why to words, I’ve been examining the thoughts and the actions of the people I admire and aspire to be like.
I’m seeing a pattern.
Most of them don’t have the kind of brain I have. Most of them look at the world a completely different way than I do. Most of the think the opposite of what I think.
My brain is kicking me in my actual scrotum.
So I’ve been working on this.
I’ve been trying to fix this.
I’ve been trying to turn my OWW brain into a WOW brain.
Before I talk about my broken OWW brain, let’s first talk about feedback.
Humans thrive on feedback.
Did you know that toothpaste doesn’t have to foam? Toothpaste companies make it foam because it makes our brain think, “This is working!” Foam is feedback.
The temperature in the room drops, your body shivers. Feedback. You eat, you get stuffed, you stop eating. Feedback. You touch a flame, you experience pain, you remove your hand from the flame. Feedback.
You tell a joke, no one laughs, you hesitate telling another joke. Feedback. You raise your hand in geometry class, answer a question wrong, everyone laughs, you never raise your hand again. Feedback.
We’re shadow slaves to feedback.
Consider feedback in relation to goals.
Why do we remove our hand from the flame? Because humans are wired for survival. If I light my body ablaze, I become KFC for the raccoon living in the backyard.
Or my cat.
My cat shouldn’t die of starvation on account of my stupidity, so I’d be totally okay with it going HAM on my barbecued body. I love you, Moe.
Survival is the goal. Feedback insulates the goal.
You can envision some common goals like
- I want to lose 50 pounds of fat
- I want to gain 10 pounds of muscle
- I want to be able to do the splits
but I’m going to use a universal example that will serve as allegory for any physique or performance goal you have.
You’re in the desert. You’re miles away from a tower. (A Dark Tower….!?) You can barely see it in the distance.
You want to get to this Dark Tower. This is the goal.
Goals are great, but empty. So we need to ask, How are you going to reach the pyramid? You’re going to walk.
Goal, check. Method, check. We could also talk system, but there’s no need within this context.
Fast forward to process.
You’re taking action. You’re walking.
Few people would put their head down and walk the entire way to the Dark Tower without looking up, even though, if you were absolute sure your methods were going to get you towards your goal, you wouldn’t need to look up.
Looking up helps because it gives you feedback on the process. It’s like the foam from the toothpaste. It tells you, “This is working!”
It helps you measure progress. It helps you internalize progress. It’s reassuring. It’s motivating.
Evaluating progress is pretty straight forward when you know your behaviors are going to get you to where you want to go. You’re getting feedback (looking up) to see how much closer you are.
But if you don’t know whether or not your process is going to get you to where you want to go, then getting feedback (looking up) becomes much more important.
If someone blindfolded you, spun you in circles, and then said, “Walk to the pyramid,” then you’d need to get feedback.
Unless you wouldn’t mind going almost a sixth of the way across the country in the wrong direction.
Certain things (in general) discourage humans from taking action. For instance, humans shy away from pain and punishment. We’re also risk averse. We’re tribal creatures that don’t enjoy exile, meaning we’re apt to change our behaviors, attitudes, and feelings in order to fit in.
We’re afraid of judgement and criticism. We weigh the prospect of loss more heavily than the prospect of gain. Meaning losing $100 feels like a 9/10 on the bummer scale, where as winning $100 feels like a 6/10 on the happiness scale.
Consider the above intrinsic demotivators.
There are also certain things that encourage humans to take action. For instance, humans like discovery. We like to learn new things. We like to grow. We like adventure.
We like having the prospect of potential at our fingertips. I mean, Oak Island. FIND SOMETHING ON OAK ISLAND. PLEASE. I’M DYING.
Consider the above intrinsic motivators.
These intrinsic gas pedals and break pedals stem from biases and brain bugs that’ve been brewing inside of our biology since the days of the dinosaur. (And there are a lot more than the ones listed above. A good blast of cognitive biases can be found in Peter Bevelin’s book, Seeking Wisdom.)
Every single one of us has these brain bugs. But they aren’t applied to situations universally. Everyone has their own subjective interpretation of life.
Jim sees skydiving as a risky unsafe behavior, where as Tim sees skydiving as an adventurous learning experience.
Care to take a guess which person is more likely to go skydiving?
Feedback is information.
Information is subject to interpretation.
And the interpretation is where you see the difference between an OWW brain and a WOW brain.
OWW brainers attach negative emotions and intrinsic demotivators onto feedback, even when they’re “winning.”
WOW brainers attach positive emotions and intrinsic motivators onto feedback, even when they’re “losing.”
So imagine the following two scenarios.
You look up at the Dark Tower and you see that you’ve gotten closer. By all objective accounts, the feedback says: you’re winning, you’re on the right path, you’re making progress, you’re doing good.
But the OWW brainer says, “Fuck. It’s still so far away. Look how much further I have to go. This sucks.”
The WOW brainer says, “Amazing! Look at how much closer I’ve come! I’m on the right path! I didn’t make the wrong turn! I just have to keep chugging!”
You look up at the pyramid and see you’ve gotten further away. By all objective accounts, the feedback says: you’re losing, you’re on the wrong path, you didn’t make progress, you’re doing bad.
But the WOW brainer says, “Bummer. I went the wrong way. At least I know I what not to do! And now have a better sense of direction. I can parlay this information into figuring out what I need to do now.”
The OWW brainer says, “I suck. I’m an idiot. I’ve been going the wrong way. I’m never going to make it to where I want to be.”
First, the OWW brainer always attaches intrinsic demotivators onto feedback. Doesn’t matter if the feedback is positive or negative. The WOW brainer does the opposite by attaching intrinsic motivators onto feedback.
Second, the OWW brainers start a lot of adventures because they want the product, but they stop a lot of adventures shortly after they start because the feedback they get within the process itself pushes a bunch of intrinsic demotivating buttons. They find the process punishing. Even when they win, they lose.
Third, the WOW brainers finish a lot of adventures because the feedback they get within the process itself pushes a bunch of intrinsic motivating buttons. The process itself is rewarding. The product is simply a side effect. Even when they lose, they win.
Product almost always requires process, which is why OWW brainers are at a severe disadvantage.
They want want the joy and happiness associated with the product, but there’s a tremendous amount of punishment associated with the climb.
OWW brainers are martyrs for product.
WOW brainers are philanthropists for process.
What makes the void between OWW and WOW frustrating (for me) is that we all have both of these intrinsic gas pedal and break pedals inside of us. We all have the same demotivators, just as we all have the same motivators.
The difference lives within the interpretation of the situation in front of us.
Jim sees skydiving as a risky unsafe behavior; Tim sees skydiving as an adventurous learning experience.
What accounts for the different interpretation? I’m sure genetics has something to do with it, as does our upbringing.
It’s always nature and nurture.
Who’s right? Who’s wrong?
I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know.
The demotivators within us were designed for a primitive world. If you were a caveman and you broke your leg, you’d probably die.
In a primitive world, broken bones are serious injuries.
But in today’s world? A broken leg (or any broken bone) isn’t going to kill you. I broke my foot in five different places. It sucked. It hurt. It was a miserable eight weeks. But I didn’t die.
And I learned a lot from the injury. I came back to training with a different mindset, and I saw better gains in the following year than I did in the prior five years.
A lot of the things we think are risky aren’t so risky. If we applied a very stoic WHAT’S THE WORST THAT CAN HAPPEN filter to every situation we fear, the answer would almost never be as bad as our brain imagines it to be.
For instance, what if, tomorrow, you lost all of your money and your current job? What would happen?
Most people wouldn’t even become homeless. They’d live with friends and family until they found another job.
On the flip side, a lot of the things we think are safe aren’t so safe anymore because we have get out of jail free cards.
I started tricking (freestyle acrobatics) as a dumb teenager. I had no experience. I had no safety training. No equipment. Just grass. This is a “risky” thing to do.
I ended up breaking my foot in multiple places when I was in a safer environment — a gymnastics facility. But broken bones in today’s world aren’t that big of a deal.
If I let fear totally talk me out of tricking, I wouldn’t have the wealth of lessons I’ve learned from throwing my body upside down and all over the place.
(Don’t get me wrong. Fear spun me around, bent me over, and did unspeakable things to me. My tricking life is shrouded in fear. But I worked hard to beat the fear that I did conquer.)
Risky is the new safe.
Safe is the new risky.
What makes the OWW brain a real bitch is the winner effect. The winner effect, in a nutshell, says: when you win, you win more; when you lose you lose more.
OWW brainers lose a lot. They start a lot of things because they’re genuinely interested in products. But they quit a lot of those things because of the punishing process they realize they have to go through.
Losing becomes a part of their DNA.
Every subsequent loss bakes into their identity. They internalize their failure to the point of their subconscious whispering, “You know what’s going to happen. You’re going to get all motivated and hit it hard for the first week, and then you’re going to quit.”
The prospect of starting anything new soon becomes demotivating.
Implications for us OWWers.
You are your own worst enemy. Because the only difference between an OWWer and a WOWer is perception.
Make the journey is the reward. I hate myself for typing the previous sentence. I also hate myself for the process-product repetition throughout this essay. This lingo is used so often it has lost its meaning. But cliche things tend to be cliche for a reason.
Be objective about feedback. We take feedback too personal. “I went the wrong way, I suck.” This snowballs into shame and a bunch bad emotions. Instead, think, “How interesting.” This will help you avoid the loser effect. “I went the wrong way, how interesting.”
Babies walking. Seriously. When a baby starts walking, there are constant falls. But the baby doesn’t take it personally. It doesn’t think, “I’m a bad human, I should be able to do this.” Most of the personal-social humiliation (and bad emotions) we attach to “failure” are culture. Even the idea of “failure” is cultural.
Find good in bad. I’m not saying losers should get a trophy. But there’s almost always something positive to extract from feedback. Even if the feedback is “negative.” Perhaps the fact that you’re doing the thing, getting the feedback, is a win in itself. This is hard advice to take “in the moment.”
Actually say, “WOW!” If you find yourself crumbling into a curmudgeon over feedback and feeling punished, say, “WOW!” and try to find something amazing associated with what you’re doing.
Read in between the lines. I’m sure there’s more quips and lessons to extract, but the meat and potatoes of what you need to know is above.
I got this OWW and WOW brain model from Todd Herman. Credit goes to him. He’s taught me a lot about performance psychology.
Are you saying OWW when you should be saying WOW?
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