I wanted to crawl into a hole and die.
You know that uncomfortable feeling you get when you feel inferior and all you want to do is run away and hide?
That was me.
I felt like someone had an iron grip on my gut and was twisting it around and around into a tight knot.
On the outside, everything looked great.
I was sitting on the white sandy beach of Sir Richard Branson’s private island in the Caribbean, surrounded by bright turquoise water that stretched to the horizon in every direction. It was stunning.
I’d made some new friends on the island and was chatting with them during a kite-surfing lesson.
The interesting thing about my new friends was that they wanted to change the world.
Sure, lots of people say they want to change the world. But this group of 30 people were different.
They were changing it:
Global internet networks.
Drones that explore the depths of the oceans.
Satellites that read the chemical makeup of the earth’s surface.
One woman had even begun redeveloping the third world by building the first of tens of thousands of orphanages – and was on track to redevelop entire cities.
Then there was me:
A guy who wrote emails for a living. Sure, I do it by running a small email marketing agency while living in exotic locations around the world… But there I was. Surrounded by people who were legitimately changing the world… and all I did is write emails for a living.
Granted – my life is pretty special. I’ve lived in some amazing places, had amazing experiences and met many amazing people.
…but at that moment on Sir Richard Branson’s private island, I had a serious case of “Imposter’s Syndrome” (Turns out, Imposter’s Syndrome increases performance).
I felt anxious, insecure and inferior as I looked around and saw success redefined as “how much positive impact have you had on the world”.
In this case, volunteering for a few months doesn’t cut it. It’s too small. Try helping tens of millions to eat, find shelter or get clean water. Try tackling Climate Change by building an electric car company. Try building a global satellite network so the world has 100% internet coverage.
Understandably, I was intimidated when I first arrived on the island. I felt like I didn’t deserve to be there. Like I wasn’t good enough, smart enough or hard-working enough.
I vividly remember being in conversations where I pretended I was happy and calm… while feeling tormented, insecure and anxious inside.
But as I got to know these people, I fell in love with their passion for helping the world and the anxiety faded.
These folks weren’t greedy, money-grabbing businesspeople out to make a quick buck. They genuinely cared about helping the world in the biggest ways possible.
Plus, they weren’t upset that someone who “wrote emails for a living” was on the island with them.
Instead, they were excited and pleased that someone else was stepping up to the plate, with a desire to help solve some of humanity’s biggest challenges.
These amazing folks won me over with the passion and drive to help people and after seven days on the island with these people, I felt invigorated.
I’d made up my mind: I was going to change the world.
(I even wrote a blog post about
Necker Island and my new desire to change the world.)
The Journey To Changing The World
After the event with Richard Branson, I wanted to change the world with some sort of amazing business idea.
The week after the event was filled with conversations with friends and family as I regaled them with stories from Necker Island, as well as my newfound passion for changing the world.
I remember talking about how I felt it was my destiny. As though I’d discovered what I was meant to do on this planet.
What better way to live my life than help solve the biggest problems solving humanity and make lots of money in the process?
It felt like the best of both worlds: Help millions… maybe billions… and get rich along the way.
At that moment, I wrote emails for a living. It paid the bills and gave me a great lifestyle.
But was it deeply satisfying? Did I feel like I was adding something amazing to the world?
Of course not.
So it was only natural that I felt inspired after Necker Island.
However, I never actually figured out exactly what I wanted to work on. If people asked, I’d tell them I was going to build space ships, or robots or satellites.
I couldn’t tell them specifically what I was passionate about in that area.
I just knew that I had to work on something in the field of “exponential technology” (to borrow a term from Peter Diamandis).
However, after a month, my post-island enthusiasm had died down and reality had set in.
I didn’t have the means to go off and start a rocket company. Hell, I still had bad months where I struggled to get clients and ended up worrying about money.
So I set the goal of changing the business so it generated at least $10,000 of monthly profit while only requiring 1 hour a week to maintain. Then I could go to San Francisco and get involved in an exponential tech start up.
Fast Forward 4 Months To Now…
I’m still working on that goal.
While I’m still interested in “changing the world” and making a positive impact, I’ve had a lot of time to think through my vision from Necker Island.
I’ve forced myself to ask myself some tough questions like:
Am I prepared to do whatever it took to build a company that helped tens of millions of people?
Am I willing to move to San Francisco and play in the most competitive business market on the planet (where everyone has big dreams but almost everyone fails)?
Am I willing to work 12 hours, 15 hours, even 18 hours a day, for years on end, without holidays, in pursuit of that goal?
Am I willing to face bankruptcy, withstand heart-attack-inducing levels of stress and risk everything to give it a shot?
Am I willing to give up my flexible lifestyle for investors, rules and regulations and a strict schedule with a ton of responsibility?
I’d decided to change the world.
But did I really know what I was getting myself into?
The Problem With Thinking
Big And Setting Goals
We’re told to “think big” and to “make a dent in the universe”.
We’re told that we’re special. That we can do anything we want to. That “the world is our oyster”.
But this unregulated encouragement is destroying our happiness and eroding our self-worth.
I have struggled to come to terms with my post-Necker goal of “changing the world”.
One of the best things I could do is work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, every week, until I’ve got the business that requires no more than 1 hour a week to maintain. Then I can go off to San Fran and get started. Maybe you think that working 14 hours a day for weeks on end is unhealthy. You’d be right, but from what I’ve seen, this is standard behaviour for company founders.
Or if I wanted to make things happen faster, I could shut down my email writing business and go today. It’s riskier, but I’m confident I could figure something out when I land in San Francisco.
The reason I mention those two things is that if I was serious about going to San Francisco and getting started with a tech company, I could start doing it lot faster than I’m doing right now.
But I don’t want to do either of those things.
I want to go to the gym and stay healthy. I want to spend time with my friends. I want to read books and work on my personal development. I would be miserable if I worked 14 hours a day.
I also don’t to shut down my email writing business and move to San Francisco. I hate to admit it, but I don’t want to take that risk. I’d hate to end up in San Fran, fail to find an opportunity and wind up with no money, no tech start-up and no email writing business.
Nor do I like the the idea of even getting involved with a start up at this point in time.
I’d like to travel more first. I’d like to do lots of other things first.
My mind has gone back and forth on this issue over the last few months… from self-doubt to extreme confidence and back again, often in less than 24 hours.
I’ve been trying to reconcile the belief that “I want to change the world” with the fact that I’d like to travel, stay healthy, and have a flexible lifestyle with lots of free time.
As a result, I’ve been struggling with destructive thoughts like…
I want to change the world and I’m prepared to work 14 hours a day and sacrifice everything to make it happen… but since I’m not actually working that hard, and I don’t want to, therefore I’m a bad person.
Maybe I’m not prepared to go off to San Fran and make a go of it. But if that’s true, that means I don’t care about helping people. Productive way to spend my time, no doubt.
Instead of admitting to myself that maybe I don’t want to change the world as much as I’d like to think, or that there are other ways to change the world that better fit my values, I’ve been going through this destructive cycle of thoughts on a weekly basis for the last 4 months.
Why does it happen?
Because I haven’t been willing to accept the cost of success.
I like the idea of changing the world, but I’ve been ignoring the reality of it – the extremely long hours, the stress, the broken relationships along the way, partnerships gone bad, and so on.
While “Changing the world” can take on many forms, in this case, when I say “changing the world”, I’m referring to “starting an exponential tech company with the goal of helping millions, if not billions, of people”. I’m talking about building a billion-dollar company.
That’s why my mind has been contorting itself into all sorts of uncomfortable positions because the belief “I want to change the world by building a billion-dollar company” can’t be reconciled with the belief “I want to travel, stay healthy, and have a flexible lifestyle with lots of free time”.
On Changing The World
(An Example From My Own Life)
Three weeks ago, I found myself reading Elon Musk’s biography. I was looking for inspiration on my quest to “change the world”.
Elon Musk is the man behind PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and SolarCity; Four billion dollar companies that are re-shaping the world and making a dramatic impact on humanity.
As would be expected for someone who has built four billion dollar companies, Elon works a lot.
In fact, Elon works upwards of 12, 14 or 16 hours a day, for years on end, and has a remarkable ability to just keep going where others would burn out from stress and adrenal fatigue.
Why does he do it?
Elon’s life goal is to put humans on Mars.
The PLANET Mars.
Importantly, he’s willing to sacrifice everything in order to get there – including his own life.
He’s not particularly interested in hitting the gym or taking care of his health.
His philosophy towards his health is something like:
Life is short. We need to get to Mars. I’m going to skip the gym so I can get more work done.
I’m not joking. He mentions this in his biography.
When I ask myself if I could do that – if I could work 16 hours a day for YEARS on end, go through three divorces and ignore my health in order to get to Mars…
…the honest answer is no.
The sacrifice isn’t worth it to me.
Sure, I love the IDEA of building rockets, electric cars, satellites and other amazing, world-changing stuff.
But I’m not willing to make that sacrifice.
The Benefits Of Throwing In The Towel
Admitting to myself that I don’t want to be Elon Musk as much as I thought is a freeing feeling.
I thought it would feel depressing. Like I’d given up and let myself and the world down.
But it feels great.
Because my identity is no longer based on my ability to work 16 hours a day for years on end with no holidays.
I want to go to the gym at least three times a week, spend time with my family and friends and travel and see the world.
There’s a long list of things I want to do with my life and I know that if I don’t do them… if I work 16 hours a day instead to reinforce my self-image as a “hard-working visionary”… …I’ll feel like I missed out on life.
How About You: What DON’T You Want?
When it comes to setting goals, this is the step that most of us skip over.
I skipped over it when I thought about changing the world.
It’s fun and exciting to think about what we want.
Do you want to lose weight?
Do you want to be rich?
Do you want a better relationship with your significant other?
What’s not so fun and exciting is to think about what you DON’T want regarding these goals.
If you want to lose weight, are you prepared to get your ass in the gym at least 3 times a week, eat a strict diet and sleep for 8-9 hours a night?
If not, you don’t really want to lose weight. You just like the idea of the idea of losing weight.
If you want to be rich, are you prepared to work harder than you ever have in a job (at least in the beginning), face failure and bankruptcy, deal with family and friends who ridicule you and take on more risk in a year than most people take on in a lifetime?
If not, you don’t really want to be rich. You just like the idea of being rich.
If you want to improve your relationship with your significant other, or get into an amazing relationship, are you prepared to stare rejection in the face, overcome your self-doubt and insecurity, work on your communication skills, and basically do all the shitty stuff that’s required of you when you want to improve an existing relationship or get into a new one?
If not, you don’t really want to improve your relationship or get into one. You just like the idea of it.
I’m not saying that you should try and lose weight, get rich or improve your relationship.
The Ugly Truth About Thinking Big
(And Setting Any Goal Whatsoever)
The ugly truth about thinking big and setting goals is what there is ALWAYS going to be sacrifice involved.
There is ALWAYS going to be something shitty about the process of improvement.
Want to sit on the couch and eat junk food all day while you play video games?
Great. But you’ll pay the price of bad health and probably a poor social life.
Want to do the opposite and get a flat stomach?
Great. But you’ll need to work on your diet and sleep, plus spend less time on the couch eating junk food playing video games.
You’re probably nodding your head as you read this.
“This is common sense, John. You’re not saying anything new.”, you might say.
You’d be right.
But isn’t it amazing how often we forget that there is a cost to everything?
The Often-Ignored Cost Of Success
I think it’s amazing that we forget about the price we have to pay.
Or maybe we just ignore it.
I think we use our goals and dreams to reinforce our identity… to reinforce the way we see ourselves.
If we see ourselves as disciplined, motivated and healthy, we might like to tell ourselves that we want to lose weight, even if we never seriously apply ourselves to the task of losing weight.
I think that this is why we don’t like to think about the sacrifice required by our goals… the stuff that’s going to suck.
Acknowledging that the price for losing weight is too high would damage our self image.
It would force us to realise that we don’t care about losing weight as much as we think, and that perhaps we’re not as disciplined or as motivated as we think we are.
Sadly, we end up living in a virtual reality “what we think we want”.
What Do You REALLY Want?
Whether you think you want to change the world, lose weight, make more money, improve your relationship or anything else…
…I challenge you to dig deep into that desire and see if it’s really want you want.
You might make a surprising discovery: …that you don’t really want what you think you want.
If you discover that the cost isn’t worth it or that you want something other than what you’ve been telling yourself you want, I encourage you to quit.
Throw in the towel.
And instead of beating yourself up for never hitting your goals, and subtly damaging your self-image, go after whatever it is that you truly want – and let go of everything else.
Life is too short to chase things you don’t care about.
Earlier in this article, I said that goal-setting is incomplete.
That’s because it’s not enough to answer the question ”What do I want?”.
Through the experiences I described above, I learned that you have to ask 4 questions: 1. What do I want?
2. What do I need to sacrifice on the journey to get what I want?
3. What will I sacrifice once I get there?
4. Am I willing to make that sacrifice?
I wanted to change the world. To be like Elon Musk and the friends I met on Necker Island.
But upon deeper reflection, I realized that I’m not willing to make the sacrifice.
The price isn’t worth it to me.
Maybe the price is worth it to you.
Maybe you ARE prepared to work 16 hours a day in order to make an impact in the world like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs.
Maybe your priority is to the best parent to your kids you can be.
Perhaps you’d like to work on your intimate relationship.
Or lose weight.
Or hey, sit on the couch, eat junk food and play video games all day.
I still want to “change the world”, and I’m working through what that means for me, but I know that right now, I’m not willing to work 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for years on end to do it.
There Are No Perfect Goals
There are no good or bad goals.
Only YOUR goals.
If you really want to sit on the couch, eat junk food and play video games all day… …go right ahead.
Just invite me over for a game sometime.