Why you should be the Only, instead of the Best: Episode 16 with Srini Rao of Unmistakable Creative
Srini Rao is an author and podcaster focused on what makes us creative. He joins Dr. Hill on Head First to discuss how to building creativity into your life with tips on output, finding your unique voice, and more life-hacking wisdom and strategies.
Srinivas Rao is the host and founder of The Unmistakable Creative podcast where he has conducted over 600 interviews with thought leaders and people from all walks of life. With his incredibly distinctive view into branding, storytelling, and marketing, extracting unmistakable stories out of people is his superpower.
He’s written multiple books including the Wall Street Journal bestseller The Art of Being Unmistakable and his latest book, Unmistakable: Why Only Is Better Than Best. He has an MBA from Pepperdine University and enjoys chasing waves in his spare time.
–The Unmistakable Creative podcast <0:33>
–Bringing back creativity for its own sake <5:32>
–Little c vs. big C creativity <7:09>
–Viral fame vs. organic success <8:34>
–Creative output: quantity and timing <10:10>
–Echo chambers or copycats of others’ blueprints of success: good or bad? <12:08>
–Modeling vs. mimicking what works <14:58>
–Surfing as a metaphor for business and life <17:53>
–How do we sustain creativity throughout our whole lives? <19:23>
–The uncertainty of creativity <21:48>
–Not using technology in the morning <23:49>
–The value of meditation, nutrition, exercise, and things that make you happy <25:22>
–Reactive life vs. control of your behavior <26:43>
–Getting rid of distractions <28:18>
–Habit forming platforms and the benefits of changing the defaults <31:17>
–The problem with social media: comparison and misrepresentation of reality <32:01>
–The draw of intermittent reinforcers via social media <35:00>
–The thousand-word habit <38:00>
–Minimizing the activation energy for habits <39:20>
(edited for readability with applicable links added)
Dr. Hill: Folks, welcome to another episode of Head-First with Dr Hill. Today’s guest is Srini Rao, who is the host and founder of the Unmistakable Creative Podcast. He’s also an entrepreneur, an author, and an accidental bio-hacker. And so welcome to the show Srini. Nice to have you.
Srini Rao: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Dr. Hill: For those of our listeners who aren’t familiar with your podcast or you personally, can you give us a little taste of who you are and what you’re doing in this space these days?
Srini Rao: Yeah. So, as you mentioned, I am the host and founder of the Unmistakable Creative Podcast where I have interviewed probably more than 700 people from every walk of life imaginable. I mean, they’ve ranged from performance psychologists like yourself, to bank robbers, to drug dealers, to authors, entrepreneurs. With the common theme, I think, being that every one of them is insanely interesting in some way and has managed to take this insanely interesting part of their life and make it a really big part of who they are and their own work. It started about, I think almost nine years ago. 2009 I was on the tail end of an MBA program and couldn’t find a job. So I just started tinkering around with, you know, blogs and content creation. And eventually I started a blog. As a part of that blog, I started a weekly interview series called interviews with Up & Coming Bloggers, which was really the foundation for what would eventually go on to become Unmistakable Creative. And the short version of a long story, which we can get into more detail about, is that all of that after about nine years, it’s turned into this sort of multi hyphenate, a career as an author, a speaker, and an entrepreneur.
Dr. Hill: Great. So nine years? We’re just getting started with this one- that’s, I feel, a lot of content.
Srini Rao: Yeah, it’s, it’s definitely a ton. I think what’s interesting is the idea of nine years seems ridiculous to most people because the world moves so fast and you know, I think people have a very warped perception of what longevity should look like. Like they think a year is a long time nowadays, but I think in my mind, uh, I was not looking at “OK, how do I make something that makes a splash for a year?” I wanted to make something that has a lasting impact that stands the test of time. It is what my friend Ryan Holiday would refer to as something that’s perennial, right? Something that remains a classic. I would much rather have something that grows slowly but stands the test of time than something that, you know, becomes an overnight sensation and then it’s forgotten about it next week.
Dr. Hill: A lot of these performance podcasts, of which you have one, I have one, really focus on high level individuals. How did you end up with drug dealers and people who had robbed banks? How did that come into your content?
Srini Rao: Yeah, so one of the things, as I mentioned, we started out as a podcast for bloggers and we could kind of see where the podcast world was headed and we thought we wanted to do a rebrand and we thought, you know, when we want to have a much wider range of guests in terms of what’s possible, which is what kind of drove the rebrand because we were realizing we were being limited in terms of not just our potential audience, but our potential guests too, by being branded the podcast for bloggers. The other thing we saw is that suddenly podcasting was becoming this thing like you just said, everybody sort of interviewing the same people over and over again. You could see the entrepreneurial podcast, if you go through iTunes and look at them, it’s largely the same guests on every single show.
Srini Rao: And the downside to that is that makes it really hard to create anything that stands out. So, we basically said we’re really at our core a storytelling show. You know, my friend Chris Ducker once said, even if you don’t necessarily know what the interview is about is about or care who the interviewee is, you can’t help but listen because it’s like a TV show. I think we’re entertainers first, educator second. We happened to blend both, but, I think that you can’t overlook the fact that podcasting is largely an entertainment medium and that the human brain is wired to listen to stories. We find stories much more compelling naturally. So that is a big part of why we’ve ended up with a sort of guests that we do. The other part of it is my own personal curiosity. You know, there’s so much more to the world than just people who start online businesses or blogs. There are all these fascinating people out there, and some of the most interesting people on our show are the ones that you’ve probably never heard of.
Dr. Hill: That’s great, maybe I’ll have to pick your mind or go through your old show for some guests from myself. You know, my strategy for getting out of that rut of the same, the same thing every time was being less of a guest and more of a host and flipping the tables. But now I find that I often don’t talk about the things that I want to talk about as much. So I need to find that balance. So, tell us what else you’re doing. You’re doing this podcast. You’re also an author? You have a book you’re working on or you’ve published?
Srini Rao: So I have multiple books actually. So I have a self-published book called the Art of Being Unmistakable that actually is no longer available because we just had a book come out last year with Penguin Portfolio called Unmistakable: Why Only is Better than Best. And currently I’m working on a second book with Penguin about creative habits and how you stay productive and creative in an increasingly distracted world- and also making a case for creativity for its own sake. I think that, one of the sad byproduct of the world that we live in is that every single thing that anybody does creatively is always done with some outcome in mind or some goal in mind. Like, “I have to monetize the thing. I have to build an audience.” In that sense, we’ve kind of lost creativity for its own sake.
Srini Rao: But what’s interesting is when you look at many of the really wildly successful creators, they didn’t follow some sort of formula. A lot of them really were like, I want to do this thing and I find this thing incredibly rewarding. Um, you look perfect example I think was something like Maria Popova Brain Pickings, which started out as a link in a collection of links that she sent to seven friends and now has millions of readers. I think that when we think too much about the idea of millions of readers or fame or, or, you know, sort of external accolades, I think the problem with that is that one- you and I have had some conversations about meditation and presence- when you’re thinking so much about the external, you’re not present and if you’re not present, the quality of your work suffers. And so that’s the ironic paradox. It’s that in your obsessive desire to try to reach an audience of massive people and millions of people, you actually lessen the likelihood of that happening when that is all you’re concerned about.
Srini Rao: Whereas if you’re focused on the quality of the work, um, I think the quality of that work goes up. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the audience shouldn’t be taken into consideration, especially if you’re trying to build a business. But I think that people are kind of putting the cart before the horse, they want to create an audience for something that does, didn’t really deserve an audience. And if your work is not up to snuff, even if you reach an audience, it doesn’t matter because they won’t stick around. You know, you could have something go viral, but it’s kind of like a giant bait and switch. You have this thing that suddenly makes you popular, but that there was nothing to follow it up and nothing to back it up. Then, you’ve kind of missed out on any of the benefits you would have had from all that exposure.
Dr. Hill: I’m thinking about creativity as a concept right now. I teach a lot at UCLA, I teach courses in Gerontology, and I have a lecture which is on creativity. It’s on how creativity is a healthy intervention, if you will, for peak aging and performance. And there’s a lot of research showing that engaging in creative endeavors, be it art or music or theater or whatever else dramatically reduces visits to the doctor, pain, mobility issues, all kinds of broad reaching things. But we also go into this idea about little c versus big C creativity where little c creativity essentially is not quite this silly, macrame macaroni things on paper that you do for your mom, uh, that’s little c or even writing in a journal or things for yourself that aren’t necessarily meant for public consumption or little c and the big Magnum Opus works that are really for public consumption are capital C that may have a large impact. And I’m hearing some of these guests you’re describing, sounds like they started off with little c, these seven links that were sent around to friends, these are little c things, but then they became big C, impactful, artistic works. In all people you’ve worked with, are you seeing that transition? Is it organic? Do people, as you mentioned earlier, focus too much on the public facing aspect of creativity? Or are people, is it more organic? Do they just get pulled into that because things go viral because they are creating?
Srini Rao: So I think the, the people who I’ve seen like truly outliers success, like the Brain Pickings of the world, their stories are much more organic than the ones who are forced. I feel like the ones that are forced, they never quite, they don’t reach a true inflection point because, um, the work is so forest, you know, it’s, “Hey, I’ve got to follow this 10 step formula was given to me by some successful online marketer and if I follow these steps I’m going to get the result.” And of course, what that doesn’t take into consideration is the most important variable, which is them, you know, like you can’t neglect the fact that you are a variable in this equation. And to leave that out of the equation is, is you know, irresponsible and ludicrous and makes it less likely that you’re going to create something that stands out. Uh, so I, I think I see a lot more people that are organic. As far as sort of just off the charts, you know, really, really big presence success in my mind, every one of those has been organic. And I think part of the reason that it’s organic is because those people, they started out with this sort of burning desire to create something that they wanted to see exist in the world and they were going to create it whether there was an audience or not. Whereas, you know, some people basically say, “OK, I’m not going to do anything unless there’s an audience for it.” It’s one of those strange paradoxes right. You create this thing without an audience for it and then you’ll have an audience for it. But if you’re insistent that you’re only going to step it up, you know, when you have millions of people, then you’re never going to have millions of people. Because if that’s your excuse for mailing it in and creating lousy work, then you’re going to basically have an entire body of work that doesn’t get any attention because it’s lousy
Srini Rao: Underscores the idea that if you’re only creating when there’s a deadline, when you have to produce something, you know that’s not when the, when the best creativity shows up, it shows up when creativity doesn’t wait for inspiration or the right time. When it’s a work habit that produces good work overtime, right? Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think the, you know, so I write a thousand words every single morning when I wake up. It’s something that I’ve done for the better part of five years and you know, I learned that habit from a guy named Julian Smith who had one of the most popular blogs on the internet, uh, at the time. And you know, when he told me that, I was like, OK, well you have one of the most popular blogs on the internet. You must be doing something right. And that is a habit that I can model and nothing has changed my life more. I mean I can attribute everything that I’ve experienced in terms of success to that one habit. Whether it’s the opportunity to write books. But like you said, if I only decided that, you know what, I’m only gonna have this daily writing habit. When I have an opportunity to write a book for a publisher, by the time that I had the opportunity to write a book for a publisher, I wouldn’t be in creative shape- like my muscles would not be built for this.
Srini Rao: But you also might not have enough content or ideas fleshed out, we talked about the creativity has many uses, and high level output creativity happens when you have output, right? You can’t have a higher increased amount of works out there. It means the likelihood of a better work because you see your work externalized because you can improve, get ideas off your plate- your mental plate- and make room if you will, for the next idea to come up. So, if you’re only operating on a schedule or a deadline when you have demands, or academics who only write for that one day, they can clear every month and their schedule. I think that’s a, you know, probably getting into less of that creative muscle as you described.
Srini Rao: Yeah, absolutely.
Dr. Hill: So, so you told us about a couple of books you have written- one you’ve written, one you’re writing, Unmistakable: Why Only is Better than Best. What does that mean, do you mean only meaning that the only person that has the branding, the product, the creativity? What’s, what’s going on there?
Srini Rao: Yeah. So you know, the, the core message of Unmistakable, it was of this idea based on personal experience. So when I started in 2009, the thing that prompted my start was I saw this girl named Jamie Varon who started this website called Twitter Should Hire Me. And Twitter Should Hire Me, by all accounts, was incredibly successful, you know, lead to national media attention, multiple job offers and you know, a ton of demand for her work. And of course that led to and spawned copycats. Me being one of them and I had a website called 100 reasons you should hire me and it was a total flop because not only could I not come up with 100 reasons why somebody should hire me, but I really- what I had done is I looked at something that somebody else did and tried to replicate that thing more or less.
Srini Rao: And of course, what I started to see over the better part of, of, you know, seven, eight, nine years of doing this was that pattern over and over over again, you know, people would see that some famous author would have their website or their branding designed a certain way, and of course you’d see, you know, 20 people design their website that way, you know, the, the probably the most hilarious example of this is Jon Stewart and Demetri Martin did a sketch about life coaching where a woman goes to a life coach and at the end of her session asks “have you seen a difference in your life since going to life coach?” And she says, “yeah, now I’m a life coach myself.” Um, which is, you know, of course it’s slapstick and funny, but it’s also a very appropriate comment on what is effectively an echo chamber.
Srini Rao: Right? So, like, you get all these people suddenly writing about minimalism, because one minimalism blog takes off and oh, you know what? Minimalism is now the thing I’m going to write about- because all these minimalists are having so many people read their work. And, you’ll see this happen over and over again and what ends up happening of course is you create work that at best becomes a pale imitation of something that already exists and at worst, gets completely ignored. And so the sort of core message behind Unmistakable was that if you could do something that is so distinctive that nobody else could have done it but you in the way that you do it and it’s immediately recognized as your work being your work. That is, you know, the definition of unmistakable, your competition basically becomes irrelevant because you’re the only option. You’re not the best option.
Dr. Hill: That’s true for Unmistakeable work product, but what about, I mean in the startup world, Silicon Valley, Silicon Beach, down where you are in San Diego, there’s a huge number of tech companies that have maybe less fleshed out products and there’s a big emphasis on presenting your product, your pitch, doing it like other products that have done it before. You know, I wanna help start TruBrain about four years ago, four and a half years ago now. Big emphasis on, well, what should our website presence look like? I don’t know. What does Warby Parker look like? What is Barkbox? What does Me Undies, what are all these other startups that are in the same sort of strata, what do they look like? And we matched, you know, TruBrain’s initial was inspired by, if you opened it, Warby Parker’s and that changed how we were viewed and it made us a player in that space.
Dr. Hill: It was signaling if you will, social signaling to VC’s and entrepreneurs and angels who might want to get in bed with us. So, you know, if you’re producing amazing creative work that is unmistakable, that is clearly no one else’s, but you’re doing it on a mountain top in the Himalaya’s and you can’t engage with people to consume that work because your work’s to unusual or you haven’t, you know, it’s so unique that it hasn’t that maybe let’s say the, the corporate consumers wouldn’t necessarily be able to justify it as a value. I mean, is there a risk for being too unique and too unmistakable out there?
Srini Rao: Of course there is. The thing is that- I mean, you made a good point, right? You cannot completely neglect the idea of the fact that if you want this to reach an audience, the audience has to be taken into consideration. It’s a strange paradox, right? Because you don’t want to pander to the audience and cater to the lowest common denominator because then you just keep watering down the work until it’s not something even worth paying attention to. But yea, of course. I think Sonia Simone put it really well, she said, you might have a blog about naked mole rats, but the audience for the blog about naked mole rats is pretty damn limited. Not many people are going to be like, “Yeah, OK, I want to find out and spend money on, learning about naked mole rats.”
Srini Rao: Like it’s just, you have to absolutely take those under consideration. Now, to your point about the website descriptions- here’s what I would say- I think it’s important to model what works. I think the problem is that there’s a big confusion between modeling and mimicking. I’ve seen people literally copy the branding, the design, the logo, the coloring, all of it to the letter. And in my mind, you kind of deny, what makes you so special when you do that. You basically, you’re almost a derivative of that point of something else. And so what you’ve created really is a pale imitation. Now again, you know, like I said, there are probably things that you should absolutely borrow from the design of the Warby Parker website in terms of layout, but there are elements of it that you can bring to it that are absolutely your own that you should bring to it. And that’s where we tend to get into trouble is because people say, “OK, oh, this is exactly how this person did it so I’m going to do that.”
Dr. Hill: So it’s almost a failure of the top- of the bottom up, sort of internal driver of that thing. This reminds me a lot of what happens in Hollywood these days, which is, “Oh, that movie was successful?” and the next year there’s 10 movies that have the same type of character, in the same setting, and the same scifi genre, and nine out of ten of them fail because there’s nothing coming from within that’s unique. It’s just trying to be the next Avatar, the next, you know, Guardians of the Galaxy, whatever. So it’s, it’s very derivative as you say. You’re clearly not doing that, so you have so best or only as better than best. So that’s the only. What else are you telling people in these books? What else? Uh, what are some other important messages?
Srini Rao: In Unmistakable in particular, we use surfing as a metaphor for business because I’m an avid surfer and I think surfing, uh, you know, just the experience of the ocean has so many parallels to life, uh, every, every aspect of the ocean, you know, it’s this, it’s this thing that’s constantly changing. It’s dynamic. It requires you to be present. It challenges you. There are days when you just get the hell beat out of you and you have to come back every day. You fall a lot. Um, you know, I mean, there’s so many profound metaphors for life inside of an activity like surfing. And so, I think that, the metaphor of surfing was really kind of what became the overlying structure of the book and the core messages in it, um, because each aspect of surfing and a lot of ways parallels creativity and parallels business and parallels life.
Dr. Hill: So basically grinding until you hit until everything lines up perfectly.
Srini Rao: Yeah. That’s one way to put it.
Dr. Hill: For me, I grew up in the ocean, in the northeast. The water’s colder there and I grew up, you know, hauling lobster pots and fishing and doing that end of things. But I still have enough respect of the ocean to know how variable and changeable it is, but don’t have quite a sense of surfing. I know we’re in southern California now, I really should start surfing, but I haven’t yet had that enter my life. Um, what else are you working on? You said there’s another book you’re working on now with Penguin. What’s that title?
Srini Rao: So we don’t have a title yet for the book, but um, I can give you the subject matter. It’s largely about creative habits and you know, how do you were talking about creativity being a daily habit and that’s what largely this book is about it’s: how do you sustain and maintain creativity throughout your life on an ongoing basis?
Srini Rao: Because I think that, part of the challenge that we have is we don’t necessarily- we have aspirations for what we want to do or what we want to create, but we don’t really have a structure or process for how to do that in a repeatable and consistent basis because you know, you’re making original work, but the process you can borrow from lots of other people and you can model some of it. I mean, of course you have to find elements of it that works for you. But I think that, you know, you kind of have this, we generally have this misperception of what creativity is this weird sort of thing that people do. They go sit in a room and they paint or write or whatever, and then, you know, magic just happens and they come out with a book a year later, or are they a music album, falls from the sky.
Srini Rao: I think that what people don’t often see is, you know, the labor that goes into all of this work, um, because you know, as, as you well know from, from having built what you have, any creative project, whether it’s a company, whether it’s a book, whether it’s a work of art, all of those require immense amounts of labor that nobody actually sees and nobody actually knows. And I think that, you know, to emphasize the role of the process is really critical here because we’re pretty obsessed with outcomes, particularly in the Western world and in the United States. But, you know, most of the outcomes are usually the result of following a process. And so what we’ve done really dissect developing a daily process for how to produce creative work on a regular basis. Like to get into a rhythm and flow on a consistent basis.
Dr. Hill: How do you know if what you’re doing is on point is creative? I mean when I have one of my senior employees run through a bunch of activities he or she has a sense of what I’m looking for and what the outcome- what success would be. But I’m doing creative work. I mean we’re building a company which can be creative. I think it has been for me- I’m making decisions and the only justification is, well I think this is the right call and I trust my own vision and my own creative perspective on this, but I’m not, it’s not borne out until later until I determined- was that decision I made to open an office here, promote that person, construct this marketing message- I don’t discover later until it’s out there in the world if it was successful. And that’s not necessarily what creativity is, in my perspective. It’s really this generative and refining process where you get closer and closer to producing things that are congruent with this internal, maybe even amorphous vision. When you’re doing other creative things or building companies, how do you know if, if the effort you’re putting is on task?
Srini Rao: I don’t think you do necessarily. Right? I think that that’s gonna, you know, you kind of hit the nail on the head is that creativity by its very nature is uncertain and that’s what makes it so interesting. You know, like if I knew exactly how everything was going to turn out every day- if it was so predictable- that would be pretty damn boring. Part of the reason that I say people surf is because every single time you go, it’s different: every wave is different, every surf day is different, every surf spot is different and that’s what makes it so appealing. And I think that that is largely what makes creativity, so appealing as well is that it is amorphous. Because if it was predictable, repeatable, and you know- yeah, you’re going to have a process that is repeatable- but what you produce every day. I mean, that’s half the fun, right? Is the surprises that show up and the things that you didn’t expect, if you knew exactly how it was all gonna turn out, that wouldn’t be particularly interesting.
Dr. Hill: So you can’t necessarily know if the work you’re doing is good until later, until you’re doing a lot of that work, hopefully. But how can you regularize the process? Maybe how can you. I mean, you’re doing a thousand words every morning. That sounds like a great way to do it. Academics that are told to be productive economics, usually spend the first two hours every day writing. 90 percent of them don’t stress out and under produce and don’t get their grant applications and don’t submit papers, but the ones that have a habit versus an inspiration for writing seem to have a lot of productivity. And how do you scaffold product output?
Srini Rao: So I’m going to echo something that I said in one of my, uh, medium pieces that I wrote- designing your life really begins with designing your days. And for many people the design of their days isn’t necessarily deliberate, right? Like they wake up in the morning and they turned on a computer, they check email, check Facebook, and then next thing you know, two hours have gone by. And don’t get me wrong, I have days like this, they’re not as common as I think for many people, but, you know, the idea isn’t that you’re like completely rigid in a row, but I think, you know, part of it is having a control over some schedule. So I’ll, I’ll tell you a little bit about my sort of daily routine that I follow for the most part.
Srini Rao: You know, I wake up in the morning, the first thing I do is I write in a gratitude journal because I think that’s a really sort of nice energetic shift right when you wake up. Like I literally have it on my nightstand and then, I brew some coffee, I meditate for anywhere between 10 to 20 minutes. I sit down and I read a physical book. Um, I try not to use technology early in the morning because I think your brain is in a very suggestive state super early in the morning. Um, I think that, you know, when you use technology, when you do things like get on Facebook, Instagram, whatever, checking email, you’re getting this sort of surge of dopamine when your brain is in this highly suggestive state. And so if you’ve ever done this, you probably know, like if you check your email at 7:30 in the morning, you might have noticed that you spend all day checking your email.
Srini Rao: Whereas if you have a day where you don’t do that and you don’t go til you go till about noon without it, like it’s a very different sort of day. You get these sort of deep sort of flow state levels of concentration. After that. I write in a physical physical notebooks and you notice that the, one of the big themes here is that I avoid technology for the first hour of my day. Mainly because I don’t think we ever evolutionarily meant to be this plugged in. You’re a brain scientist so you probably know more about this than I do, but I just know from my personal experience that, I can tell on the days when I’ve had these kinds of days that I’m just not at the top of my game. Like I know this morning for example, I went and dealt with a bunch of administrative stuff when I woke up and right then and there I knew I was like, all right, I pretty much shot myself in the foot because I did that and I knew that. And I also knew that I was going to be screwed because I was on my phone late last night, which I also don’t do.
Srini Rao: Diet is another big one, I spent a lot of time thinking about what you eat for optimal cognition. You know, like if you’re heavily carb loaded or like eating stuff, that’s just shit for you that that’s going to affect. My rule is if you put garbage into your body, you’re going to basically produce garbage in terms of creative output. That’s, that’s really the way I look at it. Um, and then, you know, I think of course you need exercise. That’s why surfing plays a big role. We need a disconnect of some sort. One of my friends said water creates this beautiful sort of container for people who tend towards anxiety. And for me, it just calms my nerves. It’s a, complete unplug because you can’t really think about anything else when you’re doing that.
Srini Rao: I’m an avid snowboarder as well. I look for things that produce adrenaline and flow states because those are my major disconnects and they make me happy. That’s another thing, I think the reason a lot of people do these activities is not necessarily the exercise- the exercise is always a convenient fringe benefit. But almost all my inspiration for my creative work comes from my time in the water. So it’s a critical part of who I am. So I think more than anything, what I would say is, how much of your day is actually scripted and deliberate and how much of it is you just reacting to stimulus? And for so many people in the modern world, a good amount of their day is literally stimulus response, stimulus response to stimulus response to the point where the stimulus controls their life, not their decision.
Dr. Hill: It’s important to have intention, not momentum, where you set your moments instead of react. And also, I forget who says this, but you, something you’re saying reminds me “the cure for everything is salt water, the ocean sweat, or tears”. And you’ve certainly got the sweat and the ocean down in terms of disconnects and resets. You know, I wake up in the morning- I’m usually up by about five- I’ll often do a couple hours of yoga between five and seven and then starting at 7:00 AM I am responding too. I four or five different Peak Brain offices which do neurofeedback and mindfulness training all throughout the country. We have clients all over the world in different time zones, so when I get up it’s a never ending stream of demands on my time. So I would love to get up, have a relaxing couple of hours, make some coffee, do some writing, but it’s the most I can do to carve out 90 minutes for yoga in the morning and justify that because it keeps me sane.
Dr. Hill: But the moment I’m not doing something, there in the studio without my phone and then reach. I’m back on my phone, I’m reacting to all the demands. I have technicians who are in St Louis technicians in San Diego technicians and of course LA and in Portland all over the world and they’re clamoring, “oh, so and so’s here we have this question, here’s the requirement or a treatment protocol.” So not everyone has a completely structurable life or maybe like me. They have structured their life in such a way that they are in this sort of Skinner Box of stimulus response all day long. Um, for those of us who’ve maybe slipped into that frenetic momentum driven, reactive life, any advice, any ways to pull back?
Srini Rao: Yeah, and I think you really hit the nail on the head is that at least one small part of your day is deliberate. Like I get, I’m in a unique position in that I don’t have kids, I’m not married, I have a lot of flexibility over my schedule and I don’t have crazy demands on my time- mainly because I’ve set it up that way. But I think it really begins with even just taking the smallest part of your day. Like you said, if you didn’t make that 90 minutes for Yoga you’d drive yourself nuts. And just having that one thing I think can make such a huge difference because it teaches you that you have control over your life. I started to realize just a few weeks ago I was thinking about this and I thought the biggest benefit of developing any new habit is not the habit itself, but what comes from developing a new habit as the belief that you actually have control over your behavior and you have the capability to change it, and that’s the ultimate superpower. Once you realize that you start to say, OK, where can I actually make changes? So I think that it’s making one small part of it- even if you can’t make a huge date-deliberate. Like you said, you have tons of demands on your time which is appropriate given what you do. But I think that having some boundaries and have you say, OK, you know what, this 90 minutes in the morning is what I’m going to set aside for this time. It was a Brian Scudamore, who’s the Co founder of one 1-800-got-junk with Cameron Harold, he wrote a piece on Medium titled Why Successful People Spend 10 hours a Week Just Thinking, which is definitely worth reading. And it’s a good point, we don’t, we don’t set aside enough time to just be quiet and be mindful. Even if it’s 10 minutes a day, I think it can make a huge difference.
Srini Rao: So that’s what I would say is, you know, if you can’t stomach a huge part of your day and you’ve got so many demands, at least take one small part of it. And cultivate solitude in one small part of your day.
Dr. Hill: Yeah, I find a lot of the time that I’m trying to bring a lot of mental bandwidth to bear, but in the environment of lots of things clamoring for my attention, that might reduce my ability to focus on any one particular thing. Now I have a hunch, I think you said something about this new book coming out will help us get rid of distractions. Is that, is that accurate? Please let lay down some wisdom about how to handle the distractions.
Srini Rao: So, you know, the funny thing was distractions is, what most people don’t understand is almost everything that distracts us on a daily basis, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all of these tools are designed to be habit forming. They’ve studied how the brain works in order to make sure that you’re addicted. And not only that, if you think about it, like Google makes more money every time you conduct a search, Facebook makes more money every time you spend money on Facebook, there’s no incentive for them not to keep you there. You know, this is one of the things I was thinking to myself about online dating apps, especially as swiping apps, right? Believe it or not, the odd paradox of the online dating apps is that they’re better off with you never meeting somebody because that means you’ll still stay a user and keep swiping. Which is a really strange paradox, right? Because the moment you meet somebody. I remember one of my friends, we got engaged. He said the first thing he was absolutely thrilled to do was delete all these stupid apps.
Srini Rao: He was really happy. That was one of the things that he found to be the most relief. I had to preface it by saying, you know, all these things are designed to be habit forming. Of course. What’s funny is that they’re all set to the defaults, right? The default is you get notifications. The default is you get an email every time somebody Tweets you, of course, when you start to change the defaults, you start to take control of how these things are. So for example, I use a tool called the Facebook Newsfeed Obliterater, or I don’t see anything that anybody posts on Facebook. So when I log in, if I’m there to share something, I go, I show the thing that I want to share it and I get out of. I might chat with friends, whatever it is, and if I want to see what other people are on Facebook, once a week I’ll get on my phone, enable Safari, and do that.
Srini Rao: So I don’t have social media apps on my phone because they’re just distractions and they’re unnecessary. Otherwise, you find yourself mindlessly checking when you’re in line at the grocery store, you’re just not present in your life because your head is buried in a screen. I think that when you’re with people that you care about, you should turn off your phones. When you’re at dinner with friends, when you’re on dates, whatever it is. Like I noticed a huge difference in the quality of my interaction when my phone is turned off. So that’s one. The ultimate, I would say you be the best hack for not letting your phone become a distraction is to turn the damn thing off and leave it out of the room. Because that’s really ultimately what it comes down to.
Srini Rao: So, that’s a big one. And then of course we have tools, right? Like Rescue Time, like Hey Focus. That allows you to block distracting websites. I mean, I think Rescue Time in particular is really interesting because it gives you a sort of awareness for where you’re spending your time, like, you know, when you didn’t do shit all day because it’s staring you in the face and says your productivity pulse is 53 percent and you’re thinking, OK, that means I did absolutely nothing today that was of value. It’s a really good sign that you’ve been wasting a lot of time. So that’s a big part of it. And then of course I think multitasking. There’s not a single study at this point that hasn’t shown, that we’re incredibly ineffective at multitasking. You know, like we, we really, we really are.
Srini Rao: I’ll give you an example from my own life, so when I edit episodes of Unmistakable Creative, if I have Facebook and Twitter open or something else, or Slack or whatever it is, and I’m editing an episode, it’ll take me 90 minutes. If I’m not doing anything else, it’ll take me 30. And that’s the difference, you know what I mean? It’s amazing how and yet somehow people think that they’re effective multitaskers and you know, there’s been studies done on like straight A students. I mean, you know, at places like Stanford that showed they’re not good multitaskers.
Dr. Hill: The human brain, you can’t do more than one thing at once with it. We’re cognitive.
Srini Rao: And then the other thing is that I think that we have a real sort of mental health epidemic potentially on our hands with all these devices and the just endless stream of dopamine right?
Srini Rao: Because you’ve got not only all these strange things happening neurochemically in the brain as a result of these things, but you also have this perpetual comparison of your life to everybody else’s. And of course there’s nobody whose life doesn’t look more amazing on Facebook than yours. I mean I remember thinking, “Hey, I got my book deal” and then I was like, dude, this guy just sold a startup for 100,000,000 dollars. Who gives a shit? If I got a book deal? And if you notice something about comparison, one of the things that we do when we compare, you never compare yourself to people who are worse off than you are. You only tend to compare yourself to people who are better off than you are. So I think part of it is, is learning to limit our use of these tools and also being deliberate about how we use them, not letting them, you know, be the set to the default, you know, cause ideally of course they want you to keep all the notifications on so that every time that you get a notification or a comment on Instagram or like you log in again.
Srini Rao: So you know, I think it’s understanding the design of these products and then going out of your way to design your use of them so that it’s deliberate and not set to the default is ultimately what it comes down to.
Dr. Hill: That’s really, I think you were quite useful as you were saying, these things are designed to addict you, essentially. I’m just to back up and do some neuroscience lecture, because I can’t help myself. I sort of view the internet like the world’s best Skinner Box. BF Skinner, the father of behaviorism, did conditioning work, associative learning. And Skinner, unlike Pavlov, Skinner takes a behavior you already do and reinforces you to do more of it. Skinner’s pigeons already know how to peck on bars, but he got them to a peck in certain ways or back repetitively on a bar, so they got on reinforcer- a pebble, pebble of food or something. This is a different course than a Pavlov’s dogs who took things that were not associated, drooling and a bell, and associated them. So with Skinner, we’re reinforcing behaviors that are already there. And the Internet is a reinforcer and be it Facebook or Twitter or dating apps. The most critical piece of that is the intermittent reinforcement schedule. When you’re swiping through a dating app, you don’t get a match every time, nor do you not get a match every time. And so the uncertainty- “Ooh, it’s going to happen, but when?”- that’s the most seductively sort of learning reinforcer and the same thing happens with a Facebook “like”, or Instagram, or retweets or on Twitter, or whatever else. So like you say, getting sort of sophisticated and realizing that the reinforcers that are turned on by default and all these tools are designed to pull you back in is probably a great bit of a takeaway information for folks. So you’re clearly a highly productive guy with a very structured day and you’re in control of all your time, but I’m guessing that a couple times a week it hits mid day and things just haven’t gone the way you want. You’re putting out fires all morning, you haven’t had enough caffeine.
Srini Rao: Yeah, that would be today. Today is a perfect example- I called my health insurance company and I’m trying to get them to reset my password. And not only that, for some reason our interview didn’t show up on my calendar. Luckily, I checked email right around 10. Of course, nobody is a robot, right? I think part of it is understanding your personal operating rhythm, and you’ve got to realize you’re going to hit diminishing returns on some days. I already know today is shot, I am not going to try. It’s kind of like, OK, this morning kind of went to hell pretty fast between my health insurance thing, and now that I have a friend coming by at noon, and the fact that we’re about to head out of town.
Srini Rao: And I was like, “all right, today was just not meant to be”. I don’t- I’m not on it. I’m sitting in a chair that’s broken, and I’m waiting for a new chair to show up from Amazon, and it won’t be here till Thursday. You know, that there’s stuff that throws off the whole team. Like I happened to be in the business center to my apartment complex and I saw your email and I ran back to my apartment and I’m sitting in my broken chair, you know, which if I lean back I’ll fall over-
Dr. Hill: If you suddenly vanished from the screen we’ll know what happened. So this stuff happens, and it probably happens more than once every few months. I’m guessing for you to get control of it? How do you notice and reset? What tools do you use?
Srini Rao: As far as that goes, I think part of the reset is that you get to reset every day, right? Like tomorrow becomes the reset. Like I, I’ve pretty much written today off now, and this is what I always say about the thousand word habit, right? I said, you know, if you write a thousand words a day, you’re probably averaging about 365,000 words a year. And so I tell people 90 percent of everything I write is complete crap. But the thing is, I don’t need for more than 10 percent of it to be good because I’m doing so much, you know, like if I want a 50,000 word book, I might have to have, you know, three to four good sentences or even, you know, two good paragraphs a day if that, because I do it so consistently. And that’s one of the things that’s so profound about any habit that you do consistently, right?
Srini Rao: You know as a neuroscientist, you have myelination that occurs when you do anything consistently. Inevitably you’re going to get better. Um, so the fact that you’re going to do this thing consistently makes it completely OK that you have a bad day.
Dr. Hill: This writing habit in the morning, I think this is one of the most powerful things people can do. But I’m curious how you do it. Are you sort of free writing for a thousand words are or there writing prompts of things you have to get done? Things, you know-
Srini Rao: I’ll walk you through the process of how I developed the habit because I think that in and of itself is incredibly important because I used a lot of tools from the world of brain science to actually cultivate the habit. So, I have to give credit where credit is due.
Srini Rao: I mean Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage I attribute directly to my ability to develop this habit. So he talks about a few different things in Happiness, the first one being activation energy, right? The idea behind activation energy is that you reduce the activation energy for the things that you want to do. You increase it for the things you want to avoid. So one of the things I do is I put out a pen and a notebook the night before. That way, just the fact that I don’t have to get it off the shelf makes it much more likely that I’ll write. Another thing that I’ll do is open up my writing software the night before so right when I open up the screen, it’s the first thing I see. Just the fact that I don’t have to go click on it- and these are all small seemingly inconsequential things, but psychologically you’ve reduced the activation energy and they increase the likelihood that you’ll do them.
Srini Rao: Of course distraction, we talked about, I think blocking the distractions everyday is critical for this period of time. And then another concept that worked for Sean’s book, you know, when people don’t know what to write, I often tell them, just put down a quote from something that you’ve read. So I always read for 30 minutes before I write as well because it kind of primes the brain and it gets you sort of thinking. Many of my ideas for what I write about, come from the things that I’ve been reading. So I’ll take just one sentence. And the nice thing is if you look at the concept of success accelerants, the idea is that your brain makes progress towards a goal based on how close it thinks it is to that goal. So let’s say your goal is a thousand words, but you’ve already got a hundred word quote, there will now you only have 900 to go, so suddenly it doesn’t seem like it’s 1000. It’s a total, you’re basically tricking your brain. I mean, it’s a perception, it’s a glitch that is built into the human brain- but you can use to your advantage, which there are many of these glitches that I keep finding, right? I mean, you as a neuroscientist probably are aware of many more of them than I am. Um, but that was the end of those are the big ones. And so as far as the content- yeah, it, it largely is free writing. But what happens is, when you’re doing free writing for 1,000 words, you will get to a point where suddenly you find yourself in a flow state and when you’re in that flow state ideas just start to come and you’ll go from a thousand to 3000 words. I mean there, when I can hit a flow state, I’ll go from a thousand to 3000 words in the next 2000 words will take me 30 minutes to write and the first 2000 may take, you know, an hour to write.
Dr. Hill: So you’re not sort of limiting, “OK, I got my thousand words in, I’m done” it’s more like seeing what you can accomplish in the first hour or two in the morning. Well, these are all wonderful tools you’ve, you’ve dropped a little hints of, we’ll put put these in the show notes and give people some links to follow-up, but where else can they track you down and find more of the things you’re working on? Of course, the Unmistakable Creative podcast is a wonderful show. I may be biased because I think I was on it, but it’s, it’s a great show. Uh, so folks should definitely check that out. But where else can they find the things you’re doing? Where can they pick up some books you’re working on?
Srini Rao: Unmistakable Creative is the main place. But, I also have a substantial presence on Medium. I think my school, I think my username for some reason, it’s still my old twitter handle. Um, it’s https://medium.com/@skooloflife “s k o o l” of life. If you do a search for Unmistakable CEO at Medium, you’ll find me there as well.
Dr. Hill: So, our guest today was Srini Rau. Thanks so much for calling in and giving us a little bit of a hint into all the different ways you hack your productivity and how you view creativity has been really informative for our viewers. And, uh, we hope to have you back at some point. So, folks, this has been another episode of Head First. with Dr Hill – take care of those brains.