What Matters Now — and Tomorrow

This is Martha’s long lost blog editor Pamela Slim stepping in for a moment to let you know about a cool project that Martha just participated in with Seth Godin.

What Matters Now is an e-book filled with delicious one-page essays like Elizabeth Gilbert on ease and Daniel Pink on autonomy and Tom Peters on excellence.

And our very own Martha Beck on world healers.

It talks about dignity, vision, enrichment and sacrifice.

And how you recognize enough.

The eclectic group of 71 authors will stimulate you to think and feel and question your beliefs.

All so you can change your corner of the world.

So download a copy at this link.  It is free. Read it. Pass it on. Share it with your friends. Talk about it.

What Matters Now says “big thoughts and small actions make a difference.”

What are yours?

The Gift of Joyful Detachment

There is an old story about a Zen monk who was waiting to greet the emperor of Japan.  Just before the emperor arrived, he turned to a fellow monk and said, “I’ll be back later.”  “Later” turned about to be 12 years.  When his peers asked where he’d been, why he’d left, he explained, “As I waited for the emperor, I felt my palms begin to sweat.  I knew that I was attached to social roles because my body was tense.  I’ve been meditating to lose that attachment.  I came back as soon as I could.”
In our culture, we often think that detaching from something means that we are less devoted to it, that we love it less.  The monk’s story comes from the opposite perspective; when we are attached to people’s roles we cannot see them from a place of simple compassion.  

I had an interesting experience recently when I flew to NY to tape a segment for a national TV show.  In the past, I’ve always been slightly nervous about events like these, but this time, I was strangely detached from the entire process.  I reached my hotel late at night to find that my reservation was in a hotel across town.  To me it felt like a special treat to sit in one hotel lobby enjoying free wireless internet while a car came to ferry me across town.  The limo driver spoke no English and had the wrong address.  To me it was an exciting opportunity to use my Mandarin.  The next morning, I found that most of the production staff had swine flu or a reasonable facsimile thereof.  I lathered up with hand sanitizer, but also felt very relaxed about the possibility that I might become ill.  I thoroughly enjoyed coaching the guest, a woman who was burning herself out to take care of her relatives.  After the show when people asked me how it had gone, I realized I honestly hadn’t thought about it.  History will be the judge but I think it probably went well simply because I was so detached.  
I don’t know what gift of grace put me in the detachment zone for this experience.  Maybe it’s a combination of meditating, cleaning out my mind with Byron Katie’s Work, associating with my wonderful coaching colleagues, or a slight stroke, but I do know that this was a detachment filled with joy and effectiveness.  There is a zone in the mind as narrow and wobbly as a tightrope, but once you learn to walk it, life paradoxically becomes steadier, more grounded.  I think that the stability of our lizard brains-which is always a fear-based illusion– makes us reluctant to step on the rope.  But that narrow line where love and detachment combine is a solid foundation for the soul.  
Today, try stepping back from a situation where you are deeply attached, where your palms are sweating up a storm.  Think about how trivial this incident is from the broad perspective of your true self.  It really doesn’t matter all that much.  If necessary, retire to a cave.  But please leave us a forwarding address.

The Magic of Staying Calm, No Matter What

I’m packing my suitcases to go participate in two large conferences.  I have considerable tension in my mind and several cold sores on my body.  All of the negative feelings, of course, are the result of “dirty pain.”  My fears about the uncertainties of travel, my memories of traveling while physically ill in the past, and my stories about the whole issue have been troubling my sleep and lowering my immunities. 

Fortunately, I know how to deal with this, and my newly certified coaches (who coach me as part of their certification process) have been pushing me to admit it.  No matter what is happening to me or around me, I need to, and always can, access a state of physical, emotional, and spiritual calm.  
Speaking of staying calm, the holiday season offers us many wonderful opportunities to practice staying peaceful in a variety of challenging situations.  Logistical energy is spread very thin during this season, time is at a premium, and emotions run very high as families gather (or not) to celebrate. 
During the next few weeks, observe yourself compassionately, like a professional chess player watching a three-year-old learn the moves.  Notice when you become stressed, manic, demanding, anxious, or seized by any of the other emotions that fly around with such vigor during the holiday season.  The moment you take the observer’s stance, you will already feel the beginning of peace.  Remain in compassionate witness mode for as long as five minutes, and you will feel more peace than not-peace.  Stay there for half an hour, and you can generate enough calm to carry you through the whole day.  If you happen to fall off the wagon, simply observing that  you’ve fallen will immediately return you to the compassionate witness’s unflappable calm.
This year let’s honor the true spirit of the holidays by staying relaxed and peaceful as Uncle Jim throws the cranberry sauce at Mom.

Stone Age Wisdom for Modern Life Coaching


Back in the days when humans still lived in a pristine relationship with nature, a woman my age wouldn’t have spent more than four decades eating genetically altered food, unknowingly consuming insecticide with her vegetables, and noshing on processed snacks packed with preservatives.  She wouldn’t have spent all those years parked on her voluminous rump, getting no physical exercise most of each day.

That’s because in those days, a woman my age would have been dead for twenty years.

Come on, face it: Statistically speaking, modern conveniences have given a lot more than they’ve taken in terms of healthy and longevity.  That’s why I’m relaxed about things most Whole Foods customers abhor.  I have various friends who are militant about their whole-food, live-food, sanctified-by-the-nutrition-gods food, and while these folks are as healthy as horses, they also tend to be murdered by people they keep criticizing for eating Twinkies.

Food Nazi and Twinkie Lover

Food Nazi and Twinkie Lover

That said, you all know I’m a big back-to-nature buff.  And I’m always looking for ways to make my clients’ lives work better.  So I was intrigued when my friend Betsy informed me about one way we’ve strayed from our biological best path.  We have abandoned our parasites.

Hookworms and Happiness

There’s surprisingly robust research that suggests we co-evolved with many parasites in a symbiotic way.  For example, being infested with hookworms apparently activates a chain reaction that can heal allergies, asthma, and various irritable bowel syndromes.  I’m not kidding.

That’s why one guy, whose story appears on several internet sites but whose name is wisely obscured, took his serious allergies and asthma to the African nation of Cameroon, which is apparently the Disneyland of parasites.  Then he took off his shoes and tromped around in piles of human feces, an idea he no doubt read in his guidebook, “Fun and Friendly Things To Do In the Third World.”

Use this to cure that:

hookworm and bowel

“I became infested almost immediately,” he writes. “It must have been either the first or second day I spent walking barefoot through the latrines. When one thinks of it this was an enormous piece of luck.”

Okay.  One is thinking of it, but one is having a hard time agreeing.

Anyway, this guy says his asthma went away (just as it went away from patients in legitimate studies at places like the University of Nottingham).

Below: test subjects from the University of Nottingham

merry men

sherrif nott
robin hod

Pooping for Profits

These days, our hookworm-infested gentleman makes money harvesting the larvae of his new pets, which he gets from his own…well, yes.  He sells the larvae to other people who have allergies but lack the wealthy jet-set’s ability to go lollygagging around latrines in Cameroon any time they darn well please.

On a similar note, doctors now use “medical maggots” to clean wounds, and leeches to keep blood from coagulating.  One website sells tapeworms to people who want to lose weight: swallow the worm, lose the weight, take a worm-killing pill, bada bing, bada boom, you have thighs like a gazelle.  Also anemia, post-traumatic stress, and a story that means no one will ever marry you, but hey!  It’s better to look good than to feel good, right?

In light of these findings, I’ve been wondering—any responsible life coach would—if there are other healthy primordial conditions or behaviors we modern humans have abandoned.  Could we have evolved to benefit from many parasites that make me want to hurl?  Could the tendency to hurl be cured by ticks?

It is possible.

So here’s a list of little-known ancient biological truths (or not) that I think might restore our natural health.  There is no evidence whatsoever to support any of them.  I just have a feeling.


Martha’s List of Possible Primordial Cures for Whatever Ails You

  • Babies should only be cleaned by dogs.
  • A mouse in your house means no sties in your eyes.
  • Bake with dung, it keeps you young!
  • Armpit odor prevents nightmares and sleep crime.
  • Fine lines and wrinkles around the eyes and mouth virtually disappear if you pound them with a rock.
  • A moldy fridge makes a fertile mind.
  • Stabbing a yak cures back pain (for you, not for the yak).
  • Toe fungus makes you joyful.
  • Lice stop you from running mad.

These are just a few bits of ancient wisdom that occurred to me on the fly.  If you have any other back-to-nature practices I can incorporate into my life coaching, by all means share them!  It’s time to start licking our meat clean and re-connecting with all the disgusting parasites that use humans as hosts.  Which reminds me, it’s time for my political pundit shows.  I think they make me immune to swine flu.

The Willing Suspension of Disbelief

When you pick up a novel, knowing that the author plans to spin a good yarn, you perform a tiny trick in your head which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief.”  This means that although you don’t necessarily buy into the author’s reality, as long as you’re reading you will willingly accept the idea that Hogwarts is a school for wizards or that the Da Vinci Code could really be traced by an intrepid Harvard symbologist. I recently found an even more exciting use for the willing suspension of disbelief and I’d like to invite you to try it.
This happened, of course, in Africa (all the most exciting parts of my life seem to happen in Africa these days.)  Having completed a wonderful adventure with the STAR participants, a few of us rented a van and traveled to the high plain known as the Karoo.  This was once the site of a huge antelope migration.  Dainty little animals known as springbok grazed these grasslands in such vast numbers that the Afrikaan “trekkers” often had to stop and sit on their wagons for days to allow a single herd to pass by.  Otherwise they were trampled to death by these animals that weigh about 50 pounds apiece.  The Karoo was used to graze sheep and cattle, which destroyed the native grasses and exhausted the productivity of the soil.  Now virtually nothing lives there.  In the middle of this vast arid land is a small village, once a cattle farm, that has literally no economy.  
Our motley crew of ten Team Members (the only criterion for participation was an obsession with healing the earth) descended on this village, Philippolis, to be instructed by humanitarian and educator, Kate Groch. We shopped in the village store, seeing how much we could purchase with a Philippolis family’s monthly pension, about $30 to feed a family of four for a month.  We visited the school where Kate is training Philippolians of all ages in literacy.  Then we dreamed up ways the citizens of the village could earn a better life by restoring the grasslands and the springbok herds.  That night we gathered at Kate’s house and went into a collective, deep suspension of disbelief.  On a huge piece of paper we wrote our mission statement: to save the world by connecting human beings with the true nature of their own souls and of the earth.  
Everyone piled in with ideas.  The drama therapist we’d literally kidnapped from Johannesburg talked about using her skills to heal psychological trauma caused by apartheid and it’s associated evils.  The concert organizer planned a series of rock concert benefits and was assigned the task of writing a group anthem.  The tracker pitched in his knowledge of wildlife rehabilitation.  The two social workers planned to publish papers in academic journals to give validity and purpose to the entire enterprise.  The horse whisperer said she would help people heal emotionally and connect with the animals we hope to establish in the Karoo.  The business manager was all about fundraising.  So for one night not a single one of us disbelieved.  
We were completely committed to Margaret Mead’s famous quote “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.  Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”  
The next morning within an hour, four surprise phone calls came to different members of our party.  A famous educator called to say he would donate three years of his life to the cause that Kate and her mother, Mo, are championing.  A large international clothing company called to say they were excited about funding whatever it was we were doing.  I got a call inviting me to meet with some of the most powerful philanthropists on earth.  And a Middle Eastern energy company which is leading the green revolution requested coaching for a number of their employees in the Middle East.  
There is no doubt in my mind that this flurry of good news came as a direct result of our small committed group forgetting to disbelieve for a few riotous, joyful hours.  I suggest that for your October harvest you bring together a small committed group of your own.  Make a plan to change the world.  For one night, don’t disbelieve that you can. 

The Language of Letting Go

(Of All Hope of Sounding Comprehensible)

Well, I’m back in the States again after another amazing trip to South Africa.  I had a wonderful time connecting with many of our fabulous SA coaches, helping run the wilderness STAR (Self-Transformation Adventure Retreat) and beta-testing a plan to help some brilliant educators transform a small African village.

sa flag lion cubs zebras drinking

It’s always a bit of a bummer to be an American overseas, because everyone else seems to have been brought up in a regular Babel of linguistic influences, and they all speak a little of this, a tad of that.  It’s bad enough in Europe, where the local lingos, whatever they are, at least have English cognates.  In South Africa, everyone but me seems to speak approximately 80 languages, none of them remotely similar to anything I’ve ever heard.

To remedy this situation, I am once again trying to Teach Myself Zulu.  I’m serious.  I ordered some Teach Yourself Zulu CDs from Amazon.com and everything.

teach self zulu

The first CD is sobering; not only is Zulu from a language family about which I know nothing (Bantu), it’s also a tonal language AND a click dialect.  The concept of tones is fine with me, since I’ve studied Chinese.  But the clicks are going to be a real challenge.  I’ve asked click-dialect speakers to help me pronounce Zulu words, and after a few repetitions they always look at me with despair in their eyes, like people trying to teach a chicken to knit.

Fortunately, my Teach Yourself CDs have a careful description of all the click variations in Zulu.  Some South African languages are so click-laden that native speakers sound as if they’re simultaneously talking and operating tiny keyboards with their tonsils.  Zulu, I’m glad to report, has only three basic clicks, each of which has four variations.  I couldn’t distinguish between the variations to get out of hot-tubbing with Dick Cheney.

cheney and queen

Fortunately, the three basic clicks are described in Teach Yourself Zulu with a cozy clarity that makes a lot of sense.  To wit:

The first click, says the instructor on my CD (who sounds like Queen Elizabeth with an Afrikaans accent) is “the sound many people make when annoyed.” I know the sound I make when annoyed: it’s a high, whimpering gasp, like a dog who desperately wants something it is not allowed to have.  “Hnnng, hnng, hnng, hnng.”  Like that.  Good.  One down, two to go.

The second click, says Queen Elizabeth, is “the sound a cork makes popping out of a bottle.” This is vaguely familiar to me, but I’m at a disadvantage because I grew up Mormon, and never heard a cork popping out of a bottle until I was past the language-development years.  So I’ll make the sound of a cap coming off a root beer bottle: “PFFFFfffff.”  I figure that will do.

The third Zulu click, according to Queen Elizabeth, is (I am not making this up) “the sound commonly made when urging a horse.”  I assume this means a horse that one is riding.  The sound I make to urge a horse I’m riding is as follows:  “Please don’t run please don’t run DON’T RUN!  STOP!  STAY!  SIT! HELP!

So this is how my Zulu practice dialogue would sound if you translated the meaning into English:


“Good morning, Queen Elizabeth PLEASE DON’T RUN!  So nice to see you hnnng hnnng hnnng.”

“Good morning, Mr. Cheney PFFFfffff.  I would like to hnnng hnnng hnnng buy some edible grubs SIT! HELP! such as those I have seen DON’T RUN! on the PFFFfffff Discovery Channel hnnng hnnng hnnng.”

“Of course PFFFfffff, madame STOP!  HELP!  Would you hnnng hnnng hnnng like a large one PFFFfffff?”

“I’d prefer PLEASE DON’T RUN! two small ones hnnng hnnng hnnng PFFFffff.”

“An excellent PFFFfff choice, madame SIT! STAY!  The large ones sometimes pupate hnnng hnnng hnnng if not refrigerated HELP!  SIT! PFFFffff.”

And so on.


I just can’t wait to show my Zulu-speaking friends how much I’ve learned!  I’m sure they’ll be motivated by the amount of progress I’ve made, in the sense that teaching chickens to knit will suddenly seem easy by comparison teaching me to talk.

So now I must go practice my clicks.  A huge thank-you to all my dear friends around the world for their tolerance, generosity, and companionship.  The network of the Tribe wraps itself all the way around this delicate planet of ours, and I am so grateful.

Creating Brilliant Ideas

In many ways, one thing you can never anticipate is the quagmire of logistical and psychological problems that may confront you when you set out to find your own North Star.  It’s hard for me to write about your particular real world dilemmas, since everyone’s life is unique and conditions are changing so quickly that many of the problems that you are experiencing today probably didn’t exist five years ago.  (How do I reclaim my twitter account after it’s been hijacked in an identity theft?)

That’s why I’ve been studying ways in which some of the world’s smartest people solve unprecedented problems.  I’m especially enjoying the work of Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres, two Yale professors whose book Why Not: How to Use Everyday Ingenuity to Solve Problems Big and Small has handed me more aha moments than I usually get in a month of Sundays.  

I highly recommend this book, and I’m looking forward to implementing the authors’ ideas in this month’s telecourse “Brilliant Ideas and How to Create Them.”  Try this: think of an annoying dilemma you’ll face today, one that makes you think “someone should do something about this.”  Then try something Ayes and Nalebuff call the “Croesus solution”: if you had infinite financial resources how would you address the problem?  Once you’ve thought of at least one answer, switch to “the look for less” strategy.  See if you can apply a similar solution for less money.  

For example, suppose there’s someone very needy in your life who constantly demands caretaking.  If you were filthy rich you might:
1.  Hire a doe-eyed college sophomore to gaze adoringly at him while he whines.
2.  Put armed guards throughout his house to threaten his life if he makes a sound.
3.  Pay Dr. Phil to spend quality time with him (why not, he’d do it for Brittany?)

To get this effect for less you could:
1.  Pay a psychology graduate student to do an hour of reflective listening.
2.  Buy a bow and arrow and threaten his life yourself (this avoids the inconvenient delay necessitated by a firearms background check.)
3.  Rent a boxed set of the Dr. Phil show on DVD and insist that the complainer watch every episode before you speak to him again.

Would these necessarily work?  No, but just by thinking of them, your paralysis around this issue will begin to soften and brilliant solutions to the problem will begin percolating over from the right side of your brain into conscious awareness.  If you’re having trouble coming up with Croesus solutions, jump in and brainstorm with us during our telecourse on September 23rd and 30th.  

Enjoy Why Not. And write and tell us about the brilliant solutions that come to your mind as you read it. 

The Adequate-Sleep Life-Enhancing Experimental Project

First of all, I want to register a simultaneous apology and complaint:  My blog won’t post pictures today.  This has made me feel so defeated I think I’ll go back to bed.  Which leads me to today’s topic…

Something incredibly bizarre happened to me last night.I turned out the light at midnight, but didn’t fall asleep right away, because—this is the bizarre part—I wasn’t tired.

I didn’t know that was even possible.True, I was only really tired during one period of my life, but that period lasted from January of 1970 until this past June. By then I’d begun getting Messages From the Universe indicating that I’d spent enough time in a physical and mental fog.For example:

  • Having heard that Thomas Edison relied on refreshing mini-naps, I started taking them regularly. While driving.
  • I had elaborate, compulsive fantasies about sleeping with all the most beautiful people I know.None of these fantasies involved sex.
  • My caffeine-related jitters were interfering with seismographic readings as far away as Bangladesh.
  • I kept confusing Anne Coulter with Kim Jong-Il.
  • I was legally required to change the eye-color listing on my driver’s license from “blue” to “red.”
  • One night in a hotel room, judgment deeply impaired, I used the scissors from my travel sewing kit to give myself a haircut that was basically an Homage to Sheep Shearing.

Then an intuitive friend said something I thought was very profound:“What would you do if you knew that every good thing in your life depended on your getting enough rest? Because it does.”

At least I think that’s what she said. And I think it was my intuitive friend. It could have been the cashier at Target. Or Kim Jong-Il. It’s all sort of hazy.

Anyway, at that moment I made a radical decision: I would put sleep above all other priorities until I was no longer tired.Every night, I would sleep until I woke up. I would consume no stimulants, and I would go back to dreamland whenever I felt fatigued.

When I woke up six weeks later, the whole world seemed shiny and attractive, like Patrick Stewart’s head. I was filled with ideas. My eye-bags had shrunk to the point where they looked less like Hefty garbage disposal units than tasteful evening clutches. I felt an inner peace I thought came only from enlightenment or horse tranquilizers.

That was yesterday, and it was followed by the bizarre experience mentioned above: I just lay there, awake and perky, feeling the amazing sensation of not being tired, and vowing that somehow, I’d make the feeling last.

So I invite you to join me in something I’m calling the Adequate-Sleep Life-Enhancing Experimental Project (ASLEEP).The requirements for membership are simple: we sleep until we aren’t tired, whenver possible. And I mean WHENEVER POSSIBLE, as in, if you show up at your best friend’s wedding tired, you take a pillow and sleep through the ceremony. Better yet, don’t show. Man up. Stay in bed.

If you violate the project’s strict standards, the rest of us… won’t even know about it.We’re ASLEEP, remember?We don’t check up on our collaborators, evaluate performance, or do a damn thing with the data from our research.All we do is enjoy life a hell of a lot more than we did when we were always tired.Because every good thing really does depend on rest.Go get some.

Summer Slowdown

Maybe I like this joke because tortoises are my totem animals (they remind me to take life in turtle steps, keep a tough outside but stay soft inside, stick my neck out to move forward, etc., etc.).  Here’s the joke:

 A turtle gets mugged by a large, hostile snail.  When the police ask him what happened, the turtle stammers, “I…I don’t know, officer.  It all happened so fast….”

That’s the way this summer is going for me.  It’s very, very slow, but when I look back on it, the time seems to have gone in a flash.  I used to worry about this, but I’ve recently been convinced that it’s a good thing.  Those of you who’ve roamed within earshot of me this past month have heard me raving about the process of skill development in the brain.  It turns out those “turtle steps” I take may actually be more useful than a jackrabbit sprint.


How Slow Can You Go?

My obsession with skill development comes from reading a book by Daniel Coyle, entitled The Talent Code.  Coyle describes the way the brain develops high levels of skill—basically, by wrapping a neural synapse in more and more layers of myelin, the waxy substance that coats our nerves like the plastic on a copper electric wire. 

The more myelin you’ve got, the faster and more preferentially the neuron will fire.  And the way to develop more myelin is something Coyle calls “deep practice.”  Repeating a skill-based action rapidly over and over won’t develop as much skill as doing it slowly, correcting your errors, then doing it slowly and correcting each tiny error again.  “It’s not how fast you can do it,” Coyle writes, quoting a famous tennis coach.  “It’s how slow you can do it right.”

Me gusta mucho.

The Firebirds

We residents of Phoenix should rejoice at this discovery, especially in the summer, because Phoenicians slow down this time of year.  I mean a lot.  In case you didn’t know, it gets hot here.  No, really.  This city was named after the mythical bird that burned itself up every so often, only to be reborn from the ashes, because birds that venture out during summer days frequently burst into flames.

Phoenix pigeon spontaneously combusting.

Or possibly the Holy Ghost.

The sun does not rise over Phoenix on a summer morning; it heaves itself over the horizon like a World Wrestling Federation steroid abuser and beats the crap out of the earth for fourteen straight hours before grumbling off to its locker room in the west, where it prepares for another onslaught.

So yeah, we slow down in the summer months.  A couple of times a day, Phoenicians may percolate from one air-conditioned space to another, but slowly, so as to generate no temperature rise within the body.  Walk at a normal pace in a Phoenix summer, and your brain will solidify in your head like a poached egg.  Errands are best run—or rather, ambled—between two and four o’clock in the morning, when you stand a reasonable chance of opening your car door without searing all the flesh off your palms. 

As someone who works from home year round, preferably in pajamas, I do what turtles do: lurk in shady places, take an occasional step forward, and watch out for hostile snails.  I strongly encourage this for you, too.  You can learn a lot living like a tortoise.  Here are some of my activities this summer, and what I am very slowly learning from them:

Self-Improving Thing One

This summer, I have watched every episode of the TV show So You Think You Can Dance.  This has not taught me to dance.  (Are you serious?  There’s not enough sweat in the world to cool a dancing Phoenician).  What it’s taught me is that there are human beings who get more exercise in three minutes than I’ve accumulated in my entire lifetime. 


Mary Murphy Rendering an Opinion    Daughter of Zeus and Barbie

I’m talking, of course, about Mary Murphy, a delightful woman and one of the show’s judges, who gets her workouts by shrieking about Mexican food at a decibel level that requires all the other judges to wear adult diapers.  The dancers themselves are not actually human beings.  They are the result of sexual congress between Greek gods and Barbie dolls.  If you haven’t watched them, you should.  Seriously.

Self-Improving Thing Two

After climbing a mesquite tree in the middle of the night to hang up a squirrel-proof birdfeeder, I learned that squirrel-proof bird feeders are also largely bird-proof.  However, after weeks of depressingly low sales to neighborhood birds, my feeder was discovered by two Gila woodpeckers, who now show up every morning.  I named them Sodom and Gomorrah.  (Just because.  They did nothing to deserve it.)  Their daily visit are a high point in my life, probably because, as has so often been noted, I am on the wrong medication.


                       Animal-proof feeder.            Sodom.  Or maybe Gomorrah.  I can’t really tell.


Self-Improving Thing Three

Boldly mastering my DVD player after a mere six years of skill development, I just managed to watch the movie Taken, with Liam Neeson.  From this I learned that if you haven’t really been there for your kids during their childhood, you can make up for it when they’re teenagers with a rampage of torture, murder, and car theft.  The police, realizing that you are merely parenting, will leave you alone, especially if you shoot their wives in the arm.

Loving father, inspired by the movies, winning his children’s hearts.


Self-Improving Thing Four

Um…er….  Actually, there isn’t a Thing Four.  I’m trying to pace myself, dammit!


Signing Off for Myelin Synthesis

So that’s what I’m doing, thus far, on my summer vacation.  If you’re out there in Winnipeg or Pluto or other places that are notable for cool weather, you may not have slowed down quite as much as I have. This means that your myelin sheaths just aren’t going to build as effectively as mine.  

 It may not look as though I’m doing all that much, but I’m developing skills, baby—deep skills that will make your speedy accomplishments look like just another layer of shallow frippery.  I figure it will only take me about 687,950 more Phoenix summers.  Come turtle along with me!

How to Be Richly Rewarded

So I wrote this book about training your mind to reprogram your body to be thin.  It’s called The Four Day Win, and much to my delight, it seems to have helped some people lose weight and feel better about their lives in general.  But I keep getting questions about this book; questions I never anticipated.  My method of weight management is based on the fact that your body is an animal, and animals are trainable.  You can train your body in much the same way you could train, say, a wild boar.  Not that you in any way resemble a wild boar.  I’m just saying. 

Now, to train an animal, you ignore behaviors you don’t want, and reinforce behaviors you do.  I learned this from Amy Sutherland’s wonderful book What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love, and Marriage, which applies the techniques of exotic animal training to human behavior. 


This book can help you train any animal, including yourself.

For example, if your dog howls annoyingly, don’t react at all.  This response, or lack of response, is known as the LRS, or “least reinforcing scenario.”  Offer praise or treats only when the dog is quiet.  (You may have to be persistent.  I did this for 15 years with my beagle, and now he has totally stopped howling, partly because, as noted in a previous blog, he is dead.  So stick to it!)  When an animal does something you like, such as administering acupuncture correctly, give him a reward: a pat on the head, a romp in the yard, a Lexus. 

The same principle applies when training yourself to eat right, stay active, finish your email, or complete any other desirable behavior.  Break the challenge into tiny steps, then take one step each day, following the step immediately with a reward of some kind.  If you repeat the same behavior-plus-reward for four consecutive days, the behavior becomes a pattern, and you’ll be able to sustain it with very little effort.

A lot of my readers tell me that they’re great at setting objectives, and pretty good at following through.  When it comes to the reward, however, they get stumped.  Here’s the question most frequently asked by Four Day Win readers.

“How do I think of the right rewards and punishments to motivate myself?”

Response to FAQ, Part One:

First of all,

PUNISHMENTS?  WHO SAID ANYTHING ABOUT PUNISHMENT?  There’s nothing in any of my books that suggests anybody should punish anybody.  Yet people seem to pick this up between the lines, particularly if they learned to read in Catholic school. 

What do they teach you in there?

I mean no offense by this.  I’m not saying you Catholics are rigid or prudish—in fact, I grew up in a religion that considered y’all to be wild-and-crazy libertines, with your alcoholic Communions and your fancy pope hats.  I didn’t go to Catholic school, and I don’t know what you’re learning in there, but apparently it enables you to find the word “punishment” in any written document, including the instructions on microwave popcorn.

Admit it: if you went to Catholic school, right now you’re thinking about dozens of ways you could punish yourself with microwave popcorn.  You see?  This is exactly what I’m talking about.

Tragic popcorn self-punishment.

But back to my point.  If you’re trying to adopt healthier habits in any way, ix-nay on the unishments-pay.  Positive reinforcement is about 50 times as effective as punishment in sustaining patterns of behavior. 

Response to FAQ, Part Two:

Once you’ve gotten over the need to punish yourself, how do you come up with motivating rewards? 

It amazes me that most people can’t think of anything they really want or like.  Occasionally when I’m running a seminar, I’ll ask a group of people what they’d like me to do for them.  If it’s within my power to do it, I tell them, I will.  But most people, even those who’ve sacrificed money and time to come hang out with me, can’t think of a single request.  In fact, I think they’re actually paying me to tell them what they like.  This is expensive and insane, and I’m so glad people keep doing it.

But there are easier ways.  Check out books like these:



I think people have trouble rewarding themselves because they associate rewards with ease, with absolute lack of difficulty.  They think the reward has to fall out of the sky, that actually, aggressively pursuing satisfaction is “too hard” to be rewarding.  But brain research indicates that we reach a state of “flow,” or maximum positive brain stimulation (read Mihaly Csikszentmihaly or Gregory Berns) when we’re doing something difficult.  Mountain climbers get a happy rush of dopamine while ascending a steep face.  Crossworders get it from the Sunday Times-the hardest puzzle of the week.  Mihaly Csikszentmihaly experienced it while trying to spell his own name.  Counterintuitively, the  most enjoyable things are difficult.


Strange but true: hard games are more rewarding than easy ones.


The Nothing-to-Something Barrier

There seems to be an initial resistance to the effort of doing things that, once we’ve begun, are highly rewarding.  Getting over that initial resistance is the key to self-reward.  I call this the “nothing-to-something barrier.”

I’ve found that no matter what I’m doing, going from absolute zero to some forward momentum requires daunting effort.  I enjoy working out, but takes about 5 minutes in the gym, riding a stationary bicycle or dodging body-builders with ‘roid rage, before the enjoyment kicks in.  Writing a first draft of anything, from an email to a book, is hellish; from there, editing and rewriting are almost easy.  I could paint all day, but I don’t like setting up the easel and prepping the canvas.  In all these areas and many more, I get past the nothing-to-something barrier by using a few mental tricks that temporarily boost my enthusiasm.  Here are my favorite methods:

Getting from Nothing to Something

Method 1: Expose Yourself to Role Models

No, I don’t mean that way.  Let us pause while those of you who went to Catholic school punish yourselves, immediately and protractedly, for even thinking such thoughts. 

At your service!

Thank you.

What I mean by “expose yourself to role models” is that you can get through the nothing-to-something barrier by focusing attention on people who are already doing something you enjoy.  For example, reading fitness magazines makes me much more likely to work out.  Reading books and articles by authors I love makes me want to write.  Visiting art galleries makes me want to paint.  The energy created by other people can heave me right over the nothing-to-something barrier into the enjoyment zone. 

 Method 2: Make Foolish Promises

Hiking the Grand Canyon is difficult.  Promising your outdoorsy friends that you’ll hike the Grand Canyon with them next summer is easy.  Backing out of a promise is, once again, often difficult.  For this reason, I encourage you to make ridiculous commitments that sound exciting at the time.  Your first reaction should be, “Oh, yeah!” followed almost immediately by, “Oh, %$&*!”

Foolish promise fulfillment

For example, yesterday I promised two friends that I’d go to Uganda with them next year, to see how well life-coaching works on people whose circumstances make most of my clients’ worst problems look like paradise.  Also to see wild gorillas.  Who knows–maybe the gorillas will want life coaching!

To me, this is a wonderful foolish promise.  There’s no pressing demand for me to life coach in Uganda, and it’ll take all kinds of preparation, money, and inconvenience.  Because it’s in keeping with my heart’s desires, every foolish step will be tinged with excitement.  Every time I get past the nothing-to-something barrier (because I promised my damn friends I would) I’ll feel rewarded by the process.

A gorilla and her life coach.

So today, promise someone—preferably several someones—that you’ll join them in doing something you want to do anyway.  Start a book club and read all of Tolstoy.  Learn Zen archery.  Grow an herb garden.  You may feel grumpy about it, but only until your promise pulls you over the nothing-to-something barrier.  Once in action, you’ll find the effort more rewarding than total lethargy.

Method 3: Ask WWOWDWOW?

You know that dream you had, in which Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed and Rabbi Hillel all descended from the clouds and promised you that Oprah was destined to transform your life into a nonstop adventure filled with delights you previously experienced only when you took an overdose of Percoset after your gum surgery? 

Well, I hate to break this to you, but everyone in the world has had that dream.  Except for one person, of course: Oprah.  She, poor woman, is the only person who can’t fantasize about what would happen if she showed up.  When she wonders what Oprah could do for her, her only option for wish fulfillment is to rear up on her hind legs and do it.

If you’ve been waiting for the Oprah gravy train, try wearing a bracelet that says WWOWDWOW, for “What Would Oprah Winfrey Do (Without Oprah Winfrey)?  In other words, if Oprah woke up in the life you’re living right now, what would she do to make that life better? 

Fill in the blank.

For you Catholics (who seem to be the particular target of this blog) it might help to recall that Pope John Paul I struggled with a similar issue.  After he’d ascended to the papacy, he’d wake up worrying about some problem facing the church, and think, “I’ll have to ask the pope about it.”  Then he’d wake up a little more and realize, “Oh, my goodness, I am the pope!”  If you’re the Oprah, the pope, the hero of your own life, the buck stops with you.  All the fancy hats in the world can’t save you from the responsibility to work your own miracles.

Seriously, right now imagine what your most revered role model would do in your wildest fantasies.  Write it all down—the places you’d go, the great things you’d accomplish, the experiences you’d have.  Piggyback on this role-model fantasy to gather enough excitement to propel you over the nothing-to-something barrier.

What if you were the one in the fancy hat? 

Something to Something Better

Once you cross the nothing-to-something barrier, you’ll get better and better at thinking up rewards for your meritorious behavior.  You’ll develop a whole armament of TV shows, books, hobbies, friendly outings, and interesting adventures, any one of which can motivate you to take the next turtle step on your quest for self-improvement. 

Like anything else, thinking up rewards is a skill that gets easier with practice.  Getting from nothing to something: difficult.  Getting from something (anything!) to something better: easy.  And every fabulous life is build from nothing, to something, to something a tiny bit bigger, then a tiny bit bigger still.  If this method doesn’t work, you can always try punishing yourself.  But you’ll have to find the instructions for that in somebody else’s blog.