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You Sacrifice the Present for a Chance at a Better Future, Not To Guarantee It
On how you can restart your life to set the path to living the life you want.
My only regret is not finding the most effective way to catch a monkey sooner. It took me 19 years to answer this puzzle, and my life has changed ever since.
An old South Indian tale reveals the answer. Take a large, narrow-necked jar that can fit a monkey's hand. Fill it partially with rocks so the monkey can't carry it, and then scatter treats near and inside the jar. The trap works because once the monkey grabs the goodies inside, it won't let its hand out. Not because they physically can't do it but because they refuse to let go of the treats. The trap works because the monkey can't sacrifice a part of itself to preserve the whole.
Through my experience with palliative care courses and interacting with people close to death, I noticed that people worldwide seem to behave like these monkeys. We stick our hands in the most captivating jar, fixate on what's immediately in front of us, and refuse to see beyond.
But what if you let go of these tempting treats you currently have? The drugs, malice, bitterness, deceit, alcohol, sloth, fear, and short-term vices. Will your life be better?
Most people would answer affirmatively, and that's the problem. Most people know that life is short, finite, and beautiful. And simultaneously they acknowledge that they must make short-term sacrifices to have a better life, i.e., eating corn sandwiches, restarting their careers, and having ten roommates in New York City.
Yet, most people I’ve encountered across continents don't sacrifice the present for the future. They over and under everything: overspend, over-rest, over-blame, over-wait, over-plan, over-regret, under-appreciate, under-invest in true friendships, and under-build their communities.
All because of fear that their sacrifice today won't pay the way to the future they desire want. However, they don't know because they never sacrifice treats. They don’t know that you sacrifice the present to access the future you want—without that sacrifice, you almost certainly have NO CHANCE of attaining the desired future.
My friends in their 20s and 30s often inquire about achievements I’ve made at my age. I've traveled, worked with 50+ brands, and can live wherever I want on a lifestyle most people find fufilling. All despite being born and living in a country where people who get STEM Ph.Ds. from Ivy Leagues return to the country and make less than $2,000 per month.
These "achievements" came from sacrifices:
Experiences: e.g., Forgoing the "college" life
Relationships: e.g., Letting go of meaningful friendships
Time: e.g., Working 14 hours a day every day for 2 years
Health: e.g., Overusing my hands, leading to Tenosynovitis
Now, you don't have to make these sacrifices. And frankly, I didn't want to make them at the time, or ever, like in the case of my Tenosynovitis. But you must make some to have the life you want.
The following are three principles to follow to start changing your present today. I also included an exercise to spark change, even if fear paralyzes you.
Don't follow them thinking they will change your life. Do it because your chances of changing your life financially, emotionally, and physically are dim if you don't.
This post involves taking action. I suggest you read the following two sections, do the exercise, and return after finishing to learn how to use the findings correctly.
Why change at all?
In one of his discourses, The Buddha imparted the following to a group of ordained monks:
If a soiled and dirty (piece of) cloth is dipped by the fuller in any dye at all—blue, yellow, red or pink—it will still be of bad and dirty colour. Why? Because the cloth is not clean... If a perfectly clean (piece of) cloth is dipped by the fuller in any dye at all—blue, yellow, red or pink—it will be of beautiful and clean colour. Why? Because the cloth is clean.
While I don't often speak in colloquial terms, The Buddha’s message is clear: get your shit together. You can't pretend to fix your life if it is filled with filth. I know that The Buddha's word, filth, is inference-loaded. So simply think about filth as sins, misbehaviors, or excesses. Typical forms of it include:
Most people can examine their lives and find these and other negative traits. There, lying around, waiting to be picked by someone.
The wait isn’t always metaphorical. Some individuals expect someone to solve their problems: a person, institution, or entity. Many reach to a level of filth that renders them incapable of changing without help. Past this point, the accumulation of problems often shows up as mental illnesses that need medical intervention.
However, most people I meet don't change their lives because of a lack of planning, an absence of role models, and a prevalent desire for instant gratification.
Above all, these people are afraid to confront their fears. I like Psychologist Jordan Peterson’s usage of a dragon to represent our fears. A dragon is a huge, scary figure and feels invincible. Something you wish to run away from, and rightly so. But it is also an obstacle between you and a realm of possibilities.
In stories, the dragon is the enemy the hero must defeat to save the village, get the gold, and reach its fondest dreams.
In real life, not slaying our dragons means letting them grow. It's, for example, not solving our drinking problem, gambling, cheating, and consumption problems in our 20s only to be overwhelmed by them in our 40s—or any age where it might actually be too late to discover the hidden gold beneath the dragon.
Most people only pay attention to their dragons when they are too big to control. After years of ignoring that thing, you knew you had to pay attention to it but decided not to do it. It may have been so long ago that you forgot they existed. But they do, and they influence what you do.
In the next section, you'll learn an exercise to uncover, re-discover, and see your fears in all their awfulness. This will be the first step to overcoming your fears and working towards your desired life.
But before you grab a pen and paper and go through the exercise, read the following examples of dragons a friend of mine and I have fought. These will clarify the fears you are looking for within yourself and inspire you to embrace change.
Examples of dragons (fears)
Some of the dragons I've fought against and slayed:
I decided I didn't like Economics and that, while finishing my degree, I would teach myself marketing. I dedicated 14 hours daily to reading, watching courses, and implementing what I learned. This last part involved typing a lot, resulting in Tenosynovitis, an ailment I still deal with. However, four years later, I have successfully led 50+ marketing strategies for companies making up to $500M.
I decided to exclusively collaborate with US companies that could afford me despite not being from the US. Consequently, I declined every paid client opportunity in my first year in business because they underbid. That's 365 days of expenses and no income. Thanks to steadfastly holding my ground, my first client paid me above the market price, setting a precedent that most subsequent clients followed.
I spent money on education instead of traveling, clothes, gadgets, or anything material for the first two years of making significant money. This approach allowed me to reach at the point where I can now live wherever I want and splurge on unnecessary items.
While my sacrifices might captivate those who know me, they pale compared to my friend Russell's.
Russell was born with a congenital heart disease and one kidney. In fortyish years, he's undergone three corrective surgeries that have left imprints on his body:
"My left arm, while not limp, did not gain much size or strength as I grew up. It seems like I sustained some nerve damage, but no doctor or family member can tell me when or how. Also, I can’t bend my wrists back. When I perform pushups, I do them on my fists.”
These physical imprints are on top of the challenges of his heart disease, such as having less strength than the average for his age, a twice-daily regimen of medicines, and an always-present risk of further health deterioration.
Russell had a valid excuse not to make the most of his existing life and abandon hope for the future. But he chose the opposite. For decades, he sacrificed immediate mental and physical comfort, time, and finances. For example, he pushed himself to walk up more hills, lift more weights, and climb more stairs than his doctors would have recommended. As a result, of his determination, sacrifices, and commitment he now has a better body image, posture, breathing capacity, flexibility, strength, and endurance.
No entity played a role in this—Russell wasn't “meant” to experience these improved states. However, his unwavering determination and commitment made the possibility of experiencing these states possible.
How to change your present (today)
I could now give you 10,000 words worth of experience and science-backed ways of confronting your fears. However, after failed attempts to change the behavior of dozens of friends, I've found that Tim Ferris' fear-setting exercise is the best at persuading people to be accountable for their future.
The exercise involves answering seven questions that are meant to make you uncomfortable. They will also show: you are to blame, you hold wrong values, and they might paralyze you. But once you answer them, you'll realize you can initiate change starting today.
Grab your favorite writing tool and answer these questions taken word-by-word from Tim's blog:
1. "Define your nightmare, the absolute worst that could happen if you did what you are considering.
What doubts, fears, and “what-ifs” pop up as you consider the big changes you can—or need—to make? Envision them in painstaking detail. Would it be the end of your life? What would be the permanent impact, if any, on a scale of 1–10? Are these things really permanent? How likely do you think it is that they would actually happen?
2. What steps could you take to repair the damage or get things back on the upswing, even if temporarily?
Chances are, it’s easier than you imagine. How could you get things back under control?
3. What are the outcomes or benefits, both temporary and permanent, of more probable scenarios?
Now that you’ve defined the nightmare, what are the more probable or definite positive outcomes, whether internal (confidence, self-esteem, etc.) or external? What would the impact of these more likely outcomes be on a scale of 1–10? How likely is it that you could produce at least a moderately good outcome? Have less intelligent people done this before and pulled it off?
4. If you were fired from your job today, what would you do to get things under financial control?
Imagine this scenario and run through questions 1–3 above. If you quit your job to test other options, how could you later get back on the same career track if you absolutely had to?
5. What are you putting off out of fear? Usually, what we most fear doing is what we most need to do.
That phone call, that conversation, whatever the action might be—it is fear of unknown outcomes that prevents us from doing what we need to do. Define the worst case, accept it, and do it.
I’ll repeat something you might consider tattooing on your forehead: What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do. As I have heard said, a person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.
Resolve to do one thing every day that you fear. I got into this habit by attempting to contact celebrities and famous business people for advice.
6. What is it costing you—financially, emotionally, and physically—to postpone action?
Don’t only evaluate the potential downside of action. It is equally important to measure the atrocious cost of inaction. If you don’t pursue those things that excite you, where will you be in one year, five years, and ten years? How will you feel having allowed circumstance to impose itself upon you and having allowed ten more years of your finite life to pass doing what you know will not fulfill you? If you telescope out 10 years and know with 100% certainty that it is a path of disappointment and regret, and if we define risk as “the likelihood of an irreversible negative outcome,” inaction is the greatest risk of all.
7. What are you waiting for?
If you cannot answer this without resorting to the previously rejected concept of good timing, the answer is simple: You’re afraid, just like the rest of the world. Measure the cost of inaction, realize the unlikelihood and repairability of most missteps, and develop the most important habit of those who excel and enjoy doing so: action.”
Three principles to allow change and continuous improvement
So far, you have uncovered, re-discovered, and confronted your fears. You have also compiled a list of things you can do to overcome your fears' worst consequences.
We only miss the action component, which is shockingly not hard to see after this exercise. People often delete social media, look for new jobs, and take small steps toward their goals. The hard part is sustaining continuous change—months, years, and decades, depending on your goal. The following three principles have kept me disciplined throughout these years.
1. Be open to discovering you are to blame
I have noticed people are less likely to blame others and not themselves for their unideal life. For example, they blame genes if they are neurotic, the food industry if they are obese, and dating apps if they are single.
The blame game seems to get more frequent as years pass, partly because we are making "blaming" acceptable. Today, some people argue that it's ok to be obese. And that we think it's not ok only because the media, culture, and, you guessed it, the patriarchy brainwashes into disliking obese bodies. These "woke" individuals promote unhealthy behaviors just to appear progressive, regardless of the consequences of the behavior, in this case, an increased risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and a stroke, among dozens more. Moreover, this mindset denies people the chance to realize there's a reachable better life.
Contrast this with the values that Ancient Greeks promoted, such as self-control, or “Sôphrosunê”. Many often engaged in drinking, killing, sex, and other forms of what they deemed vices. Still, they aspired to control their consumption and assumed the fault of failure:
If they drank too much, it was their fault
If they rested too much, it was their fault
If they gambled too much, it was their fault
Like anything involving humans, not everyone in Ancient Greece self-controlled. It takes two clicks to discover thousands of cases of Greek tyrants. But it was an aspiration to own one's misbehavior and an ideal to strive for.
In modern times, our aspiration falls more under the label of "blindless acceptance." Alcohol is too tasty, drugs are too addictive, and beds are too cozy. The problem is the substance, object, or external person, not us.
Once you identify your fear and start reorganizing your habits, it is crucial to determine how much is too much for you. The excess of something is what mainly determines if something is a vice. For example, always working and never resting deters your health, but never working and always resting makes you, for lack of a better word, useless on a societal and interpersonal level. Your goal is to find the balance, what Aristotle called The Golden Mean. This is a middle point where you don't take too little or too much. Striving for it ensures you have everything you need without overindulging.
Balance is subjective and varies from person to person. While working on weekends might be excessive for you, it can energize me. The key is to figure out where your individual balance lies.
While no one can figure out others' balance, it's often easy for us to determine where excess lies. You don't need a test to know 10 hours of daily screen time, drinking daily, and never exercising is bad for you. Find that excess and confront it by reducing or removing it.
2. Be open to feeling paralyzed
The fear of making a life-changing decision can paralyze you because of how your amygdala and prefrontal cortex respond to threats.
The amygdala detects and responds to potential threats in your life. It's like a bank alarm—once you press it, it makes itself impossible to ignore. The amygdala sends a signal to your hypothalamus to trigger a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline and cortisol, a stress hormone, are the two hormones trying to move you toward solving the threat. However, you can get paralyzed since they increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
Typically, your prefrontal cortex regulates your amygdala's responses to fear. It does so by looking into your goals, values, and past to determine the appropriate response. For example, while you likely cried after failing your first exam at school, you will unlikely do it in a Ph.D. class. Gradually as you progress through education, you know failing an exam isn't the end of the world, and your prefrontal cortex helps you keep calm.
But this is under normal circumstances.
Your amygdala's response sometimes will be impossible to control. As a result, you will tremble, sweat, have difficulty breathing, and get paralyzed. If that happens, you will be less likely to change your situation.
I set small goals to feel fear but not get paralyzed. It divides the dragon into more manageable parts that I can challenge at separate times.
For example, I aim to work exclusively with purpose-driven health tech brands. Instead of firing every client and going insane about how to fund my life, I set smaller goals. I can do one pro-bono project for a brand in this niche to build a portfolio, have three conversations per month with founders in the space, and redefine my strategy consultancy's mission statement. This work will take time, money, and opportunities away from me, as I'll invest time and money in the new business. I'm sacrificing some of the presents, but not everything in one go.
This approach might underwhelm a few of you who felt going from zero to one is the hallmark of bravery.
But it's not.
First, as I said, you might be unable to move if fear overwhelms your body.
Second, the amygdala keeps a tab on what you fear. So it can link an emotional response to the activities you fear, reducing the odds you repeat them. This job is fantastic to remind you to avoid threats you were once vulnerable to, such as hot pans you didn't know you shouldn't touch until you did.
Through small steps, you avoid becoming paralyzed and label the threat as manageable. Then, taking more particular types of risks will make you less likely to label something as unmanageable.
Personally, I’ve reached the point where I'm not afraid of ignoring the industries from the 50+ companies I've worked for and focusing on an entirely didn't industry. I have gone through periods of wealth and months of no income. I know I can survive, so I'm more open to following what my heart wants.
However, my lack of fear in this area also doesn't mean I won't be paralyzed in another one. Compared to the average guy, I'm a good salsa dancer. But I would get paralyzed if I had to dance in front of a large crowd.
3. Be open to changing your values
What you value and want to achieve (your goals) defines the world you see. A chair can be practical if you are tired, a burden if it's blocking your way, or inspiring if it's in a museum. When life isn't going how you want it to, the world as an omnipresent concept isn't the problem. Instead, the problem is your world, the one revealed by what you value.
Many people live a life unaligned with their dreams because their current values aren't those they need to get the life they want. Unfortunately, these values they do have are guiding them down to a world different from the one they want.
For instance, most people want enough money to fund their medical expenses as an adult. Yet, for many of us, this implies saving, investing, or not spending money. The dilemma is that when you are in your 20s and 30s, "old" sounds and is a concept you understand mentally but don't feel. You aren't listening to your bones crack, feeling alone, or experiencing body pain. Thus, sacrificing immediate pleasure for a person that doesn't exist seems absurd.
Most people think, "If my goal is to enjoy life, why should I not do it now?" It's because the chance to try at least to enjoy life sustainably will only present itself if you sacrifice a part of that joy now.
I've found that the sacrifices are smaller than we think:
Working an extra hour daily sounds like a nightmare today, but it doesn't if it means retiring five years before anybody else
Going to the gym for two hours on weekdays might feel like hell today, but it won't when you are the only person in your friend group who can jog comfortably in their 60s
Not buying the latest iPhone might make you feel inferior to your friend group today, but that feeling will diminish in a few years when you can buy the entire store
As we age, we absorb values from our parents, friends, role models, and culture. These values influence us to act in predictable ways that we sometimes don't like. For example, I once shared I grew up in a household where neuroticism was normal. I hated my neurotic responses but kept making them because I unconsciously accepted them as appropriate, even if I didn't like them. These responses guided my world, and, as a result, I lived in a world where neuroticism was acceptable. It wasn't until I realized I didn't want to live in such a world that I reconfigured my values and, thus, the world I live in.
If there's a way to enjoy life more, and the price is a slight change of behavior, why would you not pay it?
Be better than you were yesterday.
As with anything, you can become too accountable. You might feel called to change everything around you. I was like this in the past, and it affected me by creating problems that didn't exist just to fix them. But since I was always looking to exercise my ability to act, I would quickly find a new thing to fix and start a cycle.
You can avoid this problem-solution loop by comparing yourself to who you were yesterday. Are you closer to your ideal future than you were yesterday? Then you are succeeding.
Progress doesn't have to be immense to be deemed progress:
If you want to move to Medellín in one year, learning ten Spanish words is progress, just like getting your visa is.
If you want to run a successful newsletter, editing an unpublished draft is progress, just like publishing weekly is.
If you want to stop being neurotic, stressing out over what you can't control only once per day is progress, just like never doing it is.
Getting your hand out of the jar will be hard at first. You won't know what to do, fear doing it once you figure it out, and doubt that are better treats out there. But it gets easier the more you do it.
Little progress is better than no progress. It might sound cliché; I know it did for me before I became accountable for my future. But it only sounds cliché because people who have put in the work have told you it's the answer to your problems. And it is. The challenge is whether you'll be brave enough to overcome your fears and see it.
I know you will.
See you on the other side.
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