Successful Creatives Use Constraints: Are You A Problem-Finder Or A Problem-Solver?

When the Walt Disney Concert Hall finished in 2003, it had a tremendous influence on reshaping Los Angeles’s culture.

It’s captured the eyes and ears of people ever since.

Esa-Pekka Salonen performed the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s opening concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sharing…

“I love the new hall, truly love it […] It’s not only that ticket sales have skyrocketed, it’s the fact that people in Los Angeles, and outside Los Angeles as well, can take on a whole new awareness of what music can add to the quality of life.”

Though there were some critics, a 2006 US News & World report would explain the effects of this building:

Disney Hall, with its soaring, steel surfaces and breathtaking mix of beauty, grace, and optimism, is downtown L.A.’s “it” building. Completed in 2003, it is the envy of orchestras around the world and has given L.A. the kind of cultural credibility that had eluded it for years. It has also become the focal point of a nearly $2 billion downtown renaissance.

What’s even more impressive is the creative process that allowed such a fantastic building to emerge.

Architect Frank Gehry and his team were the masterminds behind this.

Gehry is a big fan of experimentation and prototyping.

They created 82 prototype models before developing Disney Hall’s final design.

So how did they go through this process of experimentation?

Are You A Problem-Solver Or A Problem-Finder?

“Creative people use constraints to limit their focus and isolate a set of problems that need to be solved.” — Peter Sims

The creative process can seem mysterious and confusing.

Though it appears chaotic, there are underlying principles for navigating it.

One of these principles is to use constraints to isolate problems that need to be solved.

Gehry calls these guard rails. His constraints would be everything related to the nature of the architectural project: budget, timeframe, materials, political and regulatory rules, etc.

These guidelines would help guide Gehry and his team to build prototypes. And upon making them, they’d identify problems that needed to be solved and iterated.

By the 82nd prototype, they had creatively found the best design for the Disney Hall by navigating and solving a set of problems.

This echoes a study that social scientists Jacob Getzels and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi performed with artists in the 1960s. They found that artists who sought out problems were significantly more successful with their creative pursuits.

They concluded that individuals who are “problem-finders” are much more successful with their creative endeavors versus people who are “problem-solvers.”

Being a problem-finder has two benefits for content creation:

  1. It helps you identify problems and challenges that your audience is facing. This provides you a list of valuable content ideas that could eventually turn into products or services (depending on how urgent and important the problem is).
  2. It helps you identify problems and challenges within your own content creation process, ultimately helping you improve your content’s effectiveness and efficiency over time.

So when we’re developing an idea for content creation purposes, how do we isolate and identify these problems?

It starts by developing your capacity to be proactive.

Your Circle Of Concern and Influence

“What you focus on grows, what you think about expands, and what you dwell upon determines your destiny.” — Robin S. Sharma

In the 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey shares a great model for improving our proactivity.

I’ve discovered that a key benefit to this model is that it provides guidelines and constraints to help isolate and identify problems.

This empowers you to solve problems and to move the creative process along in a productive way.

There are two fundamental components to this model…

  1. There are things outside of your control. These are things within your “circle of concern.”
  2. And there are things within your control. These are things within your “circle of influence.”

Where are you spending the majority of your time? This will determine your level of effectiveness. 

And in this case, effectiveness is your ability to move through the creative process and end up with valuable ideas and content:

  • An ineffective person focuses on their circle of concern.
  • An effective person focuses on their circle of influence.

Being proactive is essentially focusing on your circle of influence.

And an interesting phenomenon happens when you focus your attention on what you can influence.

It expands.

The more proactive you are at identifying problems and solving them, the more influence you acquire over time.

But when you focus on your circle of concern, your influence and personal power shrink.

Where you focus your attention will ultimately empower or disempower you.

Expanding Your Circle Of Influence: 3 Types Of Problems That Guide You Towards Empowerment

Covey explains how every problem you have will fall into 1 of 3 categories. And each of these problems will indicate how to best respond within your circle of influence…

  • Direct problems (problems involving our own behavior)
  • Indirect problems (problems involving other people’s behavior)
  • No control problems (situations we can do nothing about)

How does each problem affect how you act within your circle of influence?

1. Direct problems require your direct influence. Your personal habits and behaviors can influence this. Covey calls these “private victories.”

For instance, if you have a problem with not completing projects by a specific deadline, then the best way to solve this is by implementing personal habits and behaviors to resolve it.

2. Indirect problems require your indirect influence. This can be achieved by how you communicate and relate with others. Covey calls these “public victories.”

For instance, if you’re encountering drama with a team member, the best way to achieve the desired outcome is by improving the relationship and quality of communication with that person.

3. Problems you have no control over can be influenced by using emotional intelligence and shifting perspectives to learn from the experience.

Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl is a great role model for this one. He literally had no control over his physical environment. So he exercised his freedom to choose his emotional response and give meaning to his suffering.

Whenever you find a problem in your life, try to identify which category it falls into.

And once it’s identified, how can you best respond within your circle of influence?

Identifying Problems Within Your Content Creation Process

When you’re experimenting with your content and finding problems to solve, identifying the type of problem will help you choose the best response (ultimately giving you a more fulfilling result and better means of solving the problem).

This benefits you by helping you identify problems that your audience is dealing with. This is valuable information that you can use to create content, products, or services in the future.

It also benefits you by helping you improve your overall content creation system. Over time, this enables you to create better content, build your audience more effectively, and create an environment conducive for selling your offers.

Let’s use an example for each of these three problems.

1. Direct Problems With Your Content

Suppose you’re not developing as many content ideas as you’d like daily, which is a bottleneck for your overall content creation process.

You can see how this decreases your exposure to your ideal customers because you’re not sharing as much content. It’s also slowing down the speed of innovation for developing ideas. And ultimately, it’s blocking the flow of online traffic to your brand’s website or landing pages.

How could you respond to this problem within your circle of influence?

This would be a direct problem since it involves your direct behavior and personal habits to solve. Perhaps the solution is adjusting your schedule a bit, prioritizing a creative work session, and developing a habit where you’re proactively creating content ideas.

2. Indirect Problems With Your Content

Suppose you want your audience to engage more and find value in your content.

How could you respond to this problem within your circle of influence?

At first, you might view this as a direct problem. Perhaps you’ll keep working on the content behind-closed-doors until it’s “perfect.”

But this is more likely an indirect problem since it involves other people’s behavior and perceptions. Once you’ve identified this as an indirect problem, you could perhaps jump on a call with someone representing your target audience to get their honest feedback on the idea. Or you could do a low-risk experiment by asking a question on social media about that idea.

3. No Control Problems With Your Content

Suppose you’re looking at the content you’ve published over the last week. The engagement rates are a lot lower than you’d like, and it’s disappointing.

At this point, the problem is outside of your control. The event has already occurred, and there’s not much you can do to influence the desired outcome.

Now, I’d classify this situation as a “no control” problem. However, this doesn’t mean that you’re powerless.

How could you respond to this problem within your circle of influence?

Here you can approach the problem with emotional intelligence and perceptual awareness.

Rather than take it personally, you understand that it’s the reality of publishing content and building a brand. Plus, people are busy, and every brand is fighting for their attention.

Accepting this reality with emotional maturity opens up your ability to learn from the situation (perceptual awareness).

This feedback can ultimately help you learn how to improve engagement in the future.

Isolating and defining problems helps you acquire innovative solutions faster.

Find problems quickly, experiment, iterate, and refine till you develop great ideas and content.


“Little Bets” by Peter Sims

“7 Habits Of Highly Effective People” by Stephen Covey

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Publishing 10,000 Words In 28 Days: How I Overcame Unhealthy Perfectionism

How can you develop quality ideas without letting unhealthy perfectionism paralyze your creative process?

The idea of “reaching your fullest potential” has always been a strong and personal value of mine.

We live in a world of impermanence — the world changes and evolves. If we’re not aiming to reach our fullest potential, it’ll be challenging to adapt.

And if we don’t overcome unhealthy perfectionism, we won’t be implementing and learning enough to adapt.

At the end of January 2021, I had just wrapped up a teaching cohort where I partnered with an instructional team to help college students learn digital marketing.

After finishing this cohort, I had more time on my hands to pursue what I’m passionate about — developing ideas and creating content.

I intended to break out of my current plateau and improve my content creation process.

For the whole month of February, I committed to spending 4 hours writing, researching, and developing ideas.

Initially, I planned to write an entire article each day. But as I began creating content, I realized it was an unrealistic objective. So I decided that regardless of the output, 4 hours of writing and researching was a win.

The first week of writing felt great. I was building momentum.

By day 12, I had published over 5,000 words, created 6 articles, and built a medium publication.

I was on a roll. It almost felt too good to be true.

Then week 3 started.

I spent several minutes staring at a blank screen…

To find some clarity, I went on outdoor walks and sought inspiration with the occasional 3rd cup of coffee.

As my creative output dwindled, I began feeling concerned and a bit insecure. “Maybe it was a fluke.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect struck with full force! In retrospect, I’ve learned that this is a natural dip in progress whenever you start a new endeavor. There was a sort of “habit gravity” pulling me down and creating resistance.

And accompanying this dip in motivation was this unhealthy sense of perfectionism.

Grappling with a handful of ideas to pursue, I chose one to flesh out.

On Monday, I hit a roadblock within the first couple of hours.

Feeling uncomfortable staring at my screen, I began fleshing out a second content idea.

By Wednesday, I had three unfinished articles…

This is when my perfectionism mentality hit me hard.

“Which of these ideas are good enough? When should I publish them?”

On Thursday, I revisited that first content idea. And I realized that spending another day working on it would give me diminishing returns.

So I wrapped up some finishing thoughts. Then I just experimented and published it.

Ironically, I discovered that exploring the other two ideas simultaneously allowed my creativity to flow and help me finish that first piece of content.

It was encouraging to learn that creative geniuses explored multiple ideas simultaneously before selecting the best option to focus on. 

Even though I only finished one piece of content during that 3rd week, I started to see the value in experimentation and exploring multiple ideas at once.

This inspired me to take a more playful approach to my content.

Slowly, I began pulling the layers of unhealthy perfectionism back.

As I began peeling back these layers, my biggest insight was that not all perfectionism is destructive. There are both healthy and unhealthy forms of it.

Healthy perfectionism upholds inner values of excellence and high-quality, and it utilizes experimentation to achieve this standard. This is what Peter Sims would call “Little Bets.”

Unhealthy perfectionism is driven by external factors, hoping that someone or something “out there” will validate their ideas. In other words, we can become overly attached to others’ opinions (or become outcome-dependent).

We can often fixate on the hope that people “out there” perceive our work as excellent and valuable. Or we value the desired result more than the process itself.

This suffocates the creative process.

At some point, it’s crucial to “ship out” an idea so that it has the opportunity to evolve into something better.

And this is why experimentation is essential.

During the first half of February, I was overthinking everything when I wanted my content to be perfect. 

My head was in the clouds.

To quote Muhammad Yunus, Founder of Grameen Bank:

“When you hold the world in your palm and inspect it only from a bird’s-eye view, you tend to become arrogant — you do not realize that things get blurred when seen from an enormous distance.”

I was spending too much time theorizing and not enough time experimenting. This ability to descend to the ground level and experiment is what Yunus calls the “worm’s-eye view.” 

When I chose to embrace the process of experimentation, I was able to overcome unhealthy perfectionism.

After publishing over 10,000 words in 28 days, I learned that experimenting frees you from unhealthy perfectionism and empowers you to move towards healthy perfectionism.

This supports you in developing the building blocks necessary for building your brand and discovering breakthrough ideas that you can monetize.

Experimenting Your Way To Success

From 2001 to 2009, the CEO of P&G A.G. Lafley wanted to create a more innovative company culture.

Before this, they had a challenging time experimenting.

P&G veteran Chris Thoen summed up the root of the problem, “When we interact with consumers, it needs to be totally done.”

I’ve found this to be the fundamental rationalization for unhealthy perfectionism. Everything needs to be perfect before someone can experience it.

One of the biggest problems with unhealthy perfectionism is that it holds you back from taking action. 

With healthy perfectionism, you still maintain high standards… but you also value the experimentation process.

These experiments actually become the vehicle that drives you to the top of the mountain.

On the surface, unhealthy perfectionism seems helpful because you intend to create something high-quality. But this gets misinterpreted to mean, “It must be totally done before someone can experience it.”

There’s a big downside to this mentality.

When you avoid experimentation, you’re not taking intangible factors into account. 

These are hidden factors that you can’t predict with perfect plans or strategies. They are problems that only surface after you’ve begun exploring the landscape, such as underlying customer perceptions and market dynamics.

These intangible factors explain why unhealthy perfectionism isn’t effective. Without experimentation, you’re essentially trying to create a perfect idea from scratch that can predict — with high accuracy —all these hidden factors.

Even the most talented futurist couldn’t do this with 100% accuracy.

So what’s the solution for overcoming unhealthy perfectionism?

Create prototypes.

Prototyping is a practical way of overcoming unhealthy perfectionism.

It helps you discover these intangible factors, find solutions, and move towards an effective outcome.

Chris Thoen shares the importance of prototypes…

The level of feedback you get is so much more valuable and impactful… The problem with showing something to consumers when it’s almost totally done, people don’t necessarily want to give negative feedback at that point because it looks like, “This company has spent a lot of money already getting it to this stage and now I’m going to tell them, ‘It sucks.’ ” On the other hand, if something hangs together with tape, and it’s clear that it’s an early prototype, the mindset of consumers often is, “These people still need some help, so let me tell you what I really think about it.”

After Lafley took over P&G as CEO and chairman, its market value increased by more than $100 billion.

Taking an experimental approach can be challenging. But it pays off.

When your audience experiences your “prototype content and ideas,” they’re more comfortable sharing their honest reaction.

Now. Even if you see the value in experimentation, we still have a big challenge.

How can you share “incomplete ideas” while still giving your audience a valuable experience? 

Create A Win/Win: How To Collaborate With Your Audience 

Much of our resistance to experimentation stems from our fear of people criticizing us for incomplete ideas and worrying that they will reflect poorly on us.

Remember, unhealthy perfectionism is driven by external factors (largely other people’s judgment and approval of us).

Just the other day, I was talking to a good friend of mine.

They bought a course from Michael Simmons called “Learning Ritual.” It’s a course on “learning how to learn.” They did this back when Simmons initially started it.

At the time of writing this article, Simmons is introducing the next version of that course, updating it with additional content, bonuses and value.

I was telling my friend about this new development, and they responded along the lines of…

“I remember joining that course when it initially came out. It’s pretty cool that I started with the beta version, and now it’s evolved into something bigger.”

When you frame your idea or piece of content as a prototype, the person consuming it understands that you’re still experimenting and developing it.

And if you can pre-frame the idea properly, your audience and consumers tend to enjoy the collaborative process (just like my friend who bought the initial version of “Learning Ritual”).

Any result that requires creativity is a process of ongoing prototyping.

And low-risk prototyping becomes a way of overcoming unhealthy perfectionism.

Get To Version 3.0 Fast: Build On Your Wins

If you’re creating content or trying to find innovative ideas, one of the keys is getting it out into the world as quickly as possible.

When you see a high-quality piece of content or a breakthrough idea, don’t be fooled… it went through multiple iterations and experiments before its final form.

It’s rare for an idea to come out perfect. And even if it was perceived as “perfect” at the time, odds are it was developed further with experimentation.

In Eben Pagan’s book Opportunity, one of the ideas he shares is the importance of getting to Version 3.0 as quickly as possible.

This is a useful model that helps you move through a process of experimental innovation.

You start at version 1.0. Then you experiment and iterate until you reach version 3.0. 

This doesn’t mean that every idea makes it to the final version. This is actually an important consequence of this process…

If an idea isn’t being received well by the market, or if you don’t want to explore it long-term, this process helps you weed out sub-par ideas.

Here’s the overall process…

  1. Version 1.0 is all about having a “minimum viable product.” You could also see this as a “minimum viable idea.” It’s a prototype. In reality, there were probably smaller experiments before this point. But here, you start to see some potential with one of your ideas. You develop the prototype and get it in the hands of a few people (and learn from the feedback).
  2. Version 2.0 is what Eben Pagan describes as the first “real” version. At this point, you’ve identified some winning ideas from the earlier version, and you can begin iterating and developing those winning ideas. You’ve also learned from losing ideas.
  3. Version 3.0 is when you acquire the confidence and conviction to develop an idea into something truly great. This idea has gone through a rigorous experimental process, so you know that people care about it (and it can be successful long-term). If your idea makes it to this point, then you can decide if you’re committed to developing it to its fullest potential.

This process helps you do a few things…

  • It helps you develop a breakthrough idea that your brand can monetize successfully.
  • Since it’s experimental, you’re getting it into the hands of people… building an audience throughout the process.

Prototyping is a powerful way to overcome unhealthy perfectionism and move your idea to a high standard of excellence and quality.


  • “Little Bets” by Peter Sims
  • “Opportunity” by Eben Pagan

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Creative Geniuses Explore Multiple Ideas Simultaneously Too - Just Differently Than You

Do you feel guilty pursuing multiple ideas or projects at once?

What about having 3–5 unfinished books on your shelf?

When I was younger, I thought it was unproductive to read a new book while my current one was unfinished.

It was like needing to focus on one book was an unspoken law!

Suppose we have a goal and try focusing on it.

And whenever our curiosity ventures elsewhere, we feel guilty.

Or if we don’t finish our current book or project, we think it’s unproductive or bad.

This actually suffocates your creative process, holding you back from developing great content and innovative ideas.

Pursuing Multiple Ideas Is Constructive For The Creative Process

I once posted a question in a Facebook Group about meta-learning…

“Anybody else have 3–5 unfinished books they’re reading??”

I was genuinely curious since I’m usually cycling between 3–5 books at any given time.

I got lots of responses. And I was surprised at how many people were doing the same thing.

One response caught my attention:

M.C.: “Yes…I have over 10 books, speeches, courses, written articles, recordings, plans…All waiting for me to piece the puzzle as I go. It’s a sign of how much I don’t know but also how much I’m hungry to learn based on curiosity. Having many books on the go is a good sign.”

After reading their comment, an interesting analogy popped into my head. So I responded…

Me: “Reminds me of a simultaneous exhibition where someone’s playing multiple chess opponents at once.”

Yeah, maybe I’ve recently watched both Searching For Bobby Fischer and The Queen’s Gambit.


Anyone doing a simultaneous exhibition is a genius chess player. This feat is usually only accomplished by chess Grandmasters.

Since many people feel guilty when pursuing multiple ideas simultaneously, this analogy is a much more uplifting picture. You’re solving ongoing puzzles.

This triggered a conversation in the group around it. And I thought it’d be valuable to dive a bit deeper into the topic.

I’ve learned that a lot of creative geniuses work this way. They’ll explore a handful of ideas at once. Then they’ll select the top ideas and drill down even further.

Thomas Edison is a good example.

He’s left us over 5 million journal pages. And researchers have spent a crazy amount of time studying them, dissecting how he worked and developed his ideas.

Specifically — when looking at Edison’s telephone sketches — a team of researchers charted what ideas he was working on, what months he was experimenting with them, and when he decided to select and investigate winning ideas.

They found that Edison was exploring different ideas at the same time before selecting ONE to investigate and pursue in more detail.

Cognitive Psychologist Howard Gruber called this a “network of enterprise,” which he believed was central to the creative process.

The main idea is that when you pursue parallel ideas and weave them together, it’s constructive to the creative process.

Each part informs the purpose of the whole, leading to innovative ideas.

Gruber makes this point when observing Darwin’s creative process, saying: “Darwin’s work was divided into a number of separate enterprises, each with a life of its own. This type of organization has several constructive functions. It permits the thinker to change his ideas in one domain with scrapping everything else he or she believes and it provides a setting for chancy interactions.”

I feel less guilty now!

But This Only Works For Geniuses, Right?

I’ve heard a couple of valid objections to this idea.

One of them being, “But doesn’t this only work for geniuses?”

I understand where this person is coming from.

It can seem that geniuses are born with magical abilities. Though their DNA predisposition may play a role, it’s only a piece of the equation.

Studying how ideas develop from creative geniuses shows us reality. Their innovations don’t just appear out of thin air.

They usually have a database of knowledge. And this is where the innovative idea emerges from. Edison famously performed thousands of experiments before discovering innovative solutions.

“But wait… shouldn’t I be focusing on one thing? It seems like I’ll be scatter-brained and won’t get anything done!”

On the surface, this idea seems to fly in the face of what we’re all told.

We’re told to focus. Don’t stray from the path. Hustle.

True, focusing is essential. 

But the idea of “focusing on one thing” — in my opinion — is excellent advice for someone who is untethered.

And by this, I mean someone who isn’t clear on what their North Star is.

Tether Your Ideas To A North Star

Sometimes this ability to explore other options is necessary for the creative process.

This is why I love the “North Star” analogy.

If you’re on a sea voyage, you’re clear in your direction. The North Star is guiding you.

You’ll still visit various ports, explore nearby villages, and perhaps even go on mini-adventures along the way.

If you go into a nearby village, you may discover that a family lost their son. Perhaps he’s wandered into the forest, and you decide to join the search party to recover him.

Does this mini-adventure mean you’re giving up on your mission? I don’t think so.

Also, what if you learn something valuable when you join the search party? Knowledge and experiences that can be used to help you on your voyage in the future.

There’s nothing wrong with exploring and pursuing different ideas along the way.

The key is to stay tethered to your North Star.

When developing your content, don’t worry if you hit a wall. It happens.

Use that as an opportunity to explore another idea that’s tethered to your “north star.”

You may find a puzzle piece that helps you solve the entire problem.

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These 3 Widely Accepted Paradigms Explain Why People Are Ineffective And Unsuccessful

“Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they’re yours.” 

— Richard Bach

Ever felt like you’ve been dealt some disappointing cards in life?

Maybe poor genetics. Or an environment that doesn’t nurture growth and success.

Has anyone ever placed limitations on your potential?

“You’re lazy.”

“You’re incapable.”

“You’re not athletic.”

“You’re not smart.”

At first, you scoff and ignore them.

But maybe this pattern continues over time, and you begin to believe it about yourself.

Maybe consciously, you begin questioning it. “Maybe I’m not as capable as I thought…”

If this continues, maybe it goes to the subconscious level. Now it’s an underlying paradigm or script that you’re living out without even being aware of it.

Until we’re aware of these external influences, they can start influencing our lives. And many times… in a very destructive way.

Philosophers, scientists, psychologists, and people from all walks of life have observed that we live in a world of conditions and conditionings.

And it’s widely accepted that they largely influence us.

But how much does it influence us? Do these conditions and our conditioning doom us? 

Some people claim that they determine our behaviors and circumstances and that we have no control over them.

You might say, “Nope. I’m in full control over my life.”

From my own experience of coaching people — where conversations reveal limiting beliefs — it’s become clear that these conditionings and conditions are in our blindspots.

This observation has surprised me. And it’s forced me to ask myself, “Where are my limiting beliefs and blindspots??”

We all have them.

It turns out there’s a whole philosophy that encompasses this belief that our conditions and conditionings determine our life situation and that we have very little control over them. 

And it’s become a widely accepted philosophical view.

But here’s the truth. You have a lot more power than you might think.

In this article, I’m going to share…

  • What this philosophy is and why it’s holding you back.
  • The 3 most popular paradigms that create limiting beliefs when taken to the extreme.
  • And how we can put the power back in your hands (instead of feeling disempowered).

Determinism: How Much Control Do We Really Have Over Our Lives?

Anything can be used to help you or hurt you.

And for many people, that’s what has happened with the Philosophy of Determinism.

It’s an area of study that’s provided valuable insights into the mechanics of cause and effect relationships. And it’s provided models that help us better understand human nature.

But it’s also been used by some people to rationalize and justify limiting beliefs. Some of these beliefs ultimately condition you to become ineffective and unsuccessful, holding you back from achieving your desired results in life.

Determinism is the philosophical view that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes.

In other words, your conditions and conditionings determine your life situation now and in the future.

This philosophical view has value. For instance, perhaps you’re familiar with the classical Pavlovian conditioning and the experiments performed with dogs. Physiologist Ivan Pavlov was able to condition his dogs to salivate in response to a bell being rung because he trained the dogs to associate food with the bell.

We now understand that behaviors can be conditioned when leveraging a specific stimulus.

This model has helped develop our understanding of how people think, feel, and behave.

Psychologists such as John Watson would even go as far as to say that classical conditioning could explain all aspects of human nature.

But there’s a negative implication to accepting this philosophical view without balancing it out with other perspectives…

The underlying assumption is that our genetics, upbringing, and environment ultimately determine our behavior and circumstances… which reinforces an identity of being helpless, disempowered, and incapable of successfully achieving our goals.

How does this play out in our lives?

Many times, someone with a Deterministic lens will abdicate responsibility. Because if they’re helpless, disempowered, and incapable of being successful… then what’s the point? Quickly, we transfer responsibility elsewhere.

This choice to abdicate responsibility trickles down into our behaviors and actions, making them fundamentally ineffective at achieving our desired outcomes.

Even if it’s your first time hearing about this philosophical view, everyone has adopted a deterministic paradigm in some shape or form throughout life.

Myself included.

So what are the three most widely accepted Deterministic Paradigms that we see in modern living?

3 Widely Accepted Deterministic Paradigms

There are three widely accepted Deterministic Paradigms:

  1. Genetic Determinism
  2. Psychic Determinism
  3. Environmental Determinism

Someone can have these beliefs at either the conscious or subconscious level.

They may be aware of them. Or they could be completely unaware that they’ve taken on these beliefs.

Part of the challenge is not judging yourself or others if you identify these beliefs negatively. It’s a part of the human experience.

What’s important is that we explore these beliefs with curiosity and gently identify and remove them. This approach is ideal if you want to achieve your desired results in life AND enjoy the process along the way.

Genetic Determinism

Your genes and DNA decide your fate. 

Your genetic predisposition will determine your behavior and successes in life, and it’s your ancestors’ fault for your current circumstances.

This philosophy towards life assumes that your genetic makeup largely determines your problems and achievements.

This paradigm has value in that it’s revealed breakthrough ideas in science and biology, and we’ve discovered various cause and effect relationships within the human body.

What are some common beliefs that we have about how our genetics influence our behaviors and circumstances?

Maybe we’ve learned that our DNA influences our behaviors, actions, emotional intelligence, IQ, and other facets of our life.

Recently I even saw an ad where someone was talking about Chronotypes. It’s the study of how your genes influence whether or not you’re a “night owl” or a “morning person.”

Your genetics can even determine whether you should wake up early or stay up late.

This is fascinating. But I can also see a future where herds of people refuse to wake up early because their chronotype forbids it.

I’m joking… sort of.

There may be some partial truth to this deterministic paradigm, depending on the context and your desired outcome. For example, it’s not likely that you’ll be an NBA star if you’re not built athletically and if you aren’t tall, since the average height of an NBA player is 6’6’’.

However, genetic determinism doesn’t paint the whole picture.

For example, people used to believe that your intelligence level was fixed. Your genetics determined this, and there wasn’t much you could do about it.

But now, the scientific consensus is that your intelligence isn’t fixed. You can improve it over time.

Taking this view to the extreme focuses on how your genetics determine your life situation instead of how YOU can influence your genes.

Since this rationalization focuses on the “fact” that someone’s genetic predisposition determines their behavior and circumstances, it’s “rational” to abdicate responsibility.

“I can’t change it, so what’s the point? Who cares?”

Psychic Determinism

Your childhood imprints and upbringing determine your fate. For instance, if you were conditioned to be shy as a child, then you’ll be shy as an adult.

Freudian Psychology falls in this category.

This has been valuable in showing us that childhood imprints and our upbringing do — in fact — have an impact on us as adults.

And there’s been practical methods of improving these challenges through psychiatrists, social workers, counselors, therapists, and people in similar fields. I’ve personally benefited from working with professionals in this domain.

The general philosophy postulates that these childhood imprints from your upbringing create scripts that determine how you’ll live life as an adult.

But taken to the extreme, this could become a rationalization for abdicating responsibility.

This plays out by pointing-the-finger and blaming people or things in the past that have traumatized or hurt you.

This more extreme behavior reinforces the identity of someone incapable of being a competent person, doomed with the scripts that play out their childhood imprints and upbringing.

This manifests in behaviors that prevent someone from taking control of their life and achieving their goals.

Notice how the emphasis is how your childhood imprints and upbringing influence your life, rather than learning how to “let go” of past trauma and influence your psychology.

Environmental Determinism

Your environment determines your fate.

Someone or something in your environment determines your success.

Your distracting coworkers prevent you from being productive. A demanding boss is making your life difficult.

The stresses of needy clients, national policies, and the economy are holding you back.

“It’s their fault I’m in this situation.”

For someone who takes this paradigm to the extreme, the problem always seems to be “out there.”

Does your environment play a cause and effect role in your life? Of course.

Does your environment completely determine your life? No.

I’m sure we could name countless individuals who made the best out of a bad situation and were able to survive (and come out of it stronger).

A fantastic role model for this is Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His story is inspiring and shows us that he found ways of exercising personal freedoms despite being in the worst and most horrendous environment.

In the words of Stephen Covey, “In the midst of the most degrading circumstances imaginable, Frankl used the human endowment of self-awareness to discover a fundamental principle about the nature of man: Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”

An extreme adoption of environmental determinism focuses on how the environment impacts the individual or group. It puts less emphasis on how that individual or group can impact their environment.

Since the rationalization is that the environment determines your behavior or circumstances, it’s much easier to abdicate responsibility.

“What’s the point? The odds are against me anyway.”

The Fundamental Flaw With Determinism

“Even if it’s not your fault, it’s your responsibility.”

― Terry Pratchett

It’s fair to say that we’ve all adopted some form of Determinism throughout our life, whether consciously or subconsciously.

Before we continue, let’s do a short visualization exercise. This will give you context for the rest of this article.

In your mind’s eye, take a moment and visually project yourself up into the corner of the room you’re currently in.

Visually observe yourself reading this, right here, right now… in this moment.

What does your environment look like?

What are you feeling?

What do you notice?

Keep your body as the fixed point of focus. Imagine switching angles from different parts of the room or environment you’re in. See yourself from different perspectives.

If you did this short visualization, then you just went “meta.” You exercised self-awareness.

This is your ability to observe aspects of yourself.

When we gather self-awareness, we can take responsibility for our behaviors and circumstances and then self-direct our actions based on our awareness.

This is a uniquely human trait and separates us from different animal species.

Stephen Covey explains…

“Even the most intelligent animals have none of these endowments. To use a computer metaphor, they are programmed by instinct and/or training. They can be trained to be responsible, but they can’t take responsibility for that training; in other words, they can’t direct it. They can’t change the programming. They’re not even aware of it.”

Animals tend to have a specific role, whether through instinct or training.

However, animals can’t go “meta” and exercise self-awareness. Because if they did, they’d have the self-awareness to change their programming, ultimately self-directing their behavior.

Honey Bee’s could spontaneously decide one day, “Hey, I don’t really feel like making honey anymore. I’m going to collect sticks. That sounds like a good idea.”

The deterministic paradigm comes primarily from animal studies (rats, monkeys, pigeons, and dogs).

So even though it provides a valuable model for cause and effect, there are limitations when you rely entirely on this model to explain human nature.

This main limitation being…

Determinism doesn’t take into account our ability to exercise “self-awareness.”

“But Colton, surely some of these Deterministic Paradigms are true.”

Sure, each deterministic paradigm has partial truths depending on the context and desired outcomes.

Our conditions and conditionings inevitably create constraints and limitations. If you want to be an NBA player, then certain conditions would be ideal for achieving this — such as favorable genetics.

But the fundamental flaw with Determinism is this…

  • Your focus gets placed on the weaknesses of others (and yourself).
  • You focus on things that are outside of your control and ultimately can’t influence.
  • And you focus on transferring responsibility to other people or circumstances.

When you solely use this paradigm to navigate life without complimenting other perspectives, it can become destructive for your success and happiness.

When entrenched in this paradigm, it disempowers you. 

How could you ever be effective if you don’t even fundamentally believe that you can influence your life or your circumstances?

Stephen Covey explains the identity of someone who flips the script and takes control over their life:

“Instead of living out of the scripts given to me by my own parents or by society or by genetics or my environment, I will be living out of the script I have written from my own self-selected value system.”

An ineffective person focuses on what’s outside of their control.

And an effective person focuses on what’s within their control.

Stephen Covey’s 1st Habit Of A Highly Effective Person: Be Proactive

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove.” 

— Samuel Johnson

In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he shares that the first habit for being an effective person is proactivity.

Though simple in theory, it takes a bit of mastery to implement at a high level.

Covey defines proactivity as being “more than merely taking initiative. It means that as human beings, we are responsible for our own lives. Our behavior is a function of our decisions, not our conditions.”

Behaviors are a result of our own conscious choice, not our conditions or conditionings.

Notice that the essence of being a proactive person is acknowledging that we are responsible for our life situation or circumstances.

This is causal and forms the root system for your growth.

“Response-able.” We have the ability to respond.

We live in a society where it’s easy to be consumers. But being proactive is a “creator” paradigm. You can proactively create a life that you want.

The reason why this is important is that your behaviors and actions will determine your success.

And if you’re abdicating responsibility, you’ll be reinforcing a paradigm of being helpless and disempowered. Someone who feels disempowered is unlikely to behave in a way that generates their desired outcome.

This is why being proactive is critical.

It puts the power back in your hands.

Your Circle Of Concern and Influence

“What you focus on grows, what you think about expands, and what you dwell upon determines your destiny.”

— Robin S. Sharma

Stephen Covey shares a great model for how we can improve our proactivity.

There are two primary components to it.

  1. There are things outside of your control. These are things within your “circle of concern.”
  2. And there are things within your control. These are things within your “circle of influence.”

Where are you spending the majority of your time?

An ineffective person focuses on their circle of concern.

An effective person focuses on their circle of influence.

Being proactive is essentially focusing on your circle of influence.

And an interesting phenomenon happens when you focus on your circle of influence.

It expands.

The more proactive you are, the more influence you acquire over time.

But when you focus on your circle of concern, your influence and personal power shrink.

Where you focus your attention will ultimately empower or disempower you.

Expanding Your Circle Of Influence: 3 Types Of Problems That Guide You Towards Empowerment

Covey explains how every problem you have will fall into 1 of 3 categories. And each of these problems will indicate how to best respond within your circle of influence…

  • Direct problems (problems involving our own behavior)
  • Indirect problems (problems involving other people’s behavior)
  • No control problems (situations we can do nothing about)

How does each problem affect how you engage within your circle of influence?

1. Direct problems require your direct influence. Your personal habits can influence this. Covey calls these “private victories.”

For instance, if you have a problem with not completing projects by a certain deadline, then the best way to solve this is by implementing personal habits to resolve it.

2. Indirect problems require your indirect influence. This can be achieved by how you communicate with others. Covey calls these “public victories.”

For instance, if you’re encountering drama with a team member, the best way to achieve the desired outcome is by improving the relationship and quality of communication.

3. Problems that you have no control over can be influenced by shifting perspectives and approaching the situation with emotional maturity.

Viktor Frankl is a great role model for this one. He literally had no control over his physical environment. So he exercised his freedom to choose his emotional response and give meaning to his suffering. As Ryan Holiday famously says, “The obstacle is the way.”

Whenever you face a problem in your life, try to identify which type of problem it falls into.

And once it’s identified, how can you best respond within your circle of influence?

In summary:

  1. When you notice yourself abdicating responsibility, try to uncover the deterministic paradigm and root source: genetic, psychic, or environmental?
  2. Acknowledge your ability and freedom to choose between the stimulus and response.
  3. Identify and narrowly frame the problem. Is it a direct, indirect, or a “no control” problem?
  4. Now, how can you exercise freedom of choice within your circle of influence?


Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People

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How To Use The Element Of Surprise To Generate Innovative Content Ideas

Let’s say that you have a goal but haven’t achieved it yet.

What’s the underlying assumption?

Let’s explore this assumption with the analogy of a map. You’re journeying from Point A to Point B.

You’re wandering around San Francisco with your map.

And you’re using the landmarks and a compass to guide you.

But when you arrive at the landmark destination your map points you to, there’s a mismatch. You thought there was a bus station there, but it’s actually a gas station.

You’re not where you want to be. Either the map is wrong, or you misinterpreted the map.

Confused, you look at the map again.

“Maybe the landmark is around the corner.”

You explore everywhere within a 1-mile radius. Still, you can’t find it.

“Nope, I’m not crazy. I’ve double and triple checked.”

If you still haven’t made it to your destination, what’s the underlying assumption?

Your map is not accurate.

It turns out you’ve been using a map of New York this whole time.

Your map is an analogy for the conceptual models or paradigms that you have regarding your goal. A “mental map,” if you will.

So if you haven’t achieved your goal yet, then the underlying assumption is that your model for how it works is inaccurate.

Because if your model were accurate, then you would’ve made it to your destination (or be moving in an upward trajectory).

Surprising Events Are A Compass For Growth And Development

Researchers explain that the sensation of surprise is caused by a mismatch between the incoming information and your existing model when you get surprised.

This would be like using your map and discovering that the gas station is where the bus station should be. It’s unexpected, and it surprises you.

Though it could be frustrating when this mismatch occurs, it’s also an excellent opportunity to learn and grow.

It helps you fill in the map more accurately. Over time, your map will be accurate enough for you to be able to navigate effectively.

But if you dismiss this unexpected event, then you miss an opportunity to fill in your map with more accurate details.

So within this context, surprising events can be a guiding principle or compass. It signals an opportunity for growth and development since it provides insights to improve your schema and model for achieving your goal.

Documentation: Make Your Content Creation Process Autobiographical

How does this relate to content creation?

Well, my general philosophy towards creating content is “autobiographical” in nature.

In other words, I prefer to document my learning insights, knowledge, experiences, and overall process and then share it with people who can benefit from it.

As Gary V. says, “Documenting your journey versus creating an image of yourself is the difference between saying ‘You should…’ versus ‘my intuition says…’ Get it? It changes everything. I believe that the people who are willing to discuss their journeys instead of trying to front themselves as the ‘next big thing’ are going to win.”

My learning and content creation process are intimately linked together.

When I learn something relevant for my audience, I document it and share it.

When you gather more knowledge and experiences, it’s like filling in your map with more accurate details. Over time, navigating to your destination becomes much more straightforward and accessible.

Once you start improving your map’s quality, you can begin sharing your insights with people you encounter along the way.

  • A family asks for directions to the Pier.
  • Someone who’s starving is looking for the nearest Italian Restaurant.
  • Another person wants to enjoy their afternoon by the Golden Gate Bridge.

Since you’ve accumulated knowledge and experiences, you can help guide them.

This is your content creation process, metaphorically speaking.

As we develop our knowledge and experiences, we can then share these learning insights with others.

It’s autobiographical. It’s a process of documentation.

Use A Surprise Journal To Generate Insights

It can be challenging to discover insights for content ideas.

But we can leverage a surprising event to help us capture these moments in a journal (physical or electronic).

These moments of surprise can facilitate a learning experience that can deepen your understanding, add more detail to your model, and help you navigate the terrain more effectively.

These surprises typically manifest as “unexpected” or “novel” experiences.

When you identify these moments of surprise, it generates insights that you can learn from and share with your audience.

If you’re constantly learning, you can theoretically have endless content ideas to share with your audience.

So how do we capture these insights?

3 Journaling Prompts For Capturing Surprises

Julia Galef — Co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality — popularized the use of a surprise journal.

Its initial intent was to establish “scientific integrity” and help people overcome their confirmation bias.

In her words, “We need to actively look for signs that our assumptions are wrong, because we won’t do so unprompted. […] Surprising observations push science forward.”

Scientific discoveries (and innovative ideas) require curiosity and an open mind. If innovators were only trying to confirm their own beliefs and see the world how they wanted to see it, they wouldn’t innovate much.

This is why it’s valuable to yearn to see the world as clearly as you can. Galef calls this the “scout mindset.” 

Having a surprise journal has a couple of benefits.

First, you begin focusing your attention on unexpected or novel events because you’re looking for them. You become more open and curious.

Second, it’s a gentle way to challenge your existing beliefs and ideas. Instead of saying that you’re “wrong,” it’s framed as a “surprise.”

Here’s her recommended journaling prompts when starting:

Moment of surprise:

Why it was surprising:

What this tells me (i.e., what did you learn?):

Becoming more aware of these surprises will facilitate insights. 

And you can use these insights to develop endless content ideas.

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Experimental Innovation: Are You Using A Bird’s-Eye View Or A Worm’s-Eye View?

“When you hold the world in your palm and inspect it only from a bird’s-eye view, you tend to become arrogant — you do not realize that things get blurred when seen from an enormous distance.” — Muhammad Yunus, Founder of the Grameen Bank

The insights you need to generate valuable content, create innovative ideas, and solve problems are not obvious.

The deeper you dive into any subject, the more your ideas evolve with it.

Many of us grew up taking a “bird’s-eye view.”

We can see this conditioning through how we absorb knowledge. I’ve personally done all of these:

  • In school, we learned theories and models for how the world worked. Less of an emphasis was on experimenting and testing these ideas.
  • Maybe we read books and don’t test the information out in reality.
  • Or we take a course and “learn” how to do something but forget to apply these lessons consistently and pursue experiences that assimilate this knowledge.

It’s easier to absorb knowledge from a zoomed-out view. 

It’s much more challenging to descend to the ground level, challenge our assumptions, and engage in experimentation?

Usually, what we expect to find (and what we actually find) are entirely different.

Think back to the last time you explored a new skill, idea, career, or any novel pursuit.

Once you began diving in, did you discover something that challenged your expectations, beliefs, and assumptions? 

Intangible Factors: Here’s Why Your Perfect Ideas Fail

The title for Peter Sims’ book Little Bets was inspired by a conversation he had with Ned Barnholt.

Barnholt is the former chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Agilent Technologies (a corporate spin-off of Hewlett-Packard Company).

He joined Hewlett-Packard in 1966 and would guide its corporate spin-off Agilent in 1999. He would then retire in 2005.

HP was wildly innovative in its earlier years.

But by the mid-1990s, the company became massive. Though an outstanding achievement, it created some significant challenges.

Barnholt called it the tyranny of large numbers, explaining that “there’s a natural tendency to think in terms of bigger bets as you get to be bigger.”

They would analyze billion-dollar markets, develop big ideas, and then make large bets.

And they would mostly fail!

Reflecting on HP’s past, Barnholt explains that their assumptions were wrong due to what he called intangible factors.

These factors are what’s happening beneath the surface, such as underlying customer perceptions and market dynamics that nobody can predict from a bird’s-eye view.

This is why Barnholt preferred using little bets. It allowed them to descend to the ground level and run small experiments. They found much better success with this approach.

If you start with a “perfect plan” or that “perfect idea,” you’re not taking these intangibles into account.

This is why an experimental approach to your content creation process is vital for your success.

It allows you to discover breakthrough ideas and build up a body of work along the way.

How To Find Breakthrough Ideas: Descend To A “Worm’s-Eye View”

David Galenson is a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. But his passion is examining how artists and creators work, and he has a body of research observing them.

One of his examples is Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank.

In 1974, Yunus was an economics professor at Chittagong University in Bangladesh.

During this time, an intense famine spread across India, sending people from the countryside into the city seeking food.

Thousands of people were suffering in the streets.

Yunus began to question the importance of his lectures.

“What good were all my complex theories when people were dying of starvation on the sidewalks and porches outside my lecture hall?”

He began forming the opinion that “Economists spend their talents detailing the processes for development and prosperity, but rarely reflect the origin and development of poverty and hunger.”

This realization pushed Yunus to stop teaching as a professor and begin looking at the problem up close, similar to an anthropologist.

He began spending his time in the village of Jobra, where he could understand poverty from what he called “the worm’s-eye view.”

“When you hold the world in your palm and inspect it only from a bird’s-eye view, you tend to become arrogant — you do not realize that things get blurred when seen from an enormous distance.”

In Jobra, he saw some of India’s poorest people. And the insights he gathered here informed his experiments that aimed to help them.

Here he met Sufiya Begum, a 21-year-old woman who built and sold bamboo stools to take care of herself and her children.

She would make fifty poisha profit. At the time, that’s a profit of two cents.

After better understanding her situation, Yunus began to see that people like Sufiya were dependent upon middle-men.

The middle-men allowed her just enough profit to survive each day but not to thrive.

The raw materials were too expensive. And the moneylenders would demand a lot. In Sufiya’s words, “People who deal with them only get poorer.”

The lack of formal credit allowed middle-men to fill the gap.

Yunus discovered a problem that economists had overlooked.

And in 1977, he secured the capital necessary to start the Grameen Bank, which focused on helping poor, self-employed people by providing small loans.

Yunus would have to overcome skepticism within the Indian banking community and the idea that India’s most impoverished weren’t creditworthy.

But over the years, Grameen would loan over $6.5 billion while keeping repayment rates consistently above 98%.

Many skeptics were only looking at the situation from the bird’s-eye view.

Despite this, Yunus prevailed. And he’s now regarded as the person responsible for launching the microfinance industry. He was the recipient of the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

And all because he put on the lens of an anthropologist and took — in his words — a “worm’s-eye view.”

A Bird’s-Eye View Can’t Predict Intangible Factors

Breakthrough ideas are hidden from us. But they’re not as far as we think.

Many times, they’re right under our noses.

We have to descend to the ground level.

Ask questions. Be open to changing assumptions and beliefs.

And experiment.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s valuable to go “meta.” Zooming out and seeing something from a bird’s-eye view gives you a new perspective.

And this can help present useful models that can help people and explain how the world works.

But we reach a limitation when we stay in the sky and never descend.

There are intangible factors that the bird’s-eye view can’t predict.

If we don’t begin experimenting at the ground level, there will always be a gap in our understanding.

And within this gap is where you can find breakthrough ideas and generate valuable content to grow your brand.

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How To Create Compelling Headlines: Why Benefits Alone Don’t Grab Attention

If you’ve ever Googled “how to create headlines,” it’s likely you’ve come across templates and multiple “headline types.”

It becomes clear that there are many options.

And it can be overwhelming.

I find templates or “headline types” helpful for inspiration. They can be extremely valuable and make your life easier.

But I’ve also found that if you don’t understand the underlying reasons WHY a great headline works, you’ll have a tough time getting someone’s attention (even if you use one of the popular headline types or templates).

Why “Benefits” Alone Don’t Get People’s Attention

Copywriting teaches us to focus on the benefits instead of features.

Your audience wants to know how they will benefit from your content, product, or service.

If you focus on features, the audience doesn’t see the connection for how it improves their life by either solving a problem or satisfying a desire.

They aren’t going to pay attention unless they know it benefits them.

But this is only part of the equation.

Imagine this scenario:

You’re in the health space.

Let’s say you’re clear on how your content will benefit your audience. So you create a headline (using the listicle headline type).

Let’s say the headline is: “3 Reasons Why Intermittent Fasting Benefits Your Hormones.”

Now let me ask you something. What if your audience already knows that intermittent fasting benefits their hormones?

Will they click the article and read it?


If they’re a loyal follower, they might click it even if they’re familiar with the benefits.

If they’re not loyal followers and are aware of the benefits, they probably won’t.

This is why knowing your audience is key.

For instance, if you were targeting me, I probably wouldn’t click it and read. I’m already familiar with the benefits of intermittent fasting and hormone production.

It doesn’t get my attention.

Now, if I saw this headline before I started intermittent fasting, perhaps I would.

So if benefits alone don’t get people’s attention, then there’s another important variable that we need to consider.

Evoking Surprise: The Key Variable For Grabbing Attention

We pay attention to events that surprise us.

Don’t let the simplicity of this statement fool you.

Research in cognitive science explains that unexpected events evoke surprise.

An unexpected event is defined as a mismatch between incoming information and someone’s existing model or “mental map” about a specific topic (this mismatch is referred to as a schema-discrepancy). I’ll share some examples in a moment.

These unexpected events “cause an automatic interruption of ongoing mental processes that is followed by an attentional shift and attentional binding to the events.”

In other words, unexpected events grab our attention. 

And if this event helps solve an urgent problem or satisfy a desire, there are high chances that someone will click it and consume the content.

According to Buzzsumo, some of the most popular headlines in 2020 were about the Covid-19 Pandemic.


Well, this virus was unexpected.

Before 2020, it wasn’t a part of our existing model for how the world worked. So we wanted to learn as much as we could about it.

So since we had a limited understanding, many headlines using the virus contained “unexpected” knowledge and ideas that could help you better navigate the situation. 

These posts performed very well in terms of attention.

This is one reason why trendy topics perform well. 

In 2006, your Solar System Model was challenged when Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet.

Even further back with Copernicus, the idea that the “earth revolves around the sun” challenged the existing model that the “sun revolves around the earth,” moving us to the heliocentric model.

These information mismatches evoke surprise, grabbing our attention.

If a benefit-driven headline does NOT explicitly or indirectly imply something unexpected, it’s less likely to get someone’s attention.

This is especially the case if you’re trying to get the attention of a stranger or someone who has a low level of investment in your brand.

Every Headline Is Either Direct Or Indirect

So if unexpected events get our attention, how do we apply them to headlines?

There are various headline templates and multiple “headline types.”

So to make this easier for us, let’s break down headlines into two broad categories.

I’ve found that — when utilizing this concept of unexpected events and surprise — you can place every headline into one of these distinct categories.

There are:

  • Direct Headlines — Explicitly states the unexpected and counter-intuitive idea.
  • Indirect Headlines — Keeps the unexpected and counter-intuitive idea “behind-the-curtains,” leaving an air of mystery.

Direct Headlines: The Main Idea Is Front-And-Center

With the direct headline, it’s clear what the big idea is. It’s explicitly stated in the headline itself.

The main idea is front-and-center.

This type of headline clearly expresses the value proposition. And for the direct headline to be compelling, it needs to be very effective at eliciting surprise and expressing an unexpected or counter-intuitive idea.

Here are some examples of a direct headline.

The following headlines are collected from Buzzsumo and focus on articles written on

Headline: “Pepsi’s $32 Billion Typo Caused Deadly Riots”

You know what’s going to happen in the story. It’s explicitly stated.

And someone may be thinking to themselves, “How could a typo cause deadly riots??”

Since it’s unexpected and evokes surprise, you want to read more.

Headline: “How Elon Musk’s Starlink Could Disrupt The Telecommunications Industry”

By clicking this article, we know that we’re going to learn how Musk’s Starlink could disrupt the telecommunications industry.

Depending on what the reader knows about Starlink and the telecommunications industry, this could be an unexpected and novel idea.

And if you’re in the telecommunications industry and don’t know how Starlink will impact you, then you’ll be eager to learn more.

Headline: “Google’s Genius $49/mo Course Is About To Replace College Degrees”

By clicking this article, we know we’ll be consuming content about Google’s course and how it’ll replace college degrees. It’s explicitly stated.

The idea of a course replacing college degrees is a counter-intuitive and unexpected idea. 

“You mean I could take a course from Google instead of going to college??”

With all of these examples, you can see how direct they are.

Notice that with each headline, the value proposition or story is explicitly stated.

They’re also surprising because they state something counter-intuitive. The main idea is unexpected, leaving you wanting to click and learn more.

Indirect Headlines: The Main Idea Is Behind-The-Curtains

And then you have indirect headlines.

These types of headlines dance around the main idea.

They leave an air of mystery and keep it hidden “behind-the-curtains.”

The value in indirect headlines is that they naturally evoke curiosity.

Instead of explicitly sharing what information you’ll receive when you click it, there’s a big question mark since the main idea is hidden behind-the-curtains.

Since you can’t see behind the curtain, you’ll naturally ask yourself, “Will this idea help me or add value to me?” 

In other words, you’re anticipating something unexpected and surprising to inform your current perspective or model.

Some indirect headlines include the following:

Headline: “[COVID-19] One Important Recommendation You May Not be Hearing”

This example is indirect because it dances around the idea of “recommendation.” What is this recommendation?

If it were to say something like, “One Important Vitamin Supplement You May Not Be Hearing About,” this would be more direct since it’s more specific with the recommendation.

The content naturally evokes curiosity. Since it’s a mystery, you’re anticipating something unexpected that could help you.

Headline: “6 Habits Of Super Learners” [link unavailable]

Many listicles leverage the indirect headline. 

These 6 habits are behind-the-curtain. There’s an air of mystery.

If you’re interested in meta-learning, this headline evokes anticipation, “What are these habits? Which habits am I doing? Will one of these habits help me learn better?” 

You’re anticipating (and hoping) for an unexpected and surprising idea that you can use to learn better.

Headline: “536 AD — the worst year in history”

This headline dances around the idea that 536 AD is the worst year in history.

One of our first questions is, “Why?”

And since many people are accustomed to saying, “This is the worst year ever…” seeing a headline like this is unexpected. 

You mean 2020 is NOT the worst year in history?

The more indirect the headline, the more mystery there is behind-the-curtains.

More extreme versions of an indirect headline can be effective. And others aren’t.

If you have a loyal following, these extreme headlines could be effective.

If you don’t, this could be perceived as clickbaity… ultimately hurting your brand.

Taking Indirect Headlines Too Far

Sometimes you’ll see extreme indirect headlines where you don’t even get a hint about the topic or main idea.

I’ve received lots of extreme indirect headlines in my email inbox. And you probably have too.

For instance, one brand would habitually send me emails with headlines that say “Important message for you…” or “Want an invite?”

Not only is the main idea behind-the-curtains… but I don’t even know what theater I’m in.

The individual sending me these emails had a history of flooding my inbox with lots of promotional content and not much value. So I eventually unsubscribed.

I’m not bashing this type of headline because it can work if you:

  1. Don’t overdo it.
  2. Have a history of adding value.

In essence, this brand began conditioning me to feel unsatisfied whenever I saw their headlines. Every time I clicked one, it was another promotional offer that I didn’t care about.

My recommendation is to be mindful of this and observe how your audience responds to them.

It’s Your Turn: Brainstorm Some Headlines

We can start brainstorming some ideas since we understand what makes a headline catchy, and we have two distinct buckets to place them in.

The goal of this process is not to land on the perfect headline from the start. Ideally, you’ll want to split test and experiment with different ideas to see which one works best.

A helpful analogy is to imagine you’re in a plane gliding over a mountain range. Your mission is to make it to the mountain with a red flag on the summit.

If you’re parachuting out of the plane, would you rather land closer or further from the summit with the red flag?

If your goal is to get there as fast as possible, then you’ll want to land closer to the summit.

We’re not necessarily trying to land on the perfect headline. We’re just trying to land as close to the summit as possible.

Let’s begin:

1. What’s your main idea?

Start with the main idea you want to talk about. Create 1–2 sentences so you have something concrete to work with.

2. What about this idea is unexpected or novel?

This is your counter-intuitive idea that will grab someone’s attention. It’s something unexpected.

Remember that you want first to understand how your audiences’ schema or model works. This helps you figure out what ideas are counter-intuitive and unexpected.

“The more bound a person is by the initial perception, the more powerful the ‘Aha!” experience is. It’s as though a light were suddenly turned on inside.” — Stephen Covey

For instance, if you’re targeting fitness professionals, then an idea like “quality sleep will help you lose weight” is probably already understood. It already exists in their model and probably won’t grab their attention (since it’s not unexpected and surprising).

3. Create 5–10 Direct Headlines

Now, having built the foundation for your idea, let’s experiment with a couple of headlines.

Brainstorm 5–10 direct headlines. Explicitly state this counter-intuitive idea.

You can use the examples above as inspiration.

4. Create 5–10 Indirect Headlines

Repeat the same process for indirect headlines.

What did you come up with?

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What The American “Low-Fat Movement” Can Teach Us About Marketing And Grabbing People’s Attention

Over the past several decades, cognitive scientists have discovered that we all have “schemas.”

Schemas are organized clusters of knowledge you hold in your mind about a subject or event.

For instance, I couldn’t tell you how a car engine works. My “car engine schema” isn’t very sophisticated or accurate.

Compare that to a car mechanic, whose schema about a car engine is much more accurate than mine. Their knowledge and experience are far greater.

These schemas represent our conceptual and perceptual understanding of how the world works (on both a small and large scale).

When a schema becomes commonplace and widely-accepted, it creates unique opportunities for other brands and entrepreneurs to add value to the market, which you’ll see in this case study of the low-fat movement.

Content and ideas that don’t match our current schemas trigger the sensation of surprise.

Suppose you’re in Chicago holding a map of New York. You won’t get far and will likely have to use trial and error to get around.

If you’ve been trying to navigate Chicago with a map of New York your whole life, you’ll be shocked when you realize it’s the wrong map.

If I show you a separate map of Chicago to assist you, you’re now faced with a “map mismatch.”

And now the choice is yours. 

You can begin experimenting and exploring with this new map to see if it’s accurate. Or you can keep your map of Chicago.

In this article, I use the term “mismatch” to explain what happens when someone acquires information or ideas that don’t match their existing schema or model.

This mismatch is why counter-intuitive ideas are a powerful mechanism for grabbing people’s attention.

Counter-intuitive ideas present us with a schema-mismatch. And if this idea also speaks to an urgent fear or desire, there’s a high chance it’ll get our attention (and investment).

If you want to create valuable content or ideas for your brand, then understanding this is crucial.

As marketers and entrepreneurs, grabbing attention is one of our most valuable assets.

So, before we dive in, I want to say that this article is not intended to be medical advice. 

Nor is this article meant to “point-the-finger” and blame anyone for the events that occurred. It’s become clear that once an idea gets set in motion, it can be hard to stop it — like a snowball that builds upon itself — especially when there are conflicts of interest.

This article intends to reveal why and how most Americans adopted the low-fat diet as part of their “health schema” from a cognitive science perspective.

Specifically, I’m interested in why Americans adopted the belief that low-fat was an ideal dieting approach for preventing heart disease and losing weight. And how this schema spread.

Our Existing Schemas Position Counter-Intuitive Brands To Get Attention And Grow

Researcher Ann F. La Berge refers to the low-fat diet as an ideology, because in the 1980s, it was “the faith-inspiring and widely accepted notion that a low-fat diet was good for all Americans.”

Despite the low-fat diet becoming the leading model for ideal heart health and weight loss, Americans were still becoming obese. Ironically, this led to what many would call an obesity epidemic.

Once this “low-fat schema” took hold (with the accompanying Food Pyramid model), any dieting approach that wasn’t low-fat became counter-intuitive. 

This created an environment for brands to use counter-intuitive marketing messages to get people’s attention.

Once low-fat became a widely accepted dieting approach, any brand who disagreed with this (Atkins, Keto, and Paleo, to name a few) could break this “low-fat schema” by suggesting that fats were actually good to eat.

These ideas presented people with information that didn’t match their current health schema, triggering the sensation of surprise.

This positioned brands to earn attention and growth.

So how did the low-fat movement start? 

And how did this create an environment where brands could break this schema, get attention, and build profitable businesses?

This Century-Long Mindset Set The Foundation For The Low-Fat Movement

Americans already had an established dieting culture in the early 20th century — according to historian Peter Stearns.

Being skinny and slim was desirable.

The preferred approach to staying slim was to count calories. And dieters who were serious about staying slim knew that each gram of protein and carb had four calories, while fat had nine.

So it became common to associate low calories with low fat, since each gram of fat had more than twice the calories than a gram of protein or carbs.

This logic is similar to the proverbial saying, “you are what you eat.” People generally agree that if you eat fresh and organic food, then you’ll be healthier. But this logic could also be interpreted as, “If you eat fat, then you were more likely to become fat.”

This century-long mindset and preference for low calories (and low-fat to stay slim) set the foundation for the American “low-fat schema.”

So what set this schema in motion?

In the 1940s, scientists and physicians found that coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the United States.

So they began searching for the root cause of it.

One famous researcher who strongly influenced the low-fat movement was Ancel Keys and his famous “Seven Countries Study.”

This is paramount to the history of the low-fat movement because several decades of nutrition education and policy in America were based on this study.

Keys’ suggested a strong correlation between diets high in saturated fats (and cholesterol) and an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease.

This study led to the famous “lipid hypothesis,” claiming that fat and cholesterol were the primary causes of heart disease.

Keys promoted his research and was put on the cover of “Time” magazine.

And shortly after he promoted low-fat, in 1957, the American Heart Association (AHA) would begin proposing that Americans monitor their fat intake to reduce the chances of heart disease.

The “low-fat schema” was set in motion.

The War Between Opposing Health Schemas

There were scientists and physicians in the medical community who opposed Ancel Keys’ study.

They weren’t convinced that Keys’ research was conclusive evidence that fat was the root cause of heart disease.

One popular figure who disagreed with the lipid hypothesis was British scientist John Yudkin.

He largely opposed it because he was finding compelling connections between dietary sugar and heart disease. But he’d be continuously discredited and criticized by Keys and by the sugar industry, who profited from processed foods that were “low-fat” but higher in sucrose.

Instead of running more controlled experiments, Keys stuck with his initial hypothesis that fat was the root cause of the American health dilemma.

Anyone in the medical community who disagreed — like John Yudkin — wasn’t given much of a platform to speak.

The lengths that people went to discredit scientists and physicians who disagreed is significant. Their ability to shut-down everyone who challenged the lipid hypothesis contributed to the spread of the “low-fat schema.”

Here is one well-documented example of this scientific censoring.

In 1965 the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) funded a research project and published it in the NEJM. It explained how fat and cholesterol were the primary causes of heart disease. And it shared that sugar (or sucrose) wasn’t much of a concern.

But here’s what’s interesting.

Internal documents revealed that the SRF “sought to influence the scientific debate over the dietary causes of CHD [congenital heart disease] in the 1950s and 1960s.”

How did they do this?

Well, it was clear that Yudkin’s research was making the SRF panic (namely, the sugar industry and manufacturers of processed foods).

So they embarked on this research project to combat “negative attitudes towards sugars.” They called it Project 226.

Project 226 was a literature review researched by Mark Hegsted and Robert McGandy, overseen by Frederick Snare (who was chair of the Harvard University School of the Public Health Nutrition Department and a member of SRF’s scientific advisory board).

The SRF would eventually pay Hegsted and McGandy $6,500 (roughly $48,900 now) for “a review article of the several papers which find some special metabolic peril in sucrose and, in particular, fructose.”

Project 226 would go on to be published in the NEJM in 1967. No mention of the SRF’s funding or involvement was found in it.

There were clear conflicts of interest.

We can thank Dr. Cristin Kearns for discovering the SRF’s involvement.

She was digging through some archives and stumbled on internal documents from the 1960s revealing the SRF’s attempt to influence public opinion about sugar and fat (clearly aiming to discredit Yudkin’s sugar hypothesis).

It’s obvious who dominated the conversation regarding the cause of heart disease at the time.

This is significant because our health schema would be completely different if scientists like Yudkin weren’t discredited.

So we see how popular science created the catalyst for the “low-fat schema.”

What else contributed to the movement?

The Forces That Contributed To This Snowball Effect

The history of federal government involvement in the American diet dates all the way back to 1862.

So when popular science indicated that low-fat is enemy #1 for people’s health, the government began recommending that Americans reduce their fat consumption.

By 1977, the Federal Government was telling people to eat low-fat.

Towards the end of the 1980s, even the World Health Organization (WHO) was promoting low-fat.

And in 1992, the USDA released the famous Food Pyramid model, lending its full support to the low-fat movement.

According to academic nutritionist Marion Nestle, it was “the most widely distributed and best recognized nutrition education device ever produced in this country.”

Also, the AHA introduced a program that labeled food with a “heart-healthy” seal of approval. Food companies could pay and get this label put on their packaged foods.

Since the science at the time indicated that “low-fat” was “heart-healthy,” it fell in alignment with the current health schema (and food companies benefited).

These companies began replacing fat with sugar in their processed foods and labeled it “low-fat.”

So with Americans being educated with the Food Pyramid AND constantly seeing low-fat food being branded as “heart-healthy” in grocery stores, it’s no wonder how the low-fat schema would become deeply ingrained into American culture.

Once the lipid hypothesis became the scientific consensus and the government began encouraging Americans to monitor their fat intake, popular media would play a role in spreading content and promoting low-fat as the ideal dieting approach.

Specifically, the two most popular health sources at the time — Prevention Magazine and The New York Times — both subscribed to the lipid hypothesis and promoted low-fat diets in the 1980s.

All these forces combined to create a Snowball Effect.

As Skeptics Emerged, Brands Delivered Their Counter-Intuitive Message (And Gained Attention)

Now it’s a bit clearer how the “low-fat schema” for most Americans became commonplace.

There was always a sub-culture of scientists and physicians who disagreed with the lipid hypothesis. But towards the end of the century, more skeptics began emerging.

Some individuals would even raise concerns about the reliability of Ancel Keys’ research, questioning one of the pillar studies that set the low-fat movement into motion.

For instance, Robert H. Lustig — UCSF Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology — explains that Keys wrote in his study that sucrose and saturated fat were intercorrelated but failed to perform the sucrose half of his multivariate correlation analysis.

In other words — according to Lustig — Keys’ research is unreliable.

His medical lecture Sugar: The Bitter Truth became extremely popular on YouTube, getting millions of views and having people question the low-fat diet.

As more professionals began presenting valid arguments that criticized the lipid hypothesis, this created an environment where low-carb brands and businesses could contribute to the health industry.

Many of these brands had a counter-intuitive idea: low-carb (or no-carb) was the answer for combating heart disease and weight loss.

Some notable brands are Atkins and entrepreneurs who’ve built a platform around the Paleo and Keto diet.

Many of them have grown their brands and become profitable.

They decided that a low-fat diet isn’t for everyone (themselves included).

So they proposed an idea that is counter-intuitive to someone with the “low-fat schema.” Dietary fat is not the enemy. Carbs and sugar are.

And when they share this message, they create a mismatch between their content and the audiences’ existing “low-fat schema.”

This creates the sensation of surprise, a key mechanism in grabbing someone’s attention.

And since health is an urgent and serious problem people struggle with, many were willing to invest.

Someone struggling on a low-fat diet will be compelled to click an article or watch a video that explains that “there’s another way” and that “eating fat is actually good.”

Here are the top takeaways from this case study:

  • We all have schemas or models of how the world works (some more ingrained than others).
  • It’s important to become aware of your audiences’ schema and how it works to get their attention.
  • If you have a solution that reveals a “mismatch” within someone’s existing schema, you’ll create the sensation of surprise and get their attention.
  • If you add value after getting their attention, you’ll have the ability to grow your brand and business.

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The Psychology Of Surprise Is The Key To Great Headlines – Not Templates

There are multiple ways to write a headline but only a few reasons why all great headlines work.

Headline templates are a great source of inspiration. 

But relying on them without understanding WHY they work puts you at a disadvantage.

What are the underlying principles that make a headline great?

The answer to this question can empower you to get more eyeballs on your content.

Copywriters or marketers will tell you that you need a catchy hook to get someone’s attention.

One of the underlying mechanisms that make a catchy hook work is “the psychology of surprise.”

This human mechanism is often under-valued, and I’ll explain why the science of surprise is the most critical aspect of getting people’s attention.

Schemas: A Fundamental Aspect Of Being Human

Before August 2006, everyone thought that Pluto was an official planet in our Solar System.  But when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) downgraded Pluto to “dwarf planet” status, this was a big surprise.

If you’re interested in our Solar System and Space, this likely got your attention. Maybe you even invested some time into researching what happened.

Over the past several decades, cognitive scientists have discovered that we all have “schemas.” 

Schemas are organized clusters of knowledge you hold in your mind about a subject or event.  Before August 2006, your “Solar System Schema” was that Pluto was an official planet.  

“Schemas can be regarded as cognitive representations of humans’ informal, unarticulated theories about objects, events, event sequences (including actions and their consequences), and situations. Schemas serve the interpretation of present and past, and the prediction of future events, and thereby, the adaptive guidance of action.”

The Cognitive‐Evolutionary Model of Surprise: A Review of the Evidence

When you hear people talk about mental models, they’re referring to this concept of schemas.

Mental models typically have more practical connotations (whereas academics may be criticized for getting lost in the study of schemata).

I believe both approaches have value. 

Either way, I’ll be using the terms “schema” and “models” interchangeably in this post.

They represent our conceptual and perceptual perspective of how the world works (on both a small and large scale).

I couldn’t tell you how a car engine works.  My model is incomplete and not very accurate.

Compare that to a car mechanic, whose mental model of a car engine will be more accurate than mine. His knowledge and experience are far greater.

We Pay Attention To Information That Doesn’t Match Our Existing Schemata

When we acquire new information that doesn’t match our existing model, our “schema-discrepancy detector” gets triggered.

This mismatch creates the sensation of surprise.

When Pluto was no longer an official planet, this created a discrepancy between our existing “Solar System schema” and this new information.

This mismatch forces you to pay attention and focus (especially if it’s an urgent and relevant problem in your life).

Researchers studying this phenomenon explain the significance of surprise and how it gets our attention. 

“Unexpected events cause an automatic interruption of ongoing mental processes that is followed by an attentional shift and attentional binding to the events, which is often followed by causal and other event analysis processes and by schema revision.”

The Cognitive‐Evolutionary Model of Surprise: A Review of the Evidence

If you want to learn the art of getting people’s attention, it’s essential to understand how to surprise them.

Make Your Headlines Counter-Intuitive

Entrepreneur and thought leader Michael Simmons understands how to grab people’s attention.

He’s figured out that an idea or headline that is counter-intuitive is the key to getting people to pay attention to you.

What does the word “counter-intuitive” mean?

Within the context of cognitive science, it’s an idea that triggers our “schema-discrepancy detector.” It’s an idea that is NOT currently a piece of our schema or model.

This counter-intuitive idea creates the sensation of surprise and gets our attention.  

If the relevancy and urgency of the topic are high, we invest in it. Combine these with other forms of motivation (like acute wants and needs), and you’re heading in the right direction.

For instance, I used Buzzsumo to research the most engaging headlines in 2020, and a lot of them reference the Covid-19 pandemic.

The following headline is trendy – urgent and relevant – and implies that there’s information that we don’t know (triggering the schema-discrepancy detector).  

Once you understand that surprise is pivotal in getting someone’s attention, it’s time to apply it ethically.

Ethically Surprise Someone And Get Their Attention In 4 Steps

With knowledge of how the psychology of surprise works, we must use it ethically.

Nobody likes clickbait.

So if you want to grab someone’s attention by using a counter-intuitive headline, keep the content congruent and valuable.

With quality being our intention, here are four steps for grabbing someone’s attention: 

Step 1: What’s your content topic or idea?

Step 2: What’s your audiences’ schema or model of how that thing works? What’s their understanding of it?

Step 3: What do YOU know that does NOT exist within their current schema or model? Trigger the “schema-discrepancy” mechanism.

Step 4: Simplify the idea so it’s coherent and understandable.

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How To Develop Content And Innovative Ideas: Don’t Focus On Positive Feedback

“For the new entrepreneurs who are just getting started out there, what’s one piece of advice that you’d always recommend?”

Elon Musk shifts his eyes to the left, contemplates the question, then responds to Kevin Rose’s question.

“In terms of advice… it’s very important to actively seek out and listen very carefully to negative feedback. This is something that people tend to avoid because it’s painful. But I think this is a very common mistake – to NOT actively seek out and listen to negative feedback.” 

When explaining how he implements this in his own life, Musk explains, “When friends get a product, I say, ‘Don’t tell me what you like, tell me what you don’t like.’ Otherwise, your friend won’t tell you what he doesn’t like.”

Musk is right. Feedback can be painful.

You think your new idea is brilliant and share it with excitement. Then the listener sits there, unimpressed.  

Since we want to avoid pain, it’s tempting to exclusively focus on positive feedback (and the behaviors that reinforce it).

But if you’re trying to develop high-quality content or an innovative idea, then focusing on positive feedback is the worst thing you can do.

Seeking Negative Feedback Is Critical For Creative Work And Experimentation

“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing it better.” 

– Elon Musk

I used to avoid feedback. 

I think the fear of negative feedback prevented me from taking action altogether.

But as I began building relationships with other entrepreneurs, they’d naturally share their opinions about my content and ideas. 

Since I knew they had good intentions, I was more willing to receive it.

This eased me into accepting the value of negative feedback.

Now, I proactively ask my friends what they don’t like about my content and ideas.  

And they’ll be brutally honest with me! 

Here’s my friend responding to one of my articles.

For anyone who wants to improve FAST, I recommend coaxing people for negative feedback.

Many times, people just won’t give it to you.  They don’t want to offend you or hurt your feelings, so they shy away from how they actually feel about it. 

This withholding of negative feedback is especially true with your friends.

By proactively coaxing them for their honest opinion, you’re letting them know that it’s okay to be honest. You won’t take it personally.

This form of feedback has delivered several insights for my content and brand. 

Receiving negative feedback is critical when you’re doing any sort of creative work that requires experimentation.  

The Reason Why You Don’t Seek Negative Feedback

A big reason why feedback is challenging is that it’s easy to attach our self-worth to it.

When we attach our self-worth to incoming feedback, two possible scenarios arise:

  • If we get positive feedback, we frame it as a “win.” We feel better about ourselves and are more motivated to continue experimenting and taking action.  Yet, we can take this too far and become addicted to validation, blinding us to receiving constructive criticism.
  • If we get negative feedback, we frame it as a “loss.”  We feel worse about ourselves and are less motivated to continue experimenting and taking action. If we maintain this perception of failure, it becomes a downward spiral.

In other words, we’re riding the emotional rollercoaster of content creation.

Here’s another way to think about it.

Every time someone says, “I don’t like your content. Your idea needs some work.” 

What you end up hearing is, “I don’t like you. You’re not good enough.” 

If negative feedback reinforces low self-esteem, then you’ll always avoid it.  And improvement is nearly impossible.

When we experience “wins” and “losses,” there’s a complex cascade of both physiological and neurochemical changes within your body.

Neuroscientist and clinical psychologist Ian Robertson explains partly what happens when you win, explaining, “Winning increases the dopamine receptors in the brain, which makes you smarter and more bold.”

In biology, this phenomenon is called The Winner Effect.

Dopamine plays a vital role in learning comprehension and retention. Elevated states of dopamine help facilitate improved performance and heightened learning potential.

So when you’re trying to develop content or an innovative idea, you’ll want to be as resourceful as possible.   

But when you’re losing (or more accurately – perceiving something as a loss), your physiology and neurochemistry changes and makes you less resourceful.

Experiencing this “loser effect” isn’t helpful when receiving negative feedback.  It’s meant to be constructive, not destructive.

Bottom line: it’s critical to learn how to receive negative feedback without triggering this “loser effect” inside us.  

I, for one, have struggled with this a lot.  And I have a tip that’ll help you get better with this.  But first, let me speak to a common objection that pops up. 

If Winning Reinforces More Winning, Why Shouldn’t We Focus On Positive Feedback?

If we become more resourceful when we “win”, why wouldn’t we focus on positive feedback?

It’s a good question.

And I’ll start by saying that I don’t recommend hammering someone with feedback to diminish them.  By using social intelligence, we can discern whether or not we’re speaking too harshly.

If I can see that my friends interpret my feedback destructively, I switch tactics quickly.  

But here’s the reality.

If you were to take that approach – and only focus on receiving positive feedback – then sure, maybe you’d feel better in the short-term.  But you’d miss out on feedback that can help you improve in the long-term.  

By focusing on receiving negative feedback, you can improve the quality of your content, ideas, and ultimately your life.  

Here’s How You Can Start Interpreting Negative Feedback As A “Win”

I gravitate towards Elon Musk’s advice – seek negative feedback.  

But this only works if you first detach your self-worth from the incoming feedback.  This process takes time, but it’s something you can learn. And eventually, you’ll naturally seek it because you know it’ll help you get better.  

Negative feedback CAN be a win.

As Ryan Holiday says, “The obstacle is the way.” 

Here’s a quick way to get started.

Begin seeking your friend’s and family’s honest opinion. The people you trust.  

Proactively ask them for their honest feedback on your content or innovative idea.  

This request may be uncomfortable at first. But eventually, you’ll train yourself to realize that this negative feedback is intended to help you grow and succeed.  

It’s much easier to learn how to do this with people you trust instead of strangers. 

With practice, you’ll begin cultivating a healthy relationship to negative feedback.  You’ll let it become a more common occurrence (instead of avoiding it or tuning it out).

You can now start iterating and improving at an accelerated rate because you’re receiving valuable data for how you can improve.

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