Please enjoy this transcript of my conversation with Chris Sparks, author of Experiment Without Limits and Founder of Forcing Function. We cover productivity vs. peak performance, eliminating dissonance between goals and reality, and writing your personal vision statement. Transcripts for other episodes can be found here.
“Rather than thinking about these tactics and how they can work harder, are you working on the right things? This comes back to some of the questions we've been asking today, what do you value? What are you optimizing for in your life? What is your vision? What are you trying to create?” – Chris Sparks
Almost exactly two years ago Chris Sparks joined me as our very first guest on Outlier Academy. In this episode he’s back to explore his peak performance and productivity coaching work at Forcing Function. This time, to decode how he works with elite founders, investors, and even artists, to optimize their performance, clarify their goals, and make more progress each day.
Chris works with elite founders, investors, and operators in his twice-yearly program, Team Performance Training, which accepts fifteen students at a time and takes them through his ten-week program.
If you're ready to become an elite performer, consider applying for Chris Sparks's group coaching program, Team Performance Training. In Team Performance Training, Chris will teach you how to optimize your productivity, increase your personal leverage, and show up as your best self every day. There are fifteen spots available in Cohort 4 with applications open until the 27th of September.
Learn more at teamperformancetraining.com.
Transcript – #133 Experiment Without Limits: Achieving Peak Performance Through Experimentation | Chris Sparks, Author & Founder of Forcing Function
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:06):
Hello and welcome to another episode of Outlier Academy. This week's episode is part of our Outlier Thinker series where we dig into the ideas, frameworks, and strategies used by subject matter experts across disciplines. I'm Daniel Scrivner, on the show today, I'm joined by Chris Sparks. Almost exactly two years ago, Chris joined me as our very first guest on Outlier Academy. In this episode, he's back to explore his peak performance and productivity coaching work at the Forcing Function. This time to decode how he works with Elite founders, investors, and even artists to optimize their performance, clarify their goals, and make more progress every single day. Here's just a few quotes from Chris's clients. Zach Kanter, founder of Stedi, which is backed by Stripe Union Square Ventures in Bloomberg Beta, said, "Chris is a machine. Working with him as a startup founder is like having a cheat code.
Daniel Scrivner (00:00:55):
Mastering performance means mastering yourself. For the first time in my life, I feel like I can finish anything." High stakes poker player Garrett Adelstein said, "Performance coaching is everything I could have asked for and then some. If you're looking to maximize your efficiency towards increasing your income and achieving your long term goals, Chris is your guy." In this episode, we explore everything that Chris covers with Elite founders, investors, and operators in his twice yearly program team performance training, where he accepts just 12 students at a time and takes them through his eight week program. We walk through many of the powerful ideas in Chris's book, Experiment Without Limits, including how to clarify your values and why values are the key to make tough decisions and weigh trade offs between different goals. How to set goals that minimize the opportunity cost and maximize the expected value of your time, energy, and effort. How to think in systems, identify bottlenecks and create antifragile systems and why your attention is so valuable and how to harness it to achieve your goals and so much more.
Daniel Scrivner (00:01:58):
You can find the show notes and text transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/133. That's outlieracademy.com/133. You can learn more about Chris's team performance training at teamperformancetraining.com. You can learn more about Forcing Function at forcingfunction.com. And you can follow Chris on Twitter @sparksremarks. Please enjoy my conversation with Chris Sparks, author of Experiment Without Limits. Chris, welcome back on Outlier Academy. I am thrilled to have you back on.
Chris Sparks (00:02:32):
It's thrilled to be back. I can't believe I ever left.
Daniel Scrivner (00:02:36):
For people listening, Chris was actually guest number one on Outlier Academy back two years ago in late August 2020. Now that we've kind of hit fast forward, we're two years in the future, I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to look back with Chris and there's a lot of ground to cover. We're going to spend time going all over the place. But where I wanted to start, Chris, is just for anybody that hasn't listened to the previous episode that maybe doesn't know about your background. Can you just share a quick sketch of your background, back through, obviously, the height of your online poker days, all the way to what you're doing today at the Forcing Function?
Chris Sparks (00:03:11):
The box that I would put myself in, I'm best known as a professional poker player. I played full time for a number of years. These days I'm a bit more semi-retired, so what that entails of 2 million hands played over a couple of decades, both online where I'm best known, where I've had the most success. But also playing in large games, private and public all around the world at the highest stakes against some of the toughest players. And I'm trying to take some of that experience as well as dabblings that I've had in entrepreneurial investment world to create my current boutique consultancy, which is called Forcing Function. At Forcing Function, we teach executives and investors what we call peak performance.
Chris Sparks (00:03:57):
So if you're trying to do something really ambitious, here are the things that you need to have in place to give yourself the best chance of achieving that. I'm sure we'll cover some of those. So our primary offerings are I work one on one with up to 12 executive investors at a time. And we offer a twice annual cohort based course, which is our flagship program called Team Performance Training, where we walk through my best systems for peak performance and have some fun masterminds, feedback, coaching, where you're surrounded by other top performers who are giving you feedback, helping you accelerate what you're doing.
Daniel Scrivner (00:04:36):
And we're going to spend time going deep on Team Performance Training. So part of this, well, let me just start and let me maybe give a little bit of background. I first got the chance to work with Chris a number of years ago when I was an executive with a lot of ambitions that felt like I could learn a lot by working with someone that focused exclusively on productivity and peak performance. And I learned a massive amount from you, Chris. A number of years ago now that I've continued to use, you still do one-on-one coaching with clients. But more than that, you spend time doing Team Performance Training and you also have a book Experiment Without Limits. People can find that obviously on your site. They can also buy it on Amazon. We will link to a bunch of stuff on your site that we'll talk about over the next hour or so.
Daniel Scrivner (00:05:21):
In the show notes, people can find the show notes for this program at outlieracademy.com. We're going to go really, really, really deep. So where I wanted to start first, Chris, is maybe just setting a little bit of expectations. I can kind of riff quickly. I'd love it if you could build off of this, so anytime we're going to be covering productivity and performance, I just want to say one thing really quickly. We're going to spend most of our time talking about philosophy, kind of how to think about these things in the right way, different strategies that you can employ. We're not going to get super down into the weed in tactics all that often. And the goal is really for people listening to just try one of the ideas that we're going to cover over the next hour. If you try more, great. If you try none, that's not great. You definitely just want to try something, anything to build off of that before we jump in and go all over the map.
Chris Sparks (00:06:09):
I think that's a wonderful introduction. And a good rule of thumb is how can you make your learning active rather than passive? If you listen to a podcast episode or an interview or you read a book and you don't change anything about your life after reading or watching it, what are you doing?
Daniel Scrivner (00:06:25):
That's well said. Very well said. So where I wanted to start, Chris, was just talking about productivity versus peak performance. And a little bit of this was back when I worked with you a number of years ago. I think the way you were kind of framing that at the time was around productivity, which is perfectly fine. A lot of people need to get more productive or be able to have more output. A lot of people struggle with or maybe are dissatisfied with what they're able to get done in a day. And so they think, "Cool, great, I'll go learn productivity." Then what you end up learning in the pursuit of more productivity is it's not just about productivity. It's basically zooming way out and thinking about all of the things that can improve your performance. Talk for a little bit about just how you think about productivity versus peak performance and why peak performance is the right thing to focus on.
Chris Sparks (00:07:10):
I think of productivity as a gateway to self-awareness and to thinking about, what do I really want out of life? What are the things that really work well for me? How do I do more of that? And just the recognition that productivity is what we would refer to as instrumental value versus a terminal value. So it's instrumental in that it's a means to an end. No one has the goal of working more or even working more efficiently, but a lot of people who get into productivity as this gateway, treat productivity as this end in itself. "If only I could become more productive, I could just ride into the sunset because I've won the game, I can do whatever I want." Well, no, you still have to do the work and there's a lot more to success than just putting your button share and doing lots of work really quickly.
Chris Sparks (00:08:10):
And when I think about performance, I would really use a metaphor of trajectory. So thinking about trajectory, it's not only speed, but it's direction. When you're trying to give someone coordinates in a three dimensional space, it's not just, "Hey, where are you now? But where are you going? In which direction and what speed, what's your heading?" So trying to think about, where am I going and what is that straight line, most direct path to get there? And this generally falls under the guise not only of things that are kind of derived as working smarter, but are actually identifying, what are these leverage points? If I can work backwards from, "This is the thing I want to create in the world, this is what I want to achieve." What did I need to do in order to get there, and how can I break that down into manageable, digestible steps so that I can make progress towards this on a regular basis?
Chris Sparks (00:09:14):
Then I'm regularly asking myself, are the things that I'm doing leading me to where I want to be? We'll find this all the time, if you think only in productivity terms, you're sprinting as fast as you can, and I've had this happen a few times in my life. I wake up and say, " I'm going in the exact opposite direction at the way I want it to go. All these things I'm doing really quickly and efficiently aren't actually leading to my goal. Perhaps I should change course." So performance is really bringing in this third dimension to it, which is going in the right direction and is most of a direct path as possible.
Daniel Scrivner (00:09:51):
Very well said. We're going to spend most of this time, we're going to go across a number of different topics. But I'm loosely going to work off of the flow that you follow in both Team Performance Training, which is this cohort based training program that you offer as well as Experiment Without Limits. So just before we jump in, can you maybe give a little bit of the quick pitch of what Team Performance Training is? Who has come to some of these programs? How many of them you've done? And then talk a little bit about Experiment Without Limits, and then we'll just dive right in.
Chris Sparks (00:10:21):
So people ask me, "Who's Team Performance Training before?" And I'm looking for someone who's saying, " I want to do something truly ambitious with my life. I want to raise a billion dollars for my fund, or I want to sell my company as a unicorn for a billion dollars. Maybe I want to solve some giant challenge in the world like climate change or racial injustice." Or let's say you want to go to the moon, or you want to achieve enlightenment or become a world class athlete. Whatever it is, you're doing something that's really difficult, that's going to take a lot of long term iterative, sustained effort to get there. And if you have that type of ambition, especially if you aren't exactly sure on what shape that ambition has yet, this is our way of, "Here is what you need to have in place in order to maximize your odds of success."
Chris Sparks (00:11:26):
So a little bit about the creation of Team Performance Training, I think would be interesting is this has been an ongoing evolution. So I'll start with Experiment Without Limits. When I started doing this six years ago, started working with really smart, ambitious people. I started to just pattern match and recognize, the people who are making a lot of progress to their goals. So you need to be doing these things. And the people who got, let's say, off track of their goals tend to be doing these things. How do we create more of the former and prevent more of the latter? And I spent one month, I went to Mexico and essentially did a writer's retreat where I hold up and said, "I'm going to spend entire month writing down all the things that seemed to work." Distilling those down and recognizing early on, "I thought I could just tell people they would do these things and then they would just go and do them."
Chris Sparks (00:12:20):
And obviously life doesn't work like that. If you tell someone to do something, sometimes they'll rebel and do the opposite. Sometimes they'll do it, but only out of this grudging sense of obligation. As soon as you're not looking anymore, as soon as the sense of accountability has left, they go back to doing what they were doing before. Anyone whose run a marathon has experienced this firsthand. You don't run 20 miles the week after you've run a marathon because that big incentive is gone. So, how can I get people to take action? So I did another retreat, and this one took me six months of breaking down these recommendations into step by step recipes or exercises and how someone can implement these into their life. And a lot of people gave me the advice, "You should package this as an information product and sell it for a $100 or $250 or $500."
Chris Sparks (00:13:09):
And I just had this moment, "Well, how many copies do I think I could sell of this really? Maybe a hundred copies. Well, what if I just gave it away for free?" And that became of our core value. That Forcing Function is, I think of this as a Talebian barbell approach that I want to work with the top performers and find ways to accelerate them, both because this keeps me really sharp and then I have to show value to people whose time is very scarce. But also I'll learn a great deal from what the best are doing, and I can then take this still and generalize that. And anyone who I'm not working with, I want to just open source everything I know, freely give it away. So we took this a hundred page PDF that I spent almost a year working on and gave it away. Since then, the couple years since, had 10, 000 people downloaded across a hundred countries, far out exceeded my expectations.
Chris Sparks (00:14:04):
And I've had the opportunity to impact a lot of people I've never even had the opportunity to meet, which is really exciting. So said, "Well, instead of having people just go and do it on their own, how can I take this principle of forcing them to do it?" That so much of the value is just creating the space and sitting down and doing it. So the V1 was, I was teaching live workshops in New York City. So workshops over the weekend for 12 people, essentially sat people in a room together, gave them a little bit extra context, set a timer and said, "Now go do it. And I'm just going to stand here in the front of the room and watch you do it." And realize that Forcing Functions really work. That creating the space, actually go and do the thing was super valuable.
Chris Sparks (00:14:47):
And meanwhile, I love travel. I love planning group trips. A couple times a year I was getting some of my close friends together for a weekend. And a lot of this, we would get a house on a lake or on the beach and we'd have some fun. We'd swim, we'd go on a boat, we'd play games, just do fun, hang out type stuff. But I did a little bit of a Trojan horse bait and switch on them is when they came for the weekend and said, "Well, you should know that the benefit of this is this going to be tax deductible for you because you're going to talk about something that's important to you and particularly important to your line of work, your business, your investment firm." And everyone had 30 minutes on the hot seat, where this is completely your time to present one really tough challenge, which is keeping you up at night and to leverage the shared brain of the group.
Chris Sparks (00:15:45):
Where you have seven other people giving you their full attention on here's what we think you could do. First was just asking questions, have you thought about this? Have you tried this type of thing? And then giving some advice. And despite all the fun things we were doing on the weekend and that people didn't know they were signing up for a mastermind hot seat. Every single time people said, "Wow, that was incredibly valuable. I'm so glad I did that. I wish I could do that again." The third kind of element of this is 2020 happens. There's a pandemic, everything moves online, and I get red pilled into online education is the future. The future of all education is online. Is it possible to take this experience that I've been creating this workshop in New York and import it to an online format where it's not limited to just people who are within this geographical area, but potentially all around the world?
Chris Sparks (00:16:43):
And is it possible to create this experience online where you're in a room of people that you really respect. And if you aren't doing any work, they'll know that there's a real sense of accountability there. And I was very fortunate to have a great team around me, particularly my course manager, Tasha, who is an extremely strong background in education. We took that as an education of ourselves, how can we recreate this experience for the online world from first principles. Where we have this, forcing you to take action, but you're also in a curated small group. Where if you don't show up and do the work, people will know and you respect and trust them. So they can give you feedback on what you're doing as well as their experience is relevant to you. That a lot of times you find this, someone else starts talking, "That's not relevant to me. I'm going to go check my email."
Chris Sparks (00:17:36):
No, people are working on similar challenges to yourself and what they say has import to you. That was the creation of team performance training. We launched our first cohort in 2020, and we're about to run our fourth cohort this fall 2022. And it has been just this continual process of iteration. Every single module, every week that we give, making all of these small tweaks to try to create an optimized online experience. Little things that we learned that are completely different to the online world, like packet length, that people will not listen to you for more than 15 minutes. So I need to say everything that I need to tell you within 15 minutes, and then you're going to do it. That anything longer than that, you're going to start to drift off, you're going to forget things that I said in the beginning. I could easily do two hour workshops where I'm talking most of the time, but online it was maximum 15 minutes of having to rework everything. And little things like every single prompt or instruction that we gave needed to be just incredibly precise and specific, because if there's any ambiguity in what to do, people wouldn't do it. If you're in person, people will explore. It's like, "Well I'm here. I might as well just try it and figure it out." If you're online, people just tune it out and be like, "I don't know how to do that. I'm going to do something else." So need to be very, very specific. And then finally, being very intentional about who we paired. So we found that accountability, the lessons are strongest when you have a pair of two people. So being really intentional about pairing someone with someone else who's facing similar challenges, it has a similar mindset and priorities in life as that other person, so that their life could be reflected back at them. So someone facing a challenge, they could learn from those lessons themselves. The feedback they were given to the other person would be advice that they would give to themselves.
Chris Sparks (00:19:24):
All of these aspects really created a special container. And this is what we continue to work and iterate on is this concept Team Performance Training.
Daniel Scrivner (00:19:33):
So cool. So we're now going to talk through a bunch of these concepts. And again, as I said at the beginning, the goal here, at least my goal, was to approach this mostly philosophically to try to stay out of the weeds for the most part. To talk about different aspects at a pretty high level, because I think that, at least my hunch, is that a lot of people listening have probably read other productivity books, listened to some of these things. And so I think staying out of tactics, staying more philosophical is going to be helpful. So let's just dive in. One of the things I wanted to start with was talking about understanding yourself and understanding your values. And people will get a sense for where this is going in a second, but we're going to next talk about vision, and then we're going to talk about goals and try to untangle those a little bit. So it felt like the right place was maybe to start with understanding yourself and understanding your values.
Daniel Scrivner (00:20:19):
Can you one, I guess, is that the right place to start as you're thinking about where am I headed in life? Where is my vector? And then starting to work more granularly as you get to goals. And then can you talk a little bit about how you approach working with people around their values and around understanding themselves and what they want?
Chris Sparks (00:20:38):
This is a deep and rich question. Any decision point, I think, comes down to this key question of what are you optimizing for? Where I get a lot of questions of the format of I'm trying to do blank, what should I do? And I'll be like, "Well, it depends. What are you optimizing for?" And is everything to, "What city should I move to? Should I stay in my lucrative, high paying prestigious career or go on my own to start a firm or company? All these types of questions and say, "What should I do?" It's like, I don't know. What's most important to you? What are you optimizing for in your life in this decision in particular? And realizing that these two are one and the same, that if you know what's most important to you in your life, well, you've answered your own question. Just pick the option that best optimizes for this variable, whatever that is.
Chris Sparks (00:21:27):
So that's a starting point that I have with every client is trying to bring to the surface, "Right now, what's most important to you? What are you optimizing for?" And this becomes this automatic reflexive, habitual question, "What should I do next?" Well, what optimizes for that the most? And I think that's always a very logical starting point of having this clear direction to head this compass.
Daniel Scrivner (00:21:55):
I want to ask a couple of follow up questions around it, and one of the first ones that came to mind was just, how do you help people get to truth when they're talking about their values? And you have some great, maybe I'll give a nod to a couple of the exercises and Experiment Without Limits you have. But a lot of it in Experiment Without Limits is basically surfacing trade offs and forcing people to think about, yes, everything has a trade off. And so you said you want X, are you willing to do all of the things necessary to be able to do that? And so I just wanted to kind of ask at a really high level, how you help people or any tips or rules of thumb for when you feel like you've gotten to truth and you've gotten past what you're telling yourself you want, but you aren't willing to really thread that needle and do everything to really go and fulfill.
Chris Sparks (00:22:36):
I think this is almost a two parter, so first is what are you looking for? And the second is, how do you know when to stop looking or at least pause looking? Because I think this is just a continual, lifelong process of figuring out what's important to you. So if you're trying to converge on this completely a hundred percent objective truth, you're just going to be stuck in a decision forever. I think the real important part of...
Chris Sparks (00:23:03):
... ever. I think the real important part of any values, vision, goals exercises, choosing a direction to head, because once you're moving, you can always course correct along the way. So two key words that come to mind for me. First one is resonance. The second one is alignment. So resonance is just what resonates with you, and what are the moments in your life that make you feel most alive, most inspired? You look back and say, "Man, I love that I did that. That was so great. I wish I could do more of that," or you get the feedback, "Hey, hey, you're really good at this. Have you considered doing more of that?", that type of stuff. There's clearly some resonance where when you do this, things are more natural. There's more of a sense of flow.
Chris Sparks (00:23:52):
The second word, alignment, is just seeing, "Is the way that I'm living my life in alignment with my values?" The only real way to uncover this is to do things and to pay attention and to reflect on that. So I think that all progress really boils down to a sense of awareness, so having regular practices. I think of these as interfaces for self-reflection. It's like, "Is what I'm doing in alignment with what I value the most?"
Chris Sparks (00:24:25):
So this is where I introduced the one concept that is most near and dear to me in the world that you find it in the title of Experiment without Limits, which is experimentation, where a big challenge that I had early on in my life and sometimes even later in my life is being paralyzed by inaction caused by a need for perfection, so not knowing exactly what to do or how to do it, waiting on the sidelines, trying to figure things out or get inspired before moving. You get a lot more inspired and you get a lot more feedback, get a lot more dialed in on what works when you're doing things. So just start doing things and course correct along the way, and the sense of alignment is, "Are the things that you are doing, do they feel like they are moving in that right direction?" That's always a good place to start.
Daniel Scrivner (00:25:16):
I want to ask one more question, which is probably a little bit obvious, but I think it'd be useful to talk about for a few minutes, which is I think one of the reasons values are really important, and we've talked about this before, is throughout life, we have to confront that we have finite resources, both in terms of time, money, just lifespan. You could go on and on and on, which necessitates that we can only do a few things. So we have to make trade-offs, and so we need some rules of thumb or some markers to be able to help us make those trade-offs. It feels like in a lot of ways, our values are the best tool that we have to be able to think about these trade-offs and be able to make them in a way that we're going to be happy with today, but we're going to be happy with ten years from now or five years from now as we look back in time. Any notes or things to add on why values are important for making trade-offs and just around finite resources?
Chris Sparks (00:26:04):
Yeah, I think that's so well said, that all of life is trade-offs. I like to give the saying from Ray Dalio that all his life is a big buffet, but you can't eat everything at the buffet. You can't gorge yourself, so you need to give up some things that you want in order to have a shot at getting at the things that you want most. The opportunity cost is the largest cost. So values, as I say, as like a compass is our way of reconciling these trade-offs. If we say, "Hey, this is most important to me," that means that it comes first and that I am willing to give up these other things that are great, that I want, that have some use, but aren't as important to me, aren't as effective, aren't as useful, aren't as aligned.
Chris Sparks (00:26:49):
If we don't make these trade-offs upfront, we're doomed to continually ping-pong or pinball between these different values, where we optimize for this one for a while and like, "Oh, okay, well, this plate that I was spinning is starting to wobble a little bit. Okay. I'm going to move all of my attention over here. Okay. Now I've got my career in order, but my health has fallen off. Oh, I haven't seen my family in a while," and you're constantly just bouncing between these different things you're trying to value to avoid this hard decision of, "This is what's the most important. This is what comes first."
Chris Sparks (00:27:23):
So when I'm talking with a client or a friend, because sometimes I can't help myself, and we're talking about values, the easy followup question is, "Hey, you say that X is most important. In our previous conversation, I said that my key values were wisdom, integrity, adventure, in that order." The followup question is, "What does it look like for wisdom to come first in your life, before everything else? What naturally flows from that?," or another way of thinking about it is, "If wisdom is most important to you, what does that mean for you?"
Chris Sparks (00:27:58):
A lot of interesting things come from that. So one that happens often is, "Okay. Family is my most important value." Okay. Tell me some things that come naturally from that. If family comes first in your life, what are some other decisions that you might make that show that family is most important to you? That's what seems like a way to break through, where we have this just self protectionistic mechanism, which serves us in a lot of ways. It allows us to sleep, for instance, without tossing and turning all night, that just says, "Hey, I'm patting myself on the back, because what I'm doing is great." This is a way to break through in this example.
Chris Sparks (00:28:39):
I've had clients who tell me with a straight face that family is most important to them, but they work 80-hour weeks, and they don't have dinner with their family. They only see their kids when they're kissing them goodnight, and it's like, "Well, okay, no judgment here. It's okay if it's not the most important thing in your life, but there's some dissonance here. You say, 'This is the most important thing to me,' but I look at the way you spend your time, the way you direct your attention. It seems like your career is most important. Is that true, or is family actually the most important thing to you and you just can't help but overwork all the time?", just like there's no right answer here, but that allows you much more productive conversations, because I'm a third-party objective observer. I don't have any skin in the game on what is the correct thing to value, what someone should be doing with their life.
Chris Sparks (00:29:28):
But if someone says something is the most important thing to them, that gives me a lot of leeway to say, "All right. If this is the most important thing, then what does that mean you should be doing? If not, is it really the most important thing to you?" That's a really good meta point of prioritization. I think prioritization is just this so super powerful skill, and all the time I get told, "Hey, I'm not having the progress that I would like in this area. I'm not making this key hire. I'm not closing this round. I'm not building the product as quickly as I would," whatever that is. "I would like things to be moving faster, and they're not. I'm not having the progress that I would like." The first place to start is, "Show me your calendar. What are your inputs? What are you investing into this thing that you say is most important to you?"
Chris Sparks (00:30:26):
I would say 95% of the time, let's say, it's like, "Hey, I'm trying to make this really key hire." It's like, "Show me your calendar. How many interviews did you do last week? How many candidates did you reach out to?" You're like, "Oh, it's a really busy week. We had a launch, yada, yada, yada," a lot of the excuses that, "Hey, I'll get to it when it's convenient to me." It's like, "All right. Well, is this the most important thing to you or not? If hiring's not important to you, great. Keep doing all those other things. But it's interesting you keep saying hiring is the most important thing to you, but I don't see it on your schedule."
Chris Sparks (00:30:57):
That's the first thing to solve for, is don't worry about having the perfect hiring process. First, just make sure that you're investing time into it, and then the other 5% of the time, we could start to iterate on approach. It's like, "Okay, you spent 20 hours last week on hiring. You didn't talk to any good candidates. Let's look at your approach. Clearly something is not working." But everyone wants to jump to the optimization before solving for inputs.
Daniel Scrivner (00:31:20):
One of the things that came up when you were talking about family as an example is it strikes me that there can also be examples where for the most part, say that's your most important value, 80% of the time, if you look at your behavior, it's true, and it looks like your behavior reflects that family is the most important thing. But then there are little moments. I think for myself, one of the things that I have a hard time with that I feel like I'm always perpetually working on is just making sure that I actually stop working at some point in the day and fully transition to be fully present.
Daniel Scrivner (00:31:49):
So anyways, it's also just helpful. Once you know your top values, you can also then think about and ask yourself the question, "What could I be doing more?" So even if you do feel relatively good about it, it still feels like it's a chance to explore and get a little bit deeper. I want to ask just one exercise, which is just to make it tangible. For people listening, one of the exercises I know you talked about in the past I'll just maybe tee up for you is stack ranking your values and getting it down to just three. Can you talk about that exercise and why it's important?
Chris Sparks (00:32:18):
Sure. Yeah. I just didn't want to repeat myself. This is the first exercise that I recommend to a lot of people called the top values exercise, not something that we made up. We're not that clever. We've adapted from this great book called The Fifth Discipline Field Book, but we have an easy notion template where you can work through it on your own. Essentially, you start with, "Here are all the things that you value," and then you work down. "Here are my top ten. Here are my top five. Here are my top three," and at this point, people are getting really uncomfortable. It's like, "Oh, is this thing actually that important to me? Oh, I want them all. I want to do all these things."
Chris Sparks (00:32:52):
The biggest thing is you have to say, "This is my most important value," and as they say, "This is the most important," and again, that could be anything. There's no right answer to what it is. It's like in your scorecard, whatever you think is most valuable, whatever you are optimizing for, great. But once you decide, "This is most important. This is what comes first," that creates this automatic check-in, where you're saying, "All right. This is most important to me. Is my life a reflection of that? The way that I invest my time, attention, energy, is this reflective that, in my case, wisdom is the most important thing in my life?" Anytime that I recognize, because I regularly create these forced reflection moments, where I have to check in and I have a little bit of space that I have to write something and fill it in, it'd be very easy without this to say, "Okay, yeah, check the box. Wisdom's great. I'm totally living a life of wisdom." But I have to actually say, "Okay, what does it look like to live a life of wisdom right now?" Then the followup is, "Are you doing that?", like, "Huh. Maybe there are some ways that I could course correct a little bit here." This always happens. It always centers to the questions that you ask yourself, and this dissonance is so helpful.
Chris Sparks (00:34:10):
I think this is a really good transition to where we're talking about vision and how values feed into vision. Is this dissonance ... This is a source of perpetual motion, right? In physics, there is this chimera of, "If we could only build a machine that you put some energy into it and you get more energy out," right? Just an unfortunate fact of physics, there's always some heat given off due to friction.=, And the only reason that we're surviving is because we have the sun, which is just pouring a bunch of energy on us. We just spit heat back out into the universe. But generally, in physics, there's just no way to get more out of something than what you're putting in. Definitely a metaphor for life.
Chris Sparks (00:34:53):
But I have found one exception, and this is what I think about, the vision as a perpetual emotion machine. What is the fuel? The fuel is dissonance, the dissonance in that it's very difficult to hold these two irreconcilable models in your head. So think about something like for a long time, it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe, right? The sun, all the planets are just revolving around the earth. But as mathematics advanced, as the hold of the Catholic Church started to weaken, people started to say, "Huh. These equations get really, really complex if we're trying to calculate some astronomy saying that the earth is the center of the universe. It would be so much more simple i we said the sun was the center of the universe instead." This model of, "Hey, the earth is the center of the universe. Well, the math works really well if the sun's the center of the universe," at a certain point, the dissonance was too much even for the Church, and I'd say, "Okay, let's try some experiments and say that, 'Hey, the sun is the center of universe.'"
Chris Sparks (00:36:02):
In the same way, we have these two irreconcilable models. Model one is, "Here is a clear picture of where I am in this moment. This is what reality looks like. On the other hand, here's what I value. Here's what I want to accomplish with this time on the earth." Then I have these two pictures, and I put them side by side. I'm comparing them and saying, "Okay, I'm going to go on to accomplish all of these grand things. I'm going to just be all I can be, and I'm going to just value all these things all the time. Here's what I'm doing right now." It's like, "Huh, that's interesting. There's some differences between these pictures."
Chris Sparks (00:36:38):
It's like Reader Digest back in the day. They had these Spot the Difference things, where you had two different images. It was two pictures of a bedroom, and on one picture of the bedroom, there's a pair of shoes on one of the beds. In the other one, it's a pair of high heels, or one image, there's a Pink Floyd poster. In the other room, there's a Grateful Dead poster, and you have to circle the differences. In the same way, we're circling the differences between where we are now and where we want to be. So that's why creating this vision is so important, because it creates this dissonance. "This is where I want to be. This is where I am now. How can I bring these two models of the world into reconciliation so that they're equivalent?" That's what continually propels us forward.
Daniel Scrivner (00:37:27):
Yeah, and so well said. I want to go to vision next, and then we're going to spend more time on goals. With vision, I want to keep it relatively short, because I feel like it's this ambiguous, never-ending, ever-growing topic that for some people can be hard to wrap their heads around. I guess the way I wanted to ask the vision question is vision to me, at least I'll give you, I guess, my take on it, and then please push back on it and correct me.
Daniel Scrivner (00:37:51):
But my take generally is, yeah, to your point, we have reality. We have the sense of where we want to go. But I think the way I've thought about vision, at least in the most helpful sense, is either, " Here are the infinite games I want to be playing," so that it doesn't even have a time horizon. It's just, "Here are the things. Here's the buckets. Here's the pursuits that I want to be pouring myself into continuously, because I love them, because I've chosen these as things that I want to perpetually just get better and better and better at." That's one sense. So it's almost un-time-bound. Then on the flip side, I've found it extremely difficult to have a 10-year vision or a 25-year vision, at least one that feels really compelling. So it's always made me try to bring the time horizon in to a much shorter period. I'll just stop there. Okay? You jump off of there. Any corrections you might add or any thoughts you might add on how to think about vision?
Chris Sparks (00:38:39):
I like the framing of infinite game. So this is a really influential book on myself, Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse, and the whole idea is that you play an infinite game for the sake of playing, to keep the game going, and especially if you're doing something, like most things worth doing, that take a long time to succeed at, it's important to stay in the game. The way that you stay in the game is to forget that you're even playing, to just do it for its own sake. So that's a really good place to orient yourself around.
Chris Sparks (00:39:13):
For me, vision always starts with these types of prompts, with, "What am I working towards?" type prompts. I like, "What am I creating? What is my driving purpose? What is my impact?," all trying to really create a picture of that. " Who am I impacting? What type of impact on them? What are they doing differently because I existed in this world?" and using these prompts to essentially create raw material, to just get things on the page that I can start to maneuver, like the refrigerator with all the letters on it that you move to form sentences. I have all this raw material, and then I use it to create one sentence from each prompt. Then I take those sentences. Four is a good starting point, so four prompts that resonate with you. Use that to distill down to four sentences, and then combine those sentences into a paragraph, which I call your personal vision statement.
Chris Sparks (00:40:12):
The reason that this paragraph is really nice is because you have a couple opportunities to iterate it and write it in words that resonate with you. You can put it somewhere that you can see regularly, and it serves as a reminder. It's like, "Hey, this is why I'm getting out of bed in the morning. This is what's important to me. This is what I'm working towards. This is why I do the hard things that I don't want to do sometimes, is because this purpose, this why is bigger than myself." I find that really drives me forward. So it's this process of just offloading, seeing what resonates once it's on the page, and then turning it into some tangible form. It's really nice when you have it, because, again, it becomes this other compass, this thing that you continually reorient towards.
Daniel Scrivner (00:40:59):
One followup question on vision is how often people should be reviewing that or sitting with it. We're going to talk about goals and how often to be looking at goals and reflecting on goals in a moment. But with vision, obviously, this is something that it's relatively fluid, but I guess my take or what I've generally heard is you want it to be much more static than fluid. So it should be something that should feel more timeless than time-bound, at least in a sense. So I guess with that, one, do you agree with that? How fluid do you think vision is? Then how often should people be coming back to this, reflecting on it, reminding themselves of this vision?
Chris Sparks (00:41:32):
So I think it's a twofold response. The analogy or metaphor that I think here is both morning pages or daily journaling, as contrasted and complemented with a captain's log, so from Star Trek. I'm a little bit of a nerd, that, "Hey, this really big event happened. Let's sit down and unpack that, create an artifact for the future of my thinking so I can with the benefit of hindsight go back and say, 'How can my thinking be improved?,'" where the journaling every day is, "Every day is a snapshot of where I am." You never know what you're going to get, but also, there are times in your life that there's a little bit more material. It's a little bit richer in terms of experience, so using, "Hey. Wow, that was wild" or "That was unexpected," in a good or a bad way, and using that as a prompt to write about.
Chris Sparks (00:42:28):
So I would say the same type of thing. In an ideal scenario, this would be something that you return to anytime that you're stuck or unsure of what to do next, which happens fairly often these days. But the challenge that comes with this is you need this metacognition of, "Am I stuck? Maybe I feel like I know what I'm doing. I feel like things are going pretty well. Maybe I don't actually need this," and it's hard to see that type of thing from the inside. We'll tend to justify the status quo. It's like, "Oh, I don't actually don't need this reflection." So ideally, it's an as-needed type activity, but I found even personally, it can be difficult to prescribe something like this to yourself. So I recommend committing to a regular cadence, where no matter how well, how poorly things are going, this is something you can come back to, and you'll learn something new every time.
Chris Sparks (00:43:24):
For me, that cadence is every quarter, I go through this exercise. I recommend at a minimum once a year. Two good prompts for this is, "Hey, the end of the year" ... The nice thing about the end of the year is not that, "Hey, the first two weeks of the year, everything in your life is going to change, and you're going to do all those things that you didn't actually do December 31st magically on January 1st." Anyone that's been to the gym on the first week of the year knows that's not true, but both there's a turning of the page, a closing the container on the previous year, and you're starting fresh. But also, this is the time of year that you're a little bit more reflective naturally. You're probably spending time away from the office. It's just like you have a little bit more spaciousness to give this the time and thought away from your normal context that this deserves.
Chris Sparks (00:44:13):
Another one that I actually like a lot as well is your birthday, so, hey, your birthday is just a complete random day. Nothing changes on that day, other than, "Hey, I was, in my case, 34 years and 11 months, 29 days, and now I'm plus one. Hey, I turned the calendar." But it's a day that we're just naturally reflective because of this process of, "Another year around the sun. I'm a little bit, one day, older than I was before. Am I living the life that I want?" Those are two good places to start if you want to do it once a year, birthday, turn of the calendar, but really, the more the merrier.
Chris Sparks (00:44:52):
The nice thing about these exercises, again, I do them all the time. Every time I come back to them, I learn something new. I try to treat it as one of the most important things that I can do, because it reminds me of what's the most important to me. It keeps me aligned to that. Again, the worst thing in the world would be to spend my life doing a bunch of things that weren't important to me because I never took a minute to reflect. That would just be a total travesty. So yeah, that's why I really try to prioritize this type of stuff.
Daniel Scrivner (00:45:19):
I want to ask one question around the annual review. For anyone that hasn't read one of yours on Forcing Function, you actually go through the exercise of doing an annual review and then sharing it, and you post it up on the website every single year. The question that I wanted to ask is I think from the outside, looking in, people probably have two thoughts. "Well, that seems really useful. I should probably do that for myself, and also how cool that Chris has spent the time to be able to do this." The question I would ask is what do you think you've gotten from that, and how do you think about the dividends of spending the time there to actually go through that process and do it not just in a lightweight check-in, but literally, one, flagging the things that you think are notable and then just sharing a paragraph or two or writing down your thoughts and expounding a little bit?
Daniel Scrivner (00:46:03):
... a paragraph or two or writing down your thoughts and expounding a little bit on that point, what have you gotten away from the exercise of doing that each year for, I don't know, how many years you've done it now?
Chris Sparks (00:46:10):
Oh yeah, I did my first one 2016, so going on year six and continually iterate on that process. But again, don't try to perfect a process. The reason that I put the template out is not because, hey, I've perfected this, do exactly this. Is that it's a lot easier to follow some instructions rather than to like, oh, how do I do this? What do I do with my hands, type of thing when you're trying to sit down to do a review.
Chris Sparks (00:46:36):
We open source the quarterly review, as well as the annual review. You can find those to download for free on our website. And we offer twice-a-year workshops where we walk you through it. Part of this workshop is literally setting a timer and say, "Hey, five minutes, write about this." Or, "Okay, we're going to watch you do it for five minutes." Not watch you. I'm doing it along with you. I actually do the reviews along with everyone as part of my forcing function to do it and to experience it. But people find that really valuable to do it as part of a group setting because they can reflect afterwards and make sure that you actually do it, as well as we can share some best practices for getting the most out of the exercise.
Chris Sparks (00:47:11):
As far as the biggest things that come out of it, for me, I would say on the micro level, any opportunity to just turn the mirror on myself and say, "Hey, what are the things that are working right now? What are the things that are not working? What am I learning?" And then just having the space and the freedom to say, "Oh well, is there anything that I could do to make things go a little bit better or to put these lessons into practice?" And I really think of it as creating this space.
Chris Sparks (00:47:44):
Things could be super micro in terms of how do I change my habits or here's something that I could do to talk about myself in a way that resonates with people or what have you. Just you never know what's going to come up, but there's a lot of gold there if you create that space for things to come up. Which is really, "Hey, I'm going to sit here and just write whatever comes to mind. I'm not going to judge it, and I can decide whether I want to take action on any of this later."
Chris Sparks (00:48:11):
Or thinking about the annual review specifically, I think of it as just a continual process of reinvention where every year I emerge from the cocoon and I can decide what species of butterfly I want to be this year. That depending on what I've decided that I value, what my vision is, it's going to require being a completely different person. And this is almost like leaving all of that identity baggage behind in the past year. I've put it in a Mason jar, I've sealed it, and I've thrown it into the archives in the basement and say, "All right, I've start completely fresh. I can do literally whatever I want. What would I like to do?" And once I've decided what I want to do, how can I best do that?
Chris Sparks (00:49:00):
I like to use an investment metaphor here is where people go wrong a lot of times when it comes to an annual review, and I've seen a lot of them over the years, is that their plan for the next year is usually some form of, I'm going to do exactly what I did last year, only 20% more of everything. So I'm going to bench press 20% more. I'm going to put out 20% more articles. I'm going to sell 20% more of my product, and all of these 20 percents are just going to magically come out of all of these new productivity gains that I'm going to have at the start of the year, because I had all this excess capacity just waiting to be inspired.
Chris Sparks (00:49:41):
And that's just a recipe for disappointment. Not only because, hey, all that time that's going to take to reach the next level and things is going to have to come from somewhere. In order to pick something up, you have to put something else down. But also it's really punting on this golden opportunity to say, "All these things you're doing, you don't need to be doing any of them." So this investment analogy is instead of saying, "Hey, do I want a little bit of more of this or a little bit less of that," is what if you sold every investment that you had and you just had a pile of money sitting in front of you, where would you put that money?
Chris Sparks (00:50:19):
Same thing here. It's like your schedule for the next year is completely clear, you have no obligations whatsoever within reason, of course, how do you want to spend that time? And operating from that complete blank slate allows for just so much more creativity and acknowledgement that you have the power to choose. A lot of these constraints are self-imposed. So that's why I find it such a valuable exercise, it allows me to just completely reinvent myself every year.
Daniel Scrivner (00:50:48):
Just two things I would add on is, as you were talking about that investment analogy, it reminds me of a term I haven't actually thought of in quite a while, but just this idea of re-underwriting your investments. So when you make an investment especially, this is very common obviously in public markets where you have the ability to be able to get in, and at any point in time, you can exit the position. And a lot of people have trouble with when do you exit and how do you exit, and when's the right timing. And so one of the approaches there is rather than just checking in and saying, "Do we want to keep the position," doing the inverse exercise where you actually say, "Let's pretend we didn't have this position and let's re-underwrite it and we have to go from a no to a yes, as opposed from a yes to another yes," which is obviously a very low hurdle to be able to go over. It makes me think of that analogy, maybe that's helpful for people.
Daniel Scrivner (00:51:31):
And then the other one is just, in Experiment Without Limits, one of the things you talk about a lot is flywheels. And it feels like reflection is a really important part of the flywheel. Where every single year, to some degree, we're saying either explicitly or implicitly, "Here's what I want to go." You need an end to that where you then reflect on how did that go, and then decide how to allocate your resources. So it just seems like a very helpful, I don't know, tie into this idea of having a feedback loop in what you're doing.
Chris Sparks (00:52:00):
Absolutely. That's such a great connection is reflection closes the loop. So the loop that I think about in my life, I call the improvement loop, which is at any moment in time and any dimension of my life or career, I'm always doing one of three things, planning, experimenting, or reflecting. So planning, I decide what I'm going to do and how I'm going to do it. Experimenting, I try things, I take action, and I track to see what's working and what's not working. And then after that, at pre-selected intervals, I take a step back and say, "Okay, what did I learn? How did that go? How can I implement those lessons into the plan next time?"
Chris Sparks (00:52:42):
And the key is to reduce that cycle time so that you're going through that loop faster and faster. And that what I see is the real secret to those who have a very accelerated trajectory is that they have a very quick iteration speed in that they're taking in new lessons and feedback and implementing it into new experiments very quickly so they're able to take more shots on goal, shoot their shot more often, have more experiments that are running. The more things that you try, the more likely you are to stumble on something that works. So at all things being equal, optimized for quantity.
Chris Sparks (00:53:17):
And I find that reflection, a lot of people think, "Hey, if I slow down, I won't be able to move as fast." Well it's like, no, if you slow down, you will find more ways to move faster in the right direction by doing things most effectively. It's one of those classic examples how slowing down actually accelerates you. And I can't speak enough about the power of reflection. I think of it as the speed limit on growth.
Daniel Scrivner (00:53:44):
It's a fascinating way to reframe it as opposed to it's a speed bump because I have to slow down to reflect. Where no, it's actually not that at all. It's reflection actually is what allows you to move even faster in the right directions, which again goes back to trade offs and all of those things.
Daniel Scrivner (00:53:58):
I want to talk for a second about goals. And there's a couple things here, but one of the things I wanted to add is there's a couple prompts you have in the book. And you have this framework of when setting goals, you talk about a lot of the best principles, like setting SMART goals, S-M-A-R-T goals, which people may have heard of before. But you also have stuff that's relatively novel around minimizing opportunity cost and maximizing expected value.
Daniel Scrivner (00:54:22):
And one of the questions I really liked that maybe I'll just wing out and you can jump in and maybe build off of it or talk about goals. But one of them I had never read before, and when I read this, I was like, "This is great," because I feel like anyone that asks themselves this question will probably have a somewhat surprising answer is pretend you are the protagonist in a novel you're reading. Fill in the blank, why don't you just do blank already? Which I feel like is an example of just a really powerful question. Anything to build off of that or things to add around goals and how that's separate and distinct from vision?
Chris Sparks (00:54:51):
Sure. Again, with Experiment Without Limits, team performance training, all the work that we do, we're trying to teach people how to fish rather than giving them the fish. And one of these extremely valuable meta skills in life is to be able to have some level of objectivity about which resists objectivity, which is yourself.
Chris Sparks (00:55:16):
So this exercise is one of a couple that we love to share to take on the outside view. So this is the well-known phenomenon that it's so much easier to give a friend advice than it is to give yourself advice. That things are so obvious from the outside because you don't have all of that emotional identity baggage attached of, oh, well I can't do that. Or, oh, that would never work. Or, oh, I don't know. All these types of boxes that we put ourselves in artificially. Well, you remove all that and say, "Well, if you weren't involved at all, what would be that obvious action?"
Chris Sparks (00:56:04):
And inevitably there's a flash of insight where it's like, oh, and immediately our instinct is to recoil, right? It's like we've just pierced the veil of ignorance and all we want to do is shrink away and we start coming up with excuses. The one that came up for me is I need to be spending more time planning my day. Part of this is I eat my own dog food, but I think the planning is just so high leverage. And I just got back from Europe and my habits took a backseat because, hey, I didn't need to plan my day as much when my day consisted of, hey, go see some art in some museums. But now that I'm back on the grind in launch mode, planning my day is super high leverage. So I immediately started to have some hesitations that started flash up as like, oh, you know how to do all this stuff. You've done this before. You already know what you're doing. And you'll notice this is after that flash of insight will be this just flood of excuses and why that obvious advice does not apply to you.
Chris Sparks (00:57:08):
So that's my meta advice on this is to try to sit in that insight, trust that first response and just entertain it for a while. It doesn't need to be something that you commit to and say, "Hey, if this were true, what else is true? What would it look like if I tried this for a month or even a few days," and be curious about what happens. There's a lot of power in that because you remove yourself as the bottleneck by being able to coach yourself, in essence, by being able to give yourself that obvious advice where you could take advantage of all of your experience and context and shed all of that unnecessary baggage.
Daniel Scrivner (00:57:51):
What you described as having that flash of insight and then that sensation of recoiling is exactly what I felt looking at those questions. So I love that you, one, I guess, had the insight of what was happening there and then were able to thread that needle because I do think it's very powerful and it says a lot about human nature and how, in a lot of ways, we can be our own worst enemy.
Daniel Scrivner (00:58:09):
I'd love to just wrap this up maybe with one other question. And it's talking about in Experiment Without Limits, what I thought was really powerful is that prompt, which I encourage everyone to answer, which is, again, just pretend you are the protagonist in a novel you're reading. Fill in the blank, why don't you just do blank already? I would sit with that question if you haven't because I think it's very powerful. But then you go onto this other piece that I thought was novel of making sure that goals do two things, which is they should minimize opportunity costs and they should maximize expected value.
Daniel Scrivner (00:58:38):
And the questions really quickly are, one's a question, one's more of a rule of thumb. Is for minimizing opportunity costs, asking yourself the question, what would you have to give up to pursue this goal? Is the sacrificed worth it? Which again, in my mind, is we all have these wonderful flowery ideas, we need to get to truth and understand if we're actually going to execute and make the hard decisions necessary in order to realize this thing. And it's applies to everything.
Daniel Scrivner (00:59:00):
And then the other one around maximizing expected value is to measure or estimate the impact of your goals, both near-term in 90 days and long-term in 10 years. And I thought that lens, that kind of focal depth of looking super short-term and thinking about the impact and then zooming out and thinking long-term is just a great acid test. Anything to add to that or any philosophy to share around why it's important to minimize opportunity cost and maximize expected value?
Chris Sparks (00:59:27):
Recency bias. I can help, but go to a recent podcast conversation I had with my friend, David Eldar, who was the World Scrabble Champion. And I asked him, "Hey, if I wanted to become World Scrabble Champion, what would I need to do?" And he said, essentially, paraphrasing, "Lock yourself in a room for a few years and study words that don't have any actual application to real life." And I was like, "Well, that doesn't sound very fun." I was like, "Well, becoming World Champion of Scrabble, most of the time, is not very fun. And if you decide this is something that you're going to want to do, you should understand what you're getting into because if you don't have a full appreciation for what this goal requires, you're going to be worse off than when you started because you're going to put a lot of effort into something that you don't have any returns from because you don't stick with it long enough to reach a point of having an artifact, of having something that works for you."
Chris Sparks (01:00:28):
That's a real important part of goal setting, not the first step. The first step is always like pie in the sky, what are all the things I might like to do? But before you commit to something, even though you're not fully committing to it, you could say, "Hey, I'm an experiment with this for a month as if this is the most important thing to me. And after a month I can say, 'Do I want to double down all that experiment or stop?'" But before you spend a month on this thing, at least take a few minutes to think about if you want to spend a few years on it. You might not be 100% sure. But if you come up with the answer like, "Oh, no way. I definitely don't want to do that," well, you're in for a world of trouble.
Chris Sparks (01:01:07):
I'll give another example, is I have friends who, now after they've made it 15 years later, are a pretty well-known touring band. But I toured with them very much in their early days where we're driving around in a really crappy van with hundreds of thousands of miles on it that broke down all the time. And we're sleeping on people's floors who we met at the gig and our meals consisted of beer and pizza. And everyone wants to be on the main stage of Coachella playing to 100,000 screaming fans, but not many people are willing to spend 15 years traveling around in a crappy van, eating pizza and drinking beer.
Chris Sparks (01:01:50):
And hey, it might not take you 15 years, but you should at least think about, hey, am I willing to do what it takes to reach this goal? And hey, you can be a musician for the love of it and you can decide, hey, I want to play smaller gigs. I want to have more balance. I want to specialize in playing different events. You don't need to set your sites on the top. But wherever you decide, be aware of those trade-offs. Go in eyes wide open. Because again, if you know what to expect when these inevitable obstacles, hardships come up along the way, you'll expect them. You'll anticipate them. You'll be ready for them rather than seeing them as a threat or a brick wall that's like, oh okay, I guess I just wasn't meant to do this thing. I guess I'm just not going to make it. Well, no, you knew this was coming, so go in there eyes wide open.
Daniel Scrivner (01:02:42):
It's a little bit of a weird tangent, but it makes me think of, I won't say the quote, but there's this idea that any goal that you have starts with a valley of tears. It starts off with a lot of hard decisions. A lot of hard works in order to, inevitably at some point in time that's indeterminate, arrive at this goal in the future. And so I think that question, that acid test of if you're interested in experimenting with it for a short period of time, make sure that you're interested in doing it over the long haul just to make sure whether it's even worth doing it in the short period of time. Because I think a lot of people have, just as humans, it's very difficult for us to truly think long-term and truly make decisions over the long-term, and so I think it's just a really helpful beneficial acid test.
Daniel Scrivner (01:03:23):
I want to move on and talk about thinking in systems and ask a couple of follow-up questions. But where I wanted to start is just if you could talk about why systems are important and what are systems a cure for? Meaning why should someone move to a systematic approach and what is that solving for? What is maybe the opposite of a systematic approach or a systems approach?
Chris Sparks (01:03:47):
Man, this is a very intricate question. High-level, when I talk about systems, I am meaning how can I make the things that I want to do easier to do? And there's so much to unpack there. But just understanding that everything is a system, meaning it has interlocking, interrelated parts, and the output of those parts cannot be predicted from the parts itself. We call this emergent behavior.
Chris Sparks (01:04:20):
So what I'm trying to do was, essentially, anything I'm going from input to output, and there's a big black box in the middle, is how can I make it more likely that I get out at the other end what I want, that path is the fastest along the way, minimize surprise, minimize defects, minimize delays? So viewing things as a system, it's essentially, hey, I want this. I want to make this type of widget. I want to have this type of behavior. I want to have this type of outcome. And essentially deconstructing that to say, "Well, how can I make that outcome more likely?"
Chris Sparks (01:05:02):
Not that I can get it down to cause and effect. Not to get philosophical, but I don't think true cause and effect actually exists. The universe is just this big black box of emergent behavior. But what we can do is identify conditions that correlate with outcomes that we want. Which is essentially saying that, "Hey, I notice that when I do this thing on the input side, this other thing happens." We can have systems that we have very high confidence in. Say an example, "Hey, when I do a lot of bench press, my chest muscles get stronger." All right, I believe that I have this input doing bench press, my chest will get stronger. I don't exactly understand the exact mechanisms of how that happens, but I don't need to. I know if I do this, sooner or later on the other end I'm going to get out what I want. And that's really the approach is if you're looking at things systematically, what are the things that I can do so that my inputs will match my desired outputs at the other end?
Daniel Scrivner (01:06:09):
It seems like maybe another way to frame it is systems are focused on how to improve the reliability of the outcome. And, I guess, maybe the opposite of a system is you're not asking yourself that question, you're just throwing as many darts as you can at the target to try to maybe someday hit that goal. And so a system is just being more thoughtful and more rigorous about how you might get there. And it's almost like doing the downside mitigation exercise on that approach.
Chris Sparks (01:06:35):
Daniel Scrivner (01:06:36):
On that, and I don't know if this is a perfect analogy, it's the right time to kind of transition to this, but one of the ideas that you have around systems, and I guess maybe I'll share where I'm coming at systems from. When I think about systems, I think the best description I've ever heard is Ray Dalio in Principles talking about building a machine. It's like a system is a machine for generating desired outcomes. So you're taking these kind of tasks, and that machine could be processes and decisions that you're turning into algorithms and those algorithms are basically what the system is being able to do there.
Daniel Scrivner (01:07:08):
But when I think of habits and routines, those are kind of systems to me at least as well, too. Where I've thought about my day systematically, I'm trying to have components of that day that optimized for success. And one of the things that, and I think partly this is how I'm wired where naturally my background, I'm creative by background, and so I think whenever I have systems being minimum viable or minimum effective dose of systems is very helpful for me. And you have this notion of robust systems are actually fragile systems. Can you talk about how you think about a system's fragility and just kind of expound on that because I think it's a really powerful idea and lens?
Chris Sparks (01:07:46):
Yeah. Simply put, simple systems minimize downtime. So what we're trying to optimize for is the system to be functioning correctly as often as possible. If you think about this like a assembly line on a factory floor, that's a very easy example because you're going from raw materials at one end to finish goods at the other, trying to minimize the number of things that could cause the whole assembly line to stop. So if the simpler we keep things, the more failure modes we remove, the more scenarios that allow for the system to function as it should where the input makes it through all of the linear composite steps to the other side.
Chris Sparks (01:08:37):
And again, because we're optimizing for long-term compounding, it becomes really costly for systems to fall off completely because we have to restart and rebuild. So this is just a general rule of thumb in everything is just to, instead of be adding on, adding on, building, is just to strip away all the things that are unnecessary.
Chris Sparks (01:09:03):
... is just to strip away all the things that are unnecessary. I like this analogy of when you're writing, you send it to someone to get feedback and you say, "Hey, what are the parts that you found most interesting? What do you want to hear more about?" And they're going to tell you about 20% of the piece, and then you literally strip away the other 80% and then take the 20% and make it the 100%. And that's the approach that everyone to recommend is like, "Hey, you're doing a weekly review," or, "You're doing your planning in the morning," or, "You're doing your exercises, your stretches," or, "You have a process for hiring or for going on a podcast," all this type of stuff, is to just take the most effective 20% and zoom in on that, because that's the part that's showing so much return.
Chris Sparks (01:09:51):
I bet you could find even more return if you zoom in on that. So, that's where we talked about, "Hey, what's the thing that people find most surprising about me and my systems? Because I like to think I try to do everything systematically, which is just a way of saying I'm constantly iterating and looking for ways that things that I'm doing could be made easier, streamlined, made the process become better, is that everything is really stripped down and simple. And it's not that I'm simple or I don't know how to do all of the really complicated, super complex ways. But I found that a lot of the aspects of the complicated complex system just wasn't showing the return necessary for the maintenance to keep that part of the system running.
Chris Sparks (01:10:42):
So, I just took that step out of the assembly line and said, "Hey, that's useful, but it's not useful enough to keep having to go in there and repair that step. So, let's simplify." And that's what I think is really powerful, is continuing to strip down and simplify. And that's a really key lesson in systems, is things automatically improve over time with iteration if you keep things moving, keep things working. So, if you can solve for that, the system will optimize itself. But don't try to optimize it up front, because you're going to optimize the wrong parts.
Daniel Scrivner (01:11:22):
I want to double click and talk about maintenance a little bit more. And then I'm going to go around and ask a couple philosophical questions that were bubbling up as I was preparing for this to close out. But I want to talk about maintenance because it's something I've been thinking about over the last couple of years, and maybe I'll try to string together a couple things and I'd love for you to add onto that. But I think one of the ways I started realizing in thinking about this, I think the role that maintenance plays and how important it is and also how under-discussed it is, is I'll give a couple of analogies. If you think about technical debt or design debt, what that really is is basically saying, "We have not maintained. We have not done the maintenance that we should have done on this code base for a period of time. Now it's built up to the degree that it's painful and it's scary. So, now we need to take a prolonged period of time and try to actually address these issues because they just can't go on." And even just through that simple analogy, you start to see that there's the work to create something. And then for everything you create, there's this stream of maintenance that's like the negative dividends, which you have to pay on what you created over time. And then there's the other analogy of anytime you go to a hotel, a lot of what, at least I react to, again, we've talked this in the past, but I am a designer by background. So, I always have this flywheel going in my brain of what's off, what's not working well. And oftentimes what I'm noticing is stuff that's just lack of maintenance.
Daniel Scrivner (01:12:39):
Like, "The paint's peeling off here. This isn't happening here." And what you realize if you stay at really nice hotels, is that they almost over-index on maintenance. They're always doing maintenance on all aspects of the property. The same thing can be true if you look at a yacht or a super ship and you look at what the team's doing. 80%, 90% of what they're doing is just maintenance to keep the ship pristine and up and running and looking great and looking beautiful. And so anyways, these are a couple clues in my mind that have been bubbling around about just that maintenance is under-discussed and it plays a much bigger role than I think a lot of people think it does in just work and getting stuff to be great. Anything to add to that? We've already talked about that you should try to strip out complexity, simplify maintenance. Anything else to add?
Chris Sparks (01:13:20):
Yeah. In physics there's a concept of entropy, which is essentially disorder that the universe converges towards entropy over time. We're talking about, hey, energy is neither created nor destroyed. Everything goes to heat and at a certain point, our entire planet's just going to have a heat death where we just get taken over by disorder and entropy, that this is just the natural state of things. Like things get dusty. Things rust. And the implications for a company is that the more things that you're working on, the more features that you have, the more complex your company infrastructure is, more dimensions, more surface area that you need to maintain, right? The equivalent of taking off the dust and the rust and the technical debt just to keep things functioning so that they don't break. And as anyone who's worked in a large company knows that everything just becomes intertwined, and no one quite remembers how things worked in the beginning.
Chris Sparks (01:14:28):
Because everything is just held together by duct tape and you're afraid to touch everything. And what this means is that a larger and larger percentage of resources need to be dedicated to just keeping things as they are, to be like warriors in the never ending battle against entropy and just trying to hold the line. But a lot of people stop with their analysis there. It's like, "Oh, we're putting all these resources just to maintain our position of where we're at." But there's a really insidious, hidden cost of that is because everything is complex and there's so many things that are occupying our resources and attention, it makes it that much harder to move in new directions, to add new features, to pivot when we're receiving new feedback that, "Hey, this is a really big opportunity. We should be exploring that." And you see this so many times in company history where the equivalent of Xerox sitting on the computer or IBM sitting on the operating system and they just have too many lucrative things that they're maintaining to pivot to this new thing that may not pan out.
Chris Sparks (01:15:45):
So, we see this on the company level that the real cost of complexity is, as things change and they're going to change very rapidly moving forward, particularly in the company's early stages, it makes you less adaptable and it makes it harder for you to change and respond to feedback. I want to really nest in an idea here, one of the core ideas for me, is an OODA loop, which is that the way that you win in a competitive environment is your ability to reorient faster to changing conditions. And if you're constantly maintaining all of your fronts of battle, that makes it really hard to reorient when you're getting clear signs that, "Hey, the enemy's at your rear. Perhaps you should turn around." So, that's the real rub of entropy is that complexity. Not only do you have to maintain, but it makes it harder to pivot. And you could see how this operates on the personal level as well.
Chris Sparks (01:16:43):
The more projects that you have going, the less attention that you have for each individual project, the harder it is to walk away from one of those project when you receive an opportunity which could be even better. So, that's why all things being equal rather than adding on, I'm always trying to ask someone, "What don't you need to do?" I think that's something that really surprises anyone who takes team performance training or works with me one-on-one. They come in here and their incoming goals are always, "Oh, I want to be working more. In addition to this full-time job, I also want to be starting this billion dollar company on the side." And without a doubt, every single person that I work with ends up doing less. Not getting less things done, but doing fewer things. And this is what I think about as maximizing attention.
Chris Sparks (01:17:37):
You want it to be like a laser rather than diffuse pointing in all these different directions, is that you're doing fewer things of higher average importance. And the way that you do that is the things you're doing quickly, they're simple, they're modular. You can drop them and pick them back up at a day's notice. It makes you very nimble and easy to always be doing what you think is your best opportunity presented to you.
Daniel Scrivner (01:18:04):
I want to ask one more question on that. There's a Vanity Fair interview. We'll link to it in the show notes at outlieracademy.com. But it's with Jony Ive. It's from a number of years ago. It was asking about focus and he gave this wonderful answer that I won't try to paraphrase here, but the gist of it, or at least what I took away, is that when you're doing focus right, it actually should be painful. You have to be saying no to things that you actually desperately want to do.
Daniel Scrivner (01:18:27):
And I think, at least in my experience, that's the rub, is it's not saying no to the easy things. It's not having the sacrificial things you don't really want to do that you're like, "Ah, I'm not going to do that." It's having the things you desperately want to do that you're purposefully and intentionally deciding not to do now. And so the question I wanted to ask is, do you have any questions that you ask and/or if you had a client that came to you and had trouble killing off things because they actually like all of them, how do you go about working with them to make some of those hard, painful decisions?
Chris Sparks (01:18:59):
Killing the darlings. Putting something down. I frame it in the same way as an experiment. So, "Hey, what would it look like to do a little bit less of this thing?" And to just try it and to see what happens. I think that there's no such thing as a failed experiment. So, it allows you to be curious about it. And you don't need to decide, "Hey, I need to do this thing less or I shouldn't be doing this thing at all." It's just like, "Hey, let's try not doing it or doing less of it for a while and see what happens." And when you're framing it to someone or framing an experiment to yourself, you're trying to create conditions that feel safe, where you feel like you have nothing to lose because you really don't. You're going to learn something no matter what happens.
Chris Sparks (01:19:51):
And a lot of the experiments that I do, I like, "Hey, I should keep doing that actually. There was a good reason that I was doing that." And I was like, "Well, okay, now I have more conviction on it. I can move faster. I don't need to doubt myself as much because I validate that assumption. And that allows me to move faster. That's a great result." Or the opposite result is, "Hey, this thing that I was doing that I thought I had to do, I actually don't need to do that anymore. Awesome. I don't want to do things that I don't have to do. I can redirect that attention to things that I enjoy more that are going to have a greater impact." So, that's always the way that I frame it is, what's something that you can try as an experiment that no matter what happens, you'll learn something from the experience.
Daniel Scrivner (01:20:37):
Yeah. I mean, that seems like a powerful secret, is just to make it non-threatening, is to frame it as an experiment. It seems like this master power there. So, this is one of the rare interviews where even an hour and 20 minutes in, I've got 50 other topics I would love to talk to you about, Chris. So, I would love to have you on maybe in two years, hopefully sooner, again to continue the conversation. But I want to end by talking about the flip side of productivity, which is something you and I have talked about before. And you talked about this in our previous interview on 20 Minute Playbook and the way that I've thought about it in my mind, and this goes back to a little bit of your definition of productivity versus peak performance, is with productivity I think there's this notion just literally from the definition of the word that it's about doing more, which means you should probably explore less, you don't need inspiration, you don't need to focus on renewing yourself, just do more, just work longer.
Daniel Scrivner (01:21:25):
How do you work longer hours? You don't need to sleep eight hours. Sleep six hours. And on the flip side then is the total opposite where it's actually disconnecting. You're focusing on renewal. You're actually getting inspiration. You're leaning into indulgence. You're doing exploration. Talk about that and I guess the ways that you've seen that play a really powerful role in helping people perform at their best and probably actually be more productive.
Chris Sparks (01:21:47):
Sure. I'll share a brief founding philosophy and then give an example. So, a lot of people, when they're trying to think about how to maximize their time in particular, but I think this is applicable to attention and energy as well, they think, "Hey, I want to get more done in less time." And there's three dimensions to attack this. So, you can, "Hey, you can just work more hours." Like you said, forego sleep, forego seeing your family and friends, sacrifice your health. And you can redline a little bit for a while, but sooner or later those costs are going to come home. And I've worked with a lot of really successful people, and I have to this day never seen anyone who gets more than four hours of work done in a day. Now, a lot of people work for more than four hours, but as far as like minute by minute, summing up those minutes as far as intense, single pointed focus on one activity, I haven't seen anyone sustain that for more than four hours.
Chris Sparks (01:22:53):
So, I think the amount of actual work that we can do is pretty capped. And beyond that point, you're making some really costly sacrifices that mean that, hey, you're not going to be able to focus as well. You're not going to have that same level of energy. You're going to be sacrificing things in your life that are really important that allow you to recover, that give you ideas, some of those little moments that remind you why you're on this planet in the first place, things that really matter. So, okay. Let's remove that one trying to work more hours. Just assume that you only have so many.
Chris Sparks (01:23:29):
The other one is like, "Well, I want to be more efficient." And this is where all of the productivity porn comes into play of, "All right. I want to maximize my typing speed and I want to..." Oh man, I can't even remember some of these anymore because it's been so long since I've tried them. Yeah. "I want to speed read. Man, if I could speed read, I could read a couple hundred books a year." Don't even get me started on that. You think, "Hey, the goal isn't to finish the book. The goal is to spend time with ideas and apply them."
Daniel Scrivner (01:24:02):
And put it into use. Yeah, exactly.
Chris Sparks (01:24:04):
Put it into use. And perhaps moving quickly isn't in most service of that. So, after a little bit of while, people go through this gateway of productivity as entertainment and realize, "Hey, there are real limits on efficiency." There's some early, low hanging fruit, but at a certain point you just can't squeeze anymore out of that apple. So, this leads us to door number three, which is where I like to spend the majority of my time when I work with the client. Rather than thinking about these tactics and how they can work harder, is are you working on the right things? So, this comes back to some of the questions we've been asking today is, what do you value? What are you optimizing for in your life? What is your vision? What are you trying to create? Your goals? If you work backward from that vision, what are the steps that you think are going to take you there?
Chris Sparks (01:24:59):
Attention. What is relevant to achieving your goals? How do you pay attention to that? And then prioritization. Now that you understand what's most important to you, how do you make sure that that happens consistently and comes first? The classic important and non-urgent before the important and urgent. And all the other stuff in my mind is last mile. As in, you're getting 99% of the way there just by returning to this question of what should I be doing and how do I make sure that I do those right things? So, that's something that I've seen over the years is, that's why I pay so much attention and invest so much in my systems of planning and reflection. Now, you asked about an example from a top performer and I don't think he'd mind using him as example.
Chris Sparks (01:25:50):
I lived for five years and I was in New York with one of the top pianists in the world. His name is Eric Lewis and is just an absolute phenom. When you see him perform, I say it's like a hurricane or a typhoon came into the room and just had its way with the piano. It is just something to witness, just this unleashing of energy. And if you're operating on a one to 10 scale in terms of just the level of intensity that he is bringing to a performance, it is off the charts beyond a 10. And people see him when he is performing and man, what's it like to live with someone like this who just has just such depths of energy and emotion that he's able to unleash? We were talking about this previously. If you're able to shadow someone for a day, what is it actually like?
Chris Sparks (01:26:52):
It's like, you'd actually be surprised is that he is only operating at this 10+ when he's performing. He knows how to access it on demand, but you don't want to be at that state all the time. The vast majority of the time he is recovering from performances, preparing for performances, or doing some form of deliberate practice and study to make himself better. And a lot of the time he's operating at a one or a two or a three, very low capacity, because you can't be at that level all the time. But where I see a lot of people go wrong is that they're operating at this anxious seven all the time. They can't access these levels of just ultra top performance when they really need it. And when there's no need for it, when they're just chilling, they can't turn it off.
Chris Sparks (01:27:49):
So, this idea of the sprint rest cycle I think is really critical, is maximizing your engine's capacity, that when you're at the starting line and you're going from zero to 60, you can do it. You can totally unleash and sprint as fast as you can. But as soon as you don't need to sprint, rest and recover. And a lot of people don't appreciate those because things like going and hanging out by a body of water or going for a long walk, they don't feel like productive activities. But this recovery replenishes the well that allows you to perform. So, yeah, that's something I think that a lot of people don't appreciate about performance, is that it's not just like the part above the surface that you see, the final result, the big presentation, the really impressive performance. It's all the preparation and recovery that goes into that.
Daniel Scrivner (01:28:49):
So well said. I mean, there's so many gyms just in the last couple of minutes. I feel like I'm going to be definitely thinking about the operating at a two and then a 10+, as opposed to remaining at an anxious seven. I feel like an anxious seven is such a great encapsulation of, honestly I think, my state a lot of the time, I'm sure a lot of people listening's state a lot of the time, is just to remain there and to not have the ability to ebb and flow and go back and forth. This has been so much fun, Chris. Thank you so much for coming back on two years later after it all started. I really appreciate the time.
Chris Sparks (01:29:18):
I appreciate you. I appreciate the time, the attention that you bring to this podcast, the wonderful guests that you bring on, the opportunity to come back. Happy anniversary, and I would love to help you celebrate anniversary number three if this is of interest. I would love to hear those other 50 questions.
Daniel Scrivner (01:29:34):
Let's do it one year from now. Thank you so much, Chris. Thank you so much for listening. You can find the show notes and text transcript for this episode at outlieracademy.com/133. That's outlieracademy.com/133. You can learn more about Chris's team performance training at teamperformancetraining.com. You can learn more about forcing function at forcingfunction.com. And you can follow Chris on Twitter at sparksremarks. At outlieracademy.com you can find all of our other outlier thinker interviews, profiling incredible people like Wired founder Kevin Kelly in his latest book, Vanishing Asia; famed Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge and his books Silence: In the Age of Noise and Philosophy for Polar Explorers; Impact with Sir Ronald Cohen, and so much more.
Daniel Scrivner (01:30:22):
In every interview we deconstruct the ideas, frameworks and strategies from their books, careers, and work. You can find videos of all of our interviews on YouTube at youtube.com/outlieracademy. On our channel you'll find all of our full length interviews as well as our favorite short clips from every single episode, including this one. So, make sure to subscribe. We post new videos and clips every single week. And if you haven't already, make sure to follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and anywhere online at outlieracademy. Thank you so much for listening. We'll see you right here with a brand new episode next Wednesday.
On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today.
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