Every time I speak on a podcast, sit on a panel, or present at a conference, I tell a quick story about my teenage years as one of the highest-ranked World of Warcraft players in North America.
The reason I tell this story is because, first of all, it’s not what the audience is expecting.
I don’t “look” like the stereotypical hardcore gamer (at least, not anymore). People always laugh, and find it funny that I would be willing to publicly admit my teenage obsession.
But second, and the real reason I like sharing this story is because it provides context to all of the lessons I share immediately after it.
Gaming taught me to see life as a game — and myself as the main character.
Over the course of my 28 modest years on earth, I’ve learned time and time again that “success” and “achievement” is the product of a small handful of actions:
- How you spend your time (the # of hours you accumulate toward a given skill)
- Who you spend your time with (the quality of your hours)
- Where you spend your time (the # of skills you try to master all at once, or master at all)
- Why you spend your time the way you do (what motivates you)
The vast majority of people go their entire lives without becoming aware of these 4 variables. They never once question how they spend their time — instead, they float mindlessly from activity to activity. They don’t deliberately choose their friends, or their “community of people.” They don’t examine their actions and question the efficiency of their habits. And most of all, they don’t take the time (or make the effort) to understand why they make the choices they do.
As a result, they do not ride the waves of life.
Instead, they flail as the waves toss them around.
I wish more people knew these 5 things about the game of life — and how it’s played.
1. Action is your engine. Reflection is your fuel gauge.
“You are what you do tonight, not what you see in your mind. I learned this lesson in time.” — Journal
When it comes to becoming the person you want to be (or know you have the potential of becoming), the only thing that matters is action.
If you’re not doing the thing you know you need to do, or say you want to do, or should do, then no amount of reflecting, or imagining, or brainstorming, or planning, or questioning is going to help you get there. Reflection comes secondary to action — otherwise, what is there to reflect on?
A metaphor that comes to mind is the way clay is sculpted. In order to create a bowl, you have to press a pedal with your foot to get the table spinning. Once the table starts spinning, and your hands start to slowly wrap around the piece of clay, you can begin to apply pressure and carve out the shape of a bowl. But until you press on that pedal, and until the table starts spinning, no amount of planning is going to make that piece of sloppy clay turn into a beautiful bowl.
Stop planning. Start moving.
2. People hear your heart first, and your words second.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that your style is who you are. This is my voice, I’m naked. Please don’t shame me.” — Journal
I had a lot of social anxiety as a kid.
A while ago, I wrote this story on Quora about how I taught myself how to be more social by starting conversations with people in the elevator of my college apartment building. The story ended up going viral — apparently I wasn’t the only one who had trouble making friends.
Today, I’m the founder of a company called Digital Press
From the moment I wake up, to the moment I go to sleep, I’m socializing with people. It’s not uncommon for me to spend 10 hours in a day either talking on the phone.
I share this contrast because it shows two things. First, yes it’s possible to change very fundamental aspects of who you are. But second, I remember one of the biggest reasons I felt socially anxious as a kid was because I feared saying the wrong thing. I thought people were overanalyzing every word that came out of my mouth, and as a result, it made me never want to speak up.
After years of art therapy, meditation, and very deliberate lifestyle choices that forced me out of my comfort zone, what I’ve since learned is that people hear the words you say second — and your heart first.
When you approach life openly and honestly, life reciprocates. When you are humble, people feel it. When you are giving, people give back. When you are in tune with your own emotions, people feel comfortable sharing their emotions with you.
I am a firm, firm believer that 50% of “becoming successful” in life is dependent upon your ability to be honest with yourself. The more you mend, nurture, and grow within YOU, the more space you have for life to give you the gifts you seek.
3. In order to grow, you have to commit to the process.
“Now I’m feeding the soul what it needs to grow. A little rain, dripping, giving me this name Cole.” — Journal
Back when I was a bodybuilder, we used to have this saying in the gym: “Start counting when it starts hurting.”
The easiest thing to do in life is to say you’re going to do something. But where 99% of people fail is that first time their commitment gets challenged. Something comes up. A friend invites them out. They get sick. They feel tired. There is no shortage of rationalizations, and the list is lengthy.
What many people don’t realize, however, are the missed opportunities hidden in these moments of self doubt. They say to themselves, “It’s just one night. I can do what I need to do tomorrow,” not realizing that in making this decision, they’re choosing to forgo their commitment. They’re accepting that it’s alright to postpone their future, their growth, and their future Self.
If you can’t be who you want to be tomorrow, today, then don’t expect to be that person 5 years from now either.
4. Long-term success is dependent upon MASTERY.
“Everything you see, I earned myself. I want a whole lot more than wealth.” — Journal
Becoming successful isn’t hard.
In fact, that statement, in itself, is deceiving. I remember when I was 24 years old and I launched my first fitness eBook series, “Skinny to Shredded.”
One of my Quora articles had just gone massively viral (front page of Reddit and over 1M views) and in a weekend I threw together a site and my first paid product.
This eBook series was the first time I started making an income off my writing — specifically passive income.
About a month later, I was at Soho House in Chicago with a few aspiring entrepreneur friends, and they were joking that we should order the $120 seafood platter for lunch. It would be about $40 per person — an amount of money I couldn’t fathom spending on lunch, considering I was making $35,000/year as a copywriter.
“Come on,” one of them said. “I’m sure by the time it arrives, you’ll have sold another few eBooks to cover it.”
Sure enough, the moment he said that, my phone dinged. I had sold two more eBooks — and we decided to order the seafood platter.
Now, there are a lot of people who would have considered that “success.” Sure, I was still working a 9–5 job (granted, it was one I enjoyed). But I had written a viral article on the Internet. I had released a paid product. And I was making a few hundred dollars a month in passive revenue. For a lot of people, that would have been enough — and I could have easily reached a plateau and become complacent.
The tricky part about “success” is that it doesn’t have a formal definition. Ask 10 different people what their definition of “success” is and you’ll get 10 different answers. And because there is such a wide disparity between how people quantify success, that means it’s up to each individual to determine what is going to motivate them beyond that first or second small plateau.
The answer is MASTERY.
When you’re driven by the idea of mastering your craft, of becoming better today than you were yesterday, then you’ll never plateau. In fact, external rewards, moments of validation, all of the things that people reach for, grab, and then compromise themselves to keep, suddenly lose their allure. These achievements don’t mean as much to someone driven by MASTERY, because the individual knows the moment they acquire one, they’ll be onto the next, and the next. As a result, they don’t feel the need to get attached. And because they don’t get attached, they’re able to maintain focus on what truly matters (and so on, and so forth).
5. Easy road leads to detours. Hard road leads to shortcuts.
“Don’t understand — feel the path. Be the change you want to see in modern man.” — Journal
One of the ironies of life is that anything that seems easy, is difficult, and the things that are difficult end up making everything else easier.
I learned this lesson after taking a semester off from college to canoe 320 miles through Florida as a 19 year old. The trip was specifically for kids who struggled with substance abuse, had family issues, or just had trouble finding their way in life. At the time, I fit the bill for all three.
For 30 days, our group of 12 guys canoed 15 miles per day. We would wake up at sunrise, usually 5 a.m. or so, and paddle all morning and all afternoon, before finally stopping at the side of the river to unload and set up camp for the night. Some days, we would get stuck in weeds and and overgrowth in the river, and it would feel like we were paddling through cement. Other days, the water would carry us, and we could lie back and relax while being carried down stream.
At a certain point in the trip, each of us was given our own tent and a small satchel of food. We were going on a “solo.” One of the counselors walked each of us out into the forest, showed us where we would be setting up our individual tent, and then said they’d be back to get us 3 days later. This was our time to reflect.
Day 2 of being alone in the wilderness, I came to arguably the most impactful realization of my entire life. All of a sudden, I became painfully aware that everything I was experiencing, thinking, feeling, and going through at the time, none of it was going to change unless I took it upon myself to change it. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks, and was both empowering and humbling. It made me feel hopeful for my future, and at the same time, sad it had taken me so long to realize my own potential.
When the trip was over and each of us went home, I made a commitment to myself that I was going to change: habits, friends, even where I went to college (I left the University of Missouri and transferred to Columbia College Chicago to study creative writing). And even though it didn’t happen all at once, I promised myself that in every moment moving forward, I would choose the harder road — because for 30 days, anything that was “difficult” while canoeing 320 miles down the river ended up making everything else that day feel like a piece of cake.
A decision that encapsulates this perfectly was my choosing to deprive myself of Internet for nearly 4 years while I wrote my first book, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer. Between the ages of 22 and 25, I did not allow myself to have Internet in my apartment. I knew that I would come home every night after work exhausted. I knew I would want to relax, watch Netflix, or do something mind-numbing on the Internet before bed. So instead of even giving myself that option, I removed it entirely — and only allowed myself to have Internet after my book was done and ready to be published.
If life is a game, and you are the main character, then this is the “cheat code” nobody tells you:
Becoming who you know you have the potential of being, also means knowing what’s going to get in your way — and then removing it.