Being Unpredictable Will Free You

I just got this email from a friend of mine: “in Mexico… got grazed by a bullet that wound up infected, and then I got a hernia, and then I started to bleed internally…”

There were more details: “drug cartels”… “corrupt cops”. I wrote him some questions to get more details. Assuming he’s still alive I hope he answers. He writes great books. He’s very unpredictable but I hope he doesn’t get himself killed.

I like things in my life to be unpredictable. I like to know that things that didn’t seem possible suddenly become possible.

In 1994 I never thought it would be possible, while doing some mindless programming at a job in Pittsburgh that a little over a year later I’d have a job at HBO interviewing transvestite prostitutes and drug dealers, or that two years after that I would be selling a software company that I started. Or that three years after that I would be dead broke and filled with so many regrets and trying to figure out ways to kill myself so that at least my two kids could live off the insurance policy.

(some of my interviews)

Or that, as I sit here and write this, I’d be in Las Vegas about to give a talk about the economy. And tonight in San Francisco to meet Claudia and then give another talk on Monday in San Jose about how to take advantages of the scams in our society to become an entrepreneur.

We all want success. And although success does not equal money, we all need to support ourselves and to support our family. We’d all like to do good in the world.

Your brain doesn’t want you to do good in the world. I know this first hand.  Your brain wants you to say “I can’t” all the time so that you don’t do something so unpredictable it gets you killed. The brain,  your enemy, prizes its own safety first, and your happiness a distant second.

(the enemy)

But there’s an easy way to defeat it. I’m going to be blunt when I name this method. It’s the “I can’t! You didn’t! Repeat!” Method. And it works but for unobvious reasons.

Step One: I Can’t

How many times have I said, “I can’t”

  • “I can’t because I didn’t get good at x, y, or z when I was younger”
  • “I can’t because I don’t have the right connections.”
  • “I can’t because I don’t have the money to do it”
  • “I can’t start a company because I have to make sure I support two kids”
  • “I can’t make a facebook app because I don’t know how to program”
  • “I can’t work for HBO because I’ve never done anything in the entertainment industry”
  • “I can’t relax until I sell my house first, which is like a chain around my neck”
  • “I can’t get spend time getting physically healthy until I solve the problems in my business first”
  • “I can’t write a novel because I don’t have the time and it won’t sell well anyway.”
  • “I can’t buy Yahoo, the entire company, because I don’t have a few billion dollars.”
  • “I can’t do this idea because the economy is bad. Italy might blow up.”
  • “I can’t write X, Y, or Z because I’m worried what my family, or what my colleagues, will say about me.”
  • “I can’t learn Spanish because I have to work 10 hours a day and then spend weekends cleaning my house.”
  • “I can’t daytrade because James said it’s too risky.”

One time I was standing in Victor Niederhoffer’s house at a party looking at a painting someone made of him and his father and I was thinking, “how come my family connections are not so strong? Did this prevent me from holding onto my success?” And how come nobody gave me a chance, like George Soros gave to him? Suddenly I got in the “I can’t succeed” mode. I got in a bad mood and even left the party. Once I left the party I immediately got stopped by a cop and given a ticket. I still owe Connecticut on this ticket. Probably with interest. Come and get me, Connecticut! And I came home and I just simply felt bad about myself.

(Soros, or as Victor used to call him, "the palindrome")

We all have our “can’ts“. Start to list yours. Go from macro to micro. Macro is something like: “I can’t be happy until I have a million dollars” Micro might be something like, “I can’t sleep because I’m too worried about a meeting tomorrow” or “I can’t make this list of ‘can’ts’ becaus there’s nothing I can’t do” (figure that one out).

So that’s step one. Those can’ts are your boundaries. They are the walls to your cage. Don’t try to escape them. We are all expert cage-builders. Most people who tried to escape from Alcatraz died in the attempt. If you can’t do something you can’t do it. Don’t fight it.

But then how will this method work?

(there was no way to escape)

Here’s step 2: Do something unpredictable. 

Whenever you think of a “can’t” just do something you wouldn’t normally do. If you think, “I can’t learn quantum mechanics because I’m bad at math” then take out a pad and make a watercolor painting. Or call someone you haven’t spoken to in five years. Or be grateful for something that happened to you 20 years ago.

About a year ago I had a really bad day in the stock market. I was literally sweating it out, losing money, feeling sick, the whole thing that inevitably happens when you trade in the markets. Claudia was worried about me. I said, “let’s go swimming.” I hadn’t swum in about five years. She said, “where?” She didn’t know of any pool in the area. And neither did I. So I said, “let’s just get in our bathing suits and go in the river.” Let me tell you something about me: the river is dirty: there’s mud, there’s little fish, there’s seaweed. I need my chlorine!

But whatever. We got into our bathing suits. I had to find a bathing suit. I think I might’ve worn two pairs of underwear instead. And we went to a piece of the Hudson River five minutes away that had a tiny beach with rocks and sand. And we went swimming for an hour. It was fun and we laughed.

Life is short. That bad day in the market was bothering me then but in the long run it would have zero effect on me. But it’s hard to just say, “this will have zero effect on me”. So I went swimming instead. And I felt really good afterwards instead of suffering through a night of intense mental and emotional anguish.

In 2002, I was having a real bad period. I’ve written about it. But I was heading to dead zero, the economy was bad, and I had no possible way of supporting my family.

So I decided to learn all the seven letter words. Mollie had just been born and would cry every night. I would tape lists of seven letter words to her stroller at 2 in the morning and stroll her back and forth while she cried to try and settle her down. Meanwhile, I’d remember the lists. In Scrabble there are six letter combinations called “stems” that if you add almost any other letter to them you can form a legal seven letter word, which gets you a 50 point bonus in scrabble. So it’s worth remembering.

For instance, nine years later I still remember most of them. The most popular stem (because it has the most common letters) is SATINE. For instance, E  + SATINE is ETESIAN. X + SATINE is ANTISEX or SEXTAIN. And so on. Throw in some Q without U words (QAT, QI, QOPF, QANAT, for instance) and you’ll beat everyone you know at Scrabble (Thanksgiving is coming up! Don’t forget to bring the Scrabble set to your family outing).

So instead of worrying all night, I learned to play Scrabble. I then ran into a friend of mine I used to play poker with. He was a Scrabble player and had also just cashed out of Morgan Stanley with a hundred million or so. We played a few times (he crushed me) and gave me excellent advice on how to raise money for a hedge fund.

Now, Step number 3 is critical. Repeat! 

That’s all.

You might be thinking: “why does this work? I’m not going to be suddenly able to do all the things I can’t do. I still won’t be able to learn French overnight. Or make a million dollars next week.”

That’s ok. Who cares? You might be dead next week. Are you really going to care if you learned French or not?

The more you practice this, several things will happen:

A) You’ll recognize more quickly when you are putting a cage around yourself. In a life that is finite and just a single breath in the lifespan of the whole universe, this is unbelievably important. Most people say “I can’t” all day long. Doing this practice will help you avoid being one of those people.

B) You’ll start to explore over time what “can’t” really means in your life. It won’t be something that becomes a parasite on your consciousness like it is with everyone else. It will become separate from you. It will become something that leads to unpredictable things. Things that will make your life better. And maybe the life of those around you better. My kids certainly benefit when I go from “can’t” to “let’s paint watercolors”.

C) Over time, because of “A” and “B” the word “can’t” won’t have the same power over you. Instead of a metal cage, the cage will turn to paper or disappear altogether. You’ll think “can’t” and just laugh.

Just don’t go to Mexico and get shot.

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