Full text of mind hacker Scott Ely’s talk: Free your mind to evolve faster: reboot, rewire & rethink at TEDxNorthwesternU conference
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Free your mind to evolve faster reboot, rewire & rethink by Scott Ely
Scott Ely – Author & Mind Hacker
Good afternoon. Hope I can live up to that introduction. I should have set the bar low and had these guys say something like Scott Ely is alive and lives in Chicago.
So how’s everybody feeling? You got enough mental energy left for one more talk?
I promise I’ll make it as engaging as I can. And, but I’m going to try to make you think.
So I’m going to try to question that mental capacity that we just say we all have some left of, because it’s important to take a look and see if you’re chained by chaos.
So by chained by chaos, I mean, all these things we put into our lives that hold us back, that take our time.
Our lives, our collective train of thought are derailing, and it’s likely there’s going to be no survivors unless we intervene.
So what if your mind could be as free as the feeling of standing at the top of a mountain?
What if you could make it through this whole talk without wanting to grab your phone even once and check your email?
What if the more that you want out of life was as simple as not being held back by these chains?
So let me ask a quick question. Who here wants less out of life?
Good, nobody. That would have made my talk difficult.
We all want more on life. We all want more fun, more travel, more excitement, more impact, but we let these things hold us back.
And the problem and the solution lies in your adaptive brain.
Now for the nerds it’s neuroplasticity. We’ve got this great thing from evolution, where we have the ability to adapt and restructure our brain as needed. It’s a very powerful thing, but it can easily be hacked and it gets manipulated all the time on multiple levels.
And a lot of times it’s being manipulated by that person that’s looking back at you in the mirror, they pull some of the most insidious Jedi mind tricks on you there.
So we’re going to take a short journey today through the path to finding more from your life. And the destination is up to you, but a path to the solution exists if you’re willing to free your mind.
But, let me step back and tell a quick story about how I started seeking more in my life.
Back around the year 2000, I was working in software and it was a fun time to be in software and technology because it was the first dot-com boom. And there was a lot of money and fun and travel.
And I was living overseas at the time and I just moved from London to Amsterdam. I was working for a new startup there.
And then one night, everything changed. Everyone has their own story about what happened when the 9/11 attacks happened.
I think what it did was it amplified whatever you had going on with you already and made it, it made it a lot worse or a lot better. In my case, I was already feeling a disconnect.
I’d been living overseas for a couple years. I was far from my family. And when those attacks happened, I was very disconnected. I couldn’t get in touch with anyone.
The company I was working for was supposed to have an office in Tower 2. So there was this impact of, you know. I almost lost friends and I was already feeling a disconnect with a bigger vision of my life. So it just drove those feelings deeper. And the weight of that event made me change course.
And I made a decision that night that I was going to resign and change everything. And within six months I’d moved back to Chicago and that started a decade and a half journey of trial and error.
Now I know this goes a little fast, but that’s how it felt for me. So that’s why I wanted you to feel the same. And obviously no one wants to get stuck watching someone’s slideshow from their journeys.
But it started a decade and a half journey of travel and experimentation. It took me to over 50 countries and multiple startup companies that I built, and lots of mistakes. It was definitely a journey of trial and error because you don’t get reward out of life without taking the risks.
Now your journey will be different than mine. There’s probably a lot of academics in here. Probably some artists taking completely different paths, but every day is a choice. Every day is a different crossroads with what you do with your time.
And if you’re in control of your mind, then those decisions can be intuitive.
Purge the chaos
So the problem is both deep and wide, but I’m going to focus today on one piece of it that I call purge the chaos. So we all know of different types of chaos in our lives. We have, some of us are addicted to the internet. We are on social media non-stop.
A recent Nielsen study showed that the average American spends 11 hours of their waking day on consuming some kind of electronic media. So the problem with this is that when you’re consuming, you’re not thinking, and if you’re not thinking, then who’s in control?
And that number is only going up. So it goes further that when you aren’t thinking, we start to not want to think for ourselves.
So a study published in the journal Science recently highlights this. They took a set of subjects and they wanted to see what would happen if they put them in a room by themselves to think on their own without any kind of distractions at all.
So it was a series of tests, but the one that was the most interesting to me was they administered a painful electric shock to their brain before the test started.
Now, most subjects said it was so painful that they would pay money to not have the shock administered again.
But then what happened was when they put them in the room for 15 minutes with no phones, no music, no distractions or nothing. 67% of men and 25% of women still chose to shock themselves multiple times.
So what does this mean?
Well, for one thing, it’s probably a statement on what your gender is smarter. Come on guys. One guy shocked himself 190 times in 15 minutes, but he’s the subject of a completely different talk.
But what it means is we’re addicted to these distractions. We don’t like to be alone with our own thoughts. They interviewed the subject afterwards and most of them said it was really uncomfortable to sit alone with their own thoughts.
So let me bring it closer to home right now. It’s something you’re probably suffering right now as you sit here.
So this is the last talk of the day. It’s a great opportunity to end the event on a high note.
But it’s also a challenging slot because especially if you’ve been here all day, watching talks, you’re suffering from something you don’t even realize, which is called decision fatigue. It also goes by the more psychobabble sound like ego-destruction, which incidentally would be a great band name.
But what this means is that your brains are tired and this isn’t a physical exhaustion. It’s not something that you realize is happening, but what happens is your brain is starting to break down. And when that happens is you start to not make decisions or make bad decisions.
So you have a finite amount of willpower every day… in your day, to be able to keep away things that you don’t want in your life.
So a study of parole judges showed that if you went to a parole hearing in the morning, you had a 70% chance of getting your parole called and getting out of jail. All of the things being equal, if you went in the afternoon, you had a 10% chance of getting out.
Why? Because the judges had decision fatigue and didn’t realize it. So they were automatically starting to just shut down to decisions rather than make a bad decision.
So the problem is we can all relate to this. We all had that meeting or class in the afternoon that you just couldn’t make it to, you’re just worn out. Or maybe you gave the iPad to your kids or your spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend because you just couldn’t handle one more conversation for the day.
So what happens is at that point, you’re primed and ready to make bad decisions. And the more chaos you have in your life, the more of these distractions that you let in early on in the day, constantly on social media and watching things and reading things; the more you’re distracted the earlier in the day, you hit this point of decision fatigue.
And you’re primed and ready to make the decisions that are going to benefit other people and not you. Because the media companies, politicians, drug companies, they all know this hack.
So I’m excited to share what I’ve learned about hacking back through my own journey and through a lot of research.
But I need to first tell you about a quick breakup I had in my life:
So we’d been together for several years and it had been a lot of emotional ups and downs. It was a difficult relationship, but I made my mind up it was over. And I knew that I had to do the right thing and end the relationship.
So I finally got up the guts to make the call and my heart was beating fast. When she answered the phone and said, welcome to Comcast, how can I help you?
So if you’ve ever tried to cancel your cable provider, it’s not easy at all. I encourage you to give it a try. But what this was as part of an input purge, where I went through is a life experiment to just remove one at a time, distractions in my life. And email, text messaging, friendships, cable, all of these things that go through one at a time and I’d remove them completely and then add back in only what I thought I actually needed after that.
So I’d love for you guys to give this a try if you’re up for a challenge:
Pick one thing that’s a distraction in your life and remove it completely for a week. Now don’t just replace it with another distraction, but pick something like maybe you are a social media addict, or maybe you watch a lot of TV, or maybe you are on work email constantly.
So pick one thing that’s not going to affect your career and remove it for a week, get buy-in from your family, tell everybody what you’re doing and document the time you would have been doing that thing and document what you did with the time instead.
And see if you can start to work on this more that we all say we wanted in life, maybe you could plan that trip that you’ve always been talking about instead, pick something, remove it and see what happens.
So how do I do this?
I’ve been doing this for a couple years now. So I do it monthly where I remove new emails and things like subscriptions that are just kind of noise in my life. And then annually I’ll do the more difficult things. I’ll look at relationships because those can suck a lot of your emotional time too.
And then sometimes I’ll get extreme. So you don’t have to go this far with it. But as an example, last year, I was working on a book related to this topic and I had a lot of chaos in my life.
I was at my… one of my businesses just had a lot of things that I couldn’t control. So I figured out a way to extract myself because I really wanted to focus on getting this book outline done.
So I removed myself from the business and I left the country. I’d like to travel internationally. And I took a trip to Guatemala for a couple of weeks, completely off grid, no Wi-Fi, no phone, nothing.
And within a week, the fog had completely cleared. I’d nailed down and outlined a book which led to planning to publish it this fall. And it led to me to start, want to talking about the idea, which led to this talk.
So you don’t have to get extreme like this, but these life experiments build on top of one another as you start to do them.
So let’s get back to the core, though. So why would you even want to do this?
It comes back to that more we all think we want out of life where you look back from your death bed and say, “I’m really happy that I’ve binge watched three Netflix series that weekend or I watched every single NCA game, even the terrible ones.”
Or would you rather have spent that time – planning that trip, working on that book outlines, working on that new startup that you wanted to do, figuring out what you’re going to do after school, one of those things it’s up to you. The time is ours. It just depends how many hours do you think you have and we always have more.
So it’s not that I don’t do anything. I’ve just restructured these things and each of these input purges, changes the way you think about your life. So it’s this process of rebooting, rewiring and rethinking the way you live your life.
So you add things back in differently. I do email on a batch process now only a short amount of time every day. And I don’t let that suck my attention all day long, as an example.
So this is part of the, I mentioned that the problem is big and wide. So this is one piece – this purge the chaos piece. It’s a critical one because we get consumed by all of these inputs that we have into our lives.
But each one of these little experiments is a flame and a bigger revolution to try to free your mind from the things that are keeping you from what you want to do with your life.
So I’ve done about a hundred of these experiments now, over the last few years, since I started documenting them. And about 25% of them result in what I call an upgrade. So it’s some change in your life that’s valuable.
So it’s usually a habit change where you don’t… you watch TV in a different way, or do email on a different way, or something like that.
But it’s also a philosophical thing. So in science, Thomas Kuhn called these paradigm shifts. So you’re not just answering the question differently, you’re asking a completely different question.
So it’s not, “why am I watching”, it’s maybe, “I should be doing something with that time instead”. So it’s a fundamental change to the assumptions you have about the way you live your life and the questions that you’re asking.
Now, this may sound exotic and fun and travel and startups and all of this. And, it’s been a blast, but it’s also very difficult.
And every day is a fight to dissolve your boundaries and push the limits of what you can do. I mean, I had countless nights of worrying where the next dollar was going to come from with some of my startups.
And my trips weren’t… my boundary expanding trips weren’t like, I’m being on a cruise ship, hopping in the all you can eat buffet line. There were difficult trips spending a couple of weeks in the jungle, living with families and you know, with no running water.
And those trips were the ones that really meant something to me that had one of those deep upgrades for the way I see… I live my life. And this book, I’m really excited about it, but it’s also terrifying. It’s terrifying to think about putting something out there that people are going to criticize.
But I feel like this is expanding my life in different directions. And I feel it’s worth doing.
So one of these experiments that was, that didn’t have anything to do with a big, huge upgrade in your life was just a fun one. Something I started doing for fun. And my buddy Mike, and I decided to see if we could start a band in our thirties.
Now, most guys, when they hit their thirties, they’re quitting their bands. So we try to go the other way. And we were casual guitar players, but we spent a lot of time seeing if we could, as a first experiment, see if we could get an open mic.
And then we took it to the next level, maybe we could start a band. And then maybe we could get paid to do a gig.
And so it was just a series of experiments and we’re pretty good now. We’re booked all summer. We get well paying gigs. But I can tell you when we started, we were terrible and I’ll never forget the looks on people’s faces at that first open mic. And those were our friends. And sadly, there’s a lot of video to prove it.
But neuroscience research shows that you’ll probably have forgotten most of my talk within the next couple of days, but what I hope you remember as I leave the stage is this:
That more that we all want out of life is available to us, but it’s more and more hidden by layers of chaos that we’ve introduced.
This chaos sucks our time, and it makes it difficult to accomplish what we want in life.
Because time and our valuable brain cycles, so ours to take back, but who’s in control of your mind, it’s the most important thing. Break those chains and free your mind. And you can start to evolve faster towards the more that we all want out of life.
Thanks for listening.