February 22, 2016
Never could I have imagined that my Sunday would include almost getting peed on by a Bengal tiger.
It all started when JJ and I decided to take the baby on an adventure. After the baby had napped and we'd all had lunch, we were anxious to get out of the house but couldn't think of where to go. Managua doesn't offer many options outside of eating and drinking. (We don't even have a bowling alley!)
So, our little family of three got in the car without a destination in mind. But as we drove out of the neighborhood, a random thought occurred to me:
"Let's go to the zoo!"
I'd heard about Nicaragua's zoo before, but I'd never been. Though I imagined it to be sparse compared to the zoos I've been to in Miami and Vienna (which even had a panda!) I'd heard it wasn't so bad.
Off we went to introduce our little guy to the zoo.
* * *
Over the years, I've read dozens (maybe over a hundred?) books on self-help, business, productivity, self-improvement, and so on. And they all recommend different things:
"Keep a notebook by your bed!"
"Drink more water! (Preferably 4 glasses as soon as you wake up!)"
"Spice up your meetings with colleagues by going on a walk outside!"
"Make a list of what you're grateful for!"
"Exercise every day!"
And the list goes on.
Some of these have been helpful, of course—but they're just too many things to remember! It feels like an endless treadmill of self-optimization, and I just can't keep up.
When I'm good at gratefulness, I forget the water. When I'm good at being kinder to the people around me, I forget to get outside into nature. If it's not one thing, it's the other. I just can't seem to do it all. It's a lot to remember, but it's also difficult to recall the particular habit you need most during a hard time!
At one point, I actually used an app called Lift (now called Coach.me) to keep a daily "to-do list" for all of this personal development stuff. Every single day, I'd try to remember to:
- Write morning pages
- Drink 8 glasses of water
- Avoid sweets and alcohol
- Write what I'm grateful for
- Reach out to a friend
- Stand up straight
And the list went on. It felt ridiculous to keep up with this extensive list, each day rushing to tick off as many as I could muster in order to feel better about myself.
A few months ago, though, I had the opportunity to ask a productivity expert about this.
On episode 12 of my podcast Process, I asked my friend James Clear how he manages to remember ALL OF THE THINGS he should be doing to improve himself. His answer: keystone habits, or specific actions that lead to a cascade of other actions because of them, like a domino effect of self-discipline and massive output.
Because James's goals are focused on productivity, his keystone habit is to workout 3 times a week.
But my goals are different.
My goals are geared toward peace of mind, serenity, and creativity.
So what is my keystone habit? Well, it's the one thing you have to remember to create a domino effect of peacefulness in your life:
* * *
I was right about the zoo, you know. Though there were plenty of animals to enjoy—from buffalos to coyotes to lions—the cages they were kept in were meager at best. It was difficult to look at. But it was the baby's first time at the zoo, and I tried to do my best to get him excited about seeing all the animals IN REAL LIFE! (But, for the record, he was more into me than the animals.)
I sped through each section of the zoo, trying to get it all over with as quickly as possible because it was sad and hot and suffocating. Soon enough, we found ourselves before three gigantic lions, and then panthers and jaguars.
Considering the measly entrance fee of $1.06 USD, I was shocked at the exotic animals.
But then we made our way to the real kahuna, a marvelous Bengal tiger that could've been taken straight out to the movie Life of Pi. A Richard Parker look-a-like!
I stood in front of his cage, asking the baby inane questions to get him to relate what he was seeing with what he's learned from his toys or the television.
"Juan José, what sound does a tiger make?!" I asked.
"ROARRRRR," he obliged.
All the while, the tiger prowled back and forth as we walked—observing us, locking eyes with us, engaging us—with his face up against the bars of the cage.
And suddenly, he turned his body around, placing his butt against the bars of the cage, lifted his tail and sprayed.
And just like that, the Richard Parker look-a-like let his ego be known, marking his territory for all to see. With just one spray, he said:
"By the way? Between the two of us, I'm the dominant one."
* * *
The one common denominator behind our bad habits is our ego.
It's what keeps us afraid of going to the gym for the first time, what holds us back from emailing a potential client, and what makes it impossible to keep our eyes on our own paper.
Because of our egos, we're awash with anxiety, stress, and insecurities. It keeps us talking the talk without actually walking the walk.
So, can we agree the ego needs to go? Because if we work to soften the effects of our egos, we'll effectively soften our bad habits, as well.
To illustrate, I'll walk through a few of the more common emotional bad habits I've encountered out in the wild.
It's common knowledge that your fear serves as a way to keep you safe, shielded from ridicule and other risks. It's your ego saying,
"Let's stay in this warm cocoon of doing-nothing-ness forever."
It's your ego getting in the way when you avoid publishing a blog post or emailing a potential client. Do you know how many times I've left an important email in my box because I was too afraid / nervous / terrified to reply? I once pitched a book to an agent, and then completely disappeared after she appeared interested.
- Watch as your ego ruffles its feathers as you prepare to create something. It really doesn't matter to your ego what you're creating—it could be an email or a song or a painting.
- Recognize that your ego is trying to keep you small and protect its own damned self.
- Decide honestly whether or not you want to act anyway. (What's the worst that could happen?)
The reason you're burnt out is because you're placing so much effort on getting ahead, on doing more, on being the best. While those things aren't bad, they aren't the solution to finding happiness. It's a never-ending treadmill of achievement you're jogging on.
I fell prey to this as an entrepreneur a few years back. It got me nowhere. Actually, I take that back—it took me back to the starting line.
- Watch as your ego convinces you to work an extra hour, to take that extra meeting, or to buy that conference ticket despite your tight budget.
- Recognize that your ego is trying to prove its better than anyone else, to exert its dominance.
- Decide whether or not you need to work or relax. (Again, what's the worst that could happen?)
There are two reasons people gossip: to feel better than the person they're gossiping about, or to feel closer to the person you're gossiping with. On the flip side, there are two reasons people compare themselves to others: to feel better or worse than the person they're comparing themselves to.
Moms do this to each other all the time, which is notoriously referred to "The Mommy Wars." Just log onto Instagram or Pinterest, though, and you'll witness a high-school-like game of comparisons and cliques and nastiness. It's not everyone, of course, but it is prevalent.
Embarrassingly, I actually stopped paying attention to Twitter for about a year because I felt like the entire social network was triggering this comparison trap in me.
- Watch as your ego has something to prove or say, and stop the words before they come out.
- Recognize it's your ego trying to feel better or worse in some way.
- Decide how to go forward without needing that self-imposed ego torture.
* * *
Luckily, the tiger's spray didn't hit us—but it did get someone standing a few feet to our right.
I quickly pulled some baby wipes out of my bag and handed them over to the victim of the tiger's desperate ego. In shock, we all shared a few laughs, warned the next group coming to gather around the tiger's cage, and then moved on to the zoo's exit.
But the memory of the tiger's spray stayed with me long after. It may stay with me forever. Because it showed me that, no matter what situation we're in or what cage we find ourselves in, our egos will keep on fighting to be heard.
It's an on-going fight, but every battle gets us closer to peace of mind and a better life. And instead of remembering a million and one things, all you have to remember is to fight your ego, tooth and nail. Like dominos, the rest will fall into place.
* * *
Are you willing to drop your ego?
All the habits I mentioned above are complex, of course, and the solution isn't as simple as I can describe in a few paragraphs—but it's a start.
And remember, killing your ego doesn't have to feel bad. On the contrary, it will make you feel better.