A Brief Q&A with Greatness

Matthew Sweet
Jul 6, 2015 · 5 min read

It seems counter-intuitive. But look closer and you may begin to understand why it makes perfect sense. Running up against problems and troubles, our first response is often to turn outwards, to family, friends and mentors. To find someone who can evaluate our situation, prod us in the right direction and give us an answer, when really, the first step should be to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

I am no exception. I have struggled with confidence in my abilities. I’ve endlessly debated the correctness of my path, with days of full conviction and energy, closely followed by days where all I want to do is shove my head in the sand. I ask for advice I don’t need and look to move on when I need to stand firm and grind it out.

A few months ago, Ryan Holiday, a man whose writing and work I have found very useful, launched a pre-order campaign. One of the perks of ordering 15 copies of his upcoming book was a one hour Q&A. Great, I thought. A fantastic opportunity to get some insider knowledge and tips to grow and learn faster.

Then I hit a roadblock. What the hell was I going to ask. I developed a little sequence for coming up with questions. It went like so:

1st — Think about my current problems and what I want to accomplish.
2nd — Think about how Ryan’s experience/knowledge could help.
3rd — Realise the solution I was seeking was pretty obvious.
4th — Repeat.

After a few playthroughs, I realised something. I only ask for advice when I don’t like the answers I already have and want someone to show me an easier way forward.

A truth like that is hard to bare and trying to accept it doesn’t exactly inflate my ego. It reveals some tendencies that I do not want to have. I don’t want to be someone who shrinks in the face of difficulty and turbulence. I don’t want to be someone who cannot consistently confront their fears and shortcomings. Most of all, I do not want to be someone who cannot find the strength to be honest about their shortcomings.

This line from Brian Enos is appropriate for the clash between my tendencies and the man I want to be — “When we undeniably see that we create our own misery, we stop. The force generated by this insight changes anyone.” Today I stop being my own biggest problem.

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As this insight originated from a chance to ask a select few questions to a role model, I’m going to list some of the things I would’ve asked, and predict some of the responses I would’ve expected to get.

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Q: My first thought was to ask how do you deal with misfortune? You’ve been through a lot. How do you manage to stay afloat?

A: “Simple really. You’ve read the Stoics right? It’s not the misfortune that matters, it is how you respond. Consider some logical and illogical ways you could respond to the event. Chances are your first reaction will lean towards the illogical side. Carefully consider your response, simplify as much as possible and maintain a sense of perspective. Ask yourself, is it really that bad in the grand scheme of things? It could be worse right?”

Q: What are the keys to your success? You’ve accomplished so much, there must some special trait or talent?

A: “Not at all. I listen to those with greater experience than me. I learn every day. I create. I’ve learnt to see and observe consistencies and false patterns in the world around me. I’ve mastered the basics and I never tire of refining them. I’m continually perfecting the process and utilising my time and skills effectively. I care more about the success of the people around me than my own. And I do all of the above when nobody asks me to, when nobody needs me to and when I don’t feel like it any more.”

Q: How do you ensure you continue to learn, grow and get better?

A: “By reading and absorbing as many experiences as possible, through books, podcasts, courses and conversations. I apply everything I learn and I try to remain constantly aware of what I don’t know. I continually build great habits. I accept the possibility that I am the one holding myself back, and try to stop that from happening.”

Q: What do I need to do next and how do I prioritise?

“Utilise an 80/20 analysis. Follow where your excitement leads you. Recognise that there’s an abundance of ideas, but a shortage of great execution. Whatever you choose, commit to it. Don’t go halfway. Accept that when you fail, you have just two options, to try again or try something else. Assess where you are, where you want to be and what needs to be done to get there. Then do it.”

Q: What are the primary things to avoid on the journey?

A: “Dependency on anyone but yourself. Those who are negative and pointlessly suck up your time and energy. Becoming physically lazy, and worse, mentally lazy. Avoid nosy environments like the plague: most newspapers, blogs, social media and television will destroy your creativity and vigour faster than you know. Choose where you get your information carefully.”

Q: It now costs ~£50,000 to go to university. If you had that cash to spend on another, alternative education, what would you do?

A: “Most of the time, you don’t need university to get a university-calibre education. The tools are out there and you can work faster than you realise. Solutions are close at hand, often inexpensive and very simple. I would use most of it to travel and converse with great and fascinating people whom I admire. I would use the remainder to buy lots of great books, experiment continually and to take control of my time.”

Q: In your opinion, what are the majority of people’s problems caused by?

A: “Two things. Developing your self-awareness, or self-consciousness, and being completely honest about what you see. In solitude and amongst silence, you must peel back the layers and look frankly, accepting what is revealed.

Albert Camus calls genius the “intelligence that knows it’s frontiers.” To know, accept, and then strengthen your own capabilities requires a genius and a courage that can be forged in anyone. You must start with your reality as it is, not as you wish it to be.

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Most of these answers are simple truths that are hard to accept. And mostly, they revolve around self-knowledge. Here’s some advice Tyrion Lannister offered to Jon Snow, as a reminder of the importance of self-knowledge.

Matthew Sweet

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