In Conversation with Chris Reynolds on The Entrepreneur House Podcast
Chris and I cover a lot of ground in this conversation — diving deep into my poker and coaching strategies, distilling my best advice on productivity, comparing mental models for personal growth, and discussing implications from recent advancements in neuroscience.
I’m very selective about podcasts and am much more likely to read a talk than listen to one. Think some of you might be the same way, so I’m adding a transcript of our conversation below — it’s just too good not to share. Enjoy!
Chris Reynolds: On this episode, we are joined by the one of the world’s former top 20 poker champions and productivity expert Chris Sparks. Chris is a master at analyzing situations and using strategy to pull the odds in his favor. This is how he did so well as a professional poker player and he uses these methods today as an entrepreneur. Today, Chris and I dive into his story as a poker champion. How he maintains discipline in business and in poker, how Chris uses methodologies and strategies to stay on top of his game and how neuroscience plays a role in this. It’s an exciting episode and one you won’t want to miss. With that, let’s welcome Chris to the show. How are you doing, Chris?
Chris Sparks: I’m doing fantastic. How you doing?
Chris Reynolds: Great, thanks for asking. You’re calling in from New York?
Chris Sparks: That’s right, yeah. Brooklyn to be exact. I’ve been here full time about a year and a half.
Chris Reynolds: We’re going to jump right into it. Can you tell the listeners a little bit about yourself and how you became the productivity master that you are today?
Chris Sparks: I don’t know if I would call myself a master. I think what makes me a good coach is that I’m still very much in the process of learning. I think once you become an expert it comes with a curse, you lose perspective. Productivity is still something that is very much a day to day struggle for me and I think my efforts to improve and experiment on myself kind of allow me to be a better, more empathetic coach. As far as I got here, I think like most people listening to this I’ve taken the most kind of divergent, Etch-a-Sketch type path possible. I’ll give you kind of the short version of my story and we can dive in deeper anywhere. I’m sure there’s going to bring up some questions.
When I was in college, my dream and aspiration was to make TV commercials so I was super involved in all the usual college organizations. Was president of the Marketing association, sold the advertising at our school newspaper, did internships at some Fortune 500's. I did a reality TV show my senior year called “Quad Squads” which was sponsored by Ford and through some opportune circumstances when the CEO of Ford’s advertising agency walked through, we were doing a shoot. I got offered a full time job with Ford up in Detroit.
Chris Reynolds: Nice.
Chris Sparks: If you know your recent history, 2008 wasn’t the best year for the auto industry and the week after I moved up to Detroit they went on a hiring freeze so I found myself up in Detroit, not knowing anyone, nothing to do. Luckily, I had had this nice little side hobby when I was in college of playing poker. At this time poker was just everywhere. It was on ESPN. It was what we did on Friday, Saturday nights for fun. If you were a male in college at this point, you just could not avoid it.
Chris Reynolds: I remember, yeah.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I found I really had a knack for the game and after all of my classes and involvement in college, I would stay up all night playing poker tournaments. I had paid off my college tuition using poker during school, but I never really had the time to explore it fully. When I found myself in Detroit with nothing else to do and no job, I just decided to dive in on poker full-time to see what could come if I put all of my time and attention in this one basket. I slowly rose through the ranks from making a decent living to about six months in I was making what my annual salary at Ford would’ve been every month.
Chris Reynolds: Wow.
Chris Sparks: [Ford] eventually called me up, “Hey, okay. The hiring freeze is over. You can come aboard now,” and at that point it just doesn’t make economic sense to go to do this full time job at a big corporation. I had gotten a taste of full autonomy — being my own boss and just doing something that I really loved for a living, and that grew from there. Similarly to a lot of your listeners who are in the DynamiteCircle, I posted on this poker forum called Two Plus Two. All of my best friends became people from this poker forum who I’d never actually met in real life.
I organized 20 of us for my 21st birthday, we all went out to Vegas and shared a suite. After this nice long debaucherous weekend together, it was, “Okay, how do we continue this?” Certainly I don’t want to go back to Detroit where I’m just sitting in my apartment not even going outside, playing poker all day. How can we take what happened this weekend and continue the magic? I ended up creating similar to what you’re doing, basically a poker Entrepreneur House out in LA where we split a mansion and we’re just playing poker all day and going out all night. It was that year and a half that my poker career took off. I went from being a very good, solid player to being ranked top 20 in the world.
Chris Reynolds: Wow.
Chris Sparks: Thinking it back, it’s really crazy how that whole story came about. I was able to build some side businesses which I think were a big part of my growth and success. I started coaching other players, working with over 100 clients who were one level below me on the poker ladder. I started investing in players as well, allowing them to play higher limits than they would be able to on their own, helping them and mentoring them up along the way. Before I knew it I was a full time poker player and very successful.
The bottom fell out, this was 2011. The event we call Black Friday after the stock collapse, all the poker sites in the US just shut down and all the money we had online got seized over night. At this point, I’m was at the pinnacle of my poker career and now poker is no longer viable as a profession. I’m forced to figure out what’s next. I’ll stop there for dramatic effect.
Chris Reynolds: Yeah, okay. This is 2011, right, when everything kind of seized up?
Chris Sparks: Yeah, this is 2011. I’m not longer able to play poker. The future is very … Who knows what’s in the cards at this point. I try to replicate what we had in LA and get some friends to London to recreate another poker house there. Through, man, a long story that I wish I had time for, I basically get denied re-entry into London so all of my stuff is stranded in London without me. I reevaluated my path. I’d chosen London because it was a nice base to travel and it had always been my dream to do this big, romantic backpacking trip. I’d been fortunate to do quite a bit of travel for poker but I always spent most of my time at the casino because I was traveling for a poker tournament. It was a business trip, which everyone who knows business trips knows it’s not the same.
I just took this opportunity to do the trip I always wanted. That first version, we’ll call it a trial run, I did three months going through Europe. Six months later, I did the full deal. I spent that 18 months visiting 50 countries around the world. Towards the tail end, I got really interested in this thing we’re all familiar with called entrepreneurship and, being the naive guy I was, wanted to be part of the fun but didn’t really have a ton to add value wise. I started talking to other entrepreneurs, finding out what their pain points were, what the points of leverage were and settled on web analytics consulting, doing that remotely for a few months.
I ended up moving here to New York for the first time because my learning curve just wasn’t steep enough. I wasn’t learning fast enough. I wanted to throw myself into the fire so I went full time with this startup called Cools, it’s a fashion tech startup here in New York, to speed up my learning. After about four months, I ended up managing all of their marketing. But working full time in an office, having to report the same time every day, it felt just like what I had narrowly escaped from at Ford and I really craved that autonomy and sense of ownership that I had once had. That led me to start my productivity coaching business.
I realized that on my own, my work habits were complete garbage. Without that structure from going into the office and working, I lacked the self motivation, at least I thought at the time, to get things done. Realizing from my previous conversations with entrepreneurs, there was an ongoing problem that all entrepreneurs kind of suffered from this impostor syndrome. On the outside, they’re like a duck where furiously they’re paddling under water but over the water they have to give this visage of complete calm, that everything is going amazing, that the next raise is right around the corner. The reality behind the scenes, is that there was a lot of struggle and there was a lot of challenge, even just to get the simplest things done.
I started helping out my friends just for fun, as kind of a side hobby. I was talking to one of my friends one day over tea, thinking maybe this is something I could do full-time. At this point, I was doing my version of an eight-year-old MBA where I was just taking a bunch of random classes here in New York but just generally unfocused and looking for something to do. He said, “Cool, okay. I’ll be your first client.” I was completely taken off guard because I wasn’t trying to pitch him at all. It was something I was throwing out there as an idea. I was like, “Okay.”
As soon as somebody has given you their money, everything changes. I instantly went from a hobby to business and I had to kind of draw up what this coaching would actually mean. What is the service that I’m actually offering? That was back in June. I’ve just been building up from there so, yeah, these days I work one on one with entrepreneurs. The branding is helping with productivity but really it’s around personal effectiveness. How can you make more progress on your most important work? How can you figure out what your priorities are, make progress on your goals, and at the end of the day be satisfied with what you get done?
Chris Reynolds: Okay. Let’s go back to poker playing days before we dive into some productivity hacks. I have some questions for you because that sounds like an incredible experience, man. Were you ranked top 20 in the world for online or offline or both?
Chris Sparks: Online poker.
Chris Reynolds: Online.
Chris Sparks: I specialize in online cash games but I started off in tournaments. Tournaments are very much feast or famine. The variance in them is really absurd whereas a cash game player is much more of like a working man with consistent income. I’ve played quite a bit live, as well. I would travel to international tournaments, and every summer I’d spend two months in Vegas playing the World Series of Poker but online just always fit my skillset much better. It’s much more statistically based. It allows me to be really analytical. Most notably, I could play multiple games at a time. At my peak I was playing up to 30 poker games at once which comes out to a decision every second. Not something you could do in person.
Chris Reynolds: This had to be so automated and so programmed into your mind where you could just make those decisions like this, right?
Chris Sparks: The way I like to think about it is caching my intuition. So if you think about working memory, we can only hold about four bits of information at a time. What we can do is we can compress more information within that bit. To what an outsider might look like Minority Report, just furious action, it’s really I’m chunking these actions into known scenarios where my course of action is very clear. There’s a lot of thinking that’s happening within that one second window but a lot of it is fairly automated, as you said, because I’ve seen these situations before and it’s just pattern matching.
Chris Reynolds: Obviously when they took down all the sites in the United States there was other sites abroad. How come you just didn’t focus your time on those and keep playing?
Chris Sparks: I think it comes down to two aspects. First, just on a economic side, the US represented about 70% of the online market at the time. The way poker works as an ecosystem is that because the site is taking out a rake, a cost of doing business, it constantly needs new players coming in to make up that shortfall.
The US represented such a large portion of that market that collapsed overnight. All of the good players from the US moved abroad and continued to play and all of the bad players stopped playing. So overnight many players were making one tenth of their previous hourly rate because the competition got so much fiercer overnight. There were less games running for players to play so the games became tougher as all of the good players got consolidated within those.
The other aspect is on a personal level. I think you reach a certain point in poker and in any pursuit where you have to ask yourself the question, “Is this what I want to do the rest of my life?” Do I want my obituary to read, “Famous world-renowned poker player.” I realized that for me the answer was no, that I wanted to do something non-zero sum, more substantial, trying to make a dent in the universe and that this current path of playing poker for a living wasn’t going to lead there. I took it as kind of an opportunity to make a clean break and, I call it a Deion Sanders, making a somewhat early retirement to get out in front of the next wave.
Chris Reynolds: They took those sites down in the United States for tax reasons, right? They couldn’t collect the taxes on them or was there more?
Chris Sparks: It’s a really interesting case study. From a business point of view, there was this law passed in 2006 called The Wire Act that was very vague and said basically no online betting but didn’t really carve out any specifics. The publicly traded sites, lawyers said, “Okay, this is too risky. We’re going to have to pull out,” but the private traded sites said, “Wow, we can just move in and capture the whole market,” because it’s such a legal gray area and they did. Overnight these two sites, PokerStars and FullTilt, basically captured the entire US market.
For five years, they operated with impunity until the law starts getting enforced and cash outs to players started getting seized. They’re having to use shadier and shadier payment processes to get money from players onto the site and to get money from the site back to the players to the point that they’re spending 40 cents on every dollar just sending money.
The business quickly becomes unprofitable at that point because their entire margin is going to money laundering at this point. It kind of goes off the rails when they decide, “Okay, well, rather than spending all this money to get around the banks why don’t we just buy a bank?” They made very large “loans” to banks in exchange for having free payment processing which the government looked at as overt bank fraud and that led to the bottom falling out and the government shutting down the sites seizing player money in April 2011.
Yeah. Super interesting case study, constraints driving some interesting market forces. I think a lot of the lobbying and internal forces driving this seizure of money was probably tax-related. A lot of the Las Vegas casinos saw online gaming incorrectly as competition rather than a bringer of new revenue and customers so they likely were driving a lot of this action behind the scenes.
Chris Reynolds: Are there any current gaming or casino online games these days in the United States or are they all just completely banned?
Chris Sparks: Like a few other notable things legalization wise in the US, it’s happening on a state by state basis. To my knowledge right now, its only legal in I think Delaware, New Jersey and there’s one more. Oh, there’s three states right now. I think there’s likely going to be more in the future. California’s the big one that everyone’s eyeing just because of the size of the market. Before you had a worldwide market. I know you’re in Brazil right now. I could play at a table against someone from Brazil, someone from China, someone from Canada, Australia, etc, whereas now if you’re in Delaware you can only play against other players in Delaware. Delaware is not a big enough ecosystem to kind of create this critical mass needed for a sustainable site.
Chris Reynolds: That makes sense. Okay. Where have you seen other online poker sites grow or flourish in the rest of the world? Are they doing it in Europe or in Asia as much as they were doing it in the United States or what’s going on abroad?
Chris Sparks: Absolutely. Even towards the end of the boom lifecycle in 2009, 2010, the poker sites started moving all of their focus towards emerging markets, particularly areas like China and South America. That’s really where they started concentrating all their marketing dollars. The trend has continued of this fragmentation of the marketplace. If you look at Europe, I’ll use PokerStars as an example because they’re still the largest site, you have PokerStars Spain where you play against other players from Spain. You have PokerStars Italy. You have PokerStars France. In this quest to kind of get national taxation, it’s strictly regulated by the government so the laws vary from country to country and you can only play against other players from that country.
As we’ve seen many times in the past, prohibition doesn’t work. You’re seeing this trend kind of play out once again with the daily fantasy sports market. There’s just this insatiable desire to gamble from home so it’s not going away anytime soon. It’s just a matter of what form it takes.
Chris Reynolds: Wow. That’s an incredible story, man. You got to the point where you were actually teaching or coaching other poker players.
Chris Sparks: Yeah. I think coaching was a huge part of my poker success. It’s a model that I’ve replicated a couple times when I did the marketing consulting to learn how to do online marketing and now, again, with the productivity coaching to level up my own productivity and create this laboratory for personal effectiveness.
In poker, the players who I was coaching, they’re not just people learning how to play. These are players who are also among the best in the world but are just one step behind where I was. Maybe they’re at the level that I was six months prior. I was learning almost as much from my students as I was teaching them, just because everyone has their own unique approach to the game and you can learn a lot just by watching others play.
I feel like observation is really powerful because you have this tacit knowledge that’s really hard to access and these skills that people kind of undervalue because they’re just so used to them; things that they don’t even consider are abnormal or unusual or worth noting. Through this coaching, I was able to access all of these other unique strategies that players had. It allowed me to codify my own knowledge where when we have this one-second window to make a decision, all of this knowledge I have about poker must be extremely easily accessible. Repeating the same concepts and making them into a more digestible form from day to day, made them much more accessible in my own play.
Chris Reynolds: That’s incredible strategy, man. I love it. How many people were you coaching?
Chris Sparks: I coached over 100 in total plus a couple dozen as part of the investment arrangement. My daily schedule usually looked like: roll out of bed at noon and do some semblance of a morning routine. I’d have my first coaching session from 1:00 to 2:30. I’d have a second coaching session from 3:00 to 4:30. I’d then go to the gym, work out with a personal trainer. After eating dinner, I was on the clock poker-wise from usually like 8:00pm until 5:00 or 6:00am because the most profitable time to play is when people come back home from the bars so I was trying to reach kind of peak energy level right around midnight, 1:00am.
Chris Reynolds: Were you coaching one person at a time or did you do group coaching?
Chris Sparks: Always one person at a time. I found this similarity with the productivity coaching. We’re all kind of unique snowflakes in a way in poker and productivity. The scalable aspect is “Here are the best practices. Here’s what works for me. Here’s what you probably should be doing.” What is not scalable is, “You probably already know this to some sense, why aren’t you doing it now?
This kind of creative problem-solving aspect, “How can we do a deep dive into your current habits, your current routines, your current day to day and figure out these are the things you think you should be doing? Why aren’t you doing them? How can you remove these obstacles to doing what you want to do?”
That’s just something that I’ve never found to scale very well. I think there’s this dichotomy you can do as a business which is either “how can I create something that’s extremely systematized, that is universal principles?” or you can go extremely curated, very high end, directed one to one that is very client-focused. I’ve always found the most value comes in these areas that just do not scale and that’s where I try to put my focus.
Chris Reynolds: Have you done any personal development work? I know you read a lot.
Chris Sparks: I’m a personal development fiend.
Chris Reynolds: Okay.
Chris Sparks: It’s hard to kind of create a container around growth because I think of myself in the “if I’m not growing I’m dying” sense so every day is a quest of personal development. It’s like “how can I go to bed knowing one thing that I didn’t know when I woke up?” “How can I get 1% closer to my long term goals?” It’s really corny, but I think of my whole life as this personal development quest to both get myself to a point that I can have maximum impact and to distill the lessons so I can hopefully teach those to others.
I’ve always been a voracious reader. Especially when I was traveling, I was reading 60 books a year, a couple thousand articles, mostly personal development related. I’ve since realized that intake was never my constraining resource. My limit was always around actionability, so I really tried to scale my reading back and put more wood behind fewer arrows, if you will.
I’ll give examples. When I first moved to New York my plan was to be taking my eight-year-old MBA so I scheduled out my days like this:
I’m studying Spanish from 9 to 10 and I’m doing writing from 10 to 11 and then I’m going to go to a painting class from 12 to 1 and then I’m going to take karate from 1 to 2…
Realized that all of this skill development without a place to apply it was just a kind of masturbation. It was just developing skills without anywhere to put them. I now try everything once and take the things that work and really add value and expand upon them. An area that I’d highly, highly recommend to all the listeners from that experiment that I’ve really taken on is improv comedy.
Chris Reynolds: Oh yeah.
Chris Sparks: I think the models from there just really extend to a lot of areas of life. How you can be more creative and get out of your own way. How can you be someone in conversation that people enjoy talking to, beyond being funny, but being empathetic and interesting and a good listener. Most people don’t realize that improv is all about paying attention to your partner and listening to what they’re telling you. That pursuit has been one of the most highest value things that I’ve done. I look at it as that a big part of personal development is just getting on stage, metaphorically or in a real sense, and doing things that are slightly out of your comfort zone.
Chris Reynolds: Absolutely and I can be a testament to that. I’ve done a bit of improv. What I’ve learned from improv is that it’s one of those arts that you learn and when you do learn it, you learn and you gain so much and you become a better person in so many different aspects of your life, not just communication but psychology and listening and speaking and performing and creativity and all these things you’re learning at once. Improv is just something you practice on a regular basis that you’re gaining all these talents at once which is amazing. Have you ever done any Jiu Jitsu, Chris?
Chris Sparks: A bit. In my experimentation phase I did it for a month but I didn’t stick with it. What are your thoughts?
Chris Reynolds: That’s one of the reasons I do Jiu Jitsu now is because in just learning one art, I’m learning several different talents at the same time. Not only you learn the art of self defense, but it’s a constant teacher and a constant lesson on leverage, on how you use your leverage to beat your opponent’s leverage even if they’re much bigger than you. Plus you’re doing probably one of the best workouts that I’ve ever done. You’re in a forced position where if you don’t struggle and if you don’t work multiple muscles at the same time then, again, you’ll lose. Me personally, I can go to the gym and I can work out on my own or with an accountability partner but I won’t work out nearly hard as if I have an opponent attacking me, trying to beat me.
It’s a forced workout and also flexibility. A lot of things that you learn in yoga, you do those flexibility moves in Jiu Jitsu. You have to be incredibly strong and flexible. Then cardio, not only are you working your muscles in all these different positions to fight your opponent, you’re gaining cardio strength and mental strength and humility because you’re continually getting your ass whooped over and over and over so you’re constantly learning that lesson. When I travel, I always do Jiu Jitsu and I’m meeting locals that I have common interests with instead of just going and meeting entrepreneurs so very similar thing. What I was getting at, is improv is one of the arts that I want to do for months and months and months and maybe even years after I’ve kicked off my Jiu Jitsu kick.
Chris Sparks: That’s well said. That totally lines up with my experience. I love the analogy you made of a compound activity, kind of like you have a compound lift that you’re able to improve varying aspects of yourself with the same activity. I love this idea of having an opponent because having something on the line forced you to recruit those resources you didn’t know you had. I think a lot of personal development is just an expansion of self, expanding the circle of things that you know you could do. This identity of being someone who has abilities beyond which you’ve even seen has so many benefits. Really makes me want to take it Jiu Jitsu again.
Chris Reynolds: Yeah, very cool, man. Have you ever read the book “Bringing Down the House”?
Chris Sparks: I have. It’s one of the better ones. I like his writing style.
Chris Reynolds: One of my favorite books actually. For the listeners, “Bringing Down the House” is about the blackjack team from MIT that went out to Vegas and apparently won millions from Vegas by counting cards. Your story reminds me of that a little bit but not quite as so intense. I actually spent probably six months studying card counting because I was like gung ho on, “I’m going to be a card counter and go to these casinos and win some money.”
Chris Sparks: It’s funny. After that book came out, I probably have met 100 different people who claim to be part of that MIT blackjack team, as if the people who are really making those levels of money would want to out themselves and make themselves public.
I think one of the big things that extends from playing high stakes blackjack in a casino is that people will focus on the glamorous aspects of card counting but in essence your margin is very small. Your edge over the casino is tiny. So when the deck is in your favor you maybe are a 51/49 favorite which means that you’re losing almost half the time, it’s basically a coin flip. All of your profit comes from having extreme leverage when you have these small edges in your favor. That also means that you’re having huge swings in profit so you need to have a massive bankroll to withstand that and the vast majority of humanity just does not have that discipline to stick with the strategy, to stick with the plan when luck is going against them because it will.
This applies to live poker. The hardest part of card counting isn’t keeping the count. It’s keeping the count but still looking natural, still looking like you’re having fun, enjoying yourself, not being obviously trying too hard because then you’re going to get shut down by the casino. They’re a private enterprise. They can ask you to leave at any time. In live poker, you have to be creating this really convivial atmosphere, like befriending the players, making jokes, not adding stress, not obviously trying too hard but internally you’re like that duck. You’re making all these calculations. You’re analyzing everything that happens at the table but it’s this extra level of effort to make it look effortless and that’s really the difficult part.
Chris Reynolds: You can tell me if I’m wrong but you have to have such an incredible mental and emotional discipline to maintain that type of environment when you’re playing poker. Is that correct?
Chris Sparks: I always say that the best players in poker are those who make the most money. It’s not who has the most skill. It’s not who makes the craziest bluff or the most daring call. At the end of the day, you keep score by how much money you make and that means that the most skilled players aren’t the best poker players.
For me, I would say that I was never among the most skilled, but I was always among the most disciplined. It’s not how good your A game is. It’s what percentage of the time are you playing that A game that really matters. I think that applies to entrepreneurship as well. Having this process orientation where it’s not how do your decisions turn out, but what percentage of your decisions are optimal given the information you knew at the time. Being able to kind of maintain this high standard of excellence even when the chips are down.
Chris Reynolds: Chris, what are some ways that you maintain that discipline?
Chris Sparks: I think the easiest way is having something at stake. Usually having large amounts of money on the line is a good way to stay focused. In my current day to day I like to use forcing functions so I-
Chris Reynolds: Say that again, Chris. Forcing functions?
Chris Sparks: Another word for it would be pre-commitment. A lot of productivity comes around creating constraints around what you don’t want to do and creating forcing functions on what you want to do, or how do make what you want to do more natural.
An example would be you’re making a presentation to some VC investors in a month. The tendency for all those who have been through college is, the day before the presentation, to stay up all night doing it. The smart thing is to set up some checkpoints along the way to force yourself to make progress. When a lot of creativity comes from letting ideas marinate over time, you need to have these feedback cycles to take multiple shots at it because every iteration you will get better.
If I was doing this presentation, I would set up mock presentations either with lesser investors or just friends who I really respect and give that presentation on a weekly basis. Every time I gave the presentation, I would see obvious points of improvement and it would allow me to kind of focus my future efforts. I’ll use a deliberate practice metaphor here. You’re focusing your efforts on the points of highest leverage, the weakest parts of your presentation.
The answer to your question, in essence, is create some stakes. The number one challenge we face as entrepreneurs is getting out of bed in the morning. How can you create this internal coherence where your day to day matches up with your long-term goals, that your projects you’re working on are going to make progress on what you want your obituary to say? If what you do day to day has no relation to your lifetime goals it’s clear you’re going to get unmotivated.
Having something at stake, so even when you’re doing something mundane like your taxes or d business outreach, you can tie that in and say, “Okay, I realize this isn’t the most fun but it’s worth it. I accept the cost because it’s going to get me to where I want to be.” The second part is creating those forcing functions; forcing yourself to perform at that higher level. Like your Jiu Jitsu example, how can you create the equivalent of an opponent or a accountability partner who’s going to lead you to perform at a level that you didn’t know you could perform on your own, kind of recruiting those resources you didn’t know you had?
Chris Reynolds: Let’s dive into, oh, we’ve talked about a lot. Let’s do this. Do you have any books that you recommend? I would say like two or three of your favorite personal books and then two or three of your favorite books on productivity?
Chris Sparks: Oh man. You’re sending my computer in an infinite loop, it’s crashing right now. I’m searching my mental database trying to pick the right ones. It’s just such a difficult question with books. Okay. I will say I post all the books I read on my website so just go to SparksVC.com. There’s a reading list there that I rank all the books I read. I put a rating from 1 to 10 on them so that would be where I would send everyone first.
With book recommendations, it’s so personal. It needs to be relevant to what’s going on in your life right now. I think where I went wrong with reading was reading all these things where “yeah, this might be helpful to know someday,” but didn’t have any connection to what I was doing at the moment. I think any book recommendation needs to be timely. I love giving book recommendations so if you want to message me with what you’re looking for I’d be happy to give a personal one.
I think The Lindy Effect of how long a book will be around in the future is basically proportional to how long it has already been around is a good rule of thumb. So the go-to in productivity is always “Getting Things Done”. I think it’s pretty timeless and if you could implement the things you find in that book you’re 90% of the way there. I think the challenge that I work with clients is “Okay, now you know what to do. How can you actually implement the things from that book?”
Two from recent years that have made an impression on me and that I refer a lot of my clients to, the first one is just called “The One Thing”. As an entrepreneur, you have this massive buffet of tasks you could be working on at any time but there’s a power law there. The most important task that you could be working on right now is more important than all the rest of the tasks combined. What The One Thing does is really drive this idea home of how can you figure out what your most important thing to do is right now and focus your efforts on that. That’s what I do with a lot of my clients. Figuring out what your biggest priority is both long-term and day to day and how can you remove all of your obstacles from working on that. Figuring out what the One Thing is and then spending your time on the One Thing.
The other one, which is making a lot of waves in the productivity circles, is called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. The main thesis is that the majority of our work day to day is shallow and very low impact. Things like email or anything that’s reactive or working off other people’s priorities.
Solving Hamming problems, making a dent in the universe by doing important work, it all comes from focusing for long periods of time on a single task. “Deep Work” is strategies for creating the space to make lots of progress on your most important problem. What Cal advocates is setting aside a whole day or a part of your day to do one thing and just focus on that. Step away from your desk and walk around outside to let the ideas germinate but eliminate all of this task switching that we’re used to doing and build your muscle of focusing on one thing at a time for longer periods of time.
In an ideal situation, all of your work would be Deep Work. You’d be just in maker mode all day with no manager — no admin, no emails, none of that. The more realistic scenario is asking how can you be anti-fragile? When interruption and distractions are inevitable, how can you ramp up quicker and maximize the amount of time spent in flow once you get there?
In essence, I would recommend starting with “Deep Work”, “The One Thing” and “Getting Things Done”. If you’ve read all three of those and you’re looking for more let me know. Once you’ve passed the universal best practices, where I find the most value is looking at top performers in other fields, areas, like you mentioned, the martial arts or chefs or manufacturing, areas that are very focused on process and taking the best ideas and principles from those fields and applying them to productivity. But before you get to that point, you have to adopt all the best practices first.
Chris Reynolds: Nice, man. Incredible. One other thing I wanted to touch on before we finish the podcast, some of this applies and overlaps to neuroscience and I know you’ve studied a bit of it in your day and it relates to playing poker and productivity and all of this. I just would like if you could share some of your thoughts about neuroscience.
Chris Sparks: Neuroscience is a really fascinating field. At the end of the day our whole experience of reality is just a product of electrical impulses firing in the brain. All of our moods, all of our feelings, are just chemical imbalances, one chemical being added at the expense of another. It’s a very pseudoscience-y way of putting it, but essentially everything arises from the brain. By understanding the brain we can understand humanity. I keep a close eye on developments in neuroscience. I think it’s a field that is poised for breakthrough as we see these kind of exponential improvements of technology in ways of imaging the brain, ways of studying individual neurons and tagging those to behavior. Right now, it’s still very much a black box.
If you look at artificial intelligence and machine learning with artificial neural networks, which are loosely based on the neural systems we have in the brain, you have inputs, then big black box where we don’t know what happens, and then output. We’re still scratching the surface of understanding what’s going on there. I think it’s a field that’s really poised for a breakthrough as we hit the next paradigm in terms of technology. It really starts to get interesting when you talk about genetic modification, brain implants, optimizing your chemical levels, being able to electrically stimuli different parts of your brain to activate specific modules that are conducive to the type of work you’re doing. All this stuff is on the cutting edge. I do think once you reach a certain level in your productivity, whether personally or as a society, the next tier of development will be efforts to be closer to our human ideal, the Übermensch.
Man, I get so into this stuff. I will say that with neuroscience it’s really tricky to separate the science from the hype. Pretty much any mainstream, popular science article you read about neuroscience is either wrong or misleading. and to be avoided. They’re extrapolating from a single case with very small sample size or completely interpreting wrong. I think if you really want to see what’s happening in neuroscience you need to go to the source and read the scientific papers because, like real news, it just gets distorted and filtered along the way. It’s a big game of telephone by the time it reaches you in the popular science.
That being said, I love neuroscience. I love nerding out about it. I think it’s really exciting and I think it’s a big part of why the next five to 10 years is going so inherently unpredictable, because one huge breakthrough in this field affects all others, completely changing the course of human history.
Chris Reynolds: I completely agree. Chris, is there anything else you’d like to share with the listeners before we sign off?
Chris Sparks: There’s so much I could share. If you could take one thing it’s to figure out what it is that gets you out of bed in the morning. Having a compelling reason that’s larger than yourself that causes you to evaluate the things that are not amazing in your life, the day to day minutia, the challenges, sales, etc and decide, “Okay, this is worth it because my overall larger goal is worth it.”
I love the idea that the ultimate productivity hack is internal coherence, that when your day to day actions match your longer term goals, you have coherence. A good way of doing that is just chasing what excites you. Put yourself in the equivalent of a garage, all the real innovation is happening on the weekends in your 20% time. Chase what excites you and then try to find some form of exchange. Presumably there’s things that you’re expert level in — skills that you really undervalue but that other people place a high value upon.
As far as your day to day productivity, know what your number one priority is at any given time. If you don’t know what your number one priority is, that’s your number one priority, to figure it out. Most of your work is wasted effort. It’s not going to really move the business forward. Your goal is to get really clear on your priorities and get rid of all the obstacles.
Chris Reynolds: Chris, you’ve mentioned a couple times in this show about the listeners or people getting clear on what they want written on their tombstone. I’m just curious, I’m sure the listeners would like to hear, too, what do you want written on our tombstone?
Chris Sparks: What first came to mind there was, “Chris Sparks, advancer of humanity.” I don’t know what form that takes. I think two aspects of the thread that ties all of my efforts together are, one, understanding what makes us human and, two, understanding how we can operate at peak. The way I’ve said it to other people before is raising the average sanity level of humanity. I’d like to think that I can make a small pimple in the universe by either advancing our understanding of ourselves as humans or by popularizing and synthesizing the ideas of other people, making them into an actionable form. I hope that’s the path that my life takes. As far as the specifics, I mean, that’s the fun part.
Chris Reynolds: Chris, if there’s any listeners out there that want to reach out and inquire about coaching or contacting you, where can they do that at?
Chris Sparks: Sure. As you guys can tell, I love talking about all this stuff so very happy to continue the conversation. Please reach out if anything I mentioned today struck a chord or if you have any further questions. A lot of this was extremely compressed and I’m happy to point you to some further resources if that’s of interest.
My personal site is SparksVC.com. I’m currently relaunching as a nice professional site that’s all the rage these days but this address will definitely redirect you once it’s launched. You can also find me on all the various social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. My handle on all of the above is @SparksRemarks, easy to remember. Yeah, feel free to reach out. I’d love to continue the conversation.
Chris Reynolds: We’ll put all those links in the show notes. Chris, we want to give you a big thank you for coming on this show, man. You have a wealth of information that you have given us and I really, really appreciate it. I love talking to productivity hackers so thank you, Chris, very much. Thank you listeners for coming onto the show one more time and that’s a wrap for today. We’ll see you guys on the next episode. Bye, everybody!