Defeating Mr. Mole: Overcome Your Default Belief System and Take over Control
Dedicated to the people who are humble and generous enough to admit we’re flawed, and need to improve ourselves. Together, we will change things.
[This is a book I’ve just published a couple of days ago. I was hesitating whether I should give it away for free, but I believe we all need to deeply think about the ideas of this book. So here it goes, for free. If you’d like the ebook version (epub, mobi, pdf) you can download it for free here. Or if you want a paperback copy, you can buy it here.
I know it’s long. But I refuse to insult you by dumbing it down. Your future, our future, is worth the 26,000 words. So please, start asking yourself, “what are the assumptions, I take for granted, that are ruling my life?” and don’t stop asking until we can all agree what’s truth. Thank you.]
I was running out of options. It was New Year’s Eve, 11:55 p.m. I was in Chile, sitting quietly in my apartment’s balcony drinking a beer. Alone. I think I was drinking a Heineken. Or another cheap brand with green bottles. I don’t remember. I actually wanted a Corona, but I was so broke I couldn’t afford a decent beer. For the first time in my life I was going to be alone on New Year’s Eve. And also for the first time I was so close to having a nervous breakdown. At this point I was completely lost and I didn’t know how to get out of the rabbit hole.
I’m not a big fan of Christmas, but there’s something that if you are alone on those days you feel pretty bad.
This was by far the loneliest I’ve ever felt. I was far, too far away from anybody I knew. I called my family and friends pretending everything was okay, but it wasn’t. I was far from being okay. I was deadly broke. My business wasn’t taking off. I had lost 20 pounds — I had been eating rice and beans for months. And if that wasn’t enough, my visa was about to expire and I had to leave Chile in the following weeks. Or they would kick me out of the country.
I had really screwed up this time.
The excruciating downward spiral began when I moved to Chile with the idea of starting a business.
Why the heck did I go there?
I had made my decision even before I considered moving. Why there? I don’t know.
I had been traveling for a long time. And I didn’t pay attention at first, but along the way there were breadcrumbs that would lead me to this path. Clues that I was ignoring, but overtime became the key to everything.
Traveling further and further had started to look like a pattern within me. This time, going to South America, the intentions felt different. Maybe I was running from something. Or maybe I thought I would find answers there.
I’ve been all over the place in Asia, but this moment was the first time I asked myself: Why the hell am I here? Why am I doing what I’m doing?
Steve Jobs said: “I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: «If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?» And whenever the answer has been «No» for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” I was way passed that line. I needed to change something.
You know those moments when you’re so full of questions you can’t articulate even one? I was like that. And maybe the only thing I could ask myself was… why?
Motivation was running in short supply.
All these years I’ve been on the grind. But there’s a point where motivation runs out.
Suddenly I didn’t have any motivation. I had started to sleep more than ever and was getting more tired than I’ve ever been in my entire life.
I lacked fuel and I needed to refuel.
I needed answers so I could get myself on the right track — I needed to find my purpose. In other words, I needed to find my true self.
Now it was midnight, New Year’s here. Everybody was celebrating and I just sat there in silence.
All these thoughts went through my mind quickly. Somehow I started to doubt I would find my answers in Chile. Maybe I wouldn’t find the answers I was looking for in any country at all.
The funny thing was that I tried to keep lying to myself, thinking that I knew what I wanted.
My own cultural beliefs had taken control of me and it would take me a few more months to figure it out.
The difference this time, though, was that I followed the breadcrumbs. I had been there before. I could tell.
It was a matter of time until I would figure it out.
Right there I discovered that my problem wasn’t my location. It was my belief system. I was facing my own beliefs and values, and something wasn’t working out.
I didn’t want the opposite thing of what I was doing, nor the thing itself — I didn’t know what I wanted. And that was when I became aware for the first time of my own flaws as a human being.
The answers weren’t thousands of miles away. They were within myself.
That was when I first met Mr. Mole. And you will also meet him soon.
2. WHY I DO WHAT I DO?
It turns out we haven’t got the faintest idea why we do what we do. We can take a guess, or at least have a nice shot trying. But the only way to actually get there is through a deliberate thoughtful process.
Every human being has an operating system at their core, that determines how that person works, with applications that sit on top. Our brains work like a computer. Throughout life we acquire new applications (think about these apps like reading, design, mathematics, or any other skill), and we update them constantly. However, we never change, nor reboot our operating system.
The problem with that is, just like with any operating system, the system starts running with bugs. Bugs we’re not even aware of. For us, applications are all that matters. Nevertheless, we miss a big thing when we don’t analyze our operating systems and remove these bugs that end up running our decision making process.
What happens is that, by default, we get a framework from the society and culture we grow up with. This determines our beliefs and values. Those are default features we don’t get to choose — our culture does. This is a bug everybody has, which takes different forms depending on the culture you’re in.
Let me introduce you to Mr. Mole, the bug in your operating system that determines your beliefs and values for you.
Mr. Mole is incredibly powerful. He is ingrained in our lives, but we don’t know he exists. In fact, we don’t even recognize him — we just receive his influence in the form of the beliefs and values we take for granted.
Mr. Mole is dangerous. He drives your decisions without you even knowing it.
He works within your subconscious. That’s where Mr. Mole is located and where his default values and beliefs are infecting your operating system.
You don’t know what these core beliefs and values are. You don’t know where they come from, and not even what they are assuming. Mr. Mole is too powerful to let you know how he’s influencing you. Mr. Mole lives in the lowest level that affects your decisions — the deepest level that drives your behavior subconsciously. If you’ve seen the movie Inception, that’s the level where the characters have the biggest battle throughout the movie. It’s the level they call inception — pure, unfolded unconscious.
That’s where we’re going. This book will take you there.
3. THE MONKEY’S SYNDROME
Back in the 1960s, the story goes1 a group of scientists put five monkeys into a room with a basket of bananas at the top of a ladder. The monkeys, of course, tried to climb the ladder to get the bananas. But every time a monkey tried to do that, they were all sprayed with cold water. Really quickly monkeys learned “don’t climb the ladder or we’ll be sprayed with cold water.”
Next, they took a monkey out and put a new monkey in. The new guy, obviously, tried to climb the ladder to get a banana, but when it tried, the other four monkeys pulled it back, because they didn’t want to be sprayed with cold water. They taught the new monkey their rules.
Then, systematically, they pulled every monkey out, replacing them with new monkeys. So now there are five monkeys, none of which have ever been sprayed with cold water. But still, any time a new monkey comes in and tries to climb the ladder, they pull it back.
These monkeys now have a buggy operating system. Mr. Mole’s showed up. The new default behavior is, if a new monkey goes up, grab it before it gets to the top.
What if a new monkey comes in — while the other monkeys have been there for years — and starts asking why they can’t go to the basket? That one monkey with that question, could collapse the entire assumption that has been ruling the other monkeys for years.
In the same way, so many things that are true in life can collapse if you ask the right question.
It turns out we’re not so different from these monkeys. We take lots of beliefs for granted and we’ve got no idea why we do what we do.
What pulls us back from the ladder is Mr. Mole.
4. THE HARD TRUTH
Most of us make decisions in life based on two influences:
- The life we want to live, where we control — for the most part — what we do, and
- The life our society wants us to live.
This isn’t new, and some people are aware of these influences. This is what most people think that happens:
However, this is what actually happens:
The hard truth is we’re not in control of the beliefs and values that shape our thought process. Not until we kill Mr. Mole.
Probably right now you’re thinking that this doesn’t happen to you, but level with me here. Stop for a second and think about any decision you regret. If you can’t find it, look for one that you find “okay”, but your gut tells you that something was wrong.
Have you ever gone to a party you didn’t want to, but culturally felt obliged to? Have you ever studied something you didn’t want to, but that your parents told you you should? Have you ever bought clothes because it’s what people like you wear? Have you ever wanted to be an artist, but culturally you were better off studying law or medicine? Have you ever wanted to move to another country, but something stopped you? Have you ever wanted the world, but your culture diminished you? Then you’ve already met Mr. Mole.
BOOK ONE: IDENTIFYING MR. MOLE
5. HOW MR. MOLE IS MANIPULATING YOU
Mr. Mole gives each one of us a hard time in different ways. But there are some common topics that keep coming back again and again. This is a list of the most common ones, where Mr. Mole plays his part:
- The pursuit of any career where you do it just because it has better outcomes.
- Studying any career because your parents wanted you to, even though it makes your life miserable (ie. Law, Medicine, Engineering, …)
- Believing that great performance in school leads to happiness and success. Also that great parents have kids who perform great in school.
- Following a religion.
- The search for happiness through the unplanned and impulsive acquisition of stuff — people call it shopping.
- Worrying about how you look to others, instead of how you look to yourself.
- Thinking that work is something that sucks, and you don’t have the power to change it.
- Anything that involves “we’ve always done it this way”.
- Any event you felt culturally obliged to go to.
- Believing you’re a rational human being.
To put it another way, anything that challenges the status quo and the beliefs and values of the society you live in. Beliefs and values that are ingrained in your mind when you grow up in a certain environment.
So, how is Mr. Mole manipulating you in particular? Let’s first analyze this Mr. Mole to grasp an idea of his power.
6. MR. MOLE IS INVISIBLE
I remember this moment vividly. It was the first time I went to China. I had already been in other countries in Europe and in America, but I hadn’t been in a “different” culture. Western cultures are alike, but China? That’s a whole different world. I went there for a summer internship and it was terrific.
When I landed I had this weird experience of oh boy, what is this? It felt totally different and I had just been outside the airport one minute. Then some time went by and I was just amazed by everything. Everything was so different that it got your attention. Details that in your country you wouldn’t appreciate, but in China I noticed every one of them.
It took me a while to understand how Chinese work, though at the beginning I just kept thinking: “why do the Chinese act this way?”
How stupid of me.
Then it hit me. They’re wired that way.
“Does this mean they think the same about me?” You betcha.
Each of us is hardwired in a different way. And there’s no right way.
That was the first time I started to unveil Mr. Mole. It seemed easy. I just had to find some common ground between what I thought to be true, and what this other culture thought to be true. And in the middle I found some interesting stuff. However, what was interesting happened at the edges, the things outside the common ground — the social beliefs and values that are particular to each culture.
Were they true?
It wasn’t just a different way to think — it was an entirely different way to make decisions that would lead to different outcomes.
When people make decisions, they just look at the surface layer. But below that there’s a hidden social system that’s embedded very deeply.
This is what makes Mr. Mole so powerful. Mr. Mole makes people believe they’re in total control of their thoughts. Which is reinforced when people can’t accept the idea that their subconscious is the one making the decisions. The rational brain is just there to find creative arguments that feed the illusion of conscious control.
Mr. Mole is invisible. And if by any chance you notice him, you’ll just perceive his shape: a belief or value you take for granted.
For me, it had started to become clear what was going on. At least I thought that, but I was fooling myself. There was something bigger going on.
Figuring this out was easy, the harder part was to dig deep into the next layer. That one I wouldn’t find until I came back to China for a second time.
7. MR. MOLE IS RELENTLESS
In this first trip to China I was blown away by Beijing and Shanghai. So I decided I wanted to live there, and I started to plan my next trip to China before I even left the country.
The thing was that I had to come back to Spain and finish my degree in Marketing, but I could also find a job in Beijing, and jump straight into the life I wanted. It was perfect, I could use my last month to meet more people and land a good job. However, something started to happen in my mind. Mr. Mole started to manipulate me again.
Somehow he led me to think that I had to finish my degree. I didn’t think how coming back to finish it would help me to improve my career — it wouldn’t. But Mr. Mole is relentless and social pressure had started to kick in.
What would people think of me if I didn’t finish? What would it mean for society if I didn’t get that diploma, when I only needed six more months to finish it? What would my family think of me? And my friends?
In the end, Mr. Mole made sure I arrived at the conclusion that without my diploma, I would feel pretty bad and people would end up rejecting me. Not finishing my degree was a shame.
So I didn’t look for a job. I just came back and finished my degree.
I could have waited one more year and have gotten my degree then. Or never, who would have cared? Would that make me incompetent? Of course not, that’s stupid. But that was what Mr. Mole had made me believe.
Mr. Mole is relentless and the harder the pressure from the status quo, the harder he kicks back at you.
8. MR. MOLE DRIVES ON A ONE-WAY ROAD
Mr. Mole only drives in one direction — even in the most open cultures. Which means that if one thing is true, the opposite is wrong. We can lie to ourselves all day long, but his beliefs and values are so powerful that you won’t notice them.
He drives on a one-way road in Spain, and he drives in another direction in the US, or China — nobody is free of Mr. Mole. There’s only one way of life, and if you don’t like it, you’re not welcome in that culture. You’re an outsider. And we’ll reject you.
It’s what Seth Godin calls the powerful tribal marketing connection: “People like us do things like this.”2
This is how we identify ourselves with each other. This is a powerful force that can lead to terrible outcomes.
9. MR. MOLE MANIPULATES YOU WITHOUT YOU EVEN NOTICING IT
Most of your brain doesn’t speak English (they say 95%3). That’s the same brain a monkey has, and part of its job is to keep you alive. Move muscles, give you signals when something doesn’t work (pain), tell you when you have to eat, pump your blood — all that kind of stuff.
Whatever happens in that 95%, it happens at a subconscious level. And that means you don’t have any conscious control over it. So Mr. Mole has the power to make you believe whatever he wants.
We like to believe we’re smarter than we actually are, and that we’re rational machines. But we’re far from that. We’re emotional machines. We rationalize reality through the information that comes from a filter our subconscious puts there.
Mr. Mole plays in that ground. Mr. Mole controls that 95% of your brain, where you’re not aware of why you think what you think. Your conscious mind’s only job is to try to make up an argument for why you think that way.
Consider shopping. You don’t buy something because you need it, you buy it because you want it. You want to fit in your culture. If within your tribe there’s a particular dress code, you end up wearing the same outfit just to fit in.
Mr. Mole is manipulative, especially when you think you’re in control of your decisions — that’s when he becomes the most persuasive.
10. MR. MOLE LOVES ASSUMPTIONS
We jump too quickly to conclusions we don’t have any idea about.
“What is that?”
“That must be [x]”
We don’t know what that is, but pretty quickly we assume what that is.
Mr. Mole loves to jump to conclusions.
Recently, I remember I published an article where I talked about the future of humanity. I spent months reading and thinking about the issue, so I could connect the dots and find a rational (or at least as rational as possible) argument on why we need to care about privacy.
Well, some people loved it, and some people hated it. The thing about the people who hated it (most of them at least), was that they let Mr. Mole take over, and find the shiniest point in the argument and refute it. (Or I might be making an assumption right now.)
Mr. Mole does this all the time. On a higher or lower level, it happens to all of us. Even though we don’t want it, our environment shapes our thinking against our will.
Mr. Mole just can’t resist the temptation of making assumptions from narrow or incomplete information.
11. MR. MOLE LOVES SOCIAL COMPARISONS
Most people live their lives based on how well they’re doing,compared to other people in their environment.
Mr. Mole makes you feel unhappy, until you get to be like the person who has a higher status than you.
The problem with this, of course, is that there’s always someone with higher status. There’s always someone taller, richer, prettier… go down the list.
Advertising boosts Mr. Mole by selling you the idea of status and unhappiness, by making you compare yourself to others.
This of course gets weirder with social media.
And I believe there’s a correlation between how unhappy someone is, and the quantity of pictures that person shares on social media.
In fact, the other day I was having dinner with some friends. One of them said that a year ago, he was having some complicated personal issues and was seriously considering a change. To what my other friend said: “I would have never thought that of you, you were always posting pictures partying on social media.”
12. MR. MOLE RELIES ON THE SYSTEM
We don’t put our preferences first — we don’t really care. Actually, we believe they do matter, but we prioritize the status quo over what we want every single time.
Everybody has individual needs, some people get lucky and their needs match with the status quo (very few people get that — more often than not is the status quo that decides for us). But when they don’t match, we still rely on the system and justify somehow the status quo.
Whenever there’s a clash between people’s needs and the status quo, people tend to defend and justify it — even when the clash leaves them in clear disadvantage.
This is called System Justification Theory in social psychology, which says: the “need for order and stability, and thus resistance to change or alternatives, can be a motivator for individuals to see the status quo as good, legitimate, and even desirable.”4
Mr. Mole doesn’t want to feel like an outsider in the system. So it relies on it. That way he can maintain social status and avoid shame.
“When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.”
— Seth Godin on Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us.
13. MR. MOLE AND RESISTANCE
Steven Pressfield coined the term “Resistance” in his book The War of Art, as the inner voice we have that stops us from doing our best work.5
That voice is based on the lizard brain, which is exactly the reason we’re still alive as human beings. It’s the voice that reacts to whatever seems threatening.
That brain is the same brain a chicken has. If you put it in the middle of the road, with cars coming both ways, it will run to the side — because that’s what is does: survive.
In the past it had its advantages, but in today’s world it’s doing more harm than good. The best example is public speaking. No one has ever died for giving a speech, but it feels dangerous. When we lived on tribal behavior thousands of years ago, speaking up was dangerous. If the leader of the tribe didn’t like you, he would kick you out and you would starve to death. In today’s world? That fear is based on thousands of years of evolution.
Resistance runs deep in our culture — it’s hardwired within us.
“We can never eliminate Resistance.” Steven Pressfield says. “It will never go away. But we can outsmart it, and we can enlist allies that are as powerful as it is.”6
Resistance is based on hardware. It’s ingrained in our brain. You can overcome it again and again, but you won’t kill it, because it runs on hardware. And until somebody figures out how to rewrite our brain, Resistance won’t go away. Mr. Mole, on the other hand, runs on software. He is rooted in our social operating system and runs the beliefs and values we’ve soaked from society.
It’s very hard to make him go away. But just like a computer, you can format and reboot your operating system. You can’t have the perfect system, but you can rebuild it to meet your specs.
Then you can install applications on top of it.
We’ve seen Mr. Mole’s characteristic. Now let’s examine the symptoms. Because before debugging your system, you have to analyze where the bugs are.
14. MR. MOLE AND THE PAST
Mr. Mole lives in the past. He’s afraid to death of change, and loves the status quo.
Mr. Mole thinks in terms of what people expect from you, to be whatever it is you’ve always been — they want you as you are, not as you could be.
Of course when change shows up, people in your circle might reject you — depending on how big that change is. The bigger the change, the bigger the resistance towards it.
15. MR. MOLE AND IRRATIONALITY
Being human is painfully tough — at least from a rational point of view. In the end, we’re emotional machines and we do irrational things all the time.
You just have to read a couple of books on behavioral economics, and see how you don’t control your decision making process. And how vulnerable any human being actually is.
In 2011 Daniel Kahneman published his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which summarizes over a decade of research on how our brain works. And his central thesis is about the division of two modes of thought: System 1 and System 2.
System 1 is the automatic response of the brain. It’s our instinctive reaction to things. This system works fast and doesn’t have time to wait for System 2 to catch up. It’s also the reason we’ve made it this far as human beings.
System 2 is the rational one. It’s slower because it puts our neocortex to work. It’s slow, but we’re aware of this one. System 2 is the voice that doesn’t shut up in our heads.
The problem with Mr. Mole is that he’s invisible. We don’t notice when he’s influencing our decision making process, because he’s deeply woven into the fabrics of our lives.
Mr. Mole works through System 1. He works by urge, an automatic reaction to the rules and values of society. You can’t trust him.
We’re not aware of our own fickleness and inability to act rationally. We don’t (nor can we) question thoroughly everything we do on a regular basis. Because the truth being said, we’re far away from being logical and consistent — we’re not even close.
16. MR. MOLE AND THE AVERAGE
Believing we are above average is a symptom of Mr. Mole.
Again, there’s a universal tendency to believe that we’re better, smarter and better looking than the average person. But if everybody is above average, who’s below?
If I ask you to rate yourself on almost anything, on a scale of 1 to 10, you’re probably going to think you’re a seven — at least. Try this at home with your peers, nobody would ever think of themselves as a 5 or below. Ever.
The funny thing is that by making think you’re above average, what Mr. Mole is doing is actually keeping you average, so you can fit in your culture.
Mr. Mole presents another symptom, what social psychologists call the Bias Blind Spot.7 Which basically means we can spot others’ mistakes from a mile away, but we’re unable to recognize our own flaws — and we’re not even close to spot assumptions.
This symptom is especially powerful while dealing with someone from a different culture. Someone who is not from our system. We can easily spot the mistakes from individuals from a different system, but we’re blind to spot the mistakes in our own system.
Mr. Mole spots flaws (or perceived flaws) from different systems right away, reinforcing our own beliefs and values.
You can’t take Mr. Mole lightly. If you let him, he will become more powerful every time you reinforce his beliefs and values.
17. MR. MOLE AND MEANING
Mr. Mole makes you focus on the short-term.
He might make you think in the future in terms of retirement, family and housing. But that’s the only thing he wants for the future. The rest of the time Mr. Mole lives on a day-to-day basis.
Sometimes that’s great, because he forces you to be more present in the moment. But when it comes to your life’s meaning and fulfillment, he won’t allow you to focus on the important stuff.
But first, what’s the difference between urgent and important?
Let’s say you have to catch a morning flight at 9 a.m. If you wake up at 7 a.m. you’re already late and you might miss the flight. So you’re going to run through the airport like a crazy person. You feel the urgency of arriving on time. You run because it’s urgent.
In this case, what would have been more important? Getting up at 5 a.m., so you wouldn’t have to start your day stressed and angry.
That’s the difference between urgent and important.
Life meaning is important. But since it’s not urgent and doesn’t match with your most basic beliefs and values, you ignore it.
18. MR. MOLE AND HAPPINESS
Mr. Mole bases happiness on external expectations.
This is the reason many people think happiness comes from money. These people say: “money doesn’t buy happiness, but it pays for therapy.”
The fact that we look for happiness in external factors is not surprising. We’ve been bombarded with ads for a long time — more than a century already. We’ve absorbed the maxims of capitalism: unless you have this, you’ll never be happy.
Most people buy temporary happiness through whims. Materialism, in the end, is the choice to be unhappy until you get the thing you want. Then you enjoy a few days of artificial happiness until the next whim shows up.
Following a compulsive buying disorder leads to unhappiness. But what really drives that behavior is often a clash between people’s values and the ones of society — which usually ends up in a lack of meaning and motivation.
Even if you don’t perceive this, replacing your own beliefs and values with external expectations is one of the biggest sources of unhappiness.
Why is that?
Because happiness doesn’t mean the same for everybody. But there’s a universal definition of happiness Mr. Mole wants us to believe: being rich.
Let’s be honest, having money solve lots of problems, but it’s not necessarily the source of happiness.
19. MR. MOLE AND RESPONSIBILITIES
Too often in every culture there’s a default set of obligations. It’s becoming harder and harder to identify them, but not so long ago, those obligations were to find a partner, to get married as soon as you can, to have kids and to find a job where you could stay for the rest of your life.
Today there are variations of these obligations we’re not aware of.
One of the things that happens when you travel a lot and live abroad, is that people get fascinated by it. Almost every time the conversation gets to a point where someone says “I wish I could do that.”
And every time I say, “anybody can do it.” As you can guess, most people respond to that with: “I can’t do what you do, I’ve got responsibilities.” Some even add to that “…unlike you.” To which every single time I say to myself, so do I. But I try to be nice to ask which obligations. And these are just excuses most of the time.
I’m not trying to diminish anyone’s situation. Some people have serious obligations I’m not even aware of. But almost always those “obligations” come from default beliefs. It might turn out some people don’t really want to live abroad, or just won’t do something that’s not approved in their culture.
Every single time, it comes down to things that are set up as important by default — but aren’t that important after all.
I pick traveling because it’s the easiest example, but you can pick any situation you want that ends up with: “I can’t do that, I’ve got responsibilities.”
20. MR. MOLE AND THE CONFIRMATION BIAS
Have you ever noticed how when you make a decision, you look for ways to confirm that you were right?
We all get very creative. It’s amazing to see what you can come up with. And unless you’re aware of this flaw (and actively look for it), you will buy your own bullshit. We all do.
This is what social psychologists call Confirmation Bias. It’s a type of cognitive bias that tends to search for, interpret and recall information in a way that affirms preexisting beliefs.8
Too often we have the truth in front of us, but ignore it. We just want to reinforce our beliefs. The rest? It’s not there for our eyes.
Don’t believe me yet? Pick any medium to high purchase you’ve done recently. How many times have you confirmed how great the product was after you bought it? Probably, too many.
Mr. Mole loves to be right.
Or consider when you read a book and only notice the insight of the things you’re doing right. But ignore the critical points you could use to learn from, and improve something in your life.
This is one of the nastiest symptoms of Mr. Mole: our need to be right all the time. And confirm it.
21. MR. MOLE AND WORLDVIEWS
One of the first things you learn when you study marketing, as I did, is that each person has a different worldview. What the world looks like to one person, doesn’t necessarily mean the same to another. But there’s a common worldview within a same culture — and that’s a dangerous area.
The best way to learn how to see this is through soccer (or any other competitive sport). Your team is the good one. But the people from the other team are the bad guys — you hate them. And your willingness to like other teams depends on if it would make the team that is against your own look bad. If any team helps yours to make the other team miserable, you like them.
Mr. Mole’s first reaction is to see your culture, beliefs and values like the predominant ones. You’re the one with the right stuff, they’re the ones who are getting it wrong.
Alas, that’s our first impression, and lots of people get stuck in it. But I believe it’s the other way around: “the enemy of my enemy is myself.”
There’s no right worldview, just different ways to look at the world. But what happens in soccer, happens in every part of our lives. And it all comes down to status.
22. MR. MOLE AND STATUS
Have you ever thought about lawns? I mean, why do people spend so much money on them? In the end, they’re expensive and don’t bring us any actual value.
If you ask any couple who happen to be building a house, they probably want to have a nice lawn in the front yard. If you ask them why, they would say “because it’s beautiful”. But… is it? Or is Mr. Mole playing again?
We can argue about whether lawns are beautiful and agree. But where does that beauty come from? From a rational point of view having a lawn “just because it’s beautiful” is a waste of resources. We have to go back a few hundred years to understand the assumption of: lawns are beautiful, I want a big lawn in my house.
Back in the Middle Ages it was uncommon to cultivate grass. The reason was simple, you couldn’t produce anything of value with grass. And if for some reason you ended up wasting that land, you’d be in big trouble. Unless you were a French or English aristocrat of course. They were the only ones in the Middle Ages to have nice lawns in the entrance of public buildings and private residences (castles).9
The idea they wanted to transmit was simple: I have so much money that I can waste this land. It was a status symbol. And over time this habit became a common practice.
In the last two centuries lawns entered into sports. Humans have been playing for thousands of years on any kind of ground. But now the most “important” games are played on a lawn. It’s a way to identify economic wealth and social status.
In the Victorian era, things started to shift and the habit of having lawn began to run even deeper into our culture. In the nineteenth century industrialists, lawyers and bankers started to own lawns. But with the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle class, suddenly a lot of families could afford a house. So getting a lawn was the first thing they did. It became a way to show off their new status.
Coming back to the couple buying a house, even if you told them this story, they would still think lawns are beautiful. And obviously, they would deny this influence from centuries ago. But the truth lies deep down, where Mr. Mole operates.
What is status actually about?
Where does it come from?
23. MR. MOLE AND STATUS, PART TWO
Once you see status at work you can’t unsee it. Status is involved in every part of our lives. It is at play in your job, and it even decides political elections.10
Status is something that’s been ingrained for millennia. It matters especially to human beings, but also in the wild. Animals play status games all the time. It’s a way to decide who eats first.
Status roles are everywhere and influence us at a high level. Basically what happens is that we ask ourselves all the time “who’s up?” and “who’s down?” That’s the social hierarchy we care about.
By default, people love to say: “Probably I don’t have everything, but I have more than you do.”
That’s the holy grail for marketers. And they know it. Pretty well. The act of saying I have more than you do, has built layer after layer of our behavior and been adopted into our definition of success.
Human beings really do care about status roles. There’s nothing more human than looking at other people, and deciding where we stand. Marketers and especially politicians, repeatedly manipulate us by playing with status roles.
Studying in a prestigious university is a status role. Wearing a suit is a status role — that person gets better treatment. Buying an expensive car is a status role. Voting for a particular politician is a status roles.
Deep down people care about status. And that’s built into capitalism. Capitalism requires status roles in order to work.
So what is it that triggers our desire for status?
24. MR. MOLE AND STATUS, PART THREE
Seth Godin goes into great detail about status roles in his podcast Akimbo11, and points out that shame is the “status enforcer”:
“Shame is the status enforcer. What we have done is orchestrate a culture where if you’re surrounded by people with more status than you — or if you believe they have more status than you — we’ve instructed you to feel shame. And we hate shame.
“Shame is the deal killer. Shame undermines all of the things that we seek to have. So to avoid shame, we make bad decisions. We make decisions that honor marketers or those who manipulate us as opposed to doing what’s best for us and the people around us. And it’s important that we learn to see it.”
We’re being manipulated: to purchase, to vote, to go into debt.
Status has no actual value in itself. It’s the story that Mr. Mole wants us to believe — that we are worth more than the person who is below us. That shame is the trigger marketers, politicians and other parties want us to feel, so they can manipulate us to behave however they want.
Shame is what pushes us to vote.
Shame is what makes people go (bury themselves) into debt.
Shame is what makes people spend $1.000 on a smartphone.
Shame is what drives capitalism.
Shame is controlled by Mr. Mole.
It goes without saying that in the digital world, social media platforms amplify this feeling. These networks knew exactly what emotion they were triggering from day one: shame.
25. MR. MOLE AND SOCIAL MEDIA
Social Media is Mr. Mole on steroids. It reinforces him and makes him stronger than ever before. Here status plays its part. This is a game where the only thing we worry about is how we look like to others — what others might think of us.
What happens on these social networks isn’t new. It’s been happening for a long time. However, the problem is that while in the past your status didn’t have to be higher than anyone in the world — just higher than the people in your circle — now that circle is amplified.
What social media networks are giving you is a show, where you prove that you’re better than the people around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling depressed, all that matters is how you look to others.
There’s also another side of this that leads to depression and anxiety. That’s when you see that the people in your circle (an amplified circle) are doing way better than you. So again, we keep coming back to the feeling of shame.
There’s a fantastic episode of Black Mirror called Nosedive12, where you can see exactly all these status roles at work. The society uses a social (media) credit system where people are seen as better citizens if they have a higher score. The idea behind that episode is that we’d do anything to gain more status — even if that means going against our own values.
What these social networks do is to create a game, where you’re the player. They create a set of social rules that feeds Mr. Mole, through ranks and systems that give into our most innate feeling — shame. They put us in a hamster wheel and modify our behavior based on a basic flaw: the belief system’s bug that runs the status show.
26. MR. MOLE AND RELIGION
Religion, along with status is one of the top boosters for Mr. Mole. It’s surprising that even though we might think we don’t follow a religion, in one way or another we all do. And that can be dangerous.
What’s a religion, anyway? Yuval Noah Harari defines it in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind as “a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order.”
Mr. Mole gets into shape through Religion.
“Religions assert that our laws are not the result of human caprice” Harari says. “But are ordained by an absolute and supreme authority. This helps place at least some fundamental laws beyond challenge, thereby ensuring social stability.”
That social stability is what Mr. Mole seeks through the validation of a supreme authority. Religion makes it even easier for Mr. Mole to validate our beliefs and values which, sometimes could go completely against the natural inclination of the person.
When I say religion, don’t just think about the “official” ones like Christianism, Islam or Judaism. There are other kinds of religion like the MBA religion and its idea of what means to be an executive. Or the Apple religion, or even the Trump religion.
There’s nothing wrong with some religions, but the problem comes when they reinforce the status quo, at the expense of our own beliefs and values. That way they feed Mr. Mole. They provide a set of beliefs and values that makes it just too hard for us to change. And as a result, religions shape entire generations who adopt those new beliefs and values.
There are religions we adopt when we get older. These are easy to identify and a bit complicated to get rid of. But, too often religions are given to us when we’re just kids. Those are the ones that are hard to identify, and way tougher to overcome.
A religion is just a combination of invented rules and protocols to live by. It’s a system — a system that steals your ability to grow at its worst.
27. MR. MOLE AND BEAUTY
Can body language win elections?
In 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy appeared on TV for the first televised presidential debate in America. It was the first time politicians had started to become aware of the importance of body language and physical appearance.
If you watch the debate,13 you can see what I’m talking about. Kennedy was sharp. He had a nice presence — thanks to an elegant suit and the use of makeup. But also the way he mastered body language and showed confidence. Nixon, on the other hand, was recovering from a knee injury, and appeared unrested and sickly. People could also see his face sweating during the interview.
So, Kennedy clearly won the debate and the presidency. But here’s what’s interesting. People who watched the debate on TV thought Kennedy was going to be the next President. But radio listeners (smaller audience) thought Nixon had clearly won the debate.14
Nixon learned this lesson the hard way.
There is a big bug in our system, which makes us like good looking people and believe in them. It doesn’t matter if that person is a dumbass — our tendency is to be like that person. It’s not coincidence that a taller President has better chances of winning an election than a shorter one.15 That person could be the worst potential president of all, but if he or she is taller, we would welcome him or her as the next President.
Mr. Mole makes you believe this is insignificant, but this isn’t just politics. It rules our day-to-day decisions. From making yourself unhappy comparing yourself with others, to entering into a bad relationship, to making you trust the wrong people.
28. MR. MOLE AND SCHOOL
If you pick any child before she starts school, what you find is a child with a weak Mr. Mole and unfolded creativity. Once you put that child into the system, Mr. Mole reinforces himself and becomes stronger year after year.
How did we get to this point?
The real question here is: What is school for?16
To explain this, we’ve got to go back more than 100 years and see where and how school was created.
School is a product of the industrial age. That’s the same age that, thanks to the productivity that came with it, allowed us to buy stuff we couldn’t afford otherwise. This was a really profitable era for industrialists.
However, industrialists — the people who ran the factories — had two big problems at that time:
- They needed workers, and
- They needed consumers.
How did they kill two birds with one stone?
They created schools.
The first problem was that the industrialists didn’t have enough workers. And the reason they didn’t have enough workers, wasn’t that they needed more workers. The reason was that by having more workers, they could make more money — thus, pay them less.
But still, people didn’t seem convinced to move off their farms, to go into a dark hole for 12 hours a day and do what they’re told. But this was about to get solved.
The second problem was that industrialists were really worried that people weren’t going to buy their stuff. In the 1880s and 90s people didn’t have a lot of clothes — they didn’t want to consume more stuff than they needed. But this also was about to change.
School was born.
School was the perfect product to cover the industrialists’ needs. School produced factory workers, and trained kids to become consumers and buy stuff.
School was about teaching obedience. It was (still is) a training for fitting in. To become “normal”. Schools taught kids how to follow the rules. Don’t ask questions. Follow the manual. Become interchangeable. Don’t be late. Show respect. Stay in a chair for eight straight hours. They taught kids how to become better factory workers.
Today, school still is a training for kids to let Mr. Mole take control over them.
Mr. Mole thrives in school. In school, Mr. Mole is in the right environment to become more powerful than ever before. He has enough power from teachers and enough social pressure from other kids to dig deep into such a level that any kid has all odds against him to ever notice Mr. Mole in the future.
If you analyze more than 100 years, school hasn’t changed that much. But we have.
When I was 11 years old, my teachers decided that I wasn’t “prepared” for the next grade. So I was held back and had to stay with kids a year younger than me for the rest of my school days. You can imagine what that would mean to an 11-year-old kid. Suddenly I didn’t fit in. For Mr. Mole’s standards, I wasn’t normal.
I remember that I thought I couldn’t be successful. I thought that I was doomed to fail in life.
It took me several years until I got rid of that label I had. But up until that point, I just bought whatever narrative Mr. Mole fed me.
After all these years, the most widespread belief is that great performance in school leads to happiness and success. And Mr. Mole makes sure every child holds that to heart.
“Every child is an artist, the problem is staying and artist when you grow up.”
— Pablo Picasso
29. MR. MOLE AND STUFF
The entire advertising phenomena was built around the urge to buy stuff we don’t need, so we can fill a void in our lives. The goal is to make you unhappy until you buy the product they sell, so you can be happy again… Until another whim shows up.
It all starts in school. Before school was invented kids just had one pair of pants. But industrialists didn’t just make good factory workers, but also good consumers. So we started to acquire more stuff than we needed, and a new consumer culture was born.
I realized this the first time I went backpacking in the UK. I just carried a backpack, so I had to put everything I would use in the next couple of months in there. Long story short, I put too much stuff in it and the backpack was too heavy to carry around — which gave me tremendous back pain every time I had to carry that thing around. As you’ve guessed it, I didn’t even use half of the stuff I had brought with me.
Any time I had my backpack on I thought how stupid I was. And one or two months carrying that burden is a lot of days of thinking. So, I kept asking myself: Why do we have so much stuff?
I like minimalism, but maybe not everybody has to go too far with it. If your stuff doesn’t bring you happiness, if you could live happily without it, and you still decide to keep it then you’ve been a victim of Mr. Mole’s appealing to consumerism.
Consumerism is ingrained in our culture. And while I was traveling through a bunch of countries, observing people who live with less than a dollar a day, I noticed that happiness doesn’t come from buying stuff. Buying stuff is just a form of filling temporarily a void in your life.
30. MR. MOLE AND THE FALLACY OF RESOURCES
If doesn’t matter how old you are, for Mr. Mole, there’s always an excuse to not do something that involves challenging the status quo.
Youngsters will say they don’t have any money to accomplish what they want, or people will tell them they’re too inexperienced and they believe it.
People above thirty-something will say they don’t have the time or the resources to accomplish what they want.
People over fifty will say they might have the resources but have responsibilities and a reputation they want to keep.
Everybody’s got an excuse. And Mr. Mole loves to find one to keep on doing the same as everybody else.
But most people have two hands and twenty-four hours a day. Those are the basic cards we get to play. Other’s get lucky along the way, but some of us don’t.
Either way, Mr. Mole always finds a way to make you think you don’t have enough to get started. That’s his modus operandi.
31. MR. MOLE AND MARRIAGE
I can’t count how many thirty-something women (they were all women) I’ve met who said: “In my twenties I thought that by now I would be married and have kids, but in the end I’ve steered away — or postponed it.”
Certainly many people follow that path. It’s getting delayed with every generation, but it’s still common.
There’s no doubt many people want to get married, but do they want it or does Mr. Mole say they want it?
Who chose marriage for them?
Who actually wanted to get married before thirty?
Why do they follow that tradition?
There’s nothing against that if that choice comes from oneself, not from our belief system. But too often, Mr. Mole is playing his game.
32. MR. MOLE AND MENTORS
We all have mentors in one way or another. People we go to when we need advice.
Conventional wisdom says: “This person is older and more experienced than I am, so she must be right. I should do what she says.”
So we blindly trust them. And that can be dangerous.
It’s not that they have bad intentions, they do want to help you. But Mr. Mole puts a filtered lens on everybody. A lens that filters reality.
Asking for advice or giving advice is dangerous. Sometimes it works out well, but there’s a high risk that the person giving the advice is also passing the mentee her own flaws and assumptions.
For example, ask any entrepreneur or freelancer what you should do. Most of them would say quit your job and start your own business.
Or a digital nomad would say quit your job if you can’t work remotely and go to Thailand.
Or when asking about career choices most people would recommend whatever they’re into. “You should go into this. You should go into that.”
Two things to keep in mind with mentors:
- The future is unknown. No one knows what’s going to happen.
- Everybody is highly biased towards the thing they do.
This is another assumption we take from granted. There isn’t an external figure that has all your answers. What Mr. Mole wants is to rely on someone else’s opinion, but everybody’s got different lenses.
Taking that filter for granted, though, can be fatal.
33. MR. MOLE AND HAMMERS
Have you ever noticed how good we are at seeing other people’s problems, but incapable of noticing ours? Almost with everything in life it goes like this.
You know very well that your friend shouldn’t date that person, but when it comes to your own relationships, the odds are you can’t tell whether that person is good for you.
This happens in every way we process reality.
Far too often, our minds are set up to see only the things we want to see (like the confirmation bias). When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. But the challenge is how to observe your possibilities and come up with different uses for that hammer.
34. MR. MOLE SHOULD NOT BE TAKEN LIGHTLY
I had finished my degree as I planned, and after a few months of hard work I had some savings. That would roughly cover two or three months of expenses in China.
I had arrived to Shanghai. There I was on the subway with my backpack on and some luggage, heading to my hotel. That’s when I started to think:
“What the hell am I doing here?”
One of the things I hate the most while traveling is jet lag. But only when traveling East, because you stay up all night.
That first night, of course, I couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing and I just kept thinking, why would somebody travel so far without a plan? The truth is I hardly knew what I was going to do. I had just thrown myself into an airplane.
I didn’t even know what I was going to do in China — I just wanted to be there for some reason. I thought I would learn Chinese and work on some projects in the meantime, but that was naive.
A couple of weeks into my trip, I started to run out of money faster than I had thought. It was time to look for some income. But at the same time I wanted to stay in Shanghai for more than a couple of months.
I thought the way to go would be to find a job.
Another night, I couldn’t sleep either (a lot of good and bad things happen when you stay up at night). So I looked for some companies. I got an address.
The next day I showed up at a company’s office without an appointment, and I ask for a job. I got an interview on the spot and right away they offered me a marketing position. Right there I got a job… A man’s gotta eat!
I loved it. Now I had a visa, a nice paycheck and my own apartment. And life in Shanghai was great.
My work at the beginning was good, but after a couple of months something felt out of place. Money was great. In fact, it was the first time in my life I didn’t have to worry about it. But soon enough money didn’t fulfill me and I started to get extremely bored and anxious.
A few months in, I started to notice the source of my unhappiness. It was that my values were different from those of the company I was working for. They were in fact the opposite. And after a few weeks of deeply thinking about it, I knew I had to make my own path. I wasn’t meant to follow everybody’s path of getting a job and letting someone else decide my career. So, after eight months and three days, I quit my job and decided I was going to pursue an independent career.
I had to pack my bag again and leave China — otherwise my visa would expire and I’d be in big trouble.
Everybody told me to hold on to that job. It was safe. Secure. A nice paycheck. But I quit anyway.
So I went back to Spain and stayed with my family for a few days. But, again, my mind was racing. I had the Shanghai thing, which is that you’re anxious and running everywhere. I had to move somewhere else.
I was blindly looking for answers to questions I hadn’t even formulated yet. But somehow I thought I would find them in Thailand.
I bought into the digital nomad dream: to work from anywhere remotely. Which is cool, but it wasn’t what I needed right then.
Deep down I knew that this didn’t feel right, but I drifted away and focused on the wrong thing. Either way, at that point I thought I wanted to start a freelance career.
That was when I started to become aware of the presence of Mr. Mole. I was barely aware of him. I thought it was just about overcoming the traditional path people choose for their lives (in this case, working for somebody else). I was wrong. Deadly wrong. It wasn’t until I was deep into the nomad dream that I realized that Mr. Mole plays both ways.
You can overcome Mr. Mole. I know that now in hindsight, but when I was packing my stuff to go to Thailand I didn’t even have a close idea of how powerful Mr. Mole was.
That was mistake #1.
Before you beat Mr. Mole you have to show him the respect he deserves — just like any challenging opponent. Otherwise he’ll beat you to death.
BOOK TWO: THE SOLUTION
35. GALILEO GALILEI
Let’s go back more than 400 years. In 1610 Galileo Galilei pointed his telescope at Jupiter, and discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons of Jupiter (which later became known as the Galilean Moons). According to his calculations, he expected them to move in a certain way. But they didn’t.
He tried everything, but failed to understand what was really going on there. That was when he came up with the conclusion that the only way to solve the equation was to realign the planets of our system, by putting the sun in the center and Earth as the number three in the system. That for him felt like the worst thing ever to do to humankind.
People back then would think: “The Earth is the center of the universe, right? What does it mean we’re just another planet in this galaxy?”
You can imagine the fireworks would ensued.
Anyway, the equation required that change. So he did it.
That changed everything. It opened the universe wide. It allowed us to see that the universe is way bigger than we thought, and now we could begin to explore it.
400 years later we’re about to colonize Mars. It wasn’t a lack of mathematics or abilities — it was a big bias from Mr. Mole.
Now let’s fast forward to today.
In the same way, Moran Cerf (who came up with this analogy17) explains that in the last five to ten years, we’ve started to understand that in our own brains there are many, many voices. And we’re not the most important one. Just like with Galileo’s enlightenment, we’re not the center. We’re just another voice within the many voices in our head. While we believe we’re the most important one, it turns out that the quiet ones are the center of our own universe.
Just like Galileo Galilei, thinking that we’re not the center of our universe feels like heresy to us. But this is our first step towards reaching our own enlightenment, and accepting that we’re not responsible for our own choices. We’re not in control.
It’s okay, we’re flawed and irrational. But in the same way Galilei’s discoveries led to an amazing advancement in the universe, maybe now it’s our turn to unveil the truth.
36. COGNITIVE “PERFECTION”
We’ve been carrying a big baggage from culture and society for a long time. We’ve grown up without knowing of its existence and, of course, without knowing whether this belief system works for us.
Mr. Mole has taken away from us the fundamental questions that give us value as human beings, such as:
Who am I?
What’s my purpose?
Mr. Mole has given us default options for all these questions. And since we’re not the center of our inner universe, we don’t even notice.
In order to recover from this, we need to dive deep and achieve what Bryan Johnson calls cognitive “perfection”.18 A state where we overcome the cognitive biases that keep us away from understanding reality as it is.
These are important questions that rule our lives — in fact they rule everything. But they shouldn’t be a default option.
We’ve got to deconstruct our own mind’s toxicities and identify everything Mr. Mole has given to us by default.
Mr. Mole compromises our ability to do and become whatever we want. And if you’ve read this far, you’ve already taken the red pill. You can’t go back to live a life full of lies. In one way or another, seeking the truth is in our own nature.
37. TWO SIDES OF THE SAME COIN
Roughly ten days had passed since I had arrived from Shanghai to Spain, before I got on another plane. I knew at that moment that the 9-to-5 thing wasn’t for me. So I went to Thailand and started my freelance career.
Why did I do that? I thought, “people like me do this kind of thing.”
“Other people don’t do this. But I do.”
I flew to Bangkok. It was dark. I arrived in the evening. But even without being able to appreciate every detail at night, it was love at first sight. There were shiny temples in the middle of the city — chaos (I like it). It was vivid. I loved it.
I left my bag in my hotel and went outside. I wanted to explore the city.
One of the things I love the most about Asia is that you can eat anywhere at any time. And next to my hotel there were these street food stalls, where you can grab anything and get it on the go. I remember I had spicy chicken wings and I think a mango shake. A couple of minutes in I was on the go.
Walking down the street I started to think, all right, what I’m going to do is stay in hotels, work during the day on my freelance thing, and in the afternoon-evening explore the city.
I did that for a couple of weeks. Then I went to Chiang Mai (fantastic city) and stayed there for three more weeks. And that was when something started to feel wrong. I loved being there, and I enjoyed the city. But after a few days in, I spent my entire days inside a hotel room. I just went outside to eat and walk a little bit. Or go to a park and read. But I kept grinding.
One day I got in touch with a former professor of mine from college. I wanted to know how he managed to get clients when he got started. We talked on Skype, and when told him what I was up to, his face changed. He told me:
“Borja, my biggest fear is that you’re going to stay inside a hotel room and regret it in the future. You’re in a place where most of us would wish to be right now. And the truth is that disconnecting a few months won’t hurt your career. If I were you, I would enjoy and travel as much as I could. Don’t hold any future regrets.”
That was exactly what I needed to hear. That was my call.
Right then I (kind of) knew I was experiencing the other side of the coin. In the end, I discovered (unconsciously) that I was still playing Mr. Mole’s game in a different playground. Instead of being in the 9-to-5 club, I was in the digital-nomad-Thailand-first club.
That wasn’t my thing either. My gut told me that a while ago, but I didn’t listen.
Right away I got my backpack ready, and flew to Hanoi (Vietnam). Now I had a new plan: Spend the money I’d earned in Shanghai, and travel through Southeast Asia. Then I’d come back home and figure things out.
What I didn’t know was that I was looking at the edges of the coin, and the only way out was to get rid of it. I was about to discover that the hard way.
38. ADULTS LEARN THROUGH MASSIVE PAIN
Killing Mr. Mole takes balls of steel. Even if you try to do that, in your first shot you’re going to just barely touch him. If you want to kill him, you’ve got to suffer a little bit. Because the best lessons are the ones we learn the hard way.
You can receive the best advice in the world, but sometimes you gotta go through massive pain to learn the lesson.
That’s how kids learn. We’ve all had a bike crash that taught us one or two laws of physics. Do you think that we learned it the first time when we almost fell? No way. We had to go through a crash so big that we’d say, “okay, let’s not do that again — or at least, let’s do it in a different way.” We learned the lesson not because someone told us, but because we experienced it.
The bad news for you is that, if you want to overcome Mr. Mole — truly overcome him — you’re probably going to experience some pain along the way. The bigger Mr. Mole is, the more painful it gets.
But hey, that’s life.
And that scares the heck out of us. Life is so frightening, that we’d rather live in the conformity of stagnation. As long as we stick with the status quo, everything’s going to be okay.
That’s not life though.
Life is tough. Life is pain. Life is unpredictable. You have to accept it.
Consider how people get in shape. How do muscles grow? When you work out what you’re doing is breaking muscular tissue. That’s why your muscles feel stiff and tight for the next few days. The muscle breaks, so in order to recover it’s got to get bigger and better. And next time you’ll be able to lift more weight.
That’s the biggest lesson in life.
But I hadn’t experienced massive pain yet. I was about to.
I’d gone to Hanoi and had decided I was going to travel as much as I could. No hotels, just hostels. I’d travel by bus whenever possible.
It was the best experience of my life. I visited Vietnam from North to South. I went to an island full of monkeys and almost got kicked by one of them (true story). I slept in the most beautiful places, like in a boat in the Ha Long Bay. But also in the worst ones (you don’t want to know). I crossed Cambodia by bus. And in Myanmar I got food poisoning — the worst experience ever.
I’ve probably been on longer flights than any human being can naturally hold. (The cheapest flight from Hong Kong to Spain is almost 50 hours — stopping in Beijing and Berlin. I can never sleep on planes, though.)
I’ve been all over the place.
One of the things of traveling alone is that you have a lot of time to think. Even though you’re never alone — you meet people all the time — there are some precious moments where you truly disconnect from reality, and find yourself.
There’s this famous quote from Steve Jobs:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
What happens when you travel, especially alone, is that you start to identify those dots. But connecting them? That takes more time. Because defining your own reality is a tough task. It’s not because looking for it is difficult — it is, but the toughest part is to accept that you’re living in someone else’s reality. Not yours.
You discover that what people call reality, only exists if you accept it. You’ve got to find yours. And life leaves you a trail of breadcrumbs along the way, you just have to follow it.
From there on, it’s a downhill battle. But of course, you can fall while running down the hill. As I did.
At this point I was running out of money, so it was time to go back home.
40. THE BUY BUTTON IN THE BRAIN
When I was in college, I fell in love with consumer neuroscience. I found the study of the brain fascinating. It allows you to tweak behaviors, so you can create a desirable change in someone’s life.
However, when marketers enter the scene — as it always happens — they want to exploit every little vulnerability so they can trigger us into the kind of behavior that benefits them.
While I was studying consumer neuroscience, I noticed how vulnerable we are. And how little we have to do with our own decision making process.
I started to read books, especially on behavioral economics and decision making, and I discovered how little control we have over our own decisions.
Books like Drive (by Daniel H. Pink), Predictably Irrational (by Dan Ariely), Thinking, Fast and Slow (by Daniel Kahneman). And it became clear that we’re not even close to control our decisions.
The funny thing though, is that we think we are 100% rational and that those stupid tricks can’t work on us. Well, one of the best ways to explain this is through pricing.
When you read a bunch of studies on pricing, you figure out that price isn’t just an indicative for quality — but it also tells a story.
You can find out that depending on the way information is presented, you choose one option over the other.
Dan Ariely talks about this in his book Predictably Irrational. He ran a study to analyze the pricing structure of The Economist.19
There were three options:
- Web subscription: $59.00
- Print subscription: $125.00
- Print + web subscription: $125.00
Apparently, the middle option is useless. Ariely ran a study with 100 MIT students, and 16% of them wanted the digital version and 86% wanted the combo deal — nobody chose the middle option. It looks clear so far.
However, he ran another study with another 100 MIT students, but this time he removed the “useless” middle option of just print subscription, because it’s useless. Guess what, this time 68% chose the web version for $59.00 and 32% chose the dual combo. It turns out that the useless option wasn’t so useless after all. (And those were MIT students.)
The truth is, there is doubt we even control that 5% of the brain.
So, after seeing how easily we can be manipulated, I started to think about two things. The first one is obvious, where’s the line between manipulation and neuromarketing? But the other one was even more important: Do we actually have free will? Can we really make decisions by ourselves?
41. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FREE WILL
Imagine that you and I go to a restaurant for lunch. There’s only one menu at the table, and I grab it before you do. I go through the options and I give you two choices: “What do you want, a salad or pasta?” You think about it for a second and when you’re about to say the salad I say, “oops, they don’t have salad.” So you choose the pasta. It would be weird that I could know what you’re about to choose before you even say it, right?
What if I told you that I could have known your decision before you were even aware of it? What if I could have known your decision, before we even walked through that restaurant?
It turns out that your brain knows things, but it doesn’t tell them to you right away — sometimes not at all.
There’s a delay between the moment when your brain makes a decision, and the moment when you become aware of it. This ultimately leads us to ask ourselves: Okay, this means there’s a delay from the time we decide to do something, and the time we’re aware of it. Then, if we don’t control our thoughts, do we actually have freedom? What would happen if someone changes something, before the time we become aware of it, and that changes our perception of reality?
Moran Cerf in a talk at Google,20 shared one of his experiments where he and his colleagues, asked some patients to play a game about making simple choices. They gave them a wooden box with two buttons, and for 20 minutes they asked them to press the button on the left or right in random order.
They also told the participants that they wanted to save each choice. So when they were saving each decision, a red light would turn on while the machinery was processing it. And the patients wouldn’t be able to touch any button while the light was on. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. (It was fake by the way.)
After a few trials, they had already decoded the patients thoughts way before they were about to execute them. It took four seconds from the time the decision was made, to the time the patient became aware of the thought. Here’s where it gets funny. They would wait 3.9 seconds and turn on the red light. Every time the patient reached out the box to push the button, it was already red. So imagine the patient’s experience when they wanted something to happen, that had already happened.
We call this the illusion of free will.
It’s the gap between the moment you would perceive something has happened, and when it actually happened.
We believe we’re in control of things, but we’ve got no idea how or when a decision has taken place in our brain. And in this part of the experiment, all the patients were thinking that they were making the decision of pushing one of the two buttons.
Now instead of waiting 3.9 seconds, they turned on the light as soon as they knew the decision. At this point there was no conscious activity of any type, but the subconscious didn’t stop working on making decisions. The subconscious was choosing left or right over and over, but the patient wasn’t aware of it.
Are we in control of our decisions?
Are we living in an inner dictatorship where our subconscious rules our thoughts?
42. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FREE WILL, PART TWO
Sam Harris, neuroscientist and American author, writes in his book Free Will, that free will is an illusion: “Free will doesn’t correspond to any subjective fact about us. It doesn’t come from a conscious point in our minds.”
As we’ve just seen, just a little bit before you’re aware of what you are going to do next, your brain has already decided. Those are thoughts that emerge from the back of your mind. Thoughts you don’t control.
“I cannot decide what I will next think or intend”, Harris says, “until a thought or intention arises. What will my next mental state be? I do not know — it just happens. Where is the freedom in that?”
Whether we like it or not, we don’t have the freedom we think we have.
The free will illusion I’m more interested in, though, is the one that would be able to predict what you are going to do in much advance — in some cases even years. That’s where Mr. Mole kicks in. These are the beliefs ingrained in your system, probably since childhood, that can determine your next decisions in the far future.
This is simple: If you, consciously, don’t know what you’re going to do next, you’re not in control. In the end, you can decide whatever you want to do, but you can’t decide what you’ll decide to do.
What people don’t like about this illusion is that it puts their identity on the hook — and when your identity is at stake, a lot of things can happen. But at the same time, even though it takes away part of our identity, it also gives us meaning. Because the choices we make throughout life are a reflection of who we are.
There’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when that reflection is a product of Mr. Mole. That’s where we don’t have any real identity, nor meaning.
Now, studying decision making in a restaurant is interesting, but things get heightened quickly if we talk about the decision making process in careers. Let’s say we ask a 18-year-old girl who is about to decide what to study in college. If we ask her when did she make the decision, she would say she started to think about going to law school a year ago. But really, her decision was made before she even started to think about it. Maybe she’s smart and hard-working. So her family and teachers said (at a young age) she could be a lawyer. “That’s what girls like you do”, they would say.
Was there any free will? After the decision had already been made (subconsciously), she started to make up rational arguments of why she should go to law school. And we get pretty creative when we look for excuses. So, a few years from now, she would have her diploma and would be working in a big law firm, 12 hours a day and hating every minute of it.21 I can’t count how many lawyers and doctors — these are the most common professions — I’ve met who hate their jobs. But none of them question the reason they chose to study what they had in the first place. They’re too smart to admit Mr. Mole influenced their decisions.
Some people get lucky and find their true passion, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. And that decision you take at 18 or 21, becomes your new reality for the rest of your life. A reality that is given to you, without your consent.
Sam Harris has been criticized for his book Free Will. Some people have said that the way he arrived at conclusions was wrong,22 and some of them might be right. But if one thing is clear here, is that most of our decisions don’t come from a conscious part of our minds. Mr. Mole makes choices for us based on social values and cultural beliefs that have been hammered into us over our lifetime.
I believe that to some extent, we can achieve a degree of free will. But the only way to get there is to kill Mr. Mole.
43. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FREE WILL, PART THREE
There are lots of ways to influence our decision making process. It goes from the smell from a bakery in the supermarket that makes us buy more bread,23 to modifying the temperature of a room, to including the aroma of coffee in the pages of a book… There are lots of things that can change our behavior, in ways we can’t even imagine. Yet, even though we’re aware of the existence of these external agents that modify our decision making process, we still believe we’re in control of our own thoughts.
The hard truth is Mr. Mole rules our operating system, and we’re not even close to controlling our own thoughts. One of the things that makes Mr. Mole so powerful, is our belief that we’re living our lives as if they were entirely under our own control. So we deny that cognitive biases or persuasion tricks could ever work on us. And that only reinforces Mr. Mole.
Just like Sam Harris says in his book: “A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings.”
What happens here is that, regardless of all the evidence, we still believe we’re the controlling characters in our minds. We deny reality. It’s hard for us to admit we’re just another voice in the system that hasn’t got any weight, when it comes to making decisions.
To admit this is to realize we’re not the authors of our own thoughts, as we’re supposed to be. Which is painful.
So, is there a way to obtain any kind of free will?
Short answer, yes. But first let’s talk about placebos.
44. PLACEBOS AND NOCEBOS
In a double-blind study of an addictive-depressing drug,24 a 26-year-old was taking antidepressant medication. But, of course, he was taking the sugar pills, the placebo. The drug that didn’t do anything. He decided to kill himself, and he took 29 pills at once. Immediately, he was rushed to the hospital. He was experiencing hypotension. He needed to be put in an IV.
Several doctors informed him (he probably didn’t believe it the first time), that he hadn’t taken anything but a bunch of sugar.
Then his condition stabilized.
There’s a misunderstanding when we talk about Placebos. Placebos have positive consequences, but when people hear about them, they think about sugar pills. But placebos are everywhere. Let’s start with the nocebo effect.
Nocebos, just like placebos, are all around us. Nocebos are things you can do to yourself that make you worse — just like the guy who took 29 pills. They can lead to depression, unhappiness, near death experiences and many, many undesirable outcomes.
But how do placebos and nocebos work?
Placebos (and nocebos) are ways to lie to your brain, so it realizes the changes you desire.
Placebos kick in when the rational part of our brain (that 5%), sends the rest of the brain some kind of signal, and our body responds to the placebo.
Placebos aren’t just sugar pills. Wine also falls into this category and there’s clear data on this.25 When buying a $100 bottle of wine, people think it tastes better than a $10 bottle of wine. You can switch the labels and no one would ever notice which wine is the expensive one. That’s the placebo effect at work. It tastes better because when you go to a restaurant and order a $100 bottle of wine, they’re putting a show: The waiter comes to your table, opens the bottle in a specific way, gives you a little taste, to which you move the cup and smell the wine to approve the story the price tells you: “This wine must be good.”
The key is the story and the show, without that, there’s no placebo. The waiter doesn’t say: Would you like the cheap bottle or the $100 bottle because the placebo effect will give you a better experience?
The moment someone ruins the wine show, the placebo doesn’t work anymore.
Or consider sports. There’s also a placebo effect to boost performance in athletes.26
In an experiment to study the placebo effect in sports performance, researchers injected salt water into the veins of athletes, but they told them it was a performance enhancing drug (or illicit drug). Did these athletes perform better than the ones who didn’t get the intervention? You bet they did.
Placebos are good. Placebos are what triggers our brain into doing things we couldn’t possibly imagine. If you get more than $100 in value for that wine and its experience, go for it. There’s nothing wrong with that — but, beware of nocebos.
45. PLACEBOS AND NOCEBOS, PART TWO
A nocebo is a placebo that sends negative and harmful signals from your rational brain to the rest of your brain. It’s when you send negative signals and you end up not feeling well.
Sometimes, the problem with placebos is that it’s so easy to misplace their trigger, that your brain might end up sending negative signals to your body.
Mr. Mole is a kind of nocebo — you feed him when you send those negative signals to your brain.
But it’s worth noticing that placebos and nocebos have something in common: They stop working when you are aware of them.
Without the show, they don’t work. The 29-pills-guy situation wouldn’t have happened. People at a restaurant would buy the $10 bottle of wine. Athletes wouldn’t perform better if you say them is salty water not an enhancement. At the same time, whatever Mr. Mole tells you won’t work if you get rid of the show. Once you’re aware of the tricks Mr. Mole uses, they don’t work anymore — or less often, because now you’re paying attention.
However, there’s something you need in order to unmask Mr. Mole’s show: enrollment.
46. SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
I love these images where you have two alike scenarios, with a slight difference and have to spot it. It’s usually a small difference, and it might take you a while to spot it. But the thing is, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
Mr. Mole works the same way. Once you see the trick, you can’t unsee it, so next time it’ll be less effective. And eventually you’ll kill it.
The bad news is that Mr. Mole plays several images, and you have to spot one at a time. Either way, there’s something more important to say about this:
You have to care enough to pay attention and play. If you don’t want to spot the difference, nothing matters.
If you don’t want to play, it doesn’t matter how many times someone tells you the difference. If you don’t care enough to become the best version of yourself, you won’t care to take the time to identify your biases and beliefs. Without enrollment, everything is futile.
This situation gets tricky when we scale it up, and analyze all the cognitive biases that blind our decision making process. Without enrollment, it doesn’t matter if I explain to you the more of 200 cognitive biases that affect our brain27 — you still wouldn’t change. But if there’s enrollment, their efficacy declines. Now you will start to unveil the truth.
Free will starts to arise when there’s enrollment — when you acknowledge that these tricks work on you, and in order to become really free, you need to identify and kill each bias, belief or value, one at a time. It all starts by knowing that there are different voices in your head. And that the one that talks to you all the time is not the center of the universe.
So you start asking yourself:
Who’s the puppet here?
Who’s in charge?
Who am I?
This is when you get on the right track. But it’s not as easy as it looks. You need to change your narrative dramatically, otherwise you can go off-course, and end up in a situation I wouldn’t wish on anybody.
47. DENYING REALITY NEVER LEADS TO A POSITIVE OUTCOME
After a few months of backpacking through Southeast Asia, I returned to my hometown in Spain.
That was one of the most painful moments I’ve ever experienced. I had been living in the best cities in the world and suddenly, I was stuck in a very small village. As anyone would have guessed, I started to get anxious and wanted to get out of there. That was when Mr. Mole became powerful again. Remember, he’s relentless, he waits until he finds the right moment to hit you again. As if that wasn’t enough, people around me started to tell me what I should do, what people like us do.
I couldn’t accept it. But I was caught off guard, and I fell into the same trap.
I couldn’t get rid of my belief system. It was killing me.
“You’ve gotta get a job.”
“Working for others is what grown-ups do.”
“You can’t do your own thing.”
Culture’s pressure was high. Family, friends, and everybody in between. Sometimes they won’t tell you, but you can tell when something is out of sync.
So I started to look for a job.
I couldn’t find one, though.
I stayed in my hometown for several months, and suffered for every minute of it. I was a citizen of the world. Coming back to such a small village made me feel constrained.
In this exact moment I started to feel the same anxiety that had made me go to Thailand. Would I find answers in another continent?
That’s what I thought.
For some time, I had it stuck in my mind that South America could be the place where I would find what I was looking for.
I hadn’t made a decision yet, but now I know that my subconscious had already made it.
I was going to South America. But I needed a plan.
So I asked myself, “What do people like me do?”
Launch a business.
Any business? Of course not. A business in a trending industry I could sell one day. And if that would ever happen, I could do what I actually wanted to do the whole time.
I was denying reality for a little longer, but this time I started to do things my way.
I was on my own.
I had to experience massive pain to learn the lesson.
In hindsight, it becomes clear that I didn’t have any free will. I was following somebody else’s steps. It doesn’t matter if it was while looking for a job and considering the “normal” route, or following the mantra of what people like me would do.
We like to think we have free will, but we don’t. But there’s one thing that can make the difference: Choosing your own self-narrative. And in order to do that, you need to understand how your brain thinks about memories.
Anyway. My backpack was ready. I was going to Chile.
One of the things you discover sooner or later is that the narrative you tell yourself, is the most important asset you have. Your self-narrative makes or breaks you.
If you tell yourself you’re a failure and a fraud, that becomes your identity. So, considering that you can pick any narrative, you’re better off with a positive one. However, remember that Mr. Mole will do whatever it is in his hands to change that narrative to fit his own standards.
The good news is that, even though you know you’re not 100% aware of your own thoughts, if you dig deep beyond your consciousness, you can steer towards a more meaningful course. To do that, first you need to know how to rewrite your past.
Moran Cerf explains in an interview,28 pretty accurately, what happens with your memories:
“Your brain goes with you and carries all of the history in the form of memories. All you have from what happened before you, stored in the form of memories. They’re not accurate. They’re compressed. That’s only about the past. You have no idea in the future, even though your brain tries to predict it all the time. This is what dreams are for. This is what decisions are for. You try to simulate the future and make predictions.
“You don’t know what’s going on. All you have is this sliver of reality which is the present. All you have. You control everything that happens there.
“The nice thing about the present is that it interacts with everything in your brain, and you can change things. What we learned in the last five years is that memories are different in how they work. If I have to summarize it to one sentence, they change every time you use them.
“If you have a memory stored here or what you had for lunch yesterday, and I ask you what did you have for lunch, you basically open them. Right now, you tell me a story, but whatever happens now goes into the story and you say it differently.
“If I ask you tomorrow what you had for lunch, you’ll open the modified version. So, every time I ask you the same question, you open a different version, which means you can actually change the past. You can change the experience of things.”
If you think about it, this is why therapy works. With each session the therapist helps you to change the memories of the event that caused you pain. Every time the therapist asks you the same question, you come up with a modified memory of the event. So you visit the therapist, until you get to a point where you change your narrative about what actually happened.
We have the power to change our perception of past experiences, and to shape them until we get to a point where it makes us happy. Of course, this isn’t the same as being delusional. This is about changing the story until you take control and Mr. Mole doesn’t interfere in it anymore.
Michio Kaku in Think Big said: “In some sense we do have some kind of free will. No one can determine your future given your past history. There’s always the wild card. There’s always the possibility of uncertainty in whatever we do.”29
Whatever the past is, the future does not dependent on it. Choose whatever version of the past works best for you.
Mr. Mole is a series of self-limiting beliefs that infect all of us. When there’s a clash between our beliefs and Mr. Mole’s ones, Mr. Mole uses the status quo to leverage his position and change your narrative. A sour mindset that makes you diminish yourself.
The best thing you can do is to notice what kind of narrative you tell yourself. Try to identify the patterns that lead you to that narrative, and start taking an active approach.
You won’t be able to change it right away, but noticing when the loop starts is a great practice. Once you identify the loop, the next time you can change its process and create the kind of narrative that benefits you. It takes practice, but you can master it.
As Seth Godin said in The Tim Ferriss Show:30
“The narrative isn’t done to you, the narrative is something that you choose. And once we can dig deep and find a different narrative, then we ought to be able to change the game.”
We’ve got to accept we don’t control our decision making process, and that’s why it’s critical to kill Mr. Mole. We can’t let a buggy belief system rule our lives. We need to debug the system and start from scratch.
Changing your narrative is the best antivirus to combat Mr. Mole.
49. WHAT MAKES YOU YOU?
“Every human being is unique” is repeated to us often enough to be a cliché. But this time it’s true.
There are a few things that are unique about you, and no one will ever be like you. You have a unique DNA, your brain is wired also in a unique way… What makes you you, is you. Out of all the billions of humans no one will ever be wired the way you are.
The problem is that Mr. Mole wants us to fit in. He doesn’t want us to shine, or to be the best version of ourselves.
That’s why people, as they get older, tend to be more like everybody else. Society wants us to be average using the same beliefs and values as everybody else.
This is a serious problem. People are going against their own nature by turning themselves into a version of someone they’re not.
If you continue down this path, you won’t even be aware of your own desires, impulses and your composition. You’ll become a copy of the average person society wants you to be. Listening to other people’s expectations is all it takes to let Mr. Mole overrule your own unique narrative.
Awareness is the key to get out of this loop. That’s the critical point: acknowledging we’re the result of the inputs we let into our lives.
This is so important I want to repeat it again: You’re the results of the inputs you let into your life.
That involves, of course, books, media and any other source of information, but also the people you surround yourself with.
Jim Rohn said, “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Choose your “surrounders” carefully. Especially your partner. You’ve got to be on the same page as them. If you’re not, think deeply about whether it’s worth the cost.
You need to detach yourself and find whatever it is that makes you unique.
Letting people go in your life might be painful, but in the long run it’ll make the difference.
50. TAKE CARE OF THE GARDEN
Zig Ziglar in his book See You at the Top, makes this analogy about how the mind works:
“The mind works like a garden. Everyone knows if you plant beans you won’t raise potatoes–you will raise beans. Obviously, you don’t plant a bean to raise a bean. You plant a bean to raise lots of beans. Between planting and harvest there is a tremendous increase in the number of beans. That’s the way the mind works. Whatever you plant in the mind is going to come up–multiplied.”
So, when you plant a positive thought into your mind, you can expect to grow lots of positive thoughts. They grow exponentially. And the same goes for negative thoughts. They’re exponential too.
Choose carefully what goes into your mind. The stuff you consume shapes your life.
This applies to friends, books, jobs and everything in your life.
If you don’t take care of the garden, you’re feeding Mr. Mole. And since his growth is exponential, the more garbage you put in the harder it gets.
51. WHAT’S HAPPINESS?
Happiness is often misunderstood. Mr. Mole has made us believe happiness equals money, success, marriage and stability. But the problem is that pursuing something means that you don’t have it already. We believe happiness in an end in itself, and we’ll be happy when we get there. That doesn’t work — it can never work.
Happiness is a process you choose. You choose to be happy, you don’t aspire to be happy. It’s not an end goal, it’s a process. You don’t get to where you want to go and suddenly you’re happy. It’s the process of getting there that brings you joy. You may suffer while getting there, but there’s a spark within you that’s eager to get there.
This is something you can’t copy, that’s why it’s critical to put your own values first.
There isn’t a universal definition of happiness. There are individual definitions. Each person has a different one, but too often people just go with the default setting.
If you just want to be unhappy, follow somebody else’s definition of happiness. But I’ve never, once in my life, met someone who consciously wanted to be miserable.
At some point in your life, you’ll have to come up with your own definition of happiness. Mine? To enjoy my life while I’m living it, and aspire to build something bigger than myself. That’s mine. It might be yours, or it might not.
You have to, must, come up with your own definition.
To do that you’ve got to know the kind of life that brings you joy.
52. WHAT’S HAPPINESS? PART TWO
Before you start thinking about the stuff that makes you happy, consider these three profiles of people: past focused, present focused and future focused.
Past focused. These are the ones who always regret things and look to the past with nostalgia. They’re more prone to depression.
Present focused. These are the “live in the moment” type. They don’t save money, don’t change jobs or careers. Everything they do is maximize short-term gratification.
Future focused. These are the ones always looking ahead. Their actions are based on a future vision.
Now, within these three profiles, people usually identify themselves with two of them. But there’s always one type that dominates the other.
So what’s happiness?
There’s a universal definition of happiness you can use as a template to start building yours.
I believe (remember, I might be passing on some kind of bias) that the universal definition of happiness is: “The balance between future and present focuses, where the future one predominates.”
I would say too much focus on the present is just quick dopamine gratification, which is far away from happiness. Happiness is a high dose of future focus. But with the ability to switch to the present to enjoy life, always considering that these moments don’t get in the way of a long-term purpose.
53. WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY?
Sometimes when I talk with people — pretty smart ones — some of them fall into the trap of “life sucks and every day is another bite of a shitty sandwich”.
They are reactive to life. They don’t take control. Instead, they blame external events as the source of their unhappiness. And this is exactly one of the reasons people are eager to escape from their cubicles in summer, so they can charge their batteries and face their nightmare again (their work).
I’m picking on jobs because it’s an easy example many people feel identified with.
In fact, if you ask anybody who hates their job, why haven’t they looked for another gig? They would say they have to pay the bills.
Yes, we all have to pay the bills. But considering that you’re going to spend most of your life working, at least it should be enjoyable. Paying the bills isn’t an excuse. Sometimes it’s a very good reason. But the key is to take an active approach, and most people who complain about their jobs are just taking a passive approach to life.
One of the most widespread Mr. Mole’s beliefs is that work has to suck. He believes that you don’t get to overlap your happiness with your work. He makes you believe it’s the other way around. But, is that the way you want to spend your days?
Focus on where your happiness comes from, and then build your life around whatever that makes you happy.
This is as true for work as it is for relationships. If you go against the basis of your happiness, that means trouble.
What makes you happy? For me:
Having control over my schedule.
A working computer and access to the Internet.
Working on new projects.
Don’t go against your nature.
Happiness is not a final step. Happiness is a process where you enjoy every part of it.
So why not just focus on the things that make you happy, and shape your life around them?
54. THE WORK-LIFE BALANCE PARADOX
The work-life balance is the worst balance of all.
Consider this: The whole premise of the work-life balance is to maximize happiness and not let your work take over your life. So, what if separating work and life is the main reason your job is taking over your life?
I believe the best outcome resides in the mix of work and life. But the discussion shouldn’t be around this. It should be about the definition of work.
For most people work is something you do — something that sucks, but you get paid for. For other people work means something different. Work as art. Work as the opportunity to make a certain change happen, a change you enjoy bringing into the world. A change you probably get paid for if you make happen.
If work is an opportunity, and most of the time work feels like play (let’s be honest, sometimes it sucks, but not all the time), then you don’t need work-life balance at all.
55. WHAT DO YOU DO FOR YOURSELF?
Imagine you go to a private party where you just know the organizer. At some point your friend starts introducing you to people, and sooner or later someone asks you: What do you do?
How do you respond to that? Well, if you’re like most people you answer with what’s on your job description. But is that what you actually do?
This has probably happened to you. It has happened to all of us at some point.
Why do we tell people our job title when we’re asked what we do? Are you just a doctor? A marketer? A teacher? Or do you see yourself as something else?
Of course you’re much more than that. But Mr. Mole wants you to tell yourself that story. And as you do that over and over, you end up believing that you’re just that, your profession.
But this even goes much further than that. For some people this narrative starts as soon as they study something in college, where they believe they’re going to be that thing they’ve studied for the rest of their life.
Your self-narrative matters. If you say to yourself you’re a doctor, you’re just a doctor. But if you say to yourself you’re a doctor from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (for now), but an artist from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. that changes everything. Mr. Mole makes us believe that we’re just what we’ve studied in college.
Or consider this: What if you’ve read and learned so much about a given subject that you can consider yourself an “expert”? Do you need a diploma to be able to say you’re [fill in the blank]?
You have a predefined perspective of who you are, you didn’t get to choose — your culture did it for you.
When you change your perspective, you live a different kind of life. The people who have the self-narrative of “I’m going to be this thing for the rest of my life”, finish college and stop learning — because it’s painful for them.
But when you see yourself as something bigger than your job description — something bigger than what you’ve studied — you change your mindset from “I’m a [fill in the blank], so I don’t do anything outside this field”, to “What do I want to do next? What would increase my happiness?”
It’s a completely different approach, and it starts by changing the way you see yourself. That’s how change happens, by seeing yourself as who you actually are. Don’t let those early years where you soaked in everything you heard from others decide your life. Don’t let Mr. Mole define you.
It’s not about what you are. You’re a who, not a what.
56. THE BEST ADVICE IS TO NOT GIVE ADVICE
All of us are experts in one area: our lives.
No one is better at living our lives than we are. After all, we’re the only ones living it.
When someone achieves an individual desired outcome (success), what got that person there wasn’t just a series of steps. But also her own individual beliefs and values that shaped her identity. And of course external circumstances that made it possible — or what people call luck.
Anyway, what the people giving and receiving advice believe is that, all that matters are the steps that person took to get there. But what people miss is what’s beneath that expertise: the individual’s belief system.
The problem comes when people ask you for advice (or you ask others for that matter). They come to you asking for advice about your life. And since it worked for you, you think it might work for others. Big mistake.
What happens when you give advice is that you’re not only sharing your expertise, which is great, but also your biases and things that are particular to you. In fact, those biases are woven very deeply into the fabrics of your life — you can’t spot them easily.
Thus, the person receiving the advice accepts those assumptions, giving her less opportunities to come up with something original for her life.
Sometimes the best advice is to not give advice. But if that’s not an option, make sure you deconstruct your thoughts before giving any (or receiving) advice.
57. MR. MOLE CAN BE BEATEN
Back in 2002, Elon Musk started his quest to send the first rocket to Mars (with mice). To do that, he planned to buy a couple of rockets. In the meantime, he started to study rocket science — apparently he always carried a big book of rocket science with him. He also asked a friend, a rocket scientist, for his notes from college.31
He went to Russia to see a rocket seller, but the price was so out of line that he went home empty-handed. So due to the circumstances, Musk started to rethink the problem. After all, he is a scientist, and what scientists do is to never assume anything. In this case, Musk didn’t assume rockets had to be so expensive.
In a WIRED interview Musk said:32
“I tend to approach things from a physics framework. And physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, OK, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2 percent of the typical price — which is a crazy ratio for a large mechanical product.”
Instead of spending millions of dollars on finished rockets, Musk started his own rocket company. He just had to purchase the raw materials, assemble a team and build his own rockets. SpaceX was born.
Today SpaceX is about to go to Mars, and has challenged the space industrial complex. All because Musk killed Mr. Mole.
Deconstructing your own thoughts and reasoning from first principles is the way to kill Mr. Mole. You’ve got to go deep into the fundamental parts that you can, objectively, know are true. Then, build up from there. It’s about getting to the raw idea of the assumption you made, where you know you can’t go any further.
You’ve got to deconstruct your own mind’s toxicities. Deconstruct throughout your day what you’re going through. If you feel any kind of trigger, deconstruct it.
It’s about active deconstruction. Then you reconstruct.
And this is not just about big ideas, Mr. Mole is also relentless in the little details. So you’ve got to be aware every time you make a given judgment, and ask yourself why did you arrive at that conclusion. Ask as many whys as you need to get to the root of the assumption.
There’s always a loop going on. If you can identify where the loop starts, then you can start changing habits — and changing habits allows you to overcome Mr. Mole.
Now you’re a scientist. You can’t assume anything. Otherwise Mr. Mole will beat you.
58. DEFENSE VERSUS OFFENSE
You’ve got to decide. And not making a decision is also a decision. You’re either on the offense or you’re on the defense. You’re either going backwards or you’re going forwards. There’s no neutral land here.
It’s the red pill or the blue one.
Which one are you gonna take?
59. YOUR BRAIN SHOULDN’T RUN OPEN-SOURCE SOFTWARE
Open-source software is one of the greatest things in technology. I love open-source. It’s great because everybody can contribute to making a better product, and decisions are made by a group of dedicated volunteers. But, when it comes to your inner operating system, forget about it.
Mr. Mole thrives on open-source. Removing your inner open-source software is the only way to prevent Mr. Mole from getting any stronger. What you want is to have a closed system where you are the only one making the decisions of what goes in, and what goes out.
My thoughts were open-source for a long time, and that led me to that New Year’s Eve night.
Now it was time to go on the offense.
60. NEW YEAR’S EVE
Chile. That’s the country I chose to start my journey in South America. That was where I would start building my startup.
I was on the phone all day long. I called people, pitched to businesses, ran user tests through video calls, I was in it. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, all in.
It wasn’t the first time I had worked hard on a project, but this time was different. I wasn’t motivated.
When you’re working on something you really want, you wake up right away. But this time I was sleeping more than ever. I couldn’t get out of my bed without ten hours of sleep.
Suddenly, anxiety kicked in, again.
It wasn’t something blatant — I couldn’t tell in that moment whether it was anxiety — but I was out of line. I can tell you that. I wasn’t the same as usual. But I couldn’t find the source of that anxiety.
Deep down, I knew I was working on the wrong business. That wasn’t part of my definition of happiness. Instead, I blamed my location as the root of all my problems.
A few days went by and my anxiety kept escalating until I almost had a nervous breakdown on New Year’s Eve.
It was 11:55 p.m. on December 31st. I was in my apartment’s balcony in Chile drinking a beer. Everybody was out there celebrating, but all I could think about was: How the hell did I get to this point?
Suddenly it was midnight, New Year’s here.
All kinds of thoughts went through my mind. But I started to look backwards, to how I ended up in this situation. I started to ask myself questions, until I found the root of the problem that got me where I was.
Right there Mr. Mole collapsed.
It all started by asking myself:
“Why am I doing this?”
That’s a powerful question. But it requires you to dig deep, and go to the root to find out a real answer.
That was when I was shown, on a silver platter, that the voice in my head isn’t the only voice, and definitely not the one with the power to make decisions. I didn’t realize it at the moment but, once I asked myself four or five whys I got to the root of the problem. And the entire system.
But what happened next? My consciousness tried to deny that reality.
As any human being, I didn’t accept the fact that I was no longer in control of my thoughts.
I didn’t want to accept under any circumstances that I was being played by external beliefs and values. That’s the natural reaction of our consciousness, to block everything that disturbs the status quo.
Even though I had seen reality as it is before, those breadcrumbs I found along the way made the difference.
Suddenly my system had collapsed. My consciousness just needed a little bit of time to process and accept my new reality. It was a matter of time until I’d get to that point.
There’s no mystery in overcoming Mr. Mole. It’s just about consciously recognizing his force, and making up our minds to view ourselves as flawed and irrational beings who are easily manipulated by external influences. Then, drip by drip, we change things one at a time. Simple as that. But the hard part is to make up your mind. And even though I knew Mr. Mole was screwing me over, it still took me a while to accept that new reality.
BOOK THREE: DEFEATING MR. MOLE
61. MR. MOLE COLLAPSES
A few days went by before I flew to Lima. Why did I go there? I guess I was just denying reality a little longer, and kept blaming my location as the source of my problems.
Once in Peru I kept working, trying to get my business to take off. But at this point, it started to become clear that I didn’t want to do this. I wasn’t comfortable with the kind of business it would become, nor did I want to be in that industry. It was a direct clash against my values in every way. It was an uphill battle.
Then it happened again. Anxiety kicked in. After a week or two in Lima, I didn’t want to be there. Why? If you would have asked me right there, I would have told you it was the location — and maybe it was. But deep down I knew the answer wasn’t in an external place, no matter how far I went. It was within myself. I had to connect the dots and discover that my system had collapsed.
I decided I would go to my hometown, again. It wasn’t ideal but I was as broke as ever, and needed time to make up my mind.
When I came back, I kept working on the business for a few more days. But right there I knew it was time to go back to basics. I had to detoxify myself from Mr. Mole, and start with a blank slate. Finally, I accepted reality as it was.
So, I read books. The way I always disconnect is by reading books.
Reading a bunch of books is the best way to think about any problem. Your subconscious is working, and sooner or later an answer is going to pop out to your consciousness.
I went back again to asking myself why.
Why I do what I do?
Why do I keep grinding?
What’s my purpose in this world?
The answer was there the whole time. My values, beliefs and worldviews were always there, but had been covered by Mr. Mole’s dirt.
I started to unveil the most common beliefs around my career, which were damaged by the vast majority of selfish marketers out there. (Remember, I’m a marketer by training.)
So I came up with these five beliefs:
- I believe privacy is a human right.
- I believe our data is our personal property. We should own it, control it and (if we choose to) profit from it — not others.
- I believe people have the right to protect their privacy from advertisers and companies (and governments).
- I believe people have the right to be treated with respect, and not like manipulated puppets that make the system work.
- I believe public interests should prevail over private profits. Commercial interests can’t surpass human rights.
These were the exact same words I used to describe what I believe to be true.33
This was a tipping point. I didn’t know it, but what I was doing was shaping my purpose. Later I kept digging and found not only the values of my professional career, but the values of my life. That changed everything.
Now I could start working on that — and the only way to get there was to use a blank slate and start all over.
I didn’t know what I was going to do next. All I knew was that I had killed Mr. Mole.
I was on the right track. And you know you’re on the right track because it feels uncomfortable and exciting at the same time.
All I had to do was to figure out what was coming next.
62. APPROACHING LIBERATION
Why have I stressed the nature of your thoughts so heavily in the preceding chapters? Because the most important thing about free will is to deconstruct your thoughts. Nothing else matters except analyzing what you believe to be true, every day, and to debug your system one bug at a time.
Why is this so important?
Because when you get into the habit of analyzing the origin of your own thoughts, magic happens. You create a new habit that deconstructs your thoughts, by which you become aware of your reality and start to see how vulnerable you are. You start to see the strings that society uses to control your thinking and define your destiny.
The next few chapters are going to be about those invisible strings that society uses to control us as puppets. This section is about the liberation of those strings. I had them until recently — and probably still have some. You, my dear reader, probably have some too. Or maybe you’ve already liberated yourself. But beware that almost always there’s one string left that still has control over you.
Mr. Mole plays a big role in all of this. As we’re about to see, it’s not just about you. It’s not about me. It’s about us. Our very future as a species depends on how we deal with the problem Mr. Mole imposes on every one of us. We need to urgently overcome the traps and obstacles Mr. Mole uses on us, or we will fail as a species.
63. THE PUPPET SHOW
In every aspect of being conscious of our own thoughts, there’s a hard truth that kills every possibility of achieving free will: knowing that we’re in the Puppet Show, but still refusing it can work on us. Every trick we see working on others in The Puppet Show happens to us, the moment we think we’re too smart to fall into their trap.
Most of us play in The Puppet Show and don’t even realize it. It’s hard not to. Advertising, politics, education, capitalism, the whole thing has been brainwashing us for decades.
“Follow the rules.”
“Unless you have this, you won’t be happy.”
What is The Puppet Show, anyway?
The Puppet Show is a social system that controls us in a way that makes the system work. It’s a show that’s controlled by a small group of people, who know we’re driven by Mr. Mole. So they play with our cognitive flaws and exploit our vulnerabilities at their will.
There’s a problem with The Puppet Show, though. When the Puppets become aware of their strings, the system collapses.
Particularly now, we’re seeing a long list of ruptures that rule this show. Ruptures like the great recession of 2008, the Arab Spring, Brexit, or the rise of the political outsider movements like Donald Trump.
At the top of this game has been the scandal with Cambridge Analytica (the agency Trump used for the 2016 US campaign) and Facebook.34 Facebook has been involved in all sorts of scandals since its foundation,35 but the difference about this one is pretty significant.
While people were already aware that they were the asset tech companies rent to advertisers, what really struck a chord this time was how easy it is to manipulate the masses.
Today tech companies have massive amounts of data from us (which we’ve been giving away for free), and the tools to create predictions from that data. With such knowledge, they are able to influence our thinking and change the way we process reality without us even noticing it. In the end, what they do is to put psychology principles to work. Since we’re emotional machines we can’t tell whether we’re being manipulated. Unless we acknowledge that we are puppets, of course. That’s our greatest strength, but also our greatest weakness.
Our biggest problem as individuals is acknowledging that these tactics do affect our decision making process. We humans seem to think we are smarter than we actually are (all of us). We’re wired that way. And that’s what feeds this show — our own naivety. We can’t accept we’re puppets. But we are.
We have entered The Puppet Show. But there’s a way out: Cutting the strings.
64. THE PUPPET AND THE MASTER
To the opposite of the Puppet is the Master. The complete opposite.
There’s no middle ground. You’re either on one side or the other. You take the red pill or the blue pill.
What is a Puppet, anyway?
A Puppet is a person who has been raised to be obedient, and to follow the rules and norms society imposes on her, without questioning the nature of her thoughts.
The Puppet’s got Mr. Mole in the driver’s seat.
Here’s what the Puppet believes:
- Thoughts are pure. The Puppet refuses the idea that there’s a subconscious force that dictates the decision making process.
- Every Puppet recognizes all the other Puppets but itself. Even though it denies external influences, the Puppet admits that there are other Puppets who are controlled by society, but not itself.
- A Puppet believes it is what it wants to be. It was its decision to become an engineer, or a lawyer or any other profession. It thinks that because it took so long to decide, it was a rational decision and wasn’t influenced by external facts.
- There’s no Puppet Show. A Puppet believes that other cultures live in a Puppet Show, but its reality is pure — the Puppet’s on the good side.
These are the principles Puppets live by.
Here’s what Masters believe:
- The human brain is flawed. Masters know that they can’t trust their own brain, because Mr. Mole has put so many toxicities into their minds.
- Thoughts are impure. They come from sources we’re not aware of — even as far back as when we were little kids.
- Masters first recognize their own flaws. They focus on themselves first. It’s not until they overcome their inner assumptions that they can go out and help others.
- Deconstruction is the only way forward. Without analyzing the origin of our own thoughts, the compound effect can be disastrous and can get us way off-track.
- The Puppet Show is real. Masters recognize that they live in an illusion controlled by invisible strings. And they might still have one or two strings left to get rid of.
65. CUTTING THE STRINGS
At this point I was back on track. I was still living in my hometown, but I got some freelance gigs to pay the bills. That freed me to work on the thing that I believe to be true, so I could focus my career on that.
Then I started to figure out that I might have more than one string, so it was time to go back to basics, again.
I questioned, again, everything I believed to be true. I asked why as many times as needed in order to get to the root. And when you do that, lots of interesting things happen.
You suddenly start to become aware of The Puppet Show — this is when you know that it’s not only other people who play in the show. You’re deep in it too.
You start to question the nature of life, family, friends, education, leisure, and the mother of all evil, money.
You realize that life is not about winning and keeping track of external scores. It’s much more than that.
Right then I connected the dots and discovered my true nature.
66. CUTTING THE STRINGS, PART TWO
The question that fully helped me to get to the root, and detached me from my earlier beliefs was: “What do you believe to be true, that very few people agree with you on?”36
This question is very powerful. Because if there’s something Mr. Mole has, is a consensus of people who believe the same thing. But the beauty of this question is that, its core is that very few people agree with you on. That’s a direct hit to Mr. Mole.
Now we’re talking.
It cuts the strings and goes straight to your own beliefs and values.
The problem with the reasoning by first principles is that if Mr. Mole takes control of the process, you end up in a delusional loop of questions that get you nowhere. However, if you look for the things that very few people agree with you on, you force yourself to come up with something unique and fresh.
For example, you can’t say that most politicians are actors in a theater. A lot of people would agree with you on that. But if you say something like privacy is a human right and that our future depends on it, now we’re getting closer.
67. FINITE GAMES AND INFINITE GAMES
People believe that games are finite. In finite games there are players, rules, and winners. The goal of the game is to end it, and it’s based on scarcity. For example, in basketball there are two teams playing. There are different players who follow a set of rules and the objective is to win — because both teams can’t win (it’s scarce).
There’s another kind of game, though. What James Carse calls the infinite game.
Infinite games work differently. The point is to keep playing, not to win. What matters is the process, the journey. There’s no winner-takes-all mentality. And of course, it’s not based on scarcity. When you interact with a friend or your family, you’re playing an infinite game — you don’t seek to win (I hope). What matters is the interaction. The joy of playing.
This was a big revelation for me. There’s no score, I don’t have to win. The only thing I care about is to keep on playing. Back then, when I was in South America or traveling through Asia, I was playing a finite game.
It took me several years and go through bumpy roads to notice that there was no finish line. We’re all playing an infinite game. We’re in the game of life. There’s no finish line, it’s not about winning. It’s about figuring out how to keep playing.
At least in my entrepreneurial environment the idea was, do this (create a company or something similar that gives you leverage) and then do that. But I wanted to do that, not create something that I hated to get to that.
I was playing a finite game, but now I just wanna play. I love the game of life.
Somehow you’re probably playing a finite game too. The key is to identify in which game you want to play forever, and do more of that. The goal is to keep playing.
68. A FROG IN WARM WATER
What happens if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water? It will leap out immediately. But, what happens if you put a frog into a pot of cold water and steadily heat it up? In this case, the frog will stay in the pot until it dies. Although it’s painless and comfortable, the frog is unaware of the slow change that will eventually kill it.
That’s how you get puppets to adopt a change. You make it smooth enough they don’t see it coming, and they’ll adopt the new behavior without questioning its nature.
One of the things I hate the most in life is advertising (at least the interruptive kind, which is most of it). Recently, I found out how we have adopted a new behavior and we’re unaware of it.
The other day I went to the movies with a friend. We bought the tickets and the movie started at 9:45 p.m. Usually when I go out with friends and I don’t check my watch. But this time I did.
When you go to the movies, in the best case scenario, before the movie starts, they play you some trailers. In the worst case? You have to see some annoying ads. Until the other day I thought that when they say the movie starts at 9:45 p.m. it starts at 9:45 p.m. Since I always go a bit in advance, I didn’t really notice the time. But the other day I checked the time and we were a bit late. We arrived at 9:45 or 9:50 p.m. That was when the ads started.
You can bet I checked my clock this time. 20 minutes went by before the movie started. While it was supposed to start at 9:45 pm, it started at 10:05 p.m. That’s 20 minutes of annoying ads.
Well, you might be thinking that’s not a big deal. But it is. I paid full price, and I still have to watch annoying ads? That wasn’t always the case but over the years we’ve adopted this new behavior
It turns out, this change had been coming for a long time. Up until the 1990s no theater had ads.37 Not one. But in the 90s they started putting annoying commercials before the movie started. Drip by drip we adopted a new behavior, and now they have gone even further by delaying the movie, so they can make sure you watch the ads. Theaters can make over half a billion dollars each year on ads, by assuring advertisers you’ll watch their crap.38 That’s a lot of dough.
What’s coming next?
Next generations will end up like that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is bombarded by ads.39
This is just a tiny example, but we’re all in warm pots getting hotter and hotter and we don’t even notice.
But, hey, if change is smooth nobody complains, right?
Let’s go way further back in time and see some other behavior and beliefs we’ve adopted. The biggest one? Money.
69. THE STORY OF MONEY
In 2011, David Graeber, the American anthropologist, wrote a book called Debt: The First 5000 Years. In that book, he goes into great depth into the history of debt and has a great theory about where money came from.
Every economics textbook explains that, at some point, people got tired of the logistics of bartering. It’s not easy to carry goats and trade them for wheat. But also, when comparing two products there was one problem, and that’s the proportions don’t always match — you’re not gonna cut a goat’s leg in order to make it equal, though. So what these textbooks say is that at some point, someone said “This isn’t working out, let’s have money instead.”
It turns out that there’s no evidence that this ever happened. To support this, Graeber cites numerous historical, ethnographic and archaeological studies, and claims that standard economics books (including Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations), cites no evidence whatsoever that this event ever happened. So he argues that money was invented to keep track of debt. Debts that lead to slavery, prostitution, marriage debt, and debt to enrich dictators in developing nations (billions of dollars) who steal that money, and leave the country owing money to the rich world, where there’s no hope of actually repaying the debt.
Debt and credit appeared before money.
It’s all about debt.
70. MONEY IS A STORY
Money is a mutual belief. The reason a $20 bill is worth $20, it’s because you and I agree on its value. If there’s no agreement, it’s worth nothing. Money has no value outside this mutual belief.
Now, things start getting interesting. Once we’re okay and our money problems go away — which is: we don’t live on $3 a day, we have a roof, healthcare and the ability to buy a few whims. Once we overcome that, money is a story. It’s a story that society hammers home on us, so we can spend more and more on things we don’t actually need. Because if we don’t spend money, capitalism doesn’t work.
The truth is that we let money rule our decision making process.
So, once you get to that point, how much more money do you actually need? The tricky part, though, is that getting more money has its price. You trade it for something. Everything has its opportunity cost.
Puppets do things just for money. Maybe making money is your end goal, but it’s probably not. Money is something we exchange for freedom. Money buys the freedom of [fill in the blank].
Some people’s dream is to retire and go to live to Thailand or Bali. But their plan is to wait up until they’re 60-something years old to go there.
But why don’t they go there right away? Is it for money? It’s cheaper to live there than in almost any western country. So why is it?
Is it for lack of income? You can work remotely on anything these days.
This situation for Mr. Mole feels wrong.
But just because TV, advertising or any news site says that being rich is what everybody should aspire to — a way to acquire status and avoid shame — that doesn’t mean you should listen to them.
In the end, money is not even a piece of paper. It’s just a number on a screen.
Is that a reflection of your worth as a human being?
71. THE WISEST MAN ALIVE
More than 2000 years ago, Socrates said: “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”
For us this is the real deal. Knowing that we know nothing is our greatest virtue. Recognizing that we know nothing is the kind of humility that takes us to the next level. Once we accept that we might not see the world the way it actually is, that’s a form of enlightenment. In other words, the enlightenment opens up when we recognize we’ve got blind spots, which have corrupted our experience of reality.
But enlightenment itself isn’t enough. It’s the first step, but we need more than that — the future requires it.
72. THE FUTURE OF HUMANITY
I’ve always liked philosophy. One of the few things I liked in the school were logical thought exercises. Like, you have a group of people in a cave, and one of them gets crazy and clearly is going to kill all of them. The logical answer is you kill the bad guy, right? Otherwise the outcome would be catastrophic for everybody else.
It was fun as a thought exercise. And in retrospect they were easy, because almost always there was a clear solution. However, in this new era of rapid change, we’re facing new questions that don’t have clear answers — especially when Mr. Mole gets involved.
Lately Silicon Valley has been hiring lots of philosophers to work on autonomous vehicles. These are machines that will have to face autonomously these logical exercises and evaluate risk. Such as, deciding in an accident whether to kill the occupants of the car, or crash the car against a group of school students. These are not easy questions for those complex situations.
The problem here isn’t technology. Technology, when designed well, is fantastic. But when you put a small group of people to develop it (i.e. Silicon Valley) — people who have their biases, flaws and a specific worldview — then Mr. Mole will get bigger biases than ever before.
Autonomous cars are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is that in the next few years, we’re going to face some of the biggest questions we have ever dealt with.
How much leeway should people building AI have? What’s appropriate?
Do we fight for privacy or embrace openness?
How do we deal with phone addiction?
What do we do when politicians (or any other figure) can control our emotions through AI algorithms?
Do we implant chips into our brains?
We have really big questions. There are a few that are already here, but there are others that will show up pretty soon — questions that now seem inconceivable.
We need, every one of us, to kill Mr. Mole. That’s the only way we can face the future and the big challenges that come with it.
There’s a fork in the road. We either come out of this nonsense Puppet Show and take over control, or things will get even crazier.
Our ability to face the uncertainty of the challenges we’re about to face, depends on our ability to deconstruct our own thoughts and go to basic principles.
Yuval Noah Harari said in an interview with The New York Times: 40
“If there’s an algorithm out there that understands your feelings better than your own mother and can press your emotional buttons better than your mother, and you won’t even understand that this is happening, then liberal democracy will become an emotional puppet show.
“We have these slogans of ‘listen to your heart’, ‘follow your heart’… but, what happens if your heart is a foreign agent? A double agent serving somebody else.”
73. OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR
A while ago I was going for a ride with a friend in his car, a Ford Mustang. A few minutes in, I noticed that, in the mirror there was a warning that said (just like in any American car, I’m not American, so I’ve never noticed it): “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”
When I looked through the mirror I actually saw everything quite far. Just to make sure, I turned my head and, yep, everything was closer that it appeared.
That kept me thinking for a while, and I started to relate it to everything: deadlines are closer than they appear, promises, appointments… even family commitments!
But one of them was for real: what really is closer than it appears is change. Whether you want it or not, change is here. And it’s here to stay.
Change might seem quite far away. But most of the times there’s a huge penalty for ignoring change and being too late. And that’s what happens when you observe your reality through a mirror. A mirror you’re actually comfortable with.
At this point two things can happen:
One, hopefully you’re aware that you’ve got to work on Mr. Mole. You’ve awaken and seen that, just like every human being, your brain is flawed and you have to do something about it.
Two, Mr. Mole is still making you believe you’re in control of your own thoughts. And believe me, he is. Mr. Mole is relentless and he knows if there’s an argument you might buy, it’s that one. Don’t let Mr. Mole seduce you. It’s when you think he’s far away when he’s the closest.
You need to keep your mind working like an antivirus, checking your system once in a while, because Mr. Mole is closer than he appears.
Don’t get too comfortable thinking that he’s far away, because the moment you think that, you’re doomed.
He’s here, closer than he appears, so consider yourself warned.
And the same goes for these questions we’re going to face. In fact, some of them are already happening (or have happened!). These challenges might look far away, but the clock is ticking. We better not screw this up while there’s still time.
74. IS HE GONE FOR GOOD?
Mr. Mole will never be gone forever. You can shoot him away, even kill him. But the thing with viruses is that they can come back anytime in different forms.
Mr. Mole is like a virus in your computer. There’s always a bug or two that, if the operating system lets allows, would spread causing some damage.
It’s useful to reboot your system once in a while. And if necessary, format it and start from scratch.
From now on you have to install your own antivirus in your mind. So you can identify and kill any threat before it spreads.
Keep in mind that this isn’t something you do once and forget about it. You have to stay up-to-date and periodically scan your system looking for new threats. At the beginning it’s manual labor, but sooner or later it’ll become a habit and you’ll be able to do it automatically.
In the end it’s a daily battle — an uphill battle that goes against everything society has been imposing on us. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile in life comes easy.
The story goes that in the 15th century, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the 8th shōgun (Japanese military commander), broke one of his most precious Chinese tea bowls.41 To repair it, he sent it to China. He was quite disappointed when he got it back — they had repaired it with bulky and ugly metal staples. So he called some Japanese craftsmen to find a more aesthetic solution.
The commander Yoshimasa got his bowl back, but now it was more beautiful than the original one. It turned out that the most beautiful parts were at the cracks, because they had a golden trace… Kintsugi was born.
The art of Kintsugi, literally meaning golden (Kin-) joinery (-tsugi), became famous for turning broken objects into pieces more beautiful than the original product.42 Kintsugi is the art of fixing broken pottery with lacquer resin, mixed (or dusted) with powdered gold. In Japanese culture, when ceramics are broken, they don’t throw them away and buy other ones. Instead they put the broken pieces back together. So now these “new” pieces are even more beautiful with golden decorations. In fact, they are more beautiful at the cracks.
The philosophy behind Kintsugi comes from a traditional Japanese aesthetic called Wabi-Sabi, which describes beauty not in a traditional Western ideals of perfection, but as beauty that is “imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.”43 Anyway, Kintsugi represents something bigger than that.
76. KINTSUGI, PART TWO
What I find fascinating about the art of Kintsugi is that the fractures on a ceramic bowl don’t represent the end of its life. It’s rather a turning point. It represents a moment in the history of the object where it has overcome “pain”, and now has turned into a golden scar. What I like the most is that these cracks aren’t hidden. They are visible and shown with pride.
There are two things worth noting here:
- The bigger the crack, the bigger the length of the golden part.
- The pristine is less beautiful, but it’s difficult for us to figure that out until something is broken.
We’re in a period of transformation. If I’ve done a good job, by now I hope your belief system has torn apart. I hope that, now that Mr. Mole is broken, you can see the beauty of putting your pieces back together, and you can reinforce with beautiful golden scars what you believe to be true. And show them with pride.
With these new changes, we’re going to go through pain. Society is going to break apart and Mr. Mole will be very hard on us. But this is an opportunity. This is an opportunity to rebuild your belief system and reorganize the elements that were stopping you from becoming who you really are.
When your belief system breaks apart, the old story you told yourself about you won’t hold up any longer. It stops being persuasive. The show is gone. Now that story will be so contradictory that it will feel like you’re traumatized. But that’s good.
You have to put your old pieces back together and reinforce with golden scars the places where you broke (the beliefs and values Mr. Mole has been pushing you through all these years). It will be painful, it will feel contradictory and you’ll be tempted to go back to your original shape. But you can’t.
Once Mr. Mole is broken you can’t put him back together in the same way. You will see those broken parts every time you look at him. The only way, is to rebuild your system in a way that Mr. Mole is no longer there.
This is what Kintsugi is all about.
Today we’re starting to face the consequences of letting Mr. Mole rule our lives. But there’s hope.
Embrace damage. After all, you can only see the beauty of something when it’s broken.
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”
— Ernest Hemingway.
77. THE DETACHED LIFE
When I was in college I had a great professor that challenged my assumptions. I didn’t go to a fancy university, but this guy told something one day in front of the class that changed me forever:
“You are the ones that brings up the value of a university — not us [professors]. You have access to the same information than any Harvard or Stanford student has. Now, it’s up to you what you do with that information. You’re the ones who level up the value of this university, not us.”
It was pretty clear that we couldn’t blame the university for not being a famous one. It was up to us to level up. And I believe the same happens with society.
It may help you to think this way. If you decide to keep living in The Puppet Show and you don’t want to cut your strings, you won’t only hurt yourself. You’ll hurt the next generations. You’ll hurt me. You’ll hurt us.
Cutting your strings isn’t just for you, it’s for us. We all determine the level of our society.
As Bryan Johnson says: “Our society, our future, is only as perfect as we are.”44
Give it all.
78. YOUR STORY
Throughout this book I’ve shared my personal story of how I overcame Mr. Mole in order to find my purpose. I’ve just given you the sources of my pain, suffering, the price I paid, but most importantly, the payoff.
Mr. Mole takes so many forms, and if I were to write them all, this book would have been way bigger and cumbersome.
That said, even though I shared my personal story, it’s just that, mine. Your story is different, and Mr. Mole is probably attacking you in different ways.
The objective of this book has been to increase your awareness and warn you of the problem that represents giving your life over to Mr. Mole’s will. Now it’s your turn. Find your story. Look for your own beliefs and values. Rewrite your belief system.
But most importantly, remember that your story is our story.
Go. The future of humanity is better off if everybody works on this.
And please, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Introduce yourself and tell me your story. I’d love to hear from you.
Thanks for engaging.
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational
Seth Godin, Tribes
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow
Robert B. Cialdini, Influence
Martin Lindstrom, Buyology
Sam Harris, Free Will
- It turns out, there’s no such study. There’s no evidence that the monkey study ever happened. Following its trace, the first time the story that appeared was in a book called Competing for the Future. From 1996 onwards, the year book was published, everybody’s been telling this story. Whether it’s true or not, it’s one of the best stories to make my point.
- Godin, S. (2013). “People like us do things like this”. Seth’s Blog. Available at:
- Some say 95% of our decisions are subconscious. Others say it’s less than that. It doesn’t matter — we can assume most of our decisions are based on a subconscious level.
- Jost, John T.; Banaji, Mahzarin R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology. 33: 1–27.
- Pressfield, S. (2002). The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles. Black Irish Entertainment LLC.
- Pressfield, S. (2014). Do the Work!: Overcome Resistance and get out of your own way. Black Irish Books.
- Pronin, E.; Lin, D. Y.; Ross, L. (2002). The Bias Blind Spot: Perceptions of Bias in Self Versus Others. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 28 (3): 369–381.
- Plous, Scott (1993), The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making, p. 233
- Harari, Y. N. (2016). Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow. London: Harvill Secker. All the information about lawns is from this book.
- Chokshi, N. (2018, April 24). Trump Voters Driven by Fear of Losing Status, Not Economic Anxiety, Study Finds. Retrieved from:
- Godin, S. (2018, February 20). [Podcast]Status roles. Retrieved from:
- “The Kennedy Nixon Debates 1960 (Body Language).” YouTube, 13 Nov. 2016,
- The Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates, 1960. The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC). Retrieved October 8, 2010.
- Baker, P. (2007). Head and Shoulders Above the Rest. Retrieved October, 11, 2007, from:
- Godin, S. (2012). Stop Stealing Dreams (What’s School For?). Retrieved from:
sethgodin.typepad.com/files/stop-stealing-dreams6print.pdf. Most of the insight from this chapter is from Seth Godin and his popular ebook. You can download for free on his website.
- “Moran Cerf: ‘Decoding Thoughts and Dreams Using In-Brain Electrodes.’” Talks at Google, 8 June 2018,
- Johnson, B. (2018). 13 Steps to Cognitive “Perfection”. Retrieved April, 25, 2018, from:
- “Are we in control of our decisions? | Dan Ariely” TED, 19 May 2009,
- “Moran Cerf: ‘Decoding Thoughts and Dreams Using In-Brain Electrodes.’” Talks at Google, 8 June 2018, https://youtu.be/EVj3sU37gdI?t=1660
- Flores, R.; Arce, R. M. (2014). Why are lawyers killing themselves?. Retrieved January, 20, 2014, from: https://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/19/us/lawyer-suicides/index.html.
“Lawyers ranked fourth when the proportion of suicides in that profession is compared to suicides in all other occupations in the study population (adjusted for age). They come right behind dentists, pharmacists and physicians.”
- Caouette, J. (2012). Free Will: Why Sam Harris needs to read more Philosophy . Retrieved July, 29, 2012, from:
- Lindstrom, M. (2010). Buyology: Truth and lies about why we buy. Crown Business.
- Reeves, R. R., Ladner, M. E., Hart, R. H., & Burke, R. S. (2007). Nocebo effects with antidepressant clinical drug trial placebos. General hospital psychiatry, 29(3), 275–277. https://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17484949
- Brochet, F. (2001). Chemical object representation in the field of consciousness. Application presented for the Grand Prix of the Académie Amorim following work carried out toward a doctorate from the Faculty of Oenology, University of Bordeaux.
- Beedie, C. J., & Foad, A. J. (2009). The placebo effect in sports performance. Sports Medicine, 39(4), 313–329. https://link.springer.com/article/10.2165/00007256-200939040-00004
There’s also another study run by Dan Ariely where he shows that full price energy drinks works better than a discounted ones. “It turns out you sell people energy drinks at half price” Ariely says, “they exercise less and feel more tired.” Price is part of the placebo. See more here: https://youtu.be/bHBwHVbUwig?t=183
- “How to Bend Reality to Your Will and Become Unstoppable | Moran Cerf” Impact Theory, 10 January 2018, https://youtu.be/PE0TedFPgH8?t=1619
- “Michio Kaku: Why Physics Ends the Free Will Debate” Big Think, 20 May 2011,
- “Seth Godin Returns (Full Episode)” The Tim Ferriss Show (Podcast), 11 August 2016,
- Musk, E. (2015). Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. Ashlee Vance. The New York Times. Every detail in the chapter is from that book.
- Anderson, C. (2012, October). Elon Musk’s mission to Mars. WIRED,
- These ideas have evolved over time. But they’ve been a great starting point to dig deeper into the privacy problem. Which, ultimately, led me to write another book called Data Dictatorships: The Arms Race to Hack Humankind.
- Osborne, H.; Parkinson, J. (2018). Cambridge Analytica scandal: the biggest revelations so far . Retrieved March, 22, 2018, from:
- Sanders, J. (2018). Facebook data privacy scandal: A cheat sheet. Retrieved June, 14, 2018, from: https://www.techrepublic.com/article/facebook-data-privacy-scandal-a-cheat-sheet/.
- Thiel, P. A., & Masters, B. (2014). Zero to one: Notes on startups, or how to build the future. Broadway Business. I found that powerful question in Thiel’s book
- Bruce Horovitz, Meet the Man at the Center of the Dispute over Movie Ads, L.A. Times, Oct. 10, 1990, http://articles.latimes.com/1990-10-30/business/fi-3485_1_commercials-in-movie-theaters.
- Editorial, Skip the Cinema ADs, S.F. Chron., Mar. 2, 2005, at B8.
- Gopnik, Blake (March 3, 2009), At Freer, Aesthetic Is Simply Smashing, The Washington Post.
- Some people even break their own ceramics or other products on purpose, so they can rebuild them using this technique.
- Koren, Leonard (1994). Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Stone Bridge Press.
- Johnson, B. (2018). 13 Steps to Cognitive “Perfection”. Retrieved April, 25, 2018, from:
FIND THE OTHERS
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You can get more by visiting: BorjaMoya.com/Mr
BORJA MOYA is a privacy activist and filmmaker. He’s the founder of BM Studios, a production agency that creates narratives to educate people about the challenges we face in the 21st century. Visit BorjaMoya.com for more information. Contact: email@example.com