What I Learned about Life from Writing Three Innovation Books

In 2010 I left my job leading a top social media agency in NYC and bought a one-way ticket to Thailand. Since then I’ve written three books and traveled to around 40 countries working and giving keynotes. I’ve been fortunate to interview folks like Seth Godin, Chris Anderson, Robert Scoble, Adam Grant, Brian Solis, Sarah Lacy, Rita McGrath, Jeremiah Owyang, Shane Snow, Erik Qualman and James Altucher.

My latest book Empower: How to Co-Create the Future explores the collaborative economy, crowd-based innovation and new business models. My last book Disruption Revolution was among the first in a new wave of books on disruption (published before Silicon Valley became tired of the term). Red Bull to Buddha, my first book, looked at innovation and awakening (I’ve practiced meditation for 20 years and did Ph.D. studies at Princeton in religion).

People often ask how did I do it. I think real success and growth comes from unlocking your true potential. You need to find a process that works for you, and avoid getting too caught up in trying to imitate what works for someone else. That involves lots of trial and error. My approach involves mind hacking, which sounds so esoteric I never talk about it. I’ll explain what I mean by that below.

Years of sitting at desks in schools and work socialized us to think we have to learn and perform in structured environments. This is totally wrong. A key part of learning is unlearning, and that means letting go of attachments to preconceived ways of being in the world. Fans of Westworld may like the idea of robots awakening. But we all live in our behavioral traps.

Here are my reflections on what works for me. What were the “a-ha” moments along this magical journey that defied my expectations. How did the process of writing books challenge and force me to realize my true potential and cultivate compassion and wisdom — the traits necessary for success in every aspect of life. How is innovation a catalyst for awakening.

Writing A Book Changes You

It feels great to publish a book — to hold in your hands, flip through the pages, and manifest an idea into a tangible reality. Entrepreneurs have a similar feeling when they ship a product, except building a startup is a team effort. Part of what I love about writing is I control all of the variables. Startups often fail because someone drops the ball — a developer doesn’t deliver, the marketing or UX sucks, investors pull out — but books fail to finish when authors don’t do the work.

Everyone seems to think they have a book in them. It’s easy to impress friends with nuanced comments over drinks or coffee and feel a sense of confidence when they praise your expertise. “You should write a book someday!” Few people write even one page. Fewer dedicate time and write each day. Maybe 1 in 100,000 finish. The truth is it’s really hard.

Writing forces you to make choices that shape the course of your life. You have to choose writing over the million other things you could do with your time and energy. Your personal life suffers. Your job suffers. Everything suffers because you save your best work for your book. Then you have to choose what’s most important and what to leave out of your writing. You want to say everything, but you can’t.

The essence of strategy is sacrifice. That’s what my mentor and friend Michael Bronner says, who founded Digitas, Upromise, and UnReal. Writing coaches call it “killing your darlings” — editing out the stories you love, but don’t really matter to the narrative. Stripping away the nonessentials is liberating and terrifying at the same time. You realize what matters to you doesn’t always matter to anyone else. Writing chips away at your ego.

Foucault described writing a book like a process of transformation. You aren’t the same person when you finish. You inscribe yourself onto the pages, and in turns the millions of decisions and choices refine who you are in relationship to your subject matter. Because we do our best writing about things that are personal, the vulnerability opens us up.

My personal best was a post in memory of my sister’s suicide. I’ve never felt more bare, exposed, and alone — and because of that people responded. The extent to which writing changes you is a function of how much you allow yourself to change. I’ve come to accept that every book project is a journey. I hope to write many more, peeling away layers of myself along the way.

Let Go and Give In

I think of that quote by Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” There are a million things that you could do, but none of them prepare you for the discipline and effort required to finish writing a book. Staring at an empty page can feel daunting. At some point you just need to let go of attachments and commit to doing the work. Your own unique process and flow emerges, like something inside of you takes over that is pre-conscious and deeply intuitive. And you have to trust it.

A huge obstacle to doing great work can be the tendency to rationalize away your idiosyncracies instead of embracing them. Dalton Trumbo, one of the greatest screenplay writers ever, wrote in a bathtub because his creativity flowed best when surrounded by water. Brad Feld described a similar process for entrepreneurs when I interviewed him for my latest book. “When you let yourself behave the way you want to behave, you actually work more effectively.” Choose yourself, as James Altucher says.

What works for me probably wouldn’t work for you. For example, as a practitioner of meditation for 20 years, I use contemplative practices to hack my own mind. I’ll meditate for 20–30 minutes on the pain points of a problem, and then again on the feeling of joy and happiness of it being gone. What does it feel like to suffer and alleviate the suffering? To be trapped by convention and then free?

The focus of my meditation shifts and my mind works in the background. From this process a narrative arc emerges that I couldn’t consciously articulate before. First I make the jump from point A to B, then I articulate the most direct path. Afterwards, it seems fresh, intuitive, and obvious because the answer was always there, I just couldn’t see it.

Hacking my mind helps to produce “a-ha” moments of breakthrough. It also allows me to boost energy, control anxiety, instill confidence, and make me a more complete person. I use contemplative practices to navigate my way through every life challenge. Most people think mindfulness is about taking the edge off or feeling peaceful. It’s about creating your own reality. This sounds so esoteric that I never talk about it. And I don’t need to.

My approach is unique to me, but it is not a total outlier. Others focus on accessing flow states or doing what Cal Newport calls deep work. Some people simplify their lives by wearing the same outfit everyday, freeing up their energy for more important decisions. We all have our idiosyncracies that help us to optimize performance and make personal breakthroughs.

David Lynch describes a similar process that he calls fishing for ideas. A long-time practitioner of Transcendental Meditation (TM), he doesn’t question where the ideas come from or try to explain what they are. They just are there in his consciousness, and he accepts them without judgment. Don’t question what works for you. Closely examine your most productive habits and listen to your intuition. Follow the path your true self reveals.

There is a point where we must give in to what works best. Be a radical pragmatist. Don’t get too attached to beliefs. Follow the path that your intuition lays out and then have the discipline and courage to do the work.

Optimize for Access to Experiences

You have to believe that everything is possible, as my friend Dave Quirke says, and have faith that everything will work out. Every one of my books I’ve spent at least a year writing. Then I placed faith in the universe that making them available by donation would allow me to connect with likeminded audiences. People that value collaboration and sharing are supportive. Those driven by money and greed think I’m crazy.

After my last book Disruption Revolution came out, within weeks I received an offer to be Head of Innovation and Research for Dubizzle, the sixth most visited site in the UAE. It’s like the eBay or Craigslist of the Middle East, only with Lamborghinis and yachts. Moving to Dubai started a magical journey visiting around 40 different countries, shaping my perspective on collaboration and co-creation in Empower.

I don’t know what will happen next, but I am ready and open for it. My life is optimized for access to experiences. Most people think about access vs. ownership. But ownership is really about the security of having attachments — cars, homes, enough money to raise your family, and so on. Most of the things people think they need to own are unnecessary. You don’t own your possessions; they own you.

When I dropped out of my Ph.D. studies at Princeton, I felt the need to professionalize and adapt to a new work environment. Like a cultural anthropologist, I would take notes of what people said in presentations and then go home and learn how to use words. (What the fuck is a value proposition, my boss said that 10 times in the meeting?) Within 2 years out of school I was leading social media for Volkswagen and running an agency.

Yet that sense of urgency to fit in led me to become disconnected from everything that I learned at Princeton. My research focused on grassroots movements known as “Great Awakenings.” I had 10+ years of research and experience on the Civil Rights and Sixties Counterculture, culture jamming and viral stunts that caught media attention, and I cut it all out due to insecurities about who I thought I needed to be as a professional.

Writing books taught me that the more true I am to my unique and authentic self, the more successful I can be. Life is a series of calculated risks. I know based on 20 years of research and experience that the world is headed in the direction of crowd-based innovation and on-demand everything. It is a world optimized for access, not ownership.

Ask Questions You Cannot Answer

I’ve learned through writing and extensive research to trust in my intuition. Asking myself where is the world heading led me to the striking conclusion that innovation and awakening are inherently interrelated. As innovations like social media, smartphones, and virtual reality empower us to extend and create ideal digital versions of our selves, these creative acts become sparks for awakening our true nature and unlocking our real potential.

There becomes an interplay of consciousness which will become much more fluid as virtual and augmented reality reach mainstream adoption, smartphones disappear, and we become immersed in worlds with the lines blurred between digital and physical. It’s taken writing three books, which I saw as being independent from each other, to learn that the play of consciousness between innovation and awakening is the main theme behind my work and the motivation of everything that I do.

I’ve learned to stop trying to explain what all of this means. We are taught to search for words to articulate and explain the world, and yet the driving pulse of innovation is to create things that never existed before. That means the best path is to continually ask questions, even if you don’t know the answers, a point Alex Bogusky emphasized when I interviewed him for Empower.

Because innovation often happens in isolated bits and spurts, people may use different language to describe similar concepts. For example, in my most recent book Robin Chase describes “Peers Inc.” companies like Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, and Kickstarter (Peers for the benefits of local, personalized, one-to-one products, and Inc. for the scale of industrialism), and Arun Sundararajan calls it crowd-based capitalism, formulating it in the language of economics.

My advisors at Princeton taught me to track trends by looking at shifts in language over time. Yet the emergence of common language signifies a later stage in the adoption curve. I remember working in social media before the term ‘social media’ existed. It was a hodgepodge of creatives, techies, and weirdos doing cool stuff mostly with video and MySpace. Then the economy crashed in 2008–9 and all of the marketers needed to slash budgets and find better ways to target customers. The stuff we were doing became “social media” and eventually evolved into “content marketing.”

Content Marketing today litters the Internet and social feeds with copycat posts using the same catchy titles and keyword phrases. Innovation-speak quickly devolves into imitation. 20-something year olds with no life experience claim to be gurus, selling advice on how to become ‘influencers’ to people that hate their day jobs. What was once innovative and fun — creating and sharing content — today borders on a giant Ponzi scheme.

I learned that you need to understand the patterns of how innovations break and unfold. The most interesting stuff happens very early before people can consciously agree upon common language. You track patterns and look at the outliers. Marc Andreessen describes this as watching what the nerds do on Saturday night, because they are testing grounds for trends. All of this taught me to cultivate and place greater trust in my intuition. You let go of attachments to everything, creating a space of emptiness that leads to true freedom.

The best way to describe this is like you are falling and falling, then realize there is no ground. Nothing is left to hold onto. The underlying nature of reality is impermanence. The only thing that really matters in life is what society teaches us is intangible and immeasurable. Trust, loyalty, honesty, reputation, compassion, wisdom— these are all we have when we strip away the busy-ness and shifting nature of the world. That is OK, because they are the only things that matter in life.

Letting go of attachments to preconceived ways of doing things allows you to act with clarity and focus. While most of humanity bounces around like pinballs, unconscious of their reactionary nature and trapped in their own loops, patterns and narratives emerge. You see the signals in the noise, and then connect the dots to tell a story. Writing about innovation is like playing detective following clues. You learn not to get attached to outcomes and stay grounded in the present moment.

We are living through the period of the most rapid innovation in human history. This is such an incredible time to be alive. Embrace and cherish it. Don’t get too caught up trying to hold onto the past because the ground is constantly shifting. The next 10–20 years are going to be a bumpy and wild ride because humanity is unprepared for the exponential change and uncertainty coming. We need to work together to co-create the future we want and deserve. Let go of attachments and don’t worry. Once you make the mental leap, the path ahead will seem obvious, clear, and intuitive.

If you enjoyed this post, please like or share. You should also check out my latest book Empower: How to Co-Create the Future. Available by Donation