Leave Your Mark: 13 Principles of Greatness

Slick edit, right?

Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things no one can imagine.” — Alan Turing

Greatness can be drawn back to a fine blend of intangibles — viz. mindsets, or guiding principles — and specific habits such as exceptional learning and thinking skills that you can start developing right away. Read on — to Leave Your Mark.

1. Reality is a Linguistic Construct

“Reality is negotiable. Outside of science and law, all rules can be bent or broken, and it doesn’t require being unethical.” — Timothy Ferriss

The mediocre have a very narrow perception of reality, and in turn, their lives. They see things as they are and not how they can be. Their reality is set in stone and they can’t do anything about it. Or can they?

In recent years, I’ve come to realise that reality is a linguistic construct­ and that it can be bent according to one’s will — the only limitation being the vocabulary of the mind authoring it. I strongly resonate with Steve Jobs when he says:

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

It only follows that the distinction between being realistic and being unrealistic starts to fade — and new possibilities emerge.

Practical Implication: Alter your definition of what’s possible — and what isn’t. Eliminate mental restrictions and limitations you place on your business, relationship, or whatever matters to you.

If you’re looking for financial independence—which is a precursor to putting your mind to more significant uses — you might seek to earn an extra $10,000 the rest of this year. What if you redefined your target to $100,000, or even $1,000,000? You’d end up making a lot more that $10,000 because you’ll have removed mental barriers and forced yourself to tackle the problem at a much higher level — effectively using language to mould your reality.

Believe in your limitlessness. When in doubt, just remember: You’re just one decision away from a completely different life.

2. Be Unreasonable

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” — George Bernard Shaw

We associate comfort with treading the trodden path and take solace in the fact that it’s the reasonable thing to do. But what seems reasonable — or obvious — is often food for the average mind.

Anything that has the potential to make a dent in the world usually:

  • Challenges the status quo {think: Ford Motor Company}
  • Seems unreasonable at the time, and requires people to adjust their mental models to appreciate it {think: SpaceX}

Peter Thiel, billionaire entrepreneur and author of Zero to One, has an interesting saying that warrants being a little unreasonable to answer:

“If you have a 10-year plan and know how to get there, you have to ask yourself why can’t you do this in 6 months?”

Practical Implication: Ingrain a healthy dose of irrationality in your life. Don’t be intimidated to question the most obvious aspects of your life — things you’ve long accepted as the norm.

Last year, I made the jump from Grade 3 to Grade 8 {Trinity School of Music; Guitar} — something that usually takes a couple of years — in a mere 3 months. All I did was expect something unreasonable from myself — and my cognitive processes self-adjusted to make it happen. Now I might not be as good as someone who took the full 2 years to make it, but I’ve improved considerably. And that’s what matters, right?

Be unreasonable when it comes to setting self-expectations. Be unreasonable when someone “logically” tells you something can’t be done. Just find opportunities…to be unreasonable.

Remember, rationality is overrated. Being unreasonable makes you vulnerable — but pays off 100x in the long run.

3. Maximise Your Impact

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” 
 — Jackie Robinson

Elon Musk, on How To Build The Future, talks about being useful — and maximising impact:

“Whatever the thing is you’re trying to create, [ask] what would be the utility delta compared to the current state of the art, times how many people it would affect?
So that’s why I think something that makes a big difference but affects a small to moderate number of people is great, as is something that makes a small difference but affects a vast number of people. The area under the curve would be roughly similar for those two things.

Accordingly, figuring out how to maximise your impact boils down to solving this equation:

Impact/ Usefulness = Δ Utility * Number of People Affected

Practical Implication: Read this article to figure out what you’re passionate about and make a list of the challenges in our world that could be solved using your passion. Use above equation to figure out which problem (when solved) would bring about the greatest impact maximising your utility and usefulness — and making your time here worthwhile.

4. Take Risks

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” — T. S. Eliot

Tesla was dying. It was the fall of 2008, and owing to the instability of the global economy, investors weren’t ready to sink more cash. Musk was down to his last $3 million — it was either saving Tesla, or paying next month’s rent. He willed to risk it all, and the rest is history.

If you’re risk-averse, I need to you ask yourself — what are you afraid of? In the grand scheme of things, there’s absolutely nothing you could lose. On the flip side:

If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary. — Jim Rohn

Practical Implication: Life shrinks and life expands in direct proportion to your willingness to assume risk. Yes, taking risks is scary — but is usually essential to achieving what others can’t.

Learn a new skill — and change what you do for a living. Take a gap-year to write that book. Spend your time building the company you’ve always wanted to build. It pays off.

Start your journey to becoming risk-tolerant now — and let your future self thank you.

5. Find Comfort in Discomfort

“It doesn’t matter where you are, you are nowhere compared to where you can go.”

No one ever achieved anything significant by lurking in their comfort zone — if you’re comfortable doing what you do, you’re much farther from reaching your true potential than you think.

Practical Implication: To transcend your previous limitations, start making yourself a little uncomfortable. Starting small and gradually taking it up is a good idea. Take cold showers. Lay down on the street (or not). Go on the stage, and at the risk of embarrassing yourself, pitch your idea in front of 1os of people.

Remember, it is only when you dare to plummet yourself into the unknown, the gravity of something bigger and stronger than yourself attracts you — until you become one with it.

Before becoming extraordinary at anything, you need to become extraordinary at learning. Read on to see how you can become a master-learner:

6. Focus on Mental-Modelling

Whatever you do, whether that’s watching a romantic comedy on Netflix, or reading academic texts in the library — it shapes how you view the world. You might not remember the specifics clearly, but it gives you perspective; a frame of mind with which to view the world. In other words, it creates, or alters, your mental models of the world, which influence thinking and decision making at a subconscious level.

The ultimate goal of learning is to bring about permanent changes in our mental models of the world — and apply those models in new and novel contexts.

Read Paul Graham’s article to get greater insight on mental models here.

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7. Become “T-Shaped”

Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, credits a lot of his success to being an Expert Generalist. Orit Gadiesh describes the Expert Generalist as:

“Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics, etc. He or she can then, without necessarily even realising it, but often by design:
• Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognise patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas.
• Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.”

So, be sure to develop depth of expertise in a particular field, and accompany it with a variety of mental models. You can start developing your models on Shane’s blog: Farnam Street.

8. Keep Bloom’s Taxonomy in Mind

Educational systems around the world leave out the most complex and rewarding learning-tasks until the very end {i.e. PHDs}, so it’s upto us to incorporate them in our learning endeavours: Bloom’s Taxonomy classifies learning into several domains, going from lower to higher level in complexity:

Remembering → Understanding → Applying → Analysing → Evaluating → Creating

So, when learning something, be sure to move up this cognitive ladder step-by-step — or your learning won’t be as effective or permanent as you’d want it to be.

9. Learn from Tim: DiSSS and CaFE

Tim Ferriss is a master learner — and lucky for us — he’s detailed several of his strategies in his book, The 4-Hour Chef. Here’s the 70-page excerpt from the book focussing on meta-learning. If you’re not willing to go through the manuscript (although I highly encourage that you do), here are the two key takeaways:

  • DiSSS: Stands for Deconstruction, Selection, Sequencing and Stakes. So basically, deconstruct what you’re trying to learn into smaller (standalone) components. Then, select the most essential components (~20%) that account for 80% of the subject. Now, figure out what sequence should these components be digested in. Finally, the stakes — create real consequences of not following through your learning plan.
  • CaFE: Stands for Compression, Frequency and Encoding. Compress the learning material you’ve gathered into an awesome 1-page cheatsheet (or longer — a single page won’t cut it for several subject areas). Assess your learning abilities and goals, and come up with a realistic timeline within which to finish learning. Accordingly, decide the frequency of your learning sessions/ repetitions (check out the Forgetting Curve for better understanding how to distribute your review sessions).

The quality of one’s thoughts dictate whether it will contribute to the next medical breakthrough — or just end up binge watching Grey’s Anatomy.

But how do you even get good at thinking? Read on.

10. Eliminate Cognitive Biases

Our minds aren’t nearly perfect. In fact, they’re (almost) riddled with biases and fallacies. Check out this neat illustration of biases (referenced from Wikipedia) designed by John Manoogian III:


If you’re looking to go into greater detail, check out The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli.

11. Read. Read. Read!

Get hold of all you can find — and read as widely and deeply as possible.

If you’re new to Medium, go ahead and follow Benjamin P. Hardy, Gary Vaynerchuk, James Altucher, Thomas Oppong, Todd Brison, Seth Godin and Shane Parrish. Thank me later.

Also, make it a point to read what others aren’t. Invest at least 25% of your (reading) time going through texts that aren’t as well known but offer varied insights and perspectives.

This principle is really obvious — but something most of us don’t actually follow. You must be thinking:

“Arghh!!! I just don’t have the time to go through 200 pages. I have a job, you know.”

I understand all of that. But there’s a lot of things you can do. Listen to podcasts. Check out Blinkist. Or, even better: subscribe to IDEAS Weekly to get short, useful insights from the best of books and pieces. You’re going to love it!

12. Flex Your Idea-Muscle

I’ve borrowed this one from the great James Altucher.

Write down 10 ideas everyday. These could be on anything ranging from new side-projects to ways of improving your relationship with your parents.

Don’t fret the quality of these ideas — the point is to get ideas flowing in your mind. If you want to get better at this process, give James’ piece a read right here.

13. First-Principles Thinking

Over to Elon:

“I think it is important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [When reasoning by analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done or it is like what other people are doing — slight iterations on a theme.
First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?”, and then reason up from there.
Somebody could say, “Battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be… Historically, it has cost $600 per kilowatt hour. It’s not going to be much better than that in the future.”
With first principles, you say, “What are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the stock market value of the material constituents?”
It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, some polymers for separation and a seal can. Break that down on a material basis and say, “If we bought that on the London Metal Exchange what would each of those things cost?”
It’s like $80 per kilowatt hour. So clearly you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realises.”

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Let’s put an end to mediocrity. Peace ✌️