17 Life Lessons I learned from Neil Strauss
In terms of mentorship, I have a lot of people who I’m really thankful for. Now I have had a few mentors who have directly guided me through various obstacles and given me permission and confidence to make embarrassing mistakes and learn from them. But some mentors can give you a fast track, they are the people who are in the position you want to be in. They have done everything you want to do, and done it well at that.
In my case, an immediately ‘success mentor’ (as I like to call them) whom comes to mine is Neil Strauss. This man has totally shaped my worldview and helped advance my career tremendously. Neil is a seven-time New York Times best-selling author (yes, you did read that correctly). He’s probably most famous for his most controversial book: The Game, in which he reports on a secret society of pickup artists after going undercover for two years.
But it’s actually his most recent book, The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, that Strauss really shows what an incredible researcher, storyteller, writer and modern day thinker he is – thus making him my ‘success mentor’. Now I highly recommend you read his incredibly insightful and often quite personal articles on his blog, I thought I would introduce you to Neil’s work by providing a list of the most valuable and practical life lessons that I have learnt from him over the years:
1. Don’t take things personally
Although we do our best to make something of our lives and I know I always implement the highest degree of effort into what I do, there is far too much that can happen to us that is completely uncontrollable. An example of a day may be that: you get fired from your work, you get drenched by a passing by car driving through a puddle on your way home and you finally arrive home to only then find your girlfriend stood by the door, with her coat on, on her way out to be with another man. Jesus, I felt my heart drop a little even writing that. But the truth is, bad things happen all the time and it’s in knowing this and learning how to deal with these mini-traumas, that Neil states you can find peace. ‘Don’t take things personally… because the world doesn’t hate you, you just had a bad day’. It’s easy to make some Stoic comparisons to this lesson, knowing that it’s not about what happens to you – but rather, how you react to it.
2. ’Catch’ criticism, don’t take it
On the topic of not taking things personally… Neil Strauss presents quite an interesting perspective to how he deals with criticism. Whilst the modern, social world we live in today gives us more opportunities and outlets to connect and display work; the very same world makes as consumers of opinion through the form of criticism. Often we even read into lack of criticism such as: not getting as many likes as usual on a photo you’ve uploaded. Either way, negativity and criticism are more accessible than ever. To deal with this, Neil Strauss talks about, what he likes to call, ‘catching’ criticism, rather than taking it. A way to look at this is to imagine a baseball has been hurled toward you. Rather than standing in front of it and looking at the ball as it smashes you in the stomach, you step to parallel to it and catch it. Neil then talks of looking around and then judging the criticism he has just ‘caught’ based on the context. So if you were to see LOADS of people hurling baseballs at your target-looking body, then you might want to take that criticism seriously (and not in a depressing way, but in a constructive sense). Otherwise, if it’s alone and the ball was thrown by someone who just gets his kicks out of throwing balls at people – well then it’s best to simply drop the ball and move on.
3. Storytelling is the most important art… in all fields
When asked in an interview how he would describe his job in one word, Neil simply replies with: a Storyteller. Quickly after this, Neil went on to explain how important storytelling is in all aspects of life. He brings up how people love to read non-fiction books, but it’s in the metaphors told in a narrative style that grip and resonate with readers the most. Even big companies in the consumer product world look to telling stories through branding and marketing narrative rather than simply presenting what the product does and who it’s for. It’s the narrative and the story that people fall in love with that compels them to the ultimate (often subconscious) loyalty to a brand. So in anything you do, be it write an essay, create a sales presentation, create a form of art or converse with people – make sure you are telling a story and giving people a narrative to follow and care about.
4. Block out time for creativity and execution
Neil Strauss hilariously points out in an interview with Tim Ferriss that: ‘friends can be a pain in the ass if you want to do something creative’. He mentions how having friends who simply want to spend time with you can seem so innocent yet ends up being so distracting and unproductive. An actionable thing to do (before losing all of your friends), is to set up a day in the week where you can all hang out together. This is especially key if you have a large number of friends who want to meet in person. Making time for all of these people, gives you very little wriggle room to make time for your own projects and endeavours. So what Neil does, is that he goes out to dinner with a bunch of his friends every Wednesday night. What this effectively does is block out lots of time for personal projects. It also eliminates potential distractions throughout the week. Whilst a friend would have usually called and moved your attention away from your project for half an hour to talk about his cat’s new toy, they would now think to save that conversation for the Wednesday night dinner.
5. Remove all distractions
On the note of blocking out time and getting things done, Neil also talks of removing all distractions during the time that he works on those projects. Having your phone with a friend, and setting up systems that prevent internet procrastination (such as his recommendation of ‘Freedom.to’) is essential for having great focus and achieving task completion. Turning off the internet is actually a recommendation of his that I have applied when writing that has made my process more streamlined and efficient whilst it also gave me extreme focus. (It’s sometimes the simple things that produce the greatest results).
6. The quickest and best way to get anything you want done, is to have a deadline
I think back to all the projects that came with deadlines, stretching as far back as the ones in school and noticed that those projects were always completed. They may not have been my best work, but it’s often in having anxiety of whether something is going to be your best work or not, that you end up with an unfinished project. Neil states that having a deadline with real consequences or stakes is key to finishing something. The awesome thing is that these deadlines can actually be manufactured, but with the condition that it should be external, meaning someone else or something out of your control is going to hold you responsible. One way to do this is to get a stake on ‘stickK.com‘ – which Neil actually mentions during the interview in which he talks about deadlines.
7. If you follow your audience, you’re trapped forever
Marketers, according to Strauss, spend copious amounts of time trying to locate their audience and to look at what they are consuming at that very moment. Here inlays the endless loop of ‘attention location’ (a term I coined for those who constantly seek trends and attention to then be a part of that noise). This kind of practice by any creative, marketer, business owner or advertiser presents a HUGE problem. You are going to be exhausted from chasing an unapologetically constant, and moving paradigm. Often this kind of behaviour comes from a fear of being ‘out of touch’, yet when interviewing top music artists and following their career journeys – Neil noticed that it was actually those who were in touch with themselves and who were not afraid of leaving people behind who were graced with success and a legendary status. In fact, it was those who made a name for themselves and then conformed to trend chasing, who then fell flat on their face.
8. ’The personal is the universal’
Similar to the previous lesson, Neil has talked about people, specifically writers (although I think this can be applied to any creative) who tries to appeal to everybody by being as generic and universal as possible. Neil states that in fact, it’s ‘the personal’ that is ‘universal’. The creative outcomes of which has comes from a deeper, more personal side of the writer (or an creative) is one that can resonate most with: the universal audience of individual people.
9. If you’re only getting positive feedback, you’re probably not doing anything new or interesting
You’ve made your great piece of work and you’ve put it out into the world. Hundred of people come back and everyone is positive. There is not one single bit of negative feedback. Sounds great right? Not according to Neil Strauss, who claims that the lack of negative feedback probably means that what you’ve produced is not original and/or thought provoking. New ideas and ‘great pieces of work’ are usually that of which causes conversation – meaning feedback from both perspectives. This links back to the idea of being universal in your work. The overarching positive feedback, paired with the lack of negative feedback may be a hint that your work is simply too universal and generic. I personally have gone through this with a few projects and have actually completely stopped working on one after getting no conversation and only praise – giving me a feeling that those who were providing me with positive feedback, only did so because they wanted to please me and not because the project had affected them in some way.
10. No-one cares.
It’s cripplingly heartbreaking to write this, but it might be true. No one actually cares about your work. Much like my suspicions that people were giving me positive feedback from the angle of ‘well done Justin for doing something’ rather than ‘thank you for creating something that has provided me with such value’ for a project I had worked on, Neil Strauss claims that people really don’t care about you and the work you produce and that you are by no means entitled to having people care about anything you put out into the world. It’s from this that we should learn how to make people care. What is it that can actually help people and what is it that can actually bring more to someone than simply a feeling of slight temporary pleasure. Neil demands that we ask this question to ourselves consistently when marketing or pushing out and reviewing our own work.
11. If something goes wrong, it’s your fault
Whilst on what may seem like a negative streak, it’s worth mentioning this powerful philosophy that Neil has actually instilled in my everyday. Taking ownership over a situation and understanding that there is always room for improvement and growth is one of the smartest pieces of advice that Neil has given me and many others. This ownership comes with a special feeling of empowerment. You feel as though you are always in control of certain occurrences and it allows you to really feel a sense of ‘I’ve earned this’ when a success comes. But of course, this approach does come with the overwhelming feeling as though any loss you’ve experienced is – on you. And although this may seem crushing at first, it’s actually more empowering. Rather than getting upset, you simply look to changing the way you approach the same situation the next time and it also demands a higher alertness from you for when things do go wrong, as you haven’t thrown down the towel thinking that there is simply nothing you can do. This approach gives you a second round to punch back.
12. Complaining is for suckers
To complain is a simple and often a lazy task. Although we like to think we are detached from those who complain in supermarkets and in reviews on random websites – we still find ourselves guilty of complaining in one form or another. For me, I often complain about the lack of time I seem to have for important things, but I know full well that this can only be fixed by me. Complaining suggests that someone else is at fault – and we already know how to app talking blame. I highly recommend reading Neil’s incredibly simply yet unimaginably powerful ’30-Day Challenge’ which has had hilarious comments of people trying and failing to overt complaining. Give it a go!
13. Don’t let questions interfere with your creativity
I actually wrote a post (which is quite popular on this site) about the questions that stop creativity dead in it’s tracks. Rather than explaining again this whole concept, I’ll simply recall what Neil said about these questions that kill creativity – and it’s worth mentioning that this is seriously one of my top 3 quotes I’ve ever heard in my life so far. Neil says:
‘If you throw a pebble, you never know where the ripples will go, the question is, will you throw it?’
14. ’I know nothing’
No, this isn’t a quote from Faulty Towers’ Manuel, but is actually a thought process that Neil puts himself through when wanting to master a craft or reshape his career. He basically places his mind in the ‘child-like’ and ‘student’ state that Ryan Holiday even talks about in the Ego is the Enemy – which allows you to absorb information like a sponge and output like a shower on full blast. If you find yourself struggling to surpass an obstacle or even struggle to see the point of talking to certain type of people – understand that you can learn from anything, anywhere and anyone… as long as you tell yourself that ‘I know nothing!’
15. Figure out the source and do everything that points in that direction
When talking to women (as mentioned in his book: The Game), Neil prefers to ask questions that really get to the core of understanding the other person’s lifelong purpose and desires – rather than asking the basic trifecta: ‘how you doing?’, ‘where are you from?’ and ‘what do you do?’. In the context of quickly establishing a relationship of trust and familiarity, Neil suggests that going deep with questions is vital – but I noticed that this is also the case for self-improvement and defining our version of success. I wrote about how ‘the middle’ concept is what is needed to define success in a previous post, but Neil’s concept of going to the source is very similar. It really allows you to define for yourself, what it is that will ultimately fulfil you. From this point, Neil suggest that we do anything and everything that points in the direction that leads us to this fulfilment.
16. Your passion is both your goal and your safety net
‘The insecure way is the secure way’. These are the words of a man who believes that it is following your dreams and passions that will lead you to ultimate security rather than taking the traditional route of security through a high-paying, but unfulfilling job. It’s in the pursuit of doing something you love: money and status, slip out of your ‘number one priority’ part of your mind, and give you something much more powerful and long-lasting. Passion is the essential driver of the human spirit and by making it your goal and also your safety net (rather than lending both to money and/or status) you will be invincible and will be on the right path to success.
17. Choose anything
Neil believes that there are, now more than ever, ways of reaching success. In the best CreativeLive ’30 Days of Genius’ interview, Neil hilariously demonstrates the hugely vast ways in which a person could potentially live out their dream… by brushing his finger along the surface of the sofa back on which he was leaning against. But the explanation is clear and the big takeaway here is that by constantly sitting still and thinking endlessly about what it is you want to do and where you want to be, you will be doing just that… sitting still. But by just choosing something that you don’t hate and could be good at and then going on the natural flow of your career from there – you will naturally be aligned to where you want to be through the various opportunities that present themselves along the way. It’s important to note that the key here is to choose ANYTHING. As long as it’s SOMETHING.
This is only a small piece of the pie that is the wisdom of Neil Strauss. I’d highly recommend picking up his latest book: The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships, if only to get a closer and more personal look at the great insight of his worldview.