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How to Improve Yourself in 6 Months

You can’t. It’s really hard to change. I’ve been an addict. When you’re addicted to a drug you can’t just say, “Well, this is bad for me. I’m going to stop.”

Just give up now or be ready to go through a world of pain.

Or…

You can. But it’s really hard and few people do it.

You can’t say, “I’m out of shape and I don’t exercise so I’m going to start exercising every day now for an hour a day.”

I started exercising three times a week. Some weeks two. Some weeks one. I knew that if I overdid it, then I would simply lose interest.

In any case, I lost interest. I hated it .

I stopped even though I knew that stopping would hurt me and not help me.

It’s really hard to change.

But…

Here’s how you can improve in the next six months.

Remember this line: The way you do Anything is the way you do Everything.

Remember it.

I’ve had to improve at lots of things. Sometimes to survive and feed my family. Sometimes to stay healthy and LIVE. Sometimes because I simply wanted to.

Learning to improve at ONE thing gives you the ability to improve at everything. @jaltucher (Click to Tweet!)

I read the other day there are three aspects of “well-being”:

  • Connection with community or friends or family or partners
  • Freedom (every day you make more decisions for yourself instead of relying or being dependent on the decisions of others)
  • IMPROVEMENT

It doesn’t say “Improve yourself”. It just says “Improvement”.

Because if you improve at anything, you are improving yourself.

And the way you do anything is the way you do everything.

I’ve had to improve at investing, interviewing, writing, selling, negotiating, creativity, public speaking, leadership, programming — all just to survive.

I’ve had to improve at chess, comedy, poker, parenting, being a good husband/boyfriend, reading, friendship, charisma, authenticity — all because I wanted to.

I realized quickly that the “language” of getting good at one thing taught me the basic grammar to get good at everything.

The way you do anything is the way you do everything.

FIND ONE THING TO IMPROVE:

You can’t improve without passion and obsession.

After interviewing on my podcast 400 of the most successful people in recent history, there’s one thing I know: all of them were obsessed.

They were obsessed with their ONE THING.

But improving at their one thing meant they were improving at everything.

You can’t be great at golf without weight lifting.

You can’t be great at physics without having the charisma to get across your ideas.

You can’t be great at inventing the light bulb without knowing marketing.

HOW TO FIND YOUR ONE THING:

Some basics:

A) There will be many “one things” in your life. I’ve been obsessed with chess, computers, writing, TV, business, investing, speaking, podcasting, marketing, stand-up comedy, etc.

Each thing feeds the other.

B) Go to a bookstore: which section could you see yourself reading every single book?

C) List what you LOVED at the age of 13. How did it age?

For instance, Matthew Berry loved sports at age 13. He later was an unhappy Hollywood screenwriter. Miserable.

But he wasn’t going to be an athlete. He was too old. Not in the right shape for professional athleticism.

But he quit Hollywood. Got divorced. Went broke.

And for $100 a post he started writing blog posts about fantasy sports.

He improved every day.

And now he’s the ESPN anchor for fantasy sports. I can’t walk down the street with him without people going up to him constantly and thanking him.

D) Try lots of things.

E) What are you a little good at? Usually what you have some talent at could easily grow into an obsession.

I asked Sasha Cohen, a former world champion of figure skating, what was the one most important ingredient of being the best in the world at something. Anything.

“Obsession,” she said. And so did the other 399 people I’ve interviewed.

And once you find your obsession, how do you improve?

And remember two things:

  1. When you improve at any one thing, you… IMPROVE.
  2. The way you do ANYTHING is the way you do EVERYTHING.

PLUS, MINUS, EQUAL:

When I was 17 I barely knew how to play chess. But I was a geeky, lonely kid and I wanted to be popular and I wanted to be good at something.

I wasn’t an athlete and girls didn’t like a pimply scrawny kid like me with no confidence.

I knew the rules to chess and they asked me to play on the bottom board of the school team. They gave me a book of rules to read while we are on the bus to the match. I won my game.

I don’t know why, but I became obsessed with getting better. People liked me when I won! I wanted to be liked.

Within three months or so I was the best on the team. A year after that I was the best high school student in the state and one of the best people in the country for my age group at chess. A game that millions of people played.

Here’s what I did:

I found my PLUS:

I took lessons from Sammy Reshevsky (once the best player in the world) and Michael Wilder (the US Champion). I took lessons up to three times a week.

Not everyone lives near a mentor they could take lessons from.

But I also read one-two chess books a week. And I studied the games of all the top grandmasters. For instance, Bobby Fischer’s book “My 60 Memorable Games”. I went through each game and his analysis over and over again.

I had real mentors and virtual mentors.

I found my EQUALS:

I found other people my level who were striving to be better. We would study the same books and try to analyze different positions. We would play against each other and this was a way to see how I was improving relative to my equals who were just as obsessed as me.

I found my MINUS:

After I became better than everyone else on my school’s chess team I started giving them lessons.

If you can’t explain a concept to a three year old then you don’t fully understand that concept. Which means I’d have to go back to my PLUS (real or virtual) to understand more.

30+ years later I’m a nationally ranked master. I play every day. It’s something I’ll enjoy for the rest of my life.

(Frank Shamrock, the best MMA fighter in history, explained to me his Plus, Minus, Equal theory)

I had to get better at investing to survive.

It was 2001 and I had lost all my money I had made by selling a business for $15 million. I was struggling to raise a family, pay my mortgage, and nobody would give me a job.

I found my PLUS: 200 or so books about investing. I also found real mentors by trading for various hedge fund managers, although I had to gain knowledge from the virtual mentors before real mentors would even talk to me.

I found my EQUALS: many message boards of investors, everyone trying to figure out the right strategies that gave good, consistent results. Was it value investing? Momentum? Arbitrage? Etc.

I found my MINUS: I started writing about investing to people who understood far less than me. The MINUS was critical because it helped me understand how the masses invested and what they were doing wrong that I could model via computer software.

I became a good investor and made a lot of money and pulled myself out of the hole at the exact moment I was about to be buried alive.

TEN A DAY:

In the summer of 2002 I was so depressed. I had about four months before I would lose my house.

I was scared. One thing made me happy.

I would write down ten ideas a day. Somehow being creative just a little bit made me happier. Made me have hope. Made me think I would make it. That no matter what I could make it.

I could climb. I could improve I could wish and hope and live and love. Just ten ideas a day and maybe one would be good or okay or something I could grab onto and it would pull me out.

And it did.

MICRO-SKILLS:

I wanted to get good at stand-up comedy. It’s scary to go onto a stage with a room full of strangers.

It’s like public speaking but it’s not. I could go up and speak about Donald Trump and everyone could nod their heads and then my job is done.

But in stand-up comedy you go up to a room full of people who have no idea who you are and you have to make them LAUGH every fifteen seconds, more or less.

It’s HARD to make people laugh.

Do you know how many times the average child laughs per day? 300 times!

Do you know how many times the average adult laughs per day? FIVE TIMES!

So if I’m doing stand-up comedy for 15 minutes I have to make the people in the crowd laugh roughly sixty times. 12x more than they normally do in a 24 hour period.


(Dave Chappelle has all of the comedy micro-skills: storytelling, likability, crowd work, punchlines, point of view, etc.)

I did the PLUS, MINUS, EQUAL. I did the ten a day. And still do.

BUT… “stand-up comedy” is not one thing. Just like “investing” is not one thing. And “chess” or “tennis” or “piano” or “business” are not just one thing.

Comedy is a collection of micro-skills where each skill has nothing to do with the other skills.

You have to master each micro-skill in order to improve.

Here are some of the stand-up comedy micro-skills: likability, crowd work, crowd control, humor, delivery, dealing with hecklers, stage work, act-outs, writing, voice work, etc.

Here are business micro-skills: ideas, execution, leadership, sales, negotiating, fundraising, marketing, customer relations, etc.

Here are chess micro-skills: openings, endgames, attacking, defending, tactics, positional ability, and each of those are broken into micro-skills (king and rook endgames, king and two bishops endgames, king and pawn openings, queen and pawn openings, tactics in closed positions, tactics in open positions, etc.).

Divide your passion into micro-skills. Pick one each day. Get a little better at it.

Last night, for the first time, I did a full hour of comedy in front of a full house of people.

I had a blast.

Did they? The key skill of comedy is to know that if you are having a party, then they are also.

BORROW HOURS:

Malcolm Gladwell says that the Beatles practiced for 10,000 hours before they became the best in the world.

(The last time the Beatles performed together)

I’m 50. I don’t have that many 10,000 hours left in me.

But the good thing is: we’ve all done many things in life. You can borrow hours from other things you got good at.

I’ve put in my 20,000 hours writing. I’ve put in my 10,000 hours public speaking.

I was able to “borrow” hours from the time I’ve spent doing humor writing and public speaking when I started to get interested in stand-up comedy.

I had put in my 10,000 hours running businesses when I needed to get good at investing.

Investing means: “investing in businesses”. Too many people treat investing like a game. It’s not.

When I buy a share of Apple, I’m owning a piece of a real company with products, management, employees, investors, etc.

I borrowed from my hours running companies in order to understand how to value the companies I was investing in.

The other day someone said to me, “You can’t skip the line.”

Shut the F up.

I can do what I want.

FAIL FAST:

When I was 17 I was playing chess for my high school team. I was in the #1 spot after playing for just a few months.

I lost.

I threw the pieces on the board and ran out. I heard everyone laughing.

I didn’t go back to school for a week. I hated myself. I hated life. I judged my life by my ability to be good at something and now I was “bad”.

I was a sore loser.

I stayed at the same level for years. But then, I don’t know why, I stopped being a sore loser.

I loved chess but maybe it was because I had other things in my life. I had a business. I was married. I was creative in other ways.

So I took lessons again (plus minus equal) and I quickly hit the Master level.

How did I improve so quickly then?

By losing a lot of games and then studying them.

Where did I go wrong? What micro-skills did I need to learn? What was I missing?

I studied with my PLUS. I asked my EQUALS. I taught it to my chess students.

I got better.

At comedy I was heckled when I first started. I was telling an extremely crude joke.

A father had taken his two sons. He started yelling at me, “Get off the stage!” I was so new I didn’t know what was happening so I kept telling my jokes while he was yelling

Afterwards, the MC came on and said, “Sir, do you need a drink?”

And the heckler said, “That guy was weird.”

I didn’t know what I did wrong.

So I asked my PLUSses.

“Videotape yourself,” one said. So I started doing that and, now, several years later, I still do it. I videotape each set and watch myself with both the mute and un-mute buttons.

Another PLUS said, “Likability is more important than humor.” I went too fast into my crude humor without focusing on likability.

Another PLUS said, “Work on setup/act-out/absurd-ism/punchline.”

Another PLUS said, “Work on crowd work.”

One of my EQUALS said, “You didn’t show enough confidence on stage so the audience knew they could overpower you.”

Another EQUAL said, “Find things that the audience can relate to first.”

I had to fail and bomb and die before I could kill and destroy and murder.

SAY YES:

People always say, “Say no”. This is true. I even wrote the WSJ bestselling book, “The Power of NO”.

Well…

Say yes.

When you first start improving, say yes to everything. You need to learn.

I didn’t know what to say “no” to at first.

When I started my first business, “Can you design a logo for us?” Yes. “Can you write this software for us?” Yes. “Can you help us develop a new kind of tea?” Yes. “Can you come to LA for a meeting?” Yes.

I learned what to say Yes to and what to say No to. But I had to say a lot of Yesses.

With stand-up comedy, “Can you do one-liner jokes on a subway?” Yes. “Can you go up for 15 minutes even though you never have done that before?” Yes. “Can you go up tonight without any notice?” Yes.

“Yes” gives you the opportunity to build out the map of your comfort zone.

GO WHERE IT’S LEAST CROWDED:

I asked Peter Thiel, the first investor in Facebook, what made Facebook so special.

“It’s the tenth social media network out there. It wasn’t unique.”

“No,” he said. “It was the first.”

“The first what?”

“The first social network with verified identity.”

Every other one prior to it: MySpace, Friendster, GeoCities, Tribes.com, etc allowed anonymity.

Facebook went to the place least crowded and became a $500 trillion company while the others went out of business.

Warren Buffett worked at 40 Wall Street for Benjamin Graham. He could’ve stayed there. That’s where all the Wall Street investors were. That’s where all the information was.

No.

He moved to Omaha. There were no investors there.

(A very young Warren Buffett learning public speaking in Omaha because he had the foresight to know he needed that micro-skill to raise money)

By himself, he studied every company report. He read all day long.

He’d find small companies in the middle of nowhere that he thought were undervalued.

He would drive to those towns and put up signs: “If any employee has shares they want to sell, you can find me at this motel.”

And then he’d buy up all the shares he could. He didn’t buy them on a Wall Street exchange, competing with everyone else. He went to people’s homes.

He was the only person who did this. Everyone else stayed on one little block in one city.

He became the most successful investor in history.

Everyone wants to stay in their comfort zone for a very good reason: It’s comfortable!

Of course it’s good and fun and easy to stay in the comfort zone. I HATE being uncomfortable.

But since EVERYONE is in the comfort zone, the comfort zone is where it’s most crowded. Everyone does the same thing, shares the same ideas, believes the same rumors, loves the same people, pursues the same dreams.

Right outside the comfort zone is a friendly neighbor: Opportunity.

Opportunity is just sitting there, waiting for someone to find it. But nobody wants to be uncomfortable.

Practice being a little bit uncomfortable each day. Practice getting outside the comfort zone.

Take a cold shower, tell jokes in a subway. Pitch an idea to your hero. Say sorry to your mother.

TALENT SEX:

Scott Adams, the creator of the most syndicated cartoon strip in history (Dilbert), told me:

“I was not the best drawer, but I was pretty good. I was not the funniest guy but I was pretty funny. I was not the best at business, but I was pretty good. But when I combined them all, I was the best.”

And that’s how he created Dilbert.

POINT OF VIEW:

When I look at social media, it seems like there are only two points of view: pro-Trump and anti-Trump.

One side screaming at the other. Nobody listening to anyone. Oh, and if you need to scream louder, find out what the latest viewpoint of your “team” is and shout it out loud.

Everyone in their air-conditioned suburban homes yelling how they’ve “lost faith in humanity” because of the other side.

Whatever I do, I try to have a unique point of view. Else I’m just replaying someone else’s thoughts.

Point of view on publishing: don’t beg an agent or publisher to publish your book. Self publish a book! And here’s why X, Y, and Z.

Then I self-published my most successful books, helped Amazon advertise their self-publishing, and even created a course on self-publishing.

I do a podcast. I don’t just interview people to get facts. I have a point of view: I want to know how people survived their darkest moments. How they climbed out of the hole.

Selfishly, I wanted to learn this so I could get better.

I didn’t ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar how to get better at basketball. I could care less. I asked him why I couldn’t find any photographs of him smiling.

I didn’t ask Sara Blakely how to sew underwear (which made her a billionaire). I asked her how she avoided doubting herself when she had never been in the fashion business.

I didn’t ask Jewel how to be a better singer. I asked her why she turned down a million dollar deal when she was homeless and sleeping in a car. I wanted to know how I could have such authenticity.

(Arguing with Jewel)

I had a point of view that created my “question compass”.

In stand-up comedy, point of view is critical. Else you just tell fart jokes. I have insecurities about relationships. I’m afraid to lose all of my money. I think most of society is hypocritical. I think people are 100% irrational 100% of the time.

Jerry Seinfeld looks for the absurd in everything. Then he makes a joke.

Point of view is funny when it’s unique.

BACK TO BASICS:

Whenever I bomb on a 15 minute set in a professional lineup in a crowded room, the next day I do an open mic with beginners.

Whenever I make a bad investment, I get back to my basic formula (invest with people smarter than me).

Whenever I have a bad relationship, I try to meet people who I can just be friends with. Restore my faith that there are good people in the world.

There are good people in the world.

Connect with them.

That’s how you improve.

James Altucher is the author of the bestselling book Choose Yourself, editor at The Altucher Report and host of the popular podcast, The James Altucher Show, which takes you beyond business and entrepreneurship by exploring what it means to be human and achieve well-being in a world that is increasingly complicated. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Jorge Fernández.

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