How to Take Risks Like Richard Branson

I’ll never forget the day I dropped out of university to start my first business.

Not because I’m proud of it…

But because it was probably one of the most reckless (and stupid) risks I’ve ever taken.

When I reflect on why I did this, I think it was because I thought that the more pressure I put on myself, the more likely I would be to succeed.

My logic was that if I dropped out, it would give me a massive incentive to make the business work.

However, that business didn’t succeed.

It was an online farmers market that helped people buy food directly from their local farmers.

It lasted nine months, and despite surface level appearances, it was one of the most stressful periods of my life.

Not only that, when the business went down, my self-esteem went down with it, and I was ashamed for quite some time after.

Since that experience, I’ve changed how I think about taking risks, and in this post I’m going to cover three of the best approaches I’ve found for smarter risk taking – so you don’t end up in the same situation I found myself in.

#1 – The Baby Steps Approach

‘The Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step.’

Lao Tzu

In 1994, researchers followed 5,000 entrepreneurs to compare the success rate of those who quit their job and jumped straight into full time entrepreneurship, against those who started their company on the side of what they were already doing.

The results were surprising.

Entrepreneurs who started a company on the side were 33 per cent more likely to succeed than those who quit their jobs and went ‘all in’.

In other words, the myth that I bought into, (that putting more pressure on myself, jumping in at the deep end, and putting my eggs all in one basket), would increase my chances of success, is not only wrong, it’s scientifically inaccurate.

When you put yourself under pressure, you also put yourself under stress – and it’s hard to be creative (or have any fun) if you’re worrying all the time.

So, when I started my current company, The Weekend University, I decided to take a different approach.

Before moving to London, I applied for a job as a receptionist at a Hostel in London.

By working in the Hostel, it meant I could live in London rent free, have a regular income, and build my company in my spare time.

Talk about taking the pressure off…

And this leads me to my first big learning point about taking risks:

You’re more likely to succeed at your passion project; whether it’s starting a business, writing a book, or freelancing, if you do it on the side when you begin.

You can take what writer Jeff Goins refers to as ‘The Baby Steps Approach’.

Simply put, this involves investing your spare time in your passion project, and letting it build up, before you make any major leaps.

In his book: ‘Real Artists Don’t Starve’, Goins tells the story of how John Grisham became the famous novelist that he is today. When he was getting started, he was a full-time lawyer and new father, so he didn’t have a lot of time on his hands.

However, this didn’t stop him.

Grisham would get up early every morning, go to his office and write one page per day of his first novel. That was goal – one page per day for 365 days.

Eventually this habit led to the manuscript for his first book, and ultimately to becoming the prolific writer that he is today.

#2 – Protect the Downside

‘We take a lot of calculated risk, but we make sure that no one risk is going to topple everything. Protecting the downside is critical.’

Richard Branson

Every risk we take can either lead to upside (rewards) or downside (negative consequences).

The very nature of risk is that uncertainty is built into its very structure.

In other words, you can’t have risk without uncertainty; they’re two sides of the same coin.

It’s impossible to predict in advance which way your risk is going to go; whether it’ll lead to rewards (upside) or to negative consequences (downside).

And the more uncertain you are about the downside, the more anxiety you’ll feel.

In other words, if you’re not clear about specifically what could go wrong, this leads to excessive and compulsive worrying.

If you were writing this as an equation, it would be:

Vague + Unclear Downside = Anxiety

And often it is this anxiety that prevents us from taking the risks we need to move forward in the world.

So, is there a way around this?

It turns out there is…

It’s called protecting the downside, and it’s a core practice of some of the best risk takers on the planet.

One of the best examples of protecting the downside in action is the story of how Virgin Airways got started.

At the time, Virgin was a record company, and Richard Branson was toying with the idea of starting his own airline.

How did he go about it?

When he was negotiating for his first plane with Boeing, Branson’s main condition was that he could sell the plane back to them after 12 months if things didn’t work out.

In the worst-case scenario, Virgin could only lose the difference between the price the plane was bought for, and the price Boeing would buy it back for, a year later. 

This meant that Virgin could see if the airline would take off (metaphorically speaking), at the risk of losing very little; not even the cost of one plane.

The downside was known and limited, and the upside was potentially enormous, which gave Branson the psychological freedom he needed to invest in his first plane.

So how can you apply this in your own life?

If you have anxiety about a risk you’re thinking about taking, it can help to get crystal clear on the downside, and then take whatever steps you can to limit it.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is the worst-case scenario if things don’t work out?

(Think in terms of money, time, reputation, etc. The more detailed you can be here, the better.)

2. If the worst -case scenario does happen, what specific steps can you take to recover and get you back to your current state? 

For example, let’s say you’re thinking about leaving university to start your first business as I had been. You could negotiate a ‘leave of absence’ for a year, which would enable you to return in 12 months, if the project doesn’t work out.

Most negative outcomes are reversible.

The trick is to identify how you will do this before you take the risk.

Because if you’re clear on exactly what could go wrong, and have a clear path for recovery, it reduces your anxiety around the risk, and gives you the psychological freedom you need to move forward.

#3 – Stack the Deck in Your Favour

“I am not discouraged because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”

Thomas Edison

The third thing you can do to take smarter risks is to do what Tim Ferriss refers to as ‘stacking the deck’ in your favour.

In a nutshell, this involves setting up the situation in advance, so that even if your creative project or business is a complete failure by conventional standards (e.g. making money), you’ll still benefit in the long run.

When Ferriss is choosing which projects to focus on, he prioritises two things:

1.) Learning

2.) Relationships

This means that even if the project doesn’t work out as you had originally hoped, you’ll still learn valuable skills and improve your network in the process.

If you take this approach, you can’t really lose.

Each of your failures will be ‘micro-failures’ that will strengthen you and increase your chances of success in the long run.

So, when you’re thinking about taking a risk or choosing your next creative project to focus on, it can help to ask yourself these questions:

1.) What skills can I develop in the process of doing this?

2.) What relationships can I build?

By asking yourself these questions up front, you’re guaranteeing that you’ll come out the other side stronger, more skilled and better connected than you were before you began – regardless of the outcome.


To move forward in this world, you need to take risks.

It’s unavoidable.

Taking risks that take us beyond our current zone of comfort are how we grow and realise more of our potential.

However, there’s two ways to go about taking them; a smart way, and a dumb way.

The risk I took when I left university to start my first business was a dumb one, and it landed me in a bad situation that took me a long time to recover from.

If you want to avoid this in your own life, and start taking risks like a pro, the following three approaches can really help:

  1. Take the Baby Steps Approach; take the pressure off and start your passion project on the side.
  • Protect the downside; get clear on the worst-case scenario, and figure out your recovery plan for before you begin.
  • Stack the deck in your favour; priorities learning new skills and building relationships, so that even if you fail by conventional standards, you’re still setting yourself up for success in the long run.

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The Hidden Opportunities in COVID-19

I’ve recently gone into self isolation.

I did this after finding out that diabetics have a 9.2% chance of death if they catch COVID-19.

I’m about a week in, and so far, it’s been surprisingly good..

It’s given me some time to reflect on the big picture in life, the direction I’m going, and also a bit more clarity on what’s most important. 

I’m enjoying simple things like going for walks, cooking, and catching up with close friends and family on the phone. 

I even get to swim in the sea every morning!

Isolation gives you a lot of time to think, and it has occurred to me in the past few days that this whole Coronavirus situation (if managed properly) has a lot of opportunities too.

In this post, I’m going to explore six ways COVID-19 can be used to improve our overall quality of life.

#1 – Pausing and Reflecting

As human beings, we’re creatures of habit and momentum.

Once we get going down a certain road, we find it very difficult to stop, pull ourselves away from it, and ask: ‘Am I on the right road here?’ 

Often it takes something jarring like the death of a loved one, a car crash, or an illness to get us to reevaluate our priorities and set a new direction. 

Whether we like it or not, COVID-19 is one of these jarring experiences. 

It’s a rare opportunity to assess our momentum, see what’s really important and figure out if we’re on the right path. 

Personally, it’s helped me realise that writing regularly is important to me, and that I want this to be a big part of my life going forward. 

Before COVID-19 happened, my momentum was taking me towards attempting to build a big company out of The Weekend University. 

But having time to pause and reflect has made me question if this is what I really want to do. 

I know that I love writing, so I’m going to build my life (and company) in a way that supports that. 

What about you?

What momentum are you currently caught up in? And is this getting you to where you ultimately want to go?

If you’re not sure where that is, these questions can help:

1. If you had a billion in the bank, and never had to work again, what would you do?

2. If you knew you were going to die exactly 3 years from now (in good health), how would you spend your time? What would you regret most not doing?

#2 – Adversity Leads to Growth

Adversity is training

Jules Evans

If you ask almost anyone about the most meaningful times of their life, or the times that they’ve grown the most, it’s often been through a seemingly ‘negative’ experience.

I often argue that type one diabetes was the best thing that ever happened to me. 

It forced me to develop self discipline, learn about nutrition and exercise regularly. 

Doing these things has given me a clearer head, and made me more focused and productive as a result.

Had I not had the ‘negative’ experience of getting type 1, I wouldn’t have developed the self discipline or habits I have today. 

Going through challenges is what builds strength and character, and as a human race, we are about to go through our biggest collective challenge in decades. 

But I have a feeling that we’re going to emerge from this stronger and wiser than before we went into it. 

So instead of looking at the Coronavirus as something negative that is happening to you, look at it as something that is happening for you. The experience itself is raw material; how you engage with it, will determine the outcomes you get from it. 

Take worrying as an example. 

Studies have found that when worrying becomes excessive, it can lead to feelings of high anxiety and even cause you to be physically ill. 

However, it can also be an opportunity to train your mind. 

You can actually use worry as a ‘trigger’ to shift your focus towards gratitude. Research indicates that gratitude increases happiness, improves relationships and counteracts depression. 

So, if you notice yourself ruminating and worrying about the Coronavirus, use it as a trigger to write down three things that you are grateful for in your phone.

By doing so, you’re training your mind to take control of your selective focus and attention, which is probably one of the most valuable skills you can develop in our increasingly distractable world

Not only that, you’ll be happier, more resilient, and even get better sleep as a result.

#3 – Mortality awareness

“We live as if we were never going to die, and die as if we had never lived.”

Paulo Coelho

I attended a ‘Death Incubator’ experience with clinical psychologist Dr Tamara Russell in June of last year. 

It was a full day workshop designed to help participants come to terms with the fact that one day, not too long in the future, we’re going to die.

It involved writing your own obituary, a virtual reality near death experience, and some guided meditations.

The strange thing is, the more we are in touch with the seemingly grim fact of our own mortality, the more we appreciate life. 

By realising that our time here is limited, we appreciate it more. 

We take more risks.

We tell the people we love how we really feel about them. We open ourselves up. We’re grateful for the simple things. 

We do the things we actually want to do, and stop doing the things that we don’t

Near-death experiences (NDEs) are often a pivotal event and catalyst for growth in many people’s lives. People who undergo an NDE report improved self esteem, a greater sense of meaning and purpose, and improved relationships as a result.

We’ve all heard a story about a person who gets a cancer diagnosis and then majorly reshapes their life. They take that trip they’ve always wanted to go on, or they start writing that book they’ve been putting off for years.

Anyway, I left the workshop with an immense sense of clarity about what was important to me and a new found gratitude for life. 

Collectively, I think CO-VID19 is going to have a similar effect.. 

Because we are now confronted with mortality on a daily basis, and the fact many of us (and our loved ones) are now at risk, we can no longer ignore it. 

Therefore, the situation we find ourselves in can be a wake up call to get us to appreciate the very magic of the life we’re living. 

It can help us become more compassionate towards each other. 

And maybe it will move us away from being so individualistic as a culture, and help us become more community-focused. 

#4 – Overcoming Procrastination

Necessity is the mother of invention.


I’ve been wanting to set up The Weekend University online for a long time.

By doing so, it’ll open us up to an international audience, and will really drive the business forward.

It has huge potential..

But I’ve been putting it off; always finding an excuse or something else to focus on. 

However, now, because of CO-VID19, I have no choice. Who knows when the next time we’ll be able to do a live event?

It could be 3 months, 6 months, maybe even a year..

Therefore, we’ll be doing a video conference in April with three of our best speakers. 

As the saying goes, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and it really is. 

If we didn’t have to do the video conference to survive, it’s doubtful that I would have gone through with it.

So ask yourself, in what ways is the Coronavirus an opportunity to take action on the things that you’ve been procrastinating on? 

Maybe you’ve been thinking about starting your own online business, taking a part time degree online or writing your own book. 

Whatever it is for you, now’s the perfect time to start…

#5 – The Ultimate Motivation to Improve Your Health

According to leading experts, one of the best ways you can protect yourself against serious negative complications from COVID-19 is to be in good health and to have a strong immune system.

Health is built on three simple primary pillars:

  1. Sleep 
  2. Nutrition
  3. Exercise 

What usually stops us from developing healthy lifestyle habits in these areas is motivation

We don’t have a clear or strong enough why behind making a change.

However, now that’s all changed.

Now, it really is a matter of life and death…

If you manage these three pillars well; sleep, exercise and nutrition, then you’re actively strengthening your immune system and increasing your chances of survival. 

If you don’t, then you’re contributing to the potential of your own early downfall.

#6 – A Common Enemy

I’m a big believer that one of the best ways to bring any group of humans (no matter how large) together is to give them a common enemy. 

Think about how unified the British people were during World War Two.

Or the fact that NASA put a man on the moon within a decade of JFK’s speech.  

What was behind this? 

Well the British had the common enemy of the Nazis, and the Americans were in the middle of a space race against the Russians.

I’ve often thought that the quickest way to create peace on earth would be if we were under the threat of invasion from aliens from another planet. 

In this situation, we would have no choice but to put aside our own petty conflicts, and focus on dealing with this external threat. 

Well, what if the Coronavirus served as this common enemy? 

What if COVID-19 was the external threat that brought us together?

Collectively, we’re in for a rough few months ahead. 

And the only way we’re going to get through it, is by increasing our cooperation with each other, and hopefully over time, it’ll help us to realise that despite our surface level differences, we really are connected to everyone in the world around us. 

As cheesy as it sounds, we belong to one big human family, and the world would be a far better place if we all started acting as if this was true.

Every problem situation contains seeds of opportunity – no matter how difficult it seems at the time. 

The bigger the problem, the bigger the opportunities it contains. 

And the same for the Coronavirus.

There are opportunities now, that if we take, have the potential to dramatically improve our lives – both individually and collectively. 

If we pause and reflect, we can get clearer on the direction we really want to take our lives. 

If we see adversity as training, we can use the challenges presented by the current situation to shape the kind of character we most want to become, increasing our resilience, compassion and gratitude in the process.

It can make us more mindful of death and the finite nature of our existence, and therefore more appreciative of our time, our loved ones, and the magic of life itself. 

As necessity is the mother of invention, CO-VID19 is going to force a lot of us to overcome procrastination, innovate and come up with unique solutions that are going to benefit our own lives, our communities and the economy as a whole. 

It can help serve as the ultimate motivation to improve our health.

And finally, it has given us a common enemy that has the potential to bring us together and to start seeing ourselves as a global community. 

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Making Difficult Decisions

There comes a point in most of our lives where we find ourselves at a crossroads.

Where we have to choose one path over another. 

The decision we make will influence the shape of the rest of our lives. 

I’ve recently been faced with one of these choices. 

In September, I started a Masters conversion degree in Psychology and have been running The Weekend University at the same time. 

Doing both simultaneously has led me to feeling unfocused; like my attention and energy are split in multiple different directions, and I’m not getting very far in any. 

Being home for Christmas gave me a lot of time to think the situation over, and it became clear that I actually had a choice between two paths. 

The first is to continue doing both, and the second was to stop doing the masters, and focus fully on growing The Weekend University.

I’ve never struggled with a decision more in my life. 

Whatever path I chose, was going to profoundly influence how my future turns out – the type of work I’ll be doing, where I’ll be doing it, and who I’ll be doing it with.

In the process of making the decision, some insights helped me gain some clarity. If you ever find yourself at a crossroads, and aren’t sure which path to take, they might be useful to consider.

#1 – Essentialism

I read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism a few years ago, and it left a lasting impression on me. 

One diagram in particular stuck in my mind: 

The circle on the left represents a non-essentialist approach to life. The diagram on the right represents an essentialist. 

We all know someone on the left side – who ‘has their finger in many pies’. 

This person seems to be a superhero. They’re master multi-taskers and doing loads of different things simultaneously. But as we can see from the diagram, their energy is going in many different directions, and they aren’t going very far in any. 

This is how I felt during the first semester of my Masters.

Essentialists, represented by the circle on the right, choose a different way to live. They decide to say no to a lot of different things, and pour themselves fully into the one or two activities that matter most.

As a result of having the discipline to say no to the many, they can go ‘all in’ and make significant progress in the few.

Simply being aware of Essentialism can help you make difficult choices in life. 

It can help you realise that time is a finite resource, and choosing to say ‘yes’ to one thing, invariably means saying ‘no’ to something else. 

By saying ‘yes’ to everything, we say ‘no’ to making significant progress in anything. 

#2 – The Sunk Cost Bias

Our brains come pre-wired with a set of biases. 

These are unconscious mechanisms that affect our decision making and behaviour. 

We’ll often do something because of an unconscious bias, and then invent a ‘rational’ reason why we did it after the fact. 

One of the most powerful of these biases is known as the ‘sunk cost’ bias. 

This theory states that the more we’ve invested in something, the more difficult we find to let it go. For example, imagine that you have £10,000 in savings, and you have just spent the past nine years investing £1,000 per year in a new business (Company A), making your total investment £9,000.

However, it has now become clear that Company A is very unlikely to succeed, and it’s probable that you will lose all £9,000 – even if you invest your final £1,000 in an effort to save it.

Now imagine another opportunity comes along to invest your final £1,000 in a different company (company B) that has a much greater chance of success. 

What do you think you’d be likely to do? 

The rational thing would be to invest your final £1,000 in Company B.

But if you’re like most of us, you’ll think: ‘Well, I’ve already invested 90% of my money in Company A, it would be such a shame for me to stop now.’

This example shows how when we’re already heavily invested in something (whether with effort, money, time or emotions), it distorts our reasoning and affects our ability to make good decisions. 

We value things more that we’re already heavily invested in. 

Therefore, it can help  to temporarily separate ourselves from our emotions and give ourselves some distance from the ‘sunk cost’ bias.

One of the most effective ways to do this is the ‘Knowing what I now know’ question. 

Simply put, this involves doing some time travel in your head, and going back to the time before you made your initial investment.

Then you ask yourself: ‘Knowing what I now know about how this is going to be, would I start it again?’ 

In my case, I took myself back to before I began my Masters, and asked myself the question. 

#3 – Excitement Goals vs ‘Should’ Goals

I have never see-sawed on a decision as much as this one. 

One day I was convinced that I should continue doing both the Masters and The Weekend University. The next, focusing on the business seemed like the best option.

After weeks of going back and forth, I finally made up my mind and decided to focus on the business. 

I contacted my course mates, course leader, and everyone else that needed to know.

But in the days that followed, I kept getting this nagging, guilty feeling that I had made the wrong move. 

I would wake up and think: ‘What have I done!?’ 

The feeling was so bad one morning, that I actually emailed my course leader and told him that I had ‘had a change of heart’ and would be coming back to do the degree. 

But now, I felt even worse.

Later that day, I told two different people about my ‘change of heart’, and what I had decided to do, and they both had almost the exact same reaction. 

They told me: ‘Great – but you don’t look happy. You look like you’ve forced yourself into something.’

And that’s exactly how it felt. 

When it really came down to it, I was excited as hell about going ‘all in’ on my business and where that could lead. But I was anxious about it too. It was a very uncertain path, and there were no guarantees it would work out.

The degree on the other hand, felt more like something I ‘should’ do. It was a more certain path that would give me more options in the future. 

But I felt heavy when I thought about doing it; restricted, limited, confined. 

So really the choice was between excitement (with uncertainty), and safety (with certainty). 

Which did I want more?

#4 – Explore All of the Options

I thought it over some more, and decided to call my course leader and ask for his thoughts. 

Luckily, he made me aware of another option I hadn’t even considered. 

It would be possible for me to take a ‘leave of absence’ from the degree, and recontinue (exactly where I left off) 1 year from now, or 2 years from now – if that’s what I wanted to do. 

This meant that I could throw myself fully at growing The Weekend University, and if I really had the desire to go back and do a Masters 1 year or 2 years down the line, then I could. 

So that’s what I decided to do.

It’s tempting to think that when we make a decision it’s an ‘either or’ scenario.

However, often there are other, better options we just haven’t considered yet – because we’ve been so focused on our choice. Therefore, if you’re struggling to decide between two alternatives, it can help to ask: ‘Is there another option here that I haven’t considered yet?’

We are our choices.

Jean Paul Sartre

The choices we make profoundly influence the life we’re going to lead. 

When we choose to say ‘yes’ to one potential future, it means saying ‘no’ to another.

And this can be quite a scary thing. 

Therefore, it can help to have some decision making tools at hand during these times to give ourselves the best chance of making the right move. 

Otherwise, we could end up doing something we might regret in later years.

Essentialism, the ‘knowing what I now know’ question, ‘should goals vs excitement goals’ and exploring all of the available options are four tools I found helpful in my case. 

Do you have any decision making tools that help you make the big choices in life?

If so, leave a comment below and let me know.

A Kinder, Smarter Approach to Resolutions in 2020

I used to think that motivation was the key to change. 

Year after year, I would get really motivated in January and then set these ridiculously ambitious resolutions for myself.

I’d always start strong, but as the weeks went on, the motivation would wear off, I’d fail at my attempts, and before long, I’d be right back to where I started.

Worse still, now I felt terrible that I’d failed and let myself down – which made me less confident about taking on new challenges in the future.

The problem with relying on motivation to change is that it’s kind of like the weather on a summer’s day in Ireland – it’s subject to wild fluctuations. 

Some days it’s powerful like a storm. On other days, it’s mild like a breeze.

Therefore, it’s probably not a good idea to depend on it.

I was intrigued then, to learn about a scientific approach to behaviour change that removes motivation from the equation; which emerged from one of the world’s leading behavioural change research institutes at Stanford University.

In this post, I’ll explore how this approach can be used to create New Years’ Resolutions that last in 2020.

#1 – Tiny Habits

Research from Stanford behavioural scientist BJ Fogg has revealed that one of the most effective ways to create long term change in our lives is to start with a tiny habit.

If you want to start flossing, Fogg recommends starting with one tooth. If you want to start writing, set the goal of writing one hundred words per day. If you want to get fit, commit to ten minutes of physical activity in the morning. 

The key when starting out, Fogg argues, it to make the behaviour so small and insignificant that it requires almost no motivation to complete.

Research from University College London has found that it takes an average of 66 days for a new habit or behaviour to become ‘automatic’. Critically, if a new habit requires high levels of motivation, then on days when motivation is low, you are unlikely to repeat the new behaviour, meaning you won’t reach the 66 days required to make it automatic.

The beauty of Fogg’s ‘tiny habit’ method is that it vastly increases our chances of reaching the 66 day threshold and making it an automatic part of our routine.

So, if you’re thinking about taking on a new habit in 2020, your best chances of ‘making it stick’ are to break it down into the smallest possible version of it, and to design it in a way that requires almost no motivation to carry out. 

So how do you do that?

#2 – Triggers

For any behaviour to occur, we need a trigger in our environment – a call to action.

A trigger is simply something that prompts us and reminds us to do the behaviour.

For example, if your new year’s resolution is to improve your posture, you can try Jordan Harbinger’s ‘Doorway Drill’. This involves straightening your posture every time you walk through a door.

Instead of having to remember to sit up straight all day every day, each time you walk through a door, you are ‘triggered’ to fix your posture.

Over time, your new posture becomes automatic.

If you want to start performing a new habit regularly, you need to insert it after a pre-existing behaviour; one that you do with the same frequency you want to have for the new habit.

When Fogg wanted to develop the habit of doing push-ups regularly, he inserted the ‘tiny habit’ of two push ups after his routine of going to the bathroom. He knew he was going to need to do go to the bathroom several times a day, so each time he did, he was triggered into doing his new habit of push ups.

Over time, and as he increased to 5 push ups, then 8, he soon found he was doing up to 80 push ups per day.

Or if you want to start flossing, Fogg recommends inserting the tiny habit of flossing one tooth every time after you finish brushing. If you brush every day, then each time you do, your existing habit of brushing triggers the new tiny habit of flossing.

To implement this for your own resolutions, simply ask:

What behaviours am I already doing every day that I can insert my new habit after?

For example, after my morning coffee, I will plan my day. After I get on the bus to work, I will journal for five minutes, etc.

This equation can help:

After I [existing behaviour],

I will [new tiny habit.]

#3 – Rewards

A behaviour is essentially a neural pathway in the brain, made up of networks of neurons.

Behaviours that led to success and helped us survive as hunter gatherers – whether it was finding food or finding a mate, were stored in the brain so they were easy to repeat in the future.

According to evolutionary psychologists, our brains today are very much the same as our primitive ancestors.

When the brain perceives to have succeeded at something, it has a built-in reward mechanism which helps reinforce the new behaviour in a neural network, and stores it in long term memory, so we can succeed again in the future.

When ‘success’ is perceived to have occurred, the brain releases dopamine into the reward pathway  (the area responsible for learning, motivation and pleasure), which strengthens the neural network, giving a sensation of pleasure and motivating us to perform the behaviour again in the future.

Therefore, when creating a new habit, it’s critical to celebrate afterwards.

By doing so, you re-engineer the process.

Celebrating signals to your brain you have succeeded, which triggers a release of dopamine, strengthens the neural pathway, and motivates you to do the activity again in the future.

So every time you perform a tiny habit that you want to repeat, Fogg recommends celebrating right away by pumping your first, and saying things like: ‘YES!’, or even doing a silly dance.

It might sound ridiculous, but Fogg’s results speak for themselves.

So when designing your resolutions, it can help to ask:

‘What can I do to reward myself immediately after I finish my tiny habit?’

‘Every action we take is a vote for the kind of person we want to become.’

James Clear

Not only do our actions give other people clues about who we are, they also influence how we see ourselves. 

If we do something enough, it becomes part of our identity. When we write, our unconscious mind is slowly getting the message: ‘I’m a writer.’ When we run, we’re telling ourselves: ‘I’m a runner’.

And when something becomes part of our identity, it’s harder not to do it, than it is to do it. 

The power of Fogg’s method is that it gives us our best chance of repeating a behaviour enough, so that it becomes automatic and part of who we are. 

The trick is to design our resolutions in a way that they don’t rely on motivation or willpower.

Breaking them down into ‘tiny habits’, using triggers and rewarding ourselves are three scientifically proven and highly effective ways for doing that.

My Psychedelic Nightmare

I had my first (and only) psychedelic experience in 2017. 

At the time, I was going through a transition in life. I had quit my job with no concrete plan about what to do next, and was looking for some direction.

I had been curious about the power of psychedelics for a long time, having heard countless stories of people taking them and having a life changing experience. Everyone from business leaders (Bill Gates), scientists (Richard Feynman), philosophers (Alan Watts) and comedians (Bill Hicks) had experimented with them at some point. 

Steve Jobs called it one of the most important things he ever did.

The science seemed pretty promising too. Imperial College London have recently launched the world’s first Centre for Psychedelics Research. Led by Dr Robin Carhart-Harriss, Imperial’s Research Group have been exploring the use of psychedelics in mental health care, and how they can be used for treating conditions such as severe depression and PTSD.

On the one hand, I was extremely curious to try them myself. On the other, I was terrified about losing my mind during the trip. 

I weighed it up for a long time, and decided to take my chances.

Nothing could have prepared me for what followed. 

Early on in the experience, I found myself wondering about the meaning of life. 

What followed was a kind of ‘self-induced existential crisis’, where I was confronted with the madness (and apparent meaninglessness) of existence itself. 

I thought about the billions of years of evolution that had led to this point in time. I thought about the shocking mystery that life really is – that we all just wake up one day on this planet, and that nobody really knows what we’re doing here. 

I started the trip thinking about meaning. 

But the further I got into it, the more the experience seemed to be showing me; life is a shocking mystery – but there’s no ultimate meaning to it. 

When it hit me, it felt like the foundations were ripped out from beneath me. My sense of stability vanished, and I felt shaken to the core.

In the days that followed, I experienced panic attacks, intense anxiety and a ‘brain fog’ that just wouldn’t go away.

For about 10 days, I found myself in my own personal version of hell. 

Worse still, it was my fault that I was there.

Far from finding the direction I had hoped for, I felt traumatised, and wasn’t sure if things would ever get back to ‘normal’ again.

But over time, they did.. 

In this post, I’ll share three things that helped me get through the experience. 

If you ever find yourself going through a challenging time, they might be useful for you too. 

#1 – Choosing Meaning

Years before, I had read Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. 

Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps during World War Two. His experiences in the camps had taught him that meaning could be a powerful antidote to suffering.

He noticed that prisoners who had some kind of future to look forward to, were much more likely to survive than those who didn’t. 

After his release, Frankl went on to become one of the world’s experts on meaning in life. He developed logotherapy – a therapeutic approach that helps individuals heal through meaning.

One of the quotes that jumped out at me from the book was the following: 

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”

Victor Frankl

When I read it for the first time, I immediately sensed there was something profound behind these words, but I didn’t quite understand exactly what it was. 

Frankl seemed to be saying that there’s no ultimate meaning to life itself, but rather it’s the responsibility of each of us to give our own life meaning. In other words, meaning is subjective, and it’s up to us to create it in our own lives. 

When I was in the depths of the crisis, I remembered this idea and it provided some hope. 

I thought about what meaning I could give to what I was going through, and if I was fortunate enough to come back from it, how I could build my life in a way that would make my day-to-day experience as meaningful as possible. 

#2 – A problem shared…

Psychologist James Pennebaker studies the relationship between emotional trauma and physical illnesses in the body.

His research found that people who have been through trauma are much more likely to get (physically) sick than those who haven’t.

Interestingly, Pennebaker also discovered a link between self disclosure (talking with a friend or therapist) and recovery from trauma

He found that those who were able to talk about their traumatic experience with someone they could trust, were much more likely to avoid later physical illnesses, than those who were not.

In some sense, emotional trauma can get ‘trapped’ in the body and show up as physical symptoms – if we don’t have an outlet for it.

When I was at my lowest moment, I called someone close to me and told them everything I was going through. Simply being able to talk about it with someone I trusted made a huge difference to how I felt. 

After putting down the phone, I felt as if a giant weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The suffering became bearable and I had a glimpse of hope that things could improve. 

If I didn’t have this person, I don’t know how I would have coped. 

That’s all well and good if you have someone you can confide in.

But what if you don’t? What can you do then?

#3- Therapeutic Writing

Pennebaker also had a theory that writing about traumatic experiences could have a similar effect. 

In other words, that writing about trauma can help us heal from it. 

He conducted a study comparing two groups of people. He got the first group to write about ‘the most upsetting or traumatic experience of your entire life’, and the second (control) group to write about a randomly chosen topic (e.g. a typical day in their life, their home, etc). 

Both groups were asked to write for fifteen minutes on four consecutive days.

Pennebaker received permission to obtain their medical records at some point in the future, and waited for one year. 

He then counted how many hospital visits each participant made the following year. 

He found that those who had written about their traumatic experiences visited their  doctors and hospitals significantly less in the following year. 

In other words, if you had written about a past trauma, you were much less likely to get sick than someone who hadn’t. 

What was going on here? 

When we experience emotional trauma, it can live on inside us – affecting our thoughts, feelings, and even our physical health. Our brain still perceives what happened in the past as threatening – so it holds on to the experience, and keeps reminding us of it in the present. 

It unconsciously thinks: ‘If I forget about this, the same thing (trauma) could happen again.’ 

So we can’t let it go. 

When we write about our traumas however, it enables us to make sense of them. Our brain begins to feel that it understands the source of the threat, why it happened to us and what it needs to do to avoid the same thing happening again in the future. 

Crucially, it no longer feels the need to keep reminding us of the danger in the present. We can let go of the experience and close this chapter of our lives. 

For a long time after my experience, I found it difficult to think about it, or talk about it, without provoking a strong negative emotional reaction inside.

So, with nothing to lose, I decided to give Pennebaker’s writing exercise a go; asking myself questions like: Why did this happen? What good might come from it?

Over time, it felt like something ‘shifted’ in me, and I was able to move on. 

Far from giving me the direction I had been looking for, my psychedelic experience turned my world upside down.

It did teach me some important lessons though. 

Firstly, it showed me just how dark a place the world can be when our sense of meaning is taken from us.

Secondly, it taught me that we get to choose what meaning we give to our lives; both on a micro, and macro level.

Thirdly, I learned two important ways to cope with the traumas and emotional suffering that life will inevitably throw at us. 

And finally, it taught me that our state of mind (our mental health) is the most important thing we have.

It’s primary. 

If it’s in any way diminished, the world becomes a very different place. 

It’s funny how it can take nearly losing something, to help you realise just how valuable it really is.

Not Fitting In

I’ll never forget the day I published my first blog post.

I was more scared then, than I was before jumping out of a plane on my first skydive.

I had wanted to start blogging for years, but kept finding a good excuse to put it off. ‘I’ll start when I have more time.’ ‘It’s not a priority right now.’ ‘I have more important things to think about’, I told myself. 

All valid excuses – but none were true.

Fundamentally, I was afraid; afraid of what people would think, and afraid of not fitting in.

In this post, I’ll explore where this fear comes from, why it holds us back, and introduce some ideas I’ve found useful for overcoming it. 

Human beings are a social species, and for hundreds of thousands of years, our survival depended on fitting in to our group. 

In an environment with scarce resources and dangerous predators around every corner, we could only survive if we belonged to a tribe.

In those days, safety only came in numbers. 

Therefore, we evolved strong motivations to want to fit in, and even stronger motivations to avoid doing anything that might threaten our status within a tribe, or even worse; get us kicked out. 

Evolutionary theorists argue that our bodies and brains are still programmed for this environment. In other words, even though we live in modern society, our biology is still hardwired for the harsh conditions of the jungle. 

This means that when we are about to do something in modern society that might affect what other people think about us, these powerful ancient survival instincts kick in. Our primitive brain thinks: 

‘If I do this, it might get me kicked out of the tribe. And if I’m kicked out of the tribe, I’m as good as dead.’ 

So we play it safe, keep a low profile, and do our best to fit in.

Knowing this about ourselves, how then can we get over this fear we all share, and actually do the thing we want to do, but have been putting off?

#1 – The 1 in 10 Rule

“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”

Bill Cosby

I remember getting my first negative review for The Weekend University.

On the day itself, we had 27 positive reviews and 1 negative. 

Which do you think had the bigger impact on me – the 27 positive, or the 1 negative? 

Needless to say, it was the latter. I spent a disproportionate amount of time ruminating about this one person who didn’t like the experience; despite 27 people telling me they did! 

Evolution has hardwired us to care what people think, and our minds have a much stronger preference for negative information than positive. Psychologists refer to this as the ‘negativity bias’. When I was thinking about publishing my first blog post, I would imagine certain people reacting negatively and criticising me, and it would put me off. 

If you have a tendency to do this too, there is an old proverb that can be very useful:

In any group of ten people, you’ll get on really well with two. You’ll be indifferent about seven of them. And at least one person in the group will not like you. 

Strangely enough, we spend all of our mental energy focusing on the one person who doesn’t like us. 

We can’t help it. 

But simply knowing this fact – that about one person in every ten won’t like us, and more importantly, that they don’t have to like us, frees us from needing their approval. 

It also enables us to focus our efforts on the people we are trying to reach with our message. 

#2 – Separating Tasks

‘Focus on what you can control, and don’t waste energy on the things you cannot.’


In the book: ‘The Courage to be Disliked’, Ichiro Kishimi argues that the simplest way to get over our fear of not fitting in is to do something known as ‘the separation of tasks’. 

Simply put, separating tasks involves drawing a clear boundary between our own tasks, (the things we can control) and the tasks of others (things outside of our control). 

When it comes to sharing your work publicly, your task is to do the best job you can. 

It is not your task to worry what people will think about it; that’s their task, and their responsibility. You have no control over it, so you don’t waste mental energy on it.

By cultivating this mindset, your validation comes from the quality of the work you do, and the amount of effort you put in. You feel good knowing you gave your best, and are not too concerned by the praise or criticism of other people. 

If you can separate tasks, your emotional state depends on factors you can directly control.

If you can’t, then how you feel about yourself will depend on other peoples’ opinions. Peoples’ opinions are kind of like the Irish weather; unstable, unpredictable, and subject to wild fluctuations – probably not a good thing to base your self worth on.

Therefore, if you find yourself worrying about what other people will think, you can break the mental habit by asking yourself: ‘Is this my task?’ 

If it’s not, then you don’t have to worry about it.

#3 – Skin in the Game

Bizarrely, those who are quickest to criticise others, are often people who aren’t doing very much themselves. 

It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard, judge someone else and feel smug about ourselves.

It gives us a sense of superiority.

What’s difficult is being vulnerable, taking risks and putting yourself out there. 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.’

Theodore Roosevelt

This quote is a powerful reminder that we should be extremely selective about who we allow ourselves to accept criticism from. If we’re worried about what a certain person will think about our work, and if this is holding us back from sharing it, we can simply ask: ‘Is this person in the arena too?’ 

In other words, is this person taking any risks themselves? Do they have ‘skin in the game?’ Or are they sitting in the stands, observing and judging others? 

If it’s the latter, then we have no reason to take them seriously. 

If you want to express yourself creatively, but haven’t taken the plunge yet, at some point you will have to make a decision: 

Do I care more about putting my work out there, than I do about fitting in? 

If you do, then it’s likely you will regularly have to overcome this deep-seated fear we all share.

I still get a flood of anxiety before pressing the publish button. 

Therefore it can help to have ‘mental tools’ at hand for when the fear kicks in, so we can overcome it and still get our work out there. 

The 1 in 10 rule, separating tasks, and ‘skin in the game’ are three simple concepts that can be very useful for doing just that.

Maslow & The Paradox of Personal Growth

I should have been over the moon.

I had just experienced my biggest ‘success’ with The Weekend University.

We had moved our ‘Sleep & Dreams’ event to a new venue, sold all 320 seats, and had three great talks.

Normally, we have a ‘pub social’ after every event where attendees get a chance to meet each other and share different perspectives on the lectures. I also use this as an opportunity to catch up with old friends in London I don’t get to see during the month.

But for this event, there was a mishap with the pub, the social was cancelled, and the friends I usually catch up with weren’t able to make it.

So here I was, having just organised an event for 320 people, eating dinner alone.

By objective measures, I should have been pretty happy. I had moved to a new venue, broke a record in ticket sales, and helped to create a memorable experience for everyone involved.

But I was far from it..

I thought: ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘What’s the point in achieving success, if you don’t have anybody to share it with?’ ‘Why bother with all of this hard work when the end result is sitting here, having a meal by myself?’

This experience seemed to reflect a larger, more sinister problem in my life.

I was chasing ‘success’ (and sometimes getting it), at the expense of other more important things.

I don’t know where it came from, but somewhere along the line, I seemed to have picked up the belief that in order to grow as a person, I would have to ‘go it alone’ and sacrifice social relationships in the process.

In this post, I’ll explore why this is fundamentally not true, and offer a new paradoxical view of personal growth.

Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist best known for creating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

In his 1943 paper: ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Maslow argued that human beings have five different sets of needs:

  1. Physiological –food, water and sex.
  1. Safety – a safe and stable environment.
  1. Love and belonging – an intimate relationship, positive friendships and family.
  1. Esteem – a solid sense of self-esteem, a positive reputation and the respect of others.
  1. Self Actualisation – personal growth, ‘peak’ experiences and contribution.

His theory suggests our needs exist in a pyramid-like structure with the basic ones (food, shelter, belonging, etc) at the bottom, and self actualisation needs (personal growth, contribution, etc.) at the top.

Crucially, you have to start with the bottom of the pyramid first, and work your way up.

In other words, you’ll not be able to focus on self actualisation, if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from (1), if you’re not in a safe environment (2), if you don’t have strong social relationships (3), and if you don’t value yourself or feel valued by others (4).

Only when our basic needs are met, are we able to start thinking about the top of the pyramid.

Humans want to get along and get ahead. And they will become whoever they need to be in order to do so.

Will Storr

Often we chase success or personal growth for the wrong reasons.

We’re not striving for a goal because of an intrinsic desire to realise more of our potential.

Instead, we do it because we unconsciously believe it will help us satisfy lower, more basic needs on the pyramid that aren’t currently being met.

We think; if achieve ‘X’, then I’ll get the love and respect that’s missing in my life.

So we spend all of our time working, and sacrifice the very thing we’re really after in the process – human relationships. As a result, we become increasingly isolated and our quality of life plummets.

Worse still, we might actually achieve our goal, and get to the top of the mountain we’ve been climbing, only to realise when we get there, we’re more disconnected and miserable than we were when we started.

So, we set a new goal, and begin the cycle again.

How then, do we get around this?

How can we balance our need for social connectedness (getting along), with our need for self actualisation (getting ahead)?

You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.

Jim Rohn

In his book: ‘High Performance Habits’, Brendon Burchard attempted to identify common sources of meaning in self actualisers’ lives.

To do this, he interviewed 1,300 high performing individuals, and found that across the board, they placed a high value on their relationships in life and work.

These people were excelling in their careers, while at the same time, enjoyed positive relationships and had a strong sense of social connectedness.

So how were they pulling it off?

What separates self actualisers from everyone else, is that connection for them is more about challenge, than it is about comfort.

In other words, they deliberately seek out a peer group that challenges them.

They surround themselves with people that inspire them, with similar values, and who pushes them to realise more of their potential.

By doing so, they create synergy between multiple levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy – their need for belonging, their need for esteem, and their need for self actualisation; providing them with both meaningful work and meaningful relationships in the process.

Paradoxically, Burchard’s study found that high performing people don’t succeed in spite of their social relationships, they succeed because of them.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

John Donne

The paradox of personal growth is that there’s nothing personal about it.

As Maslow’s Hierarchy demonstrates, it’s not possible without meeting social needs first.

And as Burchard’s study shows, if we do want to achieve excellence in our chosen field, we’d be wise to surround ourselves with people who challenge us, and who want the best for us.

Otherwise, you might find yourself achieving ‘success’ like I thought I did that day, only to realise that its real value is being able to share it with others.