How to Change Your Mind for Good in 21 Days

WHAT IS MIND HACKING?

Hacker: “A person who enjoys learning the details of programming systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” 

One of the greatest moments in computer history occurred, as it so often does, in an ordinary office cubicle. 

Steve Wozniak was working late. After clocking out of his day job at Hewlett-Packard, he would often stay into the night to work on a secret side project. It was the mid-1970s, and he and his buddy Steve Jobs had recently been inspired by a demonstration of the Altair 8800, a build-it-yourself com- puter kit aimed at hobbyists. They had the radical idea that they could offer a similar computer already built. The user would still need to add a keyboard, video display, and a case—but the motherboard would be fully assembled and ready to crunch. 

That computer, which would later be known as the Apple I, was the project that Wozniak was working on whenever he could find a spare moment. To fi- nance their invention, Wozniak had sold his beloved HP-65 calculator, and Jobs his treasured Volkswagen Bus. Of the two, Wozniak was the technical ge- nius, so into the night he toiled, long after his coworkers had gone home, in pursuit of this groundbreaking computer. 

PART ONE : ANALYZING

YOU ARE NOT YOUR MIND

“When people look at it . . . it looks crazy. That’s a very natural thing. Sometimes when we look at it, it looks crazy. It is the result of reasoned, engineering thought. But it still looks crazy.” 

On August 5, 2012, the engineers at NASA endured seven minutes of adrenaline-pumping terror. 

They were monitoring the descent of Curiosity, a robotic rover the size of a car, as it landed on the surface of Mars. Hanging in the balance—and in the Martian atmosphere—was years of effort, the reputation of the agency, and $2.5 billion of research money.1 The NASA control room was eerily silent, a high-stakes gamble on the engineering talent of everyone in the room. 

They were monitoring the descent of Curiosity, a robotic rover the size of a car, as it landed on the surface of Mars. Hanging in the balance—and in the Martian atmosphere—was years of effort, the reputation of the agency, and $2.5 billion of research money.1 The NASA control room was eerily silent, a high-stakes gamble on the engineering talent of everyone in the room. 

YOUR MIND HAS A MIND OF ITS OWN

Our minds are like misbehaving dogs. 

When my wife and I were dating, she had a fifty-pound German shepherd that was, to put it politely, insane. The dog’s name was Cassie, and while Cassie was supposedly purebred, she may have actually been inbred. We never asked questions about her family history; all we knew was that somehow Cassie’s DNA double-helix got wrapped around the central strand like a leash around a pole. 

Cassie was unpredictable, exhausting, and dangerous. When the doorbell rang, she would greet visitors by jumping on top of them full force, barking, slobbering uncontrollably, and sometimes biting them. At night, she would fall into a deep slumber underneath a coffee table, only to suddenly bolt upright at 3:00 a.m., overturning furniture and everything on it. 

Taking Cassie for a walk was a daily adventure. First, you’d have to get the leash on, chasing her through the house as she knocked over chairs and appli- ances. Once outside, you’d hang on for dear life as she lunged randomly at any object that caught her attention: fire hydrants, balloons, invisible phantoms. She would slam her head into trees and occasionally try to attack children. If we had brought in the Dog Whisperer, he would have become the Dog Screamer. 

DEVELOPING JEDI-LIKE CONCENTRATION

You probably remember the scene from the original Star Wars where Luke Sky- walker is learning to use the Force on board the Millennium Falcon. 

“Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him,” Obi-Wan Keno- bi instructs him as the training droid shoots Skywalker on the leg. 

“Ha-ha!” mocks Han Solo. “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” 

“You don’t believe in the Force, do you?” Luke asks him. 

“There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny,” Solo snorts. “It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” 

“I suggest you try it again, Luke.” Obi-Wan puts a helmet on Luke’s head, blocking his vision. 

Concentrating, this time Luke blocks the lasers, relying entirely on his in- stincts. (Solo never apologizes.) Whether you are more like Obi-Wan Kenobi or Han Solo when it comes to believing in the Force, you certainly know the power of concentration. A moment’s reflection will probably show you that your best work, strongest ideas, and deepest insights come from moments of concentration, when your mind is calm, clear, and focused. You may even long for these moments and wish that you had more time for them. 

DEBUGGING YOUR MENTAL LOOPS

“You need to learn how to select your thoughts just the same way you select your clothes every day. This is a power you can cultivate. If you want to con- trol things in your life so bad, work on the mind. That’s the only thing you should be trying to control.” 

When personal computers first came on the scene, every department store had a computer section with the latest models on display: the Apple II, the Com- modore 64, the Atari 800. Most of these computers came installed with BASIC, the language that allowed anyone to learn how to code. 

As a young nerd, I had an expert level of BASIC (oxymoron), but I had a friend with almost zero knowledge. He knew how to write exactly one program. He was a bit of a prankster, and would have me watch out for salesclerks while he wrote his one program on all the computers in the store: 

10 PRINT “I AM THE WORLD’S GREATEST HACKER” 20 GOTO 10 

Running this program would cause the computer to endlessly display the words “I AM THE WORLD’S GREATEST HACKER,” an infinitely repeating testament to his mighty programming prowess. 

How to Debug the Mind 

To recap: our minds are the product of thousands of repeated lessons, good and bad, true and false, accurate and inaccurate. These have been ingrained as mental “loops” that can be positive (I like to exercise) or negative (I will never find true love). They can be constructive (I should spend money responsibly) or destructive (I would be happier if I had a drink). 

These habitual thoughts control our emotions, our behaviors, and ulti- mately our lives. Because they are deeply embedded, the product of years of experience and upbringing, these loops can be hard to track down. The best way of debugging these negative loops is to look at the quality of your life, more specifically for areas of pain. For example: 

• Difficulty in relationships  

• Difficulty at work  

• Difficulty with family members  

• Legal trouble  

• Money trouble  

• Health trouble  

• Persistent negative beliefs (I’ll never succeed. People are untrustworthy.)  

• Persistent negative feelings (cynicism, hopelessness, despair)  

• Persistent failure 

• Anxiety  

• Depression  

• Addiction  

• Living in your parents’ basement and/or your car 

For me, being visited by the Secret Service, and the subsequent fallout, was an enormous pain point: a sign that something needed to be changed. But there were plenty of smaller pain points along the way, like getting caught sneaking vodka from the liquor cabinet by my father—in my thirties. And of course the everyday mental pain that was causing me to sneak vodka from the liquor cabinet in the first place. 

PART TWO : IMAGINING

IT’S ALL IN YOUR MIND

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein, as quoted on every dorm room wall at every college ever 

Albert Einstein may have been a genius, but he probably wasn’t the best patent clerk. 

Years before Steve Wozniak started building the world’s largest computer company on his lunch breaks, another legendary figure was scribbling out equations at his day job. Einstein was a lowly government worker who toiled away at the Swiss patent office, reviewing patent applications. He had recently graduated from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology with barely average grades, and no one would hire him as a physics teacher.1 

One of Einstein’s high school teachers, frustrated by his lack of obedience, had proclaimed that “nothing will ever become of you,” and it looked as if he might be right. Day after day, Einstein was stuck in his low-level government job, a third-class patent clerk with little hope of escape. When he applied for a promotion to second-class patent clerk, he was turned down because his supervisor thought he didn’t know enough about mechanical engineering! 

YOUR BEST POSSIBLE FUTURE

“If you can’t conceive of things that don’t exist, you can’t create anything new. If you can’t dream up worlds that might be, then you are limited to the worlds other people describe.” 

What do you want? 

Perhaps you have relatively modest dreams, like graduating with honors, or finding your soul mate, or becoming a millionaire. Maybe your ambitions are greater, like eradicating a major disease, or building a world-changing charity, or running a nation. Or perhaps we’re really thinking big together: inventing a new branch of science, or colonizing other planets, or improving the mental state of the human race. 

It’s easy to figure out what you don’t want: they’re the things you’re always complaining about, to yourself and everyone else. But do you know what you want? Have you written it down? If you get the dreaded job interview question “Where do you see yourself in twenty years?” will you have a thoughtful an- swer, or will you draw a blank? 

CREATING POSITIVE THOUGHT LOOPS

Benjamin Franklin was a geek

“Throughout his life,” Walter Isaacson notes in his excellent biography Ben- jamin Franklin: An American Life, “he loved immersing himself in minutiae and trivia in a manner so obsessive that today it might be described as geeky.”1 He points to Franklin’s methodical research, unbounded curiosity, and constant inventiveness (note our Analyze, Imagine, and Reprogram framework again!) on topics as diverse as ballooning, education, electricity, eyeglasses, fire safety, heating technology, music, politics, and weather.

Franklin was also a master mind hacker. Hundreds of years before people were using fitness-tracking devices, he came up with a self-improvement exper- iment that let him track his mind hacking progress in a measurable, scientific way. As described in his autobiography, Franklin gave his experiment the lofty title of the “Moral Perfection Project.” He began by laying out a set of thirteen virtues that he wished to develop in himself:2 

WRITE

Visiting the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jer- sey, should be on every geek’s list of things to do in life. 

Advertised as “Where Modern America Was Invented,”1 it’s an enormous brick building where, for more than forty years, Edison’s team of geniuses turned out innovation after innovation, including the motion picture camera and movies, improved phonographs and sound recordings, and electric inven- tions like the alkaline storage battery. It was the Google of its day. 

Advertised as “Where Modern America Was Invented,”1 it’s an enormous brick building where, for more than forty years, Edison’s team of geniuses turned out innovation after innovation, including the motion picture camera and movies, improved phonographs and sound recordings, and electric inven- tions like the alkaline storage battery. It was the Google of its day. 

It’s fascinating, and instructive, to see how Edison laid out the complex. Tucked away in a corner of his expansive office was a small bed. Edison was a believer in the power of power naps: after ruminating on a difficult problem, he would retire in the corner for a microsleep, letting his mind work on a solution. When the idea came to him, he would hurry to his desk and write it down. 

He would then rush upstairs to his second, more modest office, where he did his true “inventing.” Here he would take the initial idea and sketch it out, making rough drawings of the idea that he wanted to pull into reality. 

REPEAT

Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic empire, is one of the most suc- cessful cartoonists of our time. In addition to being published in thousands of newspapers worldwide, Dilbert has been spun off into several best-selling books, an animated series, and hundreds of Dilbert-themed toys and games.1 But at one time, Scott Adams was just another midlevel office drone in a large, bureaucratic organization, just like Dilbert. 

Adams had always dreamed of becoming a cartoonist: from an early age, he adored Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and felt that drawing such a strip would one day be his career. As an adult, however, he found himself working a “number of humiliating and low-paying jobs” in northern California.2 He was contin- ually looking for a way out so he could make his cartooning dream a reality. 

A friend told him about a repetition technique, where you write down your positive mental loop fifteen times each day. His friend claimed that it worked for her. “The thing that caught my attention,” he related, “is that the process doesn’t require any faith or positive thinking to work.” Just the act of writing down your loop, she claimed, was enough to make it happen. In the spirit of self-experimentation, and figuring that he had nothing to lose but time, Adams gave it a try. 

SIMULATE

Nikola Tesla may have been the greatest geek who ever lived. 

The Serbian-American inventor was awarded three hundred patents during his lifetime, beginning with electric motors, and eventually encompassing such diverse inventions as ship navigation devices, wireless lighting, and a plane that would take off and land vertically—all in the early 1900s.1 In harnessing the forces of nature, Tesla seemed almost godlike in his powers: at one of his labs, he generated 135-foot bolts of artificial lightning, creating thunder that could be heard 15 miles away.2 

Like many great thinkers, some of Tesla’s ideas seemed insane for the time, even by today’s standards. He had plans for a robot that could operate of its own free will and free countries from war;3 the saturation of schoolrooms with electric fields to enhance the intelligence of children;4 and a “death ray” that he boasted could bring down ten thousand enemy airplanes at a distance of two hundred miles.5 Because he was a terrific showman, he earned a popular repu- tation as a “mad scientist,” and it was sometimes difficult to know what he had actually invented, what was in development, and what existed only in his mind. 

The first version of Wikipedia was a failure. 

Jimmy Wales was a web entrepreneur who had found modest success with an online content company called Bomis. Wales had a lifelong interest in knowledge—as a child, he pored over Brittanicas and World Book Encyclopedias—and he funneled some of the Bomis cash into a far more ambi- tious enterprise: a comprehensive online encyclopedia called Nupedia.

He hired his friend Larry Sanger as editor in chief of Nupedia. Wales and Sanger had met on a discussion forum, where they debated the philosophy of Ayn Rand (Wales was a fan, Sanger was not). The two men had something of the “odd couple” dynamic of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak: Wales was the hard-driving entrepreneur who majored in finance and worked briefly at an op- tions trading firm. Sanger was a doughy, balding academic who had a PhD in philosophy and played the violin. 

Wales was largely hands-off: it was Sanger who made all the countless day- to-day decisions, including how Nupedia would be set up. Sanger’s specialty was epistemology, the study of knowledge, and he came from the academic community, with its peer review systems and high standards of quality. As he designed the online encyclopedia, his challenge was to allow online collab- oration in a way that still maintained overall quality. 

ACT

Whether You Wish to Model a Flower in Wax;

to Serve a Relish for Breakfast or Supper; 

to Plan a Dinner for a Large Party or a Small One; 

to Cure a Headache; to Bury a Relative; 

Whatever You May Wish to Do, Make, or to Enjoy, Provided Your Desire has Relation to the Necessities of Domestic Life, I Hope You will not Fail to ‘Enquire Within.’ 

In the mid-1800s, Enquire Within upon Everything was a popular encyclopedia found in many Victorian homes. It covered everything a modern family could possibly need to know, from the rules of etiquette to drafting a will. The first editions contained thousands of concise instructions on problems like getting rid of the bad smell in a freshly painted room (burn a handful of juniper berries) to how to administer an opium enema (three grains of opium, two ounces of starch, two ounces of warm water, then pass out).

You can imagine a bright, curious child being absolutely spellbound by such a treasure trove of information, particularly before the invention of screens. Young Tim Berners-Lee, growing up in England in the 1960s, was lucky enough to have a copy of Enquire Within in his household, and he spent hours poring over its how-to instructions on parlor games, natural remedies, and household tips. There was something inspiring about this massive 

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