Turning Weakness Into Strength

A few months ago I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath — Underdogs, Misfits, And the Art of Battling Giants…

It’s about battling the odds. Winning when there’s no way to win in sight.

The book opens with the legend of David and Goliath.

It’s 11 BCE at the valley of Elah. Before the mountains plunge into the valley, the Israelites huddle together on the ridge and look across the land to the Philistenes—an army of men from Crete who’ve come to fight them.

They stand patiently in the valley and look to the ridge of Israelites. They do not attack.

Instead, a small attendant with a shield walks forward. He leads a giant. The giant wears a bronze helmet and full body armor. He carries a spear and javelin, a sword on his hip.

This was to be a battle of “single combat.” A common practice in ancient warfare.

Two sides of a conflict seek to avoid the heavy bloodshed of a full-blown battle by choosing one warrior to fight on the behalf of his army.

The Israelites have no one to match the size and strength of this Philistine giant.

King Saul, the leader of the Israelites, doesn’t know what to do.

Then a shepherd boy who had come from Bethlehem to bring food to his brothers volunteers to fight.

King Saul protests. How could someone so small and without combat experience stand a chance against the ogre waiting in the valley?

The boy insists.

The King relents and lets the boy go. He offers the boy a sword, armor and a shield. But he will not take them. Instead he runs down to the valley with only his Shepherd’s stick and a sling in hand.

On his way down, he picks up 5 smooth stones and puts them in his shoulder bag.

The giant’s name is Goliath. The boy’s name is David.

Goliath starts laughing. He says, “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?”

He’s almost insulted that the Israelites would send someone so ill-matched for battle.

Meanwhile, David puts one of his stones into the leather pouch of his sling and hurls the projectile at Goliath’s forehead with the strength of a beretta m9 and the accuracy of a sniper rifle.

Skull Fracture. Right between the eyes. Goliath falls to his knees, dust erupts around him.

The small shepherd boy has defeated the armored giant. And the Israelites have won the battle against the Philistines.

Let’s apply this to modern day business.

There’s another chapter in Gladwell’s book where he talks about dyslexic CEO’s.

The fact that their struggle is their strength.

Because they have to work harder in different areas (crucial areas) like listening and speaking while everyone else is merrily skipping along through the standard curriculum.

And it turns out, the skills these dyslexic kids develop are pretty darn important when they reach adulthood… especially when it comes to business.

See, against all odds, David was sure of himself.

He wasn’t afraid to descend into the valley to fight the Goliath because he knew that he wouldn’t be fighting the way that everyone expected him to.

He knew that he had a secret no one else could touch.

And you, my friend, have a secret like this too.

What you may think is a weakness can be turned on a dime into a strength.

See, as a species we bond through struggle, through sharing our weaknesses… to build our circles of allies and confidants.

So, if you take whatever “secret weakness” you’ve got… and share it…

You will discover, you have an unfair advantage over everyone else in your market.

And here’s the thing…

If you take that weakness… blow it up… tell it loud and proud… make that skeleton dance…

It’ll only make you more powerful.

So, when you’re playing the game of business against opponents who seems to have an advantage over you…

Simply change the rules of the game.

8 Secrets For Learning A New Language

When I was 13, I had to decide which romance language to take in high school. 

I chose Spanish and respectfully slacked off (averaging B’s) for 4 years straight.

Passing tests was the focus of our curriculum.  Not creating opportunities to speak in the real world.

Somehow, those Spanish classes filled me with a curiosity.  The culture, music, food and art were so rich, I thought.  Still, I could not find the motivation to study my way to fluency. 

Until one day, I simply decided to start.

But how?  It was almost impossible to imagine myself as a fluent speaker.  After 5 years of high school, I thought, shouldn’t I already be able to say more than “Hola”?

Well, that’s some shitty logic.  But it is how a lot of us think about things we have tried but in which we have not yet found success.  And it is that mindset which prevented me from learning for years.

Then, as if struck by lightning, I signed up for an hour class on italki.com for $10.  90 days later, I have practiced and immersed myself enough to reach a conversational level.  I can talk with someone who speaks no english for 30 minutes on average without any problem whatsoever, depending on the topic. 

And I realized that in all those years, there were 8 things I had to overcome to do that.

Maybe you have heard some people say these things about learning a language:

1)  “You’re a natural!”

I thought that some people can just “do” language.  They have a gift and I don’t.  This is a product of adults who have failed in their own dreams.  They attribute acquired skills to a natural ability.  It helps them to rationalize why they can’t do something.  It’s miserable.  But it is what most people do in the face of disappointment. 

2)  It’s too late to start

Saying it is too late to start learning a new language is like saying it is too late to update the operating system on your computer.  No matter what your age, you can do it.  It is a simple time investment and willingness to do the work. 

3)  There’s a fast, easy way to do it

The truth about language learning is, while some may pick up languages faster than others (especially those who have already learned a new language in the past) there is a certain amount of time you must invest in order to reach a certain level of fluency. 

No matter which way you approach language learning, you will have to invest time. 

If you are learning the language for the right reasons, the time period you must invest should not matter much.  It is all about enjoying the process.  In essence, language learning is like a good conversation in your native language. 

You don’t talk with a friend for an hour so that you can walk away with bullet points and information, you talk because you want to enjoy and share experiences.

4)  You need a good teacher

False.  The only thing you need is someone to help you get excited about the language.  I was lucky in high school.  Even though I was a tremendous slacker, I had language teachers who cared.  They made classes fun and I owe a lot of my current curiosity to them. 

Moments from now, you can sign onto italki.com and sign up for a language class. 

It can cost you less than $10 (USD).  Some of these teachers may not have degrees.  It does not matter.  All that matters is that you click with them.  The fact is, a good teacher is helpful but they cannot insert words and grammar into your head.  Language learning is dichotomous in this sense: you learn by talking with people, but you also learn by studying. 

The studying is solitary, the talking is social.  Do both.

5)  You need to Live abroad

You don’t need to live abroad.  Talking with people online is better, in my opinion.  At least to start.  They have the same goal as you.  I’ve found the best way to learn is by setting aside an hour to talk with a native speaker of the language you want to learn. 

Spend 30 minutes talking in your language and the next 30 minutes in their language. 

6)  You should start with x language

Start with whatever language excites you most.  Don`t be put off because people tell you one language is harder than another.  It’s not harder.  It takes more time.  It is the difference between driving from New York to Chicago or New York to L.A. 

Is one drive harder than another?  Not really.  It is simply a question of time.  The effort you will exert is the same at each station.  The number of hours it takes is unimportant.

7)  It will help you “get ahead”

You should use whatever motivation best suites you to learn a new language.  But in my experience it is not really external motivations that stand the test of time.  More often, it is an internal satisfaction.  Friendships you make.  New perspectives realized.  

Okay, it will help you get ahead in the sense that your worldview will change and you will be better off than folks who remain ignorant to the billions of other people who do not speak English.

Sourced from Wikipedia

8)  “You did it!”

The truth is, language learning is never finished.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with our native language.  I’ve found, through studying Spanish, for example, that I have learned more about english than I ever did in any high school grammar class.  Truth is, I still make mistakes in english and most people use “good” when they should use “well.” 

As a second-language speaker, you will never have it perfect.  It doesn’t matter.  All you have to do is start, and stick with it.

The keys to the castle, as it were, seem to be this: 

Find someone who is as motivated as you to learn a new language and keep a consistent schedule of language exchange with them (skype is great for this.)  I shouldn’t have to say this, but your relationship will be best if they want to learn your native language and you want to learn theirs. 

Make lots of friends on italki.com.  (This will not only help you learn language, but it will motivate you and open up travel opportunities.)

Immerse yourself with books (literature, movies, tv shows, music). 

Establish goals ranging from small to big.  Challenge yourself. 

Don’t give up.

P.S.  Here is something you don’t hear:  you may tell yourself you want to learn a language, when in reality it is a blatant lie you are telling to yourself.

Similar to how people feel about writing novels or screenplays; most people do not want to go through the process of writing, they want to have already finished a novel or screenplay, without sitting down to write day after day, year after year.

And you know what?

If you feel this way about learning a new language, that is fine.  Don’t sweat it.  But don’t allow yourself to get frustrated dreaming of something you don’t actually want.

3 Chemicals For Effective Storytelling

At its best, storytelling of relocates us. 

Whether we are reading a novel, watching a film or listening to a relative botch an account of their office christmas party, stories are the next best thing to real life experience.  

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of cinema.

Images, projected onto a screen at 24 frames per second, carry us through innumerable experiences almost as if a dream projected inside our own mind.

Meanwhile our brain chemicals are bubbling with each scene.  They fizz and spill over—sloshing about our craniums like beer at a baseball game—all under the spell of this thing we call a movie. 

What are these chemicals? What is happening in our brain when we watch a good movie, or witness an engaging story?

Surprisingly, there are only three principal emotions with which we need concern ourselves.

  • Dopamine
  • Oxytocin
  • Serotonin

These are the cornerstones of our emotions.  They are at work during a well-told story.

We have words to describe these emotions: sorrow, happiness, disdain, love, etc.  But all of these emotions are extensions of chemical processes in the brain. 

These feelings take place in the limbic system—a part of the brain we share with all our mammalian relatives.  This section of the brain is older than human history.  


The Limbic System – Highlighted in Purple

Only in the latest stages of our evolution did we develop the Neo-cortex, where we are capable of higher functions like language, mathematics and reasoning.

The Neo-cortex

The Neo-cortex – Highlighted in Blue

And because the brain chemicals we are discussing are quintessentially primal, so are mainstream movies.

Everyone is a storyteller.  Some albeit, are better than others.  And the perceived ability to tell a good story rests on ones ability to engage the 3 primary chemicals of the limbic system:

  • Dopamine: produces happiness when you find things like food, shelter, water, a partner, etc.  All things that meet your needs for survival.  It also activates from the “chase” of love.  A marathon runner gets a surge of dopamine when she sees the finish line.
  • Oxytocin: creates a feeling of safety and trust with others.  This is what connects you and your pet when you snuggle, offer food, or create any other sort of basic connection.  When you hug a loved one, oxytocin releases in the brain.
  • Serotonin: releases when you feel a sense of societal respect or pride.  When you have accomplished something and you are recognized for it.  Think “status”. 

Here is an example:


In Gladiator (Directed by Ridley Scott, Story By David Franzoni, Screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson), each one of these chemicals is touched upon. 

The protagonist, Maximus, is a respected Roman General who the ruling Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, loves as if he were his own son.  Aurelius, aged and preparing for deaths embrace, privately grants Maximus the highest power in Rome over his own son, Commodus.  When he learns he will not be emperor, Commodus swiftly murders his father to take the thrown. 

Knowing that Maximus is still a threat, Commodus strips him of his rank and sentences him to death, along with his family, who he has not seen since battle.  Though Maximus is able to escape his impending doom, he is too late to save his family.  They’ve been murdered as Commodus commanded. 

Maximus traverses the desert and nearly dies of exhaustion, until he is discovered by slave traders and relegated to fight to the death in Gladiator arenas.  He proves a dominant force in the arena, with crowds violently cheering his name after every battle.  Even the other Gladiators with whom he fights admire him for his skill and strength of character. 

Fueled by the desire for revenge, he meets Commodus in front of 50,000 Romans in an epic final scene.


The standard blockbuster plot-structure

With the combination of effective structure and a primal desire, this movie has grossed over $187,000,000.

Without reciting each scene of the film verbatim, we can observe pivotal scenes that interact with the three chemicals:

Dopamine:  Any instance where Maximus wins a battle.  Any instance where his survival is threatened and yet he finds a way out.

Oxytocin:  Maximus has a relationship with Marcus Aurelius, he develops alliances with the other gladiators, slave traders, even the emperors own sister.  We also witness Maximus’ flashbacks to his son and wife.

Serotonin:  Maximus must accomplish gain back respect after he is stripped of rank.  With each victory, the crowd cheers for him and he gains more power.

This is an example where, put plainly… simplicity sells.

Better yet, we can observe three rules for storytelling from coming to grips with our primal brains.

The story must have each of these 3 elements if it is to be a success:

  1. A hunt (vengeance, love, survival, success)
  2. Relationships (familial, platonic, romantic)
  3. Status (societal, familial, self-status)

The point here, is to stop thinking of emotions in terms of language.  Do not let the vague concepts cloud your judgement.  

The words we use to describe our feelings are merely semantic. 

If you want your story to be a success, make sure it touches on the 3 chemicals of the limbic system.  Make it so simple, even a Gladiator gets it.

What’s The Big Idea?

Too often, people are in search of an epiphany.  Magical inspiration.

They wait for their muse. 

Like a wishful widow watching for her sailor from the top of a lonely light house overlooking the sea, the truth is…

“He’s not coming.”

This is the unpopular truth of Big Ideas:

Big ideas do not come like a surge of main-lined heroine and reveal themselves at once in an explosion of ecstasy.

While the legend of a naked Archimedes jumping from his bathtub, running into the streets and  screaming “Eureka” might have us believe in grand moments of inspiration, that’s not how things work. 

I agree with what David Lynch says about ideas here:

While they percolate, ferment, and develop, small ideas seem arbitrary.  

Come to think of it, they look like what I imagine a caterpillar in the midst of metamorphosis– an awkward, wormy, would-be butterfly– looks like.

If you were to read through the notes in my Banknote wallet (which I carry everywhere), you would think maybe my pen was stolen by a chimpanzee.

Nothing is intelligible beyond small phrases.  These idea-fragments collect in my notebook like bugs on a windshield. 

Finally, I wake up and there are too many small ideas.  They sit there, begging for a commonality.  Their randomness becomes infuriating.  They need order.  

As Jazz Musician Charles Mingus said, “Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

This is where the elbow grease of creativity comes into play. 

The job is to make these small ideas, and countless hours of work appear as if they are a big idea that came down on angels wings in one fell swoop.

To discover Big Ideas, simply connect small ideas.  (It’s easier said than done).

This is a process Tim Ferris, New York Times Best Selling author of The 4 Hour Series, calls, “Meta Learning”.

Meta-Learning is exactly what is sounds like.  A practice of learning how to learn.  And in his book The 4 Hour Chef, Ferris identifies “deconstruction” as the first essential of meta-learning.

To paraphrase, deconstruction is a process of understanding the minimal learnable units of a skill.

In this case, deconstruction is about understanding the building blocks of a big idea or a work of art.

There is a fascinating article on music and information theory that supports this idea.

Music Made Simple

Music like Beethoven’s 3rd symphony is still talked about today because while it seems complex at first listen, it is easy for the human brain to compress it into simple patterns. 

The same way a computer is able to compress music into a smaller file-size, our brains compress music to unlock the basic patterns.  From this, the brain derives a great sense of satisfaction.  A feeling of accomplishment.

Even contemporary pop songs on the radio, which appear simple upon first listen, are actually less compressible for the human brain than the work of classical composers. 

Pink noise (representing random noise) is highly information-rich.  It is compressible to only 85.8% of the original sound by a computer algorithm.

Yet, when you look at music with identifiable patterns… the story changes.

“… Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony was strongly compressible to only 40.6% of the original file size, whereas the Techno piece “Theme from Bubbleman” by Andy Van, the Pop piece “I should be so Lucky” by Kylie Minogue and the Rock piece “White Wedding” by Billy Idol were considerably less compressible, compressing to 68.5%, 69.5% and 57.5% of original file size respectively. Therefore, Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony is a better example of low Kolmogorov complexity Art [2] than Kylie Minogue’s “I should be so Lucky.””

Over time, the works of Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach become more enjoyable while the works of Kylie Minogue and Brittney Spears begin to sour.  One is like a fine wine that gets better through time, the other is like milk left outside on a hot summer day. 

This is how the brain processes information. 

This is how we respond to art.

And this is key to how “The Big Idea” works in advertising (or for whatever else you use ideas).

It comes from how the brain recognizes patterns.  It is in our nature to recognize “Big Ideas” at first glance and subconsciously recognize the small ideas that comprise it.  (Numerous studies have shown creativity is a subconscious phenomenon).

The brain constantly seeks connections.  The process of simplifying ideas, and identifying cause/effect relationships is what led us down the path of nature-worship when we did rain-dances and held animal sacrifice to in hopes a few crops of corn might grow. 

It is why little kids under their first spell of puppy-love sit on the playground pulling flower pedals saying, “he loves me, he loves me not…”

The brain is addicted to patterns in all forms of storytelling, art, music and life.  Whether it is in an actual, exterior narration or in the internal story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Small Stories

It is why storytelling is hands-down the most powerful means of persuasion.

“Movies are the most powerful influence ever created!”

—J. Parnell Thomas (portrayed by James Dumont) In Trumbo.

Movies as a means of storytelling are a great example of this simplicity phenomenon.

In American cinema in particular, there is a formula for storytelling that has successfully enthralled audiences since the turn of the 20th century.  This formula fits on a set of two 3×5 index cards if you have small handwriting.


These patterns are not limited to narrative art forms.  The Big Idea flows effortlessly through too many art forms to list here.

Simplicity In Art

The Fibonacci sequence, or the Golden Ratio, is famous for its elegant simplicity and its prevalence in nature, art and mathematics. 

It is yet another example of a simple concept that compounds with elements of color, line, and theory in order to create something that appears more complex:

440px-SimilarGoldenRectangles.svg 440px-Golden_ratio_line.svg last-supper-phi-golden-ratio

These small patterns exist everywhere.

They are the lines that complete a painting.  The sounds that make up a song.  They are the thoughts that remain with us the morning after a dream.

While ideas occlude iterative processes—even the small ones—that doesn’t mean they’re not waiting for you, the same way you are waiting for them. 

Small ideas compound over time.  

The simplest, most infinitesimal realization can be catalyst to carry you from a collection of seemingly haphazard, hair-brained notions to a work of art with the vast potential to appear as if it came down on a golden lightening bolt.  

But once it is there, whether complex or simple in its delivery, it will be time for you to get to work.

5 Years Ago…

There’s a photograph of me from 5 years ago. 

I sit atop Huayna Picchu, a mountain overlooking the ancient aztec ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.

The word that comes to mind every time I look at this photo is… Freedom.

I woke before dawn to climb the mountain.  My friends and I walked across stone steps laid thousands of years ago by a people who could not imagine the lives we live today.

As the sun rose across the mountains, I smiled and wondered if I would ever feel this free again.

Let me ask you a question.  Can you remember what you were doing 5 years ago? 

How did you feel about your station in life?  Your freedom?

What I remember most is my certainty, or as I like to call it, my shit-suredness.  Naive as I was, I never dreamed my life would take place anywhere but a mountain top.  Yet as the warmth of the sun washed over me, the view of the mountains all around me, dark valleys waited below.

On this mountain, so high up, the air felt different.  It tasted better. 

Everyone seemed to be on the same mission.  Scale the mountain.  See the scenery.  Breath the  fresh air and feel grateful for it all.  It did not matter what language you spoke or what country you came from. 

In the low valley, it was a different story. 

Uncommon smells ran off the thick brown river as hustlers and thieves worked-over tourists for their money.

Cramped busses and vans filled with people, packed tightly like a mother’s suitcase.  Everyone was irritable and arguing over who was sweating on who. 

In this photograph I am grateful to be at the mountaintop.  I was with people who loved me and who I loved back and far from the angst of the valley.

But if you are familiar with Newton’s third law, “what goes up, must come down” you know there is a story at the base of the mountain too.  A darker story.

It is a cliche to talk about mountains and valleys like the triumphs and failures of life.  For good reason.

When we say we are at the highest highs and the lowest lows, we might feel as if we are atop a glorious mountain or in the trenches of a dark valley.

While I look back to this photograph, almost exactly 5 years ago to the day I write this, I realize my ultimate motivation in life has not changed.  Nor do I think it will ever change.

Dear Friend, FREEDOM (screamed atop my lungs like William Wallace in Braveheart) is what I am after.

If you are on a similar search then this blog may be for you.

You are free to stay or go.  But I hope you will stay.

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