Studying Mental Models

Several years ago, I went down the rabbit hole of studying Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger and fell in love with the way they approached acquiring knowledge and perfecting their craft. I was searching for more material on their philosophy and struck gold when I discovered Shane Parrish’s Farnham Street. I am extremely grateful for what Shane has put together and continue to learn from his writing every day.

One of the major topics that he covers is Charlie Munger’s concept of developing a latticework of mental models in order to gain worldly wisdom. Shane summarizes this concept nicely on his blog:

Acquiring knowledge may seem like a daunting task. There is so much to know and time is precious. Luckily, we don’t have to master everything.

To get the biggest bang for our buck we can study the big ideas from the big disciplines: physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, literature, sociology, history, and a few others. We call these big ideas mental models.

Our aim is not to remember facts and try to repeat them when asked, the way you studied for your high school history exams. We’re going to try and hang these ideas on a latticework of mental models, with vivid examples in our head to help us remember and apply them.

The latticework of mental models puts them in a useable form to analyze a wide variety of situations and enables us to make better decisions. And when big ideas from multiple disciplines all point towards the same conclusion, we can begin to conclude that we’ve hit on an important truth.

Shane has accumulated a wonderful list of mental models that everyone should take the time to study and understand. He has put together blog posts on several of the topics but hasn’t had a chance to get to all of them yet. Building on his work, I wanted to put together a way to study and memorize these models. In order to do that, I combined a few techniques that I have collected from people much smarter than I am.

The first is using the Feynman Technique to understand the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something. Richard Feynman suggests a simple process when learning a new concept:

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify

This forces you to have a deep understanding of the concept and to be able to explain it in simple language. You can’t rely on technical terminology to communicate the concept.

The second technique that I am using is spaced repetition that I discovered on Derek Sivers’ blog. As Sivers explains:

Say if you learn a new word in a foreign language, you’d want to practice it again a few minutes after hearing it, then a few hours, then the next day, then in 2 days, then 5 days, then 10 days, 3 weeks, 6 weeks, 3 months, 8 months, etc. After a while it’s basically permanently memorized with a rare reminder.

There is spaced repetition software that you can use in order to manage the intervals that you are exposed to the concepts based on your feedback. One great tool for this is the AnkiApp. A great feature of this tool is that it allows you to import sets of flashcards from Quizlet. I am in the process of adding all of the mental models below into Quizlet so that anyone can import them into AnkiApp and follow this process. I will link to each set below when I am finished. (see Mental Models)

One important thing to remember is that the goal is not to remember the technical definition that I have added below. The goal is to use that as a trigger and a reminder of the concept. I have added a note to each card to explain the model in your own words and to provide an example. If you aren’t able to do that, then follow the links below and do a refresher on the model until you know it well enough to explain it to a toddler.

Please let me know if you spot any errors or have any feedback on how I can improve this process. Thanks!

List of Mental Models

The Struggle Against Ignorance

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One thing that I have observed about myself is the more I learn, the more naive I feel. I enjoy reading and exposing myself to new ideas and concepts and each time I do, I realize how little I actually know. However, I have also observed that I can occasionally try to use my knowledge on a topic to put myself in a position of authority or to try and gain some sort of admiration. I’m sure this stems from my insecurities, but that is a blog post for another time.

When I do find myself in a place where I am feeling overly confident (my nice way of saying that I am acting like a jerk), I think it is because I have not been exposing myself to enough new ideas. I am recycling old ideas and starting to believe that I have some sort of ownership over these concepts when they are not mine in the first place. It is only when I go back to exposing myself to different ways of thinking that I am humbled and realize that I truly know very little.

When I realize my mistakes (which happens often) and return to a place of exposing myself to new ideas, I also try to be conscious of the ideas that I latch onto. This is in response to an amazing quote that I once read by Bertrand Russell:

“What a man believes upon grossly insufficient evidence is an index into his desires — desires of which he himself is often unconscious. If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence.” – Bertrand Russell

With new technology, it is easy to create an echo chamber of ideas that continue to reinforce the same way of thinking. The path of least resistance is to continue to believe the same thing that you have always believed and to seek out evidence that supports it. However, how do you ever grow as a person or create new ideas if you allow yourself to fall into this cycle?

“To him who has only a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” – Abraham Maslow

I also try to ask myself if I am I latching onto an idea simply because I haven’t taken the time to reflect on it. Have I been too lazy to scrutinize both sides in an unbiased way and rationally come to a conclusion on the topic? It is not always an easy exercise, especially if it means admitting that I might have been very wrong in the past.

There is a significant amount of research around nature versus nurture. One thing that we know for certain is that your environment has a major impact on what you believe. How often do you stop to think about beliefs that you have adopted from your family or friends growing up that might no longer hold true if you were willing to scrutinize them? It is very humbling to admit that you might have been wrong for years.

“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.” – Charlie Munger

Ultimately, I have learned that ignorance breeds arrogance and knowledge breeds humility. I know this isn’t true in all cases, but I have found it to be true in anyone that I would want to emulate. This might not be a very profound statement, but it was an important lesson for me to learn. If I ever feel like I am starting to act like an authority on a topic, then I have some work to do. There is always something new I can learn.

Now this doesn’t mean that a person shouldn’t discuss ideas and share the knowledge they have accumulated. I think it is about the intent. Is the goal of sharing the knowledge to create a discussion in order to learn more? If so, then go for it. If it is to invoke a position of power, then you should probably keep your mouth shut.

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With all of this in mind, I want so share three ways that I try and expose myself to new ideas:

1) Reading books that are in my stretch zone:

Ryan Holiday shared a great blog post about “reading to lead.” In the post, he suggests that people read books that are in an area where they want to be and not where they currently are.

“For me, that means pushing ahead into subjects you’re not familiar with and wrestling with them until you can – shying away from the ‘easy read.’” – Ryan Holiday

2) Having conversations about uncomfortable topics:

In my personal life, this means having those difficult conversations with people that have different political, spiritual, and economic views than I do. However, I am careful about this one. I only do this with people that I have a close relationship with and I know that we specifically disagree on a particular topic. This allows us to have an intelligent and productive conversation without it becoming personal.

For work, I like to hear about how industries outside of tech approach their business models and try to drive innovation.

3) Reading blogs

I approach this in a similar way to number 2. I try to read posts that present ideas that are conflicting to my own as long as they are recommended by people that I trust. Sometimes the people from number 2 will share articles with me which provides a bit of a filter and are worth the time. It also provides a great structure for our next conversation.

“The game is to keep learning, and I don’t think people are going to keep learning who don’t like the learning process.” – Charlie Munger

I believe that ideas come from bringing old elements together and seeing their relationship in a new way.   As Julian Huxley said, ‘Life is just one damn relatedness after another’. Therefore, I am only as innovative as the concepts that I expose myself to. My goal is to be a student for life.

Additional quotes:

“You are a disaster if you don’t know the edge of your competency.” – Charlie Munger

“You want to determine who has a high rationality quotient, or the ability to make good decisions. A lot of that boils down to what’s called “epistemic rationality,” a fancy way of saying that your beliefs map accurately to the world. There are sets of characteristics of the kinds of people who are actively open minded. They incorporate lots of information and various points of view, and they update their view when new information comes in.” – Michael Mauboussin

“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It is simply too painful to acknowledge — even to ourselves — that we’ve been so credulous.” – Carl Sagan

“The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best–and therefore never scrutinize or question.” – Stephen Jay Gould

 

Part 2: How to Remove Anxiety and Fear

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Last post I wrote about the link between anxiety and fear and some of the implications of this connection.  Today I want to talk about some ways to create awareness in order to remove anxiety and fear.

1) Change your environment:

There are times when the best solution is to simply remove the negative situation or relationship in your life that is causing the anxiety or fear.  This requires self reflection.  Who are the people that you do not enjoy being around?  What situations do you dread?  Make sure the situation is actually negative and you are not just assuming a negative outcome, which I will discuss in number 2.  If the person or situation is not moving you in a healthy direction, then remove them.

For example, you may have a person in your life that is constantly bringing you down and talking about negative things.  You start to feel anxious every time you have to see them.  Sometimes this person is your co-worker or family member and you cannot remove them from your life.  (That is where number 3 comes in).  However, there are times when the best solution is to simply spend less time with them or remove them from your life all together.

As Darren Hardy, publisher of Success Magazine explains, “your associations don’t shove you in a direction; they nudge you ever so slightly over time.”  He recommends that you look at the people in your life and split them into disassociations, limited associations, and expanded associations.  Make sure that you are spending the majority of your time with people that are in the expanded associations category.  (He describes this further HERE )

A second example is when you take on too many responsibilities.  When you overcommit to several activities, you start to feel anxious when you can’t keep up.  You don’t want to let people down.  However, it is better to do a great job at a few things, then to do a  mediocre job at lots of things.  Prioritize your life and feel free to remove things that aren’t necessary.

“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” – Josh Billings

2) Reframe your fears:

When we enter a situation and feel anxious or fearful, it is because we are expecting something to go wrong.  Fear is simply excitement with the assumption of a negative outcome.  Your body is in a heightened state, just like excitement, but fear feels different because you assume something bad is about to happen.

Two common example of when people are feeling anxious or afraid are when they have to speak publicly or are about to ask someone out.  When you are about to speak publicly, you become anxious because you are assuming that you are going to perform poorly and you will be embarrassed.  The same goes for when you ask someone out.  You assume that the person is going to say no.

What if you were to reframe the result of these situations?  What if you were to assume that when you speak publicly, that you would perform perfectly and everyone would applaud?  What if when you asked someone out, you knew that they would say yes?  The fear automatically shifts to excitement when the result is positive.

Obviously we don’t know the outcome of these situations before they occur, but why assume the negative?  We are far more likely to take the risk and move forward when we are excited about the event compared to afraid of it.  Who knows what you could be missing out on just because you are assuming the worst.

The next time you start to feel anxious or afraid, take three deep breaths to slow down, then identify the negative outcome you are picturing.  Now that you are aware of what it is, flip it around and assume the best possible outcome.

“An attitude of positive expectation is the mark of the superior personality.” – Brian Tracy

3) Meditation: Control how you respond

The third way to limit anxiety and fear in your life is to recognize when anxiety is taking control.  No matter what situation you are presented with, you have the ability to determine your response.  The problem with this is that we often go into autopilot.  We allow our emotions to overwhelm us and stop acting rationally.  We lose control.  We look back on the situation later and don’t know why we responded the way we did.

How do we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by anxiety and losing control?  We practice. Meditation is when you practice the SKILL of observing your thoughts.  When you meditate, you are simply watching the thoughts that go through your head.  After you notice a thought, then you move your focus back to some anchor, like your breath.   You are becoming skilled at observing the thoughts you have.

Numbers two (reframe your fear) and three (meditation), go hand in hand. For example, if you are about to speak publicly, your mind starts to fill up with those anxious feeling and thoughts.  If you have practiced the skill of recognizing your thoughts (meditation), then you will be able to observe your mind filling up.  You will notice yourself thinking “I am going to mess up and be embarrassed.”  It is not until you can recognize these thoughts, that you can reframe them.  As soon as you do, you can say to yourself, “Why am I thinking that.  Thats stupid.  I am going to crush this and it is going to be awesome.”  You have just recognized a negative thought pattern and made it positive.

This is just one of many examples.  You probably have been walking down the street when someone looked at you weird.  You have no idea who they are or what was going through their head but your brain starts filling up with random thoughts about how “I must have something on my face” or “I look ugly today.”  There is no rationality behind these thoughts, but they can still snowball and effect your whole day.  Meditation allows you to stop that process in its tracks and realize how ridiculous it is.

I am sure you can think of many more examples.  The point is that you can practice the skill of observing your thoughts, and controlling how you respond.  Just like any skill, the more you practice, the better you become.  Soon you are no longer having those thoughts because you catch them almost instantly.

(Note: HERE is a quick post about how to start a daily meditation practice from Leo Baubatau on ZenHabits. Basically, sit in a chair for 2-3 minutes and focus on your breath. Its not weird or complicated and is probably the best habit you will ever add to your life.  Check it out.)

Part 1: Anxiety, Fear and Awareness

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“People who suffer from anxiety, depression, or even loneliness or low self-esteem perceive threats far more often than circumstances warrant. Sadly, this overalert state thwarts both positivity and positivity resonance. Feeling unsafe, then, is the first obstacle to love.”Barbara Fredrickson

Unfortunately, we live in a society where millions of people are stressed and anxious.  The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that over 40 million Americans are affected by anxiety disorders.  Suffering from an anxiety disorder is hard enough, but as research shows us, it causes people to feel threatened and afraid more often than usual.  When we are feeling afraid, it is in our biology to look for ways to relieve this fear and find safety.  Some people and organizations know this fact about human nature and use it for financial gain.  However, there are some simple things that we can all do to remove that anxiety and recognize what is causing the fear in our lives.

Why are we anxious?

In 1932, Betrand Russell wrote a great essay called In Praise of Idleness.  In his essay, he noticed that the technological advancements in production were allowing men to produce the same amount of output in half the number of hours worked.  He shows that the logical response to these advancements would be to have the same number of people work half as many hours and spend the rest of the time with their families and hobbies.  This would create a happier and healthier society.  However, companies decided to choose a different path and use these advancements to lay off half of the workers while the other half remained working long hours.  The result was that you still had half the workforce being overworked and the other half unemployed.  Both groups are stressed and unhappy but the company is making more money.  This is one of many examples of how greed has put wealth over happiness.  I believe that our society continues to become more anxious because we are consistently measuring progress with money instead of happiness and our choices reflect that. Psychologists have already proven that money does not equal happiness.  Why don’t we act accordingly?

Anxiety leads to fear

Now that we have higher levels of anxiety, research shows that we perceive threats far more often.  Some news organizations and public figures like to take advantage of this in order to make money.  They will spend the majority of the time talking about murder, terrorism, corrupt government, scandals, and conspiracy theories.  They see the opportunity to make money by feeding the fear.  The more afraid we are, the more often we see people as part of groups and separate from ourselves: Democrats, Republicans, Socialists, Gun Owners, Immigrants, etc.  These public figures and organizations give us reasons to focus on the differences between each other and our fear causes us to latch on tightly.

That being said, it is absolutely understandable to have different interests and views as other people, but it is a sign of wisdom, intelligence and maturity to be open, understanding and respectful of them at the same time.  It is easy to speak negatively of another but the greatest figures in our history were the ones that understood the true power that comes from turning the other cheek.  Mahatma Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, etc.

“If we have no peace, it is because have forgotten that we all belong to each other.” – Mother Teresa

Let go of anxiety and fear

We often walk through life with blinders on.  We have a very narrow focus which makes it difficult to recognize what is causing our anxiety and fear.  We accept the thoughts and ideas being fed to us with very little recognition as to how they will impact us going forward.  Therefore, I believe that we need to develop our awareness.  We need to open our eyes and become aware of our thoughts and actions in order to see the repercussions that they are having on us and others.  We often glide through life trying to take the easiest path available at each turn.  This causes us to go on autopilot and lose sight of why we do what we do and think what we think.  We are no longer living intentionally.  If anxiety and fear go hand in hand, then I think that awareness and tolerance do as well.  As soon as you are able to create awareness of your thoughts and actions, as well as the thoughts and actions of others, you become more tolerant of opposing views.  We cannot continue to put the blame on others and expect things to improve. In order to make progress, we need to take individual responsibility and change the way we view the world around us.

“Laws alone can not secure freedom of expression; in order that every man present his views without penalty, there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.” ― Albert Einstein

P.S. The next post is going to further discuss what it means to develop awareness and some practical ways to remove fears and anxieties from your life.

What is Your Set Point?

Abraham Maslow
Abraham Maslow

“If you want to achieve more on the outside, then you must become more on the inside.” – Darren Hardy

There is a theory that people establish a set point in life and they always tend to drift back to this point regardless of how their circumstances temporarily change.  For example, someone might have a very low income and has barely been scrapping by for many years. They have established a set point for their finances. This person then wins the lottery and becomes a millionaire overnight. You would think this person is set for life and is going to live comfortably forever, as well as provide for the next generation after them. However, the stastics show that this person is probably going to burn through that money over the next 5-10 years and then they will be right back in the same financial situation they were at before.

The same goes for weight loss. We often see people that are 50 to 100 pounds overweight, go on a strict diet to lose that 100 pounds and then gain it all back over the next few years. We tend to always resort back to the set point that we have established. That brings up a couple of questions, what causes our set point and how can we change it?

“You attract more into your life exactly what you are.” – Jim Rohn

Your set point is created by you and controlled by you. We are the culmination of our day to day decisions and habits. If you have always been poor at maintaing a budget and controlling your spending, then the those habits are not going to change just because you won the lottery and have a random influx of funds. Your lifestyle will temporarily change to reflect the new income but the core habits won’t change. The same thing happens with a raise or a higher paying job. You will most likely adjust your lifestyle to fit that new income and still be living paycheck to paycheck. You must change the core habit if you want to change your set point.

The same goes with your weight. People will tend to approach a diet as temporary. They will change their eating habits for a short period of time so that they can lose weight. However, once they have reached that goal they are shooting for, the old habits come back and they start to put on the weight again.  Becoming healthier is not about a diet, it is about a lifestyle change. If you don’t change the core habits that brought you to your current position, then you will consistenly keep coming back to it.

I recently came accross a concept that was created by Abraham Maslow. He said that we are all faced with thousands of tiny decisions throughout our day. This could be what you eat for breakfast, what you listen to on the radio, whether you floss that day, etc. He said that we need to be intentional about these decisions and it helps to approach them like a scoreboard. You tend to always know which decision is healthier and better for you. When you make that positive decision, you can get a +1. However, when you make the negative decision, you get a -1.  You can even keep a tally of this throughout your day and see where your score ends up. Are you consistently getting +1’s and stepping forward into growth, or are you consistently getting -1’s and stepping backwards into safety.    You change your set point by increasing those +1’s and decreasing the -1’s.  It is the tiny decisions that we make throughout our day that add up to who we are as a person.

Success is not something you achieve, it is something you become. You need to ask yourself, who do I need to become to accomplish the goals that I have set for myself.

What are your current set points? Who do you need to become to change those?

Circle of Competence: What is Your Advantage?

Photo by Goldmund100

“You have to stick to what I call your circle of competence.  You have to know what you understand and what you don’t understand.  It’s not terribly important how big the circle is.  But it’s terribly important that you know where the perimeter is.” – Warren Buffet

What is the Circle of Competence?

Warren Buffet and his business partner Charlie Munger will not invest in a business in which they do not have a thorough understanding of its operations.  Their strategy is to select an area where they know significantly more than the average investor, and focus their efforts on that area.  This area is their circle of competence.  However, I think this philosophy extends outside of investing.

Where do you have a strategic advantage over the people you are competing with?  This could be at work, school, sports or even while you are searching for a job.

The job hunt is the perfect example of where you need to identify advantages that lie in your circle of competence and exploit them.  Most people spend the majority of their time adjusting their resume and then applying to hundreds of jobs online.  When you apply online, a computer is simply scanning your resume for specific keywords.  This lumps you into the masses and provides no strategic advantage.  In this particular situation, your greatest advantage is going to be the relationships that you have developed (or will develop).  Your goal should be to find a job through your connections before it is even listed.  This limits competition and gives you a tremendous advantage over the thousands of other people looking for a similar opportunity.

“We’d rather deal with what we understand.  Why should we want to play a competitive game in a field where we have no advantages – maybe a disadvantage – instead of playing in a field where we have a clear advantage? Each of you will have to figure out where your talent lies.  And you’ll have to use your advantages.  But if you try to succeed in what you’re worst at, you’re going to have a very lousy career.  I can almost guarantee it.  To do otherwise, you’d have to buy a winning lottery ticket or get very lucky somewhere else.” – Charles Munger

Comfort Zone vs. Circle of Competence:

There is a difference between your circle of competence and your comfort zone.  Just because you feel comfortable in an area doesn’t mean you have a strategic advantage there.  In fact, you are more likely to develop a strategic advantage outside your comfort zone.  If you feel uncomfortable doing something, then the majority of other people do also.  Therefore, there is less competition for you to develop an advantage.  The more often you do what you are afraid of, the further you are separating yourself from the masses.  Attack what scares you and widen your circle of competence.

How to Identify your Circle:

Each situation is going to be different. Throughout your life you have developed a specific set of skills, knowledge and relationships that can all be used to give you an advantage.  It is your job to analyze these attributes and see how they fit together to comprise your circle of competence.  Here are five ways to identify key attributes in your circle.

1) Ask 5 friends or family members what your 3 greatest strengths are.

2) Strengths Tests: (Google Strengths Tests to find multiple quizzes – Ex. Strength Finder 2.0)

3) Where do your skills overlap with your passion?

4) When are you in Flow? (Description of Flow)

5) What do people request your help with?

Check out this list.

As Mr. Buffett said above, “it not terribly important how big the circle is.” The true advantage comes from recognizing what lies in your circle and putting it to use.  I find it very interesting how often people accept the normal process and never take the time to identify a strategic advantage.

Give yourself the best opportunity for success.  Stop trying to beat people at their game and identify your own.  What advantages do you have (or can develop) in your particular situation that will bring you success?

What Matters Most?

photo by visualpanic

“The things that matter most should never be at the mercy of the things that matter least.” – Goethe

The problem with this statement is that most people can’t identify “the things that matter most.”  In my experience, we observe what is important to others and then attempt to align our lives accordingly.  It is not until we have some success with this strategy that we realize it was flawed in the first place.  We begin to fit the mold that we observed others striving for, and then realize that it was not what we had expected.  In fact, we become frustrated that we spent so much time and effort working to reach this point, that we become bitter and resentful.

This is because we have been living by a philosophy that is not our own.  We have adopted others philosophies without reflecting on if we agree with them or not.  It is difficult to identify a set of principles that we want to base our life on, so what do most of us do, copy somebody else.  It’s much easier.

I am sure you can see the danger in this.

What do you believe?

This often occurs with religion.  We observe our parents or friends getting involved with a religious organization and we want to join them so that we can belong.  It is human nature to strive to belong to a group.  These are also people that we care about and trust, so we don’t have any reservations about following their example.  However, do the principles and philosophy that this organization teaches genuinely align with you?  Did you take a step back and look at these beliefs objectively without the influence of your friends or family?  You are the only person that can be completely honest and objective about what is influencing you.

I am not saying I am against religion at all.  I am simply saying that it is important to understand why you believe what you do on a genuine level.  Do you belive it because it is the only thing that you have ever known or do you believe it because after educating yourself, this is what you connect with?

We all choose to believe something.  Even if you choose to believe in none of the traditional religions or philosophies, you still made a choice to believe in one set of ideas over another.

Actions vs. Values

Darren Hardy says in his book, The Compound Effect, that the majority of stress comes from the disconnect between our actions and our values.  We want to live one way but our actions often go in a different direction.  How do we connect what we want to do and what we actually do?  One of the major problems with this idea is that we have misidentified what our values are.  We have adopted the values and beliefs of someone else without ever putting in the effort to identify them for ourselves.  If we have these values clearly defined, then we know how to act in nearly every situation.  It removes the stress of having to decide all the time.  This is something that our brain naturally prefers.  We love automation.  If you can clearly identify what is important to you, then life becomes much simpler.

Here are some examples:

1) My family is my highest priority.  (Does your schedule reflect this?)

2) Money and prestige are not my god. (Do your possessions reflect this?)

3) I accept myself for who I am. (What is your first thought when you look in the mirror?)

You can elimate stress by aligning your actions with your values.  However, you must first identify the philophy that will determine those values.

Why do you honestly believe what you believe?  It is when you can confidently answer this question that “what matters most will never be at the mercy of what matters least.”

 

Comment Below: When prestige and public opinion are taken out of the picture, what are the things that matter most to you?