How Elon Musk programs his mind to be his best self
A look inside our "mental software" and how we can improve our ways of thinking, learning, and living
Welcome back, conscious thinkers! As always, this newsletter will serve as your weekly inspiration, and often a much needed reminder, to question the status quo and create a meaningful life on your own terms.
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I journal every morning and start by dating the page. Without fail, I’ve written 2020 for the last seven days…
But it’s 2021, y’all— Happy new year! The year is off to quite a start; wishing everyone safety, good health, and good thoughts.
I meant to write to you last week. As promised in my last email, I was going to tell you alllll about how I plan to be my most thoughtful self yet in 2021. The systems I’ve built for myself and the tools I’m using to improve my thinking. I even had all these fun quotes from Atomic Habits ready…
But as soon as I sat down to write, I found myself asking:
What the heck does “being thoughtful” even mean?
I don’t really mess with dictionary definitions anymore—they tend to be very circular and vague. Every word carries a connotation of sorts so I’ve learned to focus on the intention to help me clarify certain words.
I closed my laptop and grabbed my journal. I started thinking through my intentions and potential definitions. And then a couple of days later, the universe sent me a lovely message.
I got an email from a friend who knows about my obsession with thinking. He sent me this screenshot:
As you know by now, I’m constantly referring to our thinking processes as programming.
So when I read Mental Software, all I thought was, Tell me more.
“Elon’s software is the way he learns to think, his value system, his habits, his personality. And learning, for Musk, is simply the process of downloading data and algorithms into your brain”
I ended up going down a rabbit hole for 2 hours and, sparing you the details, clarified what I mean when I say I desire “being thoughtful:”
Being thoughtful is being aware and intentional of your mental software: how you learn to think, process information, and create beliefs, values, habits, and personality.
So in 2021, I am being very intentional about understanding and updating my mental software. Now that we’ve aligned on what we’re really talking about today, let’s explore:
👉 How I plan to be my most thoughtful-self *aka update my mental software, in 2021
1. I’m doubling down on Systems > Goals
I’m updating my mental software to stop only focusing on goals and instead, spend more processing power implementing systems that help me hit those goals.
As James Clear points out in Atomic Habits:
"If successful and unsuccessful people share the same goals, then the goal cannot be what differentiates the winners from the losers."
So what differentiates those who achieve their goals from those who don’t? The system they put in place to ensure they do the things daily that get them closer to the goal.
This advice goes hand in hand with the Be-Do-Have framework I wrote about a couple of weeks ago (find it under Step 4). This framework also prioritizes the system by advising you make the goal an identity (Clear advises this as well) and doing the things that relate to that identity.
For example, one of my goals is to become an incredibly strong thinker.
Be: I am a strong critical thinker. (versus: My goal is to practice critical thinking).
Do: I do the things a strong critical thinker would do and have implemented a system to hold me accountable for thinking critically, always.
Have: I will have achieved my goal of practicing critical thought always.
“Are goals completely useless? Of course not. Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. A handful of problems arise when you spend too much time thinking about your goals and not enough time designing your systems.”
- James Clear
I started building my system by first becoming aware of my habits:
Which habits do I currently have that align with being a strong critical thinker? Which ones don’t?
I also asked:
Where do opportunities exist for me to practice thoughtfulness in my day to day?
What type of system will free me from thinking about practicing and auto-remind me to practice thoughtfulness?
The next few sections will illustrate aspects of the system I’ve put in place for myself.
2. I’m questioning everything
I kid you not, even when I go to grab a cup of coffee from the kitchen, I now ask myself, why am I doing this?
MOST times, I find that I’m defaulting to a habit and not actually *thinking* about the action. In the last six days, I’ve stopped myself from drinking coffee three times already—what I really needed was 15 minutes to breathe and re-center, not a cup of caffeine that I’ve habitually associated with “being on the go-go-go.”
Questioning is one of the best ways to become more mindful of yourself, and identify gaps in your thinking.
And questioning everything is training me to be aware of my mental software in every moment possible.
My goal is to become a strong critical thinker but I accept that I have maaaany habits today that counteract this goal. For example, I’ve noticed that I prioritize speed when solving problems—thanks to traditional schooling for programming me to come up with solutions quickly instead of thoughtfully.
The only way to overcome these habits is by becoming hyper aware of them first. And in order to become hyper aware of them, I needed to remind myself to reflect on my thinking and actions whenever possible.
My system: I now associate context switches with pausing to ask myself Why am I doing this? When I sit down to write, I ask. I close my laptop, I ask. I pick up my phone, I ask. Doing it all the time makes it easier to just do it, instead of having to remember specific times to practice.
Does it slow me down? Not really. If anything, it has saved me so much energy/time I would have otherwise wasted doing thoughtless, habitual actions.
And it may seem silly to question little actions throughout the day, but I can already feel that questioning is becoming my new default.
A bonus side-effect: I’ve even noticed that ever since I’ve started questioning everything, I find myself incorporating more questions into conversations with others. Where I would previously respond with an agreeing or disagreeing statement, I now ask a question, such as Why do you feel this way, and it almost always leads to a more meaningful and clear conversation.
3. I’m seeking opportunities to sharpen my sword
I used to think that people mentor to pay it forward. And while that’s true, a very important and often undermined side effect of mentoring is getting the opportunity to sharpen your own sword.
It’s a clear example of utilizing the Feynman Technique, or in simpler terms, teaching a concept to others to identify your true understanding / any gaps in thinking.
In 2020, with covid layoffs, I chose to support anyone impacted and actively job-hunting by making myself available for group coaching. I found myself fortunate enough to build some really good relationships with a handful of women, who asked me for one-on-one coaching. I said yes, pro-bono, thinking it’ll be a way for me to feel good about giving back. And who didn’t want to feel good during the chaos of 2020?
But what I didn’t realize was how important mentoring really would be for my own development. I’m coaching one of my mentees on mindset and eradicating self-doubt. I’m coaching another on product development. A third on bootstrapping a business. Every time I mentor, I get an opportunity to evaluate my own understanding of topics I equally value. When I provide an answer I’m not satisfied with, I find gaps in my own thinking. I get to reinforce certain principles by repeating them to others—I get to re-evaluate different frameworks while walking a mentee through them.
And because I hold myself responsible for only giving well-informed advice, leaning into regular mentoring further holds me accountable for being a strong critical thinker.
My system: I’ve allocated 3 hours every 2nd Friday of the month to mentor. It’s already on the calendar. I’m planning to mentor on specific topics I want to sharpen my thinking on.
BTW—if you believe I can help you with anything business, product, investing-related, email me some details and we can figure out if it mutually aligns!
4. I’m holding my environments accountable for holding me accountable
I recognize that I spend A LOT of my time in environments that aren’t built for thoughtfulness. And they make it suuuuper easy to fall back into poor thinking habits.
“It can be tempting to blame failure on a lack of willpower or a scarcity of talent, and to attribute success to hard work, effort, and grit.
To be sure, those things matter. What is interesting, however, is that if you examine how human behavior has been shaped over time, you discover that motivation (and even talent) is often overvalued. In many cases, the environment matters more.”
I spend hours every week on the web reading articles, blogs, etc in hopes to learn and expand my knowledge. However, a few years ago, I realized that I was readily accepting any information coming from “reputable” sources and not spending enough time really understanding…
My belief system influences how I see and interact with the world. Why the heck was I not questioning things more and making the time to truly understand?
Plus, with so much content to consume, I found myself moving from one piece of information to another within minutes, if not seconds. But whyyyy?
Isn’t the point to actually make sense of things? I care deeply about developing informed perspectives, but how can I do that when our environments and our programming encourage speed, not thoughtfulness?
And by not practicing thoughtfulness, what habits am I reinforcing?
I no longer want to prioritize speed over thoughtfulness. I no longer want to prioritize the amount of information I consume over truly understanding what I’m consuming.
So, I’ve started building different systems that can hold me accountable for thinking critically, within environments I process a lot of information in.
My system: here’s a quick screen-shot of one of the systems I’m building with Personal Learning. Now, any time I’m consuming information on the web, I can:
be aware of what perspective the author may be writing from and how recent the information may be
take note of my own perspectives and distinguish them from the author’s
quickly search across my previously taken notes/information I’ve consumed to surface any relevant context
So no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I have a system in place to hold me accountable for being thoughtful, for understanding my mental software and consciously updating it.
Final words from James Clear:
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.
No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
2020 threw A LOT at us, and things we never thought would happen, happened. My biggest realization: it’s critical for each of us to think for ourselves and strengthen our mental software. Doing so helps us navigate an incredibly fast-changing world well, and ideally with joy.
Sending all of you good vibes, and as always, I’m only one email away.
🎁 PARTING GIFTS
A round-up of hand-picked, highly recommended tools, and inspiration to help you live your best life.
Former President Obama published this beautiful piece on his mental software, specific to decision-making:
“In just a few short weeks on the job, I had already realized that because every tough decision came down to a probability, then certainty was an impossibility — which could leave me encumbered by the sense that I could never get it quite right.
So rather than let myself get paralyzed in the quest for a perfect solution, or succumb to the temptation to just go with my gut every time, I created a sound decision-making process — one where I really listened to the experts, followed the facts, considered my goals and weighed all of that against my principles. Then, no matter how things turned out, I would at least know I had done my level best with the information in front of me."
Scott Adams advocates for Systems over Goals in this piece from 2013!
The Human Behind this Newsletter
❓ Got a question you want to unpack together? Tweet me, @shireenjaffer_.
🎤 Want to share your story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org—I’d love to feature you in an upcoming newsletter.
💜 This newsletter was crafted for you while my pup, Lilah tries to sit on my laptop. Share with a friend who makes you better—and let them know it.
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